The Jail

Lowering their voices seemed natural. There were a lot of subjects that required lowering the voice: God, Christmas, Santa Claus (whose official name was Icy Claus in an approximate translation), Nixon, Kennedy, France, the Russians, political jokes, grammatical errors that our beloved President was making…It wasn’t a whisper, more like when you want to say something to your friend in a crowded room and the others not (necessarily) hear. I overheard many such stories without listening intentively . It was as if they couldn’t decide if telling me would hurt us or not. Lowering their voices signaled more that it was a secret, rather than I wasn’t meant to know it. That’s how I heard that my other grandfather was in prison. The two families weren’t friends and the unhappy marriage of their children didn’t help to make them come close at all. So only seldom I visited my paternal grandparents and even less often I saw them coming to visit. I cannot remember their faces. For me at 3-5 years that my grandfather was in prison didn’t mean much at the time. However being in prison seemed to be worrying.

It took me over forty years to ask my father what happened. Giutzu, my paternal grandfather was a miller in a Transylvanian village not far from the one I spent my first childhood in. He didn’t lead an extraordinary life. Like many other villagers he had a wife, plenty of children, and 3 primary grades (in Hungarian, there were no Romanian schools in his childhood). He discovered a different sense of religion when he was around 30 and converted to the Baptist church. In that area (Arad) the Baptist church started very early, around 1890 and is still a vivid community today. In his youth he got to be elected a mayor a few times so he had a certain popularity. Baptist religion, popularity, and a mill were probably some of the best reasons to get in jail during those years.

One of his sons converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses cult. Around 1955 both this son and his father in law were imprisoned for “disseminating obscurantist ideas” . The young one for eight years, the old one eighteen. While they were in jail Giutzu decided to take their thresher and deposit it in his barn. On top of the thresher he deposited his own hay. Some neighbor accused him he is hiding the thresher from the “people”. He was judged, declared “an enemy of the people” and condemned to a year in prison. They managed to get him out a little earlier since he was 70 and with 60% war invalidity since the World War I. However he never told them what happened to him in jail and, as my father put it, he lost all life appetite.

In Bucharest our house was full of my grandparents friends. The day before any holyday was a hard one for my grandmother who spent hours cooking since she knew that the morrow, announced or not, friends will drop by. One of them was Camil. He worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the War and afterwards has been jailed for 15 years as people’s enemy. Some years after he was freed they put him again in jail for a year or two because, in the privacy of his home, he annotated a contemporary history book denouncing some of it as lies. He was a slender tall figure, pretty bald and with prominent ears. He didn’t come only for holydays, most of the time he would just pop by after dinner for a chat.

After his second jail term, Camil was obliged to present himself weekly to his local police station. A year or two of coming there made his face look familiar to the agents. Anyway the regular police didn’t precisely know what he was coming for and a lot of both Securitate and police were using civilian clothes. At some point a group of young officers sees him leaving the building and, confused, they saluted saying S’trăiți (May you long live, the Romanian traditional military salute, similar to Sir!). Amused Camil turned his head and answered „Să trăiți și voi, băieți!” (May you also long live, boys). His laugh still rings in my ears.

My grandma usually received him in the bedroom, the only presentable room in the apartment and whey would talk for hours. At that time of the day I would read my beloved books at the end of her bed half listening to their chit chat. Something attracted my attention that particular night. I realized they were talking something different. And as he was not lowering his voice like the others it was easy to follow every word. He was casually describing the torture. How they beat him, how they put his head in the toilet bowl and tried to force him eat the feces. “I refused to do that”, he smiled as if amused. “then they found something else. They hanged me by the feet from the ceiling and rotated me. That’s what broke me and I agreed to sign what they were asking me to do. But in court I shouted the signature was obtained under torture and refused to acknowledge it”.

I was frozen. This wasn’t “Quo Vadis” anymore, nor some violent Indian movie. There was a real person talking about himself with an eerie confidence and calm.

Two years later after my grandmother passed away my mom decided to organize a large commemoration service and invite all the friends of the family. Among them my old English tutor and Camil. The introductions went like this:

– Mrs. Demel, Nora’s English teacher.

– Nice to meet you, Mrs. Demel, Camil Demetrescu, ex-con.

There wasn’t a first time of talking about my grandma’s sister, Lucretzia. I was born with her being present all around me. Everything my family did, every decision regarding even my education was reported to her and had to have her blessing. We all knew she has been imprisoned and later bought from the prison by her immigrated sons. By marriage she became the richest person in the family and that’s how it was her who paid for my mother’s studies raising her from 14 years old to the end of her faculty years. Her story is one that was directed to me, not overheard. She was about 70 when the authorities finally found a reason to arrest her. There were some attempts before but always failed. It’s funny to see how the communist state tried very hard to construct an appearance of lawfulness to all convictions.

This time she was arrested for her memories. Not the text per se, she wrote these memories starting with 1918 and ending before the war. But the manuscript started with a letter that dedicated the memories to her three sons. “My dearest” her letter began “today, when we are under the Russian occupation…” the rest didn’t matter anymore. She was declared an “enemy of the Soviets and of the people”, dissipating “subversive ideas”, and sent to jail.

They were around thirty women in that cell. In the middle they kept a vat as toilet for everyone. If anyone angered some guard they would close their only window. After some 30 minutes the oxygen in the crowded room went thin and the suffocating sensation made the inmates to panic. Only after they went crazy, shouting, yelling and hurling themselves against the door, the guards would reopen the window. Months after she got out of prison, my mother added, her skin was still smelling like feces.

During the trial mom tried to reach her, to visit her in prison or at least find out if she was still alive. She was walking daily to the main city hall prison asking about her. In the Securitate file we recovered after the revolution I found 4 or five official requests made by my grandmother asking the authorities to communicate if her sister was still alive. At some point a police guard grabbed her by her arm and lowering his voice told her: Go home, missy, I have a daughter your age. It won’t be nice if you also get arrested. Go home and forget about your aunt. Lucretiawas interrogated day and night during the months before the trial. She had mentioned most of the fascist means of intimidation that we usually see now only in the old movies: use of violence, use of strong light, repeating the same question ad nauseam, using 4-5 commissars so that the interrogated person is not allowed to sleep, etc. The most recurring question had been “ Who are your accomplices” Certainly she had no “accomplice” in writing her memoirs, but the question referred to something else, denouncing people who were against the Russians or against the communist rule. After some time she knew she will give in if she continues to resist and started to supply them with names, many names, plenty of names. They needed “accomplices”? Here, have some! They looked happy and left her alone a short while. When they called her back again the prosecutor was red with anger. He slapped his palm on the table overturning coffee mugs and ashtrays. All her names could had been easily found in the cemetery. They were all, no exception, dead. And they couldn’t take revenge anymore, the trial term was at hand and they had to hand her over to the final prison. Mom seemed very proud recounting all these, and in her tone I could faintly hear her aunt’s laughter.

Lucretzia had met in prison an illiterate peasant woman, doing time in the same crowded cell with her. “Why would you be in jail, of all people” Lucretzia wondered – as many people her age I guess she was still thinking communism is an ideology meant to help the poor– “See”, the woman said, ”for a very long time it didn’t rain at all. And I went to our priest and asked him for a mass so that the rain comes”. She was convicted for “spreading obscurantist ideas”.