The Râmnicu Sărat Prison, one of the most feared dungeons of Romania, ruined the health and lives of the political leaders from the interwar period, culminating with the extermination regime during the communist era.
Throughout its operation as a penitentiary, Râmnicu Sărat sheltered both common law convicts and political convicts. The first political convicts brought to Râmnicu Sărat were members of the Legionnaire Movement led by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, sent for detention during the dictatorship of Charles II. Documents also mention the presence of members of the Communist Movement in the penitentiary from Râmnicu Sărat, among whom Ana Pauker and Liuba Chishinevschi.
Concurrently with the settlement of communism, the history of the penitentiary from ? Buzău was experiencing a new stage. Thus, the most famous representatives of the historical political parties, of varied religious cults, as well as other so-called “class enemies”, “bandits” and “counterrevolutionaries” are sent to Râmnicu Sărat.
As of 1955, the prison sheltered a large part of the elite of the Peasant Party, who had survived in other prisons, among whom we find names such as Ion Mihalache, Ilie Lazăr, Victor Rădulescu Pogoneanu, Nicolae Adamescu, Victor Anca, Corneliu Coposu, Mihai Balica, Jenică Arnăutu, Ioan Barbuş, Ion Ovidiu Borcea, Mălin Boşca, Alexandru Bratu, Ion Diaconescu, Constantin Hagea, Ion Puiu, Cornel Velţeanu, Augustin Vişa, Ion Lugoşianu and others. Here were also brought Alexandru Todea (united Romanian episcope), Waltner Iosif (catholic priest) and Mihai Godo (Jesuit priest). Another representative figure appearing among the convicts from Râmnicu Sărat was the social-democrat leader, Constantin Titel-Petrescu. A special case is such of Gheorghe (Ginel) Plăcinţeanu who was arrested at the direct order of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.
Another group of convicts was such of the representatives of the former Antonescu government convicted for war crimes, among whom we remind of Constantin Pantazi, Alexandru Constant, Ion Petrovici and Petre Tomescu, Gheorghe Jienescu, Aurel Dobrescu, Nicolae Dragomir or Constantin Horobeţ.
Besides the itemized ones, communist leaders falling in disgrace were also brought to Râmnicu Sărat, such as Vasile Luca and his secretary, Alexandru Iacob.
The prison from ? Râmnicu Sărat was officially shut-down in April 1963. Survivors were sent to mandatory domicile, remaining also within the next period under the careful supervision of the “Securitate” Service, being called almost on a daily basis for statements and investigations. The few survivors told about the tough regime applied here and offered significant information about the confinement endured in Râmnicu Sărat. After 1963, the prison was used as a warehouse. In 2007, the prison was transferred from the management of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage into the management of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes from (subsequently IICCMER) in view of organizing a Memorial to the Victims of Communism.
Documents, as well as testimonies of those who have passed through the penitentiary from Râmnicu Sărat, make this known as one of the toughest within the detention space from Romania. Râmnicu Sărat remained in the memory of the victims as the “prison of silence” due to the solitary confinement regime applied by the management of the penitentiary.
Râmnicu Sărat as a Communist Penitentiary
The scope of penitentiaries and labor colonies from the communist period is limited to destroying the interwar political class, eliminating the intellectual elite, the opponents from among peasants, workers and clergy. In order to impose and “defend” the new regime of “folk democracy” were set up specific repression bodies: the “Securitatea” Service and the Militia.
On 6 March 1949, the General Division of Penitentiaries was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs, being removed from the suborder of Justice, marking thereby the politicizing and militarization of prisons. The new secret regulation regarding political prisoners adopted in September 1948, enabled the transit to the slow physical and psychical extermination regime by the complete isolation from families and society, by famishment and inhuman living conditions and by the absence of medical care.
From an institution of serving sentences and correcting perpetrators, prison became in communist Romania the place where all those opposing the regime were killed, tortured, “reeducated”. Prison supervisors were recruited from among party members, replaced the old directors and were backed up by political officers, who played the first part in applying terror. In their turn, the new wardens indoctrinated by the party, considered political convicts far more dangerous than common law criminals.
