Transylvania: Ethnic Trends (2005)

Figure 1.--

A HBC reader visited Transylvania in 2005 and has provided us this assessment of ethnic trends. He was primarily interested in the fate of the Saxon ethnic minority in Translvania.

Transylvania, an important region at the historical crossroads of southeastern Europe has become famous, mainly because of Dracula, even when most people haven't a clue where it really is located. The English writer, Bram Stoker, actually put Transylvania on the map when he wrote his story in 1897. But, of course, there is much more to Transylvania than a crazy medieval count, who became a vampire. I did not go to Romania to explore the history of Count Dracula, but rather to see what has become of the German settlers, the Saxons, who in the 12th century were invited by the Hungarian king, Geza II, to work the land and to build bastions against the Turks.

German Settlers

These Germans were not really Saxons, since most of them came from the Rhineland, the Eifel and even Luxemburg, but they were called Saxons nevertheless. They were farmers, craftsmen, merchants and artists. They founded 500 settlements in their new country. Among the larger ones were the cities Hermannstadt (Sibiu), Kronstadt (Brasov) and Schäßburg (Sighisoara), all established at the end of the 12th century. They got special privileges that for centuries were recognized by the rulers of the country. For example, the Saxons exercized their own justice system according to their own laws.

Medieval Cities

I happened to see some beautiful pictures of the old, medieval cities on the Internet and that made me book a trip to Romania, just to see with my own eyes how the towns in Transylvania really look. I was not disappointed. Although terribly neglected and run-down, the medieval buildings still show the excellent German craftsmanship of the original builders and architects. The city of Hermannstadt (Sibiu) is being restored to its old glory and has been chosen by UNESCO to become the European cultural capital of 2007.

Fortresses and Fortified Churches

The German name "Siebenbürgen" derives from the seven fortresses the Teutonic Knights built in the beginning of the 12th century. Later Transylvania got dotted with castles and fortified churches (some in ruins now) where ever the Saxons founded towns and villages.

The Reformation

During the reformation the Transylvania Germans became Kutherans and they built the second largest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul in Hermannstadt. I had the pleasure of being able to listen to the magnificent organ on Sunday morning and also to the church choir.

Travel Details

My trip to Romania, however, did not start well. I had booked a guided tour, expecting other tourists to join. That did not happen and I had the guide and his car all for myself. Razvar Teodorescu turned out to be a very reliable, considerate young man, who knew his country's history. He was waiting in vain for me to arrive at Bucharest airport. The reason I did not show up at the scheduled time was caused by a delay of 6 hours in Chicago, where I had changed planes for Munich. Our plane had some engine trouble and they were trying to correct the problem. Every half hour the captain announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are working on it. Pretty soon we will be on our way". After 5 hours sitting in the stranded airplane United Airlines finally decided to order another carrier and then we could continue to Munich. A friend of mine, who lives in Bavaria, had been waiting at the airport to see me, but he left again, since I did not arrive. I also missed my plane to Bucharest. The next one would go late in the evening and I would arrive in the middle of the night. However, I could fly within an hour to Prague and from there to Bucharest. That's what I did. I arrived at 10 pm. I had to take a taxi to bring me to the Lido Hotel in downtown Bucharest. The cabdriver, not being legitimate, but rather one of those wild ones who prey on foreigners who don't know the score, overcharged me of course. His car was parked in a dark area. It showed no sign indicating it was a taxi. The guy could not even open the door on the driver's side. He tried hard, but then gave up and slid from the passenger's seat behind the wheel. I was afraid that he would drive me somewhere to rob me, but we did arrive at the Lido, where I got a nice, comfortable room. I noticed there and later also that the Romanians serving the public are not very friendly. They barely welcome you. They just push a form to be filled out in front of you. I think this might still be a result of living all those years under communism. They certainly could use some lessons in P.R.


Bucharest is a big city (2 million people). It has a Latin flavor, after all the Romanians speak a Latin language and many claim to be descendants of the Romans, who ruled here. The city is called the Paris of the Balkans. There are beautiful, French-looking 19th and 18th century buildings and ugly communist-inspired apartments and government buildings, the largest being the People's Palace, a monstrosity built by Nicolae Ceausescu, the 2nd largest office building in the world after the Pentagon. I went on a tour to see the inside. It was very impressive. The Italians must have done good business selling all that Carrara marble. The Austrians or Czechs no doubt supplied the enormous chandeliers. Funny, how the communist czars always loved to have the most expensive stuff they could get. I was surprised to see so many bookstores and -stalls. Most books are in the Romanian language, but in antiquarian bookstores one finds books in English, Hungarian and German (many printed in Hermannstadt). I bought some books on the history of Transylvania.


