Today, I am hosting again the blogs of my students after our visit in Romania. This time, you have their stories after Mrs. Ana Blandiana and Mr. Romulus Rusan talked to us at the Permanent Exposition of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Sighet. The students’ 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.
We thank Mrs. Ana Blandiana, Mr. Romulus Rusan, and Mrs. Ioana Boca for their generosity in opening their hearts to us.
July 27, 2015
Day two started out with breakfast at the hotel and then class followed by lunch. After lunch we walked to a museum dedicated to the information and story that is displayed at The Memorial To The Victims Of Communism And To The Resistance in Sighet, Romania. This museum exists in Bucharest because Sighet is so far away and it is so important to tell this generation of the horrors that communism brought to the country of Romania. Basically it is a museum within a museum. There we met with two people: Ana Blandiana and Romulus Rusan. Both experienced what it was like to live during the communist regime and both had parents that directly experienced the horror and torture of being controlled by communism.
Mr. Rusan began by sharing with us the story of how Romania was taken over and the history of how they became the country they are today. After WWII, in 1945 the Soviet army imposed a communist government in Romania. They of course proposed this to the citizens of Romania as a good, wonderful thing that would work, but in fact this was a lie. In 1946 elections were held but these, too, were fraudulent and soon after the elections innocent people began to be arrested and the “brainwashing” began. Mr. Rusan shared with us many details of what went on in Romania during this time; it is just absolutely astonishing to think of the things these people went through, and for no reason at all!
Our second presenter, Ana Blandiana, took us through the museum. Each room held different posters of what is in the museum in Sighet. She was very knowledgeable about the information displayed and gave great detail so we could understand. Again both presenters showed great desire to inform and teach others what really happened to the people of Romania during this time.
On our second day here in Bucharest, we visited Memorialul Sighet. This was the permanent exposition in Bucharest that presented a memorial for the victims of communism that is organized in the northern part of Romania, in Sighet. Sighet prison contained 56 cells and was built in 1897. We got the chance to meet and listen the founder of the museum, poet Ana Blandiana, and her husband, historian and writer Romulus Rusan. They explained how labor camps, prisons, deportation camps, and places of confinement were organized all over Romania during 1945-1989. I noticed on the map attached, there were many more deportation centers in the southeast portion of the country.
Many common criminals were confined in this prison, along with political prisoners, among whom there were many priests from the national churches. Today, the former prison is a museum dedicated to what happened under communism in Romania and the other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The cells have been transformed into museum rooms, with their own theme of the different distortions that caused so many people suffering and death. There was a cemetery of unknown grave sights of those who had passed.
I also learned that people were deported from one location to another within Romania for no reason at all, but only because the state wanted to have a buffer zone between Romania and former Yugoslavia. Among the dead were people from ages of just one day old, up to 100 years of age. People were taken from one location to another for no reason at all.
Coming back to the Sighet prison, there was a place at the memorial called the Space or Recollection and Prayer. This memorial was built into the ground, where there was an open cross on the ceiling. Rain and snow are able to fall down on the table, and the reflection from the water makes an outline of a cross on the walls. Visitors can light candles and place them into the sand placed of this table. I would love to visit this memorial from the way it sounds. We learned that from Bucharest, the actual Sighet prison is about a 14-hour train ride from where we were. I really enjoyed listening to the founders of this memorial and learned lots!
Re-education through torture
Today we went to class for two hours in the morning, lunch, and then an exhibit of a Communism memorial in Bucharest. The one thing that really evoked emotion from me was the exhibit that called “Re-education through Torture.” Throughout the day, I began to understand the concept of re-education. In our class, we learned about how communism is really about breaking relationships. For it to work correctly, this is the first step. In order for the government to have total power, you need to break up families and communities. The two ways we talked about how you can fight against communism are: you can let it demolish the government itself and think that we are good, they are bad, or the other option is to fight against oneself, to fight against the feelings of hatred that may be born into your soul. In a way, I think the people who suffered in prisons and labor camps won because many of them forgave their torturers and did not let their hearts become filled with hatred and anger. Aspazia Otel Petrescu was one woman who, while being beaten badly in prison, saw the guard look at her and she realized he was enjoying beating her. When she then felt hatred for the guard, she immediately asked the other inmates around her to pray for her that she could forgive this man. In her eyes, the battle was to forgive and not feel hatred. This is the most amazing part to me. How could these poor men and women look beyond what was being done to them?
