FRONTLINE/WORLD . Romania – My Old Haunts . Witness to History | PBS

“Nobel Laureate and Holocaust memory keeper Elie Wiesel died July 2, 2016, at his home in New York, at age 87. In 2002, after Wiesel’s childhood home in northern Romania was transformed into a museum, Sheilah visited … and wrote about Weisel’s complicated relationship with his hometown, Sighet.  Here’s the piece she wrote for the PBS Frontline/World website:



Senator and wife dispel myths in ‘Dracula is Dead’

Senator and wife dispel myths in ‘Dracula is Dead’ – The Star Democrat: Local News

By DANIEL DIVILIO Staff Writer | Posted: Sunday, November 6, 2011 1:00 am

EASTON Watching the Arab Spring unfold this year reminded a state senator and his journalist wife of the wave of change that captured the world’s attention 20 years ago the fall of Communism in eastern Europe.

State Sen. James Rosapepe, D-21-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, served as the U.S. ambassador to Romania from 1998 to early 2001 and saw how the country, home of the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” worked to become a strong democracy.

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Sheilah Kast, Rosapepe’s wife, spent those years in Romania, as well, and was in Russia as a newscaster for ABC when a coup of hard-line Communists attempted to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

The couple fell in love with Romania, a country they think is largely misunderstood here in the States, and is seeking to dispel many of the myths about it in their new book “Dracula is Dead.”

“(Romanians) really are taking their place in the world, and we wanted folks in the West to know about it,” Kast said.

Rosapepe said this year’s uprisings in countries like Tunisia, Syria and Egypt have many interesting analogies, culminating in the violent death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the 1989 Christmas Day executions of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.

Rosapepe said when the Iron Curtain fell from eastern Europe, the political upheavals took place without the killing of former leaders. He said Romania, the citizens of which had so longed to be a part of West, was the only exception.

Kast said questions linger among some Romanians as to whether what happened in their country 20 years ago was a revolution or a coup. She said the death of Ceausescu has led to some unresolved issues regarding the history of his regime.

Kast said the death of such a leader has both benefits and drawbacks for citizens. She said it immediately severs the ties to the old guard and keeps buried potentially damaging matters, but at the same time can lead to so many other questions being left virtually unanswerable.

“There’s something that happens that might be valuable to getting a democracy started, but there’s also a lot of sorting out that doesn’t get done,” Kast said.

Kast viewed the pictures of Gadhafi’s capture and death, and in them she said she saw Libya going down much the same road as Romania. She said Egypt may see some of those ugly matters brought back to the surface by bringing former President Hosni Mubarak to trial.

“It’s hard to get a democracy going, and I’m not smart enough to know whether it’s harder when you have the dictator there to go through a trial or not,” Kast said.

Rosapepe said the commonly held belief of Romania being a very rural, even backwards, country is not totally false. He said it, along with Poland, are the two largest agricultural countries in Europe, and there are in fact villages looking straight out of the 19th century with cows walking in the roads.

Rosapepe said Romania is also heavily industrialized, having been the largest oil producer in Europe prior to World War II and being the home now of a variety of manufacturers, Ford included, and very talented engineers. He said Ceausescu tried to build six giant steel mills, and though all were started, only one was completed.

Kast said Romania always wanted to be connected to the West, and though some in the rural areas may lack sophistication, many of the nation’s citizens are quite worldly. She said Romanians, whose own language is based on Latin, generally speak a variety of western languages, including very good English and French.

“And so, being stuck behind the Iron Curtain was just perhaps psychologically worse for them than other countries that were stuck behind the Iron Curtain,” Kast said.

To find out more about Rosapepe’s and Kast’s book, visit

Jim on “Come Receive the Light”

ocn“Former United States ambassador to Romania Jim Rosapepe is on the show this week to talk about Romania’s amazing journey through Fascism, Communism and Democracy. Rosapepe discussion includes the Romanian Orthodox Church (the dominant cultural religious institution in the country) and its key role in the survival of Romania as a nation over the centuries.”

Check out the entire interview here.

Soviet fall and Arab Spring

Sheilah Kast, eyewitness to the transformation of Russia 20 years ago, sees parallels with what’s happening now in the Middle East balt sun

By Sheilah Kast

7:03 p.m. EDT, August 18, 2011, The Baltimore Sun

Twenty years ago, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow, just as Egyptians, Tunisians and Syrians have this year — rejecting the old order, demanding freedom and democracy. That August, the Russian democrats prevailed because their will was greater than that of those who plotted the coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The dynamics of the Arab Spring are strikingly similar.

