On Aspazia Otel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison

This is the beginning of the introduction I wrote for Aspazia Otel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison.

Suffering is usually understood within a binary system, with perpetrators and victims. In Aspazia Oțel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison the readers will indeed find innocent people who suffered at the hands of their torturers. They will be thus tempted to side with the victims, with the “good guys,” and perhaps despise those who inflicted senseless suffering. Those who lived during communism, in Oțel Petrescu’s Romania or elsewhere, know that we always talked about them—an impersonal them, but a powerful one, for all the aspects of our lives seemed to be dependent on it. They listened to everything you said; they brought potatoes at the grocery store; they could put you in prison; they could turn you over to the secret police; they were the secret police. They were the “bad guys.” But somehow they were also us. And we were them. In fact, one perhaps surprising feature of many testimonies about the suffering during the communist persecution in Romania is that those who suffered do not accuse. They do not accept the evil brought by communism either, but they situate themselves in a completely different realm, one in which there is no longer a binary system, with good and bad people, but rather only one: the world in which we all live and for which each and every one of us is primordially responsible. While it reveals the darkness and the evil that can, at moments, overwhelm a human heart, Aspazia Oțel Petrescu’s volume is a testimony to the beautiful of this world.


There are no good and bad people in Mrs. Oțel Petrescu’s book, but only people who were living in a world dominated by evil and who responded to it in their own ways. Some were completely overpowered and allowed evil to act through them. Others resisted with a strength that they found within themselves, but a strength that was not of their own making. All of them—and all of us—were the battleground on which the struggle between good and evil took place. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, survivor of the Soviet Gulag and acclaimed author of The Gulag Archipelago, captures this fight in these few, but powerful lines:


“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”[1]


In With Christ in Prison, we can see as well that the fight against communism is not necessarily between them and us; instead, it becomes a fight against one’s own corner of evil. It is a fight against de-personalization, against becoming merely a member of a group, be it them or us. But this is not surprising, since the danger present in any fight against evil is to see oneself, either alone or as the member of a group, as the source of the good. If one gets there, then one becomes righteous and unforgiving and is one step away from murdering in the name of the “good.”  However, in the depths of Oțel Petrescu’s words, we can discover that the fight begins with emptying oneself of one’s own ego.


A part of a presentation on communist persecution in which I speak about Mrs. Aspazia Otel Petrescu.

[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol II. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007, p. 615.