“When you suffer a little, you become hateful; when you suffer a lot, you forgive everything” (Fr. Roman Braga, who was in prison in Pitesti; he died this year at the Dormition Monastery in Michigan, USA).
Today’s lecture really caught my attention. There was a PowerPoint slide that was titled Communism and the Church. One of the sentences in the slides states, “Communism is a doctrine that apparently desires union, equality”. This sentence boldly stands out to me because equality, in my opinion, is not a good thing. Equality sounds like a good idea but is it really? We should want there to be differences in individuals. We should want to have uniqueness between people because if we are all the same, then we can be replaceable. If everyone were the same as each other, it would defeat the purpose of life on Earth. This is the main idea of communism. The regime wanted to shape their society to function all the same way. This is connected with the whole destroy one- destroy them all.
Today in class we spoke about the Seven Homilies from the book written by Father George Calciu. The first Homilies is called The Call. This one is about reconnecting with other people. This section discusses how the regime wanted to create a “new man.” The communist regime in Romania was similar to the one in Nazi Germany because they both wanted to re-educate and create a new man so that society functioned as a mechanism rather than individuals in connection with one another. The second homily is called Let Us Build Churches. This section focuses on the importance of developing your own uniqueness. For me, this is an important section because it makes one realize that even though people are different from one another, there is always something that binds them together. The third homily is titled Heaven and Earth. I enjoyed reading this section because it is about the importance one’s presence can be to another. There is always a third presence in the connection between two people, whether one calls it heaven or love. The fourth homily is titled Faith and Friendship. Faith and hope gave people something to live for during the time of communism. The fifth homily is titled Priesthood and Human Suffering. The important idea from this section is that we, the people, take care of creation-take care of others. Being present with those who are suffering makes a bigger difference than telling them that you understand them and giving them false hope for the future. The sixth homily is titled Death and Resurrection. “Forgive yourself, before forgiving others.” This section points out that in order to truly love someone, you have to sacrifice your own life. I cannot relate completely with this statement because I have not sacrificed my life for a child or marriage. The last homily is titled Forgiveness. “Genuine forgiveness takes place in love.” This statement is important to understand because one gives forgiveness freely. One does not have to necessarily deserve forgiveness in order to receive it.
Class in Romania:
Conducting a class in a foreign country is different from how classes are done at Methodist. We do not have a lecture every day while in Romania, but we did today as well as yesterday. We will not have another lecture until Friday. Our lecture is held at another hotel, which is about a seven to ten minute walk in downtown Bucharest. Walking around Bucharest (the capital of Romania) is similar to walking around the streets of Chicago, but with more historical European architecture. Once we get to the hotel we take turns taking a small elevator to the seventh floor where we walk around a narrow winding hallway until we reach a business room. Class proceeds in the small business room where there is a dinner-sized table that we all sit around. Having a lecture is more like having a dinner conversation or a business meeting, which I like because it is more intimate and feels like a conversation rather than a lecture. Class lasts around two hours, during which we discuss readings from Father George Calciu’s book (famous religious figure during communistic era), important events and details about what took place during the communist reign, or places that we will be visiting. We go through power points and take notes just like in a normal class, as well as watch short videos and documentaries. The videos we watch are typically of places we will visit and/or people involved in the history. Videos are also used to help provide a visual of a specific topic being discussed. Overall the informational aspect of lecture is similar to what would be found at school. One major difference about class in Romania versus class at Methodist College is that at Methodist the class is very cold while in Romania it is very hot. Adjusting to the extreme differences in environment is very difficult and can unfortunately make it hard to focus on the information and the discussion. When we do not have lecture we are substituting lecture time by visiting a museum, monument, or historical site that relates to the history we are discussing and reading about.
