Sighet Memorial and the Story of Communism in Romania
It’s not easy to write or to talk about a visit to Sighet Memorial, the former prison where the Romanian elites were brutally exterminated in the first years of communism in Romania. There’s no place for clichés, travel tips or attractions. It is, however, the place that each and every one of us should visit at least once because “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).
The words of the Spanish philosopher, reproduced inside the former communist prison, seem painfully appropriate for the very being of the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance from Sighet, envisaged by its founders as an institution of memory. A memory that aims to do justice to the victims of the communist crimes, to those who died or suffered opposing the communist repression, but who are often forgotten despite their importance.
Built in 1897 in Sighet, a small town from Maramures, the prison became after 1945 one of the most dreaded symbols of the communist crimes. In 1950, Romania’s most representative personalities from between the wars were taken to this prison and few of them survived the tortures and the inhuman conditions of detention.
Former ministers, journalists, economists, politicians, scientists, priests and members of the army were incarcerated with or without a trial, for the only reason that they were the best of a system the communists were trying to destroy by any means or price in human lives.
How much it has destroyed and how much has been forgotten are still open questions, but a visit to the Sighet Memorial, a unique museum in Europe, is a necessary step to fill in the blanks of our individual and collective memory.
At least 600,000 Romanians were arrested and sentenced to prison during the communist regime. Some sources estimate, however, the number of political prisoners up to 2 million.
The peaks of the terror were the years 1948-1953 and 1958-1960. Numerous forced labor camps were set up to supplement the penitentiaries and massive deportations of those considered to be a threat to the regime. More than 200,000 persons were uprooted.
Using political detainees as labor force was a common practice in the communist period. One of the most notorious cases is the Danube-Black Sea Canal, or, in the terms of the Gheorghiu-Dej regime, ‘a graveyard of the Romanian bourgeoisie’. The Canal was supposed to connect the Black Sea through the Danube to the Oder-Rhein Canal for iron transportation and to allow Soviet ships to use the Danube in case of an armed conflict with Yugoslavia. According to the most conservative estimates, in 1950 alone, over 40,000 detainees were held in its camps, along with another 20,000 so called ‘volunteer workers’. A number of case studies evoke the assassinations and the ‘sabotage’ trials against engineers and workers.
In 1949, the communists began a Soviet-type collectivization process to transfer all agricultural lands in the hands of the state. There was significant resistance to the violent collectivization process and only in the first three years, over 800,000 peasants were arrested and 30.000 sentenced. The protests continued in the next years when many people lost their lives opposing the abusive confiscation of lands. After 13 years of terror that lead to the peasants’ impoverishment, the collectivization was finally declared finished on 27 April 1962. By then, 96% of the arable surface of the country was transferred under state control.
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