What I Learned About My Father from Reading His Secret Police Files
My father, a Romanian theatre director, was considered a threat to the communist regime of his time.
This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
During the communist dictatorship in Romania, a lot of people willingly became informants for Securitate—the Romanian secret police, which was one of the largest secret police forces in Eastern Europe. At one point it had half a million informants in a country of 22 million at the time. Securitate had secret files on many of our parents. My father, Alexandru Tocilescu—also known as Toca—was a theatre director from around 1973 until his death in 2011. The file they had on him was extensive.
My dad got to read his own file back in 2008. In order to become a member of the Romanian Association of Theatre Artists, he needed an official confirmation from the state that he had not been an agent of the secret police. When he made the request for this confirmation, he was invited to go and see the information Securitate had on him for himself.
He told me about some of it—about who he thought the snitches were, about how he had known about them even back then, and about why he didn't resent them for it. He hadn't been shocked by sheer amount of information they had on him—but he had been shocked by how mundane it all was.
For instance, he told me that there was a copy of a postcard in his file. "We're in Rome. It's gorgeous. Kisses," it wrote. Or a note listing the contents of a package from my uncle, who lived in Germany: "2 pairs women's stockings. 2 packs of sausages. 3 packs of Maoam chewing gum. 2 Toblerone chocolate bars. 1 bottle Multi-Sanostol".
I wanted to see all that for myself, so I made a request. I was at work one morning, when an unknown number rang me. "Mr. Tocilescu?" asked a friendly female voice. "Yes," I said. "This is the National Council for the Study of Secret Police Archives. You've asked to see your father's file. I'd like to inform you that it will be at your disposal at our headquarters, next Wednesday, from 9 AM," she said.
That morning, I entered a reading room filled with files scattered around tables and I was told that I wasn't allowed to take pictures with my phone. I decided to write down whatever I found important or funny. A man handed me the documents—the first folder had "Traian" written on it with capital letters and green felt pen. That was my dad's code name—I have no idea why. Here's what I found out:
MY DAD WAS A COMMUTER, WHICH WAS BAD
The year is 1973 and my dad is a fresh-faced university graduate in the Romanian city of Brăila, where he is directing a production of August Strindberg's Swanewit. A note from a nameless informant indicates that my dad doesn't live in Brăila—where he'd been assigned by the communist government—but was actually commuting between Brăila and Bucharest. It mentions that he doesn't entertain much of a relationship with his fellow workers, and that the manager of the theatre where Swanewit ran asked him to stop commuting – which he ignored.
Another note says that his brother lives in Germany, where he fled to in 1967. It also reveals my dad's family situation: father, Alexandru, former Railroad Company doctor, now retired. Mother, Elena, also retired.
MY DAD DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE CIVIC DUTIES OF THE WORKING CLASS
Following the success of Swanewit, my dad lands in the city of Pitești, where he puts on a Japanese play. He then goes to Piatra Neamț, where he stages The Merry Wives of Windsor—another success. A rat reports:
"His ideas are generally very modernist, influenced by the West. This is reflected in the hippie way he dresses and presents himself (long hair, beard, beads, bracelets, amulets, flared jeans, brightly coloured shirts, etc.)"
With the growing success of my father's shows, the number of informants also grows. Some of them are close friends who tell on him because certain circumstances force them to, and never say anything bad about him. Others are extras or members of the theatre's technical staff.
"He lacks respect and politeness in his communication with people, drinks a lot—if possible on other people's tabs—and only cares about himself," someone notes.
"He doesn't understand, or refuses to understand the civic duties of each member of the working class," someone else explains. A summary of the secret police officer who has been assigned the file states:
"Tocilescu Al. has had an Information and Investigation File opened in his name and has been noted as acting with enmity."
Toca goes on to stage more plays at several Bucharest theatres: Ion Vasilescu, Giulești and Comedy. They are modern, contemporary plays that subtly criticise those in power at the time.
That's when his struggles with censorship begin, according to the second file. It contains the transcripts of several intercepted phone calls, which show him asking people to intervene with the censors at the Ministry of Culture, or to complain to their supervisors. He gets vague answers and there are more calls—a fierce battle over a costume detail, the colour of a suitcase, the tone of a line, the use of a prop, the hairstyle of an actor. There is frustration, there are arguments and explanations.
At the same time, the notes on my dad go on: "other than that, same as always: vulgar, sarcastic, spews obscenities with every mention of the state's leadership, the ministry of his field, etc."
A neighbour informs: "At home, the subject under investigation is well-known for the frequent noisy parties he hosts, which bother those around him and which bereave him of positive assessments." Mr. Cilianu lived above us and hated my dad's guts.
SOME OF THE INFORMANTS DID NOT UNDERSTAND THEATRE VERY WELL
Around that time—I think it was 1982—my parents apply for a visa to go see my uncle in Germany. The answer comes back negative. A set of passport photos were removed from an envelope my dad sent my uncle. Toca moves to the Bulandra theater in Bucharest. It's interesting to see that most of the informants who report on my father did find him exceptionally talented—if not the best in his generation.
There is no end to the information on my father: He came to rehearsals reeking of alcohol!; He uses foul language!; He yells at the actors!; He drinks during rehearsals!; The theatre's agent from Securitate complains to theatre manager Ion Besoiu that Tocilescu is an undesirable element, but Besoiu tells him to mind his own business. The agent complains again, Besoiu ignores him again.
