Fifteen years in the prisons of Romania, amid inhuman suffering. The witness of Bishop Ioan Ploscaru, presented for the first time to the general public.
ROME, April 23, 2013 - At least five times in the last two weeks, Pope Francis has called attention back to “our many brothers and sisters who give witness to the name of Jesus, even to the point of martyrdom.”
During the same days as these appeals from the pope, the Romanian bishop Alexandru Mesian has gone from city to city in Italy to present to the public the witness of one of these martyrs of our time, his predecessor in the leadership of the Greek-Catholic diocese of Lugoj.
His name is Ioan Ploscaru. He died in 1998 at the age of 87, fifteen of which he spent in prison. For one fault alone: that of remaining faithful to the Church of Rome and therefore of refusing to switch to the Orthodox Church, as ordered by the communist government.
The second world war had just ended, and just as in Ukraine, in Romania as well the regime wanted to wipe out the local Greek-Catholic Church, with its bishops, priests, and millions of faithful, excluding it from the law and incorporating it forcibly into the Orthodox Church. In the face of their refusal, in 1948, all of the bishops were arrested. They would die in jail. Other bishops were ordained clandestinely. These included Ioan Ploscaru, who received the imposition of the hands from the Vatican nuncio in Bucharest on November 30, 1948. But he would hold out in the catacombs for only a few months. In August of 1949 he would be arrested as well.
And his Calvary began. Which he then recounted in a book of memoirs. The book was published in Romania in 1993. But it was only this year that it crossed the borders of his country, in a very well edited Italian edition printed by Edizioni Dehoniane in Bologna.
It is an extraordinary book for many reasons. It recalls the “Kolyma Tales" of Salamov when it depicts the ferocity of the jailers, cruel to the point of the incredible, amid humiliations that included "[making the prisoners] eat their own feces, urinating in their mouths, forcing them to confess having practiced aberrant sexual acts with their parents." But it also recalls the descriptive serenity and the irony of Solzhenitsyn in "The Gulag Archipelago."
Above all it is the account of an experience of faith. Which lights up even the darkest nights. Which kindles with astonishment even the most depraved. Which arrives at feeling mercy even for the most terrible persecutors.
The Romanian communist regime collapsed in 1989. In 1990 Ioan Ploscaru was able to resume the stewardship of his cathedral, which was restored to him by the Orthodox metropolitan of Lugoj.
The following is a little anthology of his book of memoirs, with the titles of the chapters from which the respective passages are taken.
CHAINS AND TERROR
by Ioan Ploscaru
To all of us, the Greek-Catholic priests and bishops, freedom was offered in exchange for switching to the Orthodox Church. To me personally they proposed this exchange a number of times beginning with my first arrest. But one cannot compromise with one's conscience. If I had given in, it would have been a great disaster for my conscience and a source of confusion for those among whom I was living.
In the memoirs I have written you will not find grave lamentations, much less desperate states of mind, because in offering all of these sufferings to God they become bearable. But I would not have been able to bear them alone, if Jesus had not been always beside me and all of us.
I considered our jailers as “instruments,” and against none of them do I make any accusation: on the contrary, I desire for those inquisitors true conversion to God and true and clear repentance for all that they have done.
I was in prison for 15 years, 4 of them in isolation. Freed in 1964, I was still monitored, shadowed, pursued. Even in the years afterward I have continued, at times, to be afraid.
For all of the sufferings that I have had to bear, may God be praised unto the ages of ages.
AT THE "SECURITATE" OF TIMOSOARA
My cell was in the basement. The windows were broken, and the cell was very cold. I remained there for the whole month of December until January of 1950. The cold was torture for me. I was often taken to the interrogators at night. They would send me back and, after half an hour, I would be woken up again for another interrogation. The cold of the frozen cell consumed me. I slept very little, always with the urge to wake up again and move around. The chill came in through the broken window, leaving traces of frost on my beard and clothing. In three weeks I lost a great deal of weight. I prayed and offered all of the cold and all of the trials to the Savior.
METHODS OF COERCION
The interrogations, like the beatings, took place right above our cell. We understood what was happening from the sounds, to which we listened in terror. Then the screams of those who were being beaten. They beat the soles of the feet with a bar of iron. The victim then had to run around if he did not want his feet to swell. The torture was repeated. Many had the bones of their feet dislocated.
But heavier than a beating was isolation. They locked you in an empty cell and poured water on the cement floor. After a day or two the feet swelled and the heart could hold out no longer. The victim either fell into the water or asked to be taken out to “confess.”
The searches were a method of humiliation. They inspected your anus, genitals, mouth, ears. A naked man was for them an object of derision. Such searches were done several times a month, without counting the ones done arbitrarily by the guards.
In the cell to which we had been relegated the floor was of cement and was always damp, just as the walls were damp, this part of the building being below ground level. To sleep on we had only a strip 14 inches wide per person. No one could sleep on his back, but only on one side. When someone could no longer bear the position and had to change it, everyone had to wake up: each touched the other on the shoulder and everyone had to turn to the other side.
The heaviest punishment that the commandant inflicted on us dates back to the month of July 1950, when he had the windows nailed shut, making us stay for a week without air and without going outside. In the middle of summer, in a room of 60 square feet, 35 persons lived in suffocating air. Some got rashes on their skin, others fainted.
