A legend is haunting the youngsters from Iași, Romania. According to it, those who walk beneath the arch of a house situated on Carol I Boulevard will not pass some of their next exams.
Used for Governmental meetings between the years 1916-1918, the house latter became the headquarters of the Romanian Securitate from Iași – the main repression instrument of Romania’s Communist Party. “Beatings were given as a kind of dessert”, Gelu Simionescu told me. He was arrested by the Securitate and detained in the house’s basement when he was 14 years old, for seven months.
“House Ghika” – as it’s listed on the national list of historical monuments, passed through many phases, which I documented. I’ll start with the most dark one:
A 14 years old boy is playing football with his friends on an improvised field, in the north-western part of Iași. The year is 1952, and Romania has already been under Communist command for seven years.
The boy’s name is Gelu and his family has been watched and tormented by the repressive Securitate for a long time. The Simionescu family members totaled, together, 80 years of political prison sentences to jail, from which were executed 46 years, in communist jails and labor camps.
Gelu and his friends are bothered by a thick cord that passes through the middle of their improvised football field. The cord was forgotten there by the army and is not connected to anything, so the boys cut 20-30 meters from it and they move it away from their playing space. One of the boys says that he will take the cut cord home; his mother and grandma could hang laundry on it, to dry.
Three younger brothers are watching the footballer boys from afar. They aren’t allowed to play, because the boys see them as children. The brothers are part of the Ionescu family; Gelu’s family is sometimes buying milk from them, to help them out with money.
The three Ionescus call the Securitate and denounce that they saw the boys cut a military cord. Later that day, a convertible jeep-like car stops by the football field. In it are officers from the Securitate.
“STOP, I’ll shoot; WAIT, I’ll open fire”, is heard from the car.
Two of the boys run off. Only Gelu stays behind. He is caught and taken to the car. He shouts, and his dad, who came to take him home, hears him, chases the car and writes down it’s license plates. He finds that it was a car of the Securitate.
The father finds Gelu at the Securitate headquarters, where the boy is interrogated while being called “bandit”. The father and the boy leave their personal information there – who they are, occupation, where they live, and then go home together.
Next day, in the evening around 11, a black Volga parks in front of the Simionescu family’s house. “It’s Securitatea, OPEN UP! We came to pick up the bandit!”
The militias put tin glasses on Gelu’s eyes, so he can’t see anything. “They started hitting me as soon as I climbed down the stairs of my house. They beat me up relentlessly, ‘till morning”, Gelu recounts to me. He is now 83 years old.
«BEATINGS AS A KIND OF DESSERT»
The boy is being detained for a few days in the basement of the Securitate headquarters, situated on Carol I Boulevard, where they also had some jail cells. Completely stripped down to his skin, with his hands and legs tied, Gelu’s feet and intimate area are being beaten up “as no one can ever imagine”, with a thin rod – so there would be no marks left in the visible areas of his body.
The interrogatory room has white walls and the questioning is usually done in the bad cop-good cop way. “One of them was beating you up, one was telling you that all he wants is to help you out”, Gelu remembers.
The Securitate officers ask him if his family is listening to international radio stations at home – something that was forbidden during the communist years. But because Gelu’s family has always been bothered by the Securitate, he knows what to say and what not. He answers that no, they don’t listen to radio stations from abroad.
A prisoner is then brought to Gelu’s cell. He later realised that the man was an informer for the Securitate. A “nightingale”, as he named him. This was an usual method of the Securitate, to bring fake prisoners in cells, so they would chat up the usually-politically detained person and find out incriminating details that could be used against them.
“He asked me what the news around the country is, if we listen to international radio stations at home, and I answered that we do. The whole family was listening at night to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, France, London, so we would know what’s happening around the world”, says Gelu Simionescu.
The Securitate is trying to frame Gelu, two more boys that played football with him and three scholars that wrote anti-communist manifestos for the charge of “organised group”, even if the two groups didn’t know one another. The framing fails, so Gelu is sent home.
