Short history of the building of Sighet prison
Sighet Prison was built in 1897 by the Austro-Hungarian authorities, on the occasion of the “First Magyar Millennium”. After 1918, it functioned as a prison for common criminals. After 1945, the repatriation of former prisoners and deported persons from the Soviet Union was done through Sighet. In August 1948 it became a place of imprisonment for a group of students, pupils and peasants from Maramures, some of whom still live in Sighet. On 5 and 6 May 1950 over one hundred dignitaries from the whole country were brought to the Sighet penitentiary (former ministers, academics, economists, military officers, historians, journalists, politicians), some of them convicted to heavy punishments, others not even judged. The majority were more than 60 years old.
In October-November 1950, 45-50 bishops and Greek-Catholic and Roman-Catholic priests were transported to Sighet. The penitenciary was considered a "special work unit", known under the name of "Danube colony", but in reality was a place of extermination for the country's elites and at the same time a safe place, not possible to escape from, the frontier of the Soviet Union being less than two kilometres away.
Clădirea închisorii din Sighet (ruine) The prisoners were kept in unwholesome conditions, miserably fed, and stopped from lying down during the day on the beds in the unheated cells. They were not allowed to look out of the windows (those who disobeyed were punished by being forced to sit in the "black" and "grey", lock-up type cells, with no light). Finally, shutters were placed on the windows, so that only the sky was visible. Humility and ridicule were part of the extermination programme
Clădirea închisorii din Sighet (ruine) In 1955, following the Geneva Convention and the admission of communist Romania (RPR) to the UN, some pardons were granted. Some of the political prisoners in Romanian prisons were set free and some transferred to other places, while others were kept under house arrest At Sighet, out of around 200 prisoners, 52 had died. The prison once again became an ordinary law one. However, political prisoners continued to appear in the following years, and many were kept secretly in the local psychiatric hospital.
In 1977, the prison was closed, and the buildings were turned into a broom factory and salt warehouse, finally becoming an abandoned ruin.
Short History of the Memorial Museum
Clădirea fostei închisori din Sighet în timpul lucrărilor de transformare a ei în Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului şi al Rezistenţei
The Civic Academy Foundation took over the ruins of the former prison in 1993, with a view to transforming it into a museum. In order to implement this project, it was necessary both to raise funds for restoration of the building and to collect a databank of the information needed to create the museum. The Centre for Studies into Communism, founded by Romulus Rusan in 1993, has gathered oral history recordings and collected photographs, documents, realia, letters, period newspapers, books, textbooks, and photograph albums, as well as organising workshops, seminars, symposia, and meetings between victims of communism and historians from Romania and abroad, and publishing books of eye-witness accounts, research, statistics, and documents about the anticommunist resistance and its repression. To date, the Centre has made over five thousand hours of recordings, published 35,000 pages in book form, and collected tens of thousands of documents (loose leaves, photographs, and audio and video cassettes).
In parallel, the tender for the design to restore the building was awarded to the UMROL Company from Cluj and the Stelid company from Baia Mare. The work took until 2000. As the century-old building was in ruins and affected by damp, it was necessary to rebuild the foundations, insulation and roof, and the inside walls (which had not been re-painted since the 1950s) were whitewashed.
The fruit of painstaking research, each cell has become a museum room in which the main topics concerning communist repression, the destruction of the rule of law, and its replacement with a totalitarian system are traced in chronological order.
The historical research has been carried out by the employees and collaborators of the Centre for Studies into Communism, and the Museum rooms have been designed by designer Ştefan Popa of Ozana Design, architects Radu Canciovici and Ciprian Ionescu of Prima Metal, designer Bogdan Dumitrescu of Lime Production, architect Dan Popovici of Forum Art, designer Alexandru Ghilduş of Ghildus Design System, architect Petru Gheorghiu of APGA, and architects Matei Marcu and Octavian Carabela of MB Studio.
The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance
The Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Resistance was created and is administered by the Civic Academy Foundation.
Vreţi să înţelegeţi România de azi? Vizitaţi Memorialul Victimelor Comunismului şi al Rezistenţei
The greatest victory of communism, a victory dramatically revealed only after 1989, was to create people without a memory – a brainwashed new man unable to remember what he was, what he had, or what he did before communism.
The creation of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Resistance is a means of counteracting this victory, a means to resuscitate the collective memory.
Made up of the Sighet Museum and the International Centre for Studies into Communism, based in Bucharest, as well as being the organiser of the Summer School the Memorial is an institution of Memory, unique in that it is simultaneously an institute of research, museography and education.
To the question, “Can memory be relearned?” the answer of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Resistance in Romania is a resounding “Yes”.
International Center for Studies into Communism
The creation of the Sighet Museum was preceded and then supported by the activity of the International Centre for Studies into Communism. It gathered oral history, as well as collecting, in parallel, documents, photographs, and realia for use in the museum rooms housed in more than fifty-six cells of the former prison.
The Museum, which is often confused with the Memorial, is the creation of the Centre for Studies into Communism.
Created in 1993 by Ana Blandiana and Romulus Rusan, and always short of funds and staff, the Centre managed to renovate and fit out the Museum, and to gather the databank needed to fill it with realistic and credible materials. The Centre has a number of departments, whose activity is described below. It has been concerned with recruiting skilled researchers, many from the younger generation, although it would have wished to employ more staff and in spite of low wages. It has stimulated debate on important topics and unexplored territory, within the framework of symposia, seminars, workshops and round-table discussions.
The prestige of the International Centre for Studies into Communism, which is headed by Romulus Rusan, has been confirmed by the presence in the academic board of researchers of international standing.
Sighet Museum: Room 11 - The Destruction of the Political
PNŢ Through the destruction of the three traditional Romanian parties (national-peasant, national-liberal and social-democrat), the communists achieved the transfer from a democratic multi-party regime to the dictatorship of the single party, the state-party.
The methods used by the communists for the banning and dissolution of other political parties are illustrated. The exhibited photos and documents sum up the activity of the three parties from their foundation, with emphasis on their later years when they vigorously opposed communism.
PNL In July 1947 the Tămădău operation to frame the National Peasant Party was staged, led by Nicolski: a group of National-Peasant leaders were arrested when they were about to leave the country by plane, with the aim of continuing their resistance in exile. As a result, the communists to be illegal and the whole National-Peasant leadership put on trial for treason, among the most serious charges being that they had maintained relations with the British and Americans.
PSD After the banning of the National Peasant Party, the liberals were tacitly suppressed stopped their activity. Although no official document issued by authorities is known to exist, the National Liberal Party vanished from the political stage. The party’s newspaper, the Liberal was printed until November 1947. Hundreds of arrests were carried out among the members of N.L.P.
In February 1948 the Romanian Workers’ Party was created, through the merger of the Romanian Communist Party with the Social Democratic Party. In fact, what occurred was a process whereby the communists press-ganged socialists from other parties. Many socialists opposed to the merger were arrested, and the leadership of the Independent Social Democratic Party, under Constantin Titel Petrescu, were sentenced to long periods of hard labour under the charge of “high treason”. Iosif Jumanca, Ion Flueraş, George Grigorovici and Ene Filipescu died in prison.
Sighet Museum: Room 5 - Maps
Room 5. Maps room The Maps Room, the area for reception and orientation of visitors, gives a spatial presentation of the Romanian gulag and a temporal counterpart: a chronology of the forty-five-year history of communist Romania.
On a large map of the country, crosses mark sites of imprisonment, forced labour and obligatory residence, psychiatric asylums used for political purposes, places where battles and executions occurred, and mass graves. Each of these categories is presented in detail in six smaller maps. The images of the main communist prisons are exhibited alongside these maps.
Room 5. Maps room Room 5. Maps room During the communist period (1945-1989) in Romania there existed over 230 places of imprisonment, a figure, which also includes places of interrogation and selection, as well as forced labour and deportation camps.
If we add the town, district, regional and then county headquarters of the Securitate, where detainees were brought to after arrest and examined, and the figures increases by more than a hundred. There were at least fifteen psychiatric treatment (“re-education”) centres and over ninety locations discovered in recent years where there were executions fights between the partisans and the Securitate, or common graves.
From "the sea of bitterness"
This is the title of a new section of our web site, dedicated to the victims of communism. We shall be telling the story of people who suffered for the sake of their beliefs and moral integrity. The amnesia of contemporary society has condemned them to oblivion a second time, by erasing their memory and the model humanity they represented.
