Preventing prison breaks have always been a top priority for authorities, but few solved the problem so efficiently as Socialist Romania in the first years of Stalinism. Opponents of the regime were sent to Sighetu Marmației, on the banks of the Tisa River, in the northwest of Romania. On the other side of the border, only 2 km away, was the USSR, the unlikeliest place one would try to escape to.
Today, anyone can visit the macabre prison at Sighetu, where Romanian politicians, intellectuals, dissidents, clergymen and even students and schoolchildren suffered forced labour, cold and hunger and were prohibited from looking through the windows of their cells. Sighetu Marmației political prison was acquired by the Civic Academy Foundation in 1993, and was turned into a museum of Communism in 2000. There, the foundation displays a part of its rich collection of documents, artefacts and witness statements about life this side of the Iron Curtain.
The T-shaped building is small, but has a long history of suffering.
The prison today is a tourist site in Maramureş, Romania's northernmost province
It was built in 1897, when Sighetu was a part of Austria-Hungary. When Romania took over Maramureş, in 1918, the prison continued to be used for convicts. It was remodelled into a political prison in 1948, when the government of Socialist Romania sent a group of peasants, students and pupils from Maramureş there, their only crime being to disagree with the "new way of life."
Sighetu political prison was not the only one in Romania at that time. In the penal facility of Piteşti, for example, between 1949 and 1952 inmates were "reeducated" with physical and psychological torture.
Room 9: the cell where Iuliu Maniu, the former prime minister dubbed Father of Romanian Democracy died in 1953
Sighetu gained notoriety in 1950 when, in two days – 5 and 6 May 1950, about 100 top ranking politicians, scientists, journalists and public figures were arrested in Bucharest and sent there. In the autumn of 1950, a group of about 80 Catholic and Eastern-Orthodox priests and bishops joined the inmates. They spent about a year in Sighetu before facing trial and many were never charged.
The order, according to which people were collected from Bucharest, states it briefly and clearly: "[To collect] all the elements which had a role in the political life of the country. Reasons for trials to be found." Many of these men were well into their 60s, making survival in the harsh conditions of what was officially called "Danube Labour Colony" even harder.
Political prisoners at Sighetu Prison seldom faced court trials
Of about 200 prisoners in Sighetu, 52 did not make it. The list of those deaths is a depressing read and features noted historian and politician Gheorghe I. Brătianu and former prime ministers Constantin Argetoianu and Iuliu Maniu.
In 1955, Socialist Romania joined the UN and some of the prisoners were freed. Others, however, were put under house arrest or were transferred to other facilities. Persecution for political ideas opposed to the regime remained, but instead of prisons the omnipotent Securitate started sending people to psychiatric asylums.
Sighetu became a criminal prison again and was closed in 1977. For several years it was a broom factory and a warehouse, but was finally shut down and abandoned. By 1993, it was a ruin.
The work of the Civic Academy Foundation, a private initiative, changed the former prison, which is now the centrepiece of a larger complex with memorial grounds and a research centre.
The former cells are now a museum telling two stories.
Artwork from Sighetu Museum
One is about life and death in Sighetu prison, about its inmates and the monstrous conditions they were subject to. The cells where Iuliu Maniu and Gheorghe I. Brătianu died are grim exhibits, with their grey walls and single, rusty beds, and entering the windowless cells, where prisoners who received extra punishment spent days without clothes and sunlight, is a macabre experience. There are the poetry books and dictionaries written secretly by inmates to pass the time and keep their minds active; there are the stories of the founding of the Securitate and what it did, and of the crimes of Socialist Romania against its own people.
The second story is that of life and resistance under Communism. One room is filled with voices from the broadcasts of the then banned Radio Free Europe and The Voice of America. Another is crammed with the kitschy paraphernalia of Socialism, a spot of bright colours amidst the overall greyness of the place. Several rooms are dedicated to crucial events of resistance in the Eastern Block nations – the Berlin and Thuringia uprisings of 1953, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, the Charter 77 of 1977 in Czechoslovakia and the Polish Solidarity of 1980.
Sadly, but understandably, there is nothing about Bulgaria. Perhaps Communism is still alive there.