Memorial Stones. Lena Constante – The Master of Perfect Escapes

/ December 3, 2020
The Master of Perfect Escapes – Lena Constante. Illustration by Lucian Muntean.

Just recently, I have come across such terrible destinies, which my compatriots had to confront, that my mind has been churning. Their life stories have taken over my thoughts and filled them with anxiety and questions: If I had been put in their place, in the same historical context, what would I do and how would I react? Would I maintain my dignity or would I deny who I am and betray my friends like Simon Peter did, promptly and unnecessarily, before the servants in the yard?

More specifically, I ask myself what it would have been like to wake up one day and find that my life has been confiscated, turned completely upside down in the most radical and brutal of ways. And not in that Kafkaesque way when on a fine morning, Gregor Samsa wakes up to find that he has metamorphosed into a gigantic, black cockroach. That is fantasy horror. The brain knows how to decode such an absurdity. What I am talking about here is a confiscation by surprise, like an unforeseen accident that is somewhat human, because it involves your fellow citizens and not some cherubim who were sent forth from the sky to carry-out an abduction. 

For example, what it would be like on any given day just like any other day, to go out for the purpose of buying milk let’s say, and there is a black car waiting for you at the corner? Some individuals with long coats push you inside, throw a cloth over your face and then teleport you to an austere office where an accuser with his hat thrown over the nape of his head forces you, with the help of a rubber baton, to confess to certain things that have never even crossed your mind, such as spying on your own nation, conspiracy against the state or even high treason?

It may seem like a bad movie that has no end. The interrogators are now trying to coerce you using all possible means, from physical and mental torture that lasts for weeks, months or even years until you give up and sign anything they want you to sign, especially because they have promised you that in return, to free you from this nightmare that has become your current existence. This is precisely what happened to Solzhenitsyn, as a result of exchanging letters with a fellow army comrade.

Or in a subtler way, what N. Steinhardt experienced: the executioners announce to you, in writing, that they will be coming to get you. As a result, you have time to think about it, to prepare yourself, to come up with different scenarios as you lay in bed at night. And during those days of inner terror and of stewing in your own juices, your life liquefies before your very eyes and slowly begins to evaporate through all your pores. That is because you have no idea what lies before you, nor do you have any idea how you will react to the hunger, cold and fear that will become your daily staple.

You have no idea how you will react to the humiliation of the beatings, cold cell wall or, maybe, to the true liberation: the burning flash of a bullet fired at the back of the head, during the obligatory daily walk.

Or, it may happen in a purely Stalinist fashion, in the way poor Lena Constante, the subject of this article, experiences it. The shock of her arrest comes without any warning, with an insistent ringing of the doorbell and a banging on the door with fists and boots in the middle of the night. The key ingredients of interrogators: night and the element of surprise. Many of them have come. Our heroine has a moment of hesitation, time seems to come to a slow crawl and her ability to see lucidly is blurred. She goes over to the window and stands before it, contemplating the six storeys below her. She imagines herself crushed by the asphalt. Is it worthwhile to end everything so quickly? She gives up the idea of suicide, returns to the hallway and opens the door, ready to confront her fate. 

As a result of this gesture of throwing wide open the door to a nightmare that would continue for the rest of her life, today, we have the privilege of embarking on one of the most turbulent incursions into the universe of Romanian communist repression of the 1950s. I will describe her story using the minimalist, almost telegraphic style of the author, found in her two memoirs: The Silent Escape and The Impossible Escape.

The Master of Perfect Escapes – Lena Constante. Illustration by Lucian Muntean.

History has not at all played in favor of Lena Constante, who was born in 1909 in a family of Macedonian, Aromanian intellectuals. After a series of light journeys between Iași, Odessa, Paris and London, she wound up with her parents in Bucharest, not knowing that, ultimately, they had drawn an unlucky card. However, they were happy for a while and her youth was nothing short of exuberant.

Everything seems wonderful to the young woman who is passionate about reading and arts. She is surrounded by good people and sophisticated friends. She is completely ignorant to the fact that “condemned” is written on their foreheads, as soon as the WW II ends and the communists grab power, through the use of deceit. 

Lena Constante joins an exclusive team of folklore collectors, led by illustrious sociologist Dimitrie Gusti and ethno-musicologist Constantin Brăiloiu. It is here that she meets her future husband, Harry Brauner, a musician who is completely smitten by the folklore music and instruments.

The young people spend their summers sheltered from all the evils of the world in the homes of peasants, studying tapestries, folkloric motifs, traditional peasant clothing and making phonographic recording of ancient melodies and tunes. It is a fascinating world and they are to remain hopelessly in love with it until the very end. As a result of this eternal desire to return to the Romanian village, they will never be able to emigrate. 

