Flickr, Gabi Agu/Remixed and published under CCs license.

Resisting oppression behind bars

After the instauration of the communist regime in Romania, political activists, priests and intellectuals were imprisoned as “enemies of the people” . Here is the testimony of one of these “enemies” – the 90 year-old priest and former political prisoner Nicholas Bordașiu. Remembering the period of his detention, Bordașiu talks about everyday resistance behind bars in the face of brutal oppression and how to form a community of culture and spirituality against forced “re-education”.

Est. reading time: 12 minutes

The Voice

Nicolae Bordaşiu [1]

Father Nicolae Bordaşiu from Saint Silvestre Church, Bucharest, was a political prisoner during the communist regime from 1955 until 1964. Today he is 90 years old.

Some Romanian prisons formed a space of destruction for the society’s elite and students during the “project of re-education,” which attempted to crush any sort of resistance within the prisons, often by using extreme methods of torture. But despite these measures, creative forms of resistance prevailed.

Bordașiu became a priest after he was released from jail, as he considered the detention a spiritual experience that allowed him discover and understand human being in all complexity. Remembering the period of his detention, Bordașiu talks about resistance behind bars.

How many years did you spend in prison?

Altogether I was disconnected from social life for 16 years. I confronted the communist regime for seven years while hiding. After that the Securitate (Department of State Security) finally arrested me and so I spent another nine years, in the prisons of the Romanian towns Timisoara, Constanța, and Oradea. I spent nearly seven years in Aiud prison, where I got to know the atmosphere of the prison.

 

How can one imagine life in these prisons?

The communist regime particularly tried to torment intellectuals, and everyone else who was imprisoned and was considered to be an enemy of the regime. So they imposed a special form of torture: they didn’t ask them to do hard work, but instead they banned all kinds of activity. You were not allowed to do anything inside these prisons. And for intellectuals this obviously was the worst punishment. You see, once God gave you the possibility to know more, you also have to use this knowledge. But the communist regime banned any intellectual activity inside the prisons. You were neither allowed to read, nor to write.

                              

What was the reason for these rules of non-activity?

They thought that through this kind of punishment they -the intellectuals – are going to imbrute, to freak out. But God, who helped those who prayed, gave them the chance for some intellectual activity. And so their suffering created true masterpieces in this context. It’s a pity that not all of them are known.

 

What was the main pillar of resistance in prison?

I resisted only through faith. I spent many months in complete isolation. I was held alone, because loneliness is the biggest enemy of human being. It takes you down. And they (the communist Securitate) thought that I would go crazy, which is why they kept me like that for a long period; if I hadn’t had faith…

Before being arrested I was a member of the Rugul Aprins [2]. And the school of prayer helped me to withstand all those states of mind, like humiliation and everything that happened inside the prisons. When I was released after 16 years, my faith in God helped me to accomplish other beautiful things in life.

 

What was the relation between the administration and the prisoners? 

Well, it is said that in prison you can’t do any harm. Nevertheless, the fact that you were persecuted was creating a certain antagonism towards your oppressors. And those who could overcome this antagonism, this natural human tendency of revenge and hatred, were rising to a condition of saints for those who kept their spiritual values alive. For those who didn’t give a spiritual meaning to the prison period, forgiving your enemies was something pointless. And unfortunately they were many who couldn’t accept, couldn’t forgive, but I believe they suffered even more because of this attitude.

Suffering pains and all those strikes from prison guards is a challenge. Many endured these torments in prisons. I believe that accepting sufferance without ending up hating those who are producing it is something you achieve with a lot of sacrifice, faith and giving. There were people who deserved to be called Saints, like Valeriu Gafencu- who gave his medication – medication that could save his life – to another man. Even though he was really sick and medications were rare in prisons he chose to give up his streptomycin; that man survived, Valeriu died shortly after. Others have endured awful torture like the father Ioan (John) – he suffered a lot but didn’t say a word against those who tortured him, complained neither during the prison, nor after. And he forgave them all.

