THE SIGHET MEMORIAL AS A SCHOOL
Conference by ROMULUS RUSAN
Director of the International Center for the Study of Communism
Vice President of the Civic Academy Foundation
Conference organised by Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC
I Introduction: Historical Presentation, Cold War in Romania
The Cold War period began in Romania a little bit earlier, in 1945, than mentioned in standard classifications about this subject, at the time when the enforcement of the Armistice Convention between the Allies and Romania was under the control of the Commission dominated by Soviet representatives. In that Allied Control Commission, the representatives of the United States and Great Britain had little room to have their say and thus to question or oppòse the decisions dictated by the Kremlin, whose aim was the Sovietization of Romania. Both the diplomats and the military leadership of the Western powers were constantly faced with a policy of “fait accompli” and left with the choice of lodging protests against the abuses perpetrated by the Soviets who were blatantly intervening in the Romania’s domestic affairs. On March, 6, 1945, the Soviets imposed a pro-communist government. In November, 19, 1946 they falsified Romania’s first post-war parliamentary elections. With the December, 30, 1947 coup d’etat, Romania’s pro-Soviet government abolished the nation’s constitutional monarchy. The pattern of these developments unmistakably displayed the features of a deliberate plan meant to transform Romania, alongside the other nations of Eastern Europe, into satellite countries of the USSR. In the process of rapidly implementing that plan, each country’s “Fifth Column” was composed of local communist activists*
In the case of Romania, the Communist Party was particularly small: out of a population of about 16 million, Romania had between eight hundred and one thousand card-carrying Party members, most of them returned from Moscow where most of them had taken refuge during World War II. This communist minority proved adamant in carrying out Moscow’s plans about Romania’s post-war future and they did so turning to account the full extent of their own experience, gained during the various “purifications” carried out in the Soviet Union under Lenin, Trotzky and Stalin.
Anyone who opposed or appeared to oppose these policies was automatically described as an “enemy of the people”, a “reactionary”, an Anglo-American spy” or even a “fascist”. The basic principle of these policies was: “anyone who is not with us, is against us”.
Justice was transformed into a “class justice” as all normal principles of justice were replaced by the all-encompassing presumption. To quote just one example, communist Romania’s criminal law stipulated –among other criminal acts punishable by law—anyone’s action “threatening” or “intending to threaten” the socialist order!
Most suspects accused of having acted against the socialist order were not even tried in courts of law. Defendants were simply detained “administratively” on orders issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, usually without even mentioning any form of specific guilt.
During the first years of communist rule (for which we had documents: 1949-1960), and leaving aside defendants who were never stood trial in court, about half a million Romanians went through political trials and were sentenced by military tribunals for – so called or declared – political offenses. The climax of the terror years was the period between 1947-1953. A decrease in communist terror occurred in 1955 when a limited amnesty was granted to political prisoners, pursuant to the Geneva Convention. Terror practices resumed full swing in 1959-1960 at the time when the Soviet troops were withdrawn from Romania, a move that offered the communist government the opportunity to display its fidelity and determination in following the Soviet-inspired principles of the class struggle. Later on, during the 24 years of Ceausescu’s rule over Romania, a different method was enforced in order to promote the Communist Party’s absolute rule over society. Ceausescu’s method could be described as one of “prophylactic terror”. Accordingly, the “re-education” principle, which had been enforced in Romania’s communist prisons was gradually extended to the entire society, complete with its own system of open punitive methods. Ceusescu’s ultimate goal was the creation of “the new man”, a brainless mutant, with little memory of the past, duplicitous, obsequious and obedient to the rule of the party, a creature expressing his thoughts in the so called “wooden language”. During those years, the dictatorship of the proletariat was turned into a dictatorship of the Communist Party over society, including the proletariat. To quote just two examples: the bread riots of the Valley of Jiu miners (in 1977) and the revolt of the blue-collar workers in Brasov (in 1987).
II The Victims of the Cold War in Romania
About 2 million people – according to statistical estimates – are quoted as direct victims of communism in Romania. The figure includes political prisoners jailed without due process or proper investigation, the cases of deportees expelled from their places of residence in successive waves of deportations, the house arrest cases, the forced labor convicts and the psychiatric repression political prisoners. If one takes into account the political repercussions of such repressive practices and their impact upon families (such as: discrimination against children of political opponents of the regime, spouses fired from their jobs because of their husbands’ political beliefs, which also targeted such opponents in-laws, grandparents, nephews — persecuted through discrimination due to their so called “unhealthy social background”) – the total number of victims could be considered of 8 to 10 million citizens of the country, which amounts to about half of the population of Romania.
