July 20, 2013
“When justice fails to be a form of memory, memory alone can be a form of justice” – Ana Blandiana
Over the last weekend I was in Sighet, for the 20th anniversary of the Memorial of Victims of Communism and of the Resistance. A former communist political prison, the Sighet Memorial tells the stories of those who suffered and died but never lost the battle with history. It tells the story of the torturers and their crimes. Most of you might not know what this is about, or that this even existed. Which is why I am writing this. To spread the word on an issue that is important to me, and which I believe should be important to all of us.
The last century saw the rise ( and fortunately the fall) of two incredibly inhuman totalitarian regimes across the territory of today’s European Union (and not only) – nazism and communism. While the first is very present in public conscience and it’s crimes universally known and condemned, the second, communism, is not at all acknowledged by public conscience as a criminal regime, and there are those that constantly down-play it’s oppressive side. The crimes and communism are known. They are documented. They are here, living amongst us, in what seems to be a false amnesia for most of us. But in Romania alone circa 2 000 000 people fell victim to communist oppression. And while this number is debated by those who seek to downplay it’s importance, I shall go forward and say that most romanians were victims of communism, even if they realize it or not. Because this regime changed all of us, and it’s ugly claws are still visible in romanian society today.
Don’t believe that this happened in Romania alone – Eastern Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Hungary, former Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria also suffered under similar regimes. The people of these countries suffered under the same absurd law of class warfare and payed heavy prices in the quest for the “new man” of socialism. Those who imagine that nothing inhuman happened here need to visit Sighet, or the House of Terror in Budapest or the Museum of Occupation of Latvia in Riga. And there are those who will tell you that it was bad only during the Stalin period, and that is a gross and disgraceful lie. Because once it started it never really ended until the fall of communism. It might have changed scope and means, but it was always there.
Sighet is important. It’s a lesson in forbidden history. It tells and shows the story of those denied a place in collective memory, It brings out the ugly truth, that so many of us chose to ignore over the years. Because it was significantly more comfortable that way. Because in denying it, they absolve themselves of the guilt. And that is something I’m not a fan off.
Sighet is important. Because past the memorial, the testimonials, it is also a research center – it collects oral history, publishes books, holds conferences. It empowers the message on the true nature of communism by showing the evidence, with cold facts and data.
Sighet is important. Because at Sighet there is a Summer School for the young – it started in 1998 and hopefully there is no end in sight. It provides an education to the young, an education unavailable in public schools. It allows the young to connect to a history their parents don’t talk about. And it allows them to come in direct contact with survivors of terror and scholars of communism. It a building block to never allowing this to happen, ever again.
And communism has not ceased to create effects on the people it subjugated. In every healthy society there is a delicate balance between the rights and liberties of the individual and the collective. Communism upheld the collective – it punished the individual and stripped him of his rights in the pursuit of the “new man”. When communism fell, the individual was once more allowed his liberty, most important a liberty of thought and conscience. But the fall of communism also brought a decrease in the importance of the collective. Those who regained their right to individuality despised and dismissed the collective. And this has led to a series of subtle degradations of society. It is visible on the streets of Romania. I see it everyday. And the only way to change this lack of balance is by education. And education is what Sighet provides.
20 years is an achievement. One that can’t be explained swiftly – it involves politics, public response and a lot of hard work. Dedication to a purpose and a strong will to pull through. And for that I salute those that have made the Sighet Memorial their quest, their family, their duty. Their efforts show that despite everything the truth will shine free. And shine free it must.
Before you question my feelings towards the Memorial, I must confess that I come from a family that saw two faces of communism. On the one side I have the experience of a communist MP of the era, and on the other side the experience of two former political detainees, that saw and experienced communist terror first hand. All of them have now passed away, but one thing they had in common, after all these years, was a refusal to talk about what had happened. Silence was absolute on both sides. That is why Sighet is important – it tells that story, the story even family refuses to share.
To my Romanian readers – go to Sighet. To my international readers – go to Sighet. It’s an experience that can’t be expressed in words. You simply have to walk the halls, and feel the burden they bear.
In our quest for a more perfect Union, for a place of dignity and human rights upheld no matter what, the scar of communism and nazism must not be ushered under the carpet. Because if we do that, history will condemn us to repeat our errors.