Zoltán Rostás Oral History Private Collection
București Strada Valea Argeșului 20, Romania 061936
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Name of collection
- Zoltán Rostás Oral History Private Collection
Provenance and cultural activities
The UHER tape recorder may be considered the piece that opens the collection. It is a recording device that initially belonged to the editorial office of the Bucharest cultural magazine A Hét (The week), where Zoltán Rostás was social science editor between 1977 and 1992. On it were recorded hundreds of tapes of oral history testimonies, which are basically what the Zoltán Rostás private collection consists of. The beginnings of this collection are connected to the World Congress of Historians, which took place in 1980 in Bucharest. The communist regime in Bucharest linked this event to the “festivism” characteristic of the Ceauşescu period, which made use of the historical past as a fundamental component of the personality cult. In that year, it was decided politically that the 2,050th anniversary of the foundation of the Dacian state should be celebrated, in order to highlight the fundamental ideas of the official historical narrative of the Ceauşescu period, especially the continuity of habitation and historical preeminence of the Romanians in comparison to other ethnic groups in the whole territory of present-day Romanian. The aim, officially undeclared, was to counter the Hungarian historical narrative, which emphasised the settlement of the Magyars in the Carpathian basin before the other ethnic communities in the region, in order to justify – inter alia – the historical ascendancy of the Hungarians over the Romanians in Transylvania on the basis of the same argument of the first to arrive. Ironically, it was precisely the megalomania of the Ceauşescu regime, due to which the congress had been organised, that produced the circumstances that led Zoltán Rostás to found his collection of oral history.
At the congress, the historians of communist Romania had the occasion to meet a significant number of Western professionals and to come in contact with the results of their research. In a period in which the scholarly world of Romania was practically functioning in isolation as a result of the cultural policy of the Ceauşescu regime, which almost completely forbade professional contacts or the circulation of international publications, this event provided a unique chance to make contact with developments in the discipline of history outside Romania. Zoltán Rostás attended the congress primarily for the purpose of interviewing some of the participants for the magazine at which he worked, but this also gave him the opportunity to take part in a section of the congress devoted to oral history, at the time a relatively new method of investigation, and one that in Romania was completely unknown. This gave him the idea of trying out this research method for himself, as he had sufficient free time apart from his professional duties at the magazine. As he himself says, one only needed three things in order to carry out interviews: time, a large number of tapes, and a small number of questions (so as to let the interlocutor speak). The result in the long term was the formation of his oral history collection. As he himself puts it, Zoltán Rostás was not aware, when he started upon this unusual activity in communist Romania, that he was doing something that called for courage, only that he had embarked upon an intellectual project that would be interesting and useful as a way of bringing new material to enrich the documentary resources for social history. Zoltán Rostás was perfectly aware that he could not publish the oral history interviews that he intended to carry out, because the themes that interested him did not suit the official ideas. At the same time, oral history was not explicitly forbidden, which meant that his activity could be classed among those tolerated by the regime, at least as long as it remained a largely private venture. It was only in a volume of methodological studies entitled Semnificația documentelor sociale (The significance of social documents), coordinated by Septimiu Chelciu and published in 1985, that Zoltán Rostás was able to publish his study ”Documentele sociale și istoria orală” (Social documents and oral history), which was in fact the first academic paper to be published in Romania about the theory and methodology of this sort of interview. The long-term result was that, while oral history remained uninstitutionalised until the fall of communism, Zoltán Rostás laid the foundations of this discipline in Romania through his personal, unofficial activity. Only after the fall of communism, which no one anticipated in the early 1980s, was he able to publish the interviews he had collected and to initiate the carrying out of oral history interviews in the various faculties in which he taught sociology, above all in the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Studies of the University of Bucharest, where he has taught since 1991.
