This is the second article of the first part from The Stolen Church, a book by Romanian-American priest, Alexandru Ratiu.
The first article – The Arrest – detailed how the communist authorities cracked down on the Greek-Catholic church, arresting many priests that belonged to this branch of Christianity without any legal authority and for the sole crime of believing in something that the Party hated and feared.
In this article I will continue the translation from the first part of the book, “16 Years of Detention”, and highlight the hard conditions, the terror and the brutality to which the prisoners were subjected during their unlawful incarceration.
The Sighet Prison
“The prison represents a metaphorical space for the communist regime. It represents a way to exterminate all those who oppose the new society. Here, the intellectuals and leaders of a captive nation, are either executed or re-educated. From this nightmarish process of social engineering can result only two things: the new man, Homo Sovieticus, or a dead body. Homo Sovieticus is a creature without soul or freedom, who doesn’t believe in God, a depersonalised machine owned by the state, which obeys and executes the Party’s orders”.
That’s how Ratiu described the Romanian prison, and not just the one from Sighet – across country there were many such constructions designed to break and slowly kill the individual.
Between 1948 and 1964 there were over 300 prisons in Romania, for a population of 20 million people. “Romania was a large prison” wrote Ratiu. The most well-known of these prisons were at Gherla, Sighet, Aiud, Pitesti, Jilava, Rimnicul Sarat, Galati si Suceava. On top of these hellish constructions, there were a number of forced labour camps alongside the Danube River and entire villages were isolated under arrest.
“The rough treatment, the terror, the physical and spiritual torture, the famines and diseases, the forced labour and complete isolation transformed these prisons in death camps” recalled Ratiu.
The Sighet prison building had three wings, forming a T letter, with 108 cells from which 36 were for a single prisoner. There were 150 prisoners in total. After the communists divided the prisoners as they saw fit, the warden, Vasile Cioplan, said: “From now on, I am your father. I hope you will feel like home here”.
The disciplinary regime
The disciplinary regime from the Sighet prison was dehumanising.
“We were completely isolated, without books, news or mail. They were trying to destroy us intellectually. It was difficult to bear the isolation from society, but it was even harder to not get in touch with your family, friends or the church” Ratiu said.
All inmates had the same uniform with different numbers on the back. The numbers were used to call the inmates. Their names were never used. Day and night the prisoners were in the cells. The guards outside were authorised to fire if they saw a face picking at one of the narrow windows. If someone tried to look through a hole or to talk to another prisoner, they were beaten and taken to underground isolation.
The guards were listening at the doors to catch anyone who was breaking the rules. It was even worse if you spoke in a foreign language.
“The most foreign of all, for the communists, was the prayer. I used to pray through all the unending hours I spent in that prison, especially during the 18 months I was in the unground isolation” wrote Ratiu.
At least once a month, the inmates were searched at random, in the middle of the night. The guards would burst in their cells looking for weapons or other banned items. This was of course ridiculous because the prisoners had zero access to anything from the outside world.
One time, they found a wooden fork hidden by a bishop named Rusu. For this tremendous crime they kept him naked in the “black cell” for hours. This was a small room without any windows with a chain in the middle. The prisoner was stripped off his uniform and chained in a strange and uncomfortable position. During the summer “the black cell” was like an oven and throughout the winter it became a freezer. The food for those put in the “black cell” was reduced to almost nothing and all contact with everyone else was cut completely.
“It was like a grave and you could only answer to that situation with prayer” said Ratiu.
Many lost their humanity, others went mad and killed themselves and those who believed in God became saints because faith was the only way to defend yourself.
Every day, the inmates were forced to work physically demanding jobs. At 5 AM they were woken up and brought downstairs to re-fill the prison’s reservoirs. They had to manoeuvre a pump that moved only if two people applied effort simultaneously.
“After 50 rounds, we were passing out from the effort. It was necessary for an hour and a half to re-fill the reservoir, and this was done three times a time. We were also made to unload raw materials like coal and wood. Winters were unbearable because we carried the frozen wood with the bare hands. Afterwards we cut the wood with old and dull axes and saws. And then, two times a day the hallways were cleaned. Only then we were allowed to go for a quiet walk and the communists would simply say: ‘You are free’ – to mock us”, Ratiu wrote.
