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Two Decades of Making Oral History in Romania

Ioana Ursu


As communism performed a constraint of both individual and collective memory, its fall in 1989 opened the path to a plurality of voices that generated alternative accounts to the official discourse maintained by the regime. While many victims were sharing their stories of suffering, compromise, resistance or dissent, oral history was taking its first steps in connection to these unique and valuable testimonies. The interest of the researchers gradually expanded towards documenting different aspects of everyday life and identities during communism and post-communism. Starting with an approach of the theoretical and ethical issues behind Romanian oral history making, the paper reviews the main initiatives leading to the establishment of oral history as an academic discipline, while at the same time inquiring into the reasons that propelled the practice of oral history in Romania. Both the actors and institutions that have made and managed oral history will be taken into account.

Le communisme exerçait une contrainte sur la mémoire individuelle et collective et sa chute en 1989 a donné lieu à la diffusion d’une pluralité de voix qui ont généré des récits alternatifs au discours officiel entretenus par le régime. Alors que de nombreuses victimes partageaient leurs histoires de souffrance, de compromis, de résistance ou de dissidence, l’histoire orale a fait ses premiers pas en enregistrant ces témoignages uniques et précieux. L’intérêt des chercheurs s’est progressivement élargi pour documenter les différents aspects de la vie quotidienne et de la façon dont les identités se sont constituées pendant et après le communisme. Partant d’une approche des questions théoriques et éthiques qui sous-tendent l’histoire orale roumaine, l’article fait le point sur les principales initiatives qui ont conduit à l’établissement de l’histoire orale en tant que discipline académique. Il explicite les raisons qui ont motivé la pratique de l’histoire orale en prenant en compte les acteurs et les institutions qui ont construit et accompagné cette discipline en Roumanie.

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1The evolution of oral history in Romania has been primarily and essentially connected to the memory of communism. The fall of the communist regime in 1989 opened the way not only to political freedom, but also to the recovery of the recent past in both history and memory.

  • 1 Doru Radosav, Editorial, in Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Orală (The Oral History Institute Yearb (...)
  • 2 Ibidem.

2Communism performed a constraint of both individual and collective memory through “official coercive oblivion campaigns” that led both the individual and the collectivity into amnesia. In communist countries, the totalitarian synecdoche made a singular type of memory (the proletarian, communist one) to impose itself onto collective memory, so that my past mandatorily became our past1. National collective memory was mutilated as an expression of the desire to annihilate historical conscience; however, official memory was countered by the individual, familial memory maintained through the relay of orality or samizdat2.

  • 3 Ibidem.

3The collective dimension of memory was truly acquired only after the fall of communism. Collective memory in communism was an induced one; therefore, regaining freedom in the East-European countries primarily implied the regaining of memory3.

4In Romania, oral history asserted itself in connection to memory, precisely to retrieving that part of individual and collective memory that had been obscured by the communist regime. It was more than a methodological innovation or discovery of a new academic discipline. Its social impact would be real, since it fulfilled a general need for recovering the lost past as well as overcoming the traumas produced by communism.

5Starting from individual research projects belonging to dedicated people, oral history was discovered and approached institutionally through steps such as the initiation of research projects, interviewing campaigns and the making of oral history archives. Thus, what represented at the beginning of the 1990s a solution for the recovering of a traumatic past gained, in time, an academic dimension – institutional as well as public-directed. Throughout the years, oral history makers gradually shifted their attention towards various social groups and different witnesses, widening their research themes, and choosing to focus on social-impacting subjects.

6The present paper proposes to offer a brief outlook on the motivations and stakes that have propelled the study of oral history in Romania, and to catalogue the main initiatives and achievements of oral history in Romania as well as the directions of research pursued by historians and sociologists working with oral sources.

The ethical stakes of making oral history in Romania

  • 4 Doru Radosav, Istoria din memorie. Încercări de istorie orală, Cluj-Napoca/Gatineau, Symphologic Pu (...)

7In the context of the debates regarding the knowledge and assumption of the communist past, oral history has tended to possess a certain “publicity” of its own by breaking through the strict academic framework and imposing itself as political, ethical and judicial stake within the assumption of the past4.

