Sighet is a town in the north-west of Romania, where, as the locals jokingly say, “the pin to hang the map goes.” It is part of Maramureș, a delightful region with wonderful landscapes and hospitable, talented people.
Despite the tranquil appearance of the town, which is recorded in documents dating back to the thirteenth century, it was here that one of the greatest mass crimes of the twentieth century took place.
In 1944, when the territory was occupied by Hungary, following the Vienna Diktat of August 1940, 38,000 local Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where most of them were exterminated.
Four years later, when Sighet became part of Romania once more, after the country had come under communist rule, imposed by the Red Army, the prison in the centre of the town was transformed into a site for the extermination of inter-war Romania’s political, religious, military and academic elite. The communist government and its armed wing, the Securitate, incarcerated more than two hundred political prisoners here. Most had been ministers in the period between 1919 and 1947. Around fifty were Roman Catholic and Uniat prelates. The frontier with the Soviet Union lay just two kilometres from the town, and the site had been chosen deliberately, because in the event of an anti-communist uprising, the prisoners could be moved to the Soviet Gulag by rail using Russian-gauge railway tracks, which stretched to within a short distance of the gaol.
In the extermination prison, around fifty-four of the two hundred prisoners perished (most were aged between sixty and ninety-three). The dead were not recorded, but buried secretly at night.
In 1955 some of the survivors were released, while others were transferred to different prisons and camps.
In 1975 the prison fell into disuse. It became a warehouse for seasonal goods.
In 1993, the prison, now an insalubrious ruin, was leased to civil society by the town hall.
Writers Ana Blandiana and Romulus Rusan drafted a plan to convert the building into a Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Anti-communist Resistance. Assembling a small team of young people, within twenty-two years they managed to bring the plan to fruition. The International Centre for Studies of Communism, which they also created, carried out thorough historical research, turning the prison into a museum, which was at first the only one of its kind in the former communist bloc. In time, the Memorial Museum gained the support of the Council of Europe, which as early as 1998 declared it one of the three most important places of European commemoration, alongside the Auschwitz Memorial and the Peace Memorial in France.
Today, the Memorial Museum is well known in Europe and America, and the current number of annual visitors is twice the population of Sighet.
The parent institution of the museum is the Civic Academy Foundation, based in Bucharest, at 132, Calea Moșilor, Sector 2, tel./fax: +40-21 312 58 54, tel.: +40-21 312 98 52, e-mail: email@example.com, site: www.memorialsighet.ro. The International Centre for Studies of Communism is based at the same address.
Sighet – prison and museum
Sighet Prison was built in 1897, in the same style and with the same functions as the prisons in Satu Mare, Oradea, Arad, Aiud, Gherla, and other Transylvanian cities, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It was a prison for common criminals, but it was also used to incarcerate political prisoners, especially during the First and Second World Wars: Polish revolutionaries, priests from the national churches, and deserters from the Hungarian Army (Romanians or other ethnicities).
In the period from 1948 to 1950, schoolchildren, students and peasants from the Maramureș resistance were imprisoned here, and between May 1950 and July 1955 it became a maximum-security facility, secretly housing two hundred former ministers, parliamentarians, journalists, officers, bishops, and priests.
In 1955, the sinister political prison reverted to being a gaol for common criminals and certain degree of comfort was introduced to the cells. Two decades later, after the decree of 1975 whereby sentences were to be served in the workplace, the prison was closed down, and the building was sporadically used as a warehouse for salt, vegetables, and tyres.
By 1993, when Ana Blandiana and Romulus Rusan presented the project for a museum to the Council of Europe, the building had become an insalubrious ruin. However, it was here that the world’s first memorial to the victims of communism was to be born.
The former prison is today the setting for a museum dedicated to what happened under communism in Romania and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Each of the 60 cells have been transformed into museum rooms, with its own theme or chronology of the political malformation that brought suffering and death throughout the twentieth century, both inside and outside prison walls.
