Professor Gheorghe Manu remembered by one of his former cell mates: Eng. Ion Dima

This is the English version of an article written by Eng. Ion Dima for a Romanian diaspora publication upon the commemoration of 21 years since the scientist’s death in 1961 in Aiud prison. The article was republished as part of “George Manu – a Monograph” authored by Mr. Gheorghe Jijie (Romanian version by Editura Babel in 2010). We translated the article and are publishing it here with Mr. Jijie’s kind permission.

People who are not with us anymore – Professor Gheorghe Manu

by Ion Dima, Eng.

I met Professor Manu while a police van was carrying us from Aiud to Gherla. We had taken part in the hunger strike in Aiud during the spring of 1957. After the strike many of the prisoners in Zarka[1] were subjected to disciplinary transfer to Gherla.

I had heard of him when I had come to Zarka, one year prior to our meeting. The mere mention of his name had an effect on those who had known him personally or had just heard of him: they felt like straightening up and listening respectfully.

I have many times wondered: how did he earn such an enormous respect? He was sentenced to life in prison because he had been a legionary, but all the other prisoners respected him, irrespective of their political adherence. Beyond his qualities as a politician, there was something about him that commanded everybody’s respect. He had Ph.D. in Mathematics and Physics and had worked for ten years with scientist Marie Curie at the Sorbonne University. I was previously taught that Horia Hulubei was our greatest expert in nuclear physics. It was in prison that I found out that Hulubei had gained recognition in the absence of Manu who had to leave his teaching and research as early as 1945[2].

Beside his areas of expertise – physics and mathematics, Professor Manu could easily teach chemistry, history, history of arts, biology, geography as well as other subjects with one exception: music. This is not to say that he did not know the great composers and their creations; he did not know musical technique and regretfully confessed having no ear for music.

All those who were imprisoned, with no exception, wanted to share the cell with him. When I arrived to Zarka, he had already been there for seven years. During all these years he tried to share with others the knowledge he had acquired in a lifetime dedicated to science. He was a living encyclopedia, and one with a true soul. He was aware of his mission in prison and was entirely devoted to it.

In the administration’s efforts to condemn us all to mental impairment we were forbidden to have any activity. But the intellectuals imprisoned in Aiud were well aware of the Securitate diabolic plan and tried as hard as they could to prevent this from happening. Among these great thinkers, Professor Manu was probably the most prominent figure. His tireless activity on various subjects reverberated in our souls. Professor Manu was a rock standing in the way of the prisoners’ psychological mutilation. He led by example, due to his stature and most of all, to his work.

He worked ever since he got up early in the morning till late at night. He strived to send a reply to each cell and answer to what was demanded of him. I don’t think there was a single man in the Zarka at that time who didn’t address him at least one question. His work was wholeheartedly devoted to saving prisoners from falling into despair and madness. Professor Manu’s work was not in vain.

His life in prison was rhythmed by lectures on various subjects: languages (English, French, and German), history (Romania, France, Russia, and USA), geography (North America, China), history of arts, history of scientific discoveries and the evolution of atomic energy and many others.

He prided himself on one of his student’s achievements: Duță Costin had learned excellent French during the three years he had the “luck” to share a cell with the professor.

His lectures were scratched on small slate-like bars of soap and transmitted to the other prisoners generally via lavatory and toilets, sometimes when guardians watched with blind eyes. The slates were on continuous move. According to rigorous planning each plate had to stay maximum one day in each cell. When a slate was found, the punishment was severe regime solitary confinement for 10 – 14 days. What we feared most was not being discovered but being dumbed down by the stupefying lack of intellectual activity purposefully inflicted upon us by the administration. We, the prisoners in Zarka and other sections of Aiud prison bravely confronted dangers and Professor Manu did not hesitate for a moment to continue his apostolic work even though he was the main target.

This particular way of disseminating knowledge was abandoned when the Administration and the guardians discovered the lessons on soap slates.  However, the intellectual activities continued relentlessly. At this moment Professor Manu invented a most inconspicuous method to disseminate information: Morse code on yarn…a long yarn taken out from a mattress…a little knot on the yarn represented a dot and two close knots represented a dash. It was perhaps the most innovative and efficient means of communication between the prisoners, a fruit of the great Professor’s thought and intelligence. Who would have thought that a little clew disposed of in the garbage was the depository of the noblest spiritual food for hundreds of prisoners sentenced to tens of years in prison? The ingenious Morse system lasted for years and sometimes the precious spiritual food was transmitted in the presence of the guardian brutes, whose eyes were incapable of seeing the light. What would normally take one hour to be written on paper needed two days of strained work to knot the yarn, but Manu never complained. His work provided him with the pleasure that a teacher draws from training his students. He was animated by the love of the Apostle who fulfills his mission.