The Zoltán Rostás private oral history collection was started in 1981 with a first set of dialogues documenting the multicultural character of the city of Bucharest, which the communist regime was in the process of completely destroying. “Being from the provinces [from Transylvania], I had lived in a world in which what we now call multiculturality was made up of three, or at the most four ethnic groups. When I came to Bucharest and started to explore, I was astonished at how great, how wide was the multicultural dimension here. Because in Bucharest there were far more than three or four ethnic groups,” says Zoltán Rostás regarding the personal context that stimulated this extensive research project, which materialised in the collection of numerous oral history testimonies. He underlines that his project of recovering the plural dimension of Bucharest did not, at first, have an explicit reference to what is called “multiculturality”: “Nowadays we call it ‘multiculturalism.’ Then, before 1989, for me, what I was doing was research in urban anthropology. This type of study did not have the resonance that it has today, and still less did it have any political content. In sociology they were already working with that concept – ‘melting pot.’ And my research project in fact revolved around this concept; it was part of an approach that sought to bring to light this mix of ethnicities and cultures. I said to myself: Any great capital has a multitude of cultures; consequently, this must be the case of Bucharest. […] They were not necessarily organised cultures. […] They were cultures that existed in a sort of ‘parallel city,’ mixed with each other, with a marginal status in those days.”
Although this first theme with which he began his research based on oral history did not constitute an open act of opposition, it implicitly came in conflict with the official vision of society of the communist regime through the mere fact that it highlighted the failure of the project of social and cultural homogenisation. Despite official speeches, which repeatedly underlined that in Romania there were “Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, and other nationalities,” no further interest was shown in recording, still less preserving, cultural differences in communist Romania. Belonging to another ethnic group was a personal matter, not a public one. In other words, the subject of cultural diversity was avoided, and in time it became completely taboo, after radio and television programmes in other languages had been eliminated or marginalised. Through his interviews Zoltán Rostás sought to discover the marginal existence of the various ethnic groups, some of which were not even mentioned in public discourse. The mere survival of these collective identities demonstrated the failure of the official policy of erasing cultural differences. As he himself says: “As regards the marginality of these cultures that I dealt with: all the time, the Party had a strategy of social, political, economic, and cultural homogenisation of the whole nation. But I, on the other hand, was already aware in the 1980s that there is a social self-regulation that keeps going on regardless of ideological-political challenges. In social history it’s called ‘longue durée’ – looking at things in a broader temporal perspective.”
In the first year, 1981, and the year after, the Zoltán Rostás private collection was enriched with approximately fifteen in-depth interviews per year. In the following years, the number of interviews grew, reaching twenty to thirty per year, with a broader thematic range than the exploration of the multicultural dimension of the Romanian capital. “I was seeking to enter into everyday life, to get down to the techniques of survival in those times, what their choices in life were, what the ideals of those people were. Themes of this sort, not directly political. We have a very ideologised image of the past. What I was trying to do was to keep as great a distance as possible from ideology. The questions that would have got us onto ideological options didn’t interest me. As for political themes, I knew very well that if they were important in the life of the person I was talking with, they would come to light one way or another,” says Zoltán Rostás of the sort of project that he carried out, which has remained imprinted on the tape recordings that accumulated in his private collection. As he himself puts it, his principal interest was not the study of communism, but of the various cultural groups, and oral history was used as a method of studying social history, of offering a perspective on society from the bottom up.
Included in this research project were some dozens of interviews with Romanians, Greeks, Armenians, Aromanians, Jews, Germans, Hungarians, Turks, Tatars, Russians, Czechs, and Macedonians. “With Gypsies, I never managed to make recordings. They fled from the tape recorder. I didn’t manage with Bulgarians either; they considered themselves Romanians who spoke Bulgarian at home, and refused the identity of Bulgarian minority. Some fled from the tape recorder; others fled from their ethnic identity. To be clear: why I divided my subjects by categories, by cultures, is that I was thinking of culture as something that is not only ethnic but also social,” adds Zoltán Rostás to his account of the sample that he followed throughout his oral history project dedicated to the city of Bucharest.
Overall, Zoltán Rostás did not have a well-established research programme, concentrated solely on a certain theme, because he was doing this activity, as he himself repeatedly confesses, as a hobby, not as a profession. His project of recovering these personal stories did not arise from the wish to publish something on a particular theme, because he did not see this as possible as long as the communist regime was in power. In other words, Zoltán Rostás’s interest in carrying out these interviews arose from pure intellectual curiosity. “The idea was to enter in great detail into the lives of people – as deeply as they would allow. To bring to light as many relevant details. It’s interesting that when you ask questions about details, very often you can hear stories that you never even suspected. I wanted to unravel the life of somebody, of some person or other, beyond one ideology or another, beyond politics. I didn’t give greater or lesser importance to one aspect of somebody’s life than to another. Everything, in fact, was important. That is how I would sum up in one sentence what I did with these interviews: everything was important!”
