It was a time when hell had unleashed its fury on Romania.
Out of the darkness, a young woman tossed small fireballs of scrap paper towards heaven and created a light that lasted forever.
Living beside the Gherla prison was a beautiful adolescent by the name of Gertrud Bader. She exchanged messages between prisoners sentenced for “conspiring against social order” and their families. The prisoners nicknamed her “The Angel of Hope.”
Morse code was the mediator between love and injustice. Greti, as she was affectionately known, would receive coded messages with the addresses of the fiancés or wives of the prisoners and send them letters indicating the exact time and date to show up in the cemetery, adjacent to the prison wall.
Each woman was told to hold a big bouquet of flowers, white or red, in order to be recognized by their beloved, who would be waiting to catch sight of them from the prison window.
Gertrud was arrested on August 8, 1958. She was 17 years old when she was sentenced to seven years in prison. She served almost two years in Cluj, Miercurea Ciuc and Gherla prisons.
After reading her story, we were curious how the rest of her life unfolded. We discovered that she moved to Germany in the 1970’s and that her married name is Gertrud Czell. We found an address and phone number located in Bamberg, a city in northern Bavaria. The phone number offered us nothing more than a busy signal.
We then contacted Cosmin Budeanca from the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes. He introduced us to political detainee Ion Baurceanu, who spent thirteen years in prison during the Communist Regime. Mr. Baurceanu was a beneficiary of Gertrud’s courage.
“I tried to warn her to suspend communication with the prisoners the moment I realized she was in trouble. There were spies amongst us at Gherla and it was not right to put the life of a child on the line”, recounted Baurceanu.
He sent Greti messages through the small opening in the blinds of room number 87. “It was a space no bigger than 20-30 centimeters. It was there to prevent us from suffocating in the cell.”
Baurceanu used a rolled up towel to communicate using Morse code. If he placed the towel horizontally, it made a dash, and if he placed it vertically, it was a dot.
Greti followed the movements from the window of her room, using a pair of binoculars. Her responses came in the following way: her upper blind – drawn – was the dot and her lower blind – closed – was the dash. When she ended a sentence, she would shake the curtain dramatically.
Now 86, Ion Baurceanu has come to a conclusion:
“Gentleman, this story demonstrates the existence of God. If you have any doubt about that, take what I’m saying into consideration. To this day, I’ve never met Greti. We did correspond after 1989 and again in 2013, 45 years after our conversation using Morse code. She called me and I heard her voice. God truly does exist. And all the proof in the world is in Greti, who you will find in Cluj. She returned to Romania some time ago.”
Remarkably, the whole time I was searching for Gertrud Bader in Germany, she was living just a few streets away from our office.
Last August, I called her to ask for an interview. For eight months, we spoke on a weekly basis with the hope that she would establish a date for our meeting. But her husband was sick with Alzheimer’s and Gertrud was content to stay by his side and care for him without complaint.
Gertrud is now 75. She says that once in awhile, she looks at her husband and still sees the glitter of complicity, the love born in a clandestine, common language understood only between a former political detainee and a young man robbed of his future, with a father in jail at the Canal. Seeing that expression on his face is enough to help her recover her strength and continue on.
Greti shares her story
We finally met in person before Easter in 2017. She sat us down in her living room and served us coffee. Then, she agreed to share her story with only one condition.
“Things unfolded the way they unfolded. I don’t want anyone to say that I’m a heroine or that what I did was a sacrifice. I met real heroines in prison, women who had to spend years away from their children.
I was a strong child and I never once cried after receiving my sentence. I was certain that what I had done was just and right.
I’ve always hated injustice, whether it’s injustice in the small details of life or injustice on a larger scale. Either way, it must not be tolerated.”
Gertrud was the oldest of four children in the Bader family. Her father, Sebastian, of German descent, was a veterinary doctor. Her mother, Delma, graduated from the conservatory and was an excellent piano teacher.
From the window of their home the Gherla prison was in plain sight. Every time screams or gunshots were heard from the prison, Gertrud’s parents would close the windows and shut the blinds.
The children never asked questions, but Delma would light a small candle beside the piano and would tell her children to pray for those who were behind bars:
“These are all innocent people who were locked up because they wanted justice and a better world. We were very impressed by the things that we would hear our mother tell us. We grew up in this climate and as time passed, I began to develop a sort of fascination for those behind the impenetrable wall,” remembers Gertrud.
The Bader parents sent Gertrud to Oradea for high school. For two years, she would return to Gherla only for vacation.
Christmas 1957 found her at home in her parents’ living room. Her father was playing the violin, her mother was at the piano in a room full of friends. It was getting dark and Gertrud went outside to get a breath of fresh air.