III The Sighet Memorial
1. Main Tasks
The Sighet Memorial was created by our Civic Academy Foundation (Academia Civica) with the two major purposes of giving information to the general public about the generally speaking unknown realities of Romania’s political prisons, while at the time providing researchers about various themes and studies about the phenomenon of communist totalitarianism.
The Sighet Memorial is a museum about the victims of the communist system and it also illustrates the attitude of those who resisted the communist system, both in Romania and in seven other countries that were satellites of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The importance of the project is based on the fact that the decades of communist ideological dictatorship ended up in creating “a pathology of memory” according to professor Alexandru Zub. Such an alienating consequence resulted in a kind of collective amnesia, an estrangement of the human person from its own past. Our endeavor to factually retrieve past experiences (both private and collective) has nothing to do with a vendetta about things past.
Our achievement in Sighet is not concerned with polemics about outdated matters. Our purpose has been and continues to be that of informing and edifying our fellow human beings in order for them to be aware of the past with a view to the future: so that such horrors may never be repeated. Unfortunately, the governments after 1989 proved less interest in contributing to the factual revelation of the recent past and its ideologies with falsificated theories. Officially, the main concern has only deal with consensus and reconciliation. What has been missing was the preocupation for a critical approach to the past –a complicated task indeed, yet not an impossible one—as can be seen in similar examples in the Czech Republic and the former Ddr. But consensus cannot be attained through amnesia, but rather by laying the foundations of a historical research aimed at facilitating a return to the values of normality.
2. Location, Historical Presentation
The Memorial was organized at Sighetul Marmatiei, a small town in the extreme northwest region of Romania, close to the country’s border with Ukraine. Its location is the former ruin of a political prison fallen in disrepair. After World War II, the prison was briefly under Soviet administration. Between 1950-1955 Sighet was the place where over 200 former officials and other important personalities of pre-communist Romania were imprisoned. Among them a number of academics, former government ministers and high members of Romania’s religious denominations, particularly bishops and prelates, most of them under administrative punishment, without having been tried in court. Two kilometers away from Romania’s border with the former Soviet Union, Sighet was deliberately chosen as a top security jail for Romania’s former elite, presumably in order to make it possible for the authorities to rapidly transfer the inmates to the USSR –should an upheaval against the regime happen. Given the great number of inmates who had never stood trial in court, the official name of the Sighet prison was a “work camp”. During the 5 years of confinement in the Sighet jail, 52 out of 200 inmates died (numerouse inmates were past their 80s; the oldest political prisoner was 94 years old!!!).
3. Why Sighet?
A frequently asked question about the Sighet Memorial is: “Why Sighet?” Were there not other places of internment, other concentration camps and larger penal colonies to testify about communist Romania’s political oppression practices?
The answer is simple.
Because Sighet was the beginning.
Because Sighet marked the starting point where most of the methods as well as the basic kind of communist repression were put into practice.
Because Sighet is the place where, –with almost theoretical clarity–, the communist regime displayed one of its essential patterns in action: namely, that –in order to be fully effective– repression must first destroy the society’s elite. The Sighet prison was indeed the location where, by harsh imprisonment, most of Romania’s political, cultural, religious, social, professional and moral elites were exterminated. In what could be called an early prophylactic move, the Sighet repression system managed to destroy the top personalities of the country, achieving the goal of making it practically impossible to ever revive the natural structures of a civil society.
I would also like to mention that there is another symbolic dimension to Sighet. Several years before the advent of communism, Sighetul Marmatiei was the place where another form of brutal totalitarianism had destroyed human lives. In April 1944, while the region was under Hungarian and German military regime (the north of Transylvania had been awarded by Hitler and Mussolini to Hungary in August, 1940), 38,000 Jews were deported from Sighet to the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz.
Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel – the only of his family who survived the Holocaust – was deported from this place and the Wiesel Memorial House in the town of Sighetul Marmatiei is one of the historic landmarks of the town.
Sighet was also the transit check point were later on, Romanian citizens who had been deported to the Soviet Union after World War II were repatriated, after having endured various detentions in Siberia.
Sighet indeed is one of the symbolical places of the two major tragedies generated by 20th century totalitarianism: nazism and communism.
4. Historical Presentation and Evolution of the Project
The Sighet Memorial was initiated in 1993 by the writer Ana Blandiana and it is at her proposal that it was later on taken under the symbolic aegis of the Council of Europe. The Sighet town-hall authorities donated the former prison to our Foundation. In the beginning, most of the financial support came from private donations offered by members of Romania’s exile community; later on we were able to establish offices of support in the United States, Germany and France. During the first seven years of activity the participation of foreign historians received financial support from the Council of Europe. Over the years, other generous sponsors have included the Washington DC National Security Archive, as well as the German foundations “Konrad Adenauer Stiftung”, ” Hanns Seidel Stiftung” and “Friedrich Ebert Stiftung”. In 1997 Romania’s Parliament declared the Sighet Memorial “a landmark of national interest” (and made it the recipient of a $60,000 grant per year). However, the financial support of the Memorial acutely remains a persistent problem. Those who provided financial assistance to our endeavor have never imposed any conditions concerning the organization and functioning of the museum.
