Literature of Memory IV: The Non-Fiction Writings of Elie Wiesel
STH TS 870, Fall 2000
Professor Elie Wiesel
My Father’s Silence
“Last night I saw my father in a dream.” (Elie Wiesel)
Except, it was not a dream. I met my dead father while dreaming. At the edge of our village in Transylvania, he was waiting for me, his daughter with a broken heart and shattered faith, groaning at the edge of the abyss. He quietly wreathed his arm around me and I experienced the bliss as if being in the bosom of God. He walked me down the main street of the village, the scene of his Calvary, and into our church. By then I gathered enough strength to break the blissful union with my anxious question: “You won’t ever leave me again, will you?” “No, never!” and these two words have brought me salvation. In that moment of apotheosis I received my martyred father’s blessing with a new meaning and responsibility for my life: to become a martyr myself, in the sense of witness. Since then my words and actions, once again, have become coherent as I carry on my father’s broken dreams as my own, as I honor my father’s memory in abiding commitment to his words of his last sermon the day before he died: “God does not expect from you to save the world, your mandate is limited to one single human being, which could be just yourself. God never expects more from us than we are capable of doing. Each word of comfort, each act of compassion is a small bonfire during dark nights. But these tiny flickering flames, the simple gestures of loving hearts will add up and will eventually save the world. Salvation is not something we have to wait for, but we should do something about it. Because we can. And because we can, therefore we must.”
My father was reluctant to talk about his five-year-long political prison ordeal. The pain of systematic humiliation was too tormenting. Although a great writer, fear prevented him from writing about it either. His prison memories became parables in his sermons. Yet he told me the “story” one single time after his liberation. And I desperately tried to remember every word, for each one was sacred. I am the chronicler of those who senselessly suffered and whose voice were muted by fear.
Following the overthrow of Romania’s dictatorship in 1989, I rushed home to Transylvania to resume the interviews of surviving former prison-mates of my father. Three of them wrote their brief accounts in Hungarian with abundant reference on my father. I incorporated some of their experiences into my own writing.
The Communist witch-hunt in Romania started in the 1940s and culminated in the 50s. The so-called conceptual trials were the grand theater of an evil empire in the Eastern European countries. Following the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 by Soviet Russia, the Romanian state anxiously tried to prevent any similar revolt. Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, President of the Communist Party in Romania, used any pretext to decapitate the nation, to eradicate its intellectuals, the dangerous troublemaking strata of a communist society.
The general principles and practices of the conceptual trials were basically alike. The Secret Police, in order to arrest the candidate for political imprisonment, needed and sought a formal denouncement by an informer. Producing such a document was usually the pinnacle of a series of written reports on the victim throughout a long period of time. Everything was held in suspicion. If one studied English, one was accused of spying for the Americans--the ultimate enemy. If one listened to such “criminal” radio stations as Voice of America, the BBC, or Radio Free Europe--forbidden fruit for the brave--one qualified for the title of “enemy of the people.”
Passionate messages of Radio Free Europe stirred emotions and nurtured false hopes for many years in Eastern-Central Europe: Hold on, resist! Revolt against Communism! You are not alone. We of the West are ready to help you! Rebel! But on November 4, 1956 while the Soviet tanks were rolling in on the streets of Budapest, and Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy was broadcasting his heartbreaking last cry for help from the barricades of revolutionary Budapest--Help us, help us! Help!--the President of the United States was golfing and his mind busy with the crisis at the Panama Canal. Yet years after the bloody retaliation of the Hungarian Revolution, the people of Transylvania (now Romania) still hallucinated about the arrival of the Americans! Night after night my father, glued to the radio hidden in a closet, feverishly listened and believed it. They will come! They promised!
In the meantime more and more people disappeared overnight. According to statistics, at one time more than fifty thousand intellectuals were political prisoners in Romania. Among them was my father.
In a little village, Siménfalva (Simonesti), in the Eastern Carpatians of Transylvania, where my father, Imre Gellérd, was a Unitarian minister, my family was preparing in joyful anticipation for my father’s doctoral award ceremony to take place just in two weeks. Seven years of intense scholarly work with unique breadth, never attempted by anyone--four centuries of Transylvanian Unitarian intellectual history--would finally be rewarded. To write his dissertation, my father had to travel to far away libraries and archives. In our village we did not even have electricity or a typewriter. During his long absences, my mother, who was forced to give up her promising career in medicine, would fill in for the many programs of religious, cultural, and social life of the village. But it was all worthwhile, they rejoiced. The doctoral degree would automatically lead to the desired chair of Practical Theology at the Unitarian Seminary of Kolozsvár (Cluj).
It was November 5, 1959, the day of the saint for whom my father was named. As customary, friends were invited to our parsonage for a dinner party. My mother once again dazzled her guests with her culinary art. She was as bubbly all evening as a good champagne. She did not notice the unbearable anxiety hovering in the air.
She did not know that the hour was at hand, the cup of poison served.
Earlier on that day my father had been confidentially informed that he would soon be arrested. His trusted parishioner with whom he listened to Radio Free Europe, played the role of Judas. And for the irony to be even greater, he was the one to “generously” warn my father of the impending danger.
Those few hours of sheer agony of knowing were also a blessing to my father, for thus he was able to save his precious manuscripts: the only copy of his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation along with his two novels. He did not dare to trust anybody with the treasures of his life. He did not want to jeopardize anybody. Trustworthiness had now become a relative term. Everybody could break under the extreme pressure of the Securitate. So he chose the attic of the parsonage. He tore open the floor-boards of the attic and hid his spiritual children underneath, then nailed the boards back.
Don’t think that Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane was the greatest human suffering. My father was 39, a servant of God, father of two young children, in love with his beautiful wife, and minister to a most devoted village--a little kingdom of God he had created in twelve years. He was an imminent candidate for doctoral degree to crown a glorious scholarship. His cherished dream to become a professor, to train and spiritually nurture the next generations of ministers, was within reaching distance when his life now was about to shatter. How can one drink such a cup of poison with faith?
He tried to hide his panic, but was unable to handle it alone. He ran to his best friends next door to share the alarming news. They advised him to flee, to hide, to do something--anything to avoid arrest. Yet they all knew too well how absurd any attempt of escape would be. So my father quietly went home and helped my unsuspecting mother prepare dinner--the last supper--for his guests soon to be arriving.
The party was subdued, but meaningful--everything suddenly was glowing and alive and gained new meaning in his eyes. He was watching everything as if for the first time--and for the last time. He wanted to imprint the familiar gestures, the laughter of his wife, Judit, into his mind forever. He wanted to remember the touch of his seven-year-old son, Andor, the faces of his friends and parishioners to whom he ministered for twelve magnificent years. He wanted to say goodbye to me, and I was far away, in a music conservatory. So he wrote me a letter, the first and the last...
My father did not feel like going to sleep after the guests had left. He wanted to prolong this last hour of bliss with his wife so happy and beautiful! He realized he had never watched her undress. He now discovered how beautiful her breasts and her thighs were, how radiant her whole being was. O! He wanted this moment of intimacy to last for eternity. Now she was leaning next the warm ceramic stove, relaxed, in a transparent nightshirt, naked underneath... so angelic, so painfully beautiful! She brought in a glass of their home-made cherry wine the guests loved so much and they shared it. And she surprised him with the ultimate delicacy: an orange. She peeled it and fed it to him, almost entirely, as usual, she took just a symbolic bite from it. He needed it more, she argued, because he suffered from hepatitis and the last tests were alarming: his illness could turn into a fatal cirrhosis. His best friend died of it young. Oh, what good care she had taken of him all those years. And he was always so busy with his ministry and research and writing... Now they would go for a hike together, they would even travel... Soon he would be a professor and they would move to Kolozsvár, the place of their dreams. She loved opera and theater and the fine social life. It will be there for her. Oh, how guilty he felt for her loneliness and overworked life, for not being a good husband to her, though he loved her more than anyone. But somehow they had never had time for each other.
She was now telling him something so strange, and she was scared. Last night in her dream the stove--the hearth--had suddenly broken into two pieces, diagonally, as if lightening had hit it, and one half shattered. And then, in her dream, she looked at her wedding ring and half of it turned black. She was telling it innocently. She had no idea that Judas was approaching their home, this perfect paradise. Oh, God, perhaps they were seeing each other for the last time!?