Starting as of 1948, inspectors from the General Division of Penitentiaries were assigned the task of identifying prisons that could ensure optimal conditions to incarcerate political convicts. Thus, the management was establishing the “new conduct norms towards convicts, differentiating between common law and political ones, who were transferred to complete solitary confinement.” The director of the prison from Râmnicu Sărat was informed by an official letter that for those “instigators, conspirators, saboteurs, permanent enemies of the proletariat, which they exploited and abused till drawing blood and who benefit nowadays of a privileged regime” should be implemented a special regime, so that they should no longer be able to leave the “cells, rooms and yards, except by order” and only to benefit of medical care or to be brought in front of courts of law. It was specified in the end that no “tolerance, no kind of human weakness should be allowed in the future for such perpetrators, who during their reign did nothing else than spread suffering among the working people”.
The daily schedule started at 5 o’clock and ended at 22 o’clock. Throughout this interval it was forbidden to the convict to lie on bed, being compelled to stand or sit on the chair from the cell with the face towards the eye-slit, so as to enable his supervision by the warden. He was interdicted to go near the window, communicate with other convicts or make any noise that could be heard outside the cell door. When he was visited by the prison supervisor, the physician or prosecutor, the convict was compelled to turn his face towards the wall and only if one of these spoke to him, he could turn around to answer the question. No person entered the convict’s cell alone. There were always two persons supervising each other, so as not to enable the communication with the convict or the remittal of messages. For the breach of the disciplinary regime was applied the punishment with solitary confinement. The mattress was removed from the cell and the convict was compelled to sleep on the frame of the bed. The food ration was also reduced to half. For serious misbehavior, they resorted to beating up and hitting applied especially by the supervisor of the prison, Vişinescu. Once or twice a week, the convict was taken out for a walk that lasted approximately 20 minutes. Throughout this period, the convict was compelled to walk with bent head, hands to his back and as far as possible from the cell windows, so as not to be seen by the other convicts and not to get in touch with them.
Starting in the summer of the year 1955, the prison from Râmnicu Sărat took over the extermination attributions of Sighet, concurrently with the change of the latter into a common law penitentiary. According to the testimonies of survivors, confinement, cold and torture were the usual methods used by the management, destined to result in the slow extermination of those imprisoned here.
The alimentary regime comprising “pearl barley soup, cabbage, potatoes and sometimes beans, rotated in an arbitrary order” was not exceeding 500-600 calories a day, fully contributing to the deterioration of the convicts’ health condition until dystrophy.
The unbearable cold also represented one of the constant elements of this extermination regime. According to the testimony of Ovidiu Borcea, beds were put near windows with blinds through which snow penetrated in winter, so that convicts compelled to sleep with the head at the window and the face to the door, woke up in the morning covered by snow. Although a commission from the General Division of Penitentiaries assessed the actual situation, nothing was done to ameliorate this.
Although the regime from the penitentiary was one of complete solitary confinement, the 35 cells being destined to an equal number of convicts, to whom it was interdicted during the time interval 5-22 to lie on the bed, the management applied “confinement” punishments for the smallest of “disciplinary deflections”. Thus, in comparison to other places of detention that did not have a mono-cell regime, “the confinement” in Râmnicu Sărat meant the removal of the mattress from the cell and the reduction of the food to half: “Two days only soup without polenta and one day polenta with no soup”. In spite of his advanced age, Ion Mihalache proved to be one of the fiercest contesters of the detention regime and due to this he was subject between 1957 and 1961 to an impressive number of 80 days of “confinement”.
Besides all “auxiliary” means of coercion, the prison staff led by director Vişinescu has not hesitated for one moment to also use the classical method – beating up. Irrespective of the age and health condition, convicts were subject to abuse. A dramatic case for such purpose is that of Victor Rădulescu-Pogoneanu who being immobilized due to a paralysis of the lower limbs, was beaten up while lying in bed. Also, according to the testimonies, Ion Mihalache was constantly hit and wardens even threw buckets of water onto him.