  • 5 An official Presidential Report on the crimes of communism was put together as late as 2007. As for (...)

8In a broad sense, the ethical stakes of making oral history in Romania have been initially connected to the more general desire for social or historical justice. Specifically, the desire of the actors to make their suffering known and public, the desire to give testimony about the past, seen as a “duty”. The ethical and ideological implications required to shed light on the abuses of an illegitimate and criminal regime which had yet to face justice5.

9From a historical point of view, the making of oral history and the collection of oral sources and testimonies ensured the birth of an alternative “non-official” discourse: the witnesses’ desire to assert their narratives dissolved the previous “official” narrative of the regime, allowing the many voices of the unheard to come forward and share their stories. Oral history thus possessed valences of both deposition and confession, also displaying a cathartic potential for the traumatic memory of communism.

A deposition in the trial of communism

10The fervour of the early 1990s directed the public attention towards the survivors of the regime, some of who were political and cultural personalities, members of anti-communist resistance. The first to find themselves in the centre of attention were thus victims of the communist repression, former political prisoners, members of the anti-communist resistance, survivors, dissidents and so on. In the aftermath of the 1989 events, their stories primed over the previous grand narrative of communism.

  • 6 Doru Radosav, De la mărturia orală la depoziție (From Oral Testimony to Deposition. Two modalities (...)

11Without the constraints of the communist political power, the testimony in post-communism became itself a deposition about the crimes of communism6. The stories of the interviewees have been perceived as a “genuine” history contrasting the official version of the regime.

12The repression, the repressors and the abuses became known through the voices of those who gave detailed accounts and precious insights on the less familiar aspects of the communist rule. The master narrative was dispersed into thousands of fragments, and as these individual stories kept surfacing, not only did they bring a strong desire of knowledge, but also a larger, ethical stake: when would a trial of communism take place?

  • 7 Ibidem, p. 10.

13Moreover, since oral history generally seems to benefit from a kind of “publicity” that foregoes the academic part of historical discourses, determining it to become both political and ethical in the process of assuming the communist past7, oral testimonies have been naturally associated with depositions in a process of justice – the trial of communism.

Confession, assumption, catharsis

  • 8 Ibidem, pp. 9-10.

14The debates regarding the communist past in Romania – as in all former communist communities – aim not only to reveal, but also to assume - to admit, to appropriate. The importance of this assumption gives significance to all discourses about the communist past8.

15The act of revealing has seldom been, however, a source of social tensions: debates concerning informants and collaborators of the regime versus political opponents and former political prisoners (taking place, ironically, on a background of public nostalgia over communism), still elicit suspicions and conflictual discourses.

  • 9 Ibidem, p. 9.

16From revealing to assuming, the ethics of memory reclaims a triple duty: the duty to tell, the duty to admit, and the duty to confess. The duty to tell inscribes in the duty of “not forgetting”; to tell is to take part in the “large and delayed confession” occurred in post-communism9.

  • 10 Ibidem, p. 8.

17Bearing testimony in post-communism – as an untold or a retold story – has thus become the expression of a counter-history, more precisely the expression of an escape from the clandestinity of silent disapproval10. To that effect, one of the dimensions of making oral history is the cathartic one and it expresses the duty to admit. As storytelling aids the overcoming of difficult memories, it also leads to the assumption of the past, at the crossroads between self-blaming and self-rightfulness.

The plea for a healing memory

18The fervour of the 1990s projected a distinct type of approach towards memory and oral history, understandable within the similarly effervescent historical context. As time passed, historical perspectives refined and the field of oral history expanded. Fieldwork was supported by critical editing and analysis of the interviews. The use of oral history in gaining symbolic justice against communism has decreased, and the ethics of memory has generally shifted (a tendency also reflected in Romanian historiography) from feeling to information.

  • 11 Author, writer and researcher of mentalities, the imaginary and representations of the Romanian Gul (...)
  • 12 Ruxandra Cesereanu, Etică și memorie, in Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Orală (The Oral History In (...)

