Fiction as Therapy

This is our translation of an excerpt of Radu Mărculescu’s Suffering and Enlightenment in Soviet Captivity.

After dinner, while everybody was silently digesting their ratio of salted fish and bread, I asked for permission to speak. I proposed that those of us who were able to remember a good novel or a beautiful movie, or even a life story, should try to share it, in an attempt to chase away ugliness and ignore hunger. Even a concocted story, like the one told by our comrade that morning, had the power to reach our hearts. My proposal was readily accepted and I offered to be the first, for fear that it could all fizzle out. I chose The Uprising by Liviu Rebreanu. Five or six months ago I had presented it to my students, in a farewell lesson, before my leaving for the front. I started clumsily, in a faint voice. Very soon I got hoarse and I panicked: would I ever get to finish my story? I swallowed a bit of water and luckily my voice cleared. Little by little, as I felt the interest of my audience, I recovered self-confidence.

I closed my eyes and the railcar disappeared. I was in the classroom, in front of the eighth grade students: white walls, uncleaned blackboard and up on the wall His Majesty’s and Antonescu’s portraits. Here I was – the teacher I had once been. When the lesson ended, I awoke from my dream in the sound of applause. Reality was now more bearable. I looked around and saw kinder faces, showing sympathy. The experiment had been successful. For a few moments we had all managed to escape. I fell asleep feeling happy. I thought: God, man’s soul thirsts for fiction!

That night, nobody died.

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Suffering and Enlightenment in Soviet Captivity

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We are today introducing an exceptionally gifted Romanian writer: Radu Mărculescu.

Radu Mărculescu was born in 1915 in Bucharest. He graduated in 1938 with a diploma in Letters and Philosophy. Between 1939 and 1942 he taught Romanian language at two secondary schools in Bucharest. As an officer of the Romanian Royal Army he fought in the Don River battle and was taken prisoner in 1942. He was freed from the Soviet camps in 1951. Between 1959 and 1964 he was once again imprisoned, this time by the Romanian communist regime.

Pătimiri şi iluminări din captivitatea sovietică  (Suffering and Enlightenment in Soviet Captivity) is a book of memoirs covering the period that he spent in Soviet camps. The book had three editions (2000, 2007 and 2010) and was also translated into German (Leid und Offenbarung in der sowjetischenGefangenschaft, C&N Verlag, Berlin, 2008).

What follows is our translation of the pilot chapter of Suffering and Enlightenment in Soviet Captivity (Pătimiri și iluminări din captivitatea sovietică). 

Suffering and Enlightenment in Soviet Captivity

I dedicate this book of suffering, but also of enlightenment, to Ligia, my beloved wife and companion of my journey through the insane totalitarian aeon.

January 3, 1991

Pilot Chapter

 

This night, as in so many nights before, my dreams were seeded with signals coming from a distant past, when I lived behind barbed wires and bars. Once again, a message was being delivered to me. Wearing a shepherd’s fur coat, which touched the ground, and a Russian hat with black ear flaps, hanging apart like a tired raven’s wings, a giant appeared in my dream. He held in one hand a smoking rifle and in the other a leash. A red crook-legged Teckel was frantically pulling on the leash. It was trying to lick a blood trail on the snow that had meanwhile invaded my room.  Pulled by the small dog, which followed the red trail with its tongue, the giant crossed what had all of a sudden become a large room, filled with superposed beds. Then he disappeared.

I instantly recognized the two – man and dog.

He marched last, behind the guards of our column. We had been taken prisoners in the Don River battle and forced into an insane march, marathon of death by freezing through the immensity of the Russian winter. When one of us remained behind, frostbitten, felled by hunger or exhausted, he would gently drag him to the edge of the road and anoint him with a shot in the forehead. He would then wait until the dwarf dog completed the ritual washing of the dead body, by licking the blood off the face of the one relieved of life’s burden. They then moved to the next one.

To my mind, he and the dog had since then grown into archetypal characters, doorkeepers to the Kingdom of the Dead. As such, they have transgressed the boundaries of the real world and found refuge in my dreams. They have visited me quite often over the years, and each of their night appearances brought me some message from the other world. What message were they now carrying from the buried world of those fourteen years of confinement? For, indeed, that world is still alive. It has crept into my subconscious, somewhere under the horizon of mystery, as Blaga[1] would say, and it keeps on sending me, be they only allusive, signs, warnings or even premonitions. Night after night my dreams are haunted, if not by clear scenes from war imprisonment or detention – this seldom happens, then at least by some minute detail, a feeling of constraint or anxiety, an ominous or indefinite something that unmistakably evokes detention.

In a sense, I live two parallel lives: I am a free man during the day and a prisoner during the night. When the curtain falls on the day-time performance, I wrap myself up in my prisoner coat or in my striped detention uniform and I go down the dream staircase to my concentrationary inferno. Mircea Eliade[2] once wrote about a king who had one night dreamt that he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he was confused: Was he a man who had dreamt that he was a butterfly or a butterfly that had dreamt that it was a man? I have a similar dilemma: Am I a free man who has dreamt that he was a prisoner or a prisoner who has dreamt that he was a free man? And I am not the only one. Friends of mine, either prisoners of war or political prisoners, reluctantly confess to having sometimes experienced similar sinister dream worlds marked by barbed wire or by more cryptic and sophisticated signs, all of them bearing the same indelible stamp of life in confinement.

