BUCHAREST -- When she was growing up in a small town in southern Romania, Laura Voicila was stigmatized by her father’s past.
In 1949, as the communists tightened their grip on the Eastern European country, Nicolaie Voicila, 17, was arrested and later sentenced to four years of hard labor for “plotting against the social order.”
His crime was joining a literary club at which members discussed the relatively new communist regime led by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and hoped it would disappear.
The high school student was one of the thousands the communists incarcerated in prisons and labor camps after World War II, often simply because they had fallen afoul of the communist regime.
There are no universally accepted figures, but a 2006 presidential commission established to study the communist dictatorship said more than 600,000 Romanians were sentenced for political crimes between 1945 and 1989. Thousands died from beatings, illness, exhaustion, cold, or lack of food or medicine.
Early Days Of Communism
Andrei Muraru, a historian and adviser to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, told RFE/RL that in the early 1950s some 100,000 prisoners were sentenced to hard labor on a project called the Black Sea Canal, a 70-kilometer waterway connecting the Danube to the Black Sea. It was also known as the "Canal of Death."
Voicila toiled there, transporting heavy loads of rock before he was sent to work restoring a casino, an architectural monument to art nouveau in the nearby port of Constanta that had been bombed by the Germans during the war.
He didn’t talk much about those experiences after his release -- actually being forbidden from talking about his imprisonment -- and his fear of discussing those hard times lingered even after communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted and executed during the 1989 Romanian Revolution.
But he did tell family members that political prisoners had scribbled notes and buried them in the walls of the casino.
“When I was growing up, Dad told us: When they renovate the casino, go there and find the documents,” Laura Voicila told RFE/RL.
"Under communism, we discussed things very quietly and never in public," she said. "Dad listened to Radio Free Europe and I would say 'Dad, what are they saying in Germany (RFE was based in Munich from 1950-1995)? I even remember the jingle [that went with the news]."
At school in the town of Gorgota, Laura had top grades, but her father’s past meant she suffered discrimination.
“My teacher told me: ‘You should be the class leader, but we can’t make you one,” she said. "[My father] told me to study and to leave the country if I wanted a chance [in life]."
Laura kept the story about the hidden notes in the back of her mind, until one day in May this year.
Her mother called saying she had seen on the news that restorers had unearthed a scrap of paper hidden in a wall of the casino that was signed by political prisoners.
“When my mom heard a note had been found, she said ‘You have to go and see it.’ She was moved to tears. It was a moment of moral reparation for her [after nearly 70 years]. People saw [the note] was there and it was real,” she told RFE/RL.
In mid-May, after Romania lifted a state of emergency imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Laura went with Apollon Cristodulo -- the son of Ion Cristodulo, an architect and political prisoner in charge of restoring the casino -- to Constanta to see the note firsthand.
The note -- a scrap of paper torn from a cement sack with the names of 17 political prisoners written in charcoal and dated December 31, 1951 -- is not much in itself, were it not for the dire circumstances that it was created under and its historical importance.
"It was found rolled up in a ball by a stained-glass window restorer. He was looking for some old shards of glass in the wall and he came across the paper. He felt there was something [special] about it," Apollon Cristodulo said on July 23.
“It was miraculous that this note was found,” he said. “I wrote about the [hidden note at the] casino many years ago, but nobody believed it; they thought it was just a story, a legend…. But now everything I’ve written has come true.”
Cristodulo's father died in 1991 aged 66, his health damaged by the harsh years of detention.
“His heart, liver, and lungs were all shot. He died after his fourth heart attack," Cristodulo told RFE/RL.
Romania's Political Prisons
Muraru, the former director of the governmental Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes, secured the first ever prosecutions of former prison commanders in Romania.
Alexandru Visinescu, who was in charge of the notorious Ramnicu Sarat prison, was sentenced in 2016 to 20 years in jail for the deaths of 12 prisoners at the institution. One year later, Ioan Ficior received the same term for crimes against humanity for his role in the deaths of 103 prisoners at the Periprava labor camp. Both have since died serving their sentences.