I was there that day, as the ABC News correspondent in our Moscow bureau. Mr. Gorbachev was vacationing on the Black Sea. It looked like August would be a quiet month — I even made time to shoot a feature in Leningrad about a Russian Elvis impersonator.

Everything changed early Monday, Aug. 19. The Soviet news agency announced Vice President Gennady Yanayev had taken charge because Mr. Gorbachev was ill. State television started playing classical music. I reached Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who had turned KGB critic and been elected to a seat in the Soviet legislature. Mr. Kalugin explained what was going on: The next day, Mr. Gorbachev had been scheduled to sign a treaty to devolve more powers from the central Soviet government to the republics (Georgia, Lithuania, Ukraine and a dozen others). If the Communist hard-liners, who hated what Mr. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika were doing to the Soviet Union, had any hope of stopping him, this was their last chance.

By then, from the windows of the ABC News office, we watched tanks roll past toward the Kremlin. We sent to New York all the pictures, sound and reports we could gather — at any moment, we assumed, transmission would be blocked; we couldn’t figure out why we hadn’t been stopped already. We didn’t know it then, but not far away Boris Yeltsin, newly elected president of the Russian republic, and his aides were asking themselves similar questions: Why haven’t we been arrested yet?

Each hour brought another clue that the coup leaders were bungling their attempt to take over. No one stopped Radio Echo Moscow, the independent station, from airing interviews urging resistance to the coup. Tanks surrounded the White House, but no one stopped civilians from haranguing, cajoling and pleading with the young soldiers in them. By early Monday afternoon, Mr. Yeltsin walked out of the parliament building, climbed onto a tank, shook the soldiers’ hands and called out to the country to defy the coup.

“The reactionaries will not triumph,” he shouted.

It was the iconic image of resistance to the coup — and no one stopped the working journalists at state TV from putting it on the air that night. That afternoon, our skeleton ABC News crew got reinforcements; no one stopped camera crews, producers, correspondents and reporters pouring into Sheremetyevo International Airport, even though many had no visas.

To us in Moscow, the coup looked toothless, even before Mr. Yanayev’s evening press conference, when his hands quivered and his words fell flat. Yet, for reasons unclear even two decades later, top U.S. officials talked as though the coup might succeed — and America wouldn’t object much. Monday morning Washington time — hours after I had talked with Mr. Kalugin and reported the coup to ABC radio listeners (Moscow opens for business eight hours earlier than Washington) — President George H.W. Bush‘s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft told reporters: “This is an internal development in the Soviet Union.”

Only late Monday, after one Soviet military unit had mutinied and refused to fire on the White House, and another had defected and joined Mr. Yeltsin, did the U.S. government clearly state that it would not recognize the coup and Mr. Gorbachev must be restored to power.

By Wednesday night, he was on his way back to Moscow. The victory over the coup plotters helped destroy the Soviet Union. Whether or not it was a turning point for the best in Russian history is more complicated. The union dissolved within four months, Mr. Gorbachev lost power, Mr. Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin led Russia into the 21st century.

But the lessons of revolution were clear. In Moscow in 1991, as in Cairo in 2011, strength of will made all the difference. The Soviet plotters had planned for months, but they had not contemplated the strength of will they would be up against: Mr. Yeltsin was not a tired former Communist Party hack. He was a leader invigorated by his overwhelming election two months earlier. He inspired citizens who had just voted for him to match his will and face down army tanks. Mr. Yeltsin was so sure he could do it, he infected President Bush with the same hope: “Yeltsin’s sheer guts made a big impression on the president,” an administration aide told Newsweek.

What we’re seeing these days in Syria is a closer match of wills. It has cost many more lives than the three young resisters killed in the confusion around Moscow’s White House, and it has lasted far longer than the three days of the 1991 coup. But we can expect that dogged determination — on both sides — will count for more than anything in how it turns out.

Sheilah Kast is host of Maryland Morning on WYPR 88.1 FM and co-author of “Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy.” Her email is

“Dracula is Dead”: A Reader’s Reaction

Dear Sheila and Jim -

At first I was devouring “Dracula Is Dead” at a breakneck pace, but then I realized that since it’s written largely in vignettes it seems best to be read in smaller doses. I have just passed the halfway point. Certain parts of it I am living with you, as I read it, though my knowledge and experiences are less professional, urbane and lofty than most of yours.