Granted: I bear full responsibility for the forceful resurfacing of this underground world with all its infernal monsters and demented fears. I am the one who provoked it as soon as I started to write my memoirs. I had envisaged, among others, doing this as an attempt to decode and, hence, neutralize the signs that obsessively haunted my dreams.  (I must have taken Freud seriously.) In fact, all I managed to do was to get this world of monsters stirred up and to set it on me even more fiercely. I knew that I had embarked on an adventure that entailed a descensus ad inferos and the consequent risks, but I couldn’t help it. The matter went beyond exorcizing the maleficent underground worldin the depths of my being – a therapeutic experiment that has definitively failed. (In my dreams I will probably remain both a war prisoner and a political prisoner till the end of my life. It is my cross to bear!)

When I set out reliving, night after night, moments of an exhumed inferno, I also had in mind a purpose that I do consider well worth suffering for and that I hope I would be able to attain. I simply wanted to rewrite the journey of our captivity both as a space-time itinerary and, most of all, as an inward, psychological, moral, spiritual journey that we, the prisoners of war, and more precisely the officer prisoners, have madeduring our long slavery in the New (Soviet) Babylon.

Our journey started with the original catastrophe, when we were taken prisoners, or better put, when we were made slaves. Essentially, this was for all of us, to a lesser or a greater extent, also a moral collapse. Some fell to the lowest levels of humanity, bordering on animality. This degradation was caused by the limit situations inflicted on us, as prisoners.

Exhausting marches through the steppes, the plodding along in snow storms and on roads lined with the bodies of those who were not able to keep up, the perpetual, maddening cold, the grinding and mind-numbing hunger that dehumanized relations, especially among rank-and-file soldiers, the death trains with cattle wagons, overcrowded to suffocation, the lice and typhus, the unload of corpses in the railway stations, and above all the lack of perspective and the despair… Such were the biblical calamities and scourges we suffered since the moment we were taken prisoners!

We had barely ascended this ‘mount of suffering’ when, having reached the camps, we were hardly given the time to come to senses and tend to our wounds: The political commissars, a peculiar predator species, immediately assaulted us. With diabolic craft and scientific method they manipulated a combination of constraints (frost, hunger, to which they added forced labour, solitary confinement, terror, denunciation) to unleash upon us the ultimate operation of political enrolment. Thus, a malignant tumour grew within our Romanian community and this tumour would disrupt our lives until its definitive extirpation.  I refer to those pitiful legions of dead souls, the so-called voluntary divisions created by the Soviets in the prison camps and meant to bring back home on Soviet tanks the most devastating experiment that a human community, in all its aspects, has ever undergone: communism.

Their mission was to occupy positions in a repressive apparatus that would introduce by force and secure by terror an abnormal system otherwise too weak to be viable on its own. They accomplished this mission with criminal mastery. The processes through which normal people were transformed into enforcers of the Bolshevik torture regime imposed in our country remain a matter of debate. Conducted with means that affected us all, this recruitment process had on us, the majority on the opposite side, a long lasting and traumatizing effect, and forced us to live in a state of permanent anxiety and alert. The delicate mechanism of mutual trust was, in particular, severely disrupted.

When, day by day, people we had least expected joined the enemy camp and we felt the denunciation snake tightening its grip on us, we asked ourselves in confusion: ‘Whom to trust and whom to avoid?’ We had the feeling that wild beasts were lurking all around us.

Mutual trust once lost, isolation settled among us.

We lived next to each other like potatoes in a bag. We were not a whole anymore, but an amorphous mass of isolated individuals, ideally fit for being manipulated by the power. Fortunately, this abnormal situation did not last for too long. In order to survive, not only physically but also morally, we had to escape this nightmare of suspicion and to break the isolation that it created. We had to rebuild mutual trust. Eventually, we succeeded. But we laid a new foundation: character check, common aspirations, identical views on fundamental matters and readiness to contribute, despite sacrifices and risks, to building solidarity according to the musketeer motto: ‘All for one, one for all’.

We quietly evolved from an existence as individuals in a mass to an existence in a community that was based on affinities and fed by comradeship strongly rooted in Christian values. New members were met with trust, respect and even love; and, above all else, they felt protected. Solidarity allowed this community to react efficiently to the power’s brutal and insolent interferences aimed at depriving us of our inner and outer freedom and at sowing into our enslaved conscience the seeds of the basest treason:  the treason of nation, of God and, eventually, of self.

A first test of this solidarity was to provide those imprisoned with comradely assistance (a warm coat, a supplement of food that each of us spared and could be given to those in need, at any risk).

In that world dominated by egoism and self-preservation instinct, solidarity among Romanian officers in the camps was truly a miracle of Christian love, which illuminated our existence and softened adversities.  It even extended to people of other nations, whom we occasionally met in prison cells and solitary confinement. We reached this solidarity in time, through hardships and sacrifices, but it marked the beginning of our moral healing and it was, above all, the plasma that nourished Resistance in the Romanian prisoners’ camps. Resistance as survival (not only as physical entities, but also as moral-spiritual ones) evolved slowly, through actions and fights. It first manifested as protests against the administration’s abuses and guardians’ brutality. Afterwards, through labour and hunger strikes (first individually, and afterwards in group), we started the fight for our right to dignity, including the elimination of the Romanian officers’ obligation to forced labour, which was for the Soviets an opportunity to subject us to the most humiliating and exhausting toils, in disregard of the Hague Convention, which they too had signed.

