by Eric Hal Schwartz
George Joseph did not have an easy childhood. Like nearly all Jews in Transylvania, Romania during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Josephs faced discrimination, violence and oppression. Beatings, fear and discrimination were all a part of his childhood and have shaped his life since then for good and ill. After managing to flee the country and becoming a successful doctor, he retired, leading him to consider what those formative years of his life meant and what he could leave to his grandchildren to help them understand a world so different from any they had known.
“For many years of my life I kept the painful memories to myself,” Joseph said. “But I wanted my children and my grandchildren to know these stories.”
Rather than speaking to his grandchildren about his early life or writing them letters, Joseph decided to turn his memories and his knowledge into books.
“If I was going to tell them, I could tell them by putting it down on paper for others,” he said.
He has published two books – a memoir called Transylvanian Rhapsody and a collection of short stories titled Flowers Grow on Ruins Too. The books tell not only his personal tale but the story of a region in near constant turmoil amid political and ethnic tensions that are almost a microcosm of the larger conflicts occurring in the world.
Born in 1928, George Joseph grew up in a moderately well-to-do family in the prosperous industrial city of Brasov, Romania. The region of Transylvania at the beginning of the 20th century was home to a diverse mix of ethnic groups, including Hungarians, Romanians, Germans and Jews.
“There were all kinds of people there,” Joseph said.
Unfortunately, the different groups did not always get along. With the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of World War II, Romania, torn between Soviet and German interests, ended up joining the Axis and became a fascist state. Like many other countries during the period, it enshrined in law anti-Semitic discrimination and participated in the murder of thousands of Jews, Roma and other minorities.
Though lucky enough to not be in the areas hardest hit by the Romanian Holocaust, Joseph and his family did face real danger. His father was taken away for a while to a forced labor camp, and he himself faced a progression of disenfranchisement and violence until the end of the war.
“I will always remember having to leave school because I was Jewish,” he said.
Later on, there were times he was physically attacked because of his Jewishness.
“I was beaten for it, and it was always a possibility,” he said.
Even after the war, times remained precarious with the rise of the often brutal communist dictatorship of first Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and then Nicolae Ceausescu. Economically depressed and facing constant pressure from the Soviet Union as part of the Warsaw Pact, Romanians faced hard times, times that Joseph writes eloquently about in his books.
“You needed an enhanced level of vigilance. You lived on instinct like animals in the jungle,” he said.
Despite all the tragedy and danger, he still held onto a sense of overall optimism and belief in the future during even the worst times – something he said he tried to convey in his stories.
“I never lost hope that things would get better,” he said.
Eventually Joseph managed to get away from Romania though it was a chancy affair right up until the last minute, with constant concern that his exit would be denied. He made way to South Africa where he met his wife and then to the United States, where he practiced medicine for decades both in a private practice and at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He said that he may write more books in the future but is mostly gratified that he has been able to garner enough interest to get the two so far published out there.
“I was afraid there’d be no interest,” he said.
Flowers Grow on Ruins Too and Transylvanian Rhapsody provide a unique look at a place often less discussed during the tumultuous years of the middle of the 20th century, and Joseph’s voice lends itself well to musings and reflections on the times for those who came after.
“I think of it like I’m writing letters to my grandchildren,” he said.