This article is written by Alexandria Ervin, one of my students who visited Romania this summer for a travel course on Suffering and Forgiveness in the context of communist persecution. One often hears the question whether it is important to talk about a traumatic past. One possible answer can be seen here.
There is much to be said and felt about the horrific events that occurred in Romania during the reign of communism. During the years 1946 to 1989 Romania was governed as a communist country and during these years unspeakable hatred and torture was displayed on its people. One prison in particular is said to be the place of incredible acts of humiliation and disgust: Pitesti Prison. Located in Pitesti Romania, Pitesti Prison was opened in 1941and operated as a political penitentiary from 1942 until 1977 (Fundatia Sfintii Inchisorilor). At first it appeared to run as a typical prison but in 1949 the “reeducation” of its prisoners began.
I struggle to wrap my mind around the things that happened at Pitesti Prison and about which I learned during my trip to Romania. Even doing my own research after returning home to the States I have a hard time finding the correct words to put together to even begin to fathom how humans could do such tortures to their own kind. To the eye, Pitesti Prison looked similar to a school building with its wide hallways and somewhat open feeling when you first walk through the front doors. When you see such an outward appearance, especially in comparison to Jilava Prison, which we also visited while in Romania you would not think that Pitesti would be such a frightening place.
Octav Bjoza, whom we met while visiting Jilava Prison, miraculously survived the terrible things that happened in these communist prisons. He did not go through the re-education in Pitesti, but he and gave us just an idea of some of the unbelievable tortures that where performed in order to “reeducate” the people of Romania. I certainly was not prepared for what he told us, and it still brings tears to my eyes just thinking about all of the pain and suffering people endured during communist imprisonment. He knew we were going to be visiting Pitesti and wanted us to know that although it may not look like such a terrible place some of the worst acts occurred there. Prisoners were made to eat feces and drink urine as part of communion and verbally state barbaric things towards God and their families. They were mentally and physically abused and humiliated as part of the “unmasking” process. We could tell that this was hard for Octav to speak of but I felt by looking at him that he wanted others to know the truth about what happened to the people of Romania since unfortunately many people are completely unaware.
Prior to our trip to Romania we were instructed to read a book about another manthat survived Romania’s communist prison experiments. Through his faith in God and will to live, Father George Calciu (1925-2006) survived to write about what he experienced in prison, including his time Pitesti. Father George Calciu explained that the communist government wanted to “create a gap between children and the older generation in order to build a new world and a new man” (Calciu 99). He stated that Pitesti was the place where people were sent in order to start this “experiment” in erasing their prior self. In general that seems to be what communism is all about, brainwashing people into forgetting what they previously believed in in order to create a person that is naive to ways other than how the government wants them to believe.
According to Fr. Calciu there were four steps that prisoners went through: the installation of terror, the unmasking, the denouncement of other people, and after all of that the changing of one’s soul” (Calciu 102). It is amazing that people like Fr. Calciu and Octav Bjoza are able to even speak of these times or re-visit the place that it happened. During our tour of Pitesti our guide and current owner of the building, Maria Axinte took us through parts of the prison and gave us some history of what happened inside those walls. Maria is a young woman who is helping to make the story of Pitesti known, but I could not help but to feel that while we were walking through the rooms at Pitesti that there was still much more that needed to be said about what happened there. I suppose there is good reason why many people that were imprisoned there do not speak of what they went through. Although many reports have been given Maria told us that still the people that live in the town of Pitesti refuse to believe that in that building lives were shattered and innocent people were tortured and killed.
Before visiting Romania I was unaware of what exactly communism was, but after just eleven days there I have a heartbreaking understanding and hurt for the people that had to live through it. The fact that no one was safe from it and anyone could be arrested without rime or reason is terrifying. Most of the time when people of faith are in a terrifying situation they are able to turn to God for comfort and answers. In the case of people life Fr. Calciu who spent years in communist prisons, they were unable to do this and in fact his faith helped to put him in prison. Amazingly through it all he never gave up his faith in God. Enduring hours and hours of torture he would ask God to forgive him and to help him get through another day. It was this unbelievable faith in God that allowed him to forgive his torturers and eventually forgive himself for the things he was forced to do (Calciu 104).
My trip to Romania will be one that I will certainly never forget for it opened my eyes and taught me just how fortunate I am to live the life that I do. I will never have to fear being arrested for speaking against the government or voicing my religious beliefs. I will never have to endure imprisonment along with hundreds of other people and forced to perform grotesque acts and suffer being nearly beat to death. I say that I struggle with finding the words to describe what I learned about places like Pitesti because it is so hard to accept and believe that the people of Romania, innocent people in fact, had to experience it. While standing in the rooms at Pitesti I tried to imagine what it might have been like to be a prisoner there but the only thing I am able to come up with is tears of sorrow and sadness.