Eventually, when we realized that our country’s sovietised government itself, as well as the western world, in which we had naively and fervently believed, had abandoned us in the claws of our oppressors, our resistance group launched a last, desperate, total, life-and-death hunger strike for repatriation.

Therefore, we can bluntly and proudly say that, of all the nations in Soviet captivity, we (Romanian officers, more precisely) were the only ones to have succeeded  (in Oranki Monastery[3] camp, in February 1948, through a quasi-unanimous hunger strike, which involved 1500 participants) in forcing the discretionary Soviet power to repatriate us. A prize that we snatched from the power and that allowed to a majority of our officers to return home with their heads unbowed and no blot of treason on their conscience, this repatriation was the apotheosis of our captivity journey. We thus took our revenge for all the humiliations and degradations of this slavery of biblical dimensions and apocalyptic consequences.  Our concentrationary journey started in the ontic abyss in which we were thrown by the ‘fall’, and ended in the boundless joy of victory, which brought us the trophy of freedom.

As for me, I did not have the chance to live that magnificent moment. Two years before that event, I had been taken away with a group of so-called agitators and sent to a punishment camp on Volga, the Devil’s Hole[4], in retaliation for an extended hunger strike at Oranki, where I have buried three and a half years of my life. As a punishment for work refusal we were imprisoned in dreadful solitary confinement cells, death’s antechambers. There, through desperate hunger strike we succeeded to force the local power to acknowledge in writing that we, Romanian officers, were under no obligation to work.

The victories at the Devil’s Hole and Oranki were dearly paid for. Scores of Romanian officers were refused repatriation and, being labelled instigators, were referred to military courts, which staged show trials; for reasons that in no other country would have been considered an offence, they were sentenced to long years of forced labour and deported to polar or Siberian wastelands in camps with infernal regime, alongside the cruellest of Soviet common law criminals.  Luckily, even in this realm of evil, occasional thaws led to an important part of these champions of suffering being able to go home, be it even as outlaws or suspects.

These hunger strikes were imitated by prisoners of other nations, unfortunately without success. Naturally, we were deemed instigators of these, too, and our files got heavier. The Soviet power would retaliate against our whole resistance movement, and not only on Soviet territory – like Erinyes they would follow us back home, where NKVD had placed its henchmen in all the key positions of the repressive machine.

Thus, once arrived back in country (in the summer of ‘48), many of the Oranki strikers filled the investigation cells, the prisons and the camps of the new regime. I am in no position to estimate how many of them were victims of NKVD’s revenge and how many got themselves into this situation deliberately, all the more so as their repatriation coincided with the country seething with all sorts of subversive actions against the regime, including military actions in the mountains. In a word, those who had experienced the Soviet inferno and were decided to do anything to stop it from flooding our world could in no way remain passive to the nascent forms of resistance.

But in December 1950, when our group of instigators and reactionaries got ‘repatriated’ (in the Bragadiru camp, where this time our co-nationals have kept us prisoners in our own country for over half of year ) the die had been cast and the communist power had firmly put the yoke around Romanian people’s neck, having destroyed nearly all resistance movements.  Still, on July 17, 1951, when the camp of former prisoners was liquidated, and I was freed, 22 comrades of our famous group of former strikers remained behind barbed wires. Without a sentence, they were sent to the Danube – Black Sea Canal forced labour camp, where they continued to toil for three more years – in addition to the nine years of imprisonment that each had already executed. They were freed after one year, when the chief devil, Stalin, dropped dead in a sulphur cloud that darkened half of planet.

This did not put an end to the Soviet oppression of the former prisoners who were active in the resistance movement in camps. In 1957, following the Hungarian revolution, the forced collectivization of agriculture, and in anticipation of the withdrawal from our country, in 1958, of the Soviet occupation troops, Securitate[5], under the guidance of Soviet counsellors, who were always plenty, unleashed an unprecedentedly fierce terror campaign throughout the country. They fabricated conspiracies, made arrests, conducted investigations under torture, and eventually staged trials. There was a large variety of such judicial actions that swept all over the country.

We, the prisoners active in the resistance movement, were also drawn in this gigantic and demented whirl of trials, being involved in a large-scale show trial. It was, in fact, a cluster of trials, some bigger, others smaller, all gravitating around and being artificially connected to a central trial whose main character was Constantin (Puiu) Atanasiu. He was one of the pillars of resistance in the Soviet camps, and also one of the leaders of the former Legionary Movement. In the theatrical view of Securitate this specific political colour was supposed to reverberate over all those involved in these trials. But in reality things were different. Obviously, prisoners who had been legionaries had an undeniable contribution to the establishment of resistance in the camps, as well as to organizing protests and hunger strikes, including the last and decisive one in February 1948. But to lump them all together under the ‘legionary’ label was a cheap trick used by Securitate in order to cast them in the green[6] light of extremism and readily outlaw them. It rained sentences to death and forced labour for life, not to mention sentences to 20, 15 and 10 years in prison, the latter being perceived as a child’s play. In this galaxy of trials I was placed on a trial orbit together with other three ‘accomplices’ whom I had never met and who hadn’t met one another either. What were we accused of? Conspiracy against the state, of course. Based on what facts? Occasional meetings, small parties among friends, former war prisoners, sometimes accompanied by our families. Moreover, I was accused for having written, while I was in captivity, three poems that were brought back home by friends who, having appreciated them, had memorized them. These poems were rich in symbolism, and their significance, admittedly subversive, eluded the obtuse investigators. They were unable to decrypt them and, to our honour and to my luck, nobody offered them the key. So I resisted the investigation pressures and I rejected the charges against me while the ‘prosecution’ witnesses, despite all intimidation and even tortures inflicted on them (some had been sentenced to death), have obstinately contested in court everything they had purportedly declared against me. To their own amazement, the prosecutors realized that they lacked evidence.