George Manu was not only a first class intellectual but he was also an unrivalled craftsman. He tried to reach perfection in everything he did. For example, his handwriting was more beautiful and neat than typing. The knots on the yarn were incredibly even. When two yarns had to be linked, the linkage knot was part of the code, so it could not be identified.

After eight years of Aiud’s Zarka he was taken to Gherla’s Zarka. It is on this occasion that I met him while a police van was carrying us to destination. In Gherla we spent three weeks in the same cell with other three brothers in suffering. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to spend even this short time with the Professor.  Together with the other three prisoners, we were all eyes and ears, eager to absorb everything that Gheorghe Manu said and conveyed.

I sometimes furtively looked at him in admiration. He was 54 at that time. He wore very thick lenses eyeglasses, was not very tall and looked very modest, excessively modest for his stature. Only once, while he was recalling a lecture he had given in Paris, he raised his head, straightened up his back and looked at the cell as if he were in the Sorbonne Auditorium full to overflowing with hundreds of students …..

The Professor was there, in front of us.

Nothing in him evoked the courage of a revolutionary fighter or the secretive or cynical behavior of a politician. He was the Professor: calm and self-confident, always ready to share his knowledge with others. He had inherited his family’s noblesse.  In maternal line he descended from the Cantacuzino family, and his inherent brightness added yet another flower to his Byzantine family tree.

He had a healthy mind, body and spirit and a great memory he could readily access at any time.  Once I asked him how many times had he read the works he was presenting to us and he replied: “Only once, but I was so deeply immersed that I lost myself in it.”

He once talked to us about M. Roller’s study referring to the uprisings in 1907; this reproduced the correspondence between the Ministry of War and the military units that took part in the repression, as well as the correspondence between the Ministry of War and the county prefectures. The Professor had several remarks on this occasion: “I was very proud to read that my grandfather (General Gheorghe Manu, Minister of War at that time) gave order not to shoot the rioters. I studied all these telegrams and I calculated the number of persons shot by the authorities. It does not exceed 400 and 40 of them were part of a thief gang that operated on the Olt river banks. These telegrams are the only historical documents about those who died in the riots. The communist press claims that 11,000 peasants were shot in 1907 but how did they get these figures? I never understood why the past democratic regimes did not publish these telegrams as a proof that they were not guilty for such a heavy death toll.”

Among other important things, Professor G. Manu told me about the book he had written not long before being arrested. Its title was “Behind the Iron Curtain”. It had been secretly sent to Western countries and had been printed in the free world. The author’s name remained unknown[3].

The interrogations revealed that professor Manu was the author. One of the investigation officers exclaimed: “Well! …… think of all the time we beat our brains out to discover who wrote this! And the data is supported by irrefutable documents.”

“Many of these documents”, the professor added, “were provided to me by Anton Golopenția, the General Director of the Central Institute of Statistics. Later on he was also imprisoned and murdered during the investigation.

He continued in Gherla the work he had begun in Aiud. We were together for three weeks and then I was transferred to Bucharest. I regretted enormously our separation. I have never seen him afterwards. I found out that after one year and a half he was taken back to Aiud where he resumed the work devoted to the spiritual life of the prisoners.

George Manu had an amazingly robust health. He confessed that he was never sick while in prison and added: “Sometimes I am ashamed to tell I have been in prison for ten years”.

When “re-education” was forced upon all the political prisoners in Aiud he showed the same dignity, firmness, steadiness and uncompromising attitude that were characteristic of his spirit. He was a living example for everybody. They all followed him in silence. But the evil infested the good.

Administration’s agents infiltrated our cells. It soon became clear (if any proof was needed) who was the brain and the soul of the resistance in Zarka. He was subjected to a very harsh regime and had the misfortune – he, the healthy man – to fall ill with TB.

On orders of Colonel Gheorghe Crăciun, commander of the Aiud prison, he was denied any kind of medical treatment. When his death became certain, he was transferred to the prison hospital.

And there, on the hills surrounding Aiud, in a place called Three Poplars Cemetery, in unknown graves, forgotten even by those who dug them, together with other thousands of bodies separated from their souls in Aiud calvary, there lies Professor Manu, a great scientist and a true martyr of the Romanian people.

When the sad news spread, there was a general feeling of consternation among the prisoners, all the more so as they were going through the difficult times of re-education.

But as it is always the case with great men, Professor Manu is not truly dead. He is alive and will forever live in the souls of all those who had received the spiritual nourishment he relentlessly strived to offer.

We loved him, respected him and would not forget him. Today, 21 years after our separation, I am standing here, thousands of kilometers away from the place where we suffered together and I am expressing my gratitude.

[1] Translator’s note: Zarka is the name given to a punishment block in the prison; it is a Hungarian word, as the prison was built by Hungarians.

[2] See Authors’ Biographies.

[3] Translator’s note: George Manu wrote his study in English under a pseudonym: Testis Dacicus. Excerpts from this study are published on this blog.

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