The Elizabeth Esplanade, nicknamed the “Yellow Ramp”, is a clay hill clothed in concrete for the sake of preventing landslides in the city center of Iași. This victory of man over nature has been the root of civic pride for more than 100 years. Another 100 year victory of mankind lives nearby.
I quickly head down the Yellow Ramp on my way to meet a man who just turned 101 years old.
With butterflies in my stomach, I am about to meet a man two years older than Romania. He has lived through two world wars, dictatorships, monarchy and an infant democracy. His government decorated him for heroism, jailed him for nothing, beat him for honesty, and forced him into hard labor on the Danube Canal.
His age stymies my pulse. Time flows through us like blood, without us feeling it pass, and no matter how much we try to master it with all sorts of measurements, it always slips through our fingers.
With these thoughts in mind, I nervously ring the apartment doorbell. The dry click of the electric latch snaps me back to reality. While I climb the stairs, I wonder if the old man feels like a prisoner living in a building without an elevator.
“That’s not at all the case!” replies Mr. Catalin Tomaziu, the old man’s nephew. “He climbs up and down the stairs on his own. He goes for a walk in the Copou neighborhood every day!”
Nicolae Tomaziu welcomes me at the door of his room. He’s a tiny man, but he gives me an enthusiastic handshake that exudes unbelievable strength, as if it were coming from outside his body. His smile is large and serene, beaming with youth.
His head barely reaches my chest. His white beard is shining in the light of the hallway, narrowed by the bookshelves on both sides.
“Since the President of our country decorated me when I turned 100, I’ve been given unwarranted attention,” says the old man. He quickly takes the lead and motions for me to take a seat with great assurance. “I was a man just like any other man. I just lived until now.”
His humility is genuine, making me feel more at ease. I continue to look at him, as if I were looking at someone from a world that disappeared long ago.
Our host, Mihaela, brings us coffee. I ask if Nicolae is her grandfather or great grandfather.
“No, he’s not our grandfather. My husband is a distant cousin, a few times removed. We never knew that this fine gentleman even existed, until last year when he was decorated by the President on national television. I discovered that he was living as a hermit in the Caraiman Monastery.
We went to visit him and found him with such badly infected eyes that he couldn’t see at all. So we decided to bring him home with us. He wanted to come. He had an operation on his eyes, a corneal transplant, and now he sees well enough to read. Now this is his home.
She looks at him with affection as she talks about him. The old man makes a gesture with his hand to indicate that he can’t hear us. His niece gets up and helps him put on his hearing aid. Then she strokes him on the head with warmth. This moment touches me deeply and I suddenly don’t know what to say.
Mr. Tomaziu saves me by shouting:
“I can barely hear anything anymore. I’ve had problems with hearing my entire life, but it has nothing to do with my old age. I became deaf after being beat over the years by the Securitate. My eyes were also ruined from the stone dust at the Canal. After carrying stones at the Canal, I had an inguinal hernia. Now, a surgically mounted mesh holds my abdomen in place. Even the teeth you see aren’t my own. No one can tell me that I’m not a modern man!”
I quickly come to understand that for him, joking is a kind of forgiveness. It comes out of a deep strength to accept his own suffering without hating those who have provoked it.
Nicolae Tomaziu was born on February 28, 1916 in northern Moldova. He was the fourth child. His mother died of typhus two days after his birth. World War I was raging just a few miles away in neighboring Transylvania. His father, the village priest, sent him to live with his grandfather (also a priest) in the village of Grămești.
“My grandfather is the one on the wall there. I’ve been carrying his portrait my whole life. He raised me until I finished elementary school.”
Nicolae ended up in a boarding school in Noua Suliță, (which is now part of Ukraine) where he earned a “master carpenter diploma” from the Art and Trades School in Satu Mare.
In 1938, he was drafted into the 4th Pioneer Regiment of Cernivtsi (Cernăuți). He becomes choked up when he recounts how his regiment had to withdraw as the Russian tanks came to occupy Bucovina in 1940.
It was a shameful retreat. We left on the run, with only our hand weapons.
Soldiers and civilians were tripping over each other in an effort to get away from the oncoming tanks. Many people jumped off the Siret Bridge and swam to avoid becoming Russian citizens for the rest of their life.
I walked over the hills and all the way home to Dorohoi. I stayed there until an announcement in the newspaper asked for my Regiment to present itself in Râmnicu Vâlcea, since it was connected to the Hunters Regiment 2.
It was a year of trouble for us. So you can imagine the amount of joy we experienced when we reclaimed Bucovina in 1941! That’s when our Regiment returned to Chernivtsi.
From there, the Bucovinian Pioneers went ahead of the Romanian Army, in pursuit of the Red Army. They made their way to Nistru quickly, without any resistance from the Russians. But from then on, difficult times began.