Since they could not sentence me but they were not willing toacquit me either, after one year of waiting in Uranus prison (Bucharest) I was taken to the Danube Delta, to Periprava, where I was informed that the Ministry of Internal Affairs had ordered my ‘administrative arrest’ for 72 months. Euphemism apart, I was convicted to six years of prison without a court sentence. By 1964, when the general pardon decree was issued, I had effectively executed five years out of six.

Thus I came to know the horrors of our mioritic[7] gulag both from ‘first hand’ experience and from the stories of my colleagues of suffering. I started my concentrationary journey in 1942, in the Don’s snow-bound steppe, went through the camps of Tambov, Oranki, Devil’s Hole, Marsansk, Mikhajlovo, Odessa, Sighet, Bragadiru, and after an interlude of eight years of so –called freedom my journey ended  in the realm of waters at Periprava in 1964, the year of the amnesty decree.

This was more or less the destiny of all the Romanian prisoners who had joined the resistance movement in the Soviet camps and who, upon repatriation, were labelled “counter-revolutionary” and “enemy of the Soviet Union” by NKVD.

Upon their transfer from the Soviet camps to the Romanian gulag, our prisoners brought a revolutionary spirit, their experience in confronting the repressive apparatus, a particular discourse on dignity and a specific moral code. Given the horrible concentrationary experience in our country (far more brutal than in big brother’s country, as the pupil had surpassed his master) they were initially perceived as romanticists and their experience was judged unproductive. Eventually, the Gospel of solidarity, which they preached, proved to be realistic and salutary armour against the tough blows of the penitentiary regime. Whatever prison they went to, their presence was considered invigorating, heartening and a source of optimism. As for me, wherever I went during this second round of imprisonment, I heard of them only in superlative terms.

For approximately seven years between two waves of persecution, the one immediately after repatriation and the one after the Hungarian revolution, we enjoyed a period of calm (Securitate was busy collecting evidence for the next wave of arrests), but as former prisoners of war we were severely marginalized. With the exception of higher rank officers who were pensioned off, active officers were dismissed from the army and, together with us, reserve officers, were knocking in vain at the doors of institutions and enterprises, being rejected by the sinister ‘cadre’[8] department. In the end, many of us found refuge in construction cooperatives. Those were times of feverish construction, so they turned a blind eye to our ‘unhealthy’ origin and dubious past and offered us lower end, miserably paid jobs. The constructions field had become a French Foreign Legion of the communist regime, a last refuge for the oppressed former ‘upper classes’. In such a cooperative I found a sordid job. As further reprisal, my family and I were evacuated from our privately owned house and we moved to a hut. To crown it all, ‘Soviet Counsellors’ took lodging in our former house.

I joined a team of ‘glaziers’ (among them a law university professor, a counsellor for a Court of Appeal, a Colonel of the Royal Guard, an Air Force Colonel and a county prefect) in a cooperative where, since all evil leads to a greater good, I met my future wife and my life’s chance, Ligia Manolescu. She came from a family with many ‘former people’ and convicts. Her marriage was shattered (just as mine, by the earthquakes of those times) and she was left with two little children to care for. Hence, as Ibsen beautifully puts it in A Doll’s House, two shipwrecked people joined forces and managed to navigate the ocean of uncertainties of this century. We were not spared of storms coming from the East, but we eventually made it safely to the harbour.

*

            When two former prisoners of war or political prisoners meet by chance, they unwillingly and unconsciously exchange a meaningful glance, as if alluding to a shared secret treasure. Admitting this impression is not entirely subjective, where does it spring from? Its source is the assumption that sufferings allowed them to tap into profound knowledge of the world and life at a level impossible to reach in normal conditions. As if the long road of hardships through the concentrationary world were an initiation voyage at the end of which those who retained their integrity were offered the trophy of real ‘gnosis’: knowledge of life and man, devoid of both clichés and illusions but deeply realistic and, above all, ripe with astounding revelations.

The initiated through detention suffering discovers in astonishment that in limit situations spiritual concentration (also called prayer) increases stamina far beyond the normal limits, to a nearly miraculous level. The initiated through detention suffering thus acknowledges the pre-eminence of spiritual world over the physical one, of inner freedom over fate, and comes to realize that there is always a way out for those with strong spirit, incandescent with concentration. One also discovers that hardships that did not kill him made him even stronger.

The initiated through detention suffering experiences the all-mighty power of love, comradeship and friendship that can melt the ice of egoism, enmity or indifference and transform a concentrationary hell into a Heaven’s doorstill[9] or at least into a bearable place to live. But most of all, he comes to realize that any effort spent out of love and dedication for one’s neighbour, instead of exhausting his strength, incredibly increases it, and thus he understands that transgression of his egoist nature takes him out of the Euclidian universe (in which four minus two is two) and into a realm of existence governed by an altered mathematics (of love), in which giving is not conducive to loss, but to gain (as in the parable of the multiplication of bread). Thus he succeeds, in this life, be it only for a few moments of grace (always coinciding with the toughest trials), to glimpse beyond the curtain that covers the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is the valuable lesson that stayed with us from the teachings of the two great Universities of the concentrationary aeon, ‘captivity as prisoners of war’ and ‘captivity as political prisoners’. Those who had acquired such gains feel they have earned them with the full price of their suffering. It is this assumption of some irrevocably gained goods, be it only half-conscious, which shines behind the allusive smile exchanged by former prisoners when they meet again.

