Friday, April 4, 2014

What Happened in Romania

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, 
so far from the words of my groaning?  
Psalm 22: 1

In recent posts, I introduced Denes Fulop, a well-read thinker, a gifted pastor, and an engaged member of the community. He wasn’t a crackpot; he wasn’t a Hungarian nationalist. He was a deeply committed Reformed Christian. And when he was enduring in a concentration camp, I was entering college, an absorbed member of the free to be generation, concerned with a kind of justice that did not include a critique of Communist societies. In this post, I’d like to describe just a little part of what Denes endured. Though the stories themselves are powerful, I’ve included a few references, and if you wish, a quick internet search reveals dozens of related documents. This is a good one:                                                                                                                             

Here's how the state handled dissent.

Unflinching Stalinism: Communism in Romania  ". . . the Dej leadership unleashed ruthless purges of the Bucharest, Cluj and Timisoara universities.

The repression of 1956 set the stage for another wave of terror from 1958 until 1961. The targets were intellectuals who, in the late 1940s were not arrested, but had been only marginalized. This social cleansing accompanied a new offensive toward completing the process of collectivization."                
In the book, Gulag, Anne Applebaum described the gulag system in Romania as concentration camps, places where "enemies of the state" were worked and starved to death. It used methods perfected and exported by the Soviet secret police. p. 454

Crime and Punishment 

As a seminary student and a Hungarian, Denes was certainly aware of the 1956 events in Hungary. When Russian tanks  helped crush the revolution, like other students, he became the target of the Romanian securitate (secret police). He escaped the purge of dissidents in 1956, and after graduating from the seminary, became the assistant in the castle church in Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures).

He was caught in a later wave of terror and arrested. Following his arrest, Denes was flown to Kolozsvar (Cluj) and lodged in the Gherla prison where for six months he was interrogated and then beaten when he refused to reveal names or events. He soon learned that though he didn't talk, others did.

Gherla Prison
Though Denes had never confessed anything, he was brought to trial because the prosecutor had produced a witness he thought was reliable. Wearing chains and shackles, Feri, the young seminary student who, under torture had talked about Denes, now in court denied it all. The judge was furious and ordered him out of the courtroom. Here’s how Fulop described the scene many years later, "In the deathly silence that fell over us, Feri turned to leave. The only sound to be heard was the clanking of his chains as he made his way down the hall."

The Danube Concentration Camp

At a second trial, Denes was  convicted and sent to one of the labor camps at the delta of the Danube River."For a while, I lived on a wreck of a boat decaying in the middle of a field of bamboo located between the dike and the river. During the winter, we were herded out on to the ice to harvest this bamboo. The rusting boat was home to 400 men crowded into stacks of metal bunkbeds. The whole boat was made of thick metal, If it was warmer inside than out, water condensed and dripped down, black and dirty. The fetid smoke from smoldering wood mixed with the humid air creating filthy conditions."

The cold was terrible, especially because we were very thin, and due to lack of nutrition had little strength. Many times we were so hungry that we collected leaves growing at the edges of the fields where we worked, plants we used to feed the pigs at home.  We also gathered another source of food, the snails attached to our pants."

One of his most terrible memories was of a Sunday morning early in the spring, a day when the milder weather had caused the ice to begin to thaw.  It was not strong enough to hold the weight of the prisoners, the bamboo cutters. Like the days before, the men marched out on to the ice. It caved in under their weight and with a sickening whoosh, they fell through. Those who followed tried to stop, but with guns and dogs the guards forced them to continue into the icy water. The whole group of prisoners reacted as one with an animal shout, frightening the guards. The sergeant was a cruel man and forced the men to stay in the icy water all day long. The cold and suffering was so great that prisoners begged the guards to shoot them.

While researching the camps in Romania, I found a site constructed by high school students in Romania. Given the status of the world today, it was heart wrenching to read of their hope that the genocides of the 20th century would never be repeated. To see how they described Gherla Prison, the Pitesti Prison, and the Danube Delta camps, see their website:                                                                                                                                                

I must confess that the impact of the stories grew on me, especially when we began to translate and transcribe them. At first I was immersed in the organizational and personal details of the project, keeping track of costs, of the schedule, and always aware that I was the foreigner in the group. When we began to translate and transcribe them, I began to realize that I and my generation had been deaf to stories of unspeakable horror. We justified our deafness with a selective definition of justice that did not include our Reformed brothers and sisters behind an iron curtain whose existence we barely acknowledged.

When atrocities happen,
those who remain silent and don't speak or act against evil
become its accomplices.

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