Thursday, January 29, 2015

A job search from 88 years ago

I have just found this letter among a pile of old pictures, and decided to post it. It was written by my grandfather's brother, Teodor, who had just finished law-school and was looking for jobs. This was almost 90 years ago when Teodor was 25. Below is a rough translation of some of it.

The letter
"Beloved Brother,

On January 29th, 1927 I saw all my hard work from highschool and university bear fruit as I took my solemn oath in front of the highest court in Bucharest (curtea de Apel). I felt humbled and grateful to an extent that is impossible to describe in words. My soul was full, and in that solemn day, it seemed that all my blood went to my head and I was prepared to go straight to work and work hard as a lawyer. I felt such happiness! I will forever be grateful to God, and to my beloved parents for their work and sacrifices, which made this noble and exalted mission in life possible.

When I wanted to leave the room in which I have taken the oath, I noticed with profound sadness that my silk scarf was missing. I received it as a gift, and it had felt so very pleasant to wear. The solemnity of the day did not permit that I dwell on this loss for long or attempt a recovery.

In 1927
Now that I had the diploma in hand, I started searching for a place to enter life as a lawyer. It does not surprise me that all my efforts so far have been in vain. In Bucharest, I have been talking to many deputies and legislators. Everything I do turns out to be useless.

I have then been persuaded to travel to Timisoara. Overall, I have met many disagreeable individuals who are very limited in their views of life and of the world, and yet hold positions of power and call each other "doctor". This title is beautiful, but you see something is missing. A title hides ignorance just as well as complicated words hide the lack substance. I searched endlessly as I entered the offices of these insects for some place for myself. It was impossible!

[... He tries obtaining the help of G., whom his father had supported through school, and this fails as well. After studying economics, G. had opened a bank that was guaranteed by my great-grandfather, and by many other people in their village. The bank failed a few years later, and the villagers (including my great-grandfather who died soon after) lost most of what they owned around 1929. Later G. recovered and built a hotel in Bucharest...]

Soon uncle G. started criticizing us. He told me that my brothers and I want too much from life, and that we should have started working sooner and at a lower level instead of going to university. He judged me as if he had raised me or paid in any way for my education when I have seen with my own eyes that neither was the case.

G. has many acquaintances on which he can count on only as long as he has money. Afterwards, they no longer remember him. Even now that he appears to have lost everything, he will likely recover through other unclean schemes. However, I do not believe he will be succeeding in the long term. Even though he first reached his position on my father's money, and we loved him and believed in him, he disparages us, and has never tried to help us in earnest. His attitude will not change with circumstances.

It is hard to write a translation that does justice to the original prose. When I read his letter, I feel some of his personality coming through. When I read my translation, I feel my personality in some of the same words much more than I feel his. While he appears excited about starting life on his own and prepared to work hard,  he also comes across as an idealistic college graduate with a sense of humor who is frustrated by his job search, and by the political situation. He tries to be a force of good in the world, but he is still very young, and quick to judge and condemn. My favorite part of the letter is where he refers to the lawyers/attorney from the various offices where he applies for jobs as insects. I relate to the struggle and sometimes to the feeling that everything is meaningless/useless. I suppose that part is timeless.

The background story

The family around 1920.
My grandfather had four bothers and two sisters. Teodor was the second of four boys. They lived in a small village called Semlacul Mare (close to the border with Serbia) that produced corn and grapes. It must have been very difficult for my great-grandparents to raise four boys so close in age, and send them all to school. There was a strong bond between the four brothers that must have been almost palpable. It therefore seemed natural for them help each other, and to get into mischief together.

A picture of Teodor at about 13 is below. It must have been taken in 1914 - close to the beginning of the first world war. He looks uncertain and afraid. It was not common to have to sit for photographs.

