The winner of the Nobel prize for literature 2009 recalls her treatment by the Romanian Securitate:
Herta Müller on the legacy of the Ceausescu regime
In spring earlier this year I visited Bucharest, invited by the NEC (New European College). On the evening of the second day I had arranged to have dinner with a friend who, as we had agreed over the phone, came to pick me up from the hotel at six o'clock. As he turned into the street in which the hotel was situated, he noticed a man following him. When he asked for me at reception, the receptionist said he would first have to fill in a visitor's form. This frightened him because no such thing had ever existed, not even under Ceausescu.
In order to know that a shadow was needed at six o'clock, they would have had to tap the phone in my room. Ceausescu's secret police, the Securitate, has not disbanded, merely been given another name: the SRI (Romanian Information Service). And according to their own figures, 40% of the staff was taken from the Securitate. The real percentage is probably higher still.
This spring a group of researchers came upon the files kept on the Romanian-German authors of the "Aktionsgruppe Banat". I found my file, under the name Cristina. Three volumes, 914 pages. It is alleged to have been opened on 8 March 1983 – though it contains documents from earlier years. The reason for the opening of the file: "Tendentious distortions of realities in the country, particularly in the village environment" in my book Nadirs. Textual analyses by spies underpin this. And the fact that I belong to a "circle of German-language poets", which is "renowned for its hostile works".
The three years at the tractor factory Tehnometal where I was a translator are missing. I translated the manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria and Switzerland. In the third year a "protocol office" was established. I had to be made suitable for the office by means of two recruitment tests carried out by the secret service officer Stana. After the second refusal, his goodbye was: "You'll be sorry; we'll drown you in the river." One morning when I turned up for work, my dictionaries were lying on the floor outside the office door. My place now belonged to an engineer, I was no longer allowed in the office. I couldn't go home, they would have sacked me there and then. Now I had no table, no chair. For two days, defiant, I sat my eight hours with the dictionaries on a concrete staircase between the ground and first floors, trying to translate so that no one could say I didn't work. The office staff walked past me, silent. My friend Jenny, an engineer, knew how things had come to this. Every day on our way home I had told her everything that had happened. She came to me in the lunch break and sat down on the stairs. We ate together as we had before in my office. Over the loudspeaker in the yard we would always sing the workers' choruses about the happiness of the people. On the third day I installed myself at Jenny's desk, she cleared a corner for me. On the fifth morning she was waiting for me outside the door. "I am no longer allowed to let you in the office. Just think, my colleagues say you are a spy." The slander was meant to force me to resign. At the beginning of these turbulent times my father died. I no longer had a grip on myself, had to reassure myself of my existence in the world, and began to write down my life so far – from these writings sprang the short tales in Nadirs.
The fact that I was now considered a spy because I had refused to become one was worse than the attempt at recruitment and the death threat. That I was libelled by precisely those whom I protected by refusing to spy on them. Even death threats you get used to. They are part and parcel of this one life one has. But the libelling robbed one of one's soul.
How long this state of being lasted, I no longer know. It seemed endless to me. It was probably just weeks. Finally, I was sacked. Of all this there are two words in the files, a handwritten note in the margin of an interrogation protocol. Years later, at home, I related the attempt in the factory to enlist me as a spy. In the margin Lieutenant Padurariu wrote: "That's correct."
Now came the interrogations. The reproaches: that I wasn't looking for a job, that I was living from prostitution, black-market dealings, as a "parasitical element". Names were mentioned that I had never heard in my life. And espionage for the BND (the German Federal Intelligence Service) because I was friendly with a librarian at the Goethe-Institut and an interpreter at the German embassy. Hours and hours of fictitious reproaches. But not only that. They needed no summons, simply plucked me off the street. I was on my way to the hairdresser's when a policeman brought me through a narrow metal door into the basement of a hall of residence. Three men in plain clothes were sitting at a table. A small bony one was the boss. He demanded to see my identity card and said: "Well, you whore, here we meet again." I had never seen him before. According to him I had sex with eight Arab students and was being paid in tights and cosmetics. I did not know a single Arab student. When I said so, he replied: "If we want to, we'll find 20 Arabs as witnesses. You'll see, it'll make for a splendid trial." Again and again he would throw my identity card on the floor, and I had to bend down and pick it up. Thirty or forty times maybe; when I got slower, he kicked me in the small of my back. And from behind the door at the end of the table a woman's voice was screaming. Torture and rape, just a tape recording, I hoped. Then I had to eat eight hardboiled eggs and green onions with coarse salt. I forced the stuff down. Whereupon the bony man opened the metal door, threw my identity card outside and kicked my behind. I fell with my face in the grass beside some bushes. I vomited without raising my head. Without hurrying I took the identity card and went home. Being pulled in from the street caused more fear than a summons. No one knew where you were. You could have disappeared, never to turn up, or, as they had threatened earlier, been pulled out of the river as a drowned body. The verdict would have been: suicide. No interrogation is mentioned in the files, no summons, and nothing about being pulled in from the street.