19As writer Ruxandra Cesereanu11 put it: “It is rather obvious that a memory strictly of suffering, an emotional memory, is no longer of interest to the younger generations and can no longer constitute a form of captatio benevolentiae to attract the young into retrieving Romania’s history. What might be of interest could eventually be a historical, informative memory. (...) Why could we not have a memory that combines emotion and information – an ethical memory? Moral, but not justice-seeking: a healing memory”12.

Institutions that make and manage oral history and memory

20As making oral history in Romania has been, first of all, an issue of reconnecting and retrieval of the past, most of the initiatives focused at first on the creation of oral history archives. The time factor has been essential, favouring the gathering of valuable testimonies from the survivors of the regime before their passing.

21Gradually, an interest for the methodology of oral history and its association to historical writing developed. This eventually elicited the institutional and editorial mechanisms that led to the pursuit and practice of oral history not only as a method, but also as an academic discipline. Oral history provided not only the instruments to recover the recent past, but also an interpretation key to various archive documents that contained transcriptions of oral discourse.

22At Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj, the interest in oral history began as early as 1993-1994, with individual research projects materialized in academic theses. A couple of years later, The Oral History Institute was established here. It is one of the main actors, particularly with regards to the institutionalization of oral history and its introduction in the academic and school curriculum.

23Created in 1997 by professors Pompiliu Teodor and Doru Radosav, it benefits from a large archive of interviews, collected over the years during numerous campaigns. The testimonies are essentially connected to Romania’s recent past; the topics which the eyewitnesses and/or their descendants speak about eventually aim at the need of dealing with a traumatic past, whether it is anti-communist resistance, deportation of German ethnics, the fall of the communist regime and the 1989 revolution, the life of ethnic and religious minorities (the Roma people), the history of local communities, the Romanian exile or the ramifications of the Holocaust in Transylvania. During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, interviewing campaigns often went hand in hand with theoretical studies that allowed the alignment to foreign academic tendencies in oral history, their directions and guidelines, while at the same time striving to establish oral history as a proper field of study in Romanian academia.

  • 13 The content of the oral history discipline for the school curriculum is available at http://istorie (...)
  • 14 Developed between 2010 and 2013, the project “The past beneath us. The oral history of the local co (...)

24As for the institutionalization of oral history, 1997-1998 was the first academic year in which, at the efforts of the Oral History Institute, the Babeș-Bolyai University organized a Master’s Degree in History, Memory and Orality in the 20th Century. Other achievements were the introduction of oral history among the optional disciplines in the high school curriculum13, as well as organising oral history learning courses for secondary school teachers, through a vast project encompassing around 180 middle and high school educators throughout the country14.

25External collaborations of the Institute have so far included Indiana University Bloomington, the Karta Centre (Poland), The Teleki László Institute and the Oral History Archives in Budapest, The Institute for Economic and Social History at University of Vienna, and the University of Iceland. The institute houses an oral history archive of more than 1000 tapes which surpass 1500 hours of recorded interviews. Over the past decade, the analogue interviews taken in the 1990s and the early 2000s have been digitized and catalogued. Fragments from the oral history archive are available online, but the vast majority of the interviews can only be studied by researchers on the premises of the Institute.

26The Institute is also responsible for the publishing of the Oral History Institute Yearbook; which has already reached its 17th number. Exploring themes such as: biography and memory, social life – private life, armed anti-communist resistance, memory and collectivization, repression and persecution, war and memory, ethnic and religious minorities, methodological framework in oral history, the Yearbook gathers contributions from both Romanian and foreign researchers.

27In what concerns the methodology and theoretical framework, the Oral History Institute pursues historical research through the history lived by participants, as both alternative and complement to the grand narrative. The way members and collaborators of the Oral History Institute employ the discipline is similar to that of the French (Ph. Joutard, P. Nora, K. Pomian, J. Le Goff) and Italian schools (Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli) which focus on the role played by memory in the construction of present discourse about the past15.

  • 16 The project “An Untold Story. The History of the Roma People in Romania”, developed between 2014 an (...)