History of the Communist Repression in 60 Rooms
Each of the 60 rooms of the museum (former prisons) displays in chronological order the themes and evolutions of 45 years of communist rule, not only from Romania, but from other former communist countries also.
Born 13 May 1931, in Lapusul Românesc. Forester Nicolae Pop from Lapusul Romanesc led the resistance group in the Tibles Mountains. Fleeing to the mountains in 1949, Nicolae Pop took his son Achim and daughter Aristina with him. On 1 March 1953, he was paralysed and left, at his own request, by the side of the road near the village of Poiana Botizii. He was taken by a local to the militia station, and then surrendered to the Securitate. Seriously ill, he died a short time afterwards. Achim Pop (born 14 March 1927, in Lapusul Romanesc) was arrested in 1953 and sentenced to twenty-two years hard labour. Aristina Pop was arrested in 1953 and sentenced to twenty years hard labour. The motive: she was a member of a counter-revolutionary organisation. She was declared “righteous among peoples”, together with her parents, because, in 1944, they hid Jewish children from persecution and deportation.
Born on the 16th of June 1929, Corbi, Argeş county, teacher, daughter of the priest Ion Constantinescu (member of anticommunist resistance group from Argeş region). She was arrested on the 21st of June 1958 and tortured at the Securitate’s headquarters from Piteşti, although she was seven months pregnant. She was accused of helping the anticommunist fighters from the region and of not denouncing them. She was sentenced to 12 years hard labour for “omitting to make a denunciation”. On the 18th of September 1958, in Văcăreşti prison, she gave birth to a baby girl named Libertatea (Freedom). After three months, her daughter was taken to an orphanage. Iuliana Preduţ was released in 1964, when her daughter was 6 years old.
(born 30 May 1929)
Professor at the Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj. Starting with 1982, Doina Cornea initiates protests against Ceauşescu dictatorship broadcasted at Radio Free Europe. She is removed from the University, arrested and interrogated several times, in the last years of Ceauşescu’s regime having forced domicile. She was sympathetic with all the movements against Ceauşescu, bringing together an important number of intelectuals, workers and young people. After 1989 she is part of all the actions concerning the rebuilding the Romanian civil society, being considered one of its important representatives.
Engineer at the Research and Design Institute for Systematization, Housing and Local Administration. Arrested on the 21st of September 1985, after the Securitate (The Romanian Political Police) discovered his journal with notes against the communist regime. He was accused of calumniating the Party leaders and the State authorities, of having relations with the “reactionary emigration” and with Radio “Free Europe”. He was also accused by illegal possession of foreign currency. From September until November 1985 he was interrogated in the arrest of the General Inspectorate of Militia in Bucharest. Because during the interrogations he was brutally beaten, on the 17th of November 1985, he is taken to Jilava Penitentiary’s hospital, where he died shortly after.
The Cortege of the Sacrificial Victims
A group of statues by sculptor Aurel Vlad (eighteen bronze figures moving towards a blank wall, directed by the imperious hand of a headless figure). In time it has become the symbol of the Memorial.
The Space for Recollection and Prayer, placed in the second courtyard
The chapel has an overhanging impluvium. Daylight shines through the cross cut into the centre of the cupola and is filtered by the veil of water from a basin with candles, casting the reflection of numerous crosses of light against the walls. Above the chapel are planted twelve apple trees.
Along the ramp and on the high courtyard wall are mounted smoky andesite plaques engraved with the names of some of the thousands who died in the prisons and camps or during deportation (thousands more are engraved in the Paupers’ Cemetery).
The space was conceived as a place for recollection and prayer for visitors after they have seen the horrors of the communist repression described in the museum. The chapel was the winner of an architectural competition whose theme was a sentence
that can be found in all the prison memoirs: “I would not have endured if I had not believed in God.”
The project is realised by architect Radu Mihăilescu.