 

The decisive battles of this end of millennium were not fought exclusively on the battlefield. They were and still are fought in people’s hearts. The human ‘heart’ is this aeon’s Armageddon, the place where the ultimate battle will take place, and at stake is the divine spark we call s o u l.

This is the place where the powers seeking to materialize and subdue the human soul, and hence to disintegrate it, will relentlessly clash until the end of times with the powers that stand for its preservation in the struggle for spiritual fulfilment and freedom. Such a battle was fought in us all along our captivity as prisoners of war and thereafter, as political prisoners. The political power that held us in captivity tried to enslave our souls, too, and transform us into a subhuman product, the ‘new man’, an automaton designed to act in a world of reversed values.

The guiding-thread of this book is our desperate attempt to preserve our ontological identity or our God given ‘image and likeness’, as we strived to resist our captors’ efforts to annihilate our inner freedom.

In this huge concentrationary space (where over-run peoples were also confined), each camp or prison was a ‘gate to hell’, a ‘hell’s vent-hole’ through which the infernal red tide of communist subversion would spill on the earth.  It is through these camps and prisons that hell spread its well thought-out techniques for demolishing the human spirit and the natural order of the world. These were laboratories for the homologation and experimentation of all the pedagogical methods (such as the one inspired by Makarenko[10] and applied at Pitești[11]) devised to substitute one’s own self by a Pavlovian self. These were reservoirs of all the political activists, propagandists, informers and torturers who, in groups or legions, invaded their native countries, in a joint criminal effort to convert to evil as many as possible of mankind. Only an in-depth analysis of these two factors, the camp and the prison, can make it possible to understand the tragedy of these 70 years (or 45 plus 7 years); a period of devastation and alienation for a part of the world which had fallen prey to the terrible ordeal at the end of millennium. But since, as Saint Paul the Apostle says,  ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’, these same camps and prisons were places where, under the highest pressure, human dignity shined in its fullest brightness and transfiguring power, and reached for some, few – indeed, the splendour of holiness.  (I am almost afraid that the reader might suspect plagiarism of ‘martirologies’ in some of my pages.) In these same places Satan’s limitations were exposed, since he is not actually all-powerful, and all those who had faith and managed to endure to the end (and they were not few) were able to return home without the mark of the Beast. This is the great pride, satisfaction and compensation for the many and humble whose lives were crushed but who managed to get through the inferno pouches unstained. No one and nothing would take this crown away from such people.

It is for them (as I met quite a number), many of whom have long departed for the ‘other world’, that I crafted this book, striving to gather and link together everything we have lived, gone through and suffered together, in testimony to our desperate, yet touched by tragic greatness, fight to preserve our humanity till the end.

*

As I engaged in digging up this ossuary of memories, I wondered if I would have the time to complete the deed. I have many years behind me, but little time left. I now believe that this anxiety-ridden question of whether or not I would finish writing took a disguise and started haunting me. It was the giant with his leashed dwarf dog who visited me in my dreams, he who, during the demented march through the snow-bound steppe was a fearful reminder that if I stayed behind the column of prisoners I should become his prey. He was the one who hurried me up to exhaustion.

„Hurry up!… move on!…” He seems to tell me even now, seeing how difficult it is for me to put my pen on snow-white paper.

„Hurry up!… we are still behind you.”

 

 

January 10, 1999

 

It is dawn now. I managed to write ‘the end’ on the last page of the ‘imprisonment’. After a night of writing I am going to sleep, that is to a new encounter with the world of shadows that I carry inside me. I resignedly pull on my striped prison uniform and go down the dream’s spiral staircase until I reach the underground realm whose sky is relentlessly lit by the evil star of our misfortune.  Underneath the desolate oniric landscape, buried under oblivion, among barbed wires and bars, lies still a whole world of shadows waiting to be brought to the light of truth. Among them are shadows of the prisoners who participated in the resistance and were politically imprisoned in the Romanian gulag.

Shall I still have the strength and time to fulfil this promise and this duty, too? The spirit is willing, but is the flesh strong enough?

Be therefore happy, beloved reader, with what God shall allow me to tell you here and now! As for the stories that, for lack of time, will remain untold and thus a debt I would owe to you, please bear with me until the Final Judgement Day, when everything that is covered shall be revealed, when no debts shall be left unpaid and all our puzzles shall be solved!

