The Forced Labour Camps
In the previous two articles, The Arrest and The Prisons, I translated from the first part of the book written by Alexandru Ratiu (The Stolen Church), detailing how the communist regime in Romania unlawfully arrested Greek-Catholics (and other religious people) and incarcerated them in the most inhumane conditions imaginable.
This article continues their tragic saga.
In the Summer of 1959, groups of 1000 prisoners each were sent to forced labour camps. The jobs included the cleaning of swamps and the building of digs and irrigation canals.
“We left on 7 August in the familiar vans, heading towards the construction site. The first stop was at a train station where we were boarded in wagons. Some of the prisoners wrote their names on small pieces of paper and left them behind, hoping that maybe their families will find out that they were alive. The guards tried to stop them, but they couldn’t stop all of them. They were too many and too desperate” recalled Ratiu.
After two days of travel, the prisoners got to the Danube River where a small and old French boat called Gironde was waiting for them. Everyone was stuffed in the rusty bowels of the boat and the trip towards the labour camp began.
After a while the prisoners arrived at Stoinesti. The forced labour camp was surrounded by tall fences of barbed wire, with four towers with armed guards in each of the four corners. Inside, there were two barracks, a well, a latrine, a kitchen and an electricity generator. Outside this compound, there were a few primitive-looking houses in which the guards and the commander were living.
A week later the prisoners were taken to the working site. After a 5km walk, they arrived at the destination where the supervisor told them: “You chose to come here voluntarily, to work for the greater good of the population which protects you and feeds you. I hope you will take your jobs very seriously, otherwise you will be punished. If you don’t do your duty, we will burry you alive”.
This was an example of communist jargon of contradictory language: using terms such as “voluntary work” to mean forced labour.
“One of the favorite words used by communists was ‘norm’ which was the quantity of work that you had to do in a certain time frame” Ratiu wrote.
The norm of each prisoner was 2.5 cube meters of dirt to be loaded and carried with the wheelbarrow. 15 wheelbarrows equal 1 cube meters of dirt. The physical effort was so intense that it was unimaginable for most prisoners, who were old and weakened by years of prison brutalities.
“Sadness and desolation washed over me” Ratiu remembered. “I couldn’t see any reason for existing anymore. I knew I was arrested and enslaved for my believes, because I refused to denounce my faith and my church’s relationship with the Pope, and because I refused to obey the communist regime. But that wasn’t the moment to complaint about anything. I remember in the Bible Jesus saying: ‘those who wish to follow me must carry their cross every day and follow my steps’”.
The prisoners spent three years in that labour camp. The only way to survive that was to accept that there was a higher power above the communist regime – that was religion.
The guards that supervised the prisoners began to report to their superior that the norm was too high and it wasn’t possible to be met. One day, the commander decided to show that the norm could be met and forced a handful of prisoners, all over 60 years old, to meet the norm. Scared, the men made an inhuman effort to load as many wheelbarrows as fast as possible. “See, it’s possible” the commander said happily.
Ratiu saw the terror on the faces of these old men, almost dead after the effort. He approached the commander and asked if he could speak freely. He was permitted to do so.
“I explained the commander about the conditions in the camp and that the norm was too high. That we didn’t have medicine, water and food” the priest wrote.
The commander was furious. The next day, Ratiu was dragged into the commander’s house where he was violently beaten to the point that he couldn’t stand.
If the violence and inhumane conditions weren’t enough, there was an element of profound distrust in the camp. Spies were placed among the prisoners to listen to every conversation and report back. This shattered trust and further isolated the already terrorised prisoners.
Often, the authorities that were guarding the gulag proposed to the prisoners the following deal: leave your believes behind and join the communist ideology, or at least a version of the Christian faith that has no links with Rome in return for freedom.
Some prisoners accepted the deal. Most however didn’t. Even after all these years of torture and terror they stood by what they believed – if this is not what it means to be human, I don’t know what it is.
One day, the communist government made a random remark about the Pope. The guards asked the priests what they thought about this. “We told them that perhaps it was true, but we couldn’t know for sure” Ratiu wrote.
To which the guards replied: “So you don’t believe the official source of information? You are still an enemy of the people and you need to be re-educated. Only through many more years of prison you will be able to change your opinion”.
The propaganda programmes came from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The communists set up a library with falsified information and pro-communist propaganda, dedicated to indoctrinate the prisoners.
“The only defence against such brainwashing was our common sense and life experience” explained Ratiu.
The Day of the Lord
The communist regime didn’t allow for a rest day for the Lord, like Sunday for Christians.