Your will be done, my father roared silently. Take away this cup of poison, please, God, give me more time, just a little more time, to tell her, to show her how much I loved her! How can I leave my son, my joy, Andor, sleeping sweetly--look at him! Barely seven, he needs me. I am in charge. You trusted him with me, I must graft roses into his soul. I am the best teacher and my son is my most sacred task. Please, give me time, Lord! You are Perfection, but there is a fatal mistake under way! I do not have a chance now to say good bye to my bright star, Zizi, my daughter, the essence of my life. I must ask for her forgiveness for robbing her of a childhood in the parental home, allowing her grandmother to raise her. Take away this cup of poison, please, change your will, or just suspend it for a while, Lord!
They finally blew out the oil lamp. The village was deep in sleep. Fear was suspended by beautiful dreams or tormenting nightmares. But sleep would not visit my father.
The black Jeep of the Securitate had long arrived and was waiting in the dark street in front of the parsonage. This was the most feared moment in those years. Nobody was immune against this terror. People disappeared from their homes overnight--always at night. Black Jeeps appeared and the next morning a family was devastated. Fathers, husbands, sons were kidnapped. Some never came back. In an instant, blazing flashlights burst through the always unlocked door of the parsonage. Pitch darkness was now juxtaposed with blinding, brilliant light. Paradoxically, evil and goodness had met. The seeming army of Securitate officers crowded the room and surrounded the bed where my mother was still sleeping. My father, well aware and prepared for this rude intrusion, kissed his wife gently. She woke up and panicked from the surrealistic vision. Now they were ordered to light the lamp and put clothes on. One of the officers showed them the warrant to search the house. It was expected. In those years house searches were very common and feared.
Shivering in the cold and fear, my mother was asked to go outside with a few of the officers and open the barns, the cellar, the attic. They even looked into the well, searching and ravaging everything. My mother was horrified by the vandalism. Furniture overturned, books thrown off the shelves, beds and the wardrobes turned upside down, and paintings taken off the walls. It was an earthquake that shook their lives irreversibly. The most painful of all was seeing my father’s handwritten sermons and all the other manuscripts torn and scattered, officers stepping on them with their muddy boots. Those precious writings, with Imre’s pearl-like letters, with radical ideas my parents loved to discussed after each Sunday preaching! Now helpless and terrified, they felt the humiliation of rape.
A slim hope flashed upon them though: maybe the arrest would not happen after all? The seven or so officers now reconvened in the bedroom. My mother’s hospitality seemed awkward but typical, offering delicacies and a glass of wine to each of them. In our parsonage this was the practice, with no exception. These guests rejected the treat. There was a heavy, pregnant silence before one of the officers stepped forward and presented the feared document: the order for arrest. My father became pale first, then he felt his head explode with a sudden splitting headache. Mother was ordered to pack food for him for three days, a couple of changes of underwear and a warm outfit. Paralyzed by the shock, she obeyed like a robot. The officers tried to put a humane face on the drama, trivializing it.
The Reverend Gellérd will be retained in order to clarify some “misunderstandings”--no big deal. He’ll be home in no time. How much my parents wanted to believe it! Hope can be so irrational. They both knew that there had been no precedence for such outcome.
The moment of their separation arrived. Imre kissed his little son, who woke up just for a fleeting smile and unsuspecting good bye. Then he embraced his wife, holding her with his whole being, keeping the moment captive for eternity. The scene of Gethsemane was so vivid in his mind. And as they were passing through our yard, surrounded by an army of hounds, the cock crowed. He walked with his head turned back to see Judit, to engrave the imprint of her face, now distorted by pain, into his heart for ever. Just before reaching the black Jeep, the feared predator, the last scene broke his heart. The desperate Judit, running after them and crying loudly, suddenly fell on the cement walkway and didn’t move. She seemed unconscious. He pulled his arms from the grip of the officers, trying to jump to his wife’s help. But an iron clasp snatched him and pushed him into the back seat of the Jeep. He was immediately blindfolded. He sat in the suffocating grip of the officers. Now they became rude and cruel. Imre tried to keep his sense of direction and guess where he was taken. They must have left the village--it took no longer than fifteen minutes--when the jeep stopped and he was pulled out of the vehicle and pushed on the parapet of a bridge. He recognized the place. It was the sweet gurgle of the Nyikó creek underneath. He had walked this route between his village and his school and rested at this cool spot many times.
But then, the horrifying recognition suddenly drained all his strength: he would be shot at the spot! Yes, this was the firing squad which would execute him at the edge of his village. His entire life now flashed through his mind in a second--amazing how time becomes vertical before the moment of death! But now he felt great peace, and visualized his loved ones in one glorious picture. He heard the bells of his church ring like a celestial farewell. Here I am Lord!
Remarks of insult and diabolic laughter of the officers seemed so far away for him like distant echoes in the valleys of the mind. One of them slapped his face, another kicked his leg. He was barely able to keep his balance, hanging on the bridge rail for his dear life. “Look back now, if you can see through the blindfold, for you won’t see your damn church again!” And he was squeezed back into the gut of the Jeep.
It was dawn by the time they arrived to the Securitate at Székelykeresztúr, the beloved town of his first ministry and of his marriage. The building of his captivity was just one block from the home of Judit’s parents. He was locked up in the basement. The interrogations began with no delay. But these were merely foreplay of what the next five months would bring.
Back in Siménfalva my mother was lying on the cement, half frozen in the chill of the November dawn until my little brother found her. “Where is Father?”
No one opened the door of the parsonage that day, though the news spread like fire throughout the village. Parishioners stayed at home in fear, crying and praying. They had always thought they could die for their minister, they loved him so much. Now they were ashamed how their survival instinct overruled their sense of decency. Their best intention to reach out in help was paralyzed by the pervasive fear. The people of Siménfalva never felt so humiliated by their own weakness.
At noon the black Jeep stopped again before the Unitarian parsonage. This time they took away my mother. It was more than the village could take. After the Securitate had left, women rushed into the parsonage to see what happened to the child. My brother was crying inconsolably and the women joined him. O, you poor orphan, may God be with you. Everybody though that our mother had also been arrested. But before they came up with an idea of what to do with my brother, mother came back. Her interrogation was over for the time being. She was even given permission to bring her husband’s medicine the next day. His migraine headaches and insomnia were debilitating.
Days went by and my mother demanded her husband’s release according to their “agreement.” Unfortunately, she was informed, my father’s case proved to be too complex, and he had to be transferred to the Military Court in Kolozsvár--just a few details to be clarified, that’s all. He soon would be released, of course. And she believed it; why wouldn’t she have? People did not yet have the concept of “conceptual trial.” Hope is irrational. She was unshaken in her conviction about her husband’s innocence, and confident that a terrible misunderstanding would soon be cleared.
Securitate Prison (Detention-Center) of Kolozsvár (Cluj)
The same day my father was transferred to the dreaded Securitate prison in Kolozsvár. It was the “academy” of the most sophisticated methods of torture. The Romanian Securitate followed and perfected Soviet and North Korean methods of brainwashing. The system relied on informers--whether volunteered or coerced. Collaborators’ reasons to sell their souls ranged from fear and intimidation to perks and promotions. Romania developed its Secret Police service to such efficiency that by the seventies one out of four citizens were Securitate informers. Yesterday’s best friend would or could become today’s Judas, a victim of brainwashing. Mistrust and fear, all pervasive fear poisoned every moment of our life, it reverberated in our words and silence, permeated our decisions and actions, corrupted our relationships. Our very dreams were controlled, even our prenatal thoughts. Self-censorship was so humiliating that many chose suicide, being disgusted by their own dehumanization. Killings, assassinations by the Securitate were very rare, obscure, and impossible to prove. Producing martyrs was not the strategy of the Romanian Securitate. Suicide was a much “cleaner” job. A famous actor, Arpad Visky, hung in deep forest, was “found” by the Securitate shortly after his death.
Mind control was undetectable. There were, of course, annoyingly strong minds with the potential danger of wakening people from the spell of darkness. Those usually died in auto accidents. Sometimes it took several attempts as it happened to Father Albert, an abbot of Csiksomlyó Catholic Abbey. He survived more than one such attack and he witnessed the death of his superior, the real target, beside him. Father Albert lay immobilized for months with multiple broken vertebrae.