28Various oral history volumes were published based on the interviews, such as : Donbas – O istorie deportată (Donbas – A Deported History), 1994 (by Doru Radosav) ; Shoah în Transilvania de Nord (Shoah in Northern Transylvania : Depositions on Life and Death. An Oral History Research), 2010 (by Ioana Cosman) ; Rezistența anticomunistă din România : grupurile Teodor Șușman”, Capotă-Dejeu”, Cruce și Spadă” (The Anti-communist Resistance in Romania : groups “Teodor Șușman”, “Capotă-Dejeu”, “Cruce și Spadă” - 5 volumes comprising oral history studies and testimonies), 2002-2006 ; Sașii transilvăneni între statornicie și dezrădăcinare (Transylvanian Germans Between Rootedness and Rootlessness), 2006 (edited by Corneliu Gaiu and Valentin Orga) ; Colectivizarea agriculturii între istorie și memorie (The collectivization of agriculture, 2009-2010 – 3 volumes of transcribed interviews and oral history studies, by Livia Sicoe-Coroi) etc. A recently completed project of the institute implying extensive interviewing campaigns has been dedicated to the history of the Roma minority in Romania16, while the current research endeavours aim to provide the oral historian’s look at the socially controversial issue of gold mining in the Apuseni Mountains and to document professional monographies of golden mining in modern times with the help of oral history.

29The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance at Sighet is one of the famous and significant institutions that manage the memory of communism, having been born at the initiative of two writers, Ana Blandiana and Romulus Rusan. Made up of the Sighet Museum and the International Centre for Studies into Communism, based in Bucharest, the Memorial is unique in that it simultaneously encompasses the dimensions of research, museography and education. Since 1993, the Memorial has been one of the main actors that gave impulse to the recovery of recent collective memory, stimulating debate on important topics within the framework of symposia, seminars, workshops and round-table discussions that have gained international prestige.

30The Oral History Department17 of the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance at Sighet was founded in 1993 and aimed primarily at conserving recent memory through interviews with former political prisoners and people that had significant experiences during the communist regime. The department reached for young historians through visits in universities as well as organizing oral history workshops between 1996 and 2007. The main themes of research are the Romanian Gulag, the Pitești re-education phenomenon, the collectivization of agriculture, dissidents and opponents of the Ceaușescu regime, the Romanian Exile, family during communism, student movements, anti-communist resistance. The volume of the archive currently exceeds six thousand hours of interview.

31The Oral History Department at RADOR (the Romanian Radio Society) also dates from 1993, when Eugen Preda, at that time director of the Romanian Radio, established a centre for oral history in order to collect interviews and create a specialised archive as a resource for radio broadcasts and publications. The archive currently includes more than 2500 interviews addressing various research themes, such as: the Romanian army, history of the Romanian Air Force, political parties (the Legionary Movement, the Social Democrats), radio propaganda, history of the Romanian Radio Society, anti-communist resistance, Romanian prisoners in Soviet camps. The members of the Department collaborated and co-edited valuable volumes of oral history selections, such as : E un început în tot sfârşitul. Culegere selectivă din programele radiodifuzate în zilele de 17-25 decembrie 1989 (There is a beginning in every end. Selective radio broadcasts from 17-25 December 1989), 1998 ; Ţara, Legiunea, Căpitanul - mişcarea legionară în documente de istorie orală (The Country. The Legion. The Captain. The Legionary Movement in Oral History Documents), Humanitas, 2008 ; Radio-istorii 1928-194. Articole din publicaţii radiofonice şi mărturii de istorie orală păstrate în Arhivele Radio România (Radio-Histories 1928-1945), 2013. The Oral History Department also promotes excerpts from their interviews within their weekly oral history column18 on the web.

  • 19 Dana Chetrinescu, The Retrieval of Memory and Identity - Desiderata of a Community and Research Pro (...)

321993 also registered the birth of the Third Europe Foundation in Timișoara, an interdisciplinary research centre focused on the study of Central and East Europe. Made up of four study groups (the Cultural Studies Group, the Socio-Political Studies Group, the Anthropology – Oral History Group and the History Studies Group), the “Third Europe” attempts to focus on the evolution and interaction of Central and East European territories, multi-ethnic and multicultural by definition19.