He goes back to school. He’s a schoolboy at the “Costache Negruzzi” high school, one of the best schools from Iași.
After a few days he is arrested again, during Math class, at 9 in the morning. His teacher, Benone Constantinescu, tells the people from Securitate to wait outside of the class, until the end of the course.
This time, Gelu stays in the basement of Securitate for seven months. He is getting beatings continuously and is living in a room where the light is always turned on. “In the first two-three months, every two-three days, beatings were some kind of dessert”, remembers the man.
Day and night with the light on, Gelu is living in a cell that gets fresh air only through a very tight space. The beds are taken away at 6 in the morning and he must sit on his feet until 9 in the evening, when the beds can be used again. “They wrecked my feet, varices, my back and everything; I’m still suffering”, Gelu tells me.
During the arrest time, Gelu only goes outside once a week. For a few minutes, he is allowed to breathe in clean air and to feel the sunlight. He receives food in the morning, but not enough, he says: “I constantly suffered from hunger. I could deal with the beatings, but not with the hunger. I was receiving, once a week, some kind of meat waste, in a putrid bean food, and the rest of the time, gravy, 150 grams of bread and on Thursdays we were filling our bellies with polenta”.
After the seven months detention, the boy is taken to the Iași penitentiary, where the beatings stop. From there, he’s transferred to a labor camp, from the Danube-Black Sea canal.
CARRYING THE DEAD LIKE LUMBER AND RAW POTATOES
Thin to the bone, the boy receives mercy from some guards of the Danube-Black Sea canal forced labor camp. Gelu and another boy are assigned easier labors – cleaning the toilets, cutting veggies in the kitchen and carrying the deceased prisoners out of the barracks, every morning.
“In the morning, the deceased prisoners were taken out. They were stacked like planks, in front of the barrack, and we were carrying them like that, like planks, to the van. We were stacking them like logs and then leaving for the kitchen”, Gelu remembers.
In the kitchen, they can stealthily eat carrots, raw potatoes and cabbage core: “We were hiding one-two potatoes in our pockets, to give to those in hunger; there were 70-80 years old people, they were all dying after a few months… those were getting beaten up terribly.”
“Sometimes, we would dream while sleeping that we are eating. Being kids, we would dream of being in a bakery and we didn’t want to wake up in the morning, so that we wouldn’t wake up from the dream”, says Gelu, with a smile in his voice.
In communist Romania, there were 44 jails and 72 forced labor camps scattered all around the country, used to imprison political prisoners, according to The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes in Romania. In the early ‘50s, approximately 80.000 people were put to work in labor camps, out of which 40.000 were placed at the Danube-Black Sea canal.
After almost two years of imprisonment, Gelu is set free. He doesn’t have a criminal record, because he was detained as a minor, officially “for re-education purposes”. He finishes highschool, goes to college, becomes a chemical engineer and contributes to building the silk factory of Iași, where he accedes to a managing position.
One day he is called in the office of Ion Iliescu, the prime-secretary of the Central Committee of the Union of Communist Youth (President of Romania, 1989-1996;2000-2004), who tells Gelu that his past is well known and that he must become a member of the Communist Party, else, he will lose his job. Gelu answers neither no or yes, but after a short while, he is being forcibly handed his party member card. He never attends the committee meetings. “They (n.r: the Securitate) came to me a few times, to snitch information about factory colleagues, but I refused and they left me alone.”
In 2018, after he shared the experience he had as a political prisoner during an event, he received threatening phone calls. “You oldster, look after your cemetery matters”, was said to him. “I’ve been told to be very careful, to take care of my family, to mind my own business”, he says to me, during a talk about how some of the people who used to work for the Securitate are still active.
“SOME KIND OF JAIL”
The basement in which Gelu Simionescu was detained for seven months belongs to a house with a history of 200 years.
Built in 1830 and known under the name of Conachi House, Rosetti House or Ghika House, the building was used for a bank’s offices, as a piano store, then it hosted King Carol I, it was the headquarters of the Securitate, and after Communism fell, it had in the large rooms inside bookstores, print shops, music clubs, pubs and a cultural hub.
