The Gulag Archipelago in Romania: The Story No One Has Told Before
"But the Heaven Above Us Is Greater"
The Russian troops had
occupied almost a third of Romania, and it was intimated to me, as a
member of the faculty, that I should urgently become a member of the
teachersī union manipulated by the communist party thrust into power by
the armor-clad Soviets.
So there was no place in my conscience for compromise. I renounced my university career and retreated to the countryside as a farm worker, but that was not sufficient, because I was already known among the faculty as a militant Catholic and anti-communist.
An accusatory dossier was quickly improvised against me, and as the accusations were founded on circumstances not yet criminalized by the penal code (relationships with bishops and with the nunciature, lay apostolate), my dossier was grouped with those of the big industrialists. After interrogations accompanied by atrocious treatment, the procurator declared, with perfect communist logic: "There is no proof of the guilt of the accused in his dossier, but we nonetheless ask for the maximum penalty: fifteen years of forced labor. After all, if he were not guilty, he would not be here."
I objected: "But
itīs not possible for you to condemn me without proof!" And he: "Itīs not
possible? Hereīs how itīs possible: twenty years of forced labor for
having protested against the justice of the people." And this was the
I had presented myself to him, the head of our Church, to ask for the enlightenment of Holy Providence, because my spiritual father, bishop Vladimir Ghika, another future martyr, had gone into hiding. Someone had offered me the possibility of leaving the country.
As this was an important step, I did not want to take it without determining if it were the will of God. And the answer came: my arrest.
I understood that I
was to spend my life in the prisons created by the communist regime, but I
was serene: I was following the path of Holy Providence.
They were getting me ready, using the rod to soften me up for the interrogation. I was bound hand and foot and hung upside down, and my jailers stuffed into my mouth a sock that had already been long employed in the shoes and the mouths of other beneficiaries of socialist humanism. The sock had become the noise-reducer that prevented the sound from passing beyond the place of interrogation.
But it was practically impossible to emit a single moan. Moreover, I had frozen psychologically: I was no longer capable of crying out or moving.
My torturers interpreted this behavior as fanaticism on my part. And they continued with increasing fury, taking turns in torturing me. Night after night, day after day.
They didnīt ask me anything, because they werenīt interested in answers, but in annihilating a person, something that was delayed in coming. And as the effort to annihilate my will and overshadow my mind was prolonged, so was the torture indefinitely prolonged.
battered shoes fell from my feet, piece by piece.
As it was the first sound they had heard from me, they said they were satisfied, sure of having broken me. They dragged me on a blanket to the cell, where I fainted. When I awoke, the inquisitor was standing before me with a ream of paper in his hand.
"Youīve been stubborn, criminal, but youīre not getting out of here until youīve brought out everything youīre hiding inside. You have five hundred sheets of paper.
Write about everything in your life: everything about your mother, your father, your sisters, brothers, in-laws, relatives, friends, acquaintances, bishops, priests, religious, politicians, professors, neighbors, and criminals like you. Donīt stop until youīve finished the paper."
But I didnīt write anything. Not out of
some kind of fanaticism, but because I didnīt have the strength: even my
mind seemed empty.
Seeing that the paper hadnīt been touched, he said, "If thatīs how things are, strip!
I want to see you like Adam in paradise." Days went by like this, days of bare skin on pavement, a comfort typical of humane socialism. Another individual appeared at the door after a while: "Letīs see, what do we have on the paper? Nothing? Still stubborn!
Youīll see that we have other methods." Then he left. He returned with an enormous wolfhound, with its threatening fangs bared. "See her? Sheīs Diana, the heroic dog your criminal friends shot at in the mountains.
Sheīll teach you what you have to do. Start running!" And I: "What do you mean, run? In a room nine feet long?" In the room there was also a three-hundred watt bulb, too bright for a nine-by-six room, and fixed not on the ceiling, but on the wall, at eye level.
"Run!" The wolf, growling, was ready to attack. I ran for six or seven hours, but I realized it only near dawn, seeing the light begin to creep into the cell and hearing movement in the building. Occasionally the man let the wolf out to take care of her needs.
This was not allowed
to me. When I began to lose my balance and showed signs of stopping, the
vigilant wolf, as if by command, sank her teeth into my shoulder, neck,
He took the bag and beat me rhythmically on the head with it, accompanying each blow with the word: "Speak!" Dozens, hundreds of times; I donīt know, perhaps thousands: "Speak!". But no one asked me anything.
