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Cold War Reckoning: Tracking Down Romania's Communist Torturers

Visinescu confronted by reporters
Visinescu confronted by reporters
Mirel Bran

RAMNICU SARAT — The door closes, hinges grating like a desperate man’s lament. Only a single sunbeam manages to make its way through the bars of the prison cell.

A few minutes in this long, heavy silence and one can imagine the daily life of a prisoner, locked up inside a two-square-meter cell. In eastern Romania, the Ramnicu Sarat city jail used to detain a constant cadre of Communist regime opponents. It is also known as the “silence hell” because of the way prisoners were tortured by the Romanian political police, the “Securitate.”

“They used silence to torture prisoners,” explains Marius Oprea. Nicknamed “the Securitate Hunter,” Oprea founded the Institute for Investigation of Communism’s Crimes (IICCR). He explains that in Romania, prisoners were forced to remain in absolute silence for years. “A simple whisper could be severly punished,” he says.

Even today, just closing yourself briefly behind the bars can offer a hint of the terror people faced. “I'm always scared in here,” Oprea says. “It is very difficult to explain where it comes from because it lies inside the walls, in the cells, in the bars. But it is the silence that frightens me the most.”

In recent years, Ramnicu Sarat prison has become a place of remembrance for young people trying to understand what their parents’ generation experienced. Every year, Oprea takes young and old alike on a historical journey through the country’s Cold War history, which finally ended with the capture and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and introduces them to former political prisoners.

“One cannot imagine how a man’s life suffers without words,” he says. “A former prisoner told me that it took him two years to learn the most simple words again. How to ask for food, for example, or how to remember the name of his daughter, who’d been born the day he was arrested.”

The creator of this “hell of silence” has a name: Alexandru Visinescu. He was 31 when he was appointed head of the prison in 1956, and he went on to establish one of the most dreadful detention systems in the entire Communist bloc. Complete silence, torture, and physical and psychological violence were systematically enforced.

Like many former torturers, Visinescu, now 88, is now residing peacefully in an apartment in Bucharest’s city center. Since the fall of the Communist dictatorship, he has been living on a 1,500-euro state pension that former political prisoners — who only got 200 euros — consider a grave insult.

But history was bound to catch up with him on the streets of Bucharest. On July 30, while out shopping, he was suddenly confronted by camera crews coming at him with questions. “Are you aware of the inquiry about you?” “What are you going to do?” “Do you deny the accusations?”

The elderly torturer apparently did not feel like answering at all, and wore a livid expression as he punched at the young reporters, as if to swipe away a past that will never leave him.

In April, the ICCR filed a complaint againt 35 persecutors. This public institution, which Oprea created in 2005, is among a small Romanian activist community committed to making the old Communist regime accountable. But even as Oprea repeatedly tries to bring justice to its victims, politicians don’t seem very interested.

Inspiration from Nazi hunters

The “Securitate Hunter” has been traveling across Romania for years tracking down ex-Communist torturers, in part by exhuming the remains of those executed by the regime. “Truth should be restored around these murders,” he says. “This is a case very similar to the aftermath of the Holocaust. The extent of the Nazi crimes was only recognized one full generation after World War II, in 1960. Here we are doing the same.”

Oprea has largely been inspired by the model of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is still on the hunt for Nazi persecutors. “We find out the truth, identify the torturers and spread their names,” he says. “Those who killed and tortured will not die in peace.”

Almost a quarter of a century after the Communist regime fell, Romania is making its first legal attempt to shed light on the dark years of dictatorship. The younger generation does not seem ready to forget half a century of torture and basic human rights violations.

And now, for the first time, legal bodies have taken an interest in this movement. The prosecutor’s office of Bucharest’s Supreme Court has recently declared itself ready to open an inquiry about Alexandru Visinescu.

“People die everywhere, whether it is inside or outside of a prison,” Visinescu said for himself. What remains to be determined is where the Romanian justice system will place him for the final day of judgment.

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