Starting from the middle of the 1980s, alongside the interviews documenting “multicultural Bucharest,” Zoltán Rostás embarked on another oral history project, which sought to highlight the multi-faceted character of the most articulated Romanian school of sociology, the so-called “monographic school of Bucharest,” founded by Dimitrie Gusti, an influential intellectual figure of interwar Romania. This resulted in dozens of interviews, recorded on a good few dozen more tapes, which are to be found in Zoltán Rostás’s private archive. This project of recovering memory was of special importance and had an implicit political connotation, inasmuch as sociology as an academic discipline had been one of the victims of the communist regime, while the majority of members of the school of Bucharest had suffered during the period of repression, some of them even losing their lives in prison. Sociology had in fact been abolished as a discipline of study in the universities of communist Romania starting from 1948. In 1965 it was official rehabilitated, and in 1966 it was introduced as a section of the faculties of philosophy, the most ideologised discipline of all, only to be reduced to a specialisation in 1977, when the faculties of philosophy were united with those of history. The members of the Bucharest school of sociology ended up at best professionally and socially marginalised, as was Dimitrie Gusti himself. The man who, before the installation of communism in power, had institutionalised sociology as an academic discipline in Romania, had promoted the monographic method of research, involving the thorough investigation of villages by multidisciplinary teams, had introduced social service, and had founded the Village Museum in Bucharest ended up in the last years of his life living on the charity of his former students. Zoltán Rostás recovered the memory of this academic discipline that had been subject to repression, thus facilitating its reinstitutionalisation in universities after 1989. Among the interviews carried on in the course of this project, the most important was that with Henri H. Stahl, which also gave rise after the fall of communism to the volume Monografia ca utopie: Interviuri cu Henri H. Stahl (Monograph as utopia: Interviews with Henri H. Stahl)(2000).
In the last two years of Romanian communism, the number of tapes that entered the Zoltán Rostás collection was drastically diminished; only a few in 1988, and none in 1989. “In 1988 I had the impression that I was put under stricter surveillance. There were a whole lot of signs pointing to this, including from neighbours. And so, I stopped. Not, in the first place, for myself. I said to myself that it would be good to take a break, because I had no reason to endanger the tapes that were already in my possession and, above all – I stress this – above all, the old people I had managed to have discussions with. On the other hand, especially as far as I was concerned, I was almost sure that at that time the Securitate was barking more than it was biting – as the saying goes in Romanian. They wanted to frighten more than to punish. Those were hard years anyway, and a few extra scandals wouldn’t have been in their interests either. My intuition was correct: in fact nothing happened to me; I wasn’t punished,” concludes Zoltán Rostás.
The audio archive remained in the possession of its creator, and was augmented after 1989 with further recordings applying the same methodology of oral history. Many of the dialogues on the tapes recorded by Zoltán Rostás have been transcribed by his wife: “My wife transcribed a lot of the interviews, immediately after I did them. She transcribed according to the rules that apply in the case of oral history interviews: word-for-word, respecting the dialect in which the person speaks, and inclusion of non-verbal communication within the script.” On average the in-depth interviews with the people whose voices are recorded in the Zoltán Rostás archive last several hours. For a great many of the interlocutors a number of meetings and recording sessions were necessary. Indeed there were some cases in which the work of documentation, interviewing, recording, and archiving extended over a period of years.
None of the oral history and social history interviews carried out by Zoltán Rostás were published before 1989. “Immediately after 1989, the demand was for memoirs and stories of those who had been imprisoned as a consequence of communism. The time for my archive had not yet come. The same Manichaeanism that occurred after our revolution in December 1989 probably happens at the start of any transition,” observes Zoltán Rostás. The first books based on the documents in Zoltán Rostás’s oral history archive did not appear until the 2000s. One volume was dedicated to multicultural Bucharest, Chipurile orașului. Istorii de viață în București. Secolul XX (The faces of the city: Life histories in Bucharest: Twentieth century) (2002), and several to the Bucharest school of sociology. The volume already mentioned, Monografia ca utopia. Interviu cu Henri H. Stahl (2000), was followed by: Sala luminoasă. Primii monografiști ai școlii gustiene (The bright hall: The first monographers of the Gustian school)(2003), Parcurs interrupt. Discipoli din anii 1930 ai școlii gustiene (Interruped trajectory: The Gustian school’s disciples of the 1930s)(2006), Strada Latină nr. 8. Monografiști și echipieri gustieni la Fundația Culturală Regală ”Principele Carol” (8 Str. Latina: Gustian monographers and team members at the Prince Carol Royal Cultural Foundation) (2009). All of these were based on the archive of oral history gathered in the Zoltán Rostás private collection.
