Nearly two years ago I spent a few hours inside one of the world's foremost museums documenting the reign of terror in the Eastern Block: the Terror Museum in Budapest, Hungary. It was overwhelming and incredibly haunting. The museum is housed in the former Nazi and then Communist headquarters, and it creates an atmosphere quite unlike anything I've ever experienced. While not necessarily a similar sort of institution, I got the same feeling I imagine I would get if I visited a former concentration camp. The last part of the museum includes a visit to the torture and prison chambers in the basement that left chills running through my mind for days.
I never thought I would experience that sort of thing again...
Sighetu Marmaţiei was the site of one of the most notorious- and gruesome- prisons in communist Romania. It held political prisoners, dissidents, intellectuals, and anyone who the regime believed could be a challenge. Between the years of 1948 and 1952, 51 of the 180 prisoners held at Sighet died. It was one of the sites of the "re-education" program, an experiment in mind control that used horrific methods. The 2010 edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Romania describes it as such:
"Under an experimental system known as 're-education,' from 1949 to 1952, political prisoners were subjected to intolerable levels of abuse as a way of breaking down their identities in order to make them more amenable to the communist system... In the first stage prisoners were subjected to demeaning acts like scrubbing floors with rags between their teeth or having to lick toilets clean. Religious prisoners were humiliated through acts such as being baptized with buckets of urine. Next, prisoners were forced to betray fellow inmates who'd shown them any kindness or sympathy and then to renounce their own families. The point here was to sever any existing bonds of love or loyalty. In the final stage of the program, prisoners were forced to prove their succesful 'regeneration' by inflicting the same acts of mental and physical abuse on new prisoners. Failure to follow through meant having to spend weeks in a tiny isolation cell...."
It's sick, what happened there.
This former prison is now a museum... I spent time in the "black room," the tiny isolation cell mentioned. I closed the door and started my watch and came close to not breathing. I left when I started to panic... I lasted 57 seconds.
It's sick, what happened there. It's sick and awful and makes me question humanity in general.
And then I walked out into the sunshine, breathing normally, and wondering how I got so lucky to be born at a time and in a place of freedom.