Eugenic Representations of Prostitution
in Interwar Romania
In the opening sequence of the movie An Unforgettable Summer, a group of Hungarian-speaking prostitutes moon several Romanian officers, who bypass their usual stop at the brothel for a more "civilized" night on the town—a ball at the local general's luxurious residence. The movie, based on the 1920s novella Salata (The Salad) by Petru Dimitriu (1924–2002), is a bitter critique of both nationalism and the Western civilizing project of the interwar years. The altercation between the officers and the prostitutes offers a stark metaphor for the themes of the movie. As the beautiful women flash the officers in the window of their brothel, the men look on lustfully, while at the same time cursing the prostitutes, calling them Marxists and "Bela Cur," roughly translated as "beautiful ass," a pun on the name of Béla Kun (1886–1939), the leader of the 1919 Communist regime in Hungary. Though intriguing and powerful, the prostitutes fade into the background of the unfolding narrative, relegated to the margins of the story, much as they were in the social landscape of interwar Romania.
Prostitutes figured prominently in the literature of the interwar period as colorful and sometimes powerful characters.1 They served as vivid props for modernist authors who critiqued bourgeois mores and banal lifestyles, but prostitutes were seldom subject to a great deal of attention in terms of their social and economic position. That is not to say that the existence of prostitutes was simply tolerated at the margins of Romanian society. Between 1918 and 1944, several doctors and social reformers focused on prostitution as a health issue, social problem, and moral question. Debates about these matters materialized into a series of proposals that featured prominently in medical journals and legislative agendas. In interwar Romania, no less than three laws to regulate prostitution were passed in the span of two decades, an unprece-