SIGHET, EXTERMINATION PRISON
The greatest torment of the prison of Sighet was hunger. The diet at this prison was calculated with great care so that the detainee would not die immediately, but would perish gradually from hunger. The food was meager and rotten.
AGAIN AT THE "SECURITATE" OF TIMOSOARA
The Catholic sisters were forced to stand in freezing water in the winter and hoe, at first with a pick and then with their hands, to pull out pieces of rock, put them in their aprons and take them to the riverbank. Almost all of those sisters, after they were set free, died a short time later from tuberculosis or were tormented by deforming and acute rheumatism.
AT THE MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR IN BUCHAREST
The interrogations were very severe. Every day I was beaten with fists, with chairs, with kicks, and my head was pounded against the wall. As if this were not enough, one day they took me to the torture chamber. They had prepared two beams to tie me up and beat me. While they were preparing the device, I prayed and offered to God my sufferings and my life.
THE PRISON OF GHERLA
We came to a critical moment. The prisoners had protested against the boarding up of the windows and the management had unleashed a violent repression. The police fired from the roofs, used fire hoses, starved the prisoners and in the end dragged them out of the cells and beat them with iron bars. The hallways had run with rivers of blood. It was said that more than thirty had died. Even the prison doctor had grabbed a bar and started swinging away.
With us was a group of farmers from Moldavia. They recounted the atrocities that had been committed with the arrival of collectivization. Some had accepted it, others had opposed it. The latter were taken to a room in the city hall where they were awaited by the “prosecutors,” who were factory workers. Those who had refused had to pass through their midst. The “prosecutors” had iron screwdrivers and awls that they stabbed without hesitation into the bodies of the “reactionaries.” Those whose vital organs – liver, kidneys, lungs, bladder – had been wounded died soon afterward. The others survived with serious injuries.
In the cell there were almost 60 of us crammed together. They were farmers, bound with heavy chains fastened with nails, so that they could neither undress nor wash themselves. Where the chains were pulled tight a crust of coagulated blood formed.
AT THE PENITENTIARY OF PITESTI
In Pitesti, those who were in chains were left that way from September almost until Christmas. Even worse, since they complained that they were full of lice, they tightened their chains. Those sentenced to less than 15 years were not chained. I got exactly 15 years – the longest sentence, to which were added the other three of 8 years each – so that sometimes they put me in chains and sometimes left them off. I was not saddened by the chains, far from it, I kissed them and offered them to Jesus: “Lord, if you were with us now, you would surely be imprisoned and perhaps even executed!” I kissed my rough and dirty clothing, considering it as the most beloved liturgical vestment, and I considered the bars as holy witnesses of martyrdom: I kissed them as a sign of affectionate acceptance and full of gratitude. I did this every time I entered a new cell.
The prison of Pitesti was a disaster. The roof of sheet metal, in that winter of 1960, was blown off by the wind. The cells were very unwholesome. The cold ceiling condensed the moisture so that water was always dripping onto our clothing and we were always damp. Almost all of the beds were set up as three bunks, and two detainees slept on each of them. In cells like mine there were more than 70 persons.
DEJ, EXTERMINATION PRISON
The rules at the prison in Dej were more strict than at any of the other penitentiaries. This inhuman harshness was the proof that there was not only the intention of isolating us, but of exterminating us physically.
We were not allowed to lie on the beds during the daytime. They forced us to sit on a bench with no backrest; due to this we were exhausted by the evening. We spoke in whispers, all conversation was forbidden. In the evening we had to fold our clothing and put it on the bench, so that we would not use it to cover ourselves. The use of sheets was strictly forbidden.
In the winter the windows had to stay open, so that there would be “fresh air,” the jailers said. And in the summer they were closed. There was even punishment for anyone who dared to do exercises.
In spite of the ban from the management, we did not give up praying, but rather we prayed with greater zeal, convinced that God was on our side and we on his. Every day – from the moment of the wake-up call, which was at 5 in the morning, until 10 at night – everyone kept silence, reciting our prayers and meditating at length.
In February of 1963, I walked past an officer and did not notice him. For failing to salute him I was punished with five days of isolation, in the cells called “black.” It was a tough winter. When I was taken there, the others became afraid. Often those who came out of the isolation cell were brought back on stretchers, their bodies rigid from the cold.
Left alone in the cell, in the dark and the cold, as always I kissed the latch and offered my sufferings to Jesus. It was Lent, and I thought that I could make the spiritual exercises. It would be a period of penance. Every day I received eight ounces of bread and a tin cup of water: the bread of pain and the water of tribulation, I thought. Sleeping on the hard floor did not seem very difficult to me. I was used to it. It was harder to bear the cold, because I had nothing to cover me.
Regardless of all the privations to which I was subjected in the “black,” those five days were for my soul a great consolation. Evoking the passion and death of our savior Jesus Christ, my sufferings were slight. I remained constantly in meditation and prayer. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, anguish, persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger, the sword?” asked the holy apostle Paul.
At the end of those five days, I was sad to leave the “black,” where I had found myself alone with Jesus. When the guard came to tell me that I could come out, it seemed to me almost that he was separating me from a beloved place.
Ioan Ploscaru, "Catene e terrore. Un vescovo clandestino greco-cattolico nella persecuzione comunista in Romania", Edizioni Dehoniane, Bologna, 2013, pp. 478, euro 30,00.
Hiearchical Liturgy to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.