Echoes of Christmas carols could be heard from the direction of the jail, intermingled with screaming and wailing. It was a lamentation that jolted her awake. She ran back into the house and asked permission to go to town. Her parents disagreed, but she insisted that she had to meet some friends.
She went quietly to the prison wall, with a handful of small rocks that she had wrapped with little pieces of paper. She lit these on fire and threw them up in the air.
About five minutes later, the alarm sounded and she found herself surrounded by four guards.
– What are you doing here?
– I’m playing!
– Leave right now! Enough with these games or you’ll be coming with us. Go home and spend Christmas there, not here trying to grab attention!
Greti deliberately headed in the direction of town so that the guards wouldn’t realize that she lived across the street from the penitentiary.
“I finally got home and sat down at the table but my soul was elsewhere.”
The next day, she returned to the same spot and raised a white handkerchief into the air. She saw rags, towels and papers start flying about in the prison cells. Greti headed home, opened the window to her room and began waving a large, white bed sheet. The response came immediately.
Using her binoculars, she followed the movements from the prison and understood that they had a deeper meaning. She realized that the detainees were communicating using Morse code.
Greti went to see Schneider, a friend of her father who worked at the post office. She made up a story about a physics project. In return, she received a brochure explaining Morse code.
Greti is written in the following way: dash dash dot (G), dot dash dot (R), dot (E), dash (T), dot dot (I).
Greti improvised a system of communication using the two curtains that covered her window. If she pulled the top blind, it was a dot and if she pulled the lower blind, it was a dash. Slowly but surely, she was able to exchange messages with prisoners from various cells.
“There are 6,000 people here. Be very careful, we’ll warn you if you’re in any danger,” signalled one prisoner.
In message after message, Greti discovered that the families of the prisoners did not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. She asked for addresses and began writing on behalf of the prisoners. She would sign the letters with the pen name Abbot Faria and would send them off from neighbouring cities such as Dej, Cluj and Bistrita to cover her tracks.
“I wrote to the prisoners’ relatives, ‘If you wish to make contact with your beloved who you miss dearly, be there in the cemetery beside the prison, holding a big bouquet of red or white flowers, on this day, at this specific hour.’
I was constantly trying to figure out which flowers would be in bloom around that time so that they could easily find them at the market. Then, I would send them instructions to lay the flowers down near a particular tombstone so that the prisoner in his cell would be able to make visual contact with their loved one.
During that time, I would make sure to be in the cemetery – on the opposite side – to ensure things went as planned.”
“In that moment, i thought my heart would explode. the young girl was none other than my mioara”
The author of the book “Beyond the Bars”, Aurel Baghiu, who died in 2010, recounted how Gertrud united him with his fiancé Mioara.
Baghiu was a leader of the university students’ movement in Timisoara in 1956. He was sentenced to eight years in prison for “agitating the public.”
In his book, Baghiu wrote: “I walked into Cell 53
on that memorable Easter Day. I was determined to prevent my eyes from wandering outdoors, but two cellmates, Peter Schuster and Stefan Nekel, wanted me to look a person in the cemetery who appeared to be looking for a prisoner.
I ignored them, stating that no one would visit the prison on Easter Day. But they kept insisting that I see this young girl lingering in the cemetery and I walked to the window.
As I looked beyond the bars, I saw a girl crouched down and digging up the dirt beside an old grave in the cemetery.
A large flower bouquet was next to her. On a nearby bench, laid the girl’s handbag and trench coat. There was not a single soul in the cemetery besides this girl.
When she finished digging, she stood up, shook the dirt off her hands, and looked directly towards the window of our cell.
In that moment, I thought I my heart would explode. The young girl was none other than my Mioara. My friend, lover and Miorita, as I had nicknamed her. At that instant that I recognized the yellow, silk handkerchief on her head. It was the handkerchief she always wore so I could recognize her at the Cluj train station. There was no way I could miss her on the platform when she wore that bright handkerchief on her head.
I recognized the curls that framed her tanned, beautiful face. My first reaction was to throw off the blinds that limited my view. Like an agile monkey in its cage, I jumped up onto the bars, trying to see over the blinds and enlarge the small peephole back into life.”
Baghiu began singing a verse from the Romanian troubadour genre: “De-as fi vantul.” (If I were the wind)
Mioara and Aurel Baghiu were married six years later, when he was released from prison.
Aurel finally got a chance to thank Greti in 2000, when they met for the first time.
You think the americans will come and save you from prison?
Greti was arrested in August 1958. She knew that the Securitate (Secret Police) was following her. At the beginning of the month, “two gentlemen” confronted her on the train heading home after a visit to her grandparents’ home in Arad. They asked her where she had spent her vacation.
One week later, the Securitate showed up in her bedroom in the middle of the night at her home in Gherla. They ripped off her bed linens and threw her against the wall. An IMS (Romanian made all-terrain vehicle) was waiting outside with the engine running.
“Wake up, you’re under arrest! Gather everything that belongs to you, all your papers and notes. These were the words I remember. They were yelling like madmen.
I didn’t have the chance to hide all of my letters and notes. They even took my accordion. Once in awhile, I would play the accordion near the prison because it could be heard better than the piano. The prisoners knew the accordion meant that I was trying to communicate with them.”
Next came the Securitate interrogations in Cluj. One of the investigators was a Major who went by the name Gruia who had a reputation for his unusual cruelty.
Greti remembers the first dialogue in the Securitate’s basement.
– You know what you’ve done! You’re against the regime! You don’t like how things work under communism? What, you think you can change the world? You think the Americans will come and save you from prison?
– No, I don’t know if the Americans will come but what you’re doing is unjust. The people at the Gherla prison need to be helped.
– It’s not up to you to make laws here. You’re going to rot in prison.
During the next few months, as she awaited her court date, Greti was locked up in the Cluj penitentiary where she met Nuti Dejeu, the wife of Alexandru Dejeu. Dejeu and Iosif Capota had already been executed for leading an anti- communist group in the Huedin area.
Her trial was harsh. The person who was responsible for awarding justice at the Cluj Military Tribunal sought to provoke her:
– I want you to know that if you weren’t a minor, your bones would rot here because of what you did. Rather than getting to know our modern communist society, you cozied up to bandits and the country’s enemies.
– I sided with the people who fought for the good of our country and not for the evil that it is displaying today.
Her cheekiness was unacceptable.
– Oh, really? You don’t like it?
– No, I don’t like it, I don’t like it!
– Yes? OK, then it is here that you will die.
– If God exists, then God will decide whether or not I’ll die here or as a free woman. But I believe that I will be free.
– Do you hear that transcribe? Put this down immediately: she’s receiving a second sentence because she’s a Christian and believes in God. This is a punishable offence.
On October 16, 1958, Greti was condemned to 7 years of prison.
She was transferred from the Cluj Penitentiary to the women’s prison in Miercurea Ciuc in 1958.
“My parents wanted a superior education for me and look, now at Miercurea Ciuc I entered into a high society of women who were political detainees. I met extraordinary women, such as Patrascanu, Busuiiocescu, Doctor Stefanescu, Doctor Virginia Munteanu, who was Pamfil Seicaru’s sister. Doctor Munteanu was gentle and was of rare, genuine human quality. My fellow inmates were so educated, French was the prisoners’ official language.
They called me Coca (coc, meaning hair bun), because my hair was always pulled up into a bun. A bun on top of my head or a bun at the nape of my neck. Thanks to Morse code, the prisoners communicated freely, but the suffering was immense.”
Today, Greti refuses to talk about the suffering she endured when she was behind bars. In addition to solitary confinement, she was often tortured so brutally that fainting was the only pain relief.
Punished for a cherry blossom petal
“They punished you for anything. One spring, a strong gust of wind blew a few cherry blossom petals into my cell. There were just a couple of them.
When I squeezed them in my hand, they caught sight of me from the peephole. ‘What do you have over there in your hand? Whatever you have in your hand, put in down right now.” They kept yelling at me.
I told them that since they denied me the freedom of looking at all the flowers in the fields, that God had sent me a few little petals. Then I was handcuffed for one hundred days, it was horrible.”
On May 26, 1959, ‘Coco’ celebrated her 18th birthday and her 10 month anniversary of detention. Her fellow prisoners made her a cake using small morsels of polenta that they had been saving up for a week. They decorated the cake with jam and a little flower shaped cotton ball was placed on top.
While his daughter was incarcerated, Sebastian Bader was making frequent trips to Bucharest and continually mailing appeals for her freedom. He tried to use her age as an explanation. How could a minor conspire against the security of the state?
In February 1960, Greti was pardoned. However, no one informed Greti or her family about this. She was placed in a special train wearing only a chemise. It was horrendously cold. She had the soles of some old sandals in her possession, which she tied to her feet with a belt so that she wouldn’t have to walk barefoot. She received only one meal throughout the 48 hour train ride. Greti had no idea where she was going.
The train finally came to a halt. She could hear men’s voices and the sound of chains clanging against the pavement.
“Move! Faster, move your feet faster, let’s go!”
A man opened the train compartment.
– Do you know me?
Greti went stiff. It was the feared Constantin Istrate, the right-hand man of the commander from the Gherla Prison. Along with the Somlea brothers, Istrate had instituted a reign of terror in the prison. He had a saying: “you only leave this place in a casket.”