Everyone told us that we should’ve stopped at Nistru, our real border between Romania and Ukraine, but this would’ve been a huge mistake from a strategic point of view. Our 4th Pioneers Battalion in Chernivtsi was placed in the Romanian Second Army and ordered to siege Odessa.
The Russians had left mines, bombs and human traps. We had to enter the city through a network of catacombs. We heard ticking-time bombs go off all day and night. There were 90,000 Romanian casualties in the Odessa siege.
This type of encounter with death either strengthens your faith or makes you lose your marbles. I’m the son, grandson and great-grandson of priests.
My faith helped me get through the madness of war, and through the hell of communist prisons to get to this beautiful age where the press suddenly finds an interest in me.
He and his battalion made it very close to Stalingrad. Once again, he felt the bitter taste of retreat at enemy lines. Hungry, cold and humiliated, the Romanian soldiers crawled their way through the snow and back to the Romanian border. He remembers how some of his weakened comrades tried to cling onto to the German motorbikes that came by. The Germans would smash their fingers off the bikes with their army boots or the butt of their weapons. It was an animal fight for survival.
While the old man recounts the horrors of the Second World War, the clock on the hall sounds twice: ding! dang!
This trivial noise, repeated hourly, takes on a more significant meaning in the presence of Mr. Tomaziu. When the clock chimes each hour, he stops speaking and withdraws for a moment, his forehead raised, as if he were paying his respects.
After silence falls upon the room full of books and old paintings, the old man resumes his story in 1944, when the Romanian army joined the Allies and declared war on Germany.
We turned the weapons around nicely, Romanian-style. We chased the Germans all the way to the Tatra Mountains. There, they no longer opposed resistance, they were both numerically and logistically exhausted.
However, many of our own had fallen. I was on the front lines for seven years, until September 1945. Even though I was decorated, I didn’t have a single wound on my body. God kept me safe.
His brother Gheorghe, five years his elder, was not so fortunate. Gheorghe was the only man who died during an American bombing of the Bucharest train station. Clemansa, their older sister, recovered the wallet Gheorghe always kept in his breast pocket. A thin piece of shrapnel bore a tunnel through the wallet into his heart.
After the war, Nicolae found a job in Bucharest in the Cotton Industry trade group. It was a heartbreaking time.
In 1947, when Romania was still a Monarchy, Nicolae Tomaziu was among the first anti-Communist protesters. He was staying with his sister Clemansa, who was a doctor in Curtea de Argeș, when a local Communist boss politely took him from his sister’s home.
At the Securitate (Secret Police) office in Pitești, he was shoved into a room “too small for a mouse.” Then they beat the soles of his feet with a rubber cane, they beat his toes with their batons, and they crushed his testicles with a rod.
The police demanded the names of the fellow protesters. The old man tells me that he didn’t disclose any names, not because of his great courage, but because he didn’t know anyone from the protests. His only defense from the beatings was prayer.
Nicolae became one of the 1,000 hostages that Stalin held to force King Michaels’s abdication and complete the installation of a puppet Communist regime. After the King stepped down in December 1947, the Military Tribunal of Bucharest sentenced Nicolae to six years of hard labor for rebellion against social order.
This was the present that his homeland offered the veteran after having served the country for seven years, on two fronts, for a quarter of his young life.
Please don’t forget to write this. When I returned to Romania after the fighting in Stalingrad, I bent down and kissed the ground. I never could have imagined that Soviet Tanks would be shaking the foundations of my world. Everything was different.
Nicolae’s suffering took him to three prisons: Văcărești, Jilava, and Aiud. He refuses to speak about what happened there.
“There were enough books written about this! What else could I say with my poor words?”
His “poor words” painstakingly make their way out of his mouth, as if someone were ripping them out. He tries to speak but cannot. If the memory alone brings out this much pain after dozens of years, it is impossible to imagine how the physical pain manifested itself in such a frail body.
He weighed 139 pounds when he entered prison and left weighing a mere 86 pounds. As a result of the beatings and starvation, his metabolism was permanently disrupted. Nothing he ate seemed to cling to his bones. Now, he weighs 90 pounds.
After Aiud came torture in the famous Danube Canal hard labor camps, where tens of thousands of political prisoners worked on its excavation.
For years he carted stones around with a wheelbarrow. And since he couldn’t meet his quota, they cut his daily food rations and they beat him. When he became ill, they’d beat him some more and refused to give him medication.
He may be the only remaining survivor of the Canal labor camps. The last of about 100,000 people who lost their youth, health, faith and lives there.
Now I ask myself – is it possible that the man who endured all of that is really me? And how is it possible that I went through so much? I believe that it’s only with God’s presence that I’ve lived to recover the years I lost in the war and in prison.
After I was released from prison in January 1954, the State did not recognize my years of previous work, my studies and not even the time spent fighting for the reunification of the country on the Eastern front.
