I am hosting today the blogs of my students after our visit to Fort 13 Jilava and Pitesti, two of the most horrendous communist political prisons in Romania. Their blog for the entire trip can be found on this page: http://www.methodistcol.edu/blogs.aspx. I am publishing the blogs exactly how they appeared on the school’s website.
The students are taking a course on Suffering and Forgiveness in the context of communist persecution.
Mr. Octav Bjoza, who spent 4 years in 14 communist prisons, accompanied us in Jilava and helped us see the possibility of human dignity in utter darkness. The energy and goodwill of officer Cristi Micu inspired us. Without him, this visit would not have been possible. In Pitesti, Maria Axinte brought us in the presence of suffering, but also reminded us of the reality of beauty. Ioana Hasu blessed our entire trip with her presence. THANK YOU!
July 28, 2015
Jilava is a prison outside of Bucharest. In this area, one building is being used still today as a prison. But one building was a “political prison” which was used for transitioning people during communist times. To give some background I will explain how this felt going inside. We took a bus to get there and when we got to the gate security stopped us. We had to give up our cell phones, chargers, and ear buds as a precaution so that we were not leaving any for the inmates. Once we passed through the gates we drove past the active prison. We drove down a windy dirt road to an underground tunnel where we saw a building, even more underground. This is Jilava, where human beings were no longer treated as people.
Communism took over the area. And anyone who not only opposed it, but made a comment about how they did not agree with something, were taken from their homes with no explanation and sent here. An example relating to us would be if students from the US went out with friends at night, made a joke about Obama, and the next day they were told to come out of their homes and taken in a van straight to Jilava with no explanation to them or their family as to why or where they were going. Some people stayed here for four years or more. They had absolutely no contact with the outside world, no letters, no visits, no packages, and no hope. When they arrived at Jilava, still not knowing what’s going on, there were guards lined up with baseball bats telling you that if you make it all the way to the door on your own two feet, maybe you will survive to someday come out of this place. The building is completely underground with grass grown on top of it so that outsiders cannot see it’s there.
The windows were completely boarded up so that they could not see the sunlight for days, or months. There are tiny cells with wooden formations used as beds. Sometimes there were up to 50 men in these tiny cells at a time. They had to defecate and urinate into a bucket and had another bucket they all ate from. These buckets were often switched. They did not shower for months at a time. In the cells the winters were very, very cold and the summer excruciatingly hot. The purpose of the people being imprisoned was to re-educate them, destroy them psychologically, and make them suffer. They would not just kill them, because that would be too easy. They kept them on the very edge of death. Since many were religious, Octav Bjoza reminded us that in Pitesti the prisoners were given feces for communion.
Octav Bjoza is a man in his seventies who survived Jilava. He was there in his 20’s for four years. We walked through the prison with him, and he pointed out what was done to them in what areas. No part of the prison had been renovated or updated, it is all exactly as it was when he was there. It is now considered a National Monument. As we walked through the dark concrete halls, I could not help but wonder how Octav came back here. After all that was done to him and how many people he watched die and suffer, does he ever recover or is it therapeutic for him to tell his story? He said some of the worst punishment was bending down, touching your toes, and your eyes were forced to look directly at your toes for up to 24 hours at a time. Can we even imagine? I don’t think my imagination can even come close. He said this made a lot of people crazy after time. Octav was joking at certain times and laughing, and I could not help but wonder how this is possible. Walking out of the old prison with tears in my eyes I felt truly blessed that I had the experience to walk through it and hear his experience first-hand. It is truly something you cannot explain- all the emotion that it gives you by being in the exact cells where so many souls were destroyed. As you walk through the musty, cold, dark cells you feel a certain tightness and pressure that makes you uneasy. There was no justice for Octav. He was not compensated in any way for his mistreatment. I felt myself wanting to look into his eyes and stand near him since I was so amazed at his story. I kept feeling so lucky to have the opportunity to meet one of the rare people that survived this monstrosity. Some stories will live on through survivors writing books, but soon all of the survivors will die and this will only be told in history books. That is the saddest part for me.
What kept this great man we met today going while he was incarcerated at Jilava prison was the wise words of an older gentleman. The strong words that made such a strong statement stick with me throughout the day. Octav Bioza recited, “You have to win against yourself, once you win you will be victorious- always victorious.”
Octav described the conditions and tortures he endured during his time at Jilava prison in great detail while taking us cell to cell. Close to the end of our time with him, he took us to the cell where he spent his time. He held his composure and modeled the victorious attitude that kept him alive. He mentioned that there is still not much known about the horrible things that happened at Jilava and Pitesti Prison.
