I'm alive because of a dictator's ego and my family's clever thinking | KUOW News and Information

I'm alive because of a dictator's ego and my family's clever thinking

Jul 2, 2016

When I was growing up, I always had a vague idea of where he had come from. But as I got older and was able to understand more, I realized that my dad's story was absolutely incredible.


My dad's father, my grandfather, was a spy for the Romanian government. In the beginning my grandparents had been supporters of communism. During the 1950s, they even spent time overseas because of my grandfather's work for the government. But when they returned to Romania, they realized that the reality of communism had changed from their dreams.

Food had become scarce – once, a small shipment of bananas came into the country, and people needed instructions on how to eat them, because they had never seen a banana before. 

Experiences like these soured my grandparents on Romania. Leaving the country was harder than they expected, however. Romanian citizens had to apply to the government to leave the country. But these applications were usually denied or indefinitely pending. This is what happened my dad and his family. My dad says they were stuck in Romania for eight years.

"That's a long time. A huge time part of my growing up," he told me. "That actually was the equivalent of half of our lives in which we were trying to leave the country."

Alec Vianu with his mother and brother.
Credit Courtesy of Jad Vianu

As the years went by, the political climate in Romania worsened. My grandfather, who worked as the editor of an architecture magazine, and my grandmother, who worked as a journalist, were both fired from their jobs. They were forced to take low paying jobs as translators to make ends meet.

Also, remember how my grandfather was a spy? My grandfather's work in the intelligence service meant he knew lots of government secrets. My father said this did not bode well for the family.

"The chief of intelligence services in Romania said that he would not allow them to leave," my father said. "He said it would be like exporting their files to the West."

So my grandparents began to brainstorm ways to bypass that decision.

There were only a few people in Romania with more power then the head of intelligence, so he decided to appeal to the head of the country itself, Nicolae Ceaușescu.

Ceaușescu was an eccentric figure known for poring over newspaper accounts of his life – no matter how trivial.

"My father knew, I'm not sure how, that due to the cult of personality and the huge ego that Ceaușescu had, that he loved to start his days by having any article written about him in a positive manner, anywhere in the world, translated and waiting on his desk," my father said. 

Knowing this, my grandparents planned their escape. They wrote the president a letter telling him that he was the soul of the Romanian people and asking to be released from the country. The letter used phrases taken from Ceaușescu's own speeches, saying that he "understood the voice of the Romanian people."

My grandfather then sent the letter to a prominent German newspaper and it was published. This was a risky maneuver for a number of reasons. Mainly because the Romanian government did not take kindly to its citizens contacting the foreign press. My dad told me that one of two things could happen:

"Once the president reads it, will he fall prey to his weakness for his ego and say, 'Oh, they say great things about me, so they may be nice people, maybe I should just let them go?' Or will he be really upset and send us to camps?"

Labor camps were a common form of punishment in that era. Faced with this uncertainty they waited. My dad remembers the day his family got the news.

"Saturday morning, two days after this got published, we got a call about 8 in the morning that our passports were ready."

Their quest for freedom was finally over. But the eight years spent waiting had taken their toll on my dad. 

"Psychologically, we created a barrier," he told me, an emotional bridge between their family and the rest of the population. Now my dad was left wondering. "Now what's going to happen? Who am I going to be now?"

His family moved to Israel for a while, and then to the United States where they have been for the last 30 years.

So where does that leave me? I am alive because of a dictator's ego and my family's clever thinking. I choose to think of this story as motivation. If my family can escape a communist dictatorship, then why can't I do what I set my mind to?

This story was created in RadioActive Youth Media's Spring 2016 Workshop for high school students at the Southwest Branch of the Seattle Public Library.  Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.