“It was only through Him that I resisted, otherwise I can’t imagine how I could have!” – interview with poet Dumitru Oniga

I have heard about Dumitru Oniga since high school. I knew that he lived in Suceava, but I never had the chance to meet him. I was very happy when I got the appointment for this interview. The day before, I found out that he lives right next to the courthouse. I smiled and thought that life has its way of laughing. I expected to find a weak old man – I had heard he had some health problems recently – and I thought how not to bother him too much. I didn’t. I found Mr. Oniga in his office, at his computer, proofreading his latest book, which he will be publishing in the autumn. It was a small office, but from the start it created an atmosphere conducive to dialogue, which Mr Oniga maintained with a sharp smile and a look that didn’t allow me to move. The discussion would go far, from the life of the Romanian peasant to the meagre food rations in prisons. My journey would go as far. I would discover that for the first time in my life I was ashamed of being overweight.

Beniamin Pușcașu: The first forms of anti-communist resistance were formed here in Bucovina. What is the explanation for this, are Bucovinians something special?

Dumitru Oniga: I wasn’t here at that time. I was in Baia Mare at a school for subengineers and I was arrested there, I was taken with the Ardelenians. Here in Bucovina, a form of national resistance has been preserved since the time of the Austrians. The Romanians came into conflict with the Austrian officials because they wouldn’t give up pork, they wouldn’t give up customs and so on. Or there were other peoples in the Empire who cared about their existence. The Romanians did not give up either, and created a whole series of societies, such as the “Arboroasa” in Cernăuți, societies that manifested the Romanian spirit; the Putna festival was a great Romanian festival, to which intellectuals from all over Romania came. At the opening of the festival, as is customary in our country, a game was organised, starting with the “Hora Mare”. Ciprian Porumbescu, who was there, went up to the musician who was playing, took the violin from his hand and played the Hora Mare. When he had finished, he went to his father Iraclie, who was also there, fell on his knees and said: “Father, I sang the whole Dacia! This tradition was preserved even when the communists came, who first denied religion, then customs and the right to property, and they certainly met with a certain resistance. In Bukovina, this resistance manifested itself almost immediately, because there was a tradition.

You were also one of these “problem people” of the party. You were arrested and sentenced several times. How many years did you spend in prison?

About 20 years. Maybe more with the arrests, but about 20 years. From 13 March 1943, when I was arrested by Antonescu, until 1 July 1945. Then I was arrested on 21 August ’48 and came home on 7 May ’64.

At the time of your first arrest you were still at school. How old were you and what was the reason for your arrest?

Yes, I was in the fourth year of high school. I was taken back from the so-called rebellion, that is Antonescu’s coup d’état, which is what it was. When Carol II had taken over Romania – he had also been forced to leave the country by the legionaries, and Antonescu guaranteed him free passage – he asked Antonescu: “And what are you going to do with the legionaries? Antonescu replied: “Your Majesty, I will solve this problem, because your Majesty could not”.

Or the problem is that I was imprisoned with all sorts of people. Once I made friends with a Jew who was a Freemason, and he told me that in the higher forums of Freemasonry it was decided that the Legionaries should be suppressed every ten years. And so it was. In `38 Codreanu was killed with a large part of his elite, in `48, on 15 May, there were about 17,000 arrests, some of them were tried and convicted, the others were kept as such, “legionaries”, and in `58 they made several thousand arrests again. I told you about the so-called Legionnaires’ Rebellion. I was in the third year of secondary school in 1940. We also went out into the streets to see what was going on, it was me and some colleagues. We also talked, as they say. A stray bullet hit me and pierced my intestines. In those days it was very difficult to get away. I escaped, but the hospital bill was about 3,000 lei. My mother couldn’t afford it. The Brotherhood of the Cross, the legionary organisation, paid for me. After I got out, the Brotherhood of the Cross contacted me. They asked me how I felt and so on. I felt obliged to answer them, I couldn’t turn my back on them. I didn’t even think at the time that this could be considered a reason for arrest. My correspondence with them was considered legionary activity and I was convicted. The tragedy is that Antonescu handed us over to the communists.