Our project includes the followings: the rehabilitation of the building of the former prison; the transformation of the so called Cemetery of the Poor into a place of remembrance; the construction of a space of meditation and the erection of a statuary group in bronze to decorate the former prison’s inner yard.
The most difficult task has been that of establishing a rigorous and scientific method for turning the former cells into museum rooms. We just took a building in form of a ruin which didn’t have anything in common with the former prison (there were only several plaques fixed to the outside walls by city’s authorities and even these carrying some factual mistakes). We had to start it all from scratch. Out of the 60 cells, we managed to turn 50 into the equivalent of small-size museum rooms. Each of them currently displays in chronological order the themes and evolutions of 45 years of communist rule. To quote just a few, such topics include: “A History of the Countries of Eastern Europe”, “The Falsification of the 1946 Elections”, “1948 and the Sovietization of Romania”, “The Creation and Activity of the Securitate”,” The Forced Collectivization of Romania’s Agriculture”, ” The Outlawing of Romania’s Democratic Parties”, “The Termination of the Romanian Academy as an Institution”, ” The Political Deportations”, ” The Forced Labor Camps in Romania”, “The Razing of Romania’s Traditional Architecture” **.
5 Oral History, Symposia, Books and Other Medias
Such a project could not be implemented without a reliable data bank, beginning in 1993. We boast over three thousand hours of recordings of “Oral History”, part of which have been entrusted to the “Hoover Institution” at Stanford, California. We organized ten symposia with international participation, each of them devoted to a specific period of communist system in Romania. The papers delivered at these meetings: 7,000 pages published in the series titled “Annale Sighet”. They include both scientific studies and eyewitness testimonies. From the tens of thousands of documents, we published a separate series of volumes titled “Documents” (Documente) and “Sighet Library” (Biblioteca Sighet). The last one contains memories of the survivors and analyses by historians and experts (other 10,000 pages).
6. Inside the Museum
We also held over two dozens Seminars referring to a variety of themes which are part of the chronology of events that have marked the 45 years of communist rule in Romania. The results of these efforts have been computerized and each museum room is currently endowed with CD players featuring oral history recordings. The Museum’s visitors are able to read documents, view images, listen to recordings getting so an “all-round image” of how the ideology and mechanisms of “class hatred” and the repression of basic human rights have actually been at work in a society ruled by communist totalitarianism.
7. The Summer School
Over the past 6 years, in order to better engage the young generation in the pursuit of the Memorial’s goals, we have organized a series of sessions of the Memorial’s “Summer School”, to serve the needs and information interests of pupils. Such gatherings have conferred the Sighet Museum a lively extension into the present, with wide openings toward the future.
8. Our Aims
Research on the one hand and information-based education on the other hand are indeed the two basic coordinates and fundamental goals of our activity. We consider they are important because finding out the truth about the past and handing such information over to the next generation is an essential duty of those who have witnessed the horrors of communism, as one of the harshest and bloodiest specific forms of totalitarianism. In that sense, the Memorial School at Sighet is considered by many visitors as unique.
9. The Center for International Studies on Communism
The entire research activity has took place in our own “Center for International Studies on Communism”. Its scientific board includes international personalities and scholars such as: Thomas S. Blanton, Vladimir Bukovski, Stèphane Courtois, Dennis Deletant, Helmuth Müller-Enbergs as well as Romanian historians and former political prisoners Serban Papacostea and Alexandru Zub. Although almost entirely dead as a system, the communism is still alive and often kicking as a method and in the form of old mindsets: that is why its analysis proves to be an exercise helpful in the understanding of both the past and the future. Suffice it to mention the fact that the members of the terrorist organizations that were active in the 60s, the 70s and the 80s used to take their training in camps and special facilities provided to them by the communist countries of eastern Europe, using weaponry and ammunition made mostly in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. This helps anyone to understand that the study of communism and its methods can also be a clever tool helpful in providing and solving some of the challenges of our world, today.
10. The Museum: Visitors, Impressions
The Sighet Museum is open 7 days a week and it attracts an extraordinary number of visitors, especially in the summer when their number reaches from 300 to about 500 visitors per day, with record figures and sometimes go up to 700 visitors per day. About 40 percent of the Sighet Museum visitors are young people and about 20 percent mature people. On average, about 40 percent of the total number of visitors are from other countries. What are their reactions? Generally speaking most visitors say that they come to Sighet out of curiosity, for getting the feel of the interior of a prison, or former prison. Some are so deeply impressed by what they eventually come out with tears in their eyes, shocked by what took place inside those walls.