Among the inmates, there was a man called Ion Rusneac, who was a follower of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ion refused to work Saturday, the Day of the Lord denominated by his faith.
One Saturday, the commander ordered him to work. He refused. The guards dragged him out, threw him in a wheelbarrow and pushed him in a spiky bush, demanding that he would work. Ion still refused, however. The guards then undressed him and threw him again in the spikes. He was badly injured, cut and punctured, bleeding everywhere.
However, Ion still refused to work. About 100 prisoners gathered to see this. The guards eventually left him alone, injured and in pain. This is how one triumphs over evil. By standing up to it.
“The half cooked foods, infected water and lack of medication caused many of us to fall ill with all sorts of serious diseases. The most ill were only fed milk and boiled potatoes. […]. Thew few medicines that the labour camp stored weren’t for us, prisoners. A few among us were doctors but were forbidden to help anyone. So, the ones who were ill were forced to work until they died working” wrote Ratiu.
The conditions in the labour camps were tougher than in prisons. The prisoners were waken up at 5 AM and were fed black coffee, a few grams of bred and some sugar. At 6 AM they were heading towards the work site. If it was raining outside, the lunch couldn’t be brought on the muddy trail so they would not eat at mid-day but around 3:00 PM.
“If we didn’t meet the norm, we received not food at night and many who didn’t meet the norm were badly beaten” Ratiu recalled.
Some days, the prisoners were gathering weeds, crushed them and put salt over them and ate them. “When we were sleeping, we had nightmares about food and in the morning our mouths were full of saliva. Only those who survived can truly know the difference between hunger and these nightmares” wrote Ratiu.
Hunger is a physical phenomenon. It is natural. It is a way for your body to alert you to something being wrong. When you are hungry, you eat and once you are full, you stop eating. Sometimes, people have to go on a diet. Even so, hunger remains a physical phenomenon and is not forever on one’s mind. Anyone can shoulder this feeling if they are free.
“What we were experiencing was a psychological phenomenon. Hunger was a tool used by the communists to make us succumb. It was applied systematically, following a carefully designed plan with a well-defined aim. There was plenty of food stored but the meals were rationed to keep us in a perpetual state of hunger” Ratiu explained.
“The lack of food destroys the body. It becomes an obsession, but it remains a physical torture. Everyone knows that after the next meal they will feel exactly as hungry as before. This mental tension led to depression and suicide. The communists committed these crimes on purpose” Ratiu wrote.
Demetriu Munteanu was a man of Securtatii. He was a supporter of the Party for years and got quite high up in the regime’s hierarchy. However, one day his eyes opened to the sheer terror that the communists were unleashing on the people.
Munteanu discovered the devious methods of torture and oppression and from that moment it was easy for him to see the complete lack of respect for human life and dignity displayed by those who proclaimed that they cared about the “good of the people”.
Munteanu, himself an atheist, saw how the communists meticulously destroyed every trace of spirituality and observed the great discrepancy between what the communists promised to deliver and what they were actually doing.
He sent a message to the government, in which he protested these injustices. Needless to say that the Party didn’t care that these words came from a person who has been faithful to the regime for so long. In 1956, he was arrested and sent to the forced labour camp with us, where he was treated as inhumanely as the rest of us.
Once Munteanu saw all of this, he converted to Christianity. An honest man cannot be a communist for too long.
In 1962, two young prisoners tried to escape the gulag, but the guards caught them. One of them, Ioan Biro, put his hands up to surrender but he was shot on the spot. The other one was injured.
The guard who committed these actions felt guilty. However, the commander encouraged him not to feel such silly things, because what he did was out of faithfulness to the communist ideal and therefore, there were no sins one could commit as long as the actions were done for the communist dream.
Two days after the killing of Ioan Biro, a number of us were transferred to a place called “home arrest”. This area was made up of villages that the communists assaulted and took them with force. The purpose of the “home arrest” zone was to isolate those prisoners who resisted the re-education process.
Strangely, inside this “home arrest” area, the prisoners had more normal jobs and were paid a small wage.
“Here I was allowed to see my family for the first time after all these years. I will never forget that first meeting. Especially after they falsely told my family that I was dead but when they went to verify the body, it turned out that it wasn’t me” wrote Ratiu.
Two years after the prisoners were brought into the “home arrest” zone, in 1964, Nicolae Ceausescu, then the new Prime Minister, freed all political prisoners, including Ratiu.
In the next and final chapter of the first part of the book, 16 Years of Detention, I will translate the last few pages in which Ratiu talks about life after prisons ang gulags.