I’ve particularly enjoyed reading about the king’s view of events and your run-in with the infamous Branko (the Chicago restauranteur / Taste Of Romania producer) was also most amusing. It’s also interesting to read that many Hungarian-ethnics realize that re-unification is a dead issue, just as I am sure that the same holds true with Romanian-ethnics in the Republic of Moldova. That ship apparently sailed with Romanian missteps in ’90.

You’ve enlightened me concerning the Ploesti museum with the sections dedicated to the American flyers, bent on destroying their city. (As a side note, I recently finished a book entitled “The Forgotten 500,” about American flyers who had to bail-out over Yugoslavia after they completed the Ploiesti missions and the political quagmire they were a part of while trapped behind enemy lines.

To be sure all the “discrepencies” (far too strong a word, I am afraid) I have noted in your book are a matter of individual experiences. The one very minor redaction (on page 246) that might be suggested in the next edition is the observation that “the median income is the equivelant of $125 a month.” when clearly you meant “$125 a month at that time.” Sorry to pick at that nit.

I’m looking forward to savoring the last half of the book and I can only wonder how many interesting stories you had to leave on the cutting room floor.

Kindest regards,

John Korst

What Italy’s history suggests for US policy in Middle East


March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day.

This year, it’s the 150th anniversary of Italy as a modern state. Those who don’t believe that Egypt or others in the region can become prosperous democracies should consider the Italy’s history – and what it suggests for US policy in the Middle East now.

By Jim Rosapepe

March 17, 2011, Christian Science Monitor Commentary


College Park, Md.

March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day. This year, it’s the 150th anniversary of Italy as a modern state. Not many Americans will be paying attention. But we should.

Those who don’t believe that Egypt, or other countries in the Middle East, can become a prosperous democracy need to take a deep breath – and consider the history of Italy.

Until the mid-19th century, Italy was not a nation-state. Italians were split between Austria, the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples, the Vatican, and city-states. While Egypt didn’t emerge as an independent nation until 1954, Italy was more fortunate: It unified 150 years ago this week.

But Italian democracy of the late 19th century wasn’t pretty. There were no Thomas Jeffersons or George Washingtons, America’s romanticized founding fathers, in Rome or Naples then, as they are not in Cairo or Alexandria today. But political pluralism was. Religious zealots, socialists, big business, monarchists, militarists, farmers, and intellectuals were all there, just as they are in Egypt today.

Zigzags of building a stable democracy

For a time in the first years of the Italian republic, the militarists were ascendant, adding colonies such as Libya and expanding borders. And then for two decades in the early 20th Century, the fascists – the black shirts of Benito Mussolini – were in charge.

The fascist era between the World Wars was a classic chapter in the zigzag story of building stable democracies. Mussolini rose from the failures of a weak democracy and ended his reign dead, at the hands of his own people.

Then, after World War II, with the active support of the United States, Italy got its democracy back on track. Again it was not pretty.

U.S. anti-communist intervention

The 1946 elections produced a coalition government between the Vatican-allied Christian Democrats, the Soviet-backed Communists, and the Socialists. Under pressure from the US, the Communists and their allies were pushed out of the government in mid-1947, and the April 1948 elections became the showdown. Would Italy remain allied with the West? Or would the Communists win an election and then seize dictatorial power?

America’s fear of “one man, one vote, one time” in Italy was as deep in the winter of 1948 as it has been regarding Egypt this winter.

In 1948, the US responded by unleashing the CIA to fund the Christian Democrats and other anti-communist parties. Ten million letters are said to have been generated from Italian Americans urging their relatives in Italy to vote for the anti-communists. Whether or not this intervention was decisive, the results were. The Christian Democrats won 48 percent of the vote, their best showing before or since, while the Communist/Socialist coalition won only 31 percent.

For the next four decades, the US-friendly Christian Democrats held power, even as they changed prime ministers almost every year. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, a top US priority was to keep the left out of the Italian government, and it was successful.

Italian democracy grew and survived

Over the same decades, the Italian economy boomed with the support of the Marshall Plan, the creation of the European Common Market (now the EU), and the defense umbrella of NATO. For a time it became the fourth largest economy in the world, briefly surpassing the UK. The Fellinis of film, the Ferraris of autos, and the Versaces of fashion became worldwide brands.

