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Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte : Can we learn to remember?

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by Ana Blandiana 

The Sighet Memorial is an impressive monument to the victims of Communism. How do its Romanian visitors respond to this confrontation with their past?

It should not come as a surprise that a writer is fascinated if not possessed by the act of remembering. For generations, the epic lyricists and poets of ancient Greece served as instruments to transmit collec-tive memory which became both poetry and history. In Greek mythology, memory – Greek mnemo-syne – was the mother of all the Muses.

In my life, the Sighet Memorial is just as significant as a book because it is a manual of memory, a textbook teaching us the ABC’s of remembrance. Communism’s greatest achievement – a victory whose meaning became dramatically clear after 1989 – was the creation of humans without a memory, a new being, a human being who, after successful brain-wash should no longer be able to remember what he or she had possessed or done before the communist years. Memory is a type of truth. It has to be destroyed in order to destroy or manipulate truth. The destruction of memory – also a crime against nature and history – was the main achievement of communism.

The creation of the Sighet Memorial was not an end in itself but a means. We did not set out to build a museographic masterpiece where the crimes of recent history are shelved scientifically and artistically for the dust of indifference to settle on. What we aimed at and desperately searched for was a way to bring collective memory back to life, an instrument to restore its meaning for a generation that had been brainwashed, that no longer knew where it had come from or where it was going, a generation that was not able to pass its rightful patrimony on to its heirs.

The Memorial to the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance consists of two complementary parts, the Museum and the International Center for Studies on Communism which presides over the museum and organises events such as debates, symposiums, conferences and primarily, the Summer School and research projects developed by the Editorial Department, the Oral History Department and the Archive.

The Sighet Memorial was built in Sighetul Marmatiei, a small town in the northern-most corner of Romania close to the Ukrainian border, on the ruins of a former prison for political prisoners. After the Second World War, the prison was managed by the Soviets for a long time before it was used as a de-tention centre for young people under investigation by the Romanian secret service. From 1950 to 1955, more than 200 dignitaries, intellectuals, and religious leaders were detained there (most of them without being convicted), well-hidden, only two kilometres from the Soviet border so that they could not be liberated in an uprising. In order to justify the presence of so many people without a legal sen-tence, the high security prison in Sighet was officially referred to as a “work colony”. In the course of the five years, 53 of the 200 prisoners died as victims of a slow extermination programme (the prison-ers were all already quite old; the oldest of them was 91).

Why did we erect the Memorial in Sighet, as there had been many larger, better known and maybe even more dreadful prisons in Romania? The answer is simple. Because Sighet marked the beginning. Because Sighet is the place where the processes and phases of repression were openly translated into practice with almost theoretical clarity. To be truly efficient, repressive measures had to wipe out the elite. Sighetul Marmatiei was the place where the extermination of the political, cultural, religious, as well as the social, professional and moral elite started. In Sighet, they proactively nipped the bud of society and tried to eliminate any attempt to rebuild civil society.

Ten years earlier, the same town, Sighetul Marmatiei, had already experienced some terrible events. In April 1944, the German-Hungarian authorities (in accordance with the Dictate of Vienna, the so-called Arbitration of Vienna, due to which northern Transylvania was occupied by Hungary in 1940) de-ported Jewish citizens to the concentration and extermination camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Today the town houses a memorial for the Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who was born in Sighet in 1928. Sighet was also the place where persons deported from the Soviet Union arrived totally exhausted for repatriation into Romania. The town has witnessed many tragedies and serves as a measure of the dimensions that the repressions of totalitarianism can reach, whether fascist or communist. Like any other former communist prison, the Sighet prison also symbolised the violation of the rights to life, liberty and property, as well as the violation by a political minority, the nomenklatura, of the free exercise of all rights.