After 2 days of sight-seeing in Bucharest Razvar took me in his car to Hermannstadt. We could see the damage the horrendous rains had caused in the countryside some weeks earlier. There were lots of detours. The scenery in Transylvania is beautiful. My uide told me that 1/3 of the country is covered with forests. There still are bears, wolves, foxes, wild boars and eagles in the woods. The name of my hotel in Hermannstadt was the "Imparatul Romanilor" (Roman Emperor) . It is located in the heart of the old, medieval town.

World War II and Emigration

I had arranged a meeting with Winfried Ziegler. the chairman of the Center for German Youth Organisations in Romania, who received me in his office, a few blocs away from the hotel. Herr Ziegler told me that in the year 1939 there were 800 000 Germans in Romania. They were not expelled after the war as were the German minorities in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but many emigrated to Germany, Austria and the USA after the communists confiscated their properties. Now there are 60 000 of them left.

Romania in World War II

HBC note: The attitude toward the Germans in Romabia is in part due to the fact that Romania was an ally to NAZI Germany in the War. The Germans were rutless in countries like Pland and Yugoslavia which resisted them. The Germans als deported people in those countries and replaced them with German settlers. This program occured most prominently in Poland, but in others countries as well such as Yugoslavia (Slovenia). Also loval German populations often cooperated with the NAZIs in these countries. I'm unsure to what extent and in what manner the Volk Deutche were involved in the War. Unkike the situation in Hungary, anither NAZI ally, the Germans because of the deterirating military situation did not use force to keep Romanian in the war.

Germans in Hermannstadt Today

In Hermannstadt, which used to have a German majority, there are only 2,000 Saxons among the 250 000 inhabitants. Romanian is spoken everywhere, but one also hears Hungarian (there are 1 million Hungarians in Romania) and the Gypsy language. Still, there is a German bookstore and a library. Hermannstadt has a German state theater and a Bach choir.

German Schools

The strength of the Saxon community, however, are the German schools from kindergarten to gymnasium. Mr. Ziegler gave me a copy of the 2005-edition of the German Yearbook for Romania and I am reading the following (in German): "The Transylvania Saxons in the past used to have an exemplarily organized school system that even in the communist era functioned on a level nthinkable in other Eastbloc countries. Also today the schools with German as the language of instruction have a good reputation".

German Image Cultural Influence

The mayor of Sibiu is a Saxon, Klaus Johannis. According to a Bucharest daily newspaper he has been proclaimed best mayor in Romania, after an opinion poll taken by the same newspaper that ended with the words: "Romania needs more Germans like Johannis". Also in other communities Saxons are frequently elected as mayors and othergovernment functionaries. This is remarkable considering their numbers in proportion to the rest of the country. I loved to walk over the cobblestones of the medieval town. Everywhere I could see the old walls, towers and gates. Cars were not allowed to come here. The roofwindows on the top floor of the houses were very interesting. They looked like eyes that followed you when you walked by, a weird sensation. I went to see the outstanding collection of paintings in the Brukenthal Museum. Samuel von Brukenthal (1721-1803) was a governor of Transylvania, who promoted not only the economy, but also the arts. He collected Flemish masters like Rubens, Jordaens, Adriaen Brouwer and van Dyck, all on display in the museum. I talked with several Saxon people and I found their German amusing. They claim that their dialect is similar to that what is spoken in Luxemburg ("Letzeburgisch"), but I am not so sure. Although I am not a dialectologist, I know that the Transylvania Saxons roll the "r" in front of their mouth, while the Luxemburgers scrape it through the throat like the French.


One evening we had a meal at a farmhouse in Biertan, a village near Sibiu, that once was the residence of the Lutheran bishop of Transylvania. In the best room of the house we were treated to an eggplant salad with tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, meatballs and bacon. Then we got matzoball soup. After that roast pork and cabbage rolls and for desert we had fresh plums, plum cake and plum liqueur. Coffee was served too, but that was the only item I did not care for. I was actually surprised to discover that the coffee in Romania was so tasteless, being in the part of Europe close to Turkey!

Former German Villages

On our way to Sighisoara or Schäßburg we stopped at several ex-German villages. The old Lutheran churches were still prominent, but were hardly used for services, since most Saxons had left. For example: Stolzenburg used to have 1,700 German- speakers, now only 40 are left. Frauendorf, another village that once had 1800 Saxons, now has a total of 5 old people. Wurmloch has a large fortified church. but no longer any German inhabitants. The people who live there now are Romanians and Gypsies.


Hitchhiking seems to be common in Romania. In the country buses are sometimes not on ime and people don't want to wait long. Razvar told me that it is customary to pay the driver of the car that picks up a hitchhiker the same amount that they would have to pay for a bus or a train. He once picked up a gypsy, who immediately paid him the fare plus a tip!