Description of content
The documents that make up the Zoltán Rostás private collection are deposited in the private dwelling of the creator and holder of the collection. The collection consists at present of a UHER professional tape recorder and associated equipment together with a substantial store of tapes on which are recorded oral history testimonies, on the basis of which it is possible to reconstruct part of the social history of communist and postcommunist Romania. A part of these documents have been put to use in the context of publishing projects. Regarding the tape recorder, it is worth mentioning that it of West German manufacturer, imported to Romania. It was one of the most technically advanced models among those that could legally be purchased in Romania. Under communism, Zoltán Rostás made use of this tape recorder by virtue of the fact that it had been provided for his use by the magazine for which he worked, but after 1989, when it was discarded, it came into his personal possession.
The magnetic tapes in the collection number over 300, with more than 1,000 hours of recordings. They are of two sorts, according to their length and the duration of the recording, which varies between four and six hours. Some of the tapes in the collection come from the national radio, where they were periodically disposed of after being used for the first time, although they could be reused. The great majority of these tapes are of Romanian manufacture; they were marketed under the name Munplast. The recorded tapes are stored in order, in a number of suitcases, and the total weight of these objects exceeds 60 kg. The tape recorder weighs approximately 7 kg. The great majority of the recordings on the magnetic tapes were backed up by digitisation in 2015.
- equipment (typewriters, duplicating devices, audio-video equipments, etc.): 0-9
- voice recordings (including oral history recordings): 100-499
Stakeholder(s) of the collection
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
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Important events in the history of the collection
- visits by appointments
Rostás, Zoltán. 2000. Monografia ca utopie: Interviuri cu Henri H. Stahl (Monograph as utopia: Interviews with Henri H. Stahl). Bucharest: Paideia.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2001. O istorie orală a Școlii Sociologice de la București (An oral history of the Sociological School of Bucharest). Bucharest: Printech.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2002. Chipurile orașului: Istorii de viață din București. Secolul XX (Faces of the city: Life histories from Bucharest: Twentieth century). Bucharest: Polirom.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2003. Sala luminoasă: Primii monografiști ai școlii gustiene (The bright hall: The first monographers of the Gustian school). Bucharest: Paideia.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2004. Secolul coanei Lizica: Convorbiri din anii 1985-1986 cu Elisabeta Odobescu-Goga – Jurnalul din perioada 1916–1918 (Madam Lizica’s century: Conversations with Elisabeta Odobescu-Goga from 1985–1986 – The diary from 1916–1918). Bucharest: Paideia.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2005. Atelierul gustian: O abordare organizațională (The Gustian workshop: An organisational approach). Bucharest: Tritonic.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2006. Parcurs intrerupt: Discipolii din anii 1930 ai Școlii gustiene (Interrupted trajectory: The Gustian school’s disciples of the 1930s). Bucharest: Paideia.
Authors of this page
- Petrescu, Cristina
- Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu
Rostás, Zoltán. 2000. Monografia ca utopie: Interviuri cu Henri H.Stahl (Monograph as utopia: Interviews with Henri H. Stahl). Bucharest: Paideea.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2002. Chipurile orașului: Istorii de viață în București (Faces of the city: Life histories in Bucharest). Iași: Polirom.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2003. Sala luminoasă: Primii monografiști ai școlii gustiene (The bright hall: The first monographers of Gusti’s school). Bucharest: Paideea.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2006. Parcurs întrerupt: Discipoli din anii 1930 ai școlii gustiene (Interrupted trajectory: Disciples of Gusti’s school from the 1930s). Bucharest: Paideea.
Rostás, Zoltán. 2009. Strada Latină nr 8: Monografiști și echipieri la Fundația Culturală Regală ”Principele Carol” (Latin Street no. 8: Monographers and team members at the Royal Cultural Foundation ”Prince Charles”). Bucharest: Curtea Veche.
Rostás, Zoltán, interview by Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu , September 15, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection