21 March 2018

A Purifying Recollection – At a Site Visit by Ex-prisoners Convicted in Romania after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956

"At most prisons in Romania today, convicts are greeted by four-story set of bunks in the cell, one for each prisoner. Back in the day, a single bunk would be shared by two or even three inmates. As an example to illustrate the crowded conditions, Baron István Bánffy, sentenced to 15 years […], achieved some popularity owing to his prosthetic leg, shackled just like a real leg – which he had lost due to an injury suffered in the Second World War."


The prison compound in Szamosújvár, built under the reign of Maria Theresa, continues to exude an oppressive air in its latter-day expanded form. Making plans for revisiting the grounds, we Hungarians realised just how ill-prepared we were to cut through a Byzantine maze of red tape. I had to obtain dozens of permits from the likes of the Ministry of Justice and the Central Penal Authority. Months before we were supposed to embark on the trip, the prisons we intended to visit required me to send them a list of participating ex-political prisoners. Expecting the worse, I procured the business card of the Director General of the Central Penal Authority. I even had to apply for special permits to shoot video.

Finally, on 9 September 1996, I arrived at the main gate of the prison in the company of former convicts. Our party included two bishops, namely Dr Kálmán Csiha of the Transylvanian Calvinist Diocese, and Árpád Mózes of the Lutheran Church, and his vicar general Béla Kiss, who had been sentenced to nine years in the trial of Lutheran theologians. The officer on duty, after checking our papers, told us he could not let us in because the commander was out. I waived the business card of the chief turnkey in his face and demanded that he speed-dial the bearer – the head of the Penal Authority – through his private line. Lo and behold, it turned out that the commander was in after all. Obviously wary of being reprimanded, the officer proceeded to see us through the compound in the most polite manner, amidst offerings of Coke and coffee. He even allowed us to view the catacombs, back then submerged in knee-high water, where convicts sentenced to high-security prison had to await their fate. We saw the cell where Sándor Rózsa spent the last months of his life, along with the iron ring in the floor to which his chains were fastened. Sándor Veress of Gyulakút, the leader of the Secret Revolutionary Organisation, had served five months of his term here.

We were left locked up in here to die”, he recalled. “They would give us a hot meal every five days; on other days, it was just water and a quarter-pound of bread. During the day, they would fold the bunks up against the wall and we had to pace up and down all day in the stench of the water-logged cell. We were forbidden to sit down and talk to one another. I still don’t know how we lived through all this. I had been sentenced to twenty years in high-security penitentiary, and my wife was fired from her job. My family in Marosvásárhely was forced to live in a cellar with shattered windows. My two daughters were mentally ruined for life. All this misery took its toll on my wife. She has been bed-ridden for years, unable to speak or take food on her own. She is in diapers. It was here that I became sick with Parkinson’s disease, which has maimed my life. Now I need a straw to drink a glass of water.”1

Then it was Árpád Mózes’s turn to show us the cell where he endured so much pain. He was beaten so hard that, for two weeks, he had to be shuffled motionless from one bunk to the next by his cellmates, wrapped in a blanket. As Mózes related, the Hungarian Lutheran church in Transylvania was decapitated in the wake of 1956 by the imprisonment of four pastors and four theology students of the 30,000-strong congregation. Exercising his right of last plea, he asked the court what they had done to jeopardise the territorial integrity of Romania. “You didn’t”, said the president of the judicial panel, “but you could have if you had had a chance.” Mózes was sentenced to eighteen years of penal servitude.

I remonstrated with the commander about the single Hungarian name on the commemorative plaque in the courtyard, when dozens of Hungarian pastors served their sentences behind those walls.2

Dr István Dobai, an international lawyer from Kolozsvár, the author of the UN Memorandum of 1957, spent fifty-seven days in solitary confinement here. The fifteen-page document was intended to alert the UN to the wrongs and injuries suffered by the Hungarian minority in Romania. In those days, the key to the so-called Transylvanian Question was envisioned to lie in a Romanian– Hungarian population swap, to be implemented under the watchful eyes of UN observers. The capital punishment initially advocated by the prosecutor was later changed, in the case of Dobai and László Varga, to penal servitude for life. Dobai endured some of his prison term in the notorious “phantom cell” at Szamosújvár, from where very few emerged alive. He contracted tuberculosis but was denied medication. He had his cellmates to thank for being transferred to the prison in Dés after they, wary of contracting the disease, demanded his transfer. Once in the new location, his life was saved by a conscientious Romanian doctor. Later again, in his cell in Temesvár, he overheard his cellmates on the bunks below and above him discuss, in Romanian, their plans of strangling him in his sleep.

The footage we shot faithfully conveys the consternation on the faces of the ex-convicts as we entered the former execution site, where Kálmán Sass and Dr István Hollós were executed on 2 December 1958, followed by Domokos Szígyártó from Ozsdola, at noon on 20 April 1959. God only knows how many more political prisoners perished among these walls. Adding sacrilegious insult to injury, the grounds serve today as the prison’s fruit and produce storage. Bishop Csiha of our party offered a prayer for the victims of the Communist dictatorship. Then the commander who had been previously convicted on corruption charges tried to pull another fast one on us by showing us the present quarters of female prisoners, complete with all imaginable amenities including flush toilets, soft bedding and television. I could not fail to notice the fine manicure of the “inmates”. They must have changed their guard uniforms to inmate garb just before we entered the site.

The next day, on 10 September 1996, we paid a visit to Jilava, the most dreaded prison in all of Romania, after stopping for a brief night’s sleep at the Mikó Székely Dormitory in Sepsiszentgyörgy. We had little rest as the levee broke and members of our company took turns reviving and sharing their prison memories. The following morning, in spite of being in possession of all the requisite permits, we found ourselves facing the same impediment in Jilava as we had in Szamosújvár. At the main gate, the officer on duty told us the commander was out and he could not let us in. As I had before, I produced the business card of the almighty turnkey. “The phone is out of order”, the officer lied. Precisely in that instant, the phone rang. This gave me some leverage as I marshalled the ultimate argument, reminding the officer of the impending Romanian–Hungarian Treaty, which was scheduled to be signed in less than two weeks. “I have a dozen official permits”, I continued, “and if I decide to hold an international press conference and inform the audience that former political prisoners – incidentally, all of them of Hungarian ethnicity – were denied the right to revisit the site of their affliction, then this would have very serious consequences.” The officer did not dare to stretch it further. As it quickly turned out, the commander was in, in fact expecting our arrival! The officer suddenly relented, to the point that he guided us inside himself, between unmoved ranks of colonels.

Jilava was one of 13 fortified strongholds in the vicinity of Bucharest, originally built to defend against the Ottoman occupiers. It was converted into a prison some time after 1877. From the outside it looks like an insignificant structure, covered with earth for camouflage. You would never think that this mound hides four stories underground. The catacombs were effective in stifling out cries of pain, death rattle, and the volleys of the execution squads. Csaba Jancsó, sentenced to ten years for being a member of the Székely Youth Society in Sepsiszentgyörgy, was brought here just before he turned 18. Originally meted out a plain prison term, Jancsó “inadvertently” ended up in Jilava. When they realised he was still underage, he was transferred to the juvenile detention facility in Ocnele Mare. Immediately upon his eighteenth birthday he was rushed back to Jilava, then to the work site in Nagysziget, Brăila. Ironically, no one had wanted to return to Jilava more than he did. His cardinal sin was having been one of the eight youths who laid a wreath at the 1848–1849 memorial at Erzsébet Park in downtown Sepsiszentgyörgy. He set us all an example through his suffering: Never give up the fight for your rights! Next I glimpsed a devastated Péter Orbán, sentenced to 25 years, drop his arms in his lap in a gesture of helplessness. He was remembering his father, István Orbán of Csíktapolca, who was probably executed right on this spot at the age of 58.

The leaders of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) declared our prison visit to have been one of the most important initiatives of the year, a most worthy commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. I myself was determined not simply to revisit the former Gulags of Romania but to record every minute of the expedition in a documentary film. Of all the footage we shot documenting our “death march redux”, the Budapest-based DEKO Film compiled a 36-hour film version, while the Hungarian editors of Romanian Television cut it down to a 15-hour-long documentary.

Most of the prison visitors of that time are no longer with us. On 5 April 2000, we received sad news about the suicide of Zsolt Daday, sentenced to five years as the chairman of the Hargita County branch of the Alliance of Former Political Prisoners. Others departed since our site visit include Kálmán Csiha, Árpád Mózes, Béla Kiss, Dénes G. Fülöp, Sándor Veress, as well as Ferenc Bakó, who had received an eight-year term as one of the defendants in the Szoboszlai Trial.

On our way to the next destination, Luciu-Giurgeni, Periprava, all of the 44 former political convicts concurred that the hardest suffering to be endured had been administered by the Marosvásárhely facility of the Securitate. Indeed, the henchmen there would have performed a more humane deed by beating them to death instantly. Instead, they chose to apply the most sophisticated inquisition methods of torture, interrogation and intimidation. The Unitarian pastor of Homoródkarácsonyfalva had four of his next of kin arrested, including his mother, father, and two sons, one of them a 15-year-old grammar-school student, who remained in detention from August to November 1957. Once locked up in the crowded cell, he was forced by his adult mates to stay on the floor beneath the lowest bunk, from where he was only allowed to crawl out to relieve himself. When he finally got out, he could barely walk. His two sisters back in the vicarage were evacuated and put on trial promptly. The mother had to face court on charges of having placed home-made ribbons, inscribed with the words “Freedom Will Lift You Up” and “Death Rather than Servitude”, at the Hungarian revolutionary memorial in Fehéregyháza, on 15 March 1957. She was sentenced to 25 years in jail.

The vocational school students under László Orbán had been even more courageous than most. During the days of the most ruthless oppression in Romania, they took the train from Brassó to Segesvár, then walked to the memorial in Fehéregyháza and wrote their names in the Petőfi Museum’s visitors’ book. They staged a 90-minute programme, including poetry recitals in honour of Sándor Petőfi. Each of the youths paying their respects at the Fehéregyháza memorial was convicted, and Hungarian-language secondary vocational training, headquartered near the truck manufacturing plant in Brassó, was liquidated. In terms of the number of guilty verdicts, this was the biggest trial of all, resulting in the conviction of 77 persons, most of them handed severe prison terms.

The County Bishop of Transylvania Áron Márton granted a two-day audience to László Orbán and the wife of Mihály Lőrincz, a Unitarian theology professor. Archived documents attest to the fact that the bishop approved of the EMISZ initiative to preserve folk art traditions and significant monuments, and to resist forced collectivisation. A vocational school student, Albert Dudicska from Alsórákos, sentenced to 12 years in the EMISZ trial, had written a letter to the organisation – which was blazoned wildly by the prosecutor as chief evidence of guilt – requesting to prevent his brother from marrying a Romanian girl lest he should be lost for the cause of Hungarian minorities.

Inching through the seemingly endless wasteland toward the Danube Delta on board a bus, we shared one story after another about pertinent subjects, from various interrogation methods to the unbearable prison menu. If none of these techniques loosened the detainees’ tongues, the next step was to recruit lunatics to share their cell. One thing is for certain: the Hungarian prisoners will never forget the names of Károly Bartos, Imre Bartos, Buzan Teodor, Márton Fábián, Aleonte Nicolae, Gheorghe Florea and Sîngeoryan Dumitru – all of them Secu officers and goons of considerable notoriety in Marosvásárhely.

The events of 1956 were a landmark in the recent history of Romania and its Hungarian minority. News of the Revolution and war of independence in Hungary were relayed to Romanians, Saxons and Jews by Transylvanian Hungarians. For a few days, while the single-party state officials of Romania managed to con people into believing that the Hungarians wanted to “reclaim Transylvania”, the residents of Temesvár, Brassó, Bucharest and Jászvásár gave innumerable signs of supporting a “truce” between Hungarians and Romanians. A demonstration organised by the technical university students of Temesvár on 30 and 31 October 1956 drew a crowd of some three thousand, leading to the single open confrontation with armed forces. The demands articulated in 12 points by Caius Muþiu and his fellows, including Aurel Baghiu (who actually participated in our prison visit venture) remarkably coincided with the 16 points demanded by the students of the technical university in Budapest, of which several items were adopted verbatim by the youths in Romania. The arrest of 2,500 students, the unfolding resistance to law enforcement at the Temesvár campus, and the sympathy with the Hungarian Revolution by almost exclusively Romanian-speaking students were all symptomatic of strong solidarity with Hungarians in those days. Further evidence for this solidarity is to be found in a memoir entitled Szamosújvár, by the writer Paul Goma, a Romanian émigré living in Paris: “My first interrogator – let us call him Vasile – assured me that, ‘in normal times’, I would not have been punished for what I had done by any measure beyond a few slaps in the face and a bit of a lecture. As it happened, however, it was the time of the Hungarian Revolution. He said the circumstances forced them to keep me locked in for a while. They had to convict me ‘in order to let those scoundrels out there know what lay in store for them’, so that they think twice about any bravery on the frontline.” The 81 Romanian university students sentenced to shorter or longer prison terms for sympathising with the Hungarian Revolution included the writer Alexandru Ivasiuc and Alexandru Dob, now a professor. Throughout Romania, some villagers still remember that the mandatory contribution of produce and meat was abolished owing to the Hungarian uprising. On the other hand, raising the chimera of “the abduction of Transylvania” proved successful in duping some of the sympathisers.

At most prisons in Romania today, convicts are greeted by four-story set of bunks in the cell, one for each prisoner. Back in the day, a single bunk would be shared by two or even three inmates. As an example to illustrate the crowded conditions, Baron István Bánffy, sentenced to 15 years in the Szoboszlai trial, achieved some popularity owing to his prosthetic leg, shackled just like a real leg – which he had lost due to an injury suffered in the Second World War. He would unfasten this prosthetic leg for the night to make more room for his bunk-mates!

During our seemingly endless journey to the Danube Delta, the long-held secrets of imprisonment welled up like blood through white gauze bandage. If the convict met his work allotment for the day – hungry, emaciated, and chilled to the bone – by wheel-barrowing three cubic metres of dirt uphill the river levee, or by harvesting the requisite amount of razor-sharp rush by the riverbank, he earned the right to have a five-kilo package sent in by his relatives, provided he repeated word by word the standard-issue text “I am in good health. I hope all is well at home.” Bishop Csiha told us how the goon, having inspected his parcel, gleefully pocketed a photo of his young daughter, born after his incarceration.

The road led us from Jilava to Periprava, in the heart of hell in the Danube Delta, which could only be accessed by taking a boat from Tulcea. At the landing, we found out that there was a scheduled boat but it did not run every day of the week, and when it did, it could not accommodate another 44 passengers. To Periprava, it is an eight-hour journey for the boat to navigate the twists and turns of the Szentgyörgy branch of the river. Finally, I decided to hire a private boat. The captain asked for 2,400 West German marks for the trip. When I applied for the official permits, the official at the Ministry of Justice shrugged, as if to suggest that the site of former forced labour camps had long been consigned to oblivion.

Having moored at Periprava, a half-hour walk took us to the brick barracks of the former “Romanian Gulag”, staring down at us in their stark reality. Decay was hardly in evidence, save in the case of a few dilapidated, makeshift shacks. As professional filmmakers, we were the first to have set foot on this stretch of dry ground amidst the marshlands. Indeed, seeing the ruins of the former annihilation camp was the most harrowing experience I had ever had during my quarter-century career as a journalist, plus a few years I served as television programme editor. The Lay brothers from Brassó – Imre and György, sentenced respectively to 20 and 18 years in the EMISZ case – identified on the wall of the blacksmith shop with a caved-in roof the three horse shoes they forged on the day they had arrived here. We also found the boots made of truck tires, issued to inmates for cutting rush waist-high in water, never mind rainfall, mud or freezing cold. Mihály Balogh-Sípos, sentenced to 20 years, enacted for us a demonstration of how prisoners’ garb would be shredded by the razor-sharp rush leaves. We located the barrack where “cross-training” classes were held in 1963 and 1964, in the name of “political détente”. The new idea was to convince prisoners of the superiority of Marxism and the virtues of “socialist humanism”. The “kindergarten”, as this dubious facility was nicknamed by the prisoners, was abhorred by all. In an effort to render the venue more comfortable, it was fitted with a sort of stage, with a backdrop of a mural that still shows, after decades of erosion, a tractor breaking up the virgin soil of the Danube Delta on the right, with happy swans frolicking in the water to the left. In the middle is an ancient, dried-up oak tree, with a fresh new shoot. A lurid contrast to this idyll is presented by the surviving barbed wire fences which used to surround the prisoners as they laboured to the last breath, starved, exhausted, and afflicted by various ailments, under the watchful eyes of barking dogs and menacing machine guns. This was the scene where the finest Romanian intellectuals and other opposition leaders served their sentences. Any attempt to break out from these premises amounted to suicide. Ultimately, the treacherous moors of Periprava, Grind, Sfiştovca, Salcia, Brăila, Stoieneşti, Luciu-Giurgeni and Mocrin became the final resting place of many prisoners.

Lined up for a strict roll call each morning in the square next to command headquarters, the prisoners readily interpreted the blood stains on the pavement as a sign that the body of yet another inmate had been subjected to autopsy by the camp’s physician the previous night.

These run-down buildings are among the most horrendous relics of the 20th century. No precise statistical data survive as to the number of lives lost in the Danube Delta. The four-part documentary series shot in 1996 serves as a singular memento, authenticated by a string of witness testimony of the Calvary suffered by the Transylvanian brethren of 1956 on account of their Hungarian extraction and sheer humanity. Our cathartic prison trip served as a living proof for the strong allegiance to the spirit of the Revolution among Transylvanian Hungarians.

