To this end the students were obliged to crush under-foot everything they held most sacred – God, family, friends, love, wife, colleagues, memories, ideology – everything which bound them to the past, anything that might give them inner support while in prison. (Dumitru Bacu, The Anti-Humans)
The story of Communism in Romania may not be a unique story. The familiar elements all present their ugly heads. As the Bolsheviks came to power the lives of the indigenous population worsened precipitously — the ideology of the enlightened government against the backward people. Foreigners became policy makers. Peasants starved. Prisons swelled. Slave labor killed hundreds of thousands. And lastly, the indigenous intellectual class was suppressed. What is unique about what happened in Romania is how the intellectual class was suppressed. Rather than simple suppression through imprisonment and discouraging political activity, the intellectual class in Romania was subjected to sadistic experimentation in what has been dubbed “re-education experiments.”
The intellectual class targeted for re-education was a specific group of people. Rather than target older academics or those of influence, the Communist regime targeted university students for their experiments. These students were chosen for a variety of reasons. To become a student in a Romanian University was a difficult task. For example, to be a student, an individual was expected to know French and German as well as either Latin and Greek or English and Italian. This demanding language requirement as well as other academic requirements brought a high degree of prestige to the very word student. The prestige of being a student could not be bought either. The wealthy who wanted to send their children to university had to send their children to another country if they did not meet the requirements. The result was that a large portion of the student body came from peasant backgrounds.
The final, and perhaps most important reason for targeting students, was their ardent patriotism. Students in Romania were patriotic for a number of reasons. Just as our American rural class is disproportionally conservative, the Romanian students who mostly came from an agrarian background were also a highly conservative group. Furthermore an influential man on the student body was Corneliu Z. Codreanu. He established the Legion of Michael the Archangel (the Iron Guard or simply the Legionary Movement) in 1927. The organization’s principles were love of country, a code of honor and moral intransigence, the reciprocal loyalty of knighthood, rigorous subordination of body to spirit, and an absolute faith in Christ. These high-minded ideals attracted students and other intellectuals to the movement. Even 30 years after Codreanu’s murder by Bolsheviks in 1938 he had faithful followers, many being students who were still part of the nationalist Legionary Movement.
The most intense and psychologically damaging experiments were done at Pitesti Prison between 1949 and 1951. The primary victims were students, the majority of whom had previously been a part of the Legionary movement. The students were often arrested for being involved in “anti-Communist activities” which could mean essentially anything that the Communists found politically expedient. Often times being part of the Legionary Movement was reason enough to arrest a student but in other instances, telling an anti-Communist joke could be grounds for arrest. Regardless of how or why they were arrested, the true horrors of Communism made themselves apparent inside the walls of Pitesti.
When no difference is recognized between a piece of iron subjected to shaping and a man subjected to psychological experimentation, the same working methods may be applied both to iron and to man and the same desired result will be obtained. By virtue of such reasoning, stripped of all human sentiment, it was possible to have toward man the same attitude the sculptor has toward a piece of marble. He carves away to produce from amorphous rock a model existing in his imagination. It does not matter if he is not successful — there is plenty of marble; and if the treatment applied to man is also unsuccessful, again it does not matter — of men there are more than enough.
Dumitru Bacu, author of The Anti-Humans: Student Reeducation in Romanian Prisons, was first arrested in 1949 for holding opinions inimical to Bolshevism. He had been part of an anti-Communist organization during WWII when he was a university student at Bucharest. Though he was a student Bacu was not put through experimentation, but he did take it upon himself to learn what he could about the experimentation during his 11-year sentence.
Bacu’s first suspicions that something disturbing was taking place inside Romanian prisons were in 1951. Then, in 1952 he met a student whom he knew from the Polytechnical School in Bucharest. It was from him that he first heard of “unmaskings.” He was told that those who were tortured — absolutely all — had become informers, himself included. His friend told him that students were “robbed of their manly nature and became simple robots in the hands of political officers.”
“Who did the torturing?”
“The re-educated ones.”
“Who were these ‘re-educated’ ones?”
“Other students who preceded us in re-education’, in ‘unmasking’ as it is called.”
After this strange encounter Bacu would see many more former students who by all traits of personality seemed like different people. Others, who knew the students as well, told Bacu how students were not to be trusted for they were the most vicious among the prisoners. They would be the first to increase work quotas on fellow prisoners as well as enact punishments, physical or otherwise. They were not to be trusted in any capacity.
Bacu describes the process of unmasking as a scientific one. The process, he believes, was not enacted due to pure hatred. It was done in order to see if man could be reshaped to hold different ideals and beliefs — a fundamental tenet of Marxism. The use of a student rather an average person for these experiments was because the average person would “crack” so to speak much easier and not prove anything. As mentioned earlier, students were nationalists as well as religious. If the Bolsheviks could reshape the beliefs of those who were former (or currently) Legionnaires, then they could theoretically reshape the beliefs of any human. As a result, it was of utmost importance that the most patriotic as well as religious students were “recruited” for the experiments to create a new atheistic man devoted to communism.