There was only that cavernous, monotonous voice pounding into my brain the imperative to talk, to respond to any question put to my conscience by the inquisitor. It wasnīt hard for me to decipher the satanic idea of wanting to overmaster my will. After approximately twenty blows, I began to apply the moral principle "age contra," do the opposite, saying to myself at each blow: "I will not speak!" Dozens of times, hundreds of times.
Through autosuggestion I had
implanted within myself the response "I will not speak!", with the risk of
becoming a slave to that way of expressing myself. And thatīs what
happened: from that time on, I responded automatically to any question put
to me on any subject: "I will not speak!" It took me an entire year of
mental effort to free myself from this sinister reflex.
Nothing survived there except for man, the greatest treasure of historical materialism. In the cells of Jilava, the poor men were packed like sardines - not in oil, but in their own juices, made of sweat, urine, and the water that seeped in, which trickled ceaselessly down the walls. The space was utilized in the most scientific way possible: a patch of six feet by one foot for each person, lying on his side on the ground.
The oldest lay on wooden tables, without sheets or blankets. Their thigh bones and the outside of their knees and calves lay along the wood. We lay on the edges of our bones in order to occupy minimal space.
Our hands could rest only upon the ankle or shoulder of a neighbor. We couldnīt endure this for more than half an hour; then everyone, at a command, turned onto the other side, because this would have been impossible to do separately.
The stack of bodies arranged this way was in two levels, as in bunk beds. But beneath this there was a third level, where the detainees lay upon the bare cement. On the cement, the condensed vapor of the breath of sixty men, together with the water that seeped in and the urine that seeped out of the latrine, formed a viscous mixture in which the unfortunate basted.
At the center of the cell-tomb was enthroned a metal container holding about fifteen to twenty gallons, for the urine and feces of sixty men. It had no cover, and the smell and the liquid flowed from it abundantly.
To reach it, one had to pass through
the "filter," a severe inspection applied to the bare skin, an inspection
during which the entire body and all of its orifices were examined.
The windows of Jilava were made not to give light, but to obstruct it, as they were all completely sealed by wooden planks fastened with nails.
of air was such that in order to breathe we went to the door in shifts,
three at a time, belly up, with our mouths against the gap beneath the
door, a position in which we counted sixty breaths, after which the other
inmates would come to recover from fainting and from the lack of oxygen.
The welcome followed
the same sinister, diabolical ritual of the profanation of man, created by
the love of God. Here was the same scraping and probing, the same heavy
boots that sank into our ribs, stomachs, and kidneys. In spite of this, we
noticed a difference: we were no longer subjected to the regime of
preservation in urine, sweat, condensation, and lack of oxygen, but were
subjected to an intensive treatment of oxygenation with bare skin and in
the cold, criminal after criminal (meaning ministers, generals, university
professors, scientists, poets), including me, who was nothing but a great
"I will not speak!", a firm and humble trust in the Grace that would make
me stand the test.
There was nothing to cover my head. They also gave me a sort of latrine, a miserable container of about a gallon. I dressed myself hastily. On the fourth day, they counted the freezing inmates. They gave me a number in place of my name: K-1700, the year in which the Church of Transylvania united with Rome. In the public registry, I was already dead. I survived only as a number, a statistic.
Then came the broth, four and a
half ounces ladled out: it was a thin liquid made by boiling corn flour.
For lunch they distributed to us a bean soup, in which I could count eight
or nine full kernels. There were many empty husks. For supper, they
brought us tea with a crust of burnt bread. After a week, they substituted
for the beans a porridge of bran, in which I counted fourteen whole
grains. From time to time they alternated the beans with the bran
porridge. We lived on less than is given to a hen.
As soon as we fell down, overthrown by weariness and hunger, we plunged into sleep, but a very short sleep, as it was bitterly cold. A voice from the other side of the wall woke me one day from such a sleep: "Iīm professor Tomescu, the former health minister. Who are you?" When he heard my name, he said: "Iīve heard about you. Listen to me carefully: we have been brought here to be exterminated.
We will never collaborate with them. But whoever doesnīt walk, dies, and becomes a collaborator. Tell the others: whoever stops, dies. Walk without stopping!" The pavilion, immersed in the dismal silence of death, echoed with the sounds of our unlaced shoes.
We were animated by a peopleīs mysterious will to remain in history, and by the vocation of the Church to stay alive. We stopped working only at about 12:30, for a half an hour, when the scant sunlight lingered for us in a corner of the room.
There, hunched down with the sun on my face, I stole a
bit of sleep and a ray of hope. When the sun abandoned me, I felt yet that
I had not been abandoned by Grace.