The prison food and healthcare
The inhumane regime that the prisoners were subjected to was not random. It was carefully planned by trained medical staff who designed the schedule, rules and diet in such a manner that the hunger and diseases would slowly crush their spirit.
“Everything was calculated with high precision, so that the prisoner wouldn’t die immediately but slowly, as his body decayed. Our daily food ratio included some cabbage, beans, potatoes and rice and sometimes a small piece of rotten meat. The breakfast was made up of a cup of boiled water with flour and some sugar. From time to time, we were given half a cup of black coffee. Once a week we were provided with 250g of bread and, on Fridays, about 500g of polenta. Our daily caloric intake was about 750 kilocalories” Ratio detailed in the book.
There was no medical care. Most the inmates would suffer of dental pains and all sorts of other illnesses, and a lot of them died slowly and alone due to lack of healthcare.
“Medicines are useless. We let nature work” the prison’s doctor named Lungu would say.
Often, the severely ill were beaten to death. If not, those who were on the dying bed were completely isolated and, once they died, their bodies were simply thrown in a box which was then buried at random…somewhere.
The Jilava Prison
Communists don’t care about truth. However, they care about what others think about them. This was clear when, in 1955 at the Geneve Conference, the problem of political prisoners was raised. Western powers insisted that political prisoners should be released, and that freedom of press should be guaranteed. When Romanian communists proposed the country joining the United Nations, the condition was more individual freedom.
These demands resulted in some prisons being closed and about 8000 prisoners, from across Romania, were brought to the Jilava prison to wait for their hearings.
“On 9 April 1955, we were transported to Jilava. In the van were 150 people, four times its capacity. It was a cold and rainy day. The van was very dirty and smelled horrible. After three days on the road, we were half dead when the van arrived at Jilava.
The prison was an underground fortress, built around 1895, outside Bucharest. Water was rolling down the walls into drains that filled the floors with it. There was no air and no light. That’s where we celebrated Easter in 1955, like the early Christians in catacombs”.
“After many years of prison, on 25 October, I was waiting for my trial in Oradea”. Everything was done in secret, so Ratiu had no idea what was going to happen next.
“In order to not be able to see anything, we were forced to sit in our cells, wearing glasses with blackened lenses. The hallways were full of some kind of drapes so that the guardians could spy on us. The person investigating my case was Wolf Zoltan, a man full of himself and glacial in his attitude towards others […] He was the one who also told me what I’ve done wrong: I was accused of instigating against the general wellbeing of the working class (because of my believes). For such a crime, the punishment was 15 years of forced labour. But he then told me that out of [the Party’s] desire to promote peace within the church, out of [the Party’s] wisdom and care for people, I was forgiven, and I was free to go home”.
He was shocked to hear these words. The Greek-Catholic priest was made to sign a paper, akin to a non-disclosure agreement, in which he promised not to tell anyone about what had happened to him.
Ratiu and the rest of the inmates that were set free suddenly found themselves in society, without a job, without a house, with nothing.
They had to pretend that they saw and admired the “social and cultural progress” made by the communists. “We were told to look with admiration at the new roads, factories and schools” Ratiu recalled.
However, most of Romania was in tatters – desperation, famine and poverty were everywhere. Its culture was devasted and the working class was enslaved. There was a total lack of individual freedom.
“Everyone was scared of spies and agents of Securitatii who were infiltrated in each city and in each family. Romania was a country in which there were no more free people” the priest wrote.
Ratiu looked for a job for months but he always got the same reply: “We appreciate your experience and your ability to work and we’ll do whatever we can to help you find work if you’d cooperate with us for the greater good of the people and the triumph of communism across the world. Let’s work together: you as a priest have the same ideals as us communists. Denounce your mysticism and be practical. There is only one life, the one here on this planet. Everything else is fantasy. You are still young and have a chance for a better life”. Needless to say that Ratiu did not denounce anything.