The National Council of Veterans awarded him a veteran’s award for the anti-fascist war but not for the anti-Soviet war.
After being released from the Canal, he returned to be with his sister, who was still a practicing doctor in Curtea de Argeș. With great difficulty, he found himself a job at the textile factory in Cisnădie where a former classmate worked. Tomaziu carried bales of wet cotton, freshly removed from the buckets of dye.
The comrades believed that there would be perfect harmony between the 90 pounds that Tomaziu weighed and the 90 pound bags that he had to carry. He didn’t stay there very long. It was another kind of Canal.
On a visit to his hometown in Moldova, he met Aurica Paraschiva. She was also an “enemy of the people”, the daughter of wealthy man, and a graduate from the School of Fine Arts in Iași. He was 41 and she was 36. They got married in 1957.
‘We didn’t have children, I already explained to you why.’
He found work in the sewing factory in Codlea, near Brașov. He had the lowest ranking position because he had been a political detainee. The Securitate never took their eyes off of him and the moment any strange incident occurred, he was the first to be questioned.
Once, someone stole the Party’s flag from the entrance of the factory. They took me in for questioning. Another time, the boiler from the central plant exploded. Since I was working in that department, they blamed me.
I had the luck that the stoker took responsibility. Even though I was responsible for completing a check on it every hour, he had fallen asleep between two of the check-ups and that’s when the boiler exploded.
He was well behaved and never drew attention to himself. Like a little mouse who was permanently being watched by giant cats. Prison didn’t end the day he was released from the Canal.
He retired in 1976. Together with his wife, they build a cozy little home in Codlea. They had a large garden, half an acre. They worked in the garden, she would paint and he would read. They would go to the monastery to pray.
Aurica Paraschiva died in 2001, at 81 years of age. Alone in the world at age 85, Nicolae Tomaziu sold his house in Codlea for a quarter of the price it cost him to build it.
Under the usufruct clause, I was entitled to remain in the house for life. But after a while, the buyer, a young woman from Codlea who lived in Austria, brought her mother into the house. Slowly but surely, they pushed me out of the house I built with my own hands. I moved into a rental unit just to get away from them.
For years, no one showed any interest in him. It felt like many people looked at him, but no one saw him. He still had strength in his bones but he often wondered what would happen if he became ill and bedridden.
In 2014, when he was 98 years old, he retreated to the Caraiman Monastery in Bușteni, run by his friend and spiritual father, Gheronție Puiu.
He donated everything that he had saved to the monastery. He lived in a cell as if he were a tourist, paying his room and board. He read as much as he could with what was left of his vision and he wrote his memoir.
Only a thin ray of light penetrated through his heavily swollen eyelids. Two fists of flesh seemed to be growing of out his eyelids. He was awaiting death there, much like his father, whose candle burned out at 93 years of age in a residence for retired priests at the Viforâta Monastery.
He emerged from anonymity in 2016, when he turned 100. A magic number! The Association of Former Political Detainees organized a beautiful birthday party. All the guests loved Nicolae, who still had a youthful spirit and a sound mind.
President Iohannis decorated him with the National Order “Faithful Service” in the rank of Knight.
“That’s when I saw uncle on TV, and as I mentioned before, I brought him home. He will always live with us,” says his nephew Cătălin Tomaziu on the last of the three days that I had the joy of being in the company of Nicolae Tomaziu.
Cătălin heads off to work and leaves me alone with his uncle. This time, we talk for longer than usual. He tells me about the books he enjoys reading. I give him one of my books about a forgotten writer from Iasi, Mihai Codreanu. With the impatience of a child on Christmas day, he opens the book and begins to skim over the pages with his magnifying glass. He reads to keep his mind healthy.
Nicolae lives in a picturesque neighborhood. Within a 200 meter radius, you can find the Museum of Literature, Nicolae Gane’s house, the home of the professor Petre Andrei who was killed by the legionaries when Nicolae Tomaziu was 25 years old, the home of the scientist Emil Racoviță and the school that Romanian scholar George Emil Palade had attended.
“I take daily walks through town. It is full of positive energy,” says Nicolae.
As I leave, it is hard to refrain from sweeping this vivacious man into my arms. We share a manly good-bye and promise to meet again when I return for a visit to Iași. He assures me that he, like the city of Iasi, will be here!
On the way to the train station a few hours later, my cellphone rings.
“Hello, Mr. Journalist, are you still in Iași? Oh, great! I’m the manager of the Museum of Literature. A man was just here to drop off your notebook. He said you left it on the table of his home. He did not know how to contact you, but knew you wrote a book about our museum.
“My God! I’ll ask the taxi driver to turn around and head directly to the museum. I’d be lost without that notebook. I have to call Mr. Cătălin Tomaziu to thank him.”
“No, his name isn’t Cătălin. He said something else, he was an elderly gentlemen, very elegant. Nicolae Tomaziu.”