Secret service people came and went as they pleased when we weren't at home. Often they would deliberately leave signs, cigarette butts, pictures from the wall lying on the bed, chairs moved. Each time you ate you would be thinking that the food might be poisoned. Of this psychological terror there is not a word in the files. The visit of the journalist Rolf Michaelis from Die Zeit is also missing. After the publication of Nadirs he wanted to conduct an interview with me. He had announced his arrival by telegram and trusted that he would find me at home. But the telegram was intercepted by the secret service, and my then husband Richard Wagner and I, knowing nothing, had gone to see his parents in the country for a couple of days. Two days in a row he rang our doorbell in vain. On the second day three men lay in hiding in the little room where the rubbish chute was and brutally beat him up. The toes on both his feet were broken. We were living on the fifth floor, the lift wasn't working due to a power shortage. Michaelis had to crawl on all fours down the pitch-dark stairwell and on to the street. The telegram from Michaelis is missing from the file, although there is quite a collection of intercepted letters from the west. According to the file this visit never took place. This lacuna shows, too, that the secret service has deleted the acts of their full-time staff, so that no one can be held responsible as a result of file access – they have seen to it that the post-Ceausescu Securitate has become an abstract monster without culprits.
Michaelis wanted to "protect" us and didn't write about these attacks until we had left Romania. From the files I know that this was a mistake. Not silence, only publicity could protect us in the west. My file also reveals that surreal criminal proceedings were prepared against me for "espionage for the BND". I owe it to the resonance of my books and the literary prizes in Germany that this plan was never realised and I was not arrested.
Michaelis could not call us prior to his visit as we had no telephone. In Romania you had to wait years for a connection. We, however, were offered one without having applied. We refused, as we all knew that a telephone would be the most practical listening post in our small flat. When you visited friends who had a telephone, it was immediately put in the fridge and a gramophone record put on. Refusing the phone was of no use, for half of the file material I was handed consists of protocols of bugging in our flat.
One of our closest friends was Roland Kirsch. He was living round the corner from us and came to see us almost daily. He was an engineer in a slaughterhouse, took photographs of everyday dreariness, and wrote prose miniatures. In 1996 his volume The Dream of the Moon Cat was published in Germany. It was published posthumously, because in May 1989 he was found hanged in his flat. The neighbours now say that several loud voices could be heard in his flat on the night of his death. I do not believe it was suicide. In Romania you would run back and forth for days to sort out all the formalities before a funeral. In suicide cases a post mortem was a given. But Roland's parents were handed all relevant papers within a day. He was buried quickly and without a post mortem. And in the fat envelope containing the bugging protocols there is not one visit from Roland Kirsch. His name is deleted, this person is supposed never to have existed.
One painful question was at least answered by my file. A year after my departure from Romania in 1987, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassments in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I had been sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and in it additional visas for France and Greece, I said to her face: "You don't get a passport like that for nothing, what have you done to get it." Her answer: "The secret service has sent me, and I absolutely wanted to see you again." Jenny had cancer – she is long dead. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the beginning, her friendship being a task. Today I am glad, for the file shows that our intimacy had grown out of ourselves and had not been arranged by the secret service, that Jenny didn't spy on me until after my emigration. You become grateful for small mercies, search in all the poisoning for a part that isn't contaminated, be it ever so small. The fact that my file proves the real feelings between us, now almost makes me happy.
After the publication of Nadirs in Germany, and as the first invitations came, I was not allowed to travel. But when these were followed by invitations for literary award ceremonies, the Securitate changed its strategy. In October 1984 I really was allowed to travel. The intention, however, was malicious: I was to be seen as profiteering from the regime and, in the west, to be suspected of being an agent. The secret service worked intensely on both, but in particular on the "agent" persona. Spying staff were sent to Germany with the task of smearing. The plan of action of 1 July 1985, states with satisfaction: "As a result of several journeys abroad, the idea was launched among some actors at the German State Theatre in Timisoara that Cristina is an agent for the Romanian Securitate."
After my emigration, the measures to "compromise and isolate" were intensified. A "Nota de analiza" from March 1989 reads: "In the action to compromise her, we will work with Branch D (Disinformation), publishing articles abroad or sending memoranda – as if issued by German emigration – to several circles and authorities wielding influence in Germany."
In my file I am two different persons. One is called Cristina, who is an enemy of the state and is being fought. To compromise this Cristina a dummy is produced in the falsification workshop of Branch "D" (Disinformation), with all the ingredients that harm me the most – party faithful communist, unscrupulous agent. Wherever I went, I had to live with this dummy. It wasn't just sent after me, it hurried ahead of me. Even though I have, from the beginning and always, written only against the dictatorship, the dummy goes its own way to this day. It has become independent of me. Even though the dictatorship has been dead for 20 years, the dummy leads its ghostly life. For how long yet?
© Herta Müller. Translated by Karsten and Christopher Sand Iversen. First published in Die Zeit. Read the complete text on signandsight.com