Christmas behind the Iron Curtain before the wall came down

During the Cold War, there was a sense of mystery and intrigue whenever you ventured into Eastern Europe.

Interior of the Romanian Orthodox Church of St. Spyridon the New, the largest church in Bucharest. (Via Wikipedia entry on Bucharest.)

BUCHAREST, Romania, Dec. 24, 2015 – During the Cold War, there was a sense of mystery and intrigue whenever you ventured into Eastern Europe. It was a sinister feeling. The world was somehow devoid of color. Everything seemed black and white.

During that time, I traveled to Bucharest, Romania, shortly after Christmas with a group of students from Wingate College to visit the most intensely surveiled region in Eastern Europe. The purpose was to gain a greater understanding of the struggles of organized religion to exist under the influence of Communism.

Nicolai Ceausescu was a harsh leader (wikipedia)
Onetime Romanian Communist President Nicolai Ceausescu was a harsh leader. (Wikipedia)

Christmas wasn’t acknowledged by the government, but the New Year’s trees were brightly decorated, providing rare bursts of color in the otherwise bleak surroundings.

We were welcomed by the Rev. Ilie Ionescu, the pastor at a small Baptist church in the eastern part of the city.

“My members will appreciate your visit very much,” Ionescu said. “You represent hope. Freedom. They know very little about your country, but they know enough.

“We have more than 400 members. For most it is very difficult to get here, so we have three services each Sunday. We have no young people. All our members are old because you see we must register when we go to church. If young people worship, they cannot get good jobs. So the older people come, and they take the messages back to their families. Only in the choir will you see young people because singing is considered a cultural program.

“But this is a place of hope. Sometimes there is no heat or we have no light. There are brownouts, you see. We do our best. We try very hard.”

There was sadness in the reverend’s voice, but he was as open as he could be under the circumstances.

After the short briefing, we entered the sanctuary and turned to the right to walk up to the balcony.

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By American standards the service was lengthy. Since the people had to endure extreme hardships to attend, the church made every effort to ensure the congregation was ministered to thoroughly.

The women sat on the left side of the aisle, the men to the right. No one removed coats. Other than a small stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary, the only visible color was in the babushkas the ladies wore on their heads.

Throughout the service members of the congregation turned toward the balcony out of curiosity. Visitors were rare, especially so many and so young. Americans, too. Rarely did they see Americans.

For the next two hours, the Romanians continued to turn and gaze upwards toward the balcony, communicating only with their eyes as though they were reaching out to touch the students.

When the service finished, we went down to the vestibule to greet the Romanians as they left the church.

Winters in Bucharest are especially brutal due to the lack of heat (wikipedia)
Winters in Bucharest are especially brutal due to the lack of heat. (Wikipedia)

Spontaneously, the students formed a semicircle from the door through the narthex, shaking hands with people and smiling as they departed. The Romanians looked weary, yet they were deeply appreciative. Though neither group spoke the other’s language, there was still a powerful sense of communication.

As one old woman passed our interpreter she caught the eye of a student and approached her. Softly she uttered the word, “Pace.”

Bewildered, the girl turned to the interpreter. He smiled and said, “’Pace.’ In Romanian it means ‘Peace.’”

The girl looked back at the Romanian woman and repeated the word, “Pace.”

Overhearing the exchange, a classmate standing to the left immediately spoke to another woman in front of him. “Pace,” he said.

A broad smile spread across the woman’s face as she repeated the word, “Pace.”

Soon the vestibule was filled with the quiet sounds of Romanian and American voices, all echoing the same simple word, “Pace.”

They repeated it over and over again, “Pace. Pace. Pace.”

Then in the dim light of the room, the Wingate girl reached into her purse and removed a small Bible she had brought from home. She placed it in the palm of the old woman’s hand, covering it with her own. The woman gazed intently at the student for a long moment before looking down at the treasure she now gripped within her gnarled fingers. And then she began to cry.

As the tears made silent trails down her cheeks, the Romanian woman looked at the interpreter and spoke. He listened carefully to be sure he understood what the woman was saying. When she finished, he translated her words.

She says, “All of my life I have dreamed of having a Bible written in English. For me it is a symbol. Today, you have answered my prayers.”

A hush fell over the room. Everyone stopped, spellbound by the words of a woman who had but one simple wish, to possess a book written in a language she could neither read nor understand. Yet that book symbolized all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a life she would never know. The book was her bridge to a world she would never see.

But the old Romanian woman wasn’t finished. The interpreter cast his eyes toward the young Wingate girl as the old woman slowly uttered her message.

“She says, ‘I only know three words in English.’”

Then the Romanian woman moved forward and hugged the student. When she pulled away, she smiled gently and whispered into the young girl’s ear the words, “I love you.”

Her voice was soft, but it could be heard by those close to her. When the Romanian woman spoke, everyone nearby was overcome with emotion.

Three words. Simple words. The only English words the old Romanian woman knew. “I love you.” The message was universal. And even in that bleak corner of the world there was hope. There was faith. And yes, there was love.

In but a few brief spontaneous moments, we came to realize that those Romanian people had warmth enough for everyone nestled deep within their hearts. We knew there would always be candles to brighten the darkness, flickering with their silent flames of hope, because those elderly Romanians still believed in miracles.

Though often severe, Romanian winters can also bring hope through beauty (wikipedia)
Though often severe, Romanian winters can also bring hope through beauty. (Wikipedia)

Now the Wingate students understood how the Romanian people had persevered for so long under such impossible conditions. Through it all their faith had kept them going because better than anyone else, they knew the meaning of the word, “Pace.”

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About the author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award- winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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