Tue, 02/25/2014 - 11:51

Intellectuals and politicians suffered and perished in Sighetu political prison

sighetu political prison.jpg

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 provinceThe 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 1953Room 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 trialsPolitical 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 MuseumArtwork 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.

Issue 89 Romania Communism

Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Shopska salad is the ultimate rakiya companion
The easiest way for a foreigner to raise a Bulgarian brow concerns a sacrosanct pillar of national identity: rakiya, the spirit that Bulgarians drink at weddings, funerals, for lunch, at protracted dinners; because they are sad or joyful, and somet

"Where is the parliament?" A couple of months ago anyone asking this question in Sofia would have been pointed to a butter-yellow neoclassical building at one end of the Yellow Brick Road.

Boyko Borisov_0.jpg
Bulgaria's courts have been given the chance to write legal history as former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is suing Yordan Tsonev, the MP for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, over Tsonev's referral to him as a mutra.

bulgaria underworld.jpg
Mutra is one of those short and easy-to-pronounce Bulgarian words that is also relatively easy to translate.

Magdalina Stancheva.jpg
Walking around Central Sofia is like walking nowhere else, notwithstanding the incredibly uneven pavements.

When a Bulgarian TV crew came to our village in northeastern Bulgaria to shoot a beer advert they wanted British people in the film, so we appeared as ourselves.
Lt John Dudley Crouchley, 1944.jpg
During most of the Second World War, Bulgaria and the United States were enemies. In 1943-1944 Allied aircrafts bombed major Bulgarian cities.

Happy families may be alike, unhappy families may be unhappy in their own way, but in Bulgaria all these come with a twist: a plethora of hard-to-pronounce names for every maternal and paternal aunt, uncle and in-law that can possibly exist.
french soldiers monument svishtov.jpg
Sofia is awash with English signs and logos, but here and there a French name pops up: a central street is called Léandre le Gay, schools are named Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, a metro station is known as Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

During the past 20 years Bulgaria has gained notoriety with an unusual tourist attraction. No, it is not the Kazanlak roses, not the mushrooming "medieval" fortresses being erected from scratch with EU money.

stambolov monument.jpg
Bulgaria's news cycle nowadays consists largely of real and imaginary scandals that grab the public attention for a while before being buried under a heap of new scandals.

koprivshtitsa rebelion bridge.jpg
History sometimes moves in mysterious ways, as indicated by the story of the role two bridges played in two revolutions, a century and an ocean apart.