In 1993 we presented our project to the Council of Europe. We intended to turn the former prison into an international institution for the remembrance of communist repression. The Council of Europe took the project under its aegis. The city of Sighet gave us the building. In the beginning we received funds from private donors living abroad. Over time we found institutions in the U.S., Germany, and France (“Association pour le Mémorial Sighet” headed by Maria Bratianu) who supported us. During the ini-tial years, the Council of Europe also financed the work of foreign historians. We also received sup-port from the National Security Archive (George Washington University, Washington, D.C.) and from the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, the Hanns-Seidel Foundation, and the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. In 1997 the Romanian Parliament declared the memorial a “site of national interest” and granted us a yearly payment equal to roughly 60,000 US dollars. Nevertheless, the ongoing financing of the site remains rather difficult. At the same time, our donors have never made any demands in terms of how we should manage the museum or how we should work. The external phases of this historical project included the restoration of the building; converting the cemetery into a so-called memory-scape, a space that invites the visitor to pause and reflect; and the purchase of a number of works of art (includ-ing the statuary group “The convoy of martyrs” which has become the emblem of the Memorial).
Working methodically to convert the prison cells into museum rooms was the most cumbersome part of the work. The ruin contained only one engraving and a few incorrect memorial plates which the municipality had installed. We decided to start from scratch. In the meantime, the 60 cells have been converted into 52 rooms that examine the 45 years of communism in Romania in a chronological and thematic order, such as “The Countries of Eastern Europe”, “Elections of 1946”, “Year 1948 – Roma-nia’s sovietization”, “The Security Police (Securitate) from 1948 to 1989”, “Destruction of the Acad-emy”, “Deportation”, “Forced labour”, and “Destruction”.

To do the project, we needed a large database; we developed it and have been working with it since 1993. The Center for Studies on Communism was responsible for the research. Its scientific team con-sisted of Thomas S. Blanton, Vladimir Bukovski, Stéphane Courtois, Dennis Deletant, Helmut Müller-Enbergs, and the Romanian historians (and former political prisoners) Serban Papacostea and Alexan-dru Zub, both members of the Romanian Academy. We have collected nearly 3,000 hours of audio material as oral history (parts of which had been given to us by the Hoover Institute in Stanford, Cali-fornia). So far we have organised ten symposiums in Sighet which have examined the years of com-munism from a multidisciplinary perspective. The collection “Sighet Annals” comprises some 7,000 pages of text including both scientific studies and eye-witness reports. The collection “Sighet Library” contains thousands of pages of studies and memoirs. In seminars we have explored various topics of the history of events “vertically”. A project currently underway documents the life of prisoners from 1945 to 1989 from a statistical and sociological perspective based on the 93,000 prison notes that are currently kept in the archive. This information is also available electronically or digitally. We have produced CDs with records of oral historical evidence. Visitors can read the documents, listen to wit-ness reports, and learn how class hatred worked and how basic human rights were suppressed, i.e., how hatred as an engine of history works.

Hatred and fanaticism continue to exist after the disappearance of the institutions where these feelings proliferated. Communism may have disappeared as a political system but not as a method or a mind-set. Analysing it is not only useful with regard to the past but also in view of the future. Let us remem-ber that members of international terrorist organisations were trained in camps in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and that they used Czechoslovakian and Soviet weapons. Examining commu-nism and its methods can also be seen as an intelligent way to understand and solve many current problems.

For the past eight years, our Summer School (Rector: Stéphane Courtois) has forged paths to the fu-ture by complementing research and the presentation of the truth with new ways of transmitting this knowledge to future generations. This makes the Sighet Memorial both a place and an opportunity for young people, whom the dark shadow of a falsified past cannot touch, to learn what their parents were not able to tell them, i.e., who they have become as the result of historical developments and who they can be as persons. The Summer School brings the museum to life. It makes it an institution of remem-brance in motion focussing first on one life story and then on another and shedding light on truths without which there would be no development. Like dry and withered plants becoming humus which nourishes seeds reaching the soil and blossoming into new plants, Sighet makes sense of the suffering of the parent generation which can become the raw material for intellectual and moral growth by sow-ing truth in other lives for which members of that generation lost their lives. With the Summer School, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism leaves the walls of the prison behind and reaches out to the minds of young people who are ready and open to understanding history in order to understand themselves. And if the media of consumerist society, which can have a greater effect than communist terror could, do not brainwash people again, there is a chance that this museum – built on a focal point of mental energies – will continue into the next generation.

