Former jail keeps raw memory of Communist repression in Romania

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Updated 22 July 2013
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Former jail keeps raw memory of Communist repression in Romania

Sixty years ago, as the Iron Curtain sealed off Eastern Europe, Teodor Stanca was among millions sentenced to jail, death or forced labor for opposing Communist rule.
Today, as survivors of this dark page of history are getting older and fewer, 80-year-old Stanca says he hopes a Romanian jail-turned-museum will remind future generations that “freedom needs eternal vigilance.”
“The Sighet Memorial for the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance,” as the museum is known, is the first of its kind in Europe.
More than one million people have visited the memorial in the northern town of Sighetu Marmatiei, which was founded 20 years ago on the site of one of the most notorious political prisons in Romania.
About 200 politicians, priests and intellectuals were held there in secret between 1950 and 1955, when the Communist terror reached its peak in Romania. Fifty-four of them died.
The former jail “prevents people from forgetting those who sacrificed their lives to defend democracy,” Stanca, a retired engineer, told AFP at an exhibition dedicated to the student movement he led in 1956 to call for more freedom.
The museum includes a research center, a memorial to those who resisted and summer schools where young people meet with former political prisoners and historians from around the world.
“We want to inform foreigners and Romanians themselves about the sufferings endured by people living under totalitarian Communist regimes from the end of the Second World War until 1989,” poet Ana Blandiana, who founded the museum with her husband, told AFP.
Blandiana’s books were banned under Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s last Communist dictator, who was toppled and executed in 1989.
In Sighet, each cell shows a different aspect of the brutal repression of Communist rule, from the massive surveillance by the Securitate secret police to torture. Detailed accounts of forced labor remind visitors that tens of thousands of Romanians had to work like slaves building a canal toward the Black Sea.
“Since 1993, even before the archives were opened, we recorded thousands of hours of testimonies from survivors,” Blandiana said.
The extent of the suffering had largely been hidden.
“There are two different memories in Europe,” said Stephane Courtois, a French historian who edited the bestseller “The Black Book of Communism.”
“In the West, we had a glorious memory of Communism — the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front, anti-fascism, resistance to Nazism. Here it was the exact opposite. People talk only of terror, torture, misery,” he told AFP.
Stalinist purges in the former Soviet Union and Communist repression in Eastern Europe claimed millions of lives in the 20th century, according to historians.
In Romania alone, more than 600,000 people were sentenced and jailed between 1945 and 1989 for political reasons.
Stanca was one of them.
“In the jail, we suffered from hunger, we did not get any medical assistance, we were continuously humiliated,” he said.
He was then sent to a labor camp to erect dikes along the Danube river.
“I think only the pyramids were built with such inhumane physical work,” he added.
But despite the grim conditions, detainees tried to resist.
“We fabricated paper to write poems by mixing dust we scratched from the walls, a bit of soap and water. If we were caught it meant seven days in the ‘black room’,” or punishment cell, he said.
Verses were transmitted using Morse code from one cell to the next.
When he was on the verge of dying, his fellow inmates forced bread into his mouth and saved him, he said.
The museum also dedicates several rooms to repression and resistance movements in Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
“In Romania, we discovered that more than 200 revolts of farmers took place against forced collectivization but had remained unknown to the public,” said Blandiana.
“Understanding what took place — the repression we felt for about 50 years — you can understand the hangover from this period of totalitarianism in Romania, and why the country still struggles to establish the rule of law and a solid democracy,” she added.
The task has not been easy in a country where former Communists and informants still hold key positions in public life.
“This memorial is very important, not only because of the past but for the future,” said former Czech political prisoner Petruska Suskova.
“The danger of totalitarian regimes has not disappeared.”


Pressures and pains that tear a couple apart

A still from the film.
Updated 19 July 2018
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Pressures and pains that tear a couple apart

DENVER: Like a gallery wall-sized enlargement of a microscopic image, “Scenes from a Marriage” is all about size, space and perspective.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman — whose birth centenary was marked this week — at 281 minutes long, its unwieldly length presents an intimidating canvas, yet the claustrophobic intimacy of its gaze is unprecedented: The two leads are alone in nearly every scene, many of which play out for more than a half-hour at a time.
Premiered in 1973, the work is technically a TV mini-series, but such is its legend that theaters continue to program its nearly five-hour arc in its entirety. A three-hour cinematic edit was prepared for US theater consumption a year later (it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but was ruled ineligible for the corresponding Oscar).
Not a lot a happens but, then again, everything does. Shot over four months on a shoestring budget, its six chapters punctuate the period of a decade. The audience are voyeurs, dropped amid the precious and pivotal moments which may not make up a life, but come to define it.
We meet the affluent Swedish couple Marianne and Johan — played by regular screen collaborators Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, both of whom clocked at least 10 Bergman credits — gloating about ten years’ happy marriage to a visiting reporter. This opening magazine photoshoot is the only time we see their two children on camera, and inevitably the image projected is as glossy, reflective and disposable as the paper it will be printed on.
The pressures, pains and communication breakdowns which tear this unsuited pair apart are sadly familiar. The series was blamed for a spike in European divorce rates. It may be difficult to survive the piece liking either lead, but impossible not to emerge sharing deep pathos with them both. Sadly, much of the script is said to be drawn from Bergman’s real-life off-screen relationship with Ullmann.
It’s a hideously humane, surgical close-up likely to leave even the happiest couple groping into the ether on their way out of the cinema.