In Alba Iulia prison you met Ion Gavrila. What was he like, 18-19 years old, the man who was to make history in Făgărași?

Yes, I met him in Alba Iulia. We were very good friends. Gavrilă was interested in life in Bucovina, in our songs, our dances, our customs, the port and all the things that could fascinate a young man who wanted to know his people. We learned songs and poems from each other, told each other stories and had many discussions, as could happen between young people of good character, sentenced to many years in prison, for a song, a book or a few coins collected for their comrades in prison. These are the times when a country under enemy influence kills its best sons. Here, in Alba-Iulia, there were mostly the prize-winners of the country’s high schools and colleges.

In 1944, we were liberated on the basis of a marshal’s decree and thanks to the prison commander, Colonel Muscă, a particularly good man, who gave good marks to all the children imprisoned here. In the other prisons, the decree had no effect, because only a few informers were given good marks. I met Gavrilă a few years later in Cluj. He was an agronomy student and I was going to Baia-Mare, where I was attending a school for mining sub-engineers. One of the things he told me was that people were starving in Aiud. It was 1946 and there was a terrible drought in Moldavia and he asked me if I could collect some food and money to send to Aiud. I did as much as I could because I was also staying at the hostel and I was never too hungry. I sent money and food to Aiud via Cluj in 1946-47. Eventually the Security Service found out about what we were doing, which was considered legionary activity and legionary aid. I was arrested, sentenced and sent to Aiud. Gavrilă fled to the mountains. After 1989 I often met Ion Gavrilă, we reminisced about our dead brothers, he sent me the books he had written, he passed through Suceava, slept at my house and met my family.

In Aiud you met Nichifor Crainic. Could you please tell us how you met him?

I was working on a kind of mechanical press with a citizen of Cluj, a former student of his, Ion Halmaghi. One day he came to me and told me to go with him because he wanted to introduce me to Nichifor Crainic. Of course I went. We walked into the courtyard, keeping an eye on all sides so as not to be surprised by the administration’s snoopers or our scoundrels. Next to a large pile of sawdust stood an old man, small in stature, dark-haired, thin, washing some metal parts in a large tub of diesel. We approached him and Halmaghi said: “Professor, I’ve come to introduce you to a man from Bucovina who is being tormented by the mule. See if he’s up to something”. I told him a poem I had written, and he encouraged me… He always said to me when we parted: “Bucovinian, see you in Gândirea”. At that time I still believed that the Americans would come and that they would not leave us in the hands of barbarism and darkness.

The last time I saw him was in March 1953. It was a cold morning, and when they took us out with the potty to put it in the cupboard, and I was waiting for my turn, Nichifor Crainic appeared behind me, carrying the potty with difficulty. There had been a barbaric search during the night and he complained to me that they had taken everything from him, a jumper, a flannel, even his toothbrush. He took off his waistcoat, he was cold, he was wearing an oversized coat over a frail and weak body. He coughed a lot, and his face showed immense sadness mixed with despair. All I could say to him was: “Don’t worry, Professor, spring is coming, the weather is warming up and God will help us resist. “I can’t do it anymore, I’m finished,” he said. “Don’t give up, keep on fighting, don’t give up!”. Then I found out that they had released him.

In his petition, Nichifor Crainic wrote: “In the age of ages I will not be ashamed of what I have done for my country”. Was he the same when you met him or had his imprisonment changed him?