"Given that the victims of communism have been forgotten, contested or even slandered for so many years, we have tried to be reserved in our scientific approach and avoid any sentimental tinge. Where we found documents, we used them; where we did not, we preferred to signal the gap. Where we could count the victims, we did so; where we could not, we preferred an approximation as to the order of magnitude. However, even using the most drastic caution in order to avoid the risk of exaggeration, we are guilty before each individual oppressed in “the sea of bitterness” (to quote Eminescu) for having transformed him or her into a number or a fraction of a number. For numbers are by definition cold and distant.
In each atom of this world of suffering is concealed a human being, a biography that passes through the circles of hell, but preserves the thoughts, feelings and memory of an individual.
Taking each case separately, one trembles more than when confronting statistics that incorporate thousands or millions of cases. In studying a single face one understands more than from a whole convoy of slaves. The historian who died at Sighet because he refused to abjure his work; the old colonel who died of septicaemia after leeches had sucked his blood in the rice field where he had been brought to perform forced labour; the three children from the Banat – two twins aged one and their older brother – who died of cold in the hut in Bărăgan where they had been deported; the student who committed suicide at Piteşti in order to escape the tortures of “re-education”; the peasant with an acre of land who died in prison for having posted a letter “of denigrating content”; the sons and daughters expelled from school as “enemies of the people”; mothers made to divorce their husbands in order to save “the children’s cadre files”; the scholar who sacrificed his life in order to save a young man from pneumonia; the great founders of modern Romania dragged from the summits of the 1918 Union down into the mouldy dungeons of Galaţi, Sighet, Aiud, and Râmnicu Sărat…
All these fleeting glimpses are accusations against the criminal regime that isolated us from the rest of Europe for half a century and strove to make us forget who we were.
...Not all the victims were martyrs, but they all pray to us, from their heaven, not to forget them."
Works of art at the Sighet Memorial
The idea of punctuating the more than fifty rooms of the Museum with works of art was born of a need to combine the scholarly content of the themes covered in the museum’s rooms with the suggestion of the suffering caused by repression and with the feelings stirred when one is confronted with violence and absurdity.
A number of valuable artworks complement the profile of the Memorial, endowing it with a personality that is unique among history museums.
The artworks, donated by their creators, are striking for their symbolism of the acceptance of sacrifice.
A tapestry such as “Freedom, We Love You”, by Şerbana Dragoescu, the painting “Resurrection” by Cristian Paraschiv, the bronze sculpture “The Black Sea” by Ovidiu Maitec, which is dedicated to historian Gheorghe I. Brătianu, and, overwhelmingly, the two large sculptures by Camilian Demetrescu, titled “Homage to the Political Prisoner” (one of which is subtitled “Resurrection”), lend an atmosphere that is dramatic and uplifting.
To these can be added the large-scale statuary group “Cortege of the Sacrificial Victims” by Aurel Vlad, which has become one of the emblems of the Museum. The group is made up of eighteen human figures walking towards a wall that shuts off the horizon, just as communism barred the way to millions of human lives. First presented in wood in 1997, the work was cast in bronze the following year and is today sited in an inner courtyard of the former prison. It is a favourite spot where hundreds of thousands of visitors take photographs as they pass through the Memorial.
The space for prayer and recollection
In 1996, an architectural competition (in which more than fifty architects of all generations took part) was held to choose the design for the only new structure to be added to the old prison building, in one of the inner courtyards. The theme of the competition was a phrase that can be read in all memoirs of imprisonment: “I would not have resisted had I not believed in God”.
The winner of the competition was a very young architect, Radu Mihăilescu, and the name of the structure, a moving work of art, is “Space for Prayer and Recollection”, which combines ancient (the suggestion of a Greek tholos and a Christian catacomb) and modern.
Both the competition and the implementation of the winning architectural design were made possible with the financial support of Mr Mişu Cârciog, a Romanian diplomat before the war, who later became a businessman in Britain.
On the walls of the ramp that descends to the underground space have been engraved in smoky andesite almost eight thousand names of those who died in prisons, camps and deportation sites in Romania, to which have been added another 16,000 names inscribed on andesite plaques mounted on the walls of the inner courtyard and in the Paupers’ Cemetery.
The painstaking task of gathering the names of the dead required ten years of labour within the International Centre for Studies into Communism, and the figure is far from covering the true extent of communist repression. Most of the names were established by Mr Cicerone Ioniţoiu and the late Eugen Sahan, both historians by vocation and former political prisoners.
The cost of designing the Space for Prayer and Recollection was entirely met by the late Mişu Cârciog from London, who up until now remains the Memorial’s principal donor.