I was born on 13 December 1923 in Transylvania and my childhood education was inspired by the values that would define me for the rest of my life: faith in God and love of my homeland. A shy, solitary young man, I was easily dominated by the strong character of my older brother. But I had big dreams too; I wanted to go to France, study psychoanalysis and open a psychology lab. Then I would come back to Romania and apply what I had learnt. In the end, that didn’t happen.
As a student at Andrei Şaguna High School in Brașov, I became interested in the political right. The songs of the legionaries convinced me to join the Brotherhood of the Cross, the youth structure of Legionary Movement of the Archangel Michael-1The Legion of the Archangel Michael was a fascist organisation committed to the 'Christian and racial' renovation of Romania. Its paramilitary wing, the Iron Guard, constituted a major social and political force between 1930 and 1941. after a rebellion by the Legion in 1941, it was banned and repressed by the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu.. This move would determine the course of my destiny. We wore green uniforms to symbolise renewal and were known as the ‘greenshirts’. Our emblem was a triple cross which stood for prison bars, a symbol of martyrdom.
At the age of 17, when I was in seventh grade, I took part in a rebellion against the aggressive Soviet occupation of Bessarabia, the northern part of Bucovina and the Herţa territory. Hungary had also taken a large swathe of territory away from us, leaving a trail of atrocities in its wake. The whole thing was a national disaster – Greater Romania was no more. Along with the vast majority of Romanian young people, I became anti-Soviet and joined those mounting fierce opposition against the communist wave.
The arrest of our Brotherhood leader in Brașov led to the disintegration of the entire local brotherhood, and I was arrested on 15 September 1942. I was 18 years old when I was put on trial at the Military Court in Brașov and sentenced to 15 years of forced labour at Pitești Penitentiary, where I was imprisoned for more than a year.
The need for new recruits in the war that was threatening Romania’s borders convinced the authorities to suspend the sentences of young legionaries and release them. I was released and sent away for military training. But on 23 August 1944, Romania turned against Germany and became an ally of the Soviet Union. King Michael I disbanded Antonescu’s government, my organisation was banned, and any related activities severely punished. Immediately afterwards, my unit was sent to the front, where all my comrades were killed by an enemy machine gun. I survived because I was on leave at the time.
After the war, I began studying at the Academy of Economic Studies in Brașov and continued my anti-communist activities there as part of a student organisation. During the summer of 1947, several members of the National Union of Students in Romania, a mass organisation of the Communist Party, tried to force me to join them. I refused. A year later, after consolidating their power and eliminating their main democratic opponents, the communists repressed those with a known legionary past.
I saw the other prisoners as my brothers.
Then, one day, two agents searched my home. My brother told them I was at the Academy, and I managed to escape and find a secret hideaway. For months I was afraid of my own shadow. Sleepless nights followed, and the days became increasingly excruciating. In the autumn, Virgil Popescu, one of my oldest acquaintances, took me to the Argeș Mountains, where a group of 20 people led by Professor Dumitru Apostol had found shelter.
Later, hundreds of people took to the mountains, either to fight against the new political reality or to wait for military intervention from the Western powers. The armed, anti-communist resistance was one of the most direct forms of resistance. Our group concentrated on survival but also tried to intimidate communist activists in the area. Our partisan life in the Argeș Mountains looked like this: we were cold, hungry, miserable, stuck on the night watch, but we held out hope for the great cause we had chosen to defend.
One fateful night, we were surrounded by security forces who opened fire. Someone had ratted us out. We had no choice but to flee and run from one mountain to another. In the end, however, we were caught. Dumitru was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour, but ended up being executed along with the other group members. My interrogation at the Securitate headquarters in Pitești was brief but violent and ended with my transfer to Craiova, where I was put on trial and sentenced to seven years of forced labour.