Besides painting and tapestry work, Lena Constante makes straw dolls out of dry hay and clothing embellished with the traditional motifs. Together with Elena, wife of the highly exalted young communist Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu, she becomes the co-founder of what is known today as the Țăndărică Theatre, the first animation and puppet theatre in Romania. 

She has no idea that this friendship is about to propel her into the deepest darkness imaginable. It was the case as a result of the participation of another trusted friend: Belu Zilber. This sketchy guy was a former Russian spy who, out of sheer fear of the torture he is threatened with, makes up an absolutely fantastical story about spies and traitors in which he generously allocates specific roles to certain people from his close circle. Among the unwilling actors in his fictional narrative is Lena Constante, a being who is not only idealistic and fragile, but also totally innocent. 

After the end of World War II and the great powers’ abandonment of Romania as a result of the Soviet sphere of influence, low-level communists, better described as prey animals, came to power and badly needed to stage Moscow-style show trials in order to open the way to the great political purges of the 1950s . Pătrășcanu was the perfect victim: he was from a bourgeois family, married to a Jewish woman, with a PhD obtained in Leipzig and a speaker of foreign languages. With an idealistic rhetoric, he embodied the image of an enlightened communist, a huge fan of sophisticated gatherings where he delighted the audience by playing the piano. 

His was a case that matched neither the profile of the ideal communist nor the pre-written script sent from Moscow, and so Dej [Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, supreme Romanian communist party leader] sentenced him to death many years before a guard executed him by putting a bullet through his head in the jail’s courtyard, on the night of April 17, 1954. The Stalinist type trial Pătrășcanu endured lasted six year. It had been drawn out because it had to be dramatic and exemplary. Besides that, everyone who was involved in the script written by Zilber had to be tortured until they admitted to their roles as spies and traitors of the nation. 

In order to break from the past, following the Soviet practice of denouncing Stalin, or “de-Stalinisation”, Ceaușescu sought to rehabilitate Pătrășcanu’s image in 1968. A bitter consolation that came too late. All of his ill-fated friends who endured torture and imprisonment for absolutely no reason are deemed innocent and as an apology, are given passports to be able to travel. And who is in the witness box for the rehabilitation case? The Zilber scumbag. Iliescu rehabilitates Patrascanu post mortem once again after the 1989 Revolution and a Bucharest boulevard is named after him. 

The Master of Perfect Escapes – Lena Constante. Illustration by Lucian Muntean.

So very briefly, that is what the historical context looks like. From here, the nightmare of 10 years of loneliness that Lena Constante has to face begin. Even today, it is still not known why this small and weak woman was subjected to a special regime of torture: through solitary isolation. For more than 3,000 days, this woman was alone in her prison cell, to the point where she almost forgot to speak. Without any books or anything to keep her time occupied, she was abandoned in a small prison cell and became a prey of time.

At some point, many years before her release, without any prior plans and never for a moment claiming to be a writer or having the certainty of a publisher, she opens up a notebook and begins to write the first sentence of what would become a jarring journal, with razor edged wording, like a katana (Japanese samurai sword), on account of the metronome rhythm of each sentence, the conciseness and the precision of the language. 

“I have been sentenced to twelve years in prison. The trial lasted six days. The investigation: five years. Up until today, I have served five years of my sentence. Alone. In a five squared meter cell. 1,827 days. By myself for 43.848 hours. In a cell where every single hour has 60 minutes, every minute, 60 seconds. One, two, three, four, five seconds, six, seven, eight, night, ten seconds, a thousand seconds, a hundred thousand seconds. In my cell, I have spent 157,852,800 seconds of loneliness and of fear. This is something that cannot just be said, it must be shouted! They have sentenced me to spending another 200,838,400 seconds here. To living for this many seconds or to dying from this many seconds.”

Entire chapters of her book begin with the mantra of counting days, which are beautifully written, with whole numbers. It is difficult to read them, sometimes they fan out for more than half the page. It is even harder to imagine how someone was able to live them, second after second. Alone, between four walls, with an enormous amount of strict rules suffocating her, on top of the permanent assault she endured, day and night, under the raping gaze of the guard who peered at her through the peephole every few minutes. For eight and a half years. 

What kind of inner mechanisms could someone develop in order to withstand such torture? What is this type of being fashioned of? Only a person who faced physical torture, according to the book or looked death straight eye on the face and made peace with herself could withstand this kind of physical torture. Or only someone who has found a secret escape route. The perfect escape. 