The impact of a museum can be gauged in the number of its visitors and also in their impressions written down in the visitors’ book. The latter bears testimony to reactions of shock and amazement, of emotion and gratitude for the museum having made this kind of information available. I have to say that indeed this had been our intention from the outset. Our purpose was to avoid sensationalist presentations of that horror chapter of history (it would have been, of course, much simpler to do so!). Instead, we chose to stick to the facts as such and let documents, photographs, figures and statistics present the whole “weight” of truth.
11. The Museum: New Sections, New Projects
In hundreds of pages, the Museum Visitors Book’s also contains suggestions. Here is an example of a suggestion that ended up in influencing a specific feature of the museum. Last year, the museum had the visit of a Czech delegation headed by Ms. Sustrova, a former spokesperson of the “Charter ’77” movement. She came up with the idea that the museum could successfully provide a selected number of separate rooms featuring other east-European countries that suffered under the totalitarian rule after World War II. That is how the new room at the Sighet Memorial Museum devoted to the “Solidarnosc” movement came into being, with help from the Polish Institute in Bucharest. We are currently at work on a new room featuring the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Another project in the works –with help from the “Gauck Institute” and the “Havemann Foundation” – will be devoted to the Berlin 1953 uprising and to the erection of the Berlin Wall in the sixties. Other welcome suggestions ended up in temporary exhibitions in the museum, devoted to the Republic of Moldova, Poland and former DDR. We also organized, in the same vein, an exhibition of our own, targeting foreign audiences. In 1999 it was presented in Germany where it was inaugurated by Dr. Gauck in Frankfurt and afterwards in: Tübingen, Hamburg, Munich, Dortmund, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Augsburg, Heidelberg and Cologne. In September 2004 the same exhibition is scheduled to be presented in Bruxelles.
In its own way, the Sighet Memorial Museum is also an institute of education. This can be seen in the high number of visits organized by history professors from high schools from all across Romania who come to Sighet with their students. Also, in visits organized by university professors who come to Sighet with their own graduate and post-graduate students. Such visits frequently assume the format of courses of lectures delivered in the precincts of the Museum, or in that of hours of practice performed by students who take advantage of the Museum’s scholarly resources.
It would be a great idea to have such visits also organized by history departments from other countries – Western Europe, the United States and Canada, for example. Budget permitting, it would also be ideal for the Museum to be able to invite young students from other countries to take part in the Summer School’s sessions and take part in the annual courses and seminars where historians and specialists from various countries – the U.S., France, England, Germany and of course, Romania will engage in interactive meetings with their Romanian (also Moldavian) students.
12. The Museum as a Symbol
Another frequently asked question about our institution is: “Why a Museum devoted to suffering?”… And: “Why make it international?”…
The answer is: Because more than by virtue of blood relations, the people of the world relate to each other by virtue of the common burden of history they mutually share. The issue is not: who suffered most during the past decades. The question is: why did all these people and our nations suffer under such circumstances.
Especially: What is to be done in order to avoid similar situations of human sufferings in future?
Regarding the participation of the Council of Europe and of other international institutions in our project, what can be more natural than such organizations be part of an effort to examine and analyze a period when the most vital human rights were cynically downtrodden on such a large scale; when not only minorities but entire populations were deprived of the most basic rights of any human being…
IV Conclusions. The Memory and the State of Law
Like any other former communist prison, Sighet is a symbol of the manner in which a small political minority –the nomenklatura—can deprive the major part of a society of its basic human rights: the right to life, liberty, property, free speech. Is it not normal that international organizations be of assistance to and support those who wish that the memory of these events be part of a common effort to share the knowledge of things which today’s globalization includes in the huge stock of its awareness?
In the name of civil society that was so utterly and programmatically destroyed and whose recovery is so much bedeviled by difficulties, the Sighet Memorial is not a plea against, or in favor, of any politically motivated area in any political spectrum. It is a plea for honoring truth and human dignity, an area where there are no boundaries between human beings, since we consider these values as belonging to all people. No ideology in the world can justify a crime, and in the case of political crimes it not the matter of right or left, which is at stake, or creates a relation of opposition: it is the blunt relation between victim and executioner. One single crime perpetrated in the name of the state can devoid of meaning the notion of a state of law.
The Sighet Memorial is an argument and a symbol about the importance and necessity of a civil society and of a state of law. in their absence, nations are just populations and history is just a tragical story about malformation of the collective soul.