Back in the catacombs
On 23 April 1956, a few bishops sent a memorandum to the communist government in which they described the unconstitutional methods through which the Greek-Catholic church was persecuted. The authorities were silent, however.
As a result, the priests gathered thousands of signatures in a petition to draw the government’s attention. During this period, a lot of Christians, even from the Orthodox church, wanted a re-unification with Rome.
After two months of such actions that defied the Party, the agents of Securitatii took action and hell broke loose. In August 1956, terror, arrests and violence spread throughout the Christians that dared to take such stance.
Many men and women of the clergy were arrested, including the bishops Rusu, Hosu and Balan.
All the trials were false and complete mockeries of anything that would resemble the rule of law. Everyone arrested was condemned for long periods of time either in prisons or in forced labour camps. This destroyed the movement and crushed any sign of hope for religious freedom. Once again, the church was exiled in catacombs.
The Gherla Prison
After the Geneve Conference from 1955, many Romanians were naïve enough to believe that the situation regarding human rights under the totalitarian regime would get better.
“Only bitter experiences taught many that the promises made by the communists were mere tools to control the masses. The only truth accepted by the communists was the one which was useful for the Party” Ratiu explained.
There were promised that the Constitution would be respected and that the press would be free but none of these things came to be true.
In the Spring of 1956, many people were expecting a genuine improvement in the quality of public life. Gatherings in broad daylight discussing politics began to re-appear. Even the press started to publish articles that touched on the weaker points of communism. Everything was an illusion, however.
“If the tyranny would’ve been truly weakened and individual freedoms were granted, the communist regime would’ve collapsed in 24 hours. That kind of totalitarian regime could’ve been supported only by violence, oppression and continued surveillance” Ratiu explained.
Arrests began to spike again and in 1958, about 6000 prisoners, including Ratiu, were put in the prison at Gherla. Above the prison’s main entrance it was engraved in Latin: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here”.
The conditions in Gherla’s prison were impossible to describe with accuracy. That’s how inhumane they were.
The windows were covered so that prisoners couldn’t look outside. No light or fresh air could enter the cells. Most prisoners were provided with buckets of water and buckets as toilets. It was forbidden to sleep or to sit on the bed during the day. The punishment for this crime was severe beatings and isolation in the “black cell”.
Every three days, the prisoners were taken for half an hour walk in the court. “We were walking in a circle, with the hands behind our heads. It was forbidden to look up or to talk” Ratiu wrote.
Protest and massacre
From the total of 108 cells, cell number 101 was the biggest. To get to it, you had to go through cell 100 where there was a sink with drinkable water.
One day, for unknown reasons, the prison administration closed cell 100. The 200 prisoners from cell 101 protested and asked for their access to water to be re-opened. The authorities refused. As a result, on the morning of 14 July 1958, the prisoners revolted, breaking windows.
“We had the cell on the other side of the building and could hear the commotion” wrote Ratiu. “The prison’s director, Goiciu, nicknamed The Brute, went to talk to the prisoners who accused him for closing their access to drinkable water”.
What resulted was a massacre: the guards killed 14 inmates and mutilated hundreds. Those who survived were condemned to another 15 years of prison.
It was later found that Goiciu provoked the revolt himself. He ordered to close cell number 100 on purpose. “He was an alcoholic with sadistic pleasures, who used to torture his wife. Goiciu was eventually killed by ex-inmates” Ratiu wrote.
After the massacre, the conditions became even worse – sheer terror was unleashed on all prisoners, which was made worse by the flu epidemic that struck the prison that winter.
Some doctors who were prisoners tried to help others who were sick. These doctors were named Cornea, Ciobanu, Mocanu, Romitan, Orasan and Victor Gordan. However, the communists prevented them from aiding any one who was sick. The guards said: “You don’t deserve medical help or food. We’ve been generous enough with you”. As a result, 150 people died that winter.
A few months later, in the Spring of 1959, the prison’s doctor, Tinc, checked everyone under 60 years old and asked them to ‘volunteer’ for work. A lot agreed, eager to get out of that hell.
In the next article, I will highlight the hardships of the Romanian gulags, or forced labour camps.
Categories: 16 Years of Detention