33Of the four groups, the one centred on anthropological studies and oral history has been one of the most active. Coordinated by Smaranda Vultur, researcher and professor at the West University of Timișoara, the Anthropology - Oral History Group at the Foundation has run several extensive oral history projects connected to cultural, social and national identities. Selections of materials originating from their large oral history archive have been published in book form, in contributions such as: Istorie trăită, istorie povestită. Deportarea în Bărăgan 1951-1956 (Experienced History, Retold History. The Deportation to Bărăgan 1951-1956) (1997), Lumi în destine (Worlds in Destinies) (2000), Germanii din Banat (The Germans of Banat) (2000) and Memoria salvată - Evreii din Banat, ieri și azi (Rescued Memory – the Jews of Banat) (2002), Francezi în Banat, bănăţeni în Franţa (French People in Banat, Banat People in France) (2012), under the coordination of Smaranda Vultur.

34Among the academic promoters of oral history is also sociologist Zoltán Rostás from the University of Bucharest. His personal interest in oral history arose during the 1980s, in a time when the Romanian community was hearing of the new-born discipline of oral history during the International Congress of Historical Sciences held in Bucharest. Rostás independently collected the life stories of several Bucharest inter-war intellectuals during the late years of the Ceaușescu regime. His oral history dialogues, Chipurile orașului. Istorii de viață în București, secolul XX, (Avatars of the City. Life Stories in Bucharest) were published for the first time at the beginning of the 2000s.

35Since then, along with his students and collaborators he has coordinated volumes of oral history interviews mainly focused on social history, such as: Istorie la firul ierbii. Documente de istorie orală, (“Hedgehop” History. Oral History Documents), 2003 ; Tur-retur (Vol.I-II). Convorbiri despre munca în străinătate (Turn-Return. Dialogues on Working Abroad), 2006 ; Activiștii mărunți. Istorii de viață, (The Little Activists. Life stories), 2007 ; Bișnițari, descurcăreți, supraviețuitori, (Traffickers, Dealers, Survivors), 2013 ; (the former two in collaboration with Antonio Momoc) ; Tânăr student, caut revoluționar (Young Student, Searching for Revolutionary), 2011-2012 (with Florentina Țone).

36Apart from his oral history contributions, Rostás is also founder of the Cooperativa G(usti) community, a platform dedicated to the social history and oral history researches about the Sociological School of Bucharest. While their research directions generally focus on topics of social history topics, oral history is employed through its sociological value and used rather as a modern method for making social history.

37Institutions dedicated to the study of Romanian Communism, such as the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER) and the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives (CNSAS) have also initiated the establishment of oral history archives. The IICCMER has lead ample interview campaigns since 2006, gathering more than 190 interviews with former political prisoners and publishing six volumes of oral history interviews, a collection entitled Experiențe carcerale (Carceral experiences). The most recent project co-directed by the IICCMER collected oral history interviews from several dozen former political prisoners and their families. Currently the IICCMER oral history archive houses more than 500 interviews on different themes addressing the topic of communism, such as: political repression and experiences of detention, anti-communist resistance, private life during communism, transitional justice and so on; they are available for research in digital format (audio and/or video) at the IICCMER library.

38While IICCMER is an institute for history studies, the CNSAS is the institution that manages the archives of the former Romanian political police, the Securitate. Its oral history initiative is unique, as it possesses the chance of collecting the reactions of the former prisoners confronted with their individual files at the Securitate archives, as well as recording the experiences of those who suffered abuses due to the Securitate. The oral history department was inaugurated on March 1st 2010 and it currently encompasses more than 340 interviews with former political prisoners, dissidents and other personalities, along with the recordings of more than 350 scientific events, debates and conferences. The topics approached in the interviews include: childhood and youth during communism, political detention inside communist prisons, surveillance, repression and trauma, collaboration with the political police, communist propaganda, art; daily life in communism, minorities, deportation of the German ethnics, subversive communities and groups etc. The oral history archive of the CNSAS may be studied by researchers with the approval of the institution.