  

What was the relation between you and your colleagues during detention? After the Pitesti experiment [3] the communication between prisoners became very difficult. 

You know, between communion and community there is a big difference. Community is in general about a physical state of togetherness, while communion is more of a spiritual situation and connection. And those who were there, the prisoners were animated both by good and bad thoughts. Some of them had mostly good thoughts, some others bad ones. But those who had mostly good thoughts were in a true communion, sharing the same Christian spirit. They never lost hope. I am going to give you an example- I didn’t live the re-education through torture, but through conferences, movies, I was sharing the room in Aiud- I prefer to call the cell like that, “room,” with a shepherd from Sibiu, a town in Romania. He was a simple man with no intellectual capacities. But during the time he was in prison he learned until he reached the high-school level. He studied French, Mathematics. I spent time with that man even during the “re-education through culture” but we never stopped trusting each other.  We had conversations that never reached the administration.

  

How was it possible to write under these circumstances?

Well, in prison you were not allowed to write. Paper and pencil were forbidden. But instead we had the walls to write on and some pieces of wire and pegs. People cannot imagine how human imagination could give you different forms of evasion from what the communist regime was imposing. For example, to prevent fleas from biting us, the administration gave us DDT. You know what that means. I think you heard of it. It’s a sanitizing powder. And they also gave us a small piece of soap for the shower. Well, we used this soap by spreading it on the bottom of the pots we had for food, so that we could form a sticking layer, after which we would scatter the sanitizing powder DDT onto the same surface, the back of the pot; This way we got a small writing slate on which we could write with a wooden straw without being seen by the guard.

Thus people managed to compose lyrics, or to learn mathematics. At least until the administration noticed it and began removing the pots from the cells, so that the prisoners no longer had any material. So we had to start looking for new formulas. We were scratching the walls as a way of writing or we simply recited. We were studying like in primary school. You could learn texts from the Holy Scripture, for example. Some people learned the Holy Gospels by heart.

Flickr, Gabi Agu/Remixed and published under CCs license.

Group of statues in the yard of a former communist prison in Sighetu Marmatiei, where a museum for the victims of communism has been created. [4]

Do you remember any particular case?

Today some of their names are well-known in poetry. They are people who composed their master-piecesinside the prison. One of them is the poet Nichifor Crainic. During detention he composed a poem, a lamentation:

“I was foredoomed to have nothing on this world

Like a bird on a branch I rise and fall              

Circumrotating as the wheel

Grinding along pains and bad luck.”

“Am fost sortit pe-acest pământ.să n-am nimic,

Ca pasărea pe ram cobor şi mă ridic

Mă- învârt pe câte ştiu ca roata morii-n loc

Şi macin în pustiu dureri şi nenoroc…..”

You see, these lyrics restored a form of reality. Because the entire space we had available was about two square feet. The rest was occupied with beds. But we were not allowed to lie down during the day. So what could you do, if you wanted to move? We were actually walking in circles, one by one. And when we got tired, we changed the direction. It was all you could do. This type of walking, of circumrotation, inspired Crainic’s poem. 

Another great author of Romanian literature is Radu Gyr.

I remember that he was sharing the cell with a colleague, a man who had a daughter he was always speaking of. Every evening he would imagine wishing good night to her. And Radu Gyr composed a poem in the name of this man, who was a father:

 

“Delia, father’s little daughter                           

From the cell I’m dying in,

Through the flowers between bars

Daddy wishes you ‘sleep tight’.”

“Delia, fetiţa tatii,

Din celula-n care mor,

Printre florile din gratii,

Tata-ţi spune, somn uşor.”

You are also a priest. As a theologian, how would you explain that situation, why do you think God allowed all that to happen? Because we are no longer speaking of a physical torture only we are also speaking about a spiritual challenge. As it is known, it was even forbidden to pray. There were also some people who were forced to deny their belief in public.