A note mentions that Toca has befriended folk singer Florian Pittiș, who wears T-shirts with foreign band logos like "The Beatels" (sic) and is followed by several female fans "aged 14 to 15" on his tours around the country.
In another note, an informant complains that after having rehearsed for Molière's Tartuffe for nine months, Toca has started working on Mikhail Bulgakov's The Cabal of Hypocrites—a play about Molière having written Tartuffe. The informant concludes from this that Toca is unable to finish anything. Toca's explanation—that the two plays will be performed on consecutive nights, somehow making up a whole – makes no sense to the informant: "If a play is ready, you go to opening night and then start working on the next one."
The informant is happy to report that rehearsals are going poorly and that Toca isn't getting along with some of the actors. He's actually triumphant when, on one morning in winter, Toca calls the theatre to let them know he's not coming in for rehearsals because the room is too cold. The actors, who are already there, get upset. Toca doesn't care that they're upset. He says he's not coming in to the theatre until it's warm. In all fairness: the heaters aren't working because they've cracked from the cold. Eventually, two guys in the technical staff steal a working heater for the theatre and Toca makes up with his team. Life goes on.
MY FAMILY APPARENTLY FELT THE SYSTEM WASN'T GOOD ENOUGH FOR US
Our phone was under surveillance and all of our phone conversations were written down. The most boring and mundane things appear on record:
"12/09/82, 18:22 hours.
Called by 123454, friend Denis says hello to little Alex (kindergarten), then talks with Valeria. He lets her know he's moved to Romană Square the previous day and tells her his new phone number. Valeria writes it down. She says Toca (husband) is not home. She and Alex might stop by later."
In 1983, Toca is invited to direct the play Titanic Waltz in Budapest. After applying multiple times for a visa to go to Hungary, he's allowed to go. My mother asks to be allowed to visit him and take me along. A note from an informant warns that the Tocilescus "are a wild family, from all points of view. In private circles, they make all sorts of jokes about the party, about our socialist order. Nothing is good enough for them anymore, it's all lies and unfairness". My mum and I are not given permission to visit my dad in Hungary.
When my dad returns, the company at Bulandra is assigned the task of producing a patriotic show to celebrate X years of one of Communism's many triumphs. But there's a small mutiny during a Workers' Council meeting: Toca, actor Victor Rebengiuc and some others don't want to get the Bulandra theatre involved in something like this. Another actor, Marcel Iureș, states he won't recite any patriotic poems. The staff basically refuses to pay homage to the socialist order, and manager Ion Besoiu doesn't waste his breath trying to convince them to act otherwise – or so the informant insinuates.
A year later, Toca is directing Hamlet. There are tons of notes on this period: Tocilescu and the actors are putting on a show that's hitting a little too close to home, it's too clearly making a statement against the system. Some of the cast think the text has been modified too much and Rebengiuc abandons the part of Claudius because he doesn't like the changes to the text. The notes underline that Tocilescu is losing the actors' trust—but of course, the show eventually ends up being a huge hit. You can't really censor Shakespeare, after all.
WHEN YOU TURN A STAGE INTO A CHURCH, NO ONE NOTICES
Toca requests permission to visit my uncle again—he's turned down again. He gets upset, argues, pressures. A good friend writes, as an informant, that he doesn't think Toca would remain in Germany if he'd visit: Because he'd miss the theatre in Romania too much, because it would be far harder for him to become a star over there, because he cares too much about his circle of friends and acquaintances to leave them. The friend thinks he should be allowed to make the journey. The Romanian government says no.
Toca writes a letter to a cousin in Paris, who had also invited him to come over. In the letter, he explains how much he misses news of what's going on in the world of western theatre. He has no access to articles, essays, interviews—all he occasionally gets to see are pictures of a set or some costumes. But the ideas never reach him, never reach us, in Romania. A copy of the letter is filed neatly to his folder.
Toca stays in Romania. The phone keeps being tapped, one call after the other, one mundane thing after another. Toca directs Io Mircea Voievod, a historic play by Dan Tărchilă. He doesn't change the text, doesn't insert any mean remarks, doesn't criticise anything. The only rather unusual thing is that the set is made up of stained glass portraits of Romanian princes. He virtually turns the set into a church. At that time religion was officially forbidden but unofficially tolerated by the government. Using images of sanctified princess at a State-owned theatre was an affront to the regime but tired or careless, the censors choose to ignore this small detail.
AND LIKE THAT, YOU CAN CLOSE AN INVESTIGATION OF YEARS
There isn't much more to the file. At some point, a secret police officer suggests that they should cease investigating this director, because he seems to have cleaned up his act. Or maybe it dawns on someone that there isn't much damage a theatre director can do. His plays are stuck here, between the borders of his country. Let Romanians watch them, hear some subversive messages and laugh. What difference do 400, 500, 5,000 people make? They can't go anywhere, can't tell anyone anyway. So what if he's being a bit subversive? What is he going to change with that attitude? Nothing. The investigation closes in the spring of 1987.
I closed the files and returned them to the gentleman who brought them to me. He asked me if I wanted any photocopies. I didn't. My dad didn't want them either. I left the building and headed towards Unirii Square in the rain.
I was left with Toca in 1987, seen through the eyes of informants like Bernardo, Georgescu, Valentina, Constantinescu and Iosif—people who thought that the regime would never fall and so they tried to build a life in it.
They were wrong.