The Securitate started using the house in 1948. Those who opposed the Communist regime, usually young students, were taken there, interrogated and tortured. After 10 years, in 1957, the Securitate moved to another building, which is currently used by the County Police of Iași.
Today, the house is empty, except for a fast-food serving food on the side of the building, and a pub. Moraru Constantin, an 82 years old resident of Iași, is eating mici on the fast-food’s terrace. He was a teenager when the building used to be Securitate’s, and doesn’t remember much about it, only that “the basement was some kind of jail”.
The youngsters closely watched and then arrested by the Securitate were brought to the headquarters, locked down, interrogated and beaten up for a few days. “I don’t think that anyone got away without a beating, they would beat you up even to say the things that you didn’t do”, Octav Bjoza tells me on the phone, the president of the Romanian Association of the Ex-Politically Imprisoned.
Octav Bjoza is 82 years old and was arrested by the Securitate of Iași on the 25th of June 1958, when he was a 20 years old fresh graduate of the Geography and Geology faculty. He was part of an anti-communistic group, The Youth Guard Romania (no connection with the Iron Guard), which initially started as a literary circle.
Followed “day and night” for ten days, then brought in custody and treated as a criminal, Octav Bjoza was taken to another building used by the Securitate, not the one in which Gelu Simionescu was detained. But Bjoza’s memories illustrate the behaviour of the Iași securists.
“I was put in a jail which was more like a storage room. First I passed through an office, they took my belt, my shoelaces, then they cut the buckle straps from my pants. They photographed me front-side, took my height, my eye color, all my identification data, and of course, the prints from all fingers”, Bjoza remembers. The doctor that made the check-up, dr. Zilberman, wrote on the arrest warrant good for imprisoning.
To mentally torture the detainees, the securists were waking them up at night, handcuffed them, covered their eyes with tin glasses so that they wouldn’t see a thing and they were taking them to the interrogation room. There, they sat on a chair bolted into the ground with screws, and the handcuffs on their hands were pinned on a metal bar that forced them to keep their hands on the desk.
The investigator officer had on his left and right two lamps that were pointed to the detainee. “Another form of psychological torture. You couldn’t see the officer, only his pen and hands. That was it. You couldn’t see his face”, Octav Bjoza tells me.
During one of the interrogation nights, “a dead-end was reached”. Octav Bjoza thinks that the investigator had a button under his desk, which triggered a visual signal, because the door opened and a giant man appeared. The investigator told him “see, help this boy, he lacks some memories”, mr. Bjoza says. “They took me to a room where I only felt the first hit, a heat in the occipital area, and then I wasn’t aware anymore, only when I woke up in my cell”, he remembers.
One of the beating methods used by the Securitate was using long bags filled with sand, shaped like thick salami, with a handle stuck on one end. This is what Octav Bjoza thinks that was used on him, before he lost his consciousness and woke up in his cell. He thinks that other hits he received, “a slap, a punch, a leg kick” were little things, compared to this one.
After the trial organised by the communists, Octav Bjoza was sentenced to 15 years in jail, for machination against the social order, because he was part of the Youth Guard Romania. He served four years, in 14 different prisons and forced labour camps – Gherla, Codlea, Galați, Brăila, Văcărești, Jilava, Balta Brăilea, Stoienești, Salcia, Periprava. From weighing 76 kilos, when he was arrested, he dropped to 52.
A report made by the Presidential Commission for Analysis the Communist Dictature of Romania writes that between the years 1945-1989 there were 600.000 Romanians politically convicted by the regime, but the total number of the victims directly damaged by the communist repression is over 2 millions.
“THE FAILING STUDENTS ALLEYWAY” / “THE DROPOUT TUNEL”
The stories of the tortures endured by the politically arrested youngsters have led to the appearance of a myth regarding the former building of the Securitate, placed on the Carol I boulevard, where Gelu Simionescu was detained.
According to the myth, the students that pass beneath the columns of the building will not pass some of their next exams.