That didn’t mean that Italy became Sweden. The Sicilian mafia and its criminal cousins in southern Italy remained vibrant and powerful in politics. Government bureaucracy and corruption thrived; tax evasion and undisciplined spending drove state debt to one of the highest in Europe. Today, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s financial and personal antics embarrass Italy around the world.

But, through it all, Italian democracy has survived with real elections, an independent judiciary, and free speech. Today it is a pillar of NATO and the EU.

Arab democracy needs U.S. patience, support

What does this mean for US policy toward Egypt and the Middle East?

Embrace the opportunity for Arabs to build stable democracies, and help them do so. Understand that there will be steps forward and steps back. And provide material support – debt relief, trade opportunities, security guarantees – tied to the consolidation of democratic institutions.

That doesn’t mean, as some who fear the Muslim Brotherhood have suggested, intervening in Egyptian elections as the US did in 1948 in Italy. Today, just months after the US dropped its support for Egypt’s dictator, the US does not have the credibility it had in Italy in 1948 after US troops had liberated Italy from the Nazis.

Nonetheless, the US should be proactive in ways that are appropriate to the specific circumstances in the region. American leadership, in cooperation with our allies, was critical to Italy becoming a modern, democratic state. We can help Egypt and its neighbors do the same.

Jim Rosapepe, former US Ambassador to Romania, was born in Rome and is co-author of “Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy.”

Listen to our interview with Jim Bohannon!

We draw parallels between Romania in 1989 and Egypt and Tunisia today.
To hear our part of the show, fast-forward to 1:24:00 in the Jim Bohannon Show audio player!

Here’s the introduction from The Jim Bohannon Show:

The events in Egypt may sound familiar to some. In a way, the same sort of thing took place almost 22 years ago in Romania.

We’ll chat for a while tonight about the similarities — and the differences — with former U.S. Ambassador to Romania Jim Rosapepe and his wife, former ABC News correspondent Sheilah Kast, who have co-written the book “Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy” (published by Bancroft Press).

It’s an amazing tour of an amazing land — beyond Dracula, beyond orphans, beyond Communism — to the vibrant culture, unique history, and 21st Century skills that define modern Romania. (The book’s website is

In Tunisia, history repeats (sort of)

Tunisia today has similarities with Romania in 1989 that ought to guide U.S. foreign policy

By Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast

January 25, 2011, Baltimore Sun Commentary


Tunisia, January 2011. Romania, December 1989.

The similarities are eerie.

Each country was governed for 21/2 decades by an autocrat. In both countries, the people, not the elite, launch the revolution. Soldiers allied with competing factions are shooting at each other. Common people are outraged to see the palaces of the dictator’s family. French is the second language of the elite. Democrats around the world are cheering the revolution while security professionals in Western governments fret about stability. And we don’t know where the drama ends.

The similarities are important. But so are the differences.

Tunisia was a western European colony until 1956. Romania was dominated by Russia until 1989. Tunisia’s people are predominately Sunni Muslim. Romania’s are Orthodox Christian. Romania was one of the most closed societies under communism; Tunisia earns 13 percent of its gross domestic product from tourism. Romania and Tunisia are different countries with their own histories and cultures.

What are America — and Europe — to do?

First, understand reality. Tunisia’s political system has been disrupted. One powerful man is gone. The opposition, inside and outside the government, has been emboldened. But the outcome (a new democracy or a renewed dictatorship) is not pre-ordained. 1989 was the year of the democratic revolutions across Central and Eastern Europe — and also the year of Tiananmen Square. As in Romania, the culture and the people of Tunisia did not change overnight. The police chiefs, the waitresses, the business owners, the professors — and the secret police — are the same as they were last month.

In Tunisia, as in Romania, the U.S. and Europeans need to strongly promote democracy while recognizing the elites — and the voters — are the only ones Tunisia has.

Second, help the good guys. We can’t want democracy for Tunisia more than Tunisians, but we can help those who do — with moral support and resources. For too long, especially in the Arab world and in Africa, Western governments have prized short-term stability with autocrats over long-term stability with democracy. How much safer would America be today if, in 1953, the Eisenhower administration had helped protect democracy in Iran instead of helping to destroy it?