Like most of the family, he had big green eyes and brown hair. My grandfather, Mihai, and my great aunt all had the same eye color, and his eyes are likely to have been the same shade of green. He was also funny, mischievous, and charismatic with a beautiful smile - the kind that lights up the whole face and can temporarily stop hearts from beating.
8th grade

When Teodor left home to go to highschool, he pretended to be Romanian nobility in order to be treated more  respectfully by the host family, and allowed to sleep late. Unexpectedly, his father came to see how he was doing. The mistress of the house where he was paying for room and board told him "Sir, please, do not disturb. The baron is asleep", and it was noon. Apparently, once Teodor heard his father call his name, he was awake and dressed in no time, and his stint playing a baron's first son was over.

Quoted conversation between my great-Grandfather and his eldest son, who was of a quieter nature than Teodor, and also ended up being a lawyer:

Father: "Why can you not be more full of life ... more like Teodor?"
Son: "But, father, Teodor upsets you."
Father: "He upsets me, but I like it!".

Later, my great aunt (who was 13 years younger than him, and became a mathematician) was known to tell him:

"Teodor, please, talk to me and pay attention to me when we are together in public. People do not know that you are my brother, and pity me when they see you keep looking longingly after every pretty woman that passes by. They think, poor girl, she is not beautiful or interesting enough to hold his attention."

He came to her highschool graduation exam, which was a public event. She remembered him exiting the room grasping for air and waving his hat like a fan. She had been a very shy child, and he suddenly felt the need get out of the room when his shy little sister started speaking. They were all so very proud that she passed.

Back of the photo records his birth and death
Last photo
Teodor did find a job as a lawyer in Ploiesti, where Romania's biggest petrol refinery was located. He was assigned to represent the state, which was the highest honor for a lawyer. His best friend and colleague was Salvador Bradeanu, one of the best professors of law from that era, who was certainly not limited in his thoughts or in his understanding of the world. They had both studied law in Paris and remained life-long friends.

This is a short love letter he wrote:

"My wandering, unhappy soul cannot find rest
unless it lies close to your breast,
beloved woman.

To you I surrender my love life forever.
Teodor. 24 December 1933."

He had sent this poem on the back of a picture of himself to his wife on Christmas-eve.  It was eventually returned to us.  In Romania, it was common for women to carry photos of their loved ones close to their breast up to the mid 1990s. When I was in middle school, I had a classmate who used to carry pictures of Michael Jackson close to her heart. Of course, we were silly school children, while he wrote this to a woman close to my current age, and it seemed that he had really loved her. However, ideally, at 36 he should not have been so alone - he should have had a wife and children and found some means for happiness outside work. But then it is foolish to judge so many years later while not knowing him or the circumstances.

I do not know whether the love letter was written before or after he divorced his wife.  Teodor had married a widow, and after marriage they lived in the same house as her former father in law, who had significant political power. Soon, he found out that his wife was having an affair with her ex-father-in-law, and divorced. The divorce was quick since he was a lawyer, and they had no common property or children. But even though they had separated, he continued to care for her and sometimes met her in secret. My grandmother, who had met the lady and the father-in-law and had been very impressed by his automatic-electric gate, which was remotely controlled, believed she was likely forced by circumstances to have the affair. Teodor also came to regret being impulsive and divorcing, and later did not blame her for the affair.

He was murdered in 1937 - ten years after obtaining his degree in law. After finding out that Teodor was dead, his ex-wife seemed devastated and asked his brothers "why did you not tell me?". They did not involve her in the investigation that followed, and eventually gave up the search for justice after being told that they will all die if they continued. The last person to see him alive had been his best friend, Bradeanu, to whom he confessed that he thought he would be killed that night. Bradeanu offered to go home with him, but Teodor told him to think of his wife and child, and to go home to them instead. Later Bradeanu would recount Teodor's last day to my mother, who was a resident doctor in Bucharest.

Teodor had obeyed his solemn oath up to the end and refused to be bribed into losing a trial for which he had the legal proof to win. He was educated to always be fair, to put his country and his work first, and to prefer death to dishonor. It was a period when many bright individuals died for being too brave or too fair or just being at the wrong place in the wrong time. Through death he was spared of witnessing the many tragedies that followed. He was, however, missed by his brothers and sisters for as long as they lived.

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