The house used to be stretched over the whole sidewalk, until around the years ‘68-’69, when it’s walls were broken down and an alleyway with seven columns was built. The myth emerged at the same time with the alleyway, Viorel Rusu tells me, a 78 years old citizen of Iași. We chat over his house’s fence, which is close to Carol I boulevard.
“My university colleagues would tell me «they made that alleyway, don’t pass beneath it, you won’t pass your exams»”, Viorel remembers. That was happening when he was in his third year, studying for a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.
There are stories according to whom the myth appeared when in the house’s basement were tortured the detainees arrested by the Securitate, and the passersby/passerbys would avoid passing close to the building, so that they wouldn’t hear the screamings.
Other older citizens told me, over Facebook, that in the 50’s there were military sentinels guarding the building, that were forcing people to cross the street, so that passerbys wouldn’t get close to the house and hear the screams of torture coming from the basement.
Then, there is another story that would be the source of the myth, which says that at the building’s first floor used to be a tavern where university teachers would often get hammered, and because they were bothered by the student’s presence, they wouldn’t let them pass their exams.
Currently, a lot of students and citizens of Iași avoid passing through the alleyway and choose to walk around the house. Some avoid it only because it sometimes smells like urine there.
I learned the true source of the myth from Silvian-Emanuel Man, the president of the Student League of Iași. He documented the history of the building together with his colleagues, being interested in the Communist period. He confirmed the story with two historians from Iași, who died a few years ago – Mircea Petrescu Dâmbovița and Gheorghe Buzatu.
According to Silvian, some students from the Iași universities were called to the Securitate headquarters by the officers and pressured to become fake witnesses against other youngsters that had anti-communistic behaviours. “They were told what to say or what attitude to have regarding certain colleagues of theirs, so that they could be used for fake testimonies in trials”, he told me.
This method is well known as being one used by the Securitate. Just as Gelu Simionescu was given a “nightingale” in his cell, the same thing happened to Octav Bjoza at the Securitate headquarters from Iași – a snitch was brought to his cell. “He was brought to my cell so that he could pull my tongue, and I walked him all around the world – I was a Geography student”, he told me. He met his new cellmate at night, around 02:30 a.m, when he got back from an interrogation. The cell smelled like salami, he said, a sign that the snitch was well fed. “Seeing that he can’t get anything important out of me, they took him out and brought another detainee, an engineer.”
The students that were called to the Securitate headquarters, on whom were made pressures to become fake witnesses, were usually students of the Humanities universities. The Securitate was interested in keeping an eye on Humanities students, because those youngsters were the most dangerous ones. “It was irrelevant to do this at the Math schools, because it was kind of hard to bug the Communist Party with technical matters”, Silvian explained to me.
To prove to the students that the Securitate has the power to control their academic and professional future, interventions were being made in their school records and the students would fail their exams, even if they agreed to collaborate and give false testimonies against other young people. The Securitate just wanted to make sure that they make a clear statement in regards to their power.
The students who would collaborate would eventually pass their exams, after being given this show of power.
That’s how the name of “The failing students alleway” came to life. “You knew that if you passed by the building, you were there; and if you were there, you clearly might not pass some exams”, Silvian says.
Every year, the Student League of Iași hosts, during the 14-15th of May night, a commemoration of the people detained in the former Securitate building from Carol I Boulevard.
THE HOUSE ON CAROL I BLVD, THEN AND NOW
The history of the house was reported by the writer Ion Mitican from Iași, in his book, “Going up COPOU thinking about the GREEN BRIDGE”, which appeared in 2000, at the Tehnopress printhouse.
In 1830, the “rich treasurer” Alecu Sturza bought a house from Elena, the mother of the poet Alexandru Hrisoverghi. The building was tore down and another was built in it’s place, one that was “big, with a large balcony on the entrance pillars – as it is today”. (Another source that studied the house’s history says that actually, in 1830 a fire broke out and the house needed to be rebuilt.)
Alecu’s wife was often throwing luxury parties in the palace, but after her husband died (1949), poverty hit her, and so, in 1852 she sold the house to Scarlat Rosetti, minister of the Finances of Moldavia in 1856.