Medical Care. The barbarian detention regime applied in Râmnicu Sărat inevitably and deliberately resulted in the accelerated degradation of the health condition of those incarcerated here. Regardless whether such were older ailments or such that broke out in detention, they worsened throughout the reclusion period and in many cases they resulted in the death of the convicts. Medical care was limited to the weekly visit of a physician from the municipal hospital or from Văcăreşti and in his absence, sanitary Boboc, who “made injections directly through trousers and pushed medicine with the tip of his boots under the door” ensured the “treatment” of the convicts. The transfer of convicts to hospital was allowed only with the written approval of the General Division of Penitentiaries, but such was many times denied under the pretext that ill persons could be treated within the premises of the prison. Furthermore, characterization certificates drafted by the management of the prison and that were accompanying the transfer applications comprised negative references for convicts.
The reasons due to which medical care was rejected were often hilarious, as the convicts were completely at the discretion of the prison management. The Minister Alexandru Drăghici himself refused the requests of Ilie Lazăr, who was ill at such date, “permitting” him as a substitute of medical care the use of the “felt cap, sheepskin coat and blanket”!
Under such terms, the health condition of the convicts reached many times the limit of survival. Dystrophy, anemia, ailments of internal organs, circulatory and respiratory insufficiencies, tuberculosis and others were generalized. Attempting to determine the prison management to grant the necessary medical care, some convicts resorted to desperate methods. The refusal of administering penicillin to a convict suffering of “progressive general paralysis” determined him to declare hunger strike and the case was by no means singular.
The Râmnicu Sărat-Văcăreşti journey of some of the convicts certifies their disastrous health condition, as well as that the medical care finally granted was superficial and once returned to Râmnic, their health condition was further deteriorating.
Ion Ovidiu Borcea, one of those imprisoned there, recalls: “They were starving to death, dying of cold, terror and due to the lack of medical treatment”. Among those who died in the prison from Râmnicu Săra or shortly after their transfer to the Văcăreşti penitentiary hospital were Ion Mihalache, Mihail Romniceanu, Victor Rădulescu-Pogoneanu or Gheorghe Plăcinţeanu, Jenică Arnăutu.
Form of Communication among Convicts
Called “the prison of silence” due to the total solitary confinement regime and the interdiction of any interaction among prisoners, Râmnicu Sărat fully deserved such fame. All activities were carried out in complete silence, wardens had felt shoes on their feet so as to not to make any noise, interacting with convicts by short signs.
In order to resist in psychical view to the mono-cell regime doubled by the tomblike silence, convicts resorted to numerous subterfuges to communicate with one another. In the absence of sufficient food and medicine, the establishing of a minimal link with one of the colleagues in distress had a benefic effect upon the moral of the convicts.
For such purpose, convicts proved an extraordinary innovating spirit, but one that was concurrently perfectly adapted to the context. The most used clandestine communication method was represented by the Morse alphabet adapted to the existing possibilities: knocking on walls, screeching of the chair, cough, threaded knots, etc.
Knocking on walls or chairs were the most frequent ones, being handy to all convicts. Coughing was used as a means of communication during outside walks or in the evening, simulating suffering. The real masters of improvising the Morse alphabet were Corneliu Coposu, Ion Puiu or Ion Diaconescu, who defied the risks in the attempt to get in touch with the other convicts.
The contact by speaking was rarely managed and one example for such purpose was the couple of words exchanged from the window by Ion Diaconescu with Ion Mihalache, when the latter was taken outside, in the prison yard.
The reaching of the limit in enduring the tortures by one of the convicts usually changed into a means of communication. Ion Mihalache was many times in this situation, when he cried out his suffering in front of the wardens and so that the entire cellblock could hear him.
All these interaction attempts did not escape the vigilance of the supervisors who proved very zealous in drafting punishment reports resulting in days of “solitary confinement”.
Protest Forms of Convicts
The extermination regime meticulously applied by the prisons staff from Râmnicu Sărat generated varied reactions among convicts. In spite of the punitive means by which the wardens acted, convicts assumed several times a defiant attitude against the regime they were subject to.
Written notes drafted by the convicts through which they requested the granting of medical care, the supply of indispensable objects or even hospitalization in view of applying an adequate treatment were frequent. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the reply was a negative one from the management and they received partial and insufficient solutions only in extraordinary cases. Eloquent for such purpose and concurrently hilarious are the answers drafted by authorized persons at the numerous requests of convicts.
