Discover the most famous Romanians of all time. Artists and pioneering scientists, philosophers, writers, and athletes were and are Romania’s most acclaimed figures. Their fame is not measured in the likes or shares from our fast-forward world. Far from it. It’s based on that rare relevance that endures times and inspires others.
Check our list and uncover some of the greatest Romanians.
Our list of famous Romanians opens with five authors from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Elie Wiesel was only 15 when he was deported with his entire family to Auschwitz, in 1944. Liberated one year later, he was among the few of the 10,000 Jews from Sighet, Romania, who survived the Holocaust. A survival that could have only happened by accident, as he said later.
He chronicled his experience in the Nazi concentration camps in his debut and best-known volume The Night. The book became a best-seller and one of the most powerful books of Holocaust literature. A prolific author, Elie Wiesel wrote over 50 books, both fiction and nonfiction.
An influential advocate for human rights, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his activism against repression, violence, and racism. Upon his death, Barack Obama called him a ‘great moral voice of our time and a conscience for our world’.
You can visit the Memorial House of Elie Wiesel in Sighet.
Romanian-born Herta Müller spent the first three decades of her life under communist dictatorship. Born in a German community from Banat, the writer’s life was influenced by events that happened before her birth. Her father’s time in the Waffen-SS troops, her mother’s deportation in the USSR, the nationalization of her family’s assets, all marked her childhood.
Years later, in the late 70s and 80s, she became a target of the Secret Romanian Police (Securitate). Her activity in a critical writers’ group and her refusal to become an informant led to threats and the loss of her job.
In those difficult times, writing became her refuge. The uncensured version of her first volume, Nadirs, appeared in Germany, in 1984, and became a major success. Herta Müller was no longer an anonymous German-ethnic writer from the communist East. Better yet, her international fame helped her escape Romania a few years later, in 1987.
Mircea Eliade started writing during his adolescence when homework didn’t make a lot of sense to him. Years later, after completing his bachelor’s, he left for India to study the language and the culture. This was the decision that changed his life. An impossible love story lived in India inspired his book Maitreyi, a best-seller published in Romania in 1933.
More books followed, and Eliade became the most influential Romanian writer of his generation. Still, he became world-famous later, as a scholar in the history of religions.
Photo source: https://www.rfi.ro
Eliade started this second career after WW2, in Paris, where he lived in exile. His work was monumental. He published 30 titles and over 1,200 papers, translated into 18 languages. From 1957 until his death he was a Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago.
An elegantly dressed insomniac wandering at night on the streets of the Latin Quarter from Paris, Emil Cioran was an enemy of fame. Like Eliade, he was a refugee in the French capital. He lived in a small attic, eating at cheap cantinas until he was too old to pass as a student. Famous in Romania, but almost unknown in France, Cioran refused all interviews and literary awards, except for the Rivarol in 1950.
The change came after his A Short History on Decay became the best book in French by a foreign author. Acclaimed as a prophet of his time, Cioran reinvented himself and continued to write. He became one of the most famous French-language authors of his time.
Photo source: www.fourbythreemagazine.com
His fame impressed less the communist authorities from Bucharest. It’s only after the Romanian Revolution that his work was again published in his home country.
Eugene Ionesco found the world and its ways to be as grotesque as a puppet show that fascinated him when he was four years old. Born in Romania, Ionesco lived most of his life in France, where he became one of the most important figures of the Theatre of the Absurd although he preferred the term the Theater of Derision.
Talented but unconventional, Ionesco made his playwright debut at 40 years old with The Bald Soprano’ The ultimate success of his first anti-play, inspired by his own failed efforts to learn English, was only the start. He wrote 28 plays, set on stage all over the world, and became a member of the French Academy. Like Eliade and Cioran, he never returned to Romania after WW2.
Romanian engineer and aerodynamics pioneer, Henri Coanda was educated to become an army officer like his father. He abandoned the military career shortly after graduation and went to Paris to study aeronautics. After years of working on propeller planes and a series of experiments, Henri Coanda received, in 1934, the French patent for the Coanda Effect.
George Palade’s decision to leave Romania in 1946, before the borders’ shutdown, changed his life and the history of cell biology studies. By that time, he was already an established medical researcher.
Still, the decades spent in the US, at the Rockefeller Yale, and California Universities, were the most important for his career. His work on cell structure and functional organization received the Nobel Prize in 1974. He shared the award with fellow researchers Albert Claude and Christian de Duve.
Photo source: https://ro.wikipedia.org
Emil Racovita was the first biologist in the world to reach Antarctica with the famous Belgica expedition. Trapped for almost one year in the frozen waters, the scientist and his colleagues collected thousands of samples on arctic nature. Years before, he had left Romania to study law in Paris, followed by his true calling, biology at the Sorbonne. Enthusiast and inquisitive, he was a member of the Zoological Society of France at only 25. Passionate about underwater life, Racovita even did a series of pioneering research dives in the late 1890s.
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Fascinated by the unexplored world of the caves, he chose this new research field after 1904. He set the grounds for speleology and coordinated important discoveries despite the ongoing WWI.
A few years later, Emil Racovita took another life-changing decision. He returned to Romania over 30 years after his departure as a professor at the University of Cluj. He founded there the first Biospeleology Institute in the world. The hundreds of caves from the nearby Apuseni Mountains were an excellent natural laboratory.
