First Free City

December 20, 2019

Today at noon in Timisoara the sirens blared throughout the city for 3 minutes to mark the moment Timisoara earned the status of a city free from Communism

December 20, 1989

The borders with Hungary, Yugoslavia and the USSR have been closed. Ceausescu has returned from Iran and called an emergency session of parliament in which he proclaims martial law. He demands a rally be organized for the next day in Bucharest to show worker support for his policies. The protests have spread to a second city, Cluj.

In Timisoara the secret police continue firing on demonstrators in the street. There is a general strike in all of the factories in the city. Negotiators from the government arrive and try to buy time before the elite troops can arrive and crush the rebellion.

The protesters created a group called The Romanian Democratic Front to organize the resistance movement. More army soldiers joined the protesters in Opera Square. By 2 pm the soldiers were back in their garrison and the central and local authorities had given up control of the city. The revolutionaries then went out on the balcony of the Opera House and declared Timisoara to be Romania’s first free city, released from the Communist regime. The terror would continue nevertheless.

Romanians were following events there from western radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe as well as from TV and radio transmissions from Hungary and Yugoslavia. Word of mouth spread quickly.

By the next day an ill-conceived rally by Ceausescu in Bucharest would result in full blown Revolution. Six more cities would soon rise up in resistance and bloodshed.

The Army’s Loyalty Shifts

December 19, 1989

This day brought more terror and confusion. There was shooting all over the city. The prime minister promised to release the political prisoners, but ignored the demand to remove Ceausescu. On the following day in Bucharest, Ceausescu gave a televised speech promising to defeat the “terrorists and hooligans” in Timisoara. He talked in terms of “interference of foreign forces in Romania’s internal affairs.” Every factory and school was being guarded 24/7.

Nevertheless a civic committee was formed by the demonstrators, but was soon fractured by infighting. They were also under the impression that the uprising was nearly over despite all of the bloodshed. In fact one army regiment had joined with the protesters who gave them flowers. The political prisoners had been released and thousands of workers organized by factory committees streamed into the city for four hours. Some others chanted, “The army is with us!” Also on this day the United States condemned the Romanian government for its use of “brutal force”, and some hoped the U.S. would involve themselves. This night graffiti on the Communist Party headquarters read, “The People Have Won” .

After two days of failed attempts by the militia, the army and the intelligence service to repress the revolt, the protesters still occupied Timisoara’s downtown Opera Square.

A week of increased terror was about to begin. More people would soon die than had in all of this violence.

Food Rationing

Food Ration Cards (chicken)

Here is a quote about rationing in Timisoara from The Washington Post by writer Mary Battiata titled “How Romania’s Bloody Revolution got its Start in Timisoara” 12/31/1989

“Until recently the city had a slightly higher standard of living than the rest of the country. For years, a citizen here could get a pound more meat a month than Romanians elsewhere. That changed in October, when for the first time in Banat (the state) meat, eggs and salami were rationed, along with the already restricted supplies of butter and flour. That was bad enough, people said, but the cards were no guarantee that people would get food. People began to stand in lines from 5 to fifteen hours to collect their allotments of meat, only to find there was none. But people here knew the region was producing enough to feed them. on the outskirts of Timisoara is the largest pork processing plant in Central Europe. There are large bread bakeries and other food plants. Workers handle these foods bound for export, all day long. Then they return home to find the shops empty and nothing to eat.

Besides food, electricity and gas were also rationed. Ceausescu’s goal in this was to pay down the $11 billion dollar debt by exporting goods. The full repayment was accomplished shortly before his death. The palace cost 3.4 billion dollars alone while it is thought 10,000 children died of malnutrition during this harsh austerity begun in 1981.

“Down with Ceausescu”

December 18, 1989

Riots and protests persisted. On orders of Ceausescu security forces cracked down on demonstrators with lethal force. The dreaded secret police (the Securitate) had joined the forces and began to assault the demonstrators by shooting into the crowd sometimes from their perches in nearby buildings. Ceausescu, not realizing the gravity of the situation left for Iran on a scheduled visit. Realizing that these demonstrators were not terrorists, but ordinary citizens, army general Vasile Milea refused to kill protestors and for that he was shortly executed.