One of the methods used by convicts to counteract the refusal of the management in fulfilling the requests was to commence the hunger strike. Not at all intimidated, the staff servicing the prison disposed of solutions also for such cases – forced feeding. Performed by intubation, the procedure inflicted awful sufferings to those opposing it, but it had the expected effect: the keeping alive of contesters. Thus, convicts’ attempts of this type did not have the expected outcome and the only results obtained were the accentuation of physical frailty, as well as the exacerbation of the warden-convict antagonism.
In this category can be also included the unexpected reactions of convicts caused by the bestial treatment applied by the prison staff. Brought to the verge of desperation, convicts showed many times their opposition against the applied treatment, both by vocal protests and by spontaneous reactions of insubordination.
All these attitudes were punished by the wardens in the manner typical for the prison from Râmnicu Sărat.
Testimonies of Survivors
Ion DIACONESCU: “Returning to Râmnicu Sărat, we resumed our everyday agony, sometimes the moan of a dying man, sometimes – once every six months – a visit from a higher body. […] Sometimes, at approximately 1-year intervals, also came a visitor in the position of a prosecutor, who asked whether we had a lid at the honey bucket and whether we were taken out for walks. Such were the maximum rights we could aspire to. Meanwhile, by the lapse of years, the initial lot had been reduced. Many had died.”
Ion Diaconescu referring to Ion Mihalache in 1957 describes him, as follows: “Now I could see through the crack of the blind an old man with gray hair, hunch-backed, with the head ducked between his shoulders, dragging his feet with difficulty. It is true that ten years had elapsed since then, but his current state was especially showing the pains he had gone through.”
The same Ion Diaconescu remembers that “in a moment of silence [Ion Mihalache], he banged loudly on the door of the cell and called out, so that the entire cellblock could hear it: This is Ion Mihalache! I am being tortured because I do not want to give the false statements that I am asked to. I am ill and they refuse to give me medicine and medical care! I couldn’t hear the rest because meanwhile they unlocked this door, wardens rushed inside and I could hear only their kicks and the moans of Mihalache.”
“In such a case, the wardens led by director Vişinescu rushed into the cell, knocked him down to the floor and took out his bed. He was given this savage treatment for days on end until 5 February 1963, when he died with no medical care.”
“In the winter 1958-1959, Jenică Arnăutu, one of the youngest convicts announced us that he started hunger strike in order to compel the management to bring him to hospital. […] In spite of our insistencies, Jenică didn’t want to give up and he was forced fed with a hose, they tortured him about 3 months until he died in the prime of his life.”
In regard to the conduct of supervisor Vișinescu, Ion Diaconescu narrates: “He did not understand the message of Borcea in the French language and they brought Ovidiu to the basement and beat him savagely with the belt on the naked skin to tell to whom he had spoken and what he said. Director Vişinescu himself beat him.”
Corneliu COPOSU referring to the prison from Râmnicu Sărat states that this “was an entire Marxist extermination laboratory, toughly maintained by the wardens with Lombrosian faces” and convicts imprisoned there were “political guinea-pigs of Stalinist-type experiments”.
Corneliu Coposu: “I have been always flabbergasted how people were determined to torture their fellows with no reason at all. We were only numbers for them; they had not the slightest idea who we were.
One of the questions tormenting me, which is almost an obsession, is what could they have told to those persons, so as to determine them to enter the cell of Mihalache – who was 82 years old – and who could not move – to beat him up. Or the cell of Rădulescu Pogoneanu, who had a semi-paralysis and whom they were beating in bed.”
Ion Ovidiu BORCEA recalls that in Râmnicu Sărat “they were starving, dying of cold, terror and due to the lack of medical treatment.” And that in 1961 “all my toes froze, got red and then blue, started to itch and the skin feel off them… As it was winter, I reported that I had only torn clothes and one officer hit me in the mouth so hard that I fell on the bed and broke one tooth…”
Augustin VIŞA, who was a prisoner in the USSR and numerous prisons from Romania claims: “I passed many prisons from the country and from the USSR, under fascists and communists, but I had never seen a penitentiary with so much supervision and so many safety measures.”