 

 

[1] Lucian Blaga (1885 – 1961) was a Romanian philosopher, poet, playwright and diplomat

[2]Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986) was a Romanian scholar of religion, philosopher and fiction writer

[3] Oranki (Nizhny Novgorod region) was until 1918 a Christian Orthodox Monastery. After the Bolshevik revolution it was transformed in prison for Russian political prisoners and deportees. During the Second World War prisoners of war of various nationalities (Romanian, German, Hungarian, Italian and Spanish) were brought here and interned in camps

[4] In the originalGaura Dracului; many camps in Siberia were dubbed Hell Holes

[5]Romanian secret political police, founded in 1948 by NKVD

[6]Members of the Legionary Movement were also known as the Green Shirts (Cămășile Verzi)

[7] ‘Mioritic space’ is a concept introduced by Lucian Blaga in a philosophical study about Romanian cultural style. The word ‘Mioritic’ is derived from Mioriţa (Little Lamb), a Romanian folk ballad

[8] In the original serviciu de ‘cadre’– the name given to the personnel department

[9]In the original gura de rai – a phrase from the Romanian folk ballad Miorița

[10]Anton Makarenko (1888 – 1939): Soviet educator and writer who devised a method of re-education through violence and intimidation that would be applied in Romanian prisons by the communist regime  (See Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 5, Eastern Christianity)

[11] Between 1949 and 1952 a re-education through torture experiment was conducted in Pitești prison (See Dennis Deletant, Communist Terror in Romania: Gheorghiu-Dej and the Police State, 1948-1965)


The Siege of the Towerless Fortress

This post is our translation of an excerpt from Aurel State’s The Road of the Cross (Drumul Crucii), the chapter with the same name, which gives a taste of life in Soviet camps during WWII.

At night, after the sound of taps, they gathered in groups near the barbed wire that secured the quarantine area and talked in whispers about the crazy life which had betrayed their beliefs and youthful enthusiasm. That life was now cruelly torturing its victims by putting them on hold.

Second lieutenant Mateianu, Marius and Arion’s military school trainer, an incisive but self-controlled man of expressive ugliness, who had a calling for being a public accuser, described the break between those who survived typhus and those who survived starvation.

‘We were in the upper camp’, and he pointed East, ‘three kilometres from here, in the former Oranki monastery. In May ’43 food started to come in: white flour, powdered eggs, American canned food, dishes and even tablecloths. Food was stored in a Roman style church with wall paintings of athletic saints, in the doubtful taste of Late Renaissance. A byzantine image of humbling beauty, painted in nuances of white, shined from above the iconostasis. It was the scene of Resurrection …. with a Christ shot in the head by a chasovoy[1]. Be on the watch’, he advised us, ‘if you ever get there when the trucks with bags arrive, just look at it! It is balm on soul.

So substantial food was brought in the camp where people had died of starvation. They said an order was given, to prevent prisoners from dying. During winter dead bodies were stacked like logs. Transportation could not cope with the number of deaths. In several days five thousand Italians had died. They reached the camp, frozen skeletons, entered the bathrooms and melted down while they were waiting for their clothes to come out of the delousing ovens. They were being sent to the other world already deloused. Some 13,000 of our nationals, the most resilient of the nations tried here, have died during these years. The common grave is beneath the footbridge, on the left, where the climb to Oranki starts. See how we are becoming stupefied? We are getting rid of them in a number. But beyond each figure there is a life, just like ours. And someone is still waiting for each one of them in the outside world! They were not killed in war. They were defenseless people, killed under the banner of the common good of humanity!’

[1] sentry


They’ve brought the fascists!

This post is a fragment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Part III, Chapter 6, translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney. A parallel between the Western world and the part of the world going through the communist experiment. The similarity with what happened in Romania during 1947 – 1964 is staggering.

Borya was coughing. There was still a fragment of German tank shell in his lungs. He was thin and yellow, and his nose, ears, and the bones of his face had grown deathly pointed. I looked at him closely, and I was not sure: would he make it through a winter in camp?

We still tried to divert our minds and conquer our situation with thought. But by then neither philosophy nor literature was there. Even our hands became heavy, like spades, and hung down.

Boris suggested: “No, to talk … takes much strength. Let’s be silent and think to some purpose. For example, compose verses. In our heads.”

I shuddered. He could write verses here and now? The canopy of death hung over him; but the canopy of such a stubborn talent hung over his yellow forehead too.[1]

And so we kept silent and scooped up the clay with our hands. The rain kept coming. Yet they not only didn’t take us out of the clay pit, but Matronina, brandishing the fiery sword of her gaze (her “red” head was covered with a dark shawl), pointed out to the brigadier from the edge the different ends of the clay pit. And we understood: they were not going to pull out the brigade at the end of its shift at 2 P.M., but would keep it in the clay pit until it fulfilled its norm. Only then would we get both lunch and dinner.

In Moscow the construction project was halted for lack of bricks.

But Matronina departed and the rain thickened. Light red puddles formed everywhere in the clay and in our car too. The tops of our boots turned red, and our coats were covered with red spots. Our hands had grown numb from the cold clay, and by this time they couldn’t even throw anything into the car. And then we left this futile occupation, climbed up higher to the grass, sat down there, bent our heads, and pulled the collars of our coats up over the backs of our necks.

From the side we looked like two reddish stones in the field.

Somewhere young men of our age were studying at the Sorbonne or at Oxford, playing tennis during their ample hours of relaxation, arguing about the problems of the world in student cafés: They were already being published and were exhibiting their paintings. They were twisting and turning to find ways of distorting the insufficiently original world around them in some new way. They railed against the classics for exhausting all the subjects and themes. They railed at their own governments and their own reactionaries who did not want to comprehend and adopt the advanced experience of the Soviet Union. They recorded interviews through the microphones of radio reporters, listening all the time to their own voices and coquettishly elucidating what they wished to say in their last or their first book. They judged everything in the world with self-assurance, but particularly the prosperity and higher justice of our country. Only at some point in their old age, in the course of compiling encyclopedias, would they notice with astonishment that they could not find any worthy Russian names for our letters-for all the letters of our alphabet.