That morning a delegation of top officials including the prime minister arrived in Timisoara by helicopter to investigate the protests. They were surprised to find everyday citizens filling the streets and squares without any sinister outside influence.

By evening, with protestors shouting, “Down with Ceausescu” and “Give us our dead” (the dead were collected by the army and either thrown in mass graves or burned) Timisoara was transformed into an armed camp with two soldiers and two Securitate with machine guns standing every few feet. The city’s 20,000 students were sent home for Christmas vacation a few days earlier than planned.

That night a line of plainclothes secret police opened fire on approximately 30 demonstrators, most of them young and holding candles, chanting and gathering around the opera house. More than ten died.

A 1991 US Department of State report called, “The Problems of Communism”, stated, “A religiously inspired act of civil disobedience had thus triggered a full-blown political rebellion against one of the most tightly controlled authoritarian societies in the world.” This, in a country where it was against the law for more than three people to gather outside.

The Massacre

Timisoara’s Opera Square Where Thousands Gathered. 93 or more died in the city of 350,000 in western Romania.
Photo from

Today, December 17, is a day of mourning in Timisoara with ceremonies marking this thirty year anniversary of the massacre including a speech by President Klaus Iohannis, wreath laying and religious services.

On this day in 1989, a huge crowd came together in Timisoara. The crowd marched on the Communist headquarters. They now included university students and workers, who shouted, “Down with Ceausescu!” and the squares had swollen with thousands. Women with their children that had lead a column of demonstrators wishing to speak with the mayor were beaten. After having forced their way into the headquarters, protestors burned portraits of Ceausescu and shops in the square went up in flames. By seven that night the shooting started.

The army used tear gas and water cannons at first as tanks rolled into the square and crushed people and then soldiers fired their machine guns and rifles indiscriminately into the crowd.

The exact number killed is unknown, but is estimated now to be around 100 with 2000 injured.

People in Timisoara faced food rationing, while working at places where their food was exported and there was little meat and always long lines, some waiting up to 15 hours for food. This winter was particularly cold and often they had no heat. Fuel was rationed. Now the military had turned against them. Adding to their outrage were rumors that the military had destroyed the blood supply for the injured and for the fact that 43 of their dead citizens were brought to Bucharest on the eighteenth of December and cremated with their ashes thrown into the sewers on orders of Elena Ceausescu.

The city would be under siege for three more days.

But the regime could not stop the demonstrations that spread like flames, skipping to other cities including Bucharest as news of the massacre filtered across the border from press coverage in Budapest and the Balkan nations. The world was now watching.

Protestors and Police Re-Group

Earlier today hundreds of Timisoara’s citizens gathered with candles and flags long ago ripped of its Communist emblem, to march in a “Freedom March” to the church where 30 years ago the Revolution began.

Freedom March on December 16, 2019 Image: AFP Daniel Mihailescu

By December 16, 1989 support for Pastor Laszlo Tokes had grown and evolved into a general protest against the Ceausescu regime. The crowds had grown to 100,000; gathered in the city’s main square calling on Ceausescu to resign. Many Romanians had seen an interview on Hungarian TV where Tokes had recently spoken against Ceausescu’s policy of “systemization” in which villages were being bulldozed and those villagers were then relocated into cramped concrete apartment blocks where they could be “watched”. This centralization was immensely unpopular and flamed the resistance movement.

Yet December 16th was relatively calm. The eviction order against Tokes had been issued and the army was being called in to restore order when the police failed to. Some protestors had attempted to set fire to the Communist Central Committee Building but the crowds had not yet tried to break in. It was a waiting game.

The majority of the world still believed Ceausescu would hold onto the reins of power. However the U.S. State Department said at the time, “It looks like Romania’s time may have finally come.” Dissenters within the party government were poised to make a play as well.

The next day would be hell in Timisoara.