After my appeal was rejected, I was sent back from Craiova to Pitești, where I was assigned to room number ‘1-basement’. I was reunited with some old friends and met other people I quickly came to admire, such as Costache Oprisan, the former national leader of the Brotherhood of the Cross. We would whisper prayers during the day, educate each other in various subjects and take language classes. Every evening one of us would tell a story based on a book or film.
I saw the other prisoners as my brothers who were suffering the hardships of detention for the sake of the struggle against communism. Sometimes I heard screams, but I told myself that they came from people who had just been arrested and were suffering the usual tortures of interrogation. I had already endured that, and thought that all that remained for me was to carry out my sentence.
Every aspect of the day became a method of torture.
Little did I know that, just a few days later, what became known as the ‘Pitești experiment’ – the largest and most extreme programme of torture and indoctrination in the Eastern Bloc – would begin. That day, I was preparing to celebrate my name day along with two of my cellmates. Suddenly, Eugen Țurcanu, a powerful, stocky prisoner, came into the cell and ordered us to confess. When we refused, he gave a signal and shouted, ‘Get them!’
All of a sudden, several prisoners pulled out poles, broomsticks and chair legs and started hitting us. I was paralysed by shock. It wasn’t only the blows that took me by surprise – I was stunned by the fact that those who had knocked me to the floor were prisoners just like me who, just a few moments ago, seemed to have the same beliefs as me. The beating lasted for several hours. We were forced to strip off and were given shirts, while the few possessions we had left were taken away.
After the shock of the beatings, there was more violence to come. Our attackers asked me to confess everything I had hidden during the Securitate investigation. I received a lashing on the soles of my feet that caused an agonising pain to throb through my whole body. Like many students who were tortured, I fainted several times from the pain, but at least this provided some brief respite before the next beating began.
From then on, every aspect of the day became a method of torture. One of the most painful punishments for me was being forced to sit in the same position all day on the edge of the bed, with my hands on my knees and my eyes fixed on the toes of my boots. If I made the slightest movement, I was struck by the sentry watching me. Sometimes I was made to scrub the floor of the room while carrying one or even two of my fellow prisoners on my back. Other times, my tormentors forced me to do press-ups to the point of exhaustion, beating me any time I hesitated.
I was subjected to a pseudo-baptism in a font of
urine and faeces.
Yet perhaps the most painful experience was being forced to look on helplessly as my fellow prisoners were tortured beside me, thinking that I might be next. This was how the Pitești experiment worked. It progressed in four stages: the first was known as the external unmasking and involved a prisoner showing his loyalty by revealing everything he had hidden from the Securitate interrogators. The results were written down by Țurcanu, signed by the prisoner and forwarded to the Ministry of Interior. During the second phase, the internal unmasking, the tortured student had to reveal the names of those who had shown him kindness or leniency in prison, whether they were fellow inmates or guards. The third stage was intended to destroy the prisoner’s identity and moral fibre by forcing him to denounce everything he held most dear – his family, his faith, his friends and, finally, himself. Only when this moral collapse seemed complete was the student subjected to the final stage, the point of no return: as a re-educated prisoner, he had to subject his best friend to the same process, torturing him with his own hands.
Resistance was rare. Prisoners were tasked with torturing their fellow inmates, which generated a culture of paranoia and fear. People said there were only two ways to escape the violence at Pitești: by giving up and becoming a torturer yourself, or by dying. My story is proof there was a third way: madness.
Because I was a deeply religious person and still refused to give in, I was subjected to a pseudo-baptism in a font of urine and faeces. I was led to a barrel filled with excrement: ‘Baptise him!’ The hatred and humiliation horrified me. At that moment, I felt an all-encompassing loneliness. Something shattered inside me and I lost myself. For several months I lived in a semi-alienated state, not remembering exactly what was going on. I no longer felt any pain, any fear; it was as if I was living in another world. My pain was no longer my own. I had become numb. I couldn’t hear the cries of others, I couldn’t see the blood that gushed out from them. I lived while not really living. I was and yet I was not. And I was sinking further and further into the darkness, into oblivion. I don't know how long I was tormented by this state. Many years later, Ghiță Reuș, a fellow prisoner, told me that it got to the point where, after washing the waste barrel, I would drink water from it. Ultimately, I was sent to the so-called ‘corner of the dying and the insane’, which absolved me of the obligation to become one of the torturers.
