The Tory who's the toast of Transylvania

The Labour Party launched its European election campaign with a scathing attack on Michael Howard. But what do they think of him in the Romanian village where his father grew up?
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Indy Politics

The simple wooden house in which Bernat Hecht was born has long gone, and his garden is now a wasteland. There's just a small pile of logs, pecked at by scrawny chickens, where the village's most famous resident once lived. Nearby, an emaciated horse is pulling a cart along the road, the driver keeping watch for water-filled potholes. Cold, penetrating rain has been sweeping down from the wooded mountains all morning, making this poverty-stricken Romanian village feel even more isolated than it already is.

The simple wooden house in which Bernat Hecht was born has long gone, and his garden is now a wasteland. There's just a small pile of logs, pecked at by scrawny chickens, where the village's most famous resident once lived. Nearby, an emaciated horse is pulling a cart along the road, the driver keeping watch for water-filled potholes. Cold, penetrating rain has been sweeping down from the wooded mountains all morning, making this poverty-stricken Romanian village feel even more isolated than it already is.

Hidden deep in the Carpathian Mountains, in northern Transylvania, there is little to attract outsiders to Ruscova. A small school, two shops and a post office serve its 5,500 inhabitants. Its two churches are always full, but so are its three dilapidated bars. Unemployment is high, and alcoholism a major problem. Some 30 people died here from drink-related illness and accidents last year. The nearest town is an hour's drive away, along a treacherous mountain road that is regularly blocked by snow and landslides in winter. A few miles the other way, the road peters out into a footpath that leads over the nearby border with Ukraine, but few people ever use it.

As the handful of locals trudging to work hunker down against the rain on this grim, grey morning in Ruscova, it is hard to imagine a place further from the plush corridors of Conservative Central Office. But one man links this obscure Romanian village with the pomp of 32 Smith Square, London. He is Michael Howard, leader of the Tories and, possibly, the next Prime Minister of Great Britain. Bernat Hecht was Howard's father. He emigrated from Romania just before the Second World War and settled in Wales, had a son, and Anglicised his surname to Howard. Until the mid-1990s, the MP's roots were something of a secret - rarely discussed in public, and kept deliberately obscure if they were. (Now, as part of the politician's rebranding as an inclusive leader-in-waiting, he has become more open about his family history - when he declared his candidacy for the party leadership in October 2003, for example, he said: "My parents were immigrants. They saw Britain as a beacon in a dark and threatening world.") But while Howard has blown hot and about his past, the people of Ruscova are keen to claim him, and have repeatedly invited him to visit. He could, they say, learn a lot from "his village".

By all accounts, Bernat Hecht was good-looking, well liked and influential in Ruscova. His family kept cattle, had a mill and ran a shop. As Hecht grew up, he worked as a forester and then took over the family businesses. He was also cantor at the local synagogue, leading the village's 320 Jewish families in sung prayers. But in the 1930s, life for Jews in Romania was becoming increasingly difficult because of persecution by a powerful fascist organisation, the Iron Guard. In 1939, fearing for his future, Hecht took advantage of changes to the UK's immigration rules that allowed asylum-seekers fleeing persecution in Europe to settle here if they could find British citizens willing to employ them.

He arrived in Wales aged 22 and without a word of English, sponsored by Harold Landy, a wealthy Jewish businessman who had fled from pogroms in Russia. Once in Wales, he married his sponsor's cousin, Hilda Kershion, and Michael was born in 1941. In January 1948, Hecht took the Oath of Allegiance and changed his name to Howard. He died in 1966, having never returned to Romania.

Had Bernat Hecht stayed in Ruscova, he would have probably joined the 400,000 Romanian Jews that the Iron Guard and Nazis murdered. Ruscova's Jews suffered the same fate as many others. They were herded on to trucks and taken away to a nearby ghetto, and then on to concentration camps. Today, there are no Jews left in Ruscova, and signs of their presence are diminishing. The path to the Jewish cemetery - where Howard's grandfather and great-grandfather lie - is overgrown, and a new building stands where the synagogue once was.

Bumbar Alexa, at 93 the oldest man in the village, is the only one in the community to remember Hecht. "He had a lot of land and a mill. He was an important man here," he says, leaning on his stick. "They were difficult times, people were poor. We had no shoes and often no food. The houses were small and we had problems with lice." When shown a picture of Howard, recognition flickers across his aged face. "He looks like his father, but Bernat had a long beard down to his stomach." Alexa adds: "I would like Michael to come here and see the village."