Scarlat Rosetti was a gambling affiniciado, passionate about card games, “on which he would sometimes bet his own head”, Ion Mitican writes. Sometimes, he would gamble his wife, and then he’d wait for her at home, “happy to be able to bet her again”.
The house was then lived by Teodor (Toderiță) Balș, treasurer which became the temporary replacement of the prince. He died in 1857.
Passing through the landowner Grigore Balș’s hands, the palace is then sold to Frederich Carl Müller, musical instruments merchant and piano tuner “at whom the ma’ams of the time would run to, so that he would give melodic sounds to the pianos installed in almost all the salons from Iași”, as Mitican notes.
King Carol I was a guest of the house two times, in 1885 and 1887, while the building was occupied by the family of the prefect Matei Gane. In a salon upstairs, the king has received visits from local citizens.
A testament gave the house to Cornelia Müller, the second wife of the piano tuner. She uses the building as a mortgage and loses it.
In 1903, the building was renamed after a new owner, Anton Rohr, wine manufacturer.
Downstairs, there was opened a bakery Neculai Cazacu, “the famous baker”, as the writer names him. The top floors were rented by a colonel, Dimitrie Greceanu, ex-prefect, mayor of Iași between the years 1911-1912, Minister of Justice and Minister of Public Works.
During World War I, Greceanu’s house became a meeting point for the I.C. Brătianu government, which has taken refuge at Iași after the Romanian Army was defeated in 1916 by germans and ottomans.
“They (n.r: the Gov. cabinet) would meet at Greceanu’s house; it was a welcoming home that could host such guests”, Sorin Iftimi, museograper, tells me.
Dimitrie Greceanu died in December 1920, when a bomb attack in the Senate wrecked his lungs, kidneys and stomach. His widow lived in the house until 1927.
One of the names under which the house is known around town is “House Conachi” – a wrong title, as Sorin Iftimi has told me. The confusion is attributed to the fact that Conachi’s house, poet, was nearby. “The house of the poet Costache Conachi was by the Army House, in the back.”
In 1938, the house changed its ownership, from the Rohr family’s heir to the Urban Credit institution, for unhonored credits.
The Securitate moved into the building in 1948, according to a plaque placed on a house’s column by Gelu Simionescu and other members of the Romanian Association of the Ex-Politically Imprisoned – Iași branch.
After the Securitate left the building in 1958 and until communism fell, the building was used by the Regional Construction Trust.
The title “Ghika House”, as it’s named on a touristic board placed near the building, is also incorrect. “It’s a mistake; it’s listed like that on the list of historical landmarks”, says Sorin Iftimi, museographer at the National Museum Complex Moldova Iași. In addition, even if it’s being indexed in the historical landmarks list, the house doesn’t have the brown plaque that would identify it accordingly. The reason, “because of the town’s administrators’ concerns and because of the timid society”, says Sorin. “If someone would focus, gather resources, highlight events and personalities… the plaques would be placed.”
The touristic board existing today was placed by the Iași.Travel organisation, which started a project in 2016 to identify thematic touristic routes in Iași.
After an experience exchange between students and teachers of the Geography-Geology Faculty of the “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași and experts of the “Volda” University from Norway, meetings with public administrators of Iași, historians and people from the cultural field, the Iași.Travel team created seven themed touristic routes around Iași, I found out from Cosmin Ceucă, the organisation’s president.
Cosmin too, when he was a Geography student, avoided passing under the columns of the house. “Since I finished school there’s no reason anymore to avoid it, I pass beneath them”, he says.
The former Securitate building is part of the communism route of Iași.Travel and was included in it because of it’s placing and it’s myth. “We wanted them to be some routes that the visitors can walk on their own, with the help of the informative plaques and the website” LINK, says Cosmin.
The seven routes include 77 objectives, which last year were visited by around 3000 foreign tourists and 3000 Romanians.