The Paupers’ Cemetery
( at 2.5 kilometres toward Negrești-Oaș)
Those who died in prison starting with 1952 were buried secretly at night here on the banks of the Tisza (the frontier with the USSR). Since the graves cannot be identified, a landscape project has been conceived, in which the cartographic outline of Romania is recreated using fir trees, and within this map, at the spot corresponding to the position of Sighet, a cenotaph has been built, dominated by a massive Byzantine-style cross. Within the cenotaph there are urns, bearing the Romanian folk motif of the ‘bird of the soul’, in which people from all over the country came to cast handfuls of earth from the places of execution, mass graves,
and tombs of the victims. To the east, outside the symbolic borders created by the fir trees, there are plaques with the names of those who died after being deported from Romania to the Donbas and Siberia.
In the year 2012, after the biblical model of the Ladder of Life, at the entrance to the Paupers’ Cemetery a monumental cross was erected, capped by a belfry and small platform from which the ensemble may be viewed (designed by architect Ştefan Radocea).
On the same occasion, an information centre was also built, where visitors can receive directions about how to find their way around the cemetery.
The Living Museum
The creation of the Sighet Memorial was not an end in itself, but rather a means: a means to counteract the brainwashing operation carried out in the past, whose first result was to destroy memory, without which society is turned into a soft, boneless, easily manipulated mass.
The Sighet Memorial Summer School is a place where young people learn the memory that neither their own schools nor their parents have been able to pass down to them. The Summer School courses are aimed at fostering memory, and the pupils read documents, study visual materials, and listen to analyses and eyewitness accounts relating to the monstrous mechanisms whereby history functioned in the second half of the twentieth century, based on class hatred and the repression of fundamental human rights.
Thanks to the Summer School, the Memorial becomes a living museum, a school and institution of memory, passing down, from one generation of students to the next, truths in the absence of which progress would be impossible. Thanks to the Summer School, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and the Resistance moves beyond the walls of the prison in Sighet and dwells in the minds of the thousands of young people who come here to understand history in order to gain an understanding of themselves.
The answer to the question of whether memory can be relearned is a resounding yes, not only as a form of optimism, but also as the only possible way we can salvage our past.
Memory as a Form of Justice
(The Sighet Memorial exhibition space in Bucharest)
Since 9 May 2013, the Sighet Memorial has had an “ambassador” in Bucharest, namely the “Memory as a Form of Justice” permanent exhibition space at no. 66, Jean Louis Calderon Street, where a small sample of the Sighet Memorial is presented for the benefit of visitors to and residents of the capital.
Whereas the Sighet Memorial was created over two decades, the idea for the Exhibition Space came into being two years ago, in the context of the intense debate about the need for a museum of communism in Romania. Many commentators did not know or did not wish to know that such a museum already exists, in Sighet.
And since we had recently presented the summary of Sighet to the European Parliament in Brussels, in October 2011, we decided to give the exhibition a permanent home in Romania’s capital, in order to spare at least the elderly from making the exhausting 650 kilometre journey to Sighet, and at the same time in order to give schoolchildren, students and foreign tourists the opportunity to see
something more than just the House of the People, which they are always shown as a sample of Romanian communism.
Spending its last financial resources, Civic Academy Foundation bought a traditional Bucharest town house near the Icoanei Garden and Maria Rosetti Street. Renovation of the building was completed in 2012 and the Brussels exhibition was installed inside. In the courtyard a number of characteristic images of Sighet were put on display. On 9 May (a day chosen for its symbolic importance, being Europe Day) the small museum was opened, in the presence of an emblematic public: former political prisoners and deportees, writers, artists, researchers, physicians, and journalists from the main European and American press agencies.
The exhibition is open daily (from Monday to Sunday) between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and entrance is free of charge. The steady stream of visitors to the museum demonstrates its necessity and usefulness.
Role — Exhibition realized by the International Centre for Studies about Communism part of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Anticommunist Resistance. Photo credits: Dinu Lazar, Florin Esanu, Catalin Ovreiu and the Photo Archive of the Sighet Memorial. Enghlish translation: Alistair Ian Blyth