Evening had fallen by the time we returned to our boat. There, the captain insisted on waiting till the morning to unmoor, for fear of Ukrainian pirates. The Delta is a universe in its own right, where the regulations of free navigation do not apply any more than off the shores of Somalia. I asked the captain if, under the circumstances, he would mind opening up a makeshift bar. Well, after a week of emotional stress and prison memories, our company on board – along with bystanders at the landing – heard a programme of fine Hungarian-Transylvanian folk songs, tunes and ballads that lasted until the wee small hours of the morning. Nobody got drunk, although a few choir members retreated for an hour or two, exhausted by the forced march of our visit.

The Danube Delta at dawn is a breathtaking sight to behold. After a night of revelry and song, none of us complained of fatigue. The first rays of the rising sun cast a splendid light on the barges as they passed us, their passengers wondering why such a strange lot as ours would want to brave the Szentgyörgy tributary. The Hungarian crew headed by the cinematographer Gyula Miholcsa took some superb shots, while Dénes G. Fülöp on board recalled how the prisoners “celebrated” the Christmas of 1960 in Periprava. Well, all of them were driven out to harvest rush in spite of the numbing cold, exacerbated by Crivăþ, the wind that blasts through the grasslands and worms its way under the skin. When their wet clothes began to freeze up, the prisoners burst out in a howl of pain so primal that it frightened the guards to the point that they dared not push them any further lest they commit suicide, which most of the poor pariahs threatened they would if forced to carry on.

On our way back to Tulcea we made a last side trip to Luciu-Giurgeni. Here, decay did wreak havoc. The prisoners’ quarters have been razed to the ground, and the barracks that used to serve as accommodation for the personnel and the officers were converted into farm buildings by a state-run coop that operated until early 1990. We only found a few solitary buildings still standing. We toured every inch of the former Communist labour camp, where building levees to keep the Danube at bay demanded so many lives. We held a moment of silence remembering Károly Bíró of Csíkszenttamás, who was probably shot to death on this very spot while attempting to escape. When in the appelplatz we started to sing the psalm Despair Not, we noticed a mass of angry, sinister people coming toward us. The locals, led by the former agriculturist of the state farm, had apparently been rubbed the wrong way by the sight of our two buses parked outside the gate of the colony, with Maros County plates. The infuriated engineer said no Hungarians had ever been held here. This was the first time I had ever seen the habitually placid Bishop Csiha fly off the handle. “How dare you say that”, he exploded, “when I nearly lost a leg here in the summer of 1960? I had a nasty boil which turned cankerous. I got no medication, and the camp doctor wanted to amputate my leg. It was my fellow prisoners’ folk medicine and knowledge of herbs that saved me. Are you a God fearing man at all?”, the good bishop hollered. “Every one of us you see here is Hungarian. We all suffered between life and death in this labour colony!”

Ferenc Bakó pitched in his own story. When he was unable to meet the work requirement assigned to him for the day (wheel-barrowing three cubic metres of earth to the top of the levee), back in camp he was ordered by the commander to strip naked. They put a wet bed-sheet on his back and gave him 25 whips with a cane. Later, his cell mates did their best to ease his terrible pain, aggravated by infection and other complications, using cold wraps made from whatever rags they could find. As Bakó reminded the locals, the levee protecting them today was built, quite literally, with Hungarian sweat and blood!

This worked. The crowd scattered as fast as they had closed in on us. We no longer felt like the dejected “tiny host” of the psalm, but redeemed by what must have been the most uplifting experience of our “death march redux”. The former convicts had to re-immerse themselves in the sea of anguish so that they could see their tenure in prison not simply as a narrative of martyrdom, but a period affording great lessons about the secrets of human life on earth and the call of responsibility for the next man.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel


 

Notes:


1 Since he spoke these words, Sándor Veress has sadly joined those departing from us, adding to the heart-sinking losses in the ranks of the 1956 Compraderie. He had been preceded by his wife, bed-ridden for 18 years, to whom he dedicated his Calvary of Seven Years, 1957–1964, a volume supported by Canadian Hungarians and published by Polis in Kolozsvár (Cluj): “To the memory of my dear little wife who faithfully waited seven years for me to come home.”

2 I found the trial transcripts of Árpád Mózes et al. at the Bucharest archive of the National Council for Researching Securitate Records, and I still keep an in-depth interview with the bishop on file.




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