Last week a team of archeologists exhumed the remains of my great uncle, a dissident murdered by Communist police in Romania on Christmas Day.
Alecsa Bel was born in 1897, in a small village in northern Transylvania. A member of the Romanian Liberal Party, he was elected mayor of his native village in 1940 and served for six years. As the Communists gained ground in postwar Romania, Bel often criticized the regime and rallied people to fight against the collectivization of farmland and other private property.
That attracted the attention of local authorities, and he was charged with spreading anti-patriotic rumors, such as the hopeful postwar slogan, "the Americans are coming to save us."
Communists also charged him with misrepresenting grain quantities to cheat the state in the 1948 harvest. Bel, a respected community leader, was a well-to-do landowner who had been labeled as "anti-proletarian."
Aware of his imminent arrest, Bel left his home in the fall of 1948, hiding in neighboring forests and villages for more than a year. The secret police spent months looking for him as neighbors took turns giving him shelter and food.
A military tribunal tried him in absentia and sentenced him to one year in jail and a fine. But Bel refused to surrender and continued to hide, hoping the tide would turn and the country would return to the immature but promising democracy it had glimpsed between the two world wars. He had a gun for self-defense, but never used it, according to historians and witnesses.
Police captured Bel on Dec. 24, 1949, in his own house. The next day a major ordered him executed, without trial or the right to appeal.
Six officers shot Bel in his back yard on Christmas Day 1949. As he lay on the ground, covered in blood, one officer fired a last, lethal bullet. Then the policemen entered the house and told Bel's wife, "Come, you lazy sow, and pick up your pig from the garden. We have taken care of him."
The police forced the family to bury Bel the same day, behind his home, a few feet away from the house where my mother grew up.
The Romanian institute in charge of investigating Communist crimes partnered with the National Museum of Transylvanian History last week to study the circumstances surrounding Bel's death and honor his memory.
Scientists supervising the exhumation said they hoped their work would remind people about the sacrifice of victims of political murder. They said it was their way to fight "collective amnesia."
Bel's story is not one of a kind. It is the story of many other dissidents hiding in the forests of Eastern Europe before they met their end in bloody snow. It is the story of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who died at the hands of Franco's regime. Of anyone who rebelled against the establishment, especially when most people saw no option but to become part of it.
As an Eastern European, I used to think disobedience is ingrained in our DNA. I would joke with my Romanian-American friends about our children's innate unruliness. These kids don't get in a row. They can't be sleep-trained. They get kicked out of daycare and kindergarten.
I used to think we adjust so well to life in the United States because this is a nation sprung out of seeds of rebellion.
But given recent developments in American history, I worry the don't-take-it-lying-down attitude may have migrated to another continent. (Continued...)