In 1960, Greti had the strength to respond to Istrate:
– Yes, I know you…
– In that case, you know where you are!
– Yes, I’m in Gherla!
– Then get a move on!
They left her alone in an IMS vehicle. Between the two benches, there was a bag full of files. She began looking through the files and found her own. On the cover, “Pardoned” was written in large letters.
She assumed that the car would be dropping her off at home. The destination was not her home. It was Gherla Prison. They put her in a cell on the main level. Later, they moved her to the second floor. From her prison cell, she could see her home if she stacked blankets and climbed on top of them.
“I saw my mother one day. She was walking home from the store and she suddenly turned and stared at the prison for a long time. She didn’t know I was there, she was just looking off in the distance.”
Two weeks later, she was taken from her cell at night. There were about ten men walking ahead of her, bound by chains. They were put in a special minibus reserved for prisoners. She was trembling with fear.
She was aware that if the vehicle made a left turn, beside the high school, it would arrive at the Brick Factory. That is where the detainees were buried. Through the grates of her cage, a man whispered something to her:
“I hope you know that this is your final journey!”
When they passed by the high school without turning and headed in the direction of Cluj, Greti responded: “No, this is not our final journey.”
Greti was held at the Securitate in Cluj for another two to three days. When they freed her on March 8, 1960, her parents were waiting for her in the hallway.
A few weeks after Greti was released from prison, a letter arrived from Bucharest addressed to the Bader family. It was a negative response to Doctor Bader’s appeal that requested his daughter be set free. The parents were frightened.
When Delma Bader saw the letter, she packed her daughter’s bags: “If they come, you won’t have to leave wearing nothing, like the last time they took you away.”
“Let’s pack the bag. What’s done is done!” responded the almost 20-year-old woman.
A short time later, a man knocked on the door. An official IMS vehicle was parked in front of her house. Greti opened the door with trepidation.
– Do you know me?
– I believe I do but I’m not sure where I met you… I’ve met many people in the last few years.
– I’m the judge that sentenced you. I came here today to congratulate you.
– Congratulate me?
– Yes, because you were so strong. I’ve rarely had a court hearing like yours. I also came here to congratulate your father. I don’t have faith in anyone. But I do have faith in you. You didn’t see me here and never met me outside of court. Goodbye!
Greti was forced to work during the day making Persian rugs for an Armenian company. She finished her high school baccalaureate in evening classes.
Her parents kept her locked up, literally. “You are not allowed to leave, you are not allowed to meet anyone.”
One evening, she went out to a summer garden with her entire family. At a nearby table, a stranger could not take his eyes off Greti. The man asked a waiter if he knew the woman. The waiter told him: “Young man, don’t even look in that direction or think about starting a conversation with her. She was a political detainee.”
The next day, Benjamin insisted on inviting Greti out for a walk. It was a long process to convince her parents to allow her to go. Beni was not able to complete university. His father had created the Ursus beer brand and at the time he met Greti, was imprisoned at the Danube Canal.
Greti and Beni later got married and had a child. In 1970, they applied to become German residents. A fee was paid by the West German government to the Romanian Bank for External Commerce for the freedom of each Romanian. The fee, ranging from 1,500 to 10,000 German Francs per person, depended on their education and qualifications.
In 1973, the year Greti, her husband and child left Romania, the Romanian state made almost 16 million dollars from this type of “transaction.”
Greti and Beni Czell completed dental school in Nuremberg and he continued with this profession. When they tired of “bending over porcelain teeth,” they opened an antique store in Bamberg.
A few years ago, Greti returned to Cluj to better care for her husband. The last two years have been especially difficult.
“This illness is enough to knock you off your feet. Not that I’d want the time to be able to write a book or something, but I’d love to be able to gather myself and concentrate. Thank God I found a woman who is helping. It is very, very important to have a benevolent person beside you.”
On the rare occasions when she visits Gherla and looks towards the penitentiary, she longs to catch a cherry blossom petal in the air and pin it to her hair, full of hope.
“I never tried to forget the prison. This is the journey God has for me. I’ve experienced different battles and sorrows. I’ve emerged from them much wiser.
Even now, I can’t stand injustice. I’ve never been able to tolerate that a human being is being treated badly. Communism was a lie. How can you lock up a man for having different ideas than your own?
You come to know a person’s essence when they are in prison, stripped of their garments and suffering for their values. Every single person in prison had ideals that they fought for. I respected that so much.
As a child, I realized what was good and what was bad. I wanted to change things around me, to help and to support.
I had something in me, an impulse to yell and declare that everything around me was a lie.”