Today we were lucky enough to speak with the founders of Memorialul Sighet about the history of Romania and how it was changed by communism. There are many topics to cover in discussing how Romania was changed forever, but I am going to speak about the horrific living conditions these men, women, and children had to endure just to survive.
Some back-story to why these persons become imprisoned will give a better insight on how brutal and inhumane the treatment was to these people in the camps and prisons. First, people could be thrown into prison solely because of the family they belonged to; they could also be arrested for speaking about a topic that was not approved, spreading propaganda against the communist party, or simply not agreeing with the party’s ideas. All of those would have landed you in the re-education program. Those programs used torture to change the way a person thought and acted. The topic that I would like to cover is that of the living conditions of the prisoners. The conditions described to us were unimaginable and inhumane at the least.
Some of the examples of the way the people were forced to live are that about 100 people were stuck into a large room and there was one window and a door. The best spot in the room would be in the back by the window or right next to the door. As the persons died or were taken, the next person that had been there the longest would take that spot. That might have been one of the best situations that was explained, but one of the stories told to us was about their living conditions. These prisoners were not given baths, a place to use the bathroom, fresh water, utensils to eat, or proper food. We heard how they were given very hot food, so hot it would burn their hands. The guards forced them to eat their food before the guards would get into the next cell. This caused burning of their faces and throats due to the temperature. The water the prisoners received at times was very high in salt and was impossible to drink; when they drank it, it caused them to get more dehydrated than they already were.
Another story that was explained in the museum was how these persons were expected to use the bathroom. They were forced to use the bathroom in the same bowel they ate from. Note that none of this was ever cleaned and was not dumped. If the person spilled the food from the bowel, then they were forced to lick it off the ground or be tortured. If the person refused to eat, then torture was inflicted. The brutality against these prisoners is hard to hear, but the strength of the people is inspiring. It is truly wonderful that some of the people who endured such brutality could forgive. The fact that these people looked to their faith to keep them strong and did not give up sends a clear message that you can be at your lowest point and yet persevere.
Today began with breakfast, after breakfast we had class. In class we discussed some the seven homilies given by George Calciu to his students during lent. After class we had lunch at KFC, which was very similar in that they served fried chicken, but different because they would serve French fries instead of mashed potatoes, and the store had many deserts, coffee, and alcohol. I find this very strange because I see KFC as a fast food restaurant and not some place where you would go and sit down and eat. After lunch we had a short break and then we went to visit a museum, The Memorial of victims of communism and of the resistance. The founder of the Museum, Ana Blandiana, and her husband, Romulus Rusan, came to meet with us and to inform us about the museum. Mrs. Blandiana’s husband started off by telling us some of the history of communism. To me it is amazing how many horrible things happened to people and how it has been sheltered from the rest of the world. Such things include the torture that the victims endured which was depicted by pictures drawn by former detainees.
These pictures showed people being bound and then having boards hitting the prisoners’ hands to break them, prisoners being electrocuted, being kicked in the mouth, etc.
Another form of torture that did not happen in the prison was internal relocation. There was a barrier on the boarder of Yugoslavia and anyone that fell in this barrier was picked up and moved to the Eastern part of Romania. They were not given supplies and they had no money, so they had to start a new town by living off of the land. I cannot even imagine what that would be like. These people did nothing wrong, yet they were being moved so they did not “get influenced” by the other country during a moment in which Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, was in conflict with Tito, the leader of the former Yugoslavia. I just don’t believe that someone could be that horrible to another human being.
Mrs. Blandiana also told us about the cemetery outside of the prison which held the bodies of the former prisoners. They do not know where the prisoners were buried because there were not any grave markers.