When visiting the next prison, Pitesti, I was surprised to see that it was in the middle of the city. Understanding that it was outside of the city when it was constructed, it still had me wondering why a town would want to be around a place with such a torturous background. This question was answered quite simply- the people of Romania, if they did not go through this torture themselves, had no idea that these events took place. As discussed during our tour in Pitesti with Maria Axinte, who is the one who made it possible for people to see this prison, the prisoners were forced to sign documents that ensured they would never talk about the events that happened. The fear instilled in these persons was so real, that telling their loved ones was not worth putting their safety on the line. Many of these stories were not released until after the fall of communism in 1989, but still many prisoners did not speak.
Many of the stories that have been shared are from family members of prisoners. Families went years not knowing the suffering that their loved ones endured. With this, many of the facts died with the prisoners either in prison or later in life. As I learned today, not many people had the ability or courage to speak out against the communist role. One figure that arose was father George Calciu. He was imprisoned twice and spoke what the communist party did not want him to say many times during trial. Due to his courage to speak out against this power, he was forced to flee to America where he used his platform to help Romania have a voice that was suppressed. Father George helped bring the faith of the people back into believing that there is hope and peace within God.
The room where the tortures in Pitesti took place is now a chapel.
Today was day four in Romania. We visited Jilava and Pitesti; both were used as political prisons beginning the mid 1940s until communism fell in December of 1989. At our visit to Jilava we were fortunate enough to meet a man who miraculously survived the tortures that happened there during his imprisonment. His name was Octav Bjoza. Just by looking at him you would never suspect that such a sweet looking elderly man would be able to survive through Jilava and be able to speak about it, let alone revisit the place where he was beaten and humiliated.
Octav gave us a detailed description of what the people went through during their imprisonment and took us throughout the prison to see the actual rooms where such horror took place. The original Jilava prison (Jilava has a new building that is an active prison today) was incredibly old and run down, like something you would see in a horror movie. The whole place had a bad vibe to me and the energy there was frightening.
One of the rooms that I walked into was used as a holding room where they kept people in hopes of them dying from disease, rather than execution. Octav told us that they would put prisoners in the room that had deadly diseases such as tuberculosis so the disease would spread to all the other inmates. The trip to Jilava was truly unforgettable and the experience brought tears to my eyes. It makes the story of what happened in communist prisons so much harder to fathom when there is someone that can tell you firsthand what it was like to live through it. Although you could tell in Octav’s eyes that it was extremely painful to come back to Jilava, it is so important to share his story because so many people have no idea any of these events happened and it is a story that needs to be told.
To prepare for our trip to Romania we read a book on Father George Calciu. George Calciu was born before the Romanian government fell under communistic rule. When the country fell to the communist party, many students, leaders, and various intellectuals were imprisoned for re-education where they were unjustly confined and endured brutal treatment. Father George was one of the students at the time he was arrested and thrown in jail. Today our class went to two prisons, one in Jilava and one in Pitesti to learn more about what happened within the prisons, and more specifically what Father George Calciu went through.
The first prison we went to in Bucharest was Jilava, the largest and more brutal prison during the communist period. The prison is twenty-five feet underground. The purpose of it being below ground is so no one could see the prison. The place was originally built as a military fort to protect Bucharest if it were ever under attack. George Calciu arrived in Jilava after he spent years in Pitesti and went through what is known as the re-education program. Octav Bjoza went to Jilava as well. While showing us the prison he discussed how they were greeted into the prison. He said that they would walk in rows towards the entrance of the prison while guards beat them. During this time, the guards yelled at them that whoever made it to the gate on his own feet may be among the ones who would come alive out of the jail. I picture Father George entering the structure in a similar way. We also visited one of the rooms that George had to stay in. The rooms were very dark since they were underground. Most of the rooms had no windows. If they did they were boarded up. The cells we saw were what I would imagine to be regular sized cells, but enough people would be placed inside one cell that there was physically no room for them to sit. Fort 13 Jilava functioned so that the persecutors were purposefully trying to kill the inmates without physically doing it themselves. It is amazing that Father George was able to survive being in this jail.
Calciu was also sent to Pitesti’s jail where the inmates were all between the ages of 18 and 25. We also visited this prison, which was roughly an hour drive away. This prison looked much nicer, but this did not compensate for the equally horrendous acts done by the guards here as well. Father George’s faith helped him survive in his sixteen years in prison. His faith also helped saved hundreds of other people he encountered within the prisons, as well as the guards. In my opinion, he also played a huge role in bringing light to what was happening in the prisons, as well as aiding in ending the corrupted communist ways.