To destroy a man’s soul in order to recreate him, the destroyers would try to crush everything that the victim found sacred. The first step in this long process was to destroy his friendships and ultimately his faith in others. As students arrived at Pitesti, they were placed in cells with re-educated students. Their ignorance of the events inside Pitesti prevented them from treating the re-educated with suspicion for they knew nothing of their re-education and had no reason to treat them distrustfully. For the next two or three weeks the re-educated students would try to start discussions where they criticized the Communist regime in order to elicit compromising statements from the unsuspecting newcomers. These statements would be used against them during their own re-education. In addition, the bond between cellmates was meant to feel genuine in order to make the next stage of re-education more unbearable.
After a few weeks of collecting damning evidence and building trust among their friends, the students as well as the re-educated were brought into a larger cell for a “meeting.” A man by the name of Turcanu, a former Legionnaire, would give a speech about the importance of being re-educated in the values of communism. The speech, which was often bewildering to students, seemed absurd and sometimes produced scoffing. Though when it was over, the re-educated grabbed nearby bludgeons (or even just used their fists) to begin a several hour-long beating of the unsuspecting students. As one student remembers:
When Turcanu ended his speech, I thought he was crazy. And we all looked at one another in astonishment. But only a few moments elapsed. He raised his cap. That very instant, a friend, probably the best friend I had before we were arrested and a man in whom I had blind faith, struck me full in my face with his fist, delivering so furious a blow that I was dazed. I looked at him in utter terror. My hands hung down, suddenly powerless. I was not capable of saying one word; I was simply unable to ask him why. He continued to strike me with the same desperation. I could not muster even the slightest resistance. At first I thought this was a nightmare or that all our minds had been suddenly darkened by a collective madness. Finally I tried to ask him something; I do not know anymore what it was. His reply was a rain of blows with his fists accompanied by facial expressions so hideous that they seemed to hurt me even more than the pummeling. It was only then that I somehow collected my wits and tried to defend myself. But from behind, another student, who had been brought into my cell at the same time as my friend some two weeks before, attacked me. This fellow was armed with a cudgel. I could not imagine where he had obtained it! I could not get out of the way anymore. I started to strike in desperation, at random, wherever I could. I tried to open a path towards the wall to protect my back, but someone with a cudgel landed a powerful blow on my left arm. Then another cudgel descended on my head. My body trembled. Other blows followed; they rained upon me. In the cell a frightening brawl was taking place. Groans, the thuds of cudgels, curses were blended into a chaotic uproar.
This initiatory phase began the students’ “re-education.” From there, often with broken ribs and disfigured faces, the students were taken to the cells they’d occupy for the next few months of re-education. From that beating on, their lives would turn into a living hell.
Their mornings started a 5 a.m. The “Catholics” (those who were considered particularly fanatic) had to straighten out the communal cell and scrub the floors. The floor scrubbing had to be done on their knees on a stone floor with someone who was re-educated riding them piggyback.
Breakfast was served after roll call. Those undergoing re-education had to eat “hog-like.” They had to be on all fours in order to eat and were prohibited from using their hands. Their dish then had to be cleaned by licking. At noon, the same type of hog eating was performed. The first part of the meal served was bread. In that instance, because using hands was not allowed, the students had to lick whatever crumbs fell on the floor. The next part of their meal was a hot soup. This soup had to be consumed in a short amount of time. The result was that students either sucked up their meal burning their lips and mouths in the process, or they simply did not eat (and elicited a beating).
The lavatory available to the prisoners was a wooden urine bucket inside the cell. For bowel movements, the prisoners were permitted twice a day to use a common toilet in the hall of their section of the prison. The gamut of torment and humiliation was often increased when using the toilets. The amount of time allowed to use the toilet was a less than minute. Should they not finish in that short time they would be pulled out by the collar and beaten for “sabotaged cleanliness.” In some instances when this would happen multiple times, the students would resort to using the bucket used for urination for defecation.
A Romanian rule in prison was that the lights must be on all night. This was relatively minor compared to the way in which they must sleep. A student undergoing re-education was only allowed to sleep on his back with his hands on his chest. Someone who had already been re-educated had to watch him as he slept. Should he deviate from that position, he would be struck with a bludgeon on the ankle-bone. The watcher was obliged to strike a hard blow. This was because he feared that if he showed pity, it would eventually be made known and he would have to undergo the whole re-education process again. The blow to the ankle usually caused either enough pain or fear to the student to prevent him from going back to sleep (for if he slept and moved again, he would receive another blow). The result was that a student would lie awake for hours as the time crawled by waiting for morning time.
