SIGHETU MARMATIEI, ROMANIA – Sixty years ago, as the Iron Curtain sealed off Eastern Europe, Teodor Stanca was among millions sentenced to prison, death or forced labor for opposing communist rule.
Today, as survivors of this dark page of history are getting older and fewer, 80-year-old Stanca says he hopes a Romanian prison-turned-museum will remind future generations that “freedom needs eternal vigilance.”
The Sighet Memorial for the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance, as the museum is known, is the first of its kind in Europe.
More than 1 million people have visited the memorial in the northern town of Sighetu Marmatiei, which was founded 20 years ago on the site of one of the most notorious political prisons in Romania.
About 200 politicians, priests and intellectuals were held there in secret between 1950 and 1955, when the communist terror reached its peak in Romania. Fifty-four of them died.
The former prison “prevents people from forgetting those who sacrificed their lives to defend democracy,” Stanca, a retired engineer, said at an exhibition dedicated to the student movement he led in 1956 to call for more freedom.
The museum includes a research center, a memorial to those who resisted and summer schools where young people meet with former political prisoners and historians from around the world.
“We want to inform foreigners and Romanians themselves about the sufferings endured by people living under totalitarian communist regimes from the end of World War II until 1989,” said poet Ana Blandiana, who founded the museum with her husband.
Blandiana’s books were banned under Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s last communist dictator, who was toppled and executed in 1989.
In Sighet, each cell shows a different aspect of the brutal repression of communist rule, from the massive surveillance by the Securitate secret police to torture.
Detailed accounts of forced labor remind visitors that tens of thousands of Romanians had to work like slaves building a canal toward the Black Sea.
The extent of the suffering had largely been hidden.
Stalinist purges in the former Soviet Union and communist repression in Eastern Europe claimed millions of lives in the 20th century, according to historians.
In Romania alone, more than 600,000 people were sentenced and jailed between 1945 and 1989 for political reasons.
Stanca was one of them.
“In the jail, we suffered from hunger, we did not get any medical assistance, we were continuously humiliated,” he said.
He was then sent to a labor camp to erect dikes along the Danube River.
“I think only the pyramids were built with such inhumane physical work,” he added.
But despite the grim conditions, detainees tried to resist.
“We fabricated paper to write poems by mixing dust we scratched from the walls, a bit of soap and water. If we were caught it meant seven days in the ‘black room,’ ” or punishment cell, he said.
Verses were transmitted using Morse code from one cell to the next.
When he was on the verge of dying, his fellow inmates forced bread into his mouth and saved him, he said.
The museum also dedicates rooms to repression in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.