They talk about the winter now in the same awestruck tones, with the same profound relief at having survived, that the older generation reserves for tales about World War II.

In fact, not since the war have Romanians suffered so severe a winter as they did this one just past.

Bitter cold and heavy snows paralyzed much of the European continent in January and February. But the effects on daily life were most traumatic and widespread here, amplified by drastic countermeasures adopted by a Communist government bent on husbanding scarce energy and sustaining industrial production.

Energy-saving actions unthinkable or unenforceable in other countries were decreed by President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose well-publicized word is law in this Soviet Bloc state.

Lighting in homes and stores was ordered cut 50 percent in early January. Natural gas for cooking and heating simply ebbed away for long freezing stretches. Use of private cars was forbidden, and people were urged to unplug refrigerators and freezers because these appliances were said to be superfluous during such a winter. Television broadcasts ran for only two hours a day, and restaurants, which had little food to serve anyway, could stay open only until 9 p.m.

Special squads made spot checks on homes and offices to ensure compliance. A Bucharest newspaper reported that a store clerk, caught listening to a radio during his lunch break, was charged with a criminal offense.

With the first show of spring, some of the restrictions were eased, and a Washington Post correspondent who had encountered unexplained delays in obtaining a visa finally was allowed into Romania on a working visit.

There were signs of life returning to normal. Private cars were allowed back on the roads March 25 after a three-month ban, although driving is limited to every other day. Bits of cloth and plastic pressed on windows as insulation against the cold were being removed, and a fungus that had grown on the walls of many apartment units as a result of faulty heating was being scraped away by residents.

At the U.S. Embassy, which had tried to keep up appearances during the deep freeze -- in contrast to the Canadian and even Soviet embassies, where dependents were evacuated -- butane heaters imported for the emergency were moved to storage.

But the psychological effects of the winter, the memories of shivering in blackened homes and scavenging for food, remained and filled dinner conversations with vivid images.

"It was like bivouacking on the North Pole," recalled an architect, telling how she and her family huddled together in one room around a gas stove, praying that the flickering blue flame would not go out.

"The streets were surreal," recounted a doctor. "They were unlit, virtually carless, bordered with snow drifts and very eerie. Crowds coming home from work made the city look like a giant anthill with lots of darkened figures running around."

The mental strain of coping under such conditions was understandably great. Said a writer: "It took an enormous amount of energy just to stay sane."

Government officials blamed the crisis on the weather, which they said was the worst since 1940-41. Coal froze into blocks of ice in trolleys before it could be unloaded at power stations. Hydroelectric plants faltered. Natural gas supplies fell short of heightened demand.

The state-controlled press exhorted a tired population to grin and bear the energy shortage as a patriotic duty. Suggesting that Romania was not alone in its misery, papers reported winter casualties elsewhere in Europe, citing a layoff of French factory workers, power interruptions in Italy, a shutdown of schools and factories in Yugoslavia and shortened television broadcasts in Hungary.

But nowhere was the suffering as prolonged and widespread as in Romania, a fact that western analysts attributed to incompetent management and the inefficient structure of Romania's energy system.

"What happened was that a marginally harsher winter brought a decrepit system to a breakdown point," said a seasoned European diplomat. "You felt the whole place was in a state of collapse. That's literally how it felt."

Making matters worse, the winter cutbacks followed several years of austerity measures that had already squeezed domestic consumption down to 7 percent of national electricity output, compared to 27 percent in neighboring Hungary and 19 percent in Bulgaria.

The belt-tightening, which has led also to food rationing and further shortages of consumer goods, marks a concerted campaign by Ceausescu to choke home consumption and spur exports that can earn hard currency to lower Romania's debt to western banks.

The debt rose to $10 billion at the end of 1981, when, to Ceausescu's embarrassment, creditors balked at extending more loans.

So far, Romanians have accepted Ceausescu's conservation orders with characteristic stoicism -- not that an omnipresent and dreaded state security service gives them much choice. The latest curbs, however, appeared to touch the limits of Romanian endurance.

"For the first time, I've heard people saying the pain and suffering may not be worth it," said a western businessman who travels frequently to Romania and has close contacts here. "Things have begun to seem futile to them. Hope is fading."

Those hopes were raised in the 1970s when Romania, like other East European states, borrowed for rapid industrialization and built up heavy industry dependent on imported technology and raw mate- rials. Ceausescu's ambitions took blows when the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 raised import costs, and again in 1981 when Poland's debt crisis froze new western credits to Eastern Europe.

Overinvestment in petrochemical complexes and steel mills and underinvestment in agricultural development turned Romania into a net importer of both oil and food, two of its former principal exports. Meat is now in short supply in stores, and sugar and butter are rationed. A basic Romanian diet consists of yogurt, milk, bread and sausages.

In Poland, where the standard of living slid drastically in the early 1980s, and even in relatively affluent Hungary, where the standard of living in recent years has stagnated, Communist leaderships have sought to temper public expectations by conceding that the road to socialism is a bumpy one. But Romania continues to praise the industrial development wrought by Ceausescu, referring to his reign as the "years of light."

Ceausescu, 67, celebrated his 20th anniversary in power last month amid hosannas from loyalists extolling the progress achieved during his term. While his Soviet Bloc neighbors adopt various economic reform programs, the Romanian chief has rejected moves toward decentralized management of the economy, preferring to tinker with, rather than dismantle, the rigid central planning system established in the 1950s.

Given the unforgiving nature of Romania's ambitious plan targets, enterprises are now expected to make up during the rest of 1985 for the production and export losses of the winter months. Coal production quotas for the second and third quarters have been increased. Crude oil production is still fixed at 12.6 million tons for the year, 10 percent above the 1984 level.

To cope better with winters ahead, coal power stations will be required to stock larger reserves. Romania has also recently negotiated with the Soviet Union for increased oil imports over the next five years. Nuclear power plants under construction are due to start operating soon and are expected to provide about a fifth of the country's energy needs by 1990.

For all the harshness of his austerity drive, Ceausescu has at least been successful in retiring a substantial portion of Romania's foreign debt. The amount owed the West dropped to $7.4 billion at the start of this year, with another couple of years of huge repayments scheduled.

At the end of last year, Romania reported the fastest economic growth rate in the Soviet Bloc, 7.7 percent. But western analysts dispute that figure, saying it is hardly believable in view of the country's energy problems, production shortfalls in such major industries as cars, textiles and some machinery, and only a modest expansion of imports.

Contending that Romania is still operating from crisis to crisis and lacks smart political management, some western experts predict more tough seasons ahead.

A recent review by Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates concluded: "Romania continues to be the second most troubled East European economy (after Poland) and a candidate for more societal conflict and internal strife."