After some time of living like this, the students were eventually asked the question, “are you ready for your unmasking?” This was the final stage of re-education and where the true horrors of Pitesti took place. The response was sometimes, “I have nothing to unmask.” Or simply to get it over with, they would agree to go through with the process. This was when the student prisoners were finally put through the procedure for the total disintegration of their souls.
The idea behind “unmasking” was to completely destroy whatever morality of the soul was left. After a student’s most preciously held beliefs had been thoroughly mocked and trampled, then the Communists felt that the student could be a trustworthy person. To annihilate the soul in it’s entirety, many different beliefs must be attacked constantly in crude and often bizarre ways.
Students were often asked about their parents. The only way to avoid a beating was to make up long stories about how their own parents were actually broken people. The student and the re-educated interrogator both knew the story was a lie, but the idea was that the student would be forced to say these obviously false things in order to foster a kind of guilt in himself. For instance, one student had to go on about how his father slept at a married woman’s house for some time. Then he “divulged” how his mother then found a close associate to sleep with. This story that the student was forced to tell then got progressively stranger as it went on. The student eventually “admitted” to orgies at his house that involved his sister, parents, and various people invited over to their house. The final claim was that they all participated and “exchanged roles intermixing promiscuously in the dark.”
If bringing about such shame between family members wasn’t enough, the re-educators were constantly attacking their religion. It wasn’t enough to force a student not to pray anymore. The students (a large majority of whom were Christian) were forced to ridicule their religion in bizarre ways. Students were sometimes forced to put on mock plays where they re-enacted scenes from the Bible. A student playing Jesus was forced to wear a soap necklace carved in the shape of a penis. He was then forced to walk around the room while getting beaten by others. Then the other students were finally expected to kiss the carving and drop to their knees while praying to the male organ. As one student relates:
There was this horrible incident. We had a student of divinity among us, and they had him deliver the mass on the chibla … you know that is a barrel we used for a toilet. They wouldn’t allow us to go to a proper toilet. So they placed him on the chibla and they used a bar of soap to carve a penis instead of the cross. And they made us take turns in kissing that soap penis while the student went through the religious service blessing us and so on…. That’s the kind of things they would do. Just to mock and humiliate us. And they made us commune on urine and feces. All of us. With a teaspoon. We had done it before, it wasn’t anything new, but it was a terrible to know what they wanted it to mean.
The students were also made to repeat and agree with rumors about their local clergy. They had to hear how their local priest ran off with a nun, getting her pregnant. The nun would then supposedly have an abortion and drown the baby in a lake. If they did not repeat these claims with with exuberance, beatings were expected.
Besides mocking a student’s religion, the best way to completely rid a student of all self-respect and desire to resist any command was to force them to perform disgusting acts. To start with a particularly harrowing event — for some torture was unique to some students — a student called M.M. by Bacu was said to have been particularly resistant to the unmasking process. In response to his resistance he was forced to lie down in the middle of the room. Other students undergoing the unmasking process were then directed to lie down on him. After 17 students were directed to lie on top of him, “the muscles of his abdomen gave way and everything that had been forbidden to do over the toilet he did there in the cell.”
Under the pretext that he had broken rules and dirtied the room, and that no washing of clothes is permitted outside a scheduled time, the poor student was ordered to clean his underwear by mouth. His refusal to submit to this command infuriated the committee chief so much that he grabbed a chunk of wood and crushed the student’s fingers beneath it, then trampled the student underfoot till he became unconscious. He then had water brought to restore consciousness — water which had been refused earlier for cleanliness. The student’s head was then knocked against floor and wall and he was dragged around the room by his feet until blood flowed out of his mouth freely.
Forcing the students to eat feces was not uncommon:
The student A. O. of the Faculty of Theology, one of the most “fanatical” mystics in the cells of Pitesti, was forced to move his bowels into his mess-pan, then to receive his meal without being permitted to wash it. What he had to suffer until his resistance and abhorrence broke in him, is difficult to describe. But in the end he had to yield and to eat everything in the dish.
The final methods of punishment that Bacu is silent about involved sexual torture. Students were forced to put each other’s genitals in their mouths. They had to kiss each other’s bottoms. They were forced to urinate in each other’s mouths. If they were thirsty, they were directed to the urine bucket (graphically depicted at The Pitesti Experience: mtholyoke.edu). If they lost control of their bowels during a beating, they were forced to consume it. By the end of it all, no student had a shred of self-respect left.
The horror of this process produced such a scar on their psyche that they would perform anything asked of them in order to avoid undergoing a second unmasking. Nevertheless, some unfortunate students were forced to go through a second unmasking. Every student — with exception of those who managed to commit suicide — would become the re-educators in this experiment. The fear of going through the experiment again was too great to not turn every patriotic Christian student into a monster. For once a student was finally re-educated, he became a re-educator.
The experiment to remold any man into a Communist only succeeded in showing that anyone can be broken down to behave like a monster. As noted by gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, it was “the most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”