Ana Aslan was studying Medicine when women were supposed to be only wives and mothers. She graduated the first in her class, in 1921, six years after she went on a hunger strike to convince her mother to allow her to study.
Decades later, Ana Aslan was one of the most famous Romanians of her time. She founded the first Institute of Geriatrics in the world where she continued the experimental treatments started years before, in 1953. Her youth promising vitamin Gerovital H3 soon became one of the most profitable export products of the communist regime. It brought the state an estimated annual revenue of 18 million dollars in the 70s. At the time, up to 14,000 foreigners traveled each year to Romania for a cure of Gerovital H3.
Even so, her success proved too much to handle for the communist authorities who always surveilled her. In the over 1,000 pages long file, she is criticized for helping and treating enemies of the state. She was formally charged in the last years of her life and was only acquitted a couple of months before her death.
Angela Gheorghiu is one of the most appreciated and talented sopranos in the world. Her performances are the headline at famous venues like London’s Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera of New York, and Vienna State Opera.
Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Born in Adjud, a small town in Eastern Romania, Angela Gheorghiu started her career in 1990 in Romania. She debuted, singing in La Boheme, on the scene of London’s Royal Opera House only two years later. After her acclaimed performance of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, from 1994, she became an international superstar. Since then, the Romanian soprano won many international awards, including the prestigious Victoires de la Musique Classique and the European Cultural Award.
The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu is one of the greatest contemporary pianists in the world. Born in Galati, he started studying piano when he was six and finished his first composition at the age of 12. He left at only 16 to Moscow after he was awarded a scholarship at the Moscow State Conservatory.
Radu Lupu performed along with the most important orchestras in the world. In one of the few interviews given, he said that ‘Everyone tells a story differently, and that story should be told compellingly and spontaneously. If it is not compelling and convincing, it is without value’.
For his recording of Schubert’s sonatas, Radu Lupu received the Grammy award in 1995.
Photo source: https://pastdaily.com
An exceptional pan flute musician, Gheorghe Zamfir plays this instrument like no one else. During his career of over 50 years, Gheorghe Zamfir composed over 300 songs, won 120 gold and platinum albums and sold over 120 million albums. The pan flute was always the main instrument. He was also the first artist to perform during the private mise of Pope John Paul II. But he gained the feared antipathy of the atheist Ceausescu couple after he dedicated a concert to God back in 1982.
Photo source: https://ro.wikipedia.org
Forced to leave Romania, Gheorghe Zamfir continued his work in the US. The soundtracks for movies like Once Upon a Time in America, Karate Kid, or Kill Bill are some of these best-known songs.
George Enescu is one of the most famous Romanians from the first half of the 20th century. A composer, pianist, violinist, and conductor, he was a prodigy child who started his studies at the University of Vienne at only seven. By the turn of the century, he was already established as one of the most talented and promising musicians of his time.
Photo source: https://en.wikipedia.org
George Enescu toured the world with his concerts and taught courses at universities from Italy, France, and the US. He performed for the troops on the front in the world wars and sponsored young composers for over 30 years. George Enescu died in exile, in Paris, a few years after he left communist Romania.
Constantin Brancusi is one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. The fifth son of a poor peasant family, Brancusi’s road to success was long and almost impossible.
He was a shepherd when he was only seven, worked as a help in small shops for most of his adolescence, and carved wood in Vienna at 20. Brancusi taught himself to read and write, and his ambition made him walk from Romania almost all the way to Paris in 1904. By the time he was 35, he was already one of the pioneers of modernist sculpture, an unconventional artist who isolated himself as his fame increased.
Photo credits Stefan Jurca
Adrian Ghenie is one of the most famous Romanian painters of the present time. His impressive palette-knife creations often feature dramatic events or figures who have impacted the history of Europe. In the last few years, the artist became an ‘auction superstar’ according to The New York Times. His paintings sell today for millions of dollars.
Romanian-born Alexandra Nechita is a Cubist painter, famous from a very young age when she became known as the petite Picasso. The artists started drawing at the age of two, using watercolors at five, and painting in oil and acrylics when she was seven. One year later she had her first solo exhibition in a Los Angeles public library, with many more following across the US. At only 10, Alexandra Nechita was the youngest artist to sign with International Art Publishers.
Discover Alexandra Nechita’s paintings on www.alexandranechita.com
Photo source: www.alexandranechita.com
Nadia Comaneci became one of the most famous Romanians in the world after receiving the first 10 in the history of an Olympic gymnastics competition. It happened in 1976, in Montreal, when she was only 14. During her gymnast career, Nadia Comaneci won nine Olympic medals and four world championships. Her flawless technique inspired generations of young gymnasts from Romania and around the world.
Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Simona Halep is one of the most loved athletes from Romania and a former World no. 1 on the WTA Tour. Millions of Romanians watch her matches at home and many other thousands buy tickets to see her play at tournaments all around the world.
A pro tennis player since she was 15, Simona Halep won the Roland Garros (2018) and the Wimbledon (2019).
Photo source: www.weeklystandard.com
Who would you add to the list of famous Romanians? Tell us in the comments section.