Alexa may be the only one who remembers him personally, but many other villagers know all about Hecht and his famous son. "Of course I know about Michael Howard," says Ana Bumbar, Alexa's granddaughter and a teacher at the local school. "Ask anyone here and they will have heard of him."

But not everyone is happy with him. Vasile Pop, the village mayor, frowns as he pulls a faded picture of Howard out of his top drawer. "I've written to him and invited him to come, but he has not replied," he says. "We are pleased that Michael Howard is from Ruscova, but also displeased because he's not interested in his roots. Romania is a beautiful country, the people here are nice, and everyone is proud of the village. Michael Howard should come here to rediscover his roots and see where his father lived." He adds, portentously: "God gives us our origins - man doesn't choose them."

Howard is fond of looking to the US rather than Europe for inspiration - and a parallel story is playing out across the pond from which he would do well to learn. The residents of Horni Benesov, in the Czech Republic, have laid claim to the Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry because his Jewish grandfather Fritz Kohn used to live there. They have invited him to visit and promised to make him an honorary citizen if he wins the Presidency. Kerry has sent back greetings via Czech television saying that he hoped to visit the town as the next President of the US. It plays much better than Howard's refusal to answer Vasile Pop's invitation.

US politicians have long recognised the political capital to be gained in discovering their roots. Ronald Reagan made an emotional visit to Ireland as President, while the Bush dynasty has been linked, faintly, with the House of Windsor. The obvious question that Ruscova poses to Howard is this: if he had been Home Secretary when his father applied to come to Britain, would he have let him in? And there are other issues raised by Ruscova that might make Howard uncomfortable.

The mountains around Ruscova are filled with wolves and bears, and most houses draw their water from a garden well. Even the mayor's office only has a hole in the ground for an outside toilet. But if Howard spent just a few days here, he would quickly understand that it's certainly not the primitive, isolated place that it first appears to be. Some 500 of the village's sons and daughters work abroad, in Portugal, Spain, the US, Austria, Germany and the UK, so the village is awash with news from the West. Car number plates show that people have returned home with hard-earned wealth. "The bombings in Madrid had a big impact here because people from the village are working there," says Ana. "We take interest in international affairs. The post office is always busy with letters."

Villagers, who speak Ukrainian rather than Romanian as their first language, are proud of their resilience and self-reliance. However, they recognise that European Union membership will give them a financial boost and basic facilities such as a constant supply of water when the river dries up in the summer.

Howard would find a staunch ally in Vasile Pop. "Tony Blair lied to people over the mass-destruction weapons in Iraq, and now he has problems," says the mayor. "I don't think he will win the next election - Michael Howard will be the next Prime Minister." But Pop is no walkover: "Michael Howard's policies as Home Secretary were very bad," he says, referring to Howard's tightening of asylum rules and punitive changes to the criminal justice system. "Britain should also do more to support Romania joining the EU," he adds.

Pop also has strong opinions on what makes a good politician - and here, he sounds uncannily like some of our own MPs. "It's important to understand people's problems, to come down to the people, to have a permanent dialogue. It is important to resolve people's problems - not just the large ones but the small ones as well. It's important to be simple, sensible and modest - these are the qualities of men who want to attract people." Romanians, he adds, are "disciplined, welcoming, and keep their sense of humour on the inside" - which, some would say, could apply to Howard himself.

In fact, Vasile Pop and Michael Howard might have much more in common than just the Ruscovan heritage. Pop's four-year term as mayor is almost finished, and he is up for re-election in July. He's likely to face stiff competition from several other candidates and victory is not certain. So, could Pop's invitation to Howard be an election stunt? What could be better than bringing the village's most famous son back to boost his ratings?

"If he came to visit, we would give him a traditional welcome," says Pop. "It is customary for guests to ride into the village on a white horse in traditional Romanian clothes. The white horses are a symbol of peace and have to be covered in flowers. It's also traditional to drink horina [a kind of whiskey, blamed for the village's problems with alcoholism]."

"But I don't think he will come," Pop adds, miserably. "Do I want to send him a message? No. I've written to him already and he hasn't replied."