As was the case for many of my brothers in suffering, the Christian faith was my last stronghold. ‘Do you believe in God?’ was a question I heard many times from the torturers. I always said yes, and as punishment I was among those forced to take part in yet more blasphemous rituals at Easter. The holy texts were rewritten with vulgar words, and the Virgin Mary was portrayed in a depraved manner. We were forced to get down on our knees and kiss a genital organ made of wax instead of a cross. These ‘black masses’ broke our inner resistance.
A few months later, tuberculosis finally got me.
Once my madness had subsided, I began working in the textile section with Ion Sadovan. I confided in him and shared my thoughts with him, unaware that he was an informant who reported our discussions in their entirety to the prison officers. So, one evening, I was told to take my blanket and move to another cell located on the ground floor, where Lieutenant Avădanei was waiting.
‘Bandit, do you know why I called you?’ he asked.
I had no time to answer. He pushed me violently to the ground and began to throw punches: ‘You betrayed the great cause of the unmasking,’ he yelled at me. ‘Take him to the isolation chamber!’
The chamber was a small, isolated cell with iron bars and broken glass, where prisoners suffering from tuberculosis were sent. The icy wind and cold were our only companions. The food was a translucent liquid. Every week Lieutenant Avădanei would come to check on me. Each time, he would enter screaming: ‘You betrayed the great cause of the unmasking!’, and began punching my frail body. The sound was so appalling that a cellmate later told me: ‘When I heard how much it was hurting you, my heart was beating out of my chest.’
A few months later, tuberculosis finally got me. I remember being unable to stand up, with my vision blackened and blood coming out of my mouth instead of saliva. I was struggling with the cold, since I only had a blanket that barely fitted over me. The liquid they gave us kept me starving, and I was turning into a pale reflection of the man I used to be. I felt that my life was already over and made peace with my own mortality. But I did not curse, I prayed to God. And God sent me Jenică the Barber, a peasant from Bacău in the north-east of Romania, a plump little man with a sharp tongue and quite a temper, who was especially adept at irritating the guards. In an attempt to get rid of him, they put him in isolation with me.
With his great soul, he brought me back to life: he took care of my feet, which were frozen, for the winter of 1952-53 was a terrible one. There was snow covering the iron bars and ice cold water in our cell bucket. I had icicles in my moustache. Jenică rubbed my legs and arms and helped me stand up and soon my numb limbs started to move. ‘Let's dance,’ he joked. But I could barely stand.
Seven months had passed, when one day the guard ordered us to take our so-called belongings, a rag and an item of clothing, and get down to the yard, where we were lined up. The prison director, Petrache Goiciu, raised his hand, pointed his finger at us and said: ‘Look at them, may they serve as an example. Behave like them and you’ll end up like them. But today we forgive them, as our great comrade Stalin has died.’
In 1956, I was finally up for release. I was brought to the Securitate headquarters for the compulsory background check ,then deported to Lăteşti. It seems unbelievable but it was there that I met the one who was to be my wife, Gica Fuică. She was a student in Iaşi and had previously been imprisoned for eight years. It was a coincidence arranged by God – we got married a few months later.
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I can testify that, if fate plunged me into that hell, it was God who helped me escape with a pure soul and a clear conscience. All the same, I was left with a tremendous pain in my soul and a psychological burden that will hound me for the rest of my life: how was such evil possible and could it happen again? I will answer that now: yes, it could and it will, for the human being is the most hideous beast.
Nicolae Purcărea’s story draws from his personal, written memories as well as external sources that have been rewritten and inserted here to complement the narrative.