Why did God allow that? Because he gave men the greatest power one can achieve: freedom in spirit. God doesn’t force you to do anything. He offers you complete freedom to choose your way, through your own cognition, between good and evil. And if this sufferance came along it happened precisely in order to make people stronger. And in these moments, if you were not able to feel that God is there with you, realizing that the ones hurting you were blinded, captured by evil, by an evil they didn’t know how to defeat, if you couldn’t find compassion for them, then you were lost.

 

If you would have to describe the experience of prisons in few words or, what would be the expression for it? 

I think that the greatest symbol for the political detention during communism and for this religious experience inside the prisons more generally is the monument built near the Aiud Jail. It is a monument of sufferance: a big wooden cross, carried by other crosses. Because there, in prison each and everyone carried his own cross of sufferance and, at the same time the Cross of the entire nation.

The “Calvarul Aiudului” monument from the city Aiud in Romania. It was an important centre where the elite of the Communist resistance was buried. The monument seeks to remember those. [5]

Background

Between 1949 and 1951 some of the Romanian prisons like Pitesti and Gherla represented a space of destruction for the society’s elite and students. The so-called “project of re-education” was invented and introduced in prisons by the security agents, the administration and their collaborators (prisoners who accepted betraying their political cause). Those prisoners were at first sympathetic to the task of obtaining new information from their cell-mates. Once they had achieved this aim, they began to torture them, so as to destroy any physical or psychological resistance. Extreme methods of torture were used by the administrations. For instance, the prisoners were eventually forced to hit and humiliate each other, all for the purpose of re-educationing the spirit in obedience. In addition, they were also forced to renounce and denigrate their beliefs, their political past and anything related to spiritual values. Historians discovered over 100 victims of the Pitesti re-education phenomenon – all students- who were killed during 1949 and 1951. The second period of re-education begun in 1960 in Aiud prison, but this newer system no longer implied violence. The “re-education through culture,” as it was called, involved conferences, movie screenings and debates around the communist doctrine, and social integration for all political prisoners. Nevertheless, the recalcitrant prisoners, those who refused the non-violent re-education were often punished, isolated and humiliated. In 1964, political detention was abolished in Romania, and all political prisoners were released. Until the 1989 revolution and the fall of the communist regime, all former political prisoners were spied, threatened from time to time by the Securitate (the Department of State Security).

Footnotes

*References

1 Picture of father Nicolae Bordaşiu embedded from http://biserica-sfantul-silvestru.ro/slujitori/nicolae-bordasiu. If you want to use or remix this image please write the author. 2 Orthodox group, rooted in the monastic life, first at Antim Monastery, Bucharest, then more widespread, involving Orthodox monks, theologians, intellectuals from many walks, many of whom were imprisoned.  3 Speaking about this phenomenon, the Russian writer Alexandr Soljenitin named it “The most terrible act of barbarism in the modern world”. For more information please read http://www.thegenocideofthesouls.org/public/english/the-pitesti-experiment 4 Cover picture: Flickr, Gabi Agu /Remixed and published under CCs license “CC BY 2.0”  5 Picture of the “Calvarul Aiudului” monument embedded from http://atelieruldearhitectura.blogspot.com/2010/04/arh-anghel-marcu-calvarul-aiudului-rapa.html. If you want to use or remix this image please write the author.  
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I hold a license diploma in Musicology from Transylvania University in Brasov, Romania. As my license paper represented the passage towards ethnology I decided to continue my studies in another domain. That is how I discovered the Master of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at the Bucharest University.
I am interested in the nature and the effects of the totalitarian regimes, as the subject of my Master degree paper is about the repression and human rights infringement during the first communist decade in Romania.
My current research – as I am working on my PhD in Cultural Anthropology- University of Bucharest, is centered on the aspects regarding the social life in Romania during the communism, including repression, political demography, cultural mutations. I am also interested in political topics related with gender studies. My approach is based on interviews and archive research.


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