There were endless stories of, when one’s inner strength weakened and the pressure became unbearable, one found refuge in suicide. “Political suicide,” or active martyrdom, as we called it, sometimes was expression of the ultimate protest against dehumanization.
It is hard to reconstruct the methods of torture in this infamous Securitate prison, because former prisoners have been reluctant to talk about their experience. Some were silent out of modesty, considering their suffering part of a common experience and did not want it personalized. The main reason, however, is a certain level of amnesia, partly as a psychological defensive mechanism, partly--proven in my father’s case--because of an amnesia-producing effect of psychotropic drugs.
After arrest, victims spent long months in prisons, without a trial, or even legal representation. This was the time to break the victim’s resistance and humanity, to crush the person psychologically and physically. The Securitate’s interest in finding “facts” had nothing to do with truth or justice. The facts were molded to serve the preconceived “guilty” verdict to “legally” annihilate “dangerous”--too charismatic, too intelligent--intellectuals from society. My father was both. He was also stubborn and surprisingly strong. His body frail, his manner timid, under extreme pressure of torment he grew wings. It took the Securitate apparatus five months of intense brainwashing to prepare him for the conceptual trial. The puppets had to rehearse and appropriate their roles well. No surprise of defiance was tolerated.
My father stayed in an underground 2x3 meter cell, with no window. The victims were forced to sleep on their backs, with their arms on the covers and facing the unbearable bright light. The four iron bunk beds accommodated 2-3 persons. Only whisper was allowed. There was no kübli, slop-pail [bucket for excrement] inside, and prisoners were left at the mercy of the guards to take them to the bathroom--blindfolded and never allowing them enough time. At the beginning inmates refused the “hog-wash-like” food, but soon it did not matter what one ate. This place was sheer hell, all inmates agreed. Not so much because of physical tortures, but rather the psychological ones. When the cell door opened, inmates automatically jumped, and they had to face the walls and not dare to look back until permission was given. At any noise, their immediate instinct was panic about a possible next interrogation. Earsplitting screams of the tortured assured the continuous presence of fear. For several days at a time, interrogations were conducted day and night, so intensely that one would become totally exhausted out of fear and stress. It could happen to anyone in the middle of the night and could last for a few hours to a few days. Or, for weeks nothing would happen at all, just the waiting for the sentence. Sleep deprivation added, produced short episodes of psychosis in some of the detainees. After a few days, many gave in. Not only did they admit the charges against them, but after a while many volunteered to confess even what they did not commit. This typically happened after an unbearable interrogation session where the inmate was promised a much worse one in two weeks. And some simply could not bear the fear and uncertainty for so long and volunteered to tell “everything,” far beyond the expected or the real. They just recited what was expected from them.
The excruciating torment was the fear of inadvertedly harming others. In the upheaval of the torture and coerced confession, one could never be sure that a distorted word or expression would not be used against someone outside in order to arrest the person. This lead to insanity. Losing one’s human dignity under such circumstances should never be reproached.
I asked my father to speak about those five months in the Securitate jail in Kolozsvár, between November 1959 and April 1960. He struggled to recall, but all he could say was approximately this: “I don’t really remember much. I lived in unbearable fear; I could not sleep because of my headaches and because of the bright light above me pierced my eyes. We lost track of time. And we did not know whether we would escape alive or they would execute us. I was regularly injected with some kind of psychotropic drug, so my memory failed more and more. I do not remember much of the trial. I said what I was prepared for. We rehearsed our role and our words we were supposed to say at our group trial or at the others’ in which I was a witness. The trial probably happened when I was ‘ready,’ that is, sufficiently brainwashed.
“My concern was not only my own life and future. My worst fear was from losing my inner strength to withstand the torture and I might become an informer, against my will. I was weak, I was sick, I was timid. However, with my whole energy and strength, with my mental presence and whole being, I kept my focus on resisting the coercion to sign ‘the document,’ a list on which, among unknown names, was also my best friend’s name, Rev. Aron Török. I was expected and coerced to incriminate him, so that he would be arrested. I desperately tried to keep my conscience alive, stay alert, sharply focused only on this thing.”
As vulnerable and timid my father looked, the Securitate underestimated his strength. “I was intimidated by the torture and feared even its possibility, I felt weak and unable to endure suffering. It took tremendous willpower and energy to face another torture, or to resist the sweet promises of setting me free to go home to my beloved family. Oh, the longing for you was fire that burned my soul and body. If I would just sign this damned paper I would be free again--I was promised over and over again.
“The Securitate teams worked in turns, some were brutal and abusive, physically but especially emotionally. They humiliated us beyond what we thought we could endure. Then, suddenly another team took over and they were smooth and kind, comforting, demonstrating sympathy and compassion. It was even more trying to resist them--for they tried to sell themselves as our friends who were protecting our interests. Sweet promises of release, visits with family members and other favors were offered. ‘Why is it so big deal to sign this document in exchange for your immediate release and rejoining with your family? Rev. Török will be arrested no matter what, we can do it without your signature; we will simply find someone else to sign. It is just a matter of time. But then you will lose your once-a-lifetime chance. You are stupid enough to turn yourself into a sacrificial lamb for nothing!’ the ‘good’ officer argued. Oh, those moments of dilemma and temptation and guilt and pragmatism tore me apart. But I tried to keep the principle in mind. Only the principle mattered! The bottom line for me was this: I had to keep my integrity, I must not harm others, no matter what the price will be. I must not sell my soul to the evil.
“Then the injections blurred my mind and when I cleared up again, I was terrified, for I did not remember what I said or did while under its effect. The fear of myself, of my possible weakness terrified me even more than the interrogations. I was losing my mind, I feared. When the secret police officer presented the same list again, I felt a strange relief: I did it--I mean, I didn’t do it! I was able to resist them. I am strong, after all. God is with me. And I prayed to God even more desperately to strengthen me to be able to shield my core humanity in this madness. That keen focus to which I was tuned--not to harm others, not to become a betrayer and ultimately a secret police informer--grew in me like a beacon in an overwhelming darkness. One small part of my brain, of my conscience was “on duty” always to resist, to reject temptations and to save my integrity even when pain and fear and drugs were about to dehumanize the rest of my being.
“I was not a brave man; I had been week and sick and depressed. I suffered more than most of my fellow prisoners. But I managed to escape the ultimate self-humiliation: I never harmed anybody, I stayed clean. Although I believed then that I could have negotiated my freedom and avoid prison, I couldn’t betray my principles. Principles are more important than freedom or happiness. What I did was no heroism, but simply the only right thing to do; I couldn’t have acted any differently. I felt terrible about my family, of course, but I couldn’t have faced you, I couldn’t have lived anyway if I had betrayed my own spirit and principles of humanity.”
April 8, 1960 was the day of Imre Gellérd’s group trial by the Military Court of Kolozsvár. It was a conceptual trial, pre-scripted, sentences pre-conceived. So the only day assigned for my father’s case was more than enough. The trial was a mere enactment of the script. A play within the play.
But my mother could not know that. So she followed the drama as it unfolded and took it as real. She hired a defense lawyer and paid a fortune to him. He “promised” a sure outcome of an acquittal of my father. A few of my father’s faithful disciples from Siménfalva attended the trial to morally support their master and my mother. The atmosphere was extremely tensed and intimidating. My mother took a seat facing the door where the defendants entered the courtroom. She would soon see her husband after five months of separation! She visualized how they would go home together and heal each other.
The door opened, the judge entered the courtroom. My mother’s heart pounded in her throat. Between two guards, my father was about to enter! She barely recognized him. His head was shaved and his face showed suffering, his eyes a broken spirit. He eagerly searched for his wife and he noticed her immediately. She jolted him with her presence. In fact she barely managed not to wave or jump form her seat. My father’s face convulsed with pain, my mother’s with joy. She didn’t know yet what my father already did: there is no freedom beyond this courtroom. Perhaps this is the last time they would see each other. His eyes remained glued on her, he seemed not even being present when the prosecution read the charges against him. He wanted to carve her face into her memory once again. She tried to convey the spirit of hope: All is right, don’t worry, we’ll go right home! She even smiled at him.
The subdued idyll was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Professor Daniel Simén as a witness. The best friend, the idolized master who had kept my father under his spell for decades. In fact, my mother would argue, it was because of Simén that my father was arrested. For he was irresponsibly bold, trying to keep the spirit of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 alive in Transylvania. He published a series of collections of sermons--in-house publication of 100-120 copies--to serve as textbooks in Practical Theology for seminary students. My father wrote most of the sermons in them, but others did too, and all were arrested. Professor Simén acted as editor and made hand-corrections in a revolutionary spirit. He was the first to be arrested in spite of being vice-bishop of the Unitarian Church.
