In the decade between 1945 and 1955, around 200 people were incarcerated at the prison of Sighetu Marmației. Bishops, priests, historians, artists, military men, professors, intellectuals, anyone who 'threatened' the stronghold of the totalitarian communist system of Romania. Most inmates were over the age of 60 and were never even tried for a specific crime. Today, converted into the Sighet Memorial Museum, it holds more men and women than it ever has before - thousands of Romanians and millions of international victims of communism in the 20th century. The museum is the work of the International Center for Studies Into Communism who tirelessly unearth and enlighten as much about this period of history as possible.
There are signs all across the region of Maramures advertising the museum. "Have You Visited?" it asks above a photo of these statues, 'the convey of martyrs' - 18 naked men and women in varying displays of agony. Their view of the horizon has been blocked by a wall, a symbol of communism's effect on the human spirit. The photo makes the poster's question seem threatening. "Why haven't you visited yet?" While it may not be the best marketing strategy, it is in line with the museum's mission to stress the importance of remembrance. To educate young people and re-educate older ones "who for half of a century have been misled with false history."
It is a beautifully curated museum. You can tell, instantly, that there is a passionate group of researchers behind the project. Upon entering, we were handed an information packet to bring around with us. This was not simply a translation of the exhibits' text, it was a history, a mission statement and a story. Honestly, it was difficult to remember to look up and around myself, my nose buried in the engrossing material. How they dealt with the space was equally impactful - keeping a few cells exactly as they looked during the worst years of the prison. Because so many of the cells were plastered with research, timelines, photos, records, you really felt the isolation of these sparse rooms. The truth and the story inherent in this space didn't need to be spelled out.
The prison was once a veritable filing cabinet of human lives. Earmarked in society, they were sorted and shuffled and slammed closed behind metal doors. Inside the cells, these lives jumped out from the walls. But once you were back in the hallways, it was like a closed cabinet once more. With fencing draped across almost every empty space and natural light shining in like a sick tease, you thought only of the prison itself. Its coldness. Even a large group of young school children couldn't lighten up the atmosphere - braided pigtails, pink sweatsuits and all.
The amount of information, evidence and personal items in the museum was staggering. Many of the rooms reminded me of the hours my brother spent in front of the microfilm machine in our public library. He was working on a 7th grade term paper about the Holocaust. I looked over his shoulder. Photos, clippings, records, files. Most of the data-heavy rooms would include something sensory as well. Faint tapping could be heard in the cell dedicated to prison poetry, which was shared cell to cell through Morse code. A room about the redistribution and confiscation of family-owned farms had a large box of brilliantly green sod at its center and this cell - focused on work camps - displayed one of the many fruits of the prisoners' labor, a motorcycle.
It's sort of surprising to think that the full truth of this period in Romania's history wouldn't be more widely known and accepted by this points. This isn't Albania, where the dictator whose thumb the country was under for decades was also instrumental in cutting them loose from Nazi Germany, and then Soviet Russia. Neither is it Serbia, where a number of people we spoke to fondly remembered certain elements of Tito's regime. If you can rate such things, Nicolae Ceauşescu's rule over Romania is considered one of the most oppressive and ruthless of the Eastern Bloc. The term "most Stalinist" is thrown around - and there's no way that adjective could
mean anything good. And, yet, this sort of memorial is necessary. There's a reason Ceauşescu cherry-picked his 'historians' and threw the rest in this prison. There's a reason it's still difficult to get the people who were there to feel safe speaking freely.
The International Center for Studies into Communism has, in a little under a decade, recorded over 5,000 hours of eye-witness accounts, compiled tens of thousands of documents and published books that add up to almost 40,000 pages. Not to mention creating this wonderful museum. They say that it is all to "resuscitate the collective memory" and to rob the communists of one of their greatest victories, blinding and brainwashing whole nations. The information packet we were given at the museum ended with this proclamation:
“Can memory be relearned?” the answer of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Resistance in Romania is a resounding “Yes”.