Fists and boots blows, the sweaty screams of police guards who systematically called her “abomination” were just an appetizer. After some time, things became more refined. One of the interrogators had an original method specifically designed to extract a confession of being a spy. He makes her sit down on a chair in the middle of the room and walks around her in a circle. Once in a while, he throws out a question. From the back, he starts to wind a few strands of her hair around his finger. All of a sudden, he pulls them out, briskly. Then he lets them gently fall in the garbage beside him and then returns to walking around her until he once again, goes for another piece of hair. 

On another occasion, she was tortured by three burly ruffians. They made her stand on her knees, across the bed, with her head facing the wall. They took her shoes off. Two held her down by the shoulders, while the third slapped her across the soles of her feet with the leather belt. For hours on end. Three men systematically torturing a poor painter and ragdoll maker who is hopelessly in love with folklore. This is a scene I cannot expel from my head as the actors in it are my fellow compatriots and the scene takes place somewhere in my homeland.

After some time, the torture was transformed from something that resembled a cross-country race to a downright ultramarathon. Some difficult to image follow: a classic means of torture called “manege.” The condemned is obliged to perform a military march for hours on end, for days at a time; whatever amount of time is needed until she confesses. If she slows down the pace demanded from her, the interrogator hits her over her ankles with a rubber baton. Short breaks to eat and sleep a minimal amount are given to her so that she does not die. Every day, she receives an injection and a sugar cube. So that she avoids losing her mind, she makes calculations. In moments like this, numbers are a saving grace. 

I will therefore transcribe these twenty days of “manege” into numbers. Beginning at one step per second and two steps for each meter, I would walk about ten meters in twenty seconds. So, I would cover thirty meters in a minute and one thousand eight hundred meters in one hour. My calculations are based on a very low hourly average. Three stages in twenty-four hours add up to 32,4000 meters and 60 stages in twenty days finally add up to a total for 648 kilometers. If I count 30 minutes for the first three points, 30 hours in twenty days, I would have, after this count, 90 hours of sleep. 

Therefore, in twenty days, I was forced to do 60 stages of marching, that is around 650 kilometers, and I was allowed 60 rest breaks, that is, 120 hours to eat, wash, attend the scheduled “program” and finally, go to sleep. If I count 30 minutes for the first three points, 30 hours in twenty days, I would have, after this calculation, 90 hours of sleep. “

The Master of Perfect Escapes – Lena Constante. Illustration by Lucian Muntean.

Then a new interrogator arrives. He is good-looking, well-read and has a completely different style of torture – psychological torture. The man must have ready George Orwell’s 1984 and a result, begins to tell her, perfectly calmly, about the secret prison cell located in the basement. Apparently, it is full of famished rats. There, a person cannot last for more than thirty minutes, while the rats devour him whole. First the hands, then the ears, eyes and the rest, until the prisoner dies screaming. The story is told once again, with more detailed descriptions on the second and the third day…

After a week, Lena Constante signs her name under the espionage accusations as well as the crime of high treason. All of the physical torture proved to be less effective than the threat of a secret cell filled with rats. From that moment when she abandons the possibility of any kind of resistance, she disassociates from her body that is squeezed between the walls of the cell and seeks a means of escape. Here, number no longer prove to be of any help, so she uses words. Reality is shifted around within her mind while her body is periodically shifted around from one prison to another. Years pass in which her body, now placed on autopilot, works in this manner:

“My eyes are closed. Under my eyelids, only darkness. I no longer feel my arms. I no longer feel my legs. I dissolve… They take me out of the cell in the morning, around four. We are, I am, alone, on April 15, 1954. They order me to sign some papers. I sign them. I do not know what I am signing. A white sheet of paper hides the content. They throw me outside. I am still wearing prison glasses. Made out of black opaque glass. I feel the air. It’s cold. They continue to push me. I climb two steps… They throw me into a van. I leave behind me five years of imprisonment.”

During all this time that her body was held captive, Lena Constante had slipped out through the window bars long ago, teleported by words into a meta-reality, a truly parallel one. You could say that all that is important in life is beyond words, that dramas cannot be expressed using words, that what is real makes you speechless.

Not for our prisoner. She worked day after day, year after year, writing in her mind and memorizing poems, anecdotes, and later, scenarios for her puppet shows. In this way, she wrote six complex plays, with characters, action and sophisticated dialogues. Once she was freed, she managed to transcribe three plays, which she then abandoned in a drawer and meanwhile, forgot the others. But at the time of incarceration, the memories and the words were, for her, a means of quiet and perfect escape.