The charges against my father had to do with his sermons written in Prof. Simén’s publication. They were allegedly “instigating” in order to “undermine social order and the socialist system.” If any revolutionary tone could have read into the text, it came from the hand-written corrections and insertions by Prof. Simén. A witness testified about it. And this testimony was now read before the court. Simén, however, answered cold-bloodedly: “I had never made any correction or edited anyone’s manuscript. I had no intention whatsoever to change their original content.”
My father seemed to be hit by lightening. His face’s convulsion signaled something terribly painful. His master was testifying against the disciple, denying his own action, rejecting what was his share of the charges. His best friend--looking into his eyes and incriminating him by a lie! This was what my mother witnessed in dismay. In this moment my father seemed less concerned with the charges, than the disturbing testimony and betrayal of his idol. He would have given his life for Simén, now was he proving himself unworthy for veneration? It must be the effect of torture. It must be some terrible mistake, he tried to comfort himself. His memory was half-blurred by the injection he had been administered shortly before the trial. Everything went according to the script, yet this sudden turn shook him to the core. He did not remember rehearsing this part.
And who knows, in that moment he might have stepped out of his role, his passion for his master overruled the conditioning? “Do you have anything to say at your own defense as your last words?” the judge asked my father. The judge was my father’s former student.
My father stood up, pale, solemn, and he surrendered with these words: “Since Professor Simén rejected the charges, I assume all responsibility.”
“Your husband has lost his mind!”--the defense lawyer turned to my mother. “He was clean, but now pleaded guilty of something he did not commit just to protect his friend!”
The judge now read the pre-conceived Sentence #167 of the Military Court: SEVEN YEARS OF PRISON AND FORCED LABOR, WITH AN ADDITIONAL FIVE YEARS OF DEPRIVATION FROM HIS CIVIL RIGHTS. There were detailed reasons given: seven incriminating sentences or expressions in different sermons--such as “God’s Kingdom,” taken as coded allusion to America!--each resulting in a year of prison sentence. In fact, the judge added, Prof. Simén would have received fourteen years, which now is “democratically” divided between master and disciple. Justice, after all, prevailed, who could complain? The grim witticism was a coup de grace to my father and his family.
My father was now signaled to leave the room. Finita comedia! In this moment my mother lost consciousness. Her husband looked at her horrified, not knowing what happened to her. She was lying on the floor lifeless, surrounded by people. Has she died?! Please, let me... The guard brutally pushed him out through the door.
We will never find out what really happened--was the script authentically performed or an unexpected drama interfered. My father claimed total amnesia of the trial. But in the prison he actually asked Simén why he betrayed him. Yet my father refused any resentment against his master. He rather nurtured their friendship with devotion.
The Szamosújvár (Gherla) Prison
This was one of the largest and most feared political prisons of Romania in the fifties. During the mass arrests of 1959 there were nine thousand inmates jammed into three of its buildings. Larger prison cells housed as many as a hundred people, like cell #81, “the “Clergy’s Cell.” The dungeons of its medieval buildings were infamous places of solitary confinement as the worst punishment. In 1958, during the execution of Imre Nagy, Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the 1956 revolution, a prison riot was provoked in Szamosújvár. That was a turning point in the life of this jail. After the riot, terror took over. Prison guards were instigated up to a point where they became personal deadly enemies of the inmates. Beatings and other cruel and humiliating punishments were frequent and unmotivated. The psychological terror was even more dreaded. The “democratic” title of the prisoners as the guards called them with deep despise was: “Mai, banditule!”--its translation “Hey, brigand!” [gangster] only vaguely conveys the tasty, insulting tone of the Romanian original, especially when it was used for venerable bishops, spiritual leaders, professors, doctors, diplomats.
In his book Grimaces of Prison Life Rev. László Varga, Calvinist minister at Marosvásárhely (Tg. Mures) has given a description of the Szamosújvár prison. Varga’s telling so much aligns with what my father alluded to that I need not rely on my own memory to recount the prison experience. I have translated his recollections from Hungarian and he following first person is as much of his as of my father’s.
“We lived, but not all of us. Some suffered terribly. Some could not endure it. Some lost their mind. Some--many--died. Three factors were essential to live: faith, a sense of humor, and assuming responsibility for the cause we believed in and which lead, inevitably, to prison.
“Faith in prison was not theory or philosophy. Faith meant this: my life is in God’s hands, who loves me. There must be some divine purpose in my suffering. But only God knows what. When the time comes, I will be set free. If not, God will lift me from here. My loved one are also in God’s care. The conclusion therefore is: we must live! Those of us who were able to accept this simple truth were calm and radiated peace around us. We were able to help and encourage others, learn and teach, tell stories and listen to others. We were never bored, and always busy. Those of us lived.
“Having a sense of humor was one’s most precious treasure. Our situation was so unbelievably grotesque that anybody who had a minimum sense of humor couldn’t help seeing the ironical, even humorous, side of this life. Imre Madách, the great Hungarian writer learned the following lines, he wrote, in the prison: ‘Do you see a tragedy in it? Look at it as a comedy and you will be entertained by it.’ Those who took the daily diabolic humiliations as humiliation could not endure too long and died. Humor turns things around. A new prisoner, a theologian, was instructed by the guard about house rules. After listening zealously, the newcomer asked: ‘All right, but what are we allowed to do at all?’ The guard could not answer this impossible question, so the prisoner helped him out: ‘I know! We can think.’ The guard yelled stupefied: ‘What? To think?! But thinking is forbidden even outside of prison!’ And one had to laugh at this. We lived.
“Assuming responsibility for our actions gave us tremendous strength. I did something which I considered the right thing to do, in fact I would act in the same way today. I anticipated being arrested, but I faced the consequences of my actions. Now I must survive it. And I did. With this attitude, I was able to take the blistering hatred with deep contempt and to be invulnerable toward humiliation. One had to hold onto one’s dignity. Then one lived.
“One of these three gifts was enough to survive. One who had all three was able to create a lifestyle in prison. Physical strength alone helped only the simpletons to put up with the prison. In fact stupidity meant a great strength to survive. Those who were unable to comprehend what was happening to them were watching and obeying the orders of the guards with humility and gobbled the swill. This was one way to endure the ordeal, but I wouldn’t have called theirs a ‘life’ even outside of prison.
For years prisoners did not see the outside world; isolation was complete. After the riot even the small windows were covered with wooden boxes, with only a tiny hole in them facing the sky. A young poet, Ernö Számadó wrote these impressions:
The rhythm of lines were taken away.
Everything here is square, blocks and cubes.
Iron cross-bars frame even the sky,
Dividing it into small eyes.
One should not have the illusion that poets or anybody in the prison was allowed or able to write--at least not on paper with pen as we know. This particular poem and many more were “written” into the memory of Rev. László Varga. He did the favor of memorizing his fellow inmates’ work, and stored many great poems throughout the years. This is one of them:
An everyday story
The filthy dawn pours into
Our cell through blind windows.
The many shackles clank,
Wailing fills the prison.
One of us, a fellow prisoner is dying...
It is no big deal, he doesn’t mind either.
He is the next in the long line,
Of bodies, eroded by lead-mine.
Prisons, beatings, chill and lead...
He slowly spitted out his lungs.
“He will not live to see his home”
His prisonmates whistle for him.
Like vultures, they watch him die
and snap up his rummage,
and keep his death in secret
to have his last supper shared.
Nothing matters to him any more,
His eyes search the infinite.
Jesus, you might recognize him:
He is your brother, isn’t he?
Did he ever have a mother?
Does a heart carry love for him?
Have mercy on him, for she is far,
And will not know that he is gone.
Tears will not fall
On his humiliated forehead,
After burning pain of longing
Farewell is just more heartbreak.
The guards “summon him out”.
No more shivering, no more hunger.
Dragging him down on the stairs,
his skull plays a funeral march.
On the cold stone of the dungeon
Rats dance a last ritual on his chest,
And by daybreak, the scribe
Erases his name from the list.