The rain drummed on the back of our heads, and the chill crept up our wet backs.

[1] That winter Boris Gammerov died in a hospital from exhaustion and tuberculosis. I revere in him a poet who was never even allowed to peep.  His spiritual image was lofty, and his verses themselves seemed to me very powerful at the time. But I did not memorize even one of them, and I can find them nowhere now, so as to be able at least to make him a gravestone from those little stones.


Fata Morgana

This post is our translation of an excerpt of the chapter with the same name from The Road of the Cross, book written by Aurel State.

The nightmare of that day of 12 May 1944 continued grotesquely while sleep knocked me down to the dawn of the second day of imprisonment. The fall from freedom into captivity had been so explosively abrupt that it left no linking passage, not even a descending one, between the two realms.

At lightning speed the news of the fall had pierced into the inscrutable soul. There was no way to doubt, escape or forget. The frontiers of both the subconscious and unconscious were more ruthlessly crossed than the successive positions that had shattered our delayed embarkation to home port. In the deep underground where we continued our existence objects and mechanisms were the same as in the realm we had fallen from. And places had the same names: Balaklava, Baidari… We bore the same labels, yet our broken stems were kept alive only by some external tissues and, wondrously, obscure saps still trickled through. Everything resembled what had been before, in the same way artfully crafted imitation plastic fruits resemble flavoured orchard fruits. Meanings were losing flesh though, and were honed to lancet sharpness, as if preparing for a long vivisection.

Like the original sin, our fall was irrecoverable, and we knew of no god who would send his son to redeem it. Even if the armed guard shoots me, death cannot erase the stigma of entering this existence. I felt ice-cold discovering this monstrous virginity of the soul. We were called to explore the pits, labyrinths and catacombs of our soul geology and we had no idea what was in store for us. Shall we continue our dreadful toil in the barren underground, as a reflection of the frolic in no man’s land, the land under the sun? Certainly, the similarity between the two realms entails grosser adversities for a man’s evolution and fulfilment in the ‘underground’ than in the world of tail coats, titles and conventional brightness. But what if the huge crusher roaring that I heard while sleeping towards the morning of captivity would not be suddenly stopped?

The other realm was connected to a replica plastic sun, and it was as big as human history, while the earth differed from ours by the people’s lack of beauty and occupation. Like war prisoners, they lay down and obsessed about finding in sleep an escape from their cruel fate. The roads were trodden by red ants that readily carried the bodies of the fallen ones, struggling to push them in the jaws that screeched while trying to break the diamond-like strength of spines and bones. The macabre output of ground resistances was poured into a continuous flow due to liquid jets that gargled in the crusher’s mouth. But what was really frightening was to see that people who would hardly bear the sound of a dentist’s drilling machine did not jump off the Fiolent rocks nearby, upon hearing the dreadful grinding screech.

After the nightmare we all seem to have retained the same image: the silhouette against the sky of an armed chasovoy(1) with his budionovka(2), standing in an improvised lookout tower. (Years later, in a camp in the north, a crazy war prisoner would transpose this first collective imagery drawing a circle in the sand: the earth. Then, faking the joy of someone suddenly struck by an idea, he drew at North Pole the sentry box of the big chasovoy of those times(3), whose moustache was the sole distinctive mark lent to the sketched figure. He then verbally adorned the figure’s budionovka with the northern star and, rubbing his hands in contentment, to stir my curiosity about the gist of his drawing, he girdled the earth with a barbed wire belt along the equator line.)

(1) In the original ‘ceasovoi’ – transliteration of the Russian word for standing guard

(2) Soviet star hat

(3) Allusion to Stalin


Aurel State – a Short Biography

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We are starting today a series of posts dedicated to Aurel (Aurelian) State, author of Drumul Crucii (The Road of the Cross) – Memoirs from the Eastern Front and from Gulags.
As usual, the first post gives the author’s biographical data – in fact, our translation of the chronological data included in the book entitled Drumul Crucii (The Road of the Cross) published by Editura Rost & Fundația Sfinții Închisorilor in 2013.

Aurel (Aurelian) State was born on April 29, 1921, in Godeni – Argeș, in a farmer’s family.
After graduating secondary school, he enrolled for one year (1940 – 1941) at the Military School for Reserve Officers in Ploiești.
Starting with 1942 and until 1944 he takes part in combats on the Eastern front, together with Battalion 1 Vânători de munte (Mountain Hunters) – elite forces of the Romanian Army. He is wounded on 4 occasions and is awarded Virtutea Militară (Military Virtue Medal), the Iron Cross and the Order Mihai Viteazul.
Between 1944 and 1955 (when he returns to Romania) he is a prisoner of war in various Soviet camps.
In 1957 he comes top of the list after the exams for enrolment with the Department for German Language and Literature at the University of Bucharest.
In February 1958 he gets arrested for “plotting against the social regime”. To avoid being forced to testify under torture against other innocent people, he tries to commit suicide by jumping from the roof of Uranus prison.
In August 1959 he is sentenced to 18 years of forced labour and 7 years of civil degradation.
In August 1964 he is freed from Aiud prison, as part of the last group to be released: political prisoners who had rejected re-education.
Between 1964 and 1983 he completes his university studies, works as German teacher, translates literature into Romanian and writes his memoirs. Despite being permanently supervised by Securitate (Romanian political police), he manages to send (by intermediaries) the manuscript of his memoirs to Germany.
On November 19, 1983 he dies in hospital in unelucidated circumstances. At the end of 1983 a publisher in Freiburg (Editura Coresi) publishes the first volume of his memoirs under the title Drumul Crucii (The Road of the Cross).