In that prison, during those endless moments that dragged on forever, I was aware of my duality. I was made of two beings. Because I was there and could see myself them. Because I could not get out through that locked door, yet I could still be in another place. My body could only be here. I could be anywhere else. My body didn’t even have space to lift its aching legs. I am able to make my wings grow. The wings of a bird. The wings of the wind. And I will escape…”

By making use of her words and imagination, Lena Constante painstakingly wove a time span of her own, unique, another identity placed in a completely different world, where the peering eyes of the guard who looked at her through the peephole was sent off with the flip of a switch, where the executioners did not tread, where the regime was annihilated, together with torture by inflicted loneliness. Accompanied by a procession of clever and vivacious dolls, like children who have escaped from the grip of adults and gone off to play, she made time bend to her will, she compressed it, she suspended time, she turned her nose up at it. She was able to view herself from outside of herself, like a clinical death. And by escaping, she survived. 

Prison is a colossal experience. If you manage to survive it. If you make it out of there with an uncontaminated soul. If you are able to turn evil into good. It is a race with yourself, having the goal of not going crazy, of not bowing your head, of not demeaning yourself.” 

After almost a decade of loneliness, our heroine was moved to Miercurea Ciuc, to a cell with political prisoners. She relearned to talk, to laugh, even to the show the others how to kill time by telling never-ending stories, meant to bring their hearts into their mouths. A prison Shahrazad .

The Master of Perfect Escapes – Lena Constante. Illustration by Lucian Muntean.

After 12 years, she walked out of the doors of the prison dressed in rags, with bodily injuries that would stay for the rest of her life, but otherwise alive and with a clear head. She was put on the train to Bucharest without any luggage and without any money. She takes her chance and asks the students in her wagon for a cigarette. They look at her without speaking, with contempt, as if they were staring at a beggar with her mind gone astray. Then, they ignore her for the rest of the journey, without knowing they just missed an incredible encounter. 

She returns among people where she experiences a great deal of disappointment. Her name is put on the index and she is prevented from painting and doing exhibitions. She is marginalized and lives on the edge of subsistence. Her friends console her by saying, “We, all of us, live in prison, but ours is bigger, the problem is that you came from one that is smaller.” No one is willing to even listen to her story. Everyone wants to quickly forget that painful and embarrassing “event” that they could not even bother to remember.

“<You have to forget> was one of their go-to phrases. No one wanted to burden themselves with even one of my memories. It may have damaged their mechanism to properly digest food.”

Harry also got out of prison, traumatized after 12 years of torment. The two got married and sought to find – a bit late – the happiness they had lost. They found it in a solitary way, together with the memories of their youth that was scattered in the courtyards of some lost village, in the village fairs, in authentic folk music and in the fields of flowers, which for years on end, colored the dark dreams of prison reality. 

Harry died in 1998 but Lena lived for a long time, until 2005. She got to see the miracle of 1989, then the publishing of her book, which was written directly in French and for which she received an important award in 1992. But who might still enjoy the memory of a silent escape, taking place in secret, somewhere in the far recesses of her mind. 

Educated in a particular paganism that was a Soviet import, humans (red ones), became, for a period of time that seemed to be eternal, masters over all of creation, with the right to decide life or death for their fellow beings. As a result, overnight, some people became interrogators, executioners and informants, while others, also overnight, became their victims. 

This blurry mirror, which we do not wish to look at today under the guise that “it is better to forget the past,” reflects the terrible dramas of these innocent prisoners, our forgotten fellow being. ID Sirbu says it more clearly: “”… with our tragic and anonymous bodies and biographies, we have made the way for a beam of light and freedom to pass through, moving towards the future where you now effortlessly tread easily, like on an asphalt pavement. “

“The Silent Escape” is a manual for the use of the concentrationary universe. It summarizes a terrible period in our history. Here, we are not referring to some Phanariot lords who were sorbet addicts, but rather about our absolutely tragic recent history, in which a good portion of our people, with a wide unseen competition of another portion of people, were pitted up against the rest of the people – the ones who wanted nothing more than to live a peaceful and dignified life. Lena Constante chooses to close her book on a bitter note: 

“This book does not tell the story of an isolated case. We were not the only ones who suffered. An enormous number of Romanians were crushed under the pressure of an inhuman and aberrant regime, and hundreds of thousands of people in this country spent many years of persecution through imprisonment. But I must admit that I am the only woman in the country who endured total isolation for eight and a half years. I hope no reader will take this as a title of honor. ” (Paris, April 1990, The Silent Escape, California Press, my translation)