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  • Beth Lantinga

To a Romanian Gulag


AT THE DANUBE DELTA

Though our June 2003 interview was not his first, it was apparent from Denes Fulop’s face and gestures that retelling the stories meant reliving his harrowing prison camp experiences. I don’t think it had become easy for him.


“From the prison in Kolozsvar, I was sent to the Danube Delta.* For a while, I lived on the Gironde, a wreck of a boat decaying in the middle of a field of bamboo located between the dike and the river. It was home to 400 men crowded into stacks of metal bunks. The whole boat was made of thick metal, so if it was warmer inside than outside, water condensed and dripped down, black and dirty. Smelly black smoke mixed with the humid air created filthy conditions just right for disease.


The cold was terrible especially because we were very thin and due to lack of nutrition had little strength. Camp officials gave us ragged clothing, military discards. Many times we were so hungry that we collected plants from the edges of the fields where we worked. We ate the snails we wiped off our pants and plants we used to feed the pigs at home. When we sat at the table, we would wryly ask which of our pigs would eat such a meal. We were always hungry. In fact, hunger was so great that after walking seven kilometers from the camp to the workplace in the morning, the willow trees near the dike were appetizing. The people at the beginning of the line were lucky because they had the first chance to eat the new green leaves.


I also spent long weeks working in water up to my knees weeding the rice plants, backbreaking work. The rice fields were 50 x 50 meters, small lakes. These rice fields stretched out to the horizon. We were not even allowed to stand up though our backs hurt so much from bending over. If we stopped even for a moment, the guards came with dogs and guns.


During one break I caught up to Pal Lajos, the painter, he surprised me by asking, ‘When are you going to give me back the Medici? a book I had once borrowed from him during our happy civilized life. So now that we found ourselves in this work camp, I replied, ‘As soon as you give me back Babbit’s European History,’ a book he had once borrowed from me. So you see we had some cheerful moments, even there.


In springtime the delta was covered by water, but in the winter we had to cut a bamboo-like plant just above the ice. Each morning lines of 400 persons walked great distances to the place they had left off the day before. One of my most terrible memories is of a Sunday morning early in that spring, a day when the milder weather had caused the ice to begin to thaw. Though it was no longer strong enough to hold the weight of the prisoners we were still forced out on the ice to cut the bamboo. Like the days before, the prisoners marched out on to the ice. The first men on to the ice fell through. Those who followed tried to stop, but the guards with guns and dogs forced them to continue walking. The whole group of prisoners reacted as one with an animal shout, frightening even the guards.


The sergeant was a cruel man, and didn’t allow the prisoners to turn back. Because he was worried about his own position, he forced us to stay in the icy water all day long. The guards were afraid of the punishment they would get if they returned back to the camp too early. The cold and suffering was so great that some prisoners begged the guards to shoot them.


There were other unforgettable moments. For a time we lived on a kind of tug boat at the edge of a village called Lucu Gheorge. The deck of the boat was connected to the dike with planks. I was terrified of walking on these planks because I didn’t know how to swim. Having grown up in a hilly farm region, I never had time to visit lakes to learn to swim. So I was always afraid of falling into the river. When we returned from our daily work, dead-tired, they forced us to haul bricks. This frightened me to death because we had to stand on the narrow planks to pass bricks from hand to hand.


I must tell you that at the age of twenty-three one can be a very old man, no longer alive spiritually, unconnected to life, ones instinct for living barely alive. I remember one day when I didn’t care anymore whether I lived or not. I was swaying, hardly able to stand passing the bricks, the Danube below me. I thought that I would escape by falling into the water, but in that moment I saw the faces of my mother and father very much before me – waiting for me, crying for me, and I thought, I cannot die here. I want to tell you that these moments had a kind of spirit preserving power, so it wasn’t only my faith but my memories too.


One time my friend Laszlo Szoke who was tried with Ferenc Visky in the Christian Endeavor case, helped me run across the plank between the boat and the dike, and as we ran he whispered a Bible text to me, his verse for the day. Another time Kalman Csiha whispered a text from Proverbs. I remembered their words for a long time.”

*The Danube Delta gulag was horrific and matched the conditions in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. The following article describes conditions there. http://hungarianreview.com/article/20170919_death_march_redux_the_56_revolutionaries_of_transylvania

In her book, Gulag, Anne Applebaum said, “The Danube – Black Sea Canal, appears to have served no real economic function as all. . . .A propaganda slogan declared that the “Danube – Black Sea Canal is the tomb of the Romanian bourgeoisie.” P. 456

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 © Beth Lantinga 2020