The Beginning of the Revolution

The Revolution began on December 15, 1989 with the house arrest of Reformed Pastor Laszlo Tokes who had dared to speak out against the regime. The Hungarian Reformed Church represented a substantial minority of Romania based largely in Transylvania.

After his house arrest, the townspeople anticipated the “disappearance” of Tokes. Tokes had already escaped many attempts on his life. In fact, two ministers had already been murdered that year. To protect the Pastor, members of the congregation formed a chain across the entrance of his home in Timisoara. Some were taken away by the Secret Police, tortured and even murdered, but hundreds more replaced them at the church and his house.

These events in Timisoara started a national uprising. Within days the Ceausescu regime would be overthrown.

Tokes was arrested and taken away by security police sometime between 5 and 6 am on Sunday December 17th. and beaten. Many other ethnic minorities joined in the street protests. Many were killed by the Army or Secret Police. But the crowds grew and rallying cry of “Timisoara” spread to Bucharest.


TV Travel Editor and Host, Rick Steves gives a good summary of what happened in Romania and particularly Bucharest in the 1980s.

From “Rick Steve’s Europe” Romania          Episode 9 Season 5 11\5\2016         

Transcript of Segment on Bucharest (my own)
“Bucharest’s Old Town is lucky to survive the Communist Period. Most of the historic center was wiped out by the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu so he could build a grandiose new town perfect for a megalomaniac. Ceausescu took power in 1965 and through his 24 year dictatorship his ego ballooned.   He became addicted to massive projects without budgets.

After a visit to North Korea, Ceausescu returned inspired to transform his city. He ripped out most of Bucharest’s historic core to create, this, his enormous civic center. Its wide boulevards and stone faced apartment blocks all have a distinctive Pyongyang aesthetic.  The culmination of his master plan was, this, an immense palace with more than a thousand rooms fit for a dictator gone wild. Ceausescu literally starved his people to build his dream. Over six years from 1983-1989 thousands of laborers worked on it 24-7. When it finally opened to the public in 1994; that was five years after Ceausescu died, the Romanian people were both wonderstruck and repulsed.

Today guided tours lead gawking visitors around these vast and empty spaces. You feel small exploring its grand halls, huge staircases and mega ballrooms. Ceausescu demanded the ideal balcony from which to deliver speeches while looking out over his new town with a boulevard grand enough to match his ego.

This palace and similarly extravagant projects all around the downtrodden country created a powerful anti-Ceausescu sentiment that ultimately led to his downfall. In late 1989 with winds of change sweeping the Eastern Block, armed revolution spread across Romania.  An angry populace filled the square in front of the Communist Party Headquarters. They arrested their dictator and shot him on Christmas Day. This Monument honors more than 1000 Romanians who died in the struggle to overthrow the Tyrant and free their country.

Today Ceausescu feels like ancient history and Romania is proud to be part of the European Union. Joining local families on a Saturday afternoon you feel optimistic while Romania’s challenges are significant, it’s clear Romania is headed in the right direction” (Written by Rick Steves, of TV travel series fame. Click this link to see the documentary on YouTube.)

House of the People/Parliament/Ceausescu’s Palace
Photo by Eric Sorlien 1990

Remembering 1980s Romania

I have collected items that I obtained from my travel there in 1990, 1994 and from eBay pertaining to the 1980s life in Communist Romania. This is the decade of worsening deprivation and oppression that peaked in 1989; the year of the execution of dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day.

This month (December 2019) marks the thirtieth anniversary of the violent revolution and overthrow of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu on December 22nd.

I travelled to Romania in early March of 1990 when I was 21 and living in Philadelphia USA. I have never forgotten the joyous celebrations and incredible stories I saw and heard there. I wanted a way to memorialize what I experienced and what the Romanian people went through during the worst of Ceausescu’s reign; the 1980s.

I will post photos of these items, videos and stories from my collection. It will include the good and bad aspects of Romanian life through 1990.

There are several blogs in the Romanian language and museums in Romania dedicated to this period. My hope is to allow English speakers to experience an era that should not be forgotten and to see how freedoms in a country can be taken away gradually or even suddenly.