Imprisoned intellectuals confessed that deprivation from writing was as great a suffering as the lack of food. During ward searches, discovery of the slightest track of writing was cruelly retaliated. Yet the guards were never able to put an end to resourceful, inventive ways of writing: scraping the white wash of the wall with the sole of the boots, or writing on pieces torn from the bed sheet--a dangerous method, easily discoverable. The most advanced technology of secret writing was that of the black laundry soap, the size of a palm. In two months it dried out like stone. It had to be polished well on both sides, and it served as slate. And sooner or later one found a piece of bone in one’s food, which also needed careful polishing. Eighty words fit on such slate, which meant forty foreign words to learn, and to write essays for grammar. Or, writing down poems and learning them by heart. But most of all, writing letters to loved ones, over and over again, on the same surface--erase and start over, writing infinitely many letters.
Everyday life in the jails where almost the entire prison population consisted of highly educated intellectuals was pretty rich and interesting. After the morning routine of desperately standing in line for the bathroom, another line for wash, for breakfast--black tea-like coffee with a slice of bread--finally intellectual life took over. Inmates, according to daily programs and their interests, gathered in groups, sat on one bed, began fascinating academic lectures, language teaching workshops, heated political debates about how they would save the future of their nation. Others picked up the thread of a novel, or of a story; theologians held Bible courses and exegeses.
Many great systems of thoughts were born in those cultured minds. In the complete isolation, they tried out and polished their ideas by discussing with their prisonmates. My father was teaching all the time. Especially his psychology and philosophy lecture series were famous, with large attendance. And some, with good memory, were able to benefit from them beyond the prison. Dr. Kálmán Csiha, now Calvinist Bishop’s doctoral dissertation was based on my father’s lectures. The majority of the prisoners learned and taught foreign languages. My father taught French, studied English and German.
Rev. Varga describes how his dissertation on New Testament exegesis took shape slowly, crystallizing in four key statements during his long imprisonment. This was the core truth of his system, that anybody, even atheists, were able to understand and relate to. Around this crystal core he built his imaginary book. By repeating it daily, weekly, he kept it in memory--until the day of freedom. But then a strange phenomenon occurred, common among former prisoners: a selective memory loss upon leaving the prison behind. The capacity of the mind to recall a wealth of knowledge in a state of complete deprivation from outside information is nothing short of miraculous. This data storage was their only “library” and people were amazed about how much their memory retained and how refined their intuitive functions became. But once the hermetically sealed world of prison opened, the memory played a cruel joke with them: it eliminated, eradicated the wonderful systems of ideas and data. Unfortunately, few had the discipline to record their ideas in writing immediately after liberation.
I remember urging, nagging my father to tell us more--everything--what happened to him. I felt a slight disappointment about his reluctance to talk, and rejection to record his ordeal in writing because of fear from the Securitate. Today I know he was right. The secret police never set him free.
Non-political prisoners--murderers, thieves--were segregated and they had much more privileges. They cooked and served the meals for the political prisoners--and ate the cream off the food. Prisoners were periodically transferred from one prison to the next. Typically one year was the maximum time spent in one place. By mixing the inmates every half year, and assigning new and unknown inside informers, it was easier to control and discipline them. Also, after each of the inmates had shared their stories, life became boring and fights broke out more often. The quality of the company of a cell was essential for one’s mental health.
The clergy enjoyed the highest respect among prisoners. Roman and Greek Catholic bishops were imprisoned mostly because of their tight connection with Rome. Their personal charisma and strong character ranked them to the highest “caste.” Franciscan monks and Protestant ministers, especially Unitarians, were kept in high respect because of their service, pastoral care to the prison community: Prison rules strictly forbade any religious activity. But prisoners found their ways around and held daily worship services in spite of prohibition, and in both languages. These services were genuinely ecumenical. Extraordinary sermons were preached and prayers beseeched the heavens. My father was remembered as one of the great charismatic pastors. Especially the younger prisoners, spiritually vulnerable, needed pastoral care. Young intellectuals who were atheists suffered the most. A Marxist student, sentenced for 25 years for a joke and having already served six, one day refused to eat and starved to death. And he was not alone in committing suicide in the prison.
The worst kind of harm came from the inside informers who infiltrated the inmates’ society. Usually they became wardsmen and had power over a hundred people. They could deny medical help in life threatening emergencies, could send some to solitary confinement or inflict other suffering. One form of a “subtle” torture of inmates was the presence of mentally ill people. Schizophrenics whose delusion had political content were simply jailed and no medication given. Some were violent, some needed assistance to survive--and there were plenty of fellow inmates with plenty of time and great heart. The situation was more tragic when prisoners lost their minds in the prison. The common first symptom was gazing at the door and withdrawing from any social activity. Their world shrunk into one burning question: Will I ever be free to see my family?--and the delusive versions of this quest soon took over in those clouded minds. But they did not get any treatment, though there were medical doctors around. In fact there were two kinds of doctors, the official prison physician and imprisoned physicians. The official ones were butchers, ex officio. A prisoner suffered from tuberculosis, but the official doctor denied any medication because there was a sign on his file, an instruction that he must never leave the prison alive. Fortunately and illegally, an inmate treated him with Streptomycin.
Loin mycosis became a form of torture. The itching, burning was unbearable and prison doctors let the victims suffer for weeks and months--a senseless suffering--worse than beating, yet it did not even constitute a “human right issue.” There were periods when prisoners were forbidden to sit down during the day, for eighteen hours. They were forced to stand or walk--two-three steps at each direction, because the prison was overcrowded. If the guards caught any of them breaking the rule, the entire cell was punished. Guards ordered them to drop down on their faces on the cold cement floor or, even worse, to crawl under the beds and lie there for 20-30 minutes. Those who did not have room under a bed were stepped on and beaten by sadistic guards. Occasionally, the punishment for illegal napping was solitary confinement in the dungeon, with no blanket or mattress, and barely any food for several days.
Most of the prisoners suffered from malnutrition and related diseases. Deliberate deprivation was an obvious tactic to weaken their resistance. The more people died in jail, the more “positive” the evaluation on prisons was. A typical story: for a while lots of onion was cooked in the daily watery barley-soup. The wardman requested that prisoners would be allowed to eat the onion rough rather than cooked. The guard ironically replied: “You have no right to vitamins!”
Dental problems were ignored entirely. Every once in a while inmate dentists were ordered to pull out the aching teeth of anybody who wanted, without anesthesia and without verifying the problem, or whether extraction was the adequate treatment. My father lost most of his teeth by the end of the five years, and at age 45 he had to have a complete prosthesis.
My father spent over a year in this prison before being transferred to the other, very different hell, the infamous Danube Delta.
The Danube Delta
In early Fall of 1960 rumors started about a possible transfer from prison cells to labor camps--to the infamous Danube canal. Prisoners had mixed feelings about the news. To be outside in the fresh air, to see the sky and the trees again, was an irresistible desire. On the other hand, they knew that thousands of political prisoners had died there in the early fifties, during the previous reign of terror.
In mid October 1960 a general appeal called the prisoners to volunteer for labor camps. Most of them cautiously declined. But soon a second appeal, and now a selection, followed. Those considered healthy were selected. Doctors consulted the sick and mostly found them “apt” for labor.
My father was in the second transport. One night a few hundred inmates were embarked into a special train. Cattle-trucks--disguised as railway coaches--were used to transport prisoners. The windows were painted blind and sealed, so one could not look out or in. There was barely enough air inside. The most “dangerous” inmates--those with more than 20-year sentence--were chained in one square meter cages, six of them in one box. The rest traveled crammed in larger cabins. The trip took many days. Nobody knew where they headed on. The only “good” thing was that they had their luggage in their possession during the trip and were able to read Bibles or other hidden books.
After crossing the Danube, sudden worry took over the prisoners’ optimism: would they be taken to the Soviet Union? But finally the cars were opened, and after months of indoor captivity, they felt free again. They were embarked immediately into a big cargo-ship which soon moored at a no man’s land in the Danube Delta. Prisoners, like animals, were driven out in the thick mud. Stupefied, they thought this was going to be their execution site. With the Danube at their back and the endless marsh around them; nobody would discover if a few hundred prisoners were shot and buried here, they thought horrified. A ring of an armed unit surrounded them, pointing their weapons at the newcomers. Like cattle, they were rounded up in a long march in a sea of mud, until they reached the prison labor camp. It was Salcea, an island in the Danube. The wind, the cold Crivat, was ferocious. Most of them felt so weak and exhausted they were barely able to even stand, and they had to gasp for air. Their worn boots stuck deeply into the mud. Each step took extreme effort. They were hungry.