39As for private initiatives concerning the development of oral history, we note the digital library, part of a larger recent history project created by the website and operated by the Aspera Foundation20. It represents a digital library of interviews, memoirs, oral history studies, books and images of Romania’s recent history, which present political, social and cultural events as reflected in the consciousness of those who experienced them directly21. Its large database gathers selections of interviews originating from the Third Europe Foundation oral history archive, as well as interviews taken at the initiative of the Aspera Foundation or its collaborators. The platform benefits from numerous resources varying from diaries, studies and articles to excerpts of oral history transcripts.

40Apart from the institutions mentioned above, there are also independent or non-affiliated initiatives of research and making oral history that belong not only to historians, sociologists, ethnographers or anthropologists who develop their own research projects, but also to passionate people who seek the truth about communism in the form of oral history.


41Oral history in Romania has remained inherently connected to the memory of communism; what shifted over the years was not only the paradigm, but also the focus groups of the interviewers, who managed to bring into attention the voices of extremely different categories of witnesses who shared their untold stories. Oral history offers access to the historical reconstruction of the past lived by certain social groups which had been excluded from the history reconstructed solely on the basis of written sources, because “within the hegemonic, metanarrative historiographical discourse memory induces particularity and diversity” (Doru Radosav).

42As a deposition in the (symbolic) trial of communism, oral history continues to unveil the abuses of the regime, to speak about the repressors, the abuses, the tortures, and the inhumanity of the regime. As an „alternative” history, it delivers the stories of individuals as opposed to the official narrative delivered by the state. As a primary source regarding Romania’s recent history, it successfully contributes to the reconstruction of past events, and it brings forth the voices of the minorities and vulnerable groups. As a social bond, it does not fail in connecting different generations, while building a bridge towards understanding and confirming the stories of our elders.

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1 Doru Radosav, Editorial, in Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Orală (The Oral History Institute Yearbook), volume IV, 2003, Cluj-Napoca, Presa Universitară Clujeană.

2 Ibidem.

3 Ibidem.

4 Doru Radosav, Istoria din memorie. Încercări de istorie orală, Cluj-Napoca/Gatineau, Symphologic Publishing, 2016, p. 251.

5 An official Presidential Report on the crimes of communism was put together as late as 2007. As for actual court justice, so far only two former tortionaries (and members of prisons’ management, Alexandru Vișinescu and Ioan Ficior) have faced trial and sentencing, in 2016 and 2017. The frustration over the inexistence or improperness of a “trial of communism” is, thus, more than understandable.

6 Doru Radosav, De la mărturia orală la depoziție (From Oral Testimony to Deposition. Two modalities for assumption of the past), in Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Orală (The Oral History Institute Yearbook), volume X, 2008, Cluj-Napoca, Presa Universitară Clujeană, p. 8.

7 Ibidem, p. 10.

8 Ibidem, pp. 9-10.

9 Ibidem, p. 9.

10 Ibidem, p. 8.

11 Author, writer and researcher of mentalities, the imaginary and representations of the Romanian Gulag.

12 Ruxandra Cesereanu, Etică și memorie, in Anuarul Institutului de Istorie Orală (The Oral History Institute Yearbook), volume X, 2008, Cluj-Napoca, Presa Universitară Clujeană, pp. 45-46. Transladed by the author.

13 The content of the oral history discipline for the school curriculum is available at, accessed 16.11.2017.

14 Developed between 2010 and 2013, the project “The past beneath us. The oral history of the local community” led to the implementation within local communities of oral history projects initiated by secondary education students and their teachers, with an increase in civic implication and improvement of the intergenerational communication.

15, accessed 20.11.2017.

16 The project “An Untold Story. The History of the Roma People in Romania”, developed between 2014 and 2017.

17, accessed 15.01.2016.

18, accessed 20.11.2017.

19 Dana Chetrinescu, The Retrieval of Memory and Identity - Desiderata of a Community and Research Project Apud, accessed 20.01.2016.

20 The Aspera Romanian Educational and Charitable Foundation, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit private foundation.

21 accessed 15.01.2016.

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Ioana Ursu, « Two Decades of Making Oral History in Romania », Bulletin de l'AFAS [En ligne], 45 | 2019, mis en ligne le 26 mars 2019, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/afas.3318

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Ioana Ursu

Ph. D. student, Babeș-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca

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Bulletin de l'AFAS. Sonorités

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