As a man he had many weaknesses. He had a hard time in prison because of its misery and he suffered more than anyone else, but above all he was tormented by hunger, cold and all the humiliations we were subjected to. Many blamed him for these weaknesses, and all sorts of gossip and evil rumours circulated, mostly by politicians and informers, servants of political officers. Some fell into the trap and unwillingly played into the hands of the communists. Investigations, blows and beatings could end in a new trial or, more often than not, in the death of the person concerned. The political officers did their utmost to bring about new investigations and trials. And yet, in these terrible conditions, Nichifor Crainic created immortal poems of rare beauty. I learnt them and spread them, and in difficult moments, when one had reached the end of one’s patience, in moments of dismay and despair, one prayed and recited them. In general, the poetry in the prisons corresponded to our sorrows, and the poets were appreciated and esteemed.

Radu Gyr was also imprisoned in Aiud at that time. Did you know him too?

Very little. In general, the administration tried to kill more people who were outstanding. There was a very parsimonious policy. They would call you in and ask you what you thought of this or that. If you said something positive, you were persecuted. When they called you in for questioning, you would say anything, as long as it was bad. He suffered a lot and was very ill. Once I managed to get out of the yard and into his cell. He had heard of me, someone had told him some of my poems. We talked about poetry in general, he loved poetry. 

“I should have been dead by the time of the inquest…” 

Did you also encounter barbarians during the investigations or in prison?

D.O.: I was investigated at Satu Mare. There were only Jews and Hungarians. There was only one Romanian, who was also on the phone, poor thing. They just crushed us there. It was a very harsh regime. First of all, there was no food. On Thursdays someone from a humanitarian organisation would come and bring us food. It was very little, a couple of spoonfuls of soup and a slice of bread. When you got to the point of total exhaustion, to the point of death, they would send you to the prison. You’d stay there for a month or two, with food that was just as bad, but at least there was more of it. When you got back on your feet, they’d take you back to interrogation, where the beatings would start again. They were very, very cruel. There was one Kul, every time he saw me he would knock me down and start beating me with his fists, with his feet, with anything he could grab. He had very heavy boots, with spikes or something. My whole body was bruised. In Cluj there was a Jew, Brainer, who rarely let anyone live after the investigation. A citizen from Satu Mare came to Aiud. He had been examined by Brainer in Cluj for about a month.  He told me that he stayed there in a cell under the office. While he was there, Brainer investigated 32 people, 32 of whom died. I also knew people who were investigated by Brainer. They told me that they got away scot-free. There was another gypsy in Cluj, Stănescu, who competed with Brainer; he killed more people. That was the reality! People don’t really know it now.

One evening on television a Jew was arguing with a man that the Jews were not to blame for what happened in communist Romania. Nonsense… They played one of the leading roles. The vast majority of Security Service chiefs were Jews. In Suceava it was Popic, in Cluj it was Patricius – Patricius called himself – in Satu Mare, where they investigated me, it was Weiss Ludovik. They behaved miserably. Real criminals.

Did you ever wish to die under such conditions?

I never wished for it, but I didn’t miss it very much. In ’55 I was very ill with tuberculosis. I had a galloping form. They put me in the infirmary, and the first night the doctors came to see me, they were still our doctors, prisoners, and there were seven shirts hanging to dry in the room. There was a priest with me, Father Ștefan from Constanța. They asked him what was going on and he explained that I had soaked all the shirts by sweating. Next to me in the infirmary was a friend of mine, a Lupașcu, who was in a bad state. He couldn’t even move his hand. He had tuberculosis all over his body, he’d come from the mines. He was given some medicine, but he didn’t need it… They gave me a hundred Hidrazive. This is a bacteriostatic drug used against tuberculosis. I took ten pills the first day and that night I sweated through three shirts. The next day I took ten more and I stopped sweating. Father said a prayer to thank God for doing a miracle for me. It was a very hard moment…

How did you manage to resist?

Only God knows. It was only through Him that I resisted, otherwise I don’t know how I could have done it. I should have been dead since the investigation, let alone in prison.

