by Zaharia Stancu
Zaharia Stancu was one of the most radical left-wing opponents of the fascist dictatorship in Romania. Ever since he became a journalist, in 1934, he militated against the political terror the country would experience in the 1940s. He was arrested and interned in Târgu-Jiu internment camp during the winter of 1942-1943: “I became prisoner nr. 3912, who was ‘responsible for spreading alarming news with the criminal intent to undermine citizens’ morale.’” His book, Prison Days [Zile de lagăr] was published for the first time in 1945. Prison Days documents the time spent in the camp, the oppressive political atmosphere of the years 1933-1944 and several meetings Zaharia Stancu had with well-respected public figures of their time: I. Gh. Maurer, Victor Eftimiu, P.P. Panaitescu, Radu Gyr, Ion Barbu etc. GAP has selected here several fragments from Prison Days (Mihaela Michailov)
I soon wake up after my first night in the camp. My feet, hands and lower back are freezing. The furnace has cooled and with it the entire wooden shack, which is now exposed to the cold and dampness from outside. The rain stopped. I can hear the wind blowing through the acacias, the barbed wire, the windows. I light a match and check the time. Three o’clock. I get up, take my coat from the hanger and put it over the blankets. I’m still freezing. In the meantime, Simion also got up. I can hear him say “Good morning. You freezing?”
‘I’m freezing, yes’, I reply. He jumps out of bed and goes out into the hallway. He comes right back with some wood.
‘Where’d you get those?`
‘From the washroom…’
The furnace heats up quickly and Simion, who can’t go back to sleep, gets up, gets dressed and starts fiddling with a kettle.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Just some coffee. It can’t hurt, can it?’
I get up and get dressed. In a few minutes, we’re sipping from a large cup of coffee. Our neighbors are gradually waking up as well. We can hear their footsteps in the darkness of the hallway. Some are going to the washroom, others are looking to borrow firewood or just to light their cigarettes. Every once in a while, you can heat the sentinels cry out. Everybody everywhere is waking up. I strike up a conversation with Simion.
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Damned if I know. So far, I haven’t been able to find out. But I suspect a guy from Galati ratted me out. I’m a gym teacher there, at a local high-school. I like to party sometimes. Ad I also like wine. Couple of years ago, I argued with some guy over a woman, and since I have a short fuse, I slapped him a couple of times. I wish it were more than a couple of times. Now the guy is cozying up to the new regime. So he ratted me out. Until things clear up – they will eventually – I’m stuck here. I’m paying for my short fuse, so to speak. It’s easy to get here, leaving is the hard part. The authorities often forget why they sent you here in the first place. They even forget about you entirely. I know the camp well. If you’re innocent, it’s harder to get out. Those who made the paperwork and built the case against you, they can’t make another round of paperwork in your favor. And so they make things up. Who’s gonna sit down and sort the truth from the lies in this day and age? So don’t get your hopes up. Settle in, read, keep calm, and if you wanna work, work. I decided to help out in administration, so I wouldn’t go crazy. I’m in charge of beds, blankets and sheets. I keep track of all of them. The colonel is very pleased with my work and I hope he’ll put in a good word for me when the commission arrives. It makes a world of difference if the colonel puts in a good word with the commission.’
‘Which colonel would that be?’
‘Wait, you don’t know? Colonel Leoveanu, of course, the camp commander. He’s nicer than others. Before him, it was hell for us. There was another guy, a brute. You might have heard of him: colonel Zlătescu.’
‘I haven’t’, I replied, professing my ignorance.
‘He killed so many! He destroyed so many lives, the brute. But there is a God above! I believe in God! You know what happened to Zlătescu?’
‘He had a son. He was the apple of his eye. He died in battle, last spring. He was no longer the commanding officer here. One day, he showed up here. Every inmate was shaking. “Zlătescu is back,” they kept saying to one another. After a while, we cooled down. We found out he was only visiting. You know, we have an alabaster workshop here in the camp. A lot of the Communists here work there. And we had a couple of Chinese who had settled in Bucharest during the last war. They married two Romanian girls, took on Romanian names, and sold bracelets made of bone or Chinese lanterns in restaurants. Two very nice people. When the war broke out, the police arrested them and brought them here, under the pretext that they were from Chan-Kai-Shek’s China, and therefore enemies of the Axis and of Romania. “What Chan-Kai-Shek’s China”, they kept complaining. They hadn’t had any contact with their home country in over 30 years. But nobody wanted to hear them. So they remained here. And they were put to work in the factory, since they were very poor. They were really handy! They were the best workers. The products of the camp are sold in Bucharest, and the earnings go to the Ministry of the Interior. After three commissions passed them over, a commission presided by Gelep listened to them and decided to release them. Zlătescu stepped in.
‘I can’t release them, they’re my best workers in the alabaster workshop. The camp needs them, they bring in good money.’
The argument stuck and the Chinese remained in the camp. […] Now that Zlătescu’s son had died, he brought him back to the country and thought about decorating his grave with the most beautiful headstone possible. And so he remembered the two Chinese. They were the only ones who could do it. So he came to the camp and told the new commanding officer of his wish. They both went to the workshop and called the two Chinese workers. Zlătescu talked to them. Less superior, but still patronizing.
‘Chinks, I’m here to ask you for a headstone. My boy died in battle, God rest his soul!’
The two Chinese burst in protest: ‘May God not rest his soul! And may He not rest yours, either! We’ve been held here for almost two years. We have children, too. We have wives, too. Have you ever considered how our wives and children get by? May God not rest your son’s soul! We won’t build you a headstone! We’d rather you have us shot! Go on, have us shot, colonel!’
The people in the workshop expected to see Zlătescu furious and the two Chinese collapse under his whip. But that didn’t happen. The colonel bowed his head and walked away. On that same day, the two Chinese were released… […]