Octav Bjoza is a man who survived the communist regime. He is currently 77 years old and is the president of the Association of the Former Political Detainees. He was our guest speaker at the prison of Jilava in Bucharest. I could not take my eyes off this guy, because I was so intrigued with every word he spoke. This man has experienced fourteen prisons in four years, and he said Jilava was the worst one for torture. The things Octav went through were horrible.
For what he experienced around 50 years ago, I would say he is in great shape. This man climbed numerous stairs with us. We visited not only the lower floor of Jilava but also the very top of the outside. Octav is at a healthy weight and stood around six feet tall. He did not use a cane nor hearing aids, but he did wear eye glasses. I could see tears in his eyes a few times, and I could tell it was difficult to hold in his emotions. However, this man has not fully cried since the one moment in prison when his fellow inmates reminded him it was the birthday of his girlfriend. Even though the prisons tried to mentally break him down, I think in the end all those experiences made Octav mentally stronger than he was ever before. As awful as Jilava was, it brought Octav to see the true meaning of a human being. It made his faith stronger. Octav experienced the most horriific things humans can do to other humans, but today I could still see kindness in his face. It is amazing to know that this man wants to educate the younger generation about the communist regime. He has spoken to nearly 6,000 young adults about his personal experiences with the regime. This is an experience that I will always keep with me. There is no doubt there was a higher power watching over Octav Bjoza during his years in prison.
Today began with a visit to the Jilava prison. When we first entered the gates while still in our bus, they took all cell phones, la tops, chargers, etc. At first this seemed intimidating, but they explained that the prison still has parts that are active, meaning inmates are still held there. We drove down a long road and off to the right we saw several very old buildings that are falling apart. Concrete is falling off parts of the building, the paint is fading, and there are several cracks in the walls. As we got off the bus we met Colonel Micu, who is now in charge of the place. He began by giving us some history of Jilava itself.
In the 19th century, Jilava was originally 1 of 18 forts built around Bucharest by the military for protection. Since they were never needed, it was then turned into a prison.
We then had the pleasure of being guided through the prison by one of the former detainees named Octav Bjoza. As we entered the first building and the first room I began to feel an overwhelming presence of emotions. The room, which is probably the size of a typical American bedroom, held 50-75 people. There were no bathrooms so the political detainees had to use the bathroom in one bucket. They had water in another bucket, and often they had to switch buckets. When we were told some of these stories, I could not even fathom what it would be like to have things that are so inhumane done to you by another human. We then went to a second building where Father George Calciu (who is the priest our book is about) was held. The building consisted of four small rooms that were probably less than 10ft by 10ft. The rooms had no light, and no air ventilation. Each one of these rooms held approximately 4 people and were intended to kill the prisoners (actually that was the intent of the whole prison). The guards purposely placed a sick inmate, such as someone with tuberculosis, so that the other three would catch it and also become ill and die. When I entered one of these rooms I immediately began to feel claustrophobic. I began to feel sad, disgusted, angry, and so many other emotions.
We then began to enter the building where Octav was held during his four year stay at Jilava. The first room we went to held 150-175 people at a time. In this room they had an example of the foot chains that the prisoners had to wear.
The next thing we saw was the hall where people were kept in solitary confinement. The beds were held on the walls and could have been raised by the guards out of the room, so the detainees did not have control of when they could sit or lay down on them. On the walls there were still lines of psalm 50 that had been engraved by an inmate. To me, this showed just one of the many ways that the inmates kept not only their hopes up, but how they kept their faith even in the darkest of times.
On our third day, our group got to visit Jilava prison. There was a gentleman named Octav Bjoza who told us his story of surviving this political prison. When we first got to the prison, we learned that there were two parts to the prison. One of these being an active part with common criminals as inmates, and the other was the old political prison that was in use from 1947 to 1989. When we walked down the stairs into the cells, you could literally feel the temperature drop. Some cells were pitch black, and some were boarded up so no one could experience sunlight. Bjoza was sent to Jilava when he was in his freshmen year of college. He explained that people were put in shackles that were on their hands and feet and were connected together. There was an actual pair of the shackles used on a table in a cell that we got to pick up. Bjoza said that if you did not do what the guards would say, they hit the shackles on your feet or hands until you did what you were told. The amount of pain and suffering that these people went through is mind-boggling, because in reality they did not commit any crimes. They were put through hell; luckily, Octav Bjoza survived and lives to tell his story. He said that the struggle was not getting through the beatings and tortures, but to overcome the mental struggle and believe in hope that you will survive- this was the real obstacle.