When I was young, I always dreamt of being able to step back in time, to discover a world that I thought was lost. I wished to find the secret portal portrayed in so many stories and myths that would be able to transport me into a different era of time. My grandfather would always tell me about Meschendorf, the Saxon village in Romania where he was born and grew up. The bedtime stories always sounded more like a fairy tale, and a grand exaggeration of how things really were. I could not imagine a village in Europe where people lived in similar conditions as my schoolteacher would describe England hundreds of years ago before the Industrial Revolution. Little did I know that in years to come I would be able to visit Meschendorf, and feel like I have been transported to a time way before I was born. Through this journey I was able to record stories from past residents revealing a culture that survived from the 11th century through to the 19th century almost unchanged, but is now facing extinction. The only things that are remaining are the memories encapsulated within its past Saxon residents, in one of Europe’s least known, but most fascinating regions, Transylvania.
Flying over Hermannstadt (one of the largest Saxon towns in Transylvania, also known as Sibiu (in Romanian)) there was sunshine on the left side of the airplane, but when looking to the right, the sky was covered with dark clouds and rain was striking the ground. This was almost a sign of the extreme opposites I was about to encounter in the Saxon villages of Transylvania, Romania. The picturesque fairytale image that Meschendorf portrayed, juxtaposed with its darker corrupted politics, and reminder of the communist era.
I arrived in Meschendorf as the moon’s glow replaced the suns shine. A six kilometer country road, paved for the first time last year, lead to the lower part of the village, where small houses owned by Romanian settlers who arrived in the late 1940’s could be found. There are no streetlights in Meschendorf, and although locals do have electricity, it is scarcely used due to its energy costs. I found myself in front of an unlit house, which I identified from a past photograph as the house of Martin Klein, my grandfathers brothers son, aged 74. Martin generously invited me to stay in his Meschendorf house during my visit. No one answered when knocking, so I decided to enter the unlit courtyard. Suddenly I heard the sounds of a horse carriage rumbling down the Meschendorf cobbled, wide Mittelgasse (main street) about ten metres away from where I was standing. I saw nothing but a silhouette passing through the darkness in which I found myself. I noticed another silhouette approaching the house, this time it was Martin. He had just been down to the cheese ‘shop’, owned by the local sheep farmer who sells goods from his own home.
Straight away I was lead into the courtyard to a table set in the summer kitchen. It was a warm August evening. I was served with three different flavoured cheeses, all made the same way, but tasted very differently due to the time when they were produced. The freshest cheese was twenty minutes old, the second was made five hours ago and the third was made the previous day, it was amazing to see how things changed so fast just through time.
To drink I was served Schnaps, which is a traditional alcoholic beverage, served in shot glasses, but drunk by locals as if it were water. Schnaps is made by distilling fruits such as plums or apples and tends to have an alcoholic content of around 40%-90%. Many Saxons distilled their own Schnaps within their homes from collected plums or apples, often found growing along the Saxon village roads. There was a choice between cold or warm Schnaps. The warm Schnaps was heated with caraway seeds and sugar. After a while though I was desperate to ask for a glass of water, I was not accustomed to the harsh taste and customs.
During dinner we discussed aspects of ownership of the houses and land in Meschendorf. A topic that was brought up by most Saxons I encountered throughout my visit. During the Communist era the Saxons lost ownership of their land and homes, with no guarantee of re-possessing it even after the collapse of Communism. Although the new restitution laws allow Saxons to regain ownership of their houses and land, many Saxons still struggle validating this law. The regulations are very complicated, and the bureaucracy is not always forthcoming. There are various factors, which make the process difficult. Not all property ownership was documented in the land registry prior to the Communist era, in addition there is also a law stating that to gain ownership back of ones home and land, one must have Romanian citizenship. When the Saxons entered Germany though, it was mandatory for them to adopt German citizenship, and give up their Romanian one, as dual citizenship was not permitted. Emotionally, that was what they aspired to anyway.
Nevertheless, it is important to consider other factors for why the Saxon rural villages are disappearing. Although, especially the elderly have nostalgic connections to their place of birth, they enjoy much better living conditions in a more developed capitalist society. Relocating back to Meschendorf would only offer them a difficult farmers’ life, which most people would struggle with. Also, the amount of Saxons in the villages has decreased to a critical point, where the historic life, in a tightly knitted community, with old customs, and rituals is inevitably no longer possible. Therefore, Meschendorf, like many other Saxon villages, has become a ‘holiday’ destination for its past Saxon residents rather than a village of settled, permanent Saxons. When Saxons return to Meschendorf for the summer, they may be able to enjoy delightful memories of the past, but struggle to maintain what they owned, with the constant need to renovate buildings that are hundreds of years old.
However, some Saxon villages show that wise investment into “Nostalgia” can help revitalize the past; Weisskirch (also known as Viscri in Romanian), a neighbouring Saxon village, 14 km from Meschendorf seems to have managed to get some of its past Saxon residents back, by having an income through tourism. Various houses were renovated with the aid of the Mihai-trust. The main attraction is the fortified Saxon church, which is equipped with a museum, making it a tourist target for those who want to experience Saxon history.
Although Weisskich is as remotely located as Meschendorf, Meschendorf has not managed to attract many tourists. Against the backdrop of its impressive, but collapsing buildings, most of Meschendorfs residents comprise of Romanians and Romas who struggle to meet their own financial needs.