SIGHETU MARMATIEI (AFP) ― Sixty years ago, as the Iron Curtain sealed off Eastern Europe, Teodor Stanca was among millions sentenced to jail, death or forced labour 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 jail-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.
|In this May 9 photo, pictures of deportees and prisoners appear on display, in Bucharest, Romania, at the opening of a permanent memorial exhibition for the victims of the communist regime persecutions. (AP-Yonhap News)|
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 jail “prevents people from forgetting those who sacrificed their lives to defend democracy,” Stanca, a retired engineer, told AFP 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 the Second World War until 1989,” poet Ana Blandiana, who founded the museum with her husband, told AFP.
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 labour remind visitors that tens of thousands of Romanians had to work like slaves building a canal towards the Black Sea.
“Since 1993, even before the archives were opened, we recorded thousands of hours of testimonies from survivors,” Blandiana said.
The extent of the suffering had largely been hidden.
“There are two different memories in Europe,” said Stephane Courtois, a French historian who edited the bestseller “The Black Book of Communism.”
“In the West, we had a glorious memory of Communism ― the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front, anti-fascism, resistance to Nazism. Here it was the exact opposite. People talk only of terror, torture, misery,” he told AFP.
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.