According to Cosmin Ceucă, the foreigners are interested the most in the communism topic, while Romanians are more skeptical of it. “The guides being youngsters, the first thing that comes to mind for a person who lived during that period is you don’t know anything about those times”, he tells me.
Also on the communism route, Iași.Travel used to organise in Iași tours with the Communism Tram, together with the Tramclub association and the public transport company, but that stopped when the covid-19 pandemic hit.
A FORTRESS WON AT A POKER GAME
The house has four owners today. One of them is the heir of a man that won his property rights of the house at a poker game, when the horse race club Jockey was active in Iași (1862-1945).
Radu Băcăoanu, a well-known real estate developer from Iași, is one of the recent owners; he also has a hotel behind the house. Word got around town that his plans are to demolish the building and build a parking lot in it’s place, for the hotel. He denied the rumour, and told me: “the house is a historical landmark, the law denies (n.r: demolishing it)”.
One of the owners is Georges Ror, the grand-son of the wine manufacturer Anton Rohr. His father lived for a short time in the house, before he was evicted in 1946 by the State Safety Direction, an institution that was absorbed by the Securitate in 1948.
The house got back in the Ror family’s ownership in 2005, after a retrocession trial with the Iași Town Hall. Then, the building was used by Consart, the privatized descendant of the Regional Construction Trust. “The people from the trust strongly opposed (n.r:the retrocession), by using all kinds of lawyery loopholes and all kinds of obstacles used with malice, but in the end, justice has spoken it’s truth”, Georges Ror told me.
Until 2019, the first floor of the house was rented to a cultural hub, MERU – The Experimental Movement for Urban Resistance.
The misunderstandings between the owners and their refusal of communicating with each-other affected MERU.
The hub’s founders were abruptly informed that they needed to shut down all activity. The house owner with which they signed the agreement sold his property rights without letting them know. One day, an evict notice was left on their door, signed by an bailliff.
MERU signed a contract with another owner of the house, but the real estate developer, Radu Băcăoanu, sued the cultural hub, for “illegal habilitation” and won the trial on the merits.
“The judge didn’t conclude on the matters requested by him, but they went further and said yeah, you don’t illegally habilitate, but the contract isn’t agreed by a minimum of 50% of the owners”, Otilia Chitic, co-founder of MERU, told me.
Based on the court order, MERU had to be evicted, but they later won the trial, after requesting for an appeal.
Before the trial, MERU began receiving regular inspection visits from Romanian public institutions. At one check-up made by the emergency authorities (ISU), they found out why the check-ups were happening: “The inspector got mad and he given away, without wanting to… he already came to us three times, and once he got angry and said mister Băcăoanu better resolve his own issues, not through ISU”.
There was no renegotiation of the contract that worked for MERU. Then, two padlocks appeared on the grill of the building’s main entrance. One belongs to an owner, and one to Radu Băcăoanu. “None of them wants to take down the other’s padlock”, Otilia Chitic said.
They tried to renegotiate until March 2020, when the covid-19 pandemic hit. The recycled furniture of MERU and the fridges are still there.
The idea to create MERU was born “from an activist sense”, Otilia told me. “Not from the idea of making something pretty, something to the public’s liking. I felt the need, both me and the artists, to express as we were feeling, not as the public is asking.”
Otilia is an interior designer and always had an ideal about art, artists, art galleries and interconnecting spaces. She co-funded MERU, for which she didn’t want to access public funds or private contributions; it was barely financially supported by the coffee shop running in the building.
At MERU were organised artist workshops, art galleries, poetry sessions, debates, concerts and film screenings.
There was a future plan that under the columns of the house, on the sidewalk, there would be a student art gallery, based on the myth of the failing students’ alleway.
Otilia says that no matter what the interest is for the building today, it can’t be torn down. “Unfortunately for them, the building is a fortress that won’t degrade too easily.”
No matter what it’s called, the building has for sure one of the most interesting stories from Iași, and the failing exams myth will continue to haunt the students. But for people like Gelu Simionescu and Octav Bjoza, the house will forever be a grim remembrance of the totalitarian persecution that affected them for their whole lives.
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