Schäßburg (Sighisoara)

Schäßburg (Sighisoara) is an unspoiled medieval town, very romantic, very German. It still has the walls around the center with all the towers. Each tower represented a guild: the tanners, the bakers, the tinsmiths, the jewelry makers, the rope makers, the butchers, the weavers, the coopers, the shoemakers, etc. Dracula was born in Sighisoara. His name was Vlad Tepes, but his father's name was Dracul (Devil) and he himself was called Dracula (Little Devil). There is a commemorative plaque on the house where Dracula is supposed to have been born in 1432, but it is not certain if he really saw the light of the day in that building. Of course, a lot of kitsch is being sold in front of this place: mugs with the name Dracula on it, canine teeth with blood dripping from them, scare masks and all kind of Gothic horror stuff, perhaps made in China (I did not check). I spent 2 nights in that little town, went for long walks in the woods., and I enjoyed every minute of it, because I never was bitten in the neck by a vampire. In one of the towers they have a small Oberth Museum. Hermann Oberth was born in Hermannstadt, but moved to Schäßburg. He became a famous rocket scientist and worked with Wernher von Braun to put a man on the moon for the USA, a somewhat embarrassing fact for the Americans, who needed to beat the Russians. In order to do so they had to make use of German scientists who once were members of the NAZI party. {HBC note: The Russians also had their German rockets scientists, but not the top ones. The NAZI Party membership is harder to assess. It should be note, however, that for professional and career reasons, it was helpful and for managers like Van Braun necessary to join the Party. To what extent they were true believers, this more difficul to determine.] The Romanians are proud of him and there is a statue of Oberth in the main square.


Another famous Transylvania Saxon was Joseph Ludwig Roth, a Lutheran pastor and writer, who fought for the improvement of the poor Romanian peasants. He was excuted by the Hungarians in 1849. In Mediasch, where he lived, I saw his statue in front of the church. Most people don't know that also Johnny Weißmüller (the famous movie Tarzan) was born in this area. He came as a little boy to America and I have not seen a statue of him in Romania.

Kronstadt (Brasov)

From Schäßburg we drove to Kronstadt (Brasov), the largest Saxon city, srrounded by high mountains and forests. We spent a pleasant afternoon there. The weather was gorgeous. We did some people-watching on the main square while having a glass of wine. Most Romanians are slim and trim. Young girls are showing off their tattoos and piercings around the navel in their tight, low, pre-ruined, blue jeans, talking into a cellphone, like elsewhere in the world displaying their bad taste. Middle-aged women seemed to prefer a chestnut brown hair color, while older women looked presentable in their babushkas and many skirts. They did not care about fashion. In spite of the warm weather the only men in shorts were German tourists. I never saw a black or Oriental in the crowd. Amazing.

Stray Pets

What bothered me in Romania, however, are the many stray dogs along the highways. They gather at rest stops, hoping to find some food that the automobilists throw away. There are no animal shelters or humane societies in the country and I became upset when I saw two little kittens, black and white, huddled to gether on the shoulder of the road, obviously kicked out of a car. I mentioned it to Razvar, who said that somebody might pick them up.....might.....(I doubt it).

Bran Castle

We went to see Bran Castle, supposed to be the residence of Dracula. It is a spooky place indeed, built on top of a steep rock. Later that day we arrived in Sinaia, a beautiful resort in the Carpathian Mountains. We had reservations in the Palace Hotel, one of the best in Sinaia. The next day we saw the summer residence of the Romanian royal family, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringens, who had built Peles Castle, a very German-looking place, stuffed with antique furniture and works of art. Queen Elisabeth wrote 48 novels under the nom de plume Carmen Silva. She also sketched and painted. Her works are on display in the castle. Visitors are forced to wear slippers when they want to see the inside. I found a pair that fitted my feet and I put them on over my shoes. After the tour Razvar and I walked down the hill to the parking lot. When I arrived there I noticed that I was still wearing the slippers! I looked funny, but nobody had said anything. I gave them to my guide who promised to return them the next time.

Orthodox Christians

Back in Bucharest we saw the Metropolitan Church. The Romanians are orthodox and whenever they pass one of their churches they cross themselves several times, even when they are at a distance. Inside the churches they always kiss the icons, a practice that for a non-believer seems to be a little unhygienic.

Dance and Music

The evening before my return to the States was spent in a restaurant where Romanian dances were performed by 4 young couples in authentic costumes. The band played Gypsy music and traditional Romanian folk melodies. The food was excellent and in a way a proper farewell to a country of which we know little about. I am glad that I went and I feel that I learned something about this far corner of Europe.

Rudolf Stueck


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Created: 7:20 PM 10/19/2005
Last updated: 7:20 PM 10/19/2005