Muraru said the fact that the detainees managed to write the note was remarkable.
“This is a rare piece of testimony because prisoners didn’t have access to paper or pencils, but…there was less supervision and the presence of ordinary workers and more humane figures who could provide them with something to write with, and that made it possible for this scrap of paper to be secreted away and put [in the wall]," he told RFE/RL.
“It took decades for the traumatic memory of communism to finally settle,” he added.
Alexandra Toader, the current director of the institute said: “After 70 years, we have material confirmation of what happened [at the casino].”
She said the Securitate communist secret police conducted excavations at the casino in 1986 and may have found other documents which were archived, something Cristodulo also thinks is likely.
“We have 26 kilometers of Securitate archives, a sea of documents; but I’m not sure whether they are digitized or documented,” Toader told RFE/RL.
The institute will hold an exhibition at the casino “dedicated exclusively to this episode,” she said. “Hopefully we can obtain objects they used, letters they wrote to their families, their tools.”
Researchers are investigating the estimated 100 prisoners who worked on the casino, tracking down biographical information to try to find out what happened to them.
“Most prisoners were there for the flimsiest of reasons and they were there for years on end regardless of their age,” Toader said. "It was a pretext to get rid of the so-called 'enemies of the people.'"
Cristodulo told RFE/RL that the documents about the Black Sea Canal are still classified by the secret service.
“There were 100,000 people who carried out forced labor…the documents need to be declassified,” he said.
Nicolaie Voicila, who died in 1999 at the age of 66, dreamed of becoming an architect but the communists wouldn’t let him complete his education. He managed to qualify as a sub-engineer and became the manager of a cement site, forever inspired by the work he had done with the architects on the casino.
But he was traumatized his entire life by his past as a prisoner.
"He wasn’t allowed to speak or write down what happened and he thought they’d come and get him, so he had a lack of trust," Laura Voicila said. "He didn’t trust people. He thought maybe a neighbor would find out about his past and he’d be in trouble."
He did tell us that when he worked on the canal, prisoners were beaten “and others [were forced] to eat feces,” she said.
“Prisoners had to transport rocks and they’d walk along a 30-40 centimeter piece of wood over the canal with a wheelbarrow full of rubble. And if a prisoner fell off, nobody bothered to rescue him,” Laura Voicila said.
“There are many human bones buried in that canal,” she said.
Muraru added that it is known as “the Romanian Siberia.”
The collapse of communism failed to bring the changes that Nicolaie Voicila and many others had hoped for.
“He realized the old communists had come to power and he lost hope he’d ever see real democracy,” the 42-year-old Laura Voicila, who runs a family fruit and vegetable supply business, said.
"He saw miners attacking anti-government protesters in 1990 and he said: 'You see? People are being beaten and killed. It’s still the same old people.'"
It’s a sentiment shared by Paul Andreescu, the head of the Association of Former Political Prisoners in Constanta.
Andreescu was a political prisoner for five years because he joined a youth organization that wanted to “free Romania from the Russians and their demands, such as making Russian a mandatory language at school and learning the history of the Soviet Union,” he told RFE/RL.
“We are free, but far from what we dreamed of and what we had hoped for in 1989.”
As head of the Constanta branch, Andreescu said: "It’s very important we have this proof [of the note from the casino], even if there are just a few names. They show the ugly past of the Romanian people, when people had to perform forced labor under all kinds of conditions."
He added: “They are witnesses, even if they are buried in a wall.”
Toader says it’s important that Romania knows its past.
“This subject is still largely unknown in schools and books, and detainees didn’t speak of their detention; even their memoirs are truncated out of fear or an attempt to forget,” she said.
“This is very relevant for the young generation, as some are nostalgic about communism,” she said in an interview at her Bucharest office.
“Extremes can’t be allowed, neither left nor right. The rule of law must prevail.”