Romanian revolution through the eyes of a French journalist

We are commemorating 24 years since the revolution in December 1989. This post is an excerpt of the book Un mensonge gros comme le siècle. Roumanie, histoire d’une manipulation (A lie as big as the century : Romania, history of manipulation) written by Michel Castex (Albin Michel, 1990).

Premier envoyé spécial de l’Agence France-Presse à entrer à Bucarest, lui aussi par la filière bulgare, Ricardo Uztarroz avait eu deux jours avant le même sentiment d’étrangeté : « Quand je suis arrivé à Bucarest, je m’attendais à plonger en pleine guerre civile. Première surprise. J’ai traversé tout le centre-ville à pied. La foule était dans les rues. Pas de combats. C’était une atmosphère de kermesse, accrue par le temps printanier, le froid n’est arrivé que quelques jours après. J’étais avec trois autres journalistes, un Roumain nous guidait. On a demandé à aller jusqu’à l’Intercontinental, mais on nous répond, non, non, il est sous le feu, il y a des combats très durs dans le secteur. On nous propose alors d’aller à l’hôtel Bulevar, juste en face de la poste centrale. On y arrive à pied, par des petites rues. On s’installe. On demande aux gens de l’hôtel ce qui se passe exactement, on n’a rien vu en traversant la ville. Ou est la guerre ? Ils nous disent qu’il y a des combats, mais circonscrits à quelques zones bouclées par les blindés de l’armée. J’en voyais deux, en effet, qui bloquaient la rue menant à la poste centrale et à la place de la République. La, déjà, je me suis dit, c’est pas Budapest 56, mettons qu’il y a des poches de résistance, mais les militaires ont l’air d’avoir la situation en main. Le soir, on voyait bruler la bibliothèque. Plus tard, je suis parti avec un type de Reuter, d’abord à l’Intercon car on voulait des chambres, toute la presse était là, et pour les communications c’était le seul endroit. Il n’y avait pas de chambres, mais l’hôtel n’était pas sous le feu. Ensuite, nous voilà partis voir l’incendie de la bibliothèque. Quand on arrive, cent cinquante badauds regardaient le spectacle. Tout d’un coup ça se met à tirer au-dessus de la foule, des rafales des balles traçantes. On se jette à terre. Je perds de vue le gars de Reuter. Quand je retourne à l’hôtel Bulevar, une automitrailleuse est installée au carrefour ; elle tire sans interruption vers la poste centrale, d’où on dirait que ça riposte. Je me dis, impossible de traverser le carrefour, je vais à l’Intercon, et j’ai enfin une chambre. Toute la nuit ça tire. Le matin ça s’arrête. Je fais un tour de la Place de la République. Tout est calme, c’est dimanche. Une chose me frappe, il y a plein de casiers de bouteilles d’alcool vides à coté des soldats. Dans la journée, les fusillades ont repris. Sur les toits j’ai vu des soldats tirer, en s’abritant derrière des cheminées, mais impossible de discerner les cibles. Vers 15 heures, retour au calme. Là, j’ai commencé à réfléchir. C’était le contraire du Salvador, ou j’étais comme envoyé spécial fin novembre-début décembre pour la grande offensive de la guérilla. Au Salvador, tu voyais sans arrêt des ambulances pour ramasser les blessés, des morts partout. Ici, rien. On nous disait qu’il y avait plein de morts et de blessés, tu n’en voyais pratiquement aucun, et la foule restait massée un peu partout. Je me disais, ils sont fous ces Roumains. J’ai parlé avec Alfonso Rojo, c’est le directeur adjoint d’El Mundo, le quotidien de Madrid. Lui aussi était tracassé : il m’a dit : C’est curieux cette guerre qui ne fait pas de morts, hein ? Et il m’a raconté une drôle d’histoire. Il était allé à l’Agerpress et là, au comptoir de la réception, il voit un type de la Securitate qu’il connaissait avant. Il lui parle, lui demande s’il n’est pas arrêté, l’autre lui dit que non, qu’il coordonne la nouvelle police. Le soir, on revient place de la République avec deux copains. On est pris sous le feu d’armes légères. Mais quand j’y repense aujourd’hui, c’était curieux, on avait l’impression que les tireurs ne voulaient pas tuer. Ils arrosaient le milieu de la rue, pas des deux côtés, ou les gens s’abritent et sont susceptibles d’être touchés. De retour à l’hôtel, je rencontre Jacques Lebas, de Médecins du Monde. Il m’annonce une conférence de presse pour le lendemain à 9 heures, à l’hôpital d’urgences. Je lui demande ce qu’il pense du bilan des victimes. Il me répond : ça ne correspond pas du tout à la gravité de la situation qu’on croyait trouver en arrivant. Le soir, j’étais de plus en plus perplexe. Il y avait des tirs très intenses donnant l’impression de combats acharnés, mais je ne voyais pas de morts. Très étrange, vraiment ; je me souviens, j’ai même fait une note pour le dire à la rédaction en chef. »