Romanian prison marks 23 as museum

SCRIPT:

From the end of the Second World War, Romania's Sighet prison was home to political prisoners who opposed Communist rule...

Twenty years ago - as the iron curtain came down - each cell was adapted to make up a museum known as 'The Memorial of the victims of Communism and of the Resistance' the first of its kind in Europe.

Teodor Stanca experienced the horrors of the political detention first hand

- Back in 1956 he headed up a student movement calling for more freedom - he was imprisoned, denied food, humiliated and forced to work.

To honour the memory of those who fought against totalitarianism, he visits the memorial centre every year.

SOUNDBITE 1 Teodor Stanca (man) Former political prisoner (Romanian, 18 secs):

'The feeling of having achieved our aim was very important for each of us. We asked the question, 'if they free us tomorrow, would we do the same thing that sent us to prison? Most of us said yes.''

Amidst the grim prison routine, poetry was one means of release.

With no paper or pens, verses were transmitted from one cell to the next using Morse code.

A poignant fact for poet Ana Blandiana, who founded the museum with her husband Romulus Rusan.

Her books were banned under the dictatorship of Ceausescu - Romania's last Communist dictator,

And she believes the country's current struggles to establish the rule of law partly lie in its dark past.

SOUNDBITE 2 Ana Blandiana (woman) Sighet Memorial co-founder (Romanian, 18 secs):

'Understanding what took place - the repression we felt for more than 50 years - you can understand the hangover from this period of totalitarianism in Romania, and why the state faces difficulties.'

In Romania, more than 600,000 people were imprisoned for political reasons between 1945 and 1989.

The extent of the suffering has only started to come to light a few years ago.

SOUNDBITE 3 Stéphane Courtois (man) Historian specializing in Communist era (French, 22 secs):

"In the West, we had a glorious memory of communism - the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front, anti-fascism, resistance to Nazism etc.. Here it was the exact opposite. People talk only of terror, torture, misery etc., so I was faced with a tragic memory instead of a glorious one. So we see that there are two different memories in Europe. "

The Sighet museum has welcomed a million visitors through its doors, and as it celebrates two decades in the making, it's a constant reminder that freedom needs eternal vigilence.

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SHOTLIST:

Sighetu Marmatiei, 13-14 July 2013. Source: AFPTV

VAR images of the Sighet Memorial

MS of man's silhouette walking through memorial centre

MS of the cell where Romanian politician Iuliu Maniu (1873 - 1953) died

VAR of visitors walking through the museum

VAR of Teodor Stanca walking in the corridors of the museum where the walls are covered with photos of former political prisoners

MS of Teodor Stanca in the cell dedicated to the 1956 Timisoara student movement

SOUNDBITE 1 Teodor Stanca

VAR images of a prison cell dedicated to poetry

VAR posters on the wall

VAR of Ana Blandiana walking through the corridors

SOUNDBITE 2 Ana Blandiana

VAR rooms, a visitor walks beside iron beds

VAR external shots including a statue called "The procession of the sacrificed" in the courtyard of the memorial centre

SOUNDBITE 3 Stéphane Curtois

VAR images of a place for meditation and prayer. On the walls are the names of the people who opposed

CU of a candle

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AFP text story:

Former jail keeps raw memory of Communist repression in Romania

Sighetu Marmatiei (Romania)

20 July 2013 19:29

AFP (Isabelle WESSELINGH)

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 one 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 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 centre, 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.

He was then sent to a labour camp to erect dikes along the Danube river.

"I think only the pyramides 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 in his mouth and saved him, he said.

The museum also dedicates several rooms to repression and resistance movements in Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

"In Romania, we discovered that more than 200 revolts of farmers took place against forced collectivisation but had remained unknown to the public," said Blandiana.

"Understanding what took place -- the repression we felt for about 50 years -- you can understand the hangover from this period of totalitarianism in Romania, and why the country still struggles to establish the rule of law and a solid democracy," she added.

The task has not been easy in a country where former Communists and informants still hold key positions in public life.

"This memorial is very important, not only because of the past but for the future," said former Czech political prisoner Petruska Suskova.

"The danger of totalitarian regimes has not disappeared."

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