Upon arrival at their destination, prison guards called certain professionals--doctors, engineers, cooks, electricians--to step forward. Any singling out seemed dangerous, but this time, these lucky ones were appointed to kitchen and maintenance jobs for the prison camp--enviable positions. The rest stayed in the camp locked up for a while. But most of the clergy, many Catholic and Protestant priests and ministers, soon were sent to other camps for reed-cutting and corn harvesting. Salcea and Periprava were the large base-camps with extensions in Grind and Gradina.
Prison camps were about 4-5 acres large, surrounded by electric barbed wire and watch-towers. There was no way to escape from these camps. Not just because of watchful eyes of armed Securitate soldiers, but because they lived on islands, surrounded by dangerous marsh, so there was no place to go. Even if someone might have attempted to escape, Lipovan fishermen of the neighboring villages were bribed by the Securitate to capture any fugitive. Still, there were some who tried; but soon rockets alarmed the entire camp and the guards brought the fugitive back in no time. The retaliation seriously discouraged the rest of the prisoners from fleeing. Once, as they were working at the shores of the Danube, a young man jumped into the mighty river and disappeared in the dark. He was never found and one could only speculate whether he was drowned or shot--or, perhaps swam to the other shore to the Soviet Union. And even if he survived, a Soviet prison camp was his best chance. But despair, especially of those sentenced to life in prison, was a greater driving force.
The camp dormitory was one huge space in the bottom of a discarded French tow-boat, stranded in the mire. As an ultimate irony, the name of this ship-jail-dormitory was Libertée. The ship was of metal which meant that in winter time when the freighter was imbedded in ice, the inmates were freezing. During hot summers the bowels of the ship were suffocating. The bunk beds were built four stories high, and still two or three inmates had to share one narrow bed. About 500 people were jammed in this space, with bright electric lights at night, so a restful sleep was only a dream. The morning alarm was five o’clock, long before sunrise. Winter was approaching and prisoners did not have adequate clothes. They got worn-out and dirty uniforms, odd, torn boots, left by previous groups. They desperately tried to collect pieces of rag and patch their prison uniforms. But they suffered more from hunger. The breakfast was a watery soup of potato peel, spoiled cabbage with barley, sometimes diluted coffee and 12 grams of black bread. Lunch was no better either: same tasteless, swill-like soup with a piece of corn meal, the turtoi--a treasure. Dinner was the repetition of the previous meals. They barely ate any protein and almost never any dairy products. The twice 6-7 km march to their workplace made the 11-12 hour forced labor even harder. They left in dark and arrived back in dark. They were always hungry. They were always exhausted.
The winter was cruel and harsh. Staying captive in the unheated dormitory, prisoners were not allowed to cover their feet with their blankets during the day. The punishment was 50 hits with a stick on their palms. They were lucky if their palms did not crack--then they could not shovel and dig the next day. Bad weather was a blessing. Intellectual work was taken up once again. Study groups and “university” courses, which had begun in Szamosújvár, now resumed.
My father suffered immensely from longing and worry for his family. He was obsessed with his passion for his wife and his children, with their ideal life in the village, a little kingdom of God--he sobbed his heart out. He grieved beyond comfort. The triggering event was the official notice that his wife divorced him. This was the only news that reached the prisoners. They knew that spouses left behind were pressured, coerced to ask for formal divorce in order to find jobs and support their children. Such a divorce was an easy process: the sheer fact that one’s husband was a political prisoner, was enough for an automatic divorce. Yet the idea of losing one’s family on top of being deprived from one’s career, estates, freedom, human dignity, and health, was simply unbearable for some prisoners. My father’s friend, Rev. László Székely counseled him: “Please, Imre, stop thinking of your family all the time; you will lose your mind in grief. Trust that they are alive and manage their lives. You must survive seven years, and that is enough for you to worry about. You need all your energy to keep going.” My father had migraine headaches most of the time. He suffered terribly from lack of medicine.
Springs brought floods along in the Delta region. It was a deluge that seemed to engulf everything, the camps, the cornfields, grapevines, the villages. One of the fascinating prison stories that I asked my father to tell over and over again was related to the flood. Wildlife of the Danube Delta was ultimately threatened by the immense flooding. There was no refuge place for animals. Prison camps--relatively protected dried lands--were fenced in. In the midst of an endless sea there were a few small islands sticking out of the water. So all the animals ended up in these safe havens. Under the ultimate pressure of circumstances, the unthinkable happened. Reed wolves and rabbits, foxes and dears, weasels and wild bores--literally hundreds of the most irreconcilable species of animals were huddled together in on flock. And the variety of birds, hovering over the islands and covering the few remaining trees, was a spectacle beyond belief. These islands were just a few meters from the prisoners. It was fascinating to observe the animals’ behavior in a cataclysm. It was Noah’s Ark, in a literal sense. And probably many of the ministers “wrote” a sermon out of this experience. I don’t remember exactly the outcome--perhaps it was not what I would preach, that these animals reconciled with each other, hardship brought them together and tried to survive as a “community.” But this is what I carry in my memory. Perhaps my father told me a humanized and idealized version of it.
As the flood threatened everybody, prisoners were ordered to the levees to reinforce the existing ones and build new dams. The reward of this slavery was the most desired right: to send home a postcard, asking for 5 kg of care package. My father, desperate to hear from his family, although in bad physical shape, now volunteered for the hardest job and was taken for diking. Prisoners had to dig the earth out and carry it in wheelbarrows up high on the top of the dike. The daily norm was 3 and 1/2 cubic meters of digging. They left deep holes and trenches behind, which filled with water, caused many serious accidents. Digging was hard enough, but then to wheel the dirt up to 12 m high on a narrow board-walk, holding all that weight and keeping one’s balance on a steep plank--this was sheer torture for a feeble man like my father. Many times he was unable to achieve the “norm.” This meant nothing less than losing his right for a postcard--as simple a punishment as that. An occasional package was life-saving, physically, but for my father also psychologically. Yet it seemed that he had no chance. And then his disciples, the young seminarians, generously stepped in and helped him fulfill his quota.
And finally, before Christmas of 1961, he triumphantly wrote the first postcard to my mother. I treasure four of these relics from 1961-62. They are written in Romanian and contain pretty much a standard text. The officer wrote the text on a black-board and prisoners had to copy it exactly. No other message was allowed, or the postcard would have never arrived. The English translation reads like this:
“My Dear Ones!
I am healthy. I have the right to receive a care-package of 5 kilogram net weight. Please send 1 kg of bacon, 2 kg of melted butter in a plastic container, 1 kg of sugar cubes, 1/2 kg cheese and 1/2 kg salami. In top of this please send 400 Marasesti cigarettes [this was “hard currency” in the prison], toothbrush and paste, soap bar. Please wrap it well in plastic bag. In a separate package please send me 2 white flannel shirts and underpants, 2 pairs of wool socks, a belt and 2 handkerchiefs.
Please don’t send me any letter and do not try to visit me. Also, don’t send me any package until I write you again.
I kiss you all with great love, Imre”
I remember our ecstasy followed by panic when we received the card. My father was alive! Almighty God, thanks thee! This was the first sign of life from him. His handwriting was as beautiful as always. The letter meant also a great anxiety for my mother. Partly because we were so poor, she simply could not afford to buy those things requested. But fear was a greater factor. My mother had asked for a divorce in order to keep her children--or, we would have been taken to infamous Romanian orphanages--and to be admitted to a college degree program. She was under permanent surveillance by the Securitate. She was supposed to absolutely cut any connection with her former husband, a political criminal! What if the Securitate found out about the postcard, and they would! But it seemed even more frightening to mail a package to him, to the prison! The dilemma was tearing her apart. Finally and reluctantly she passed on the postcard to my uncle. They generously sent the first and the next packages.
My father was as ecstatic to receive the life-saving food, as disappointed for not finding a sign, a hidden, coded message from us. And in his next postcard, he risked a bold allusion to this: “I haven’t received the package from Simenfalva. Please, put my wife’s and children’s address on the package.” His brother now begged my mother to hide some sign in the next package. A tiny letter into the melted butter or inside the sausage. But my mother, extremely anxious, strictly forbade them to try such trick. She could not lie about it, she argued, when the Securitate would inquire her, and it could harm both of them. The only “sign” we sent was one of our home-woven towels with the family monogram.
