In 1949 Annie Samuelli and her sister Nora were seized by the Communists on trumped-up charges in a mass arrest of all Romanian nationals working for the US and British Legations in Bucharest. After nine months of torture and interrogation, the two sisters were sentenced to long prison terms. Then in 1961, after 11 years and 340 days in separate security prisons and cells, the two were quietly ransomed out by a relative in the United States, and exiled as stateless refugees. While Annie was granted British citizenship within only a few months, it took three years, two presidents and the passage of Bills on her behalf in the US Congress for Nora to receive the same privilege in America.
In Woman Behind Bars in Romania, an authentic graphic record of one woman's twelve-year odyssey in the shadow world of the Iron Curtain's prisons, Annie Samuelli writes of her experiences with great sensitivity and a remarkable lack of bitterness. Despite the brutality, dreadful food and living conditions that she and her fellow sufferers were forced to endure, they were grateful for many small blessings. For Annie Samuelli, one was that she never lost that extraordinary ability to communicate her feeling that the bars between them and the outside world could be made to disappear in more ways than one.
Annie Samuelli describes her efforts to sustain her own and others' spirits through the seemingly endless ordeal; the pitiful and touching attempts of men and women to communicate with one another secretly (such as tapping or signalling in Morse Code) under the permanent surveillance of the guards; and the constant horrors to which they were all subjected.
As Annie Samuelli strongly believes that knowledge of Morse Code is essential, it is set out in this book for the reader's benefit.
Miss Samuelli lives in Paris where she still works as a freelance translator.
|Annie Samuelli (left) with her sister Nora, on the roof terrace of their flat in Bucharest in 1945.|
From 1949 to 1961, I was one of a large community of women held in the political prisons of Communist Romania, all harshly convicted, not for their misdeeds but for what they actually represented.
Since the advent of Communism, citizens who upheld faith, justice and the principles of democracy—from former prime ministers to simple peasants and confused members of the working class—now were convicted of treasonable activities on just those grounds.
The elementary freedoms of opinion, speech, movement, religion and charity, hemmed in by arbitrary government decrees, had been virtually abolished, any transgression being paid for by long imprisonment.
Persecution was directed as much against the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, ostensibly the chief targets of class warfare, as against any person, irrespective of origin, who consciously or not expressed criticism or the slightest opposition to the regime. For instance, spouses, parents, children were likewise incriminated as accessories after the fact, and whole families went to prison for having failed to denounce or for having harboured a fugitive from justice for his political beliefs or for violating one of the all-embracing Communist laws.
Thus the women's prisons were filled with representatives from all ranks of society, from the intellectual down to the illiterate. As I shared their lives day by day, night by night for twelve years, I had the opportunity of studying them closely, and it is mainly on them that this book is based.
Therefore, it is neither an autobiography nor a description of Communist political prisons—former prisoners, now in the West, have already done it in a masterly fashion. What I wish to show is that under conditions aimed at their gradual physical and mental extermination, this community of women never acknowledged defeat. Neither did the men, but that is their story.
My stories are intended to depict the psychological reactions of women of clashing generations, nationalities, classes and creeds who, herded against a common background of years of captivity under constant fear, united in the dogged determination to survive. We sought and found the means to dilute, if only for minutes, the unceasing hell of life in prison. For to live in fear for twelve years is hell indeed.
Fear in various forms haunted us, haunted me. At the prescribed hour of 10 p.m. I fell asleep with the fear of a rudely interrupted night, awoke with fear at 5 a.m., when a minute's delay spelled brutal punishment. Fear of our ever-present oppressors, our jailers, was the strongest; each flick of the peep-hole lid, each opening of the door, any apparition of a strange officer, any unusual order struck panic in the most hardened veterans like myself.
But this constant, corrosive fear was fought, and in the battle waged against it, another predominant fear was our main weapon: the fear of failing to survive until the next minute, the next hour, the next day, which might unexpectedly bring liberty and all we had come to realize it meant.
While we froze in winter and suffocated in summer, this fear bred the will to overcome starvation by filling shrunken stomachs with the repulsively monotonous empty soups, choking over the cubes of polenta* made from corn and its ground cobs, heroically swallowing the offals that were our weekly meat ration, revelling in our daily thin slice of bitter brown bread and tea-spoonful of unsweetened jam. We knew that if we didn't, our bodies would force us into surrender. As imagination ceased functioning, we did not recoil in disgust from the nauseating contents of the chipped tin bowls; they were but the fuel required to maintain the flame of life, nothing else mattered. And to make up for it, the recital of tasty, mouth-watering recipes fed unsated appetites.
Mental starvation induced by "enforced idleness," the Communist interpretation of penal servitude, was as bad as the physical. It bred the fear of insanity. And not even decades in prison could resign us to that evil.
Female ingenuity found substitutes for needles to keep hands busy, while the pursuit of culture became an obsession. Although speaking a foreign language was severely punished, our cell soon turned into a Tower of Babel. French, German, Russian, Hungarian and the prime favorite, English, the language of our presumed liberators, were assiduously studied while we dutifully sat on the backless wooden benches. To rest or sleep during the seventeen-hour day was forbidden. In the impossibility of writing them, as the respective implements in any shape or form were banned, the lessons were soundlessly, endlessly memorized.
At first it was difficult, but our brains rapidly adapted themselves to assimilating lengthy foreign poems and texts of prose verbatim and effortlessly. This attainment, our greatest pride, boomeranged against us later. When my sister and I—just like other prisoners did—finally entered a world where bookshops, public libraries, theatres and films were accessible, the desire to take advantage of them had shrivelled up. Only the frenzied wish to catch up with the daily concerns of the Western man-in-the-street forced us to exert will-power in order to read newspapers and magazines. But we did not know then that this would be the result, and the exact recollection of what we heard and learned stood us in good stead at the time.
There were periods when even the boon of study was denied me. During seven-day spells in isolation cells, during the frequent transfers from the base penitentiary to the seclusion of prisons of enquiry or to the extra hardships of the underground transit prison nicknamed the "Damp Place," I had to find other means of escaping from the inevitable surfacing of the agony of anxiety about my dear ones and from the urge for freedom that would madden me.
Such means were at hand: fellow prisoners requiring moral support. By helping them, I helped myself, forgetting to wallow in self-pity while pointing out shreds of silver lining in the dark enveloping clouds of despair. Listening to them lighten their burden of distress by relating reminiscences from the past and their adventures in prison stirred an interest similar to that obtained from perusing an exciting novel.
Much of the material in this book was collected in this way. Singular experiences of my own have been added. The only way I could record them was to commit them to memory during the intervals between lessons and during the long months of solitary confinement. At least, this occupation did not involve any breach of the rules. However tight security measures, however vigilant the warders, they had not yet been endowed with the faculty of thought-reading. The hours (few by while I intensely concentrated on my subject; my mind maintained its agility, a powerful factor in preserving sanity.
When I finally emerged from prison, I found that I had won my battle of survival and, although badly scarred, was ready to take my place in the ranks of the free.
*A mixture of corn meal and husks that was cooked, cooled and cut into chunks, much like American corn-meal mush.