I was six- years-old, growing up in Bucharest, Romania, when I was denounced as a public menace. Mariana, who lived next door, was the first to jump on the bandwagon. Her parents were communist party officials. Until that moment, I didn’t know why we were hiding at my grandparents’ house and everyone spoke in whispers, or where the loud-voiced-men took my father the night he disappeared.
It was the first snowfall and I finally convinced my grandmother to let me join the kids I saw making a snowman outside of my window. I ran to them carrying a broom for his hand. Suddenly, Mariana shouted something to the others; her words flew in the air, the broom got hurled back at me, the kids pelted me with snowballs and yelled: “Your father’s in jail! Your father’s a criminal! Little criminal! Go away!”
Having grown up in a police state, I don’t take my American civil liberties for granted. A survivor of political persecution, I cherish the presumption of innocence above all. My mother, Regina Abramovici, and her family survived the Holocaust in Romania. Religion was banned by the communist government; anti-Semitism was against official policy, but my mother told me from a young age not to tell anyone I was Jewish. Although Russian troops saved the Jews of her home-town, Braila, before the Nazis fully implemented the final solution, Regina, age 9, was denounced by a neighbor for breaking the law forbidding Romania’s “dirty-Jew-enemies” from bathing in the Danube and almost ended up in a concentration camp.
I cannot forget the history of false accusations against my people that led to pogroms and genocide.
There was no presumption of innocence, no due process and no equality under the law in communist Romania. Like in all totalitarian systems, the regime cultivated an environment of suspicion, accusation and investigation. Denunciation bandwagons were effective means of dividing people and turning them against each other, transforming friends, spouses, relatives, colleagues, neighbors, lovers, and even children into enemies, rivals and informers.
As a young actor in Bucharest after World War II, my mother joined the Young Communist League. Soon, she had to participate in “verification committees” that taught her first hand how the denunciation process worked. “We sat behind a long wooden table,” she recounted. “The actor to be verified was forced to sit for hours and answer questions the verifiers shot at him or her like bullets.” Everyone had copies of files filled with information about the actor’s background, parents, grandparents, friends, lovers, as well as actions, opinions, activities, habits, weaknesses, vices and mistakes. “I was shocked to see George Braca, the greatest actor in Romania, sit in the hard chair. The deep voice that had performed in Hamlet and Othello and Lear now stuttered and stumbled over an incoherent string of sounds. I felt tears rolling down my cheek and pretended to look through the files to avoid his glance. I realized that the stronger members of our theatre were discarding the weaker ones like used, dirty rags. “
My father, General Ion Eremia, once a Marxist idealist who rose to the position of Vice-Minister of Defense, was denounced by his older brother, Gica, for writing a political satire about the abuses of communism and trying to smuggle the manuscript abroad. The smuggler, a sea captain, was Gica’s childhood friend from their beloved Constanza, a port on the Black Sea where the boys grew up. The captain denounced Gica, who, in turn, denounced my father in order to get a lighter sentence. My father refused to denounce anyone, or admit he had committed a crime, or apologize for his acts. Consequently, he was sentenced, in 1959, by “the people’s tribunal” to twenty-five years in prison as a traitor to his party and an enemy of the people. My mother refused to denounce my father. She was never allowed to appear on stage again. My brother and I were persecuted in school as the children of a political dissident.
Almost every prisoner my father met during his first year at hard labor was a victim of denunciation. At the Jilava prison, my father befriended a gifted young pianist, winner of international competitions, who cared nothing about politics but was denounced, in a fit of rage, by his jealous fiancée. She had witnessed a conversation among his circle of friends that ridiculed their communist leaders. The secret police arrested everyone. Unlike the others, the pianist hadn’t said anything and refused to confess, so he earned the longest sentence of all for trying to “lead inquiry and justice into error.”
My father’s loyalty to his new friend earned him an even harsher sentence than his original offense. When a savage guard tried to crush the pianist’s cherished hands, my father rose to his defense, leading other cellmates to shout: “Don’t hit him!” As punishment, my father was transferred to the formidable Ramnicu Sarat prison, the worst dungeon in Romania, where he was doomed to spend his remaining twenty-four years in solitary confinement.
The pianist’s story came to my mind last Sunday, when I got into a heated argument with two women friends I have known since junior high (when my mother, brother and I emigrated to San Francisco). We were celebrating our birthdays after not having seen each other for some time. Then, I made the mistake of bringing up politics. Our pleasant conversation descended into a shouting match.
I told them I felt that the sexual misconduct allegation against Brett Kavanaugh had not been sufficiently corroborated by evidence, and I agreed with Susan Collins’ key argument in defense of her vote: “That such an allegation can find its way into the Supreme Court confirmation process is a stark reminder about why the presumption of innocence is so ingrained in our American consciousness.”
“You are a traitor to women!” my friends shouted.
I am just as much of a feminist as they are, and I defended myself. (I wrote my doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf, for heaven’s sake!) “No cause is greater than the inalienable rights of the individual,” I argued. “We are all innocent until proven guilty.”
Neither of my former classmates saw this. My friends thought that this concept of innocence until proven guilty did not necessarily apply to allegations of sexual misconduct made by a woman against a man. They felt that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s personal testimony was enough to prove the truth.
So did the thousands of women jumping on the Senator Collins denunciation bandwagon chanting, “Gender Traitor!” So did the Facebook employees who, the previous week, denounced their colleague Joel Caplan for attending the hearing of an enemy of womankind, even if he did happen to be the traitor’s personal friend. And so did Senator Lisa Murkowski, who stated that “Brett Kavanaugh’s a good man,” but “the issues we are dealing with right now are bigger than the nominee.”
Perhaps you have to be a survivor of totalitarian oppression to understand that no issue is bigger in a society than the right of an individual to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. As De Tocqueville points out in “Democracy in America,” the causes in the name of which individual rights have been trampled have always sounded glorious — i.e., “liberty, equality, fraternity.” “Despotism,” the survivor of the Reign of Terror writes, “always presents itself as the repairer of all the ills suffered, the supporter of just rights, defender of the oppressed.”
Those who argue that “women are more important than the presumption of innocence” should listen to the memories of Nien Cheng, author of “Life and Death in Shanghai,” imprisoned and psychologically tortured during the Chinese Cultural Revolution for being a “capitalist,” whose beautiful only-daughter, Meiping, was beaten to death by a group of colleagues and friends. Or hear the family history of Jian Chang, author of “Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China,” whose father, a former dedicated communist like mine, was tortured by the Red Guards for criticizing Mao until he was utterly destroyed. Or read the poems of survivor of Stalinist terror Anna Akhmatova, who recounts the mood in a courtroom where the presumption of innocence does not exist: “The Verdict. Immediately a Flood of Tears/Followed by a total isolation/As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out …”
In this era of trial by social media, when murderous accusations can spread from one person to millions in a tweet, the presumption of innocence as a core American value should not be degraded. Before jumping on a denunciation bandwagon, we might remember that each of us have a daily obligation as human beings to sow harmony, not enmity, between our fellows.