For a few months of diking, my father became overworked and excessively dystrophic. He desperately tried going on in order to keep his right for further postcards. Once he fell from the board-walk, from 12 feet high, into the mud, his barrel falling on top of him. He badly bruised his genitals then.
After a few months he was sent back to Periprava camp. He needed hospitalization. Doctors--themselves prisoners--had the right to refer dystrophic (malnourished) inmates to hospital or to prescribe a more nutritious diet. But prison guards interfered with the doctors many times, stealing medicine and selling it on the black market. An extreme case was that of Dr. Iacobescu, a caring, warm-hearted Romanian doctor. When he sent Prof. Erdö, a Unitarian professor to hospital because of his advanced malnutrition, the sergeant punished the doctor for it, divesting him from his in-prison medical practice and privileges. Another Christmas passed. . . Prisoners counted the years in Christmases without their families, and in languages they learned in prison. Pastoral counseling became an ever greater necessity because of two major dangers: lethargy or depression on one hand and arousal of excruciating sexual desire and food cravings on the other. Priests and ministers held regular theological-psychological discussions about these problems, trying to re-direct their destructive energy toward a healthier survival instinct.
Spring brightened their life a little bit. Some prisoners were to be taken to agricultural work in cornfields and vegetable gardens of the Delta. My father, extremely weak and dystrophic, volunteered again. He was selected. The procession took off for the 10 km march. Barley fields at both sides of the trail made them covet fresh greens. Risking punishment, they grabbed a spike or just a handful of green grass at the roadside and gobbled it up. For years mainly this illegal nutrition kept them alive. Ironically, this nutritional misery meant therapy for the chronic hepatitis of my father. Being early spring, a group of inmates of Periprava were taken for hoeing grapevines. This seemed a blessing first, because they were able to eat a few of the pleasantly sour leaves and the small green grapes later--when the guards did not look. But they ate the weed just as eagerly. They hoped for the second hoeing opportunity when the grapes were tastier--but that would have been too much of a privilege for political prisoners.
Corn hoeing was next. This was hard work, for the cornfields were reedy and they had no other tool to cut the reed, but the hoe. And speed was dictated by the armed guards who drove the inmates from behind. Those lagging and falling behind were hit by the guards with their rifles and sticks. But the punishment could have been worse, like 50 push-ups for those who barely dragged themselves to keep up with the intense rhythm.
If they considered hoeing corn hard work, worse awaited them. My father was selected now for cutting reeds in the swamp. It was torture. Standing in water--very cold water during spring and fall--sometimes sinking into the marsh up to their knees or belt, and wrestling with the 6-7 feet-high reed. There were snakes and leeches and many frogs, jumping all over. The scary thing about them was their size. Some frogs were as big as a man’s boots. It was terrifying to fall into the swamp and constantly worrying about getting drowned in it. One would ask what the purpose of this activity might have been. One can speculate about land reclamation. But Romania had plenty of fertile land, the Delta has always been wildlife paradise, a tourist attraction today. Cutting reed was simply a Sisyphean work--a diabolic torture.
Thirsty prisoners drank the water of the swamp ingenuously. They did before discovering corpses of dogs and pigs in it. By then it was too late; a raging epidemic of dysentery broke out in the prison camp. There was no adequate medical response at first, and not enough medicine either. Prisoners died, one after another, some simply from dehydration. It was a terrifying time: each morning and evening there was a funeral. Sometimes prisoners had to dig the grave of their fellow sufferers on the Danube side. Priests and ministers took turn in celebrating a rudimentary funeral service, if this privilege was allowed at all. But most of the times the bodies were taken in wooden boxes outside of the camp. And the boxes were brought back empty--for the next transport. Inmates asked anxiously: Who is next?
Soon typhoid fever began to take its victims. Now the number of the dead was so high that during the night the guards piled them on horse carts and buried them outside of the camp.
My father did not escape the misery of the epidemics either, but miraculously--providentially, I would say--escaped death, which had a hold on him. Already seriously malnourished--“dystrophic”--because of lack of protein, my father had little chance to recover from a bad case of dysentery without serious medical help. But there was none. Prisoners desperately tried to cure themselves with carbon. They carbonized logs of wood in a camp fire and ate as much of it as they could. It helped some. But my father was losing the battle, until one night he was simply thrown into the “agony chamber” to die. Those prisoners who had been considered “hopeless cases” were isolated from the rest, and no medicine was wasted on them. They were candidates for dying anyway. And who on earth would ever call the management and prison doctors to responsibility?
My father was lying on the cold floor in his even colder sweat and bloody excrement--he had no strength to even move, but there was no bathroom anyway--and only his unbearable abdominal cramps prevented him from falling unconscious and dying. He accepted his fate and tried to focus all his life energy to pray for the last time, to prepare for the unknown journey, pray a farewell from his loved ones. They would never know where his grave would be. He found deep comfort in God, who would finally free him from his suffering. His spirit was ready to return to its Creator. He watched his neighbors die one after another. The night seemed an eternity. He had no energy even to shiver, his senses began to fail him.
But God had another plan. At dawn the door of the pre-mortuary opened. The guards and the physician on duty came to count the dead and erase them from the list. Priests and peasants, artists and scientists became virtual reality even in their death. No marked grave, no memory, no notification of their families. That morning a good Samaritan, a Romanian-Jewish doctor was on duty. He found my father still alive. His conscience wakened. He pulled him out from among the bodies and referred him to the prison infirmary and began to administer the precious and scarce medicine. Slowly my father regained consciousness and was able to drink. God intended life for him.
At that time my father weighed 36 kg (less than 70 lb). He was literally skin and bone. As soon as he somewhat recovered, he began to worry about his obvious inability to continue the physical work in the swamp. Divine intervention saved him again. He was selected for kitchen work which seemed heaven for him, though it was hard work: chopping wood, carrying heavy sacks and preparing the half rotted vegetable and other disgusting ingredients for cooking. But finally, there was food around, however repulsive! Slowly he gained enough weight and energy to be able to function. If there was anything “enjoyable” in prison, he did enjoy working in the kitchen.
Rev. Arpád Mózes, Lutheran vice-bishop of Kolozsvár told me this story about my father. “Every day when we arrived deadly tired and ravenously hungry, Imre Gellérd expected us with radiant face and told us a ‘good news,’ a happy story. These every day news--the nurturing, life-giving good news for our spirit--were variations on the same theme: that we would soon be liberated. He always had ‘reliable information,’ always a different story, so desired, so believable and he presented with such convincing power! We needed them, we wanted to believe in them. We were looking forward to the night, to hear Imre’s newest revelation. And he never failed us. For month after month he had the most wonderful good news stories for us. How healing they were for all of us. It was a small psychological miracle. Imre’s good news nurtured our fading hope in the worst despair.”
One day my father was the recipient of news from outside. A man visited their camp and had bad, very bad, news for my father. He depicted the scene, my grandparents’ town, where he “witnessed” a tragic triple funeral of my mother and of the two of us, her children. He told about how my mother committed “extended suicide,” killing her two children--my 8 year-old brother and me--before turning her murderous rage against herself. My father’s world suddenly darkened and he wanted to jump on the wire fence that carried high voltage electricity. This was a common way of suicide in despair. Friends held him down. But he did not want to live any longer. He made more suicide attempts. A deep, acute depression got hold of him. He had to live four more years in this unbearable uncertainty. The only comfort his friends were able to come up with was the possibility of a false information with the very goal of destroying him by driving him to suicide. This was “just” an additional, sophisticated method of torture if prison life itself was not enough. Suicide was a “convenient” outcome for the Securitate.
In 1962-63 prison life began to change and the inmates’ hopes awaken. Newspapers of the Romanian Communist Party became available in prisons and labor camps. Prison officers announced that those who “behave,” might soon be released. This appeal brought the wolf out in some prisoners.
Re-education in Szamosújvár and the Delta began with appointing new cell supervisors from among the most “reliable” prisoners. These zealous informers surpassed the guards in their malice. They lived inside and knew every secret or misbehavior--and reported them. While guards were forbidden to enter the cell during the night, these informers were controlling and stealing even the inmates’ dreams. They introduced a new reign of terror in the hope of extra credit for themselves. But the prison officers deeply despised them and no advantage was ever granted to them. Those servants to the oppressors would be released alongside with those who resisted dehumanization.
