Alexandru Ratiu was arrested on 29 October 1948, at the age of 32. The whole thing happened in the typical fascist style through which the communists operated – outside the remits of any law, including the constitution. The only thing that mattered was the will of the Party which was enforced on the principle of “first do the thing and then we will create the law that justifies it”.
One day, totally unannounced, some agents of Securitatii (Securitatea was the Secret Police of the communist state), dragged Ratiu and other priests in cars, telling them that they have to sign some papers at the local diocese. However, they never made it there.
After a few nights on the road, they arrived at the Neamt Monastery where they were locked up with other Catholic priests.
The agents of Securitatii put on a dramatic display, with armed guards keeping an eye on the priests, day and night. However, despite the apparently serious nature of the situation there were no arrest warrants to justify any of these actions. The priests received no explanation of what they’ve done wrong either.
The communists already had taken over the Orthodox Church, which was not responsible to the Holy See. However, the regime’s hatred for everything religious was specifically amplified when it turned its focus towards the Catholic faith, especially the Greek-Catholics.
The faithful under this branch of Christianity recognised the Pope as the supreme spiritual leader. Such heresy could not be tolerated under the totalitarian rule of the Party. Arrests of priests and men and women of clergy spread across the country.
Initially, the agents of Securitatii, pressured Ratiu and his colleagues to convert to the Orthodox faith. This would eliminate the link with the outside world that bothered the Party. While some caved under the pressure, Ratiu refused to convert.
“This was the beginning of 16 years of detention in darkness and cold and forced labour in similarly inhumane conditions” wrote Ratiu in the book. “Persecutions and unjustified incarcerations are nothing new in the history of humanity. It was nothing new for Romanian priests either. In 1940, during the Nazi occupation of Hungary and northern Romania, I saw how the Jews were persecuted and often I tried to save as many as I could”.
Ratiu then explained how two brothers and a sister named Weinberger – young Jews from Simleu Silvaniei – came to him one night, begging to be hidden from the Nazis.
“I sent them to a man, Florea Cristea, who got them out of the danger zone. It became a habit to shelter refugees in our houses, in lofts or in churches. In 1944, when the Soviets devasted our lands, we tried to protect the women and girls, sheltering them in churches. One priest refused to let the Russian soldiers search the church, and he was shot without hesitation”.
“Religious persecution was however one of the most irrational actions of the communist regime. Socially speaking, religion encourages the cohesion of the family and the responsibility of workers, both causes that were championed by the communists, at least through words but never backed by actions. In fact, their actions often spoken that their true intentions were contrary to their proclaimed empathy and concern for the working class” Ratiu expanded.
However, the communists didn’t imprison just priests, but dissidents from all intellectually inclined walks of life: journalists, diplomats, professors, politicians and doctors too.
“In this kind of situation you only have to options: you either become a saint or insane” recalled Ratiu.
On 27 February 1949, Ratiu and the other prisoners were taken to Caldarusani Monastery, a construction located on the shores of a lake, in the village of Vlasiei. Next to the monastery, there was a house with three rooms, a chapel and a washing room. Day and night, the place was surrounded by a 50 guardians and a barbed wire fence.
The winter was extremely cold as the communists prevented woodworkers from the area to provide fire wood. On top of the freezing cold, the prisoners endured continuous hunger.
“The portion of bread became a slice a day” wrote Ratiu. Weakened by these conditions, many of the older priests, some of which were quite advance in age, got ill. After begging for days, some doctors were brought to inspect the prisoners. However, as it turned out, these weren’t really concerned with their physical or mental health as much as with their ideological positions and their love for the Party.
The so-called doctors asked them no health-related questions but about their political opinions. One of them told the priests with venom in his voice: “You now suffer a just punishment for the persecutions of heretics from the past”.
The road to prison
On 24 May 1950, a handful of soldiers took the prisoners to an unknown destination. All 23 of them were pushed in two black vans with covered windows.
The cars drove for hours. “It was extremely hot in the van and the windows couldn’t be opened. Some of us passed out. The rest of us were breathing with our mouths wide open, almost as if we were trying to swallow as much as air as possible” Ratiu wrote.
The first stop was at Tincabesti, where the nationalist Corneliu Zelea Codreanu was defeated. The soldiers asked the locals for directions and then didn’t stop until Baia Mare, abou 500km away, or eight more hours of unbearable heath. There the soldiers stopped to stretch.
“That’s when I saw the man in command – a true giant. He was speaking with a local when all of a sudden he punched the man, picked him up and threw him over us. The man looked at us in shock, as if he woke up from a nightmare. The van stopped at the end of the city where the soldiers took the man out and beat him, even when he was down. That’s how the communists terrorised the population”.
After another day spent on the road, the priests found out that they were taken to Sighet, at the frontier with the USSR so that they could be entrusted to the Soviets. It was deep in the night when they arrived at the Sighet prison: this was to be their home for the next five years.
Categories: 16 Years of Detention