There was another period of hunger in Aiud. We were given a soup made from chilli peppers and 250 grams of bread a day. It was a big two-kilo loaf, it was so fluffy, studied by Soviet scientists, and when it was distributed, I don’t think you got more than 150 grams. A lot of people died of starvation at that time. Remus Daneș, an intellectual from Mitoc, also died. He was very tall and strong, and those who were tall like him didn’t survive. “I am starving in the land of bread. How will this nation pay for all its crimes?” he said before he died. Every day 5-10 coffins were taken from the prison.

There is only one attempt in Romania to reveal the true extent of communist crimes. I’m talking about Lucia Hossu-Longin’s “Memorial of Pain”. Are you familiar with these reports?

YES! I see them all the time. They are far from the truth. It’s very difficult to reproduce this situation where you stay isolated for years. Of course there are moments of cruelty that she never showed. When three people escaped from Aiud, they were three airmen. There was repression in Aiud because they had escaped. They put about 20 people in chains, including me, and made us walk from the factory to the canteen. The guards formed a corridor for us to walk through. They stood there with stakes, with sticks, and they beat you. They kept it like that for days.

Were you punished in this way just because the three had escaped?

Yes, because they had escaped.

Do you know what happened to those who escaped?

It didn’t last long. They caught two of them and sentenced them to death. The sentence was carried out. The third, a Greceanu, escaped. He died at home. 

 “There really should be a revolution, but a real one…” 

After December, Romania is full of anti-communists and revolutionaries. I can hardly believe that there were Romanian communists. What happened? Did they all repent in ’89?

Have you seen the play “Black Rooster” by Victor Eftimiu? It’s like the scene with the green emperor and the red emperor. The green emperor’s subjects were dressed in green. When the green emperor dies and the red emperor appears on stage, everyone turns their clothes inside out. What do you know, they were red. That’s how it was with the anti-communists. This period of almost 50 years has affected the character a lot. They promoted the informers and snitches. Most of the leaders after ’89 were promoted that way, by informing. We can all see that some of them have become millionaires. They closed and scrapped all the factories in the country and then sold the scrap metal. Iliescu patronised all the misdeeds!

Why doesn’t communism have a “Nuremberg”?

How can communism have a Nuremberg when the communists are still in power today? The Association of Former Prisoners elected me as a deputy. I went on holiday to Covasna and when I came back I was no longer a deputy. They did what they did and they changed me. In these cases, the community was not taken into account. They put in whoever they wanted.

Do you think it’s an exaggeration to say that the mental consequences of communism were as bad or even worse than the physical ones that so many people experienced?

No! I am a farmer’s child. When I was at home I worked on the land. I would go home in the evening and leave sacks of potatoes, often I would leave the plough, leave them in the field. Nobody touched them. Now they can dig your potatoes out of the ground and steal them. That’s what the Romanian farmer has become. The moral quality has fallen enormously, and that is a great misfortune for a nation, for a country.

Is the free Romania outside similar to the one you imagine in prison?

We are living in a catastrophe. In Stupca, half of my land lies fallow, nobody is working it. The situation is the same in the rest of the country. There are so many Romanians who preferred to leave and work as slaves for foreigners. I said before: our biggest disaster is our moral quality. If people do not know how to promote honest, patriotic people in their leadership, we are lost.

Does Romania still have honest and patriotic people?

It will. You, the younger ones, have to overcome yourselves. We need a generation that knows how to stand up for itself. I believe that this country will react in some way, it will react through its youth. It’s easy to leave when I don’t like it, but it’s hard to stay and put things in order.

I ask you with all due respect, do those who were shaped by communism have to die in order for us to progress?

It seems so! The unfortunate thing is that their sons remain, who inherit the same habits and who have also learnt from the best. There really should be a revolution, but a real one, one that puts real people in charge, not looters.

(“Dad, I sang for all of Dacia!” – Interview by Beniamin Pușcașu, published on 03/06/2013 on the platform LOUNGE. Student online experiment)

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