In 1963 books were distributed among prisoners and even films were shown--Chinese and Soviet communist films about the superiority of communism. During movie time inmates were not allowed to look at each other, they had to gaze at the screen. After five years of deprivation from information about the world, these were exciting events. They saw the completely changed map of Africa for the first time!
The worst form of re-education in Szamosújvár was called “the Kindergarten,” the ideological brainwashing and re-programming of the prisoners who needed to “prepare for real life!” These sessions typically consisted of a lecture given by a Securitate officer. He pathetically told the prisoners that the regime did not want to annihilate them, and, in fact the government loves and deeply appreciates them. Now it is their turn to show gratitude and repentance. They are expected to exercise a sincere self-criticism for their political sins and shortcomings, committed perhaps out of ignorance. After admitting their guilt, they must apologize and promise that never again. . . At this point one of the prisoners was supposed to come forward to tell his life story, ending on the high note of an expected repentance and promise of concrete ways of how he would be worthy to be freed by the grace of the Communist Party. This circus was nothing short of a coercion for moral self-prostitution. This was a final push into total demoralization. Those who had already been in prison for 10-15 years, or served life sentence, the image of a possible release was so overwhelming, that some forgot about integrity and humanity and a sickening race for the grace of the Securitate began.
A Hungarian prisoner held a wonderfully outrageous “sincere” speech against the very communist regime and Securitate. The officers were gasping for breath. The inmate was cruelly retaliated. But the rest of the prisoners, for the first time, felt their human dignity restored by the act of defiance--as if the air they were breathing became fresher. One man’s moral courage and integrity was able to heal a hundred crippled souls.
The two last weeks before release, besides putting on flesh, was also a time for a last political blackmail of the prisoner in an attempt to recruit him as a Securitate informer. Typically this would consist of an offer of high career job in exchange for one’s services. If the offer was refused, “I don’t like you, I have been your prisoner for years, you have taken away everything I had, how can I serve you?”--the prisoner was now intimidated. “With you or without, we will build the communist society. If you are in our way as a stumbling block, we have our methods to get rid of you, so you rather watch out!”--was the heartfelt farewell.
In 1963 the prisoners in the Danube Delta were transported to the feared underground jail in Jilava, but only for a short time, then back to Szamosújvár once again. This time most of them worked in the jail’s factory. In 1964 June all the prisoners of Szamosújvár were gathered for a meeting with high ranking military officers. One of them solemnly announced that the Communist Party decided to grant grace to all prisoners. By August 23, the national liberation day, all of them would be released and appropriate jobs granted. The Party would guarantee their happiness--if they proved themselves worthy by their enthusiastic contribution to the building of the socialist Romania.
The last two months in prison were spiritually more trying than the previous years, but for a different reason. It was the time of hopeful joy mingled with troubling doubts. They simply did not trust the communists and feared that this was a trick or a trap. Besides, most of them had no information about their families, and suddenly they became dominated by fear from uncertainty: how to face the pain if their loved ones had died? What if nobody would waiting for them, perhaps they had been long forgotten? What their financial situation would be? The prison became very quiet in those weeks. They had a hard time imagining what freedom would be like. A mixture of joy and fear heavily weighed upon them.
One day, finally, the release process began. Nobody knew when one’s turn would be, so they prepared anxiously every morning. This included hiding their few treasured items under their clothes, to take home with them as memorabilia. The last bitter irony of the prison correctional campaign was a military court game, just before their release. In this ”court” the judge and prosecutors were role-played by prisoners--by traitors. The goal was to examine the inmates’ level of re-education. The phantom court demanded from prisoners once again, to admit their political felony, to exercise self-criticism and to promise loyalty to the cause of socialism. My father categorically rejected this moral self-prostitution. He denied any guilt or the need for re-education. As a retaliation, he was in the very last group to be released.
The time of liberation from bondage for my father was August 1964. He was given an “allowance” of the exact change for a train ticket to his home. The prison truck dropped him at the railway station and left him there--with no guards! Freedom suddenly became an serious existential crisis. Where to go? His wife had divorced him, and she might have even died that horrible death. Although he wore civil clothes now, his shaved head advertised his recent past. There were many shaved heads those days. People looked at him strangely. Some, who did not know him, expressed compassion, some, friends, went to the other side of the street to avoid meeting him. Outside society’s freedom was really an illusion. Those were the longest miles, between the prison and his hometown. The first shock was that the old house where he grew up and his mother had lived, was gone. A new house of strangers’ replaced it. His heart stopped. He entered timidly the neighboring house, his brother’s. Flying into his arms, his brother screamed what my father wanted to hear: Everybody is alive! Everybody! He too became alive.
The changes in the outside world were overwhelming for most of the liberated prisoners. But the true shock for them was the world’s complete indifference toward them who had been absent from life for many years. Now as they resurfaced, the world ignored them. No celebration, no recognition by the Church and the society of their steadfast heroism, having lived through hell but standing firm for their principle, resisting compromise, and thus saving others. The indifference of the outside world called into question the meaning of their sacrifice on other’s behalf. These people who managed to preserve their moral integrity in the bowels of hell, suddenly questioned their life’s meaning. People seemed to avoid them, pretended not to recognize them. There were no support or therapy groups, and in many cases, not even a family waiting for these ex-prisoners.
My father had served five years out of seven. Under international political pressure, grace was granted to all political prisoners in 1964. It was not amnesty, so the second part of my father’s sentence, the five-year deprivation from his civil rights, was hanging over him as a dark cloud for many more years. He was afraid and reluctant to ask for rehabilitation even afterward, because that implied a recognition of his guilt and asking for forgiveness. It was May 29, 1975 when finally a formal rehabilitation was granted to him. But he remained politically branded and persecuted for the rest of his life.
I was eleven when my father disappeared from my life and now I was sixteen. The news of his liberation meant as much anxiety as joy. Will he recognize me? How will I ever be able to tell him the secrets of my heart and the events of those lost years? Will our family be united again? How will my father cope with the shock of my mother’s re-conversion to Roman Catholicism, taking my brother along? And what worried me the most: will my mother love him any more?
Finally, the great moment arrived. Our door opened and there was my father! My heart stopped. I barely recognized him. At 45 he was a broken, old man. His hair had turned white, he was emaciated, his face gray and wrinkled. And his eyes! There was no shine, no life in his eyes, only pain, suffering, and fear. His movements were slow and cautious, he struggled to keep his balance. In fact he wasn’t able to walk by himself.
Zizi! Ziziiii!--he whispered my name with the passion of a prayer. His ecstasy was a mixture of a painful outcry and glorious ode. He folded his arms around me as if he never wanted to release me again. And I wanted this moment to last forever. It was a moment of apotheosis for both of us. The little girl whose image he cherished for years no longer existed. “You grew into a radiant young woman, so much like your mother when I first met her and fell in love with her! Your voice is so warm, so musical!”
Then I played the violin for him as my surprise. Those hundreds of hours of practice were worthwhile, just to have my father’s amazement and tearful joy as an ultimate reward. But my father had another gift for me: his prison satchel and his tattered clothes he brought home. Each piece had my name embroidered on it: ZIZI. This was his mantra, his prayer, he saw my name in the constellation of the stars during dark and cold, lifeless nights.
My father lived fifteen more years in loneliness and inner exile in a small village, serving his Church which silenced him and marginalized him. He wrote a new doctoral dissertation, but, for the second time, he was prevented from receiving the degree. I asked him, “How can you not hate those who ruined your life?” “They are just human, or, perhaps, will become human one day,”--he answered gently.
“In the midst of inhumanity, in spite of his physical frailty, Imre Gellérd kept an admirable integrity. Suffering, misery, ultimate humiliation, and the imminence of death debased and dehumanized so many. Imre Gellérd remained human in the truest, fullest sense of the word. Be proud of your father, very proud,” Professor Janos Erdö, bishop of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church, my father’s friend and fellow prisoner often reminded me.
Before a second arrest, my father took his own life on his sixtieth birthday.
 My father gave this nickname to me at my birth.
 A brilliant former student of my father, a Unitarian minister-poet.
 Mindennapi történet Poem in Hungarian by Ernö Számadó, memorized and reconstructed by László Varga, translated by Judit Gellérd.
 He received his doctorate posthumously, 25 years later.