The Revolt of the Romanians

I first met Ceausescu in October 1941 at the Jilava military prison, where we shared the same cell for almost two months. As young Communists we were arrested by the fascist government for anti-Nazi activities. Then we met again in 1942 at the Caransebes Special Penitentiary near Timisoara, where we worked together in the same shop, painting toys and other objects, until 1944, when he was transferred to the Tirgu Jiu concentration camp. Forced to live closely with him for so long, I learned much about this young peasant, who was unaccustomed to life in the city and who, although he claimed to be a shoemaker, seemed incapable of learning a trade. He was both primitive in mentality and manner and endowed with remarkable intelligence.

His most striking feature, though, was the deep hatred he showed his fellow inmates, even though they were fighting for the same cause at the risk of death. Not directed at any one person, this was a general and impersonal hatred, which seemed to consume him. It took the form of a free-floating anger and contempt for other people, particularly people his own age or in positions he considered inferior to his own. He could not bear losing any contest and I recall that when he lost a game of chess in prison he simply refused to speak to the winner. In his relations with the rest of us he seemed strangely empty of any normal human feelings.

The vicious side of his character, which was so clear to us young political prisoners, he somehow managed to hide from others, including Gheorghiu-Dej, the future leader of the Romanian Communist party and of the country, who himself was imprisoned at Caransebes during the war and then at Tirgu Jiu. In March 1965, before his death, Gheorghiu-Dej appointed Ceausescu as his successor. Ceausescu was then forty-seven, but he had not changed at all in twenty years.

Ceausescu’s rise to absolute power meant that a generalized hatred became embodied in Romanian institutions. The massacres of December 17 by the Securitate at Timisoara, which set off the revolution against him, revealed to the world the true face of this hatred. But the world was slow to grasp its other, less spectacular, consequences: a legalized genocide, resulting from widespread lack of food and heat, and the deterioration of medical services, including the refusal to treat many people, particularly the elderly. Added to this was the suffering caused by forcing women to give birth to unwanted children since birth control and abortion were made illegal. As a result the rate of infant mortality has increased. In no other East European country is the atmosphere so polluted or have so many villages been destroyed.

Food and medical treatment were not withheld out of necessity but because of Ceausescu’s cruel and deliberate schemes to pay off the country’s foreign debt and to control the population. Central to these schemes were the scorn and hatred that were part of Ceausescu’s character. The massacre…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.