In Tunisia, the irony — and the opportunity — is that two of the most important outside powers are champions of the universal values of freedom and democracy: the United States and France. Our revolutions remain inspirations around the world. Yet, in Africa and the Arab world, American and French concerns about short-term security too often have trumped the long-term security of democracy.

This time, let’s take the long view, as we did with Romania. Our goal must be sustainable democracy, integrated into cooperation with other democracies. That means NATO and the European Union — not necessarily membership, but close integration. Tunisia was the first North African country to join Europe’s free trade zone. And, since 2004, the EU has had a “Neighborhood Policy” to build strong ties with northern Africa, as well as Eastern European countries on the EU’s borders. The courage of ordinary Tunisians this month could be the catalyst for a new architecture of peace, freedom and prosperity in the Mediterranean.

Third, articulate an end game soon, not after the bad guys have consolidated power. That was a major U.S. mistake with Russia in the 1990s. Because we were so unsure of the prospects for real change, we hedged our bets — for example, remaining silent when the Russian government crushed the parliament. In Romania, the invitation to join the EU was the single biggest stroke for progress. What is the equivalent for Tunisia?

Fourth, respect Tunisians’ culture and history. They are not Californians or Norwegians and don’t want to be. Like all people everywhere, they want a good life for their families and practical ways to be heard. But they want to keep their food, their religion, their language and their history. They want the economic and political benefits of globalization for their children without crushing the culture of their parents. That’s the genius of the European Union: prosperity, freedom and cooperation, all in 23 languages.

Fifth, embrace the spirit of the Tunisian revolutionaries — don’t fear it. Twenty years ago, the Bush administration wobbled as ordinary people in Eastern Europe stood up. In his famous Aug. 1, 1991, “chicken Kiev” speech, President George H.W. Bush warned Ukrainians against seeking independence from the Soviet Union, calling it “suicidal nationalism.” Understandable bureaucratic comfort with stability overwhelmed America’s strategic interest in freedom. The same shortsighted temptation has kept the U.S. allied with autocrats across the Middle East. As Arabs across the region watch their televisions, the Jasmine revolution can be the game-changer. It should be.

January 2011 could be remembered as the turning point in bringing Tunisia — and the wider Arab world — into the modern democratic age, as 1989 was for the 100 million people of Central and Eastern Europe. It’s in America’s and Europe’s interests to help make it happen. Let’s not waste the opportunity.

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe (, former U.S. ambassador to Romania (1998-2001), and Sheilah Kast, a journalist who covered the collapse of Soviet communism and is now host of “Maryland Morning” on WYPR, are co-authors of “Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy.”

Book review on Charles Heller’s Blog

I am privileged to know some wonderful and accomplished people. In my last blog, I wrote about Bernie and Rita Turner, and the book about their founding of Walden University. I had just finished reading Aspire toward the Highest at the time.

Yesterday, I completed another wonderful book by yet another terrific married couple I know. The book has a great title, Dracula Is Dead, with the subtitle, How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged since 1989 as the New Italy. The authors are Jim Rosapepe and Sheilah Kast. Jim was the American Ambassador to Romania during the Clinton administration. Today, he is still active in Romania and serves in the Maryland House of Delegates. I first met Jim when I while I was running the entrepreneurship center at the University of Maryland; he is one of the school’s biggest supporters and serves on its Board of Visitors. Jim’s wife, Sheilah Kast, is a well-known TV and radio journalist, with her own show on National Public Radio. In the past, she could be seen on ABC and CNN. Read the rest of this entry »

Book review on Curled Up

When most people hear the name of the country Romania they automatically associate it with Dracula and old haunted castles. Dracula Is Dead wants readers to realize that there is much more to Romania than scary stories to tell around the campfire.

Jim Rosapepe is the former U.S. ambassador to Romania; Sheilah Kast is his wife and a journalist. Together they traveled every mile of Romania, seeing both the rustic and the rundown and, overall, the breathtaking beauty of this country.

Romania’s people survived one of the most oppressive Communist regimes in history. Fittingly, this book was published as part of the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

In a writing style that seems to blend travel guide and memoir, the authors have a fluent, easy-to-follow, conversational first-person style. They call Romania the new Italy, and with its vibrant culture, Latinate language and dazzling creativity, it’s easy to see why they feel that way. They make readers feel like booking a trip to this remarkable country, that they might witness the bright future of this peaceful part of Europe.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Sue Johnson, 2010