At 23 years of age, Emil was on the frontlines in the battle to free Transylvania from the Germans. A battle in which the Romanians fell like dominoes. These were sons of peasants who went off to fight with no formal training and wearing galoshes on their feet.
At 33, Emil walked out the doors of the Gherla prison. One had only to look at the palms of his hands to catch a glimpse of the pain he had endured.
Emil returned home in March of 1954 with the intent of becoming a teacher but the job came at too high of a cost. He would have to be both an informer as well as a teacher, so he became a bricklayer.
In the 1970s, he received an offer to join the communist party. “You are now rehabilitated” was the sales pitch.
“Please, leave me be,” was his response.
Emil Drăgan was born on November 20, 1920 in the commune of Galda de Jos in Alba County. At 97, he has lived through most of Romania’s 100 year history.
“Next year, Romania will celebrate 100 years of history and we will congratulate one another with the traditional expression of ‘To many more years’”, Emil anticipates.
“Honestly, I do not wish for many more years like the past 100. I want a more beautiful, healthier, safer Romania. In the past, we were like the leaf of a walnut tree, tied to the tree with a silk string. We flew wherever the wind blew.”
During the war, Romania was the soccer ball of the world’s great powers. Later, with the arrival of the communists, all possible moral principles were violated. We were beaten, literally and figuratively, until our identity was destroyed.
I hope that this nation manages to make its way out of the darkness and into the light. I continue to feel this hope is possible.
Emil shares his picture collection with us, starting from his high school graduation to his retirement.
“Here I am at 18, 29, as a prisoner, 44, 64, and that’s where the pictures end. Old age is the always the same.”
He walks with a cane as his knees tremble. He lives with a neighbor and only manages to get to church when he finds someone to drive him there. His memory plays tricks on him, yet it doesn’t faze him.
“It’s not so easy to rewind 97 years of life, so I depend on pictures to look back on my life. What I see are lots of dreams. Dreams are one thing that the Communists could not kill.”
Emil does not dwell on his suffering. His favorite subject is his father, Aron Drăgan. Aron was among the first wave of Romanian immigrants to the United States and Canada.
In the early 1990’s, the young miller from Galda boarded a ship with empty pockets, ready to join the industrial revolution. In those days, people would catch the ship from Hamburg, Bremerhaven or Cuxhaven. The merchant’s slogan was written by a clever copywriter: “America is just around the corner.”
The reality is that the ship took nearly one month to arrive, depending on the weather conditions and on the vessel itself. Aron was packed like a sardine into the steerage class with the bare minimum of food. From New York, he and his fellow immigrants boarded trains for factories in the rust belt of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit.
Aron learned a trade and worked hard in the Great Lakes region. One morning he woke up with severe leg pain and stayed home from work. Later that day an explosion at his worksite left all his colleagues dead. Fate had spared Aron’s life and sent him back home to Romania in 1919.
Aron liked to say he came home to celebrate the Great Union of Romania. A year after his return, his son Emil was born. Aron managed to avoid fighting in both of the two World Wars, but he could not escape the Communists. In the 1950s, he was declared a “wealthy peasant” and the 70-year old miller was arrested and jailed for a year.
World War Two
Emil Drăgan was an artillery officer. He matured in the trenches. He chooses not to glorify the acts of military heroism of the Romanian troops. He says that our soldiers were better equipped in the War of Independence than in 1941 when the Axis’ troops approached.
He fought first on the western front and was imprisoned in Hungary after being caught. He spent six months in the concentration camps at Kaisersteinbruck and Oranienburg. The Germans would give them a daily ration of about 200 grams. Sometimes, the Germans would take the Romanian soldiers out “to graze”, literally. They would be brought to pastures where they were expected to feed on roots.
When Emil arrived home in Galda de Jos after the war in July 1945, he found things almost exactly as he had left them, except that there were Russians poking their noses in everything. Drăgan minded his own business, finished his studies in Economics and was preparing to become a teacher. However, he was arrested on March 11, 1948. The crime: failure to denounce a conspiracy that threatened social order.
The authorities had made a connection between him, a fresh college graduate, and the former mayor of Galda de Jos, Florian Picoş. Picoş supported anti communist resistance groups led by Nicolae Dabija and Alexandru Maxim that hid in the mountains.
“Picoş was leading an organization in opposition to the regime, a nationalist-peasant association. Soon enough, I realized that they were an inefficient organization that made more noise than anything else.
The Securitate grouped me together with the guilty even though I had only returned from college two months before. Out of nowhere, I found myself being investigated in the basements of the Securitate in Alba-Iulia.”
There, he began to understand that he was in grave danger. Drăgan was sentenced to five years in prison and all his property confiscated. He served his entire sentence.
Almost 70 years later, he believes that there is no hell as terrifying as the one he experienced in Aiud — the first prison he was locked up in. Although he experienced war and a concentration camp, it was in the prison of Aiud where he realized that terror can take on unimaginable shapes.
On the evening of October 17, 1949, he stepped into the reception room of the Aiud prison alongside of 15 other convicts from the Dabija and Maxim battalions. When the bolt was locked behind them, they were suddenly hit by a pestilential smell and to their horror, they saw that there was a bucket full of feces in the middle of the room.
This image still haunts him today.
“A big bucket, so crammed that feces had spilled over for a meter around the bucket. It had been put there intentionally as a message for us. We were as valuable to them as that bucket of feces.
We stayed glued to the walls for two days until we were assigned to two by four meter cells. We were five to a cell. No bed and no blankets. I spent a winter in Aiud. I was lucky that I had been arrested in peasant clothing that was woven out of wool. There were two men from Bucharest who had been arrested in casual street clothes — poor men, they suffered greatly.
There, in the Aiud prison, people cried until they had no more tears. Can you imagine, crying but there are no tears coming out because there are none left?”
From Aiud, he was sent to the Canal, in the Valea Neagră and Basarabi colonies.
The work had begun there in the summer of 1949. There were 11 forced labor camps — the largest communist construction site — where over tens of thousands of political detainees worked until 1953.
“Everyone from former ministers, the crème de la crème of the Romanian intelligentsia, and doormen served sentences there. Regardless of our age and health, we would be sent off to load and unload the wheelbarrows.
The hardest work was at the wheelbarrow. You would dig with the spade in the canal, with reddened hands teeming with blood, then you would have to lift the soil and place it about four to five meters above.”
After the Canal, Emil’s final stop was Gherla prison. Two weeks before being released, he was taken from his cell and frisked right down to the bone. “They wanted to ensure that I wasn’t taking anything out of the jail, correspondence, whatever it may be. The last two weeks of my sentence were spent in solitary confinement.”
On March 10, 1954, he became a “free man.” He was never able to follow his dream of being a teacher. Instead he was assigned to work at a local agricultural cooperative.
Drăgan says the only freedom he had was the moral freedom to never compromise his values. He never joined the communist party and never was an informer. The Securitate had so many paid informants that Emil was afraid to ever get married.
“How would it be to find out that your wife is an informer? I have seen this happen many times. I repeat, during communism, all moral principles were infringed.
I can’t accept the fact that our torturers were not punished after the Revolution, I really can’t explain it. We should’ve brought things to light, we should’ve said the truth.”