The museum, open daily, is very popular with visitors. Especially in both the summer and the winter-time, up to 700 tickets are sold every day. 40 per cent of all visitors are young people; another 40 per cent come from abroad. Almost everyone comes out of curiosity (maybe because they think it is inter-esting to see a prison from the inside) and many leave the museum teary-eyed, shocked by the naked truth they discovered while examining the rooms. The museum’s achievement can be measured by the number of visitors and the traces they leave in the guestbooks bearing witness to the fact that the in-formation presented generally provided food for thought. We try to avoid a lurid presentation of his-tory (which would have been the easier path to take). Instead we intend to use the persuasive power of documents, photographs, statistics, and records (to move people) and to convey the suffering, the raw material of our research, through artwork in a more subtle way than possible with scientific data.

Headed by Petruška Šustrová , the former speaker of “Charta 77”, a Czech delegation suggested that the Memorial devote one exhibition room to each Eastern European country. We made this happen. At present there is a “Solidarnosc” room, as well as one that deals with the Prague Spring and the inva-sion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In collaboration with the Budapest Institute of the Revolution of 1956, we are currently working on another room which is scheduled to open this year. Two other rooms will be devoted to the 1953 uprising in East Germany and the building of the Berlin Wall (in cooperation with the organisation “Geschichtswerkstatt Jena e.V.” and its director Manfred Wagner), as well as one discussing the important Soviet dissidents of the nineteen seventies. The Memorial has also hosted exhibits from Moldova, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Our traveling exhibition has been shown in ten German cities so far. In July 2006 we will open a traveling exhibition about the Cold War which will travel to Hungary, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic in 2007.

The high percentage of young people among the visitors to the museum, excursions by groups of high school students and history students from Romanian and German universities who attend classes at or have internships with the museum, as well as the increasing number of graduate papers written about the Memorial make it a true institution of learning. Ideally, the Summer School would also be attended by young people from countries other than Romania and Moldova. This would be a step to help the two parts of Europe come together in order to become more unified, to get to know each other, and to harmonise not only our economies but also our interests.

A museum, research institute, and teaching faculty – the combination of these three characteristics make the Sighet Memorial a unique institution that is not government-run but a creation of Romania’s civil society and evidence that this civil society has been successfully reborn. In the name of civil so-ciety, which was destroyed in perfidious ways and which struggles to take shape again, the Sighet Memorial is not a plea for or against a certain political course but for the need for truth and respect of humans which each of us deserves. No ideology can justify a criminal act. A political crime is not about the relationship between left and right wing but between the victim and his or her tormentor. Destroying memory – a crime against nature and history – was communism’s aim. In contrast to all other dictatorships and all other horrors in the history of humankind, communism demands not only the subservience but also the happiness of its subjects. Only memory could stop this humiliation and aberration because it is the backbone of any society. Once memory has been destroyed – and commu-nism nearly succeeded in making this happen – society becomes a sort of invertebrate monster without internal coherence that can be bent in any possible way according to anyone’s (criminal) ideas.

The Sighet Memorial is a symbol for the importance and necessity of civil society to remember. With-out memory, people become a faceless mass and history becomes an incredible tale about the deforma-tion of the collective mind. The answer to the question asked in the title is therefore a decisive “YES” – not only for the sake of maintaining optimism but also because it is the only possible way to save us from the past.

Janina Gatzky/Sam Waltz

Original in French

Published 03/07/2006

First published in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 27/2006