Bărăgan Deportation: A Short Story

In communist Romania, the deportation/displacement of people by repressive means found its inspiration in the model of the Soviet gulag. The deportations started in 1944; the first were aimed at people of German ethnicity who were accused of having collaborated with the Nazis. It was followed by the displacement of the families of landowners, of owners of factories or other enterprises. Peasants who opposed collectivization were also moved from the rebellious villages to villages which had already been “pacified” by the authorities. After 1955, former political prisoners, freed from prisons and labour camps, were also sent to various settlements under forced residence – most of them in the villages already built in Bărăgan after the 1951 deportations. In 1967, the communist authorities themselves declared the deportation of Romanian citizens to be illegal.[1]

The most repressive episode of this phenomenon took place in June 1951, when approximately 44.000 people,[2] who lived within 25 kilometres of the Yugoslavian border, were deported to the Bărăgan plain in one of the most secret, quick and repressive actions the communist authorities ever undertook. Germans (mainly Swabians), Bulgarians, Serbians, Jews, Romanians from Banat and Olt, Bessarabians, Bukovinans, Aromanians, Vlachs, Megleno-Romanians etc. were deported from their areas of origin or where they had been allocated property to the middle of the plain, where they were forced to build themselves a new life from scratch.

After 1955 release of deportees, the villages were inhabited by former political detainees. After 1964, when former political prisoners were also freed, the bulldozers turned all the houses still standing up to the harsh elements back to the clay from which they had been built.

Our research about the Baragan deportation stemmed from our wish to learn more about the epopee of deportations in the communist period. A photo showing several people in front of an adobe house and seeming to come from another age acted as Proust’s madeleine, the starting point of a research experience (and, ultimately, a life experience) which aimed to shed light on the mystery of the “new village”, of the “life-saving doctor” or of the “unforgotten knoll”, memorial landmarks which provided our project’s red thread.

A project based on the memory of witnesses who lived difficult historical experiences, dramatic to various degrees, but always bearing existential tensions with residual trauma, requires prior preparation. In our case, the help offered by Mr. Călin Ion, Claudia-Florentina Dobre’s former headmaster of the “Mihai Eminescu” highschool in Călărași was essential; for it we thank him deeply. He put us in contact with the first three deportees we interviewed, who had stayed to live on the banks of the Borcea and who, despite history’s blows, had managed to become known as notable citizens of the town of Călărași.

The first interviews were taken in November 2011, in a classroom of the “Mihai Eminescu” highschool in Călărași. Several other interviews later took place with the help (and in the headquarters) of the Association of Former Political Prisoners and Deportees [AFDP] in Călărași, whose managers supported us with sympathy and trust. After this first batch of interviews, we filmed a few clips promoting the project, which have since been hosted by Valeriu Antonovici’s website, filmandmemorii.blogspot.com, where they were appreciated by visitors and sparked up their interest in participating in our project[3].

Watching the clips made more people want to help us and/or participate in the making of our project. As a consequence of this new development, we made a few more interviews with former deportees to the Bărăgan, both male and female; we had thirteen in all, which constituted the basis for the film “Povestiri din Bărăgan. Amintiri din Siberia românească”. They were joined by a few other interviews with former deportees to Siberia and even with a former political prisoner who was very keen on taking part in our project.

In April 2013 we returned with some questions and with the intention to record, on site, our deportees’ answers to our questions about the deportee villages and the experience of living in. Those who wanted to show us where they had been deported were filmed as they presented to us an imaginary topography of the streets, houses, schools etc. of the “new villages”, as they were called by the communist authorities and as they are still known in the collective memory of the region.

Each of the deportees present at the location of the dramatic experiences of their childhood or adolescence populated the empty space we were filming with parents, relatives, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. A whole world unfolded before their eyes, a world which we, the researchers, had difficulty imagining. A harvested wheat field and/or a maize field don’t necessarily make one think of well-structured localities or of the life of people who, despite the harsh conditions, tried to survive and overcome the obstacles placed in their path by the communist regime. It was hard for us to picture the children walking on dirt streets to the school they had built with their own hands, out of adobe bricks moulded from Bărăgan soil, as one of the deportees described them to us, or the cemetery hidden under the maize field.

In the autumn of 2013, parts of the interviews were collaged to follow a chronological thread of deportations, resulting in a 55-minute documentary. Using the deportee testimonies, we re-created the history of this event, starting from the life-changing, dramatic moment when they were told they would be deported to the time of release from forced residence. A few comments of former deportees inspired by their current lives (in the years 2011-2013) were also inserted here and there during the film, to illustrate the temporal perspective (of the present) of our research.

We began our inquiry in 2011 and we continued in the next two years, following the theory and method of life history (récits de vie)[4], by questioning 13 women and men, former deportees in Baragan in the 1950s. The narratives can be seen as “life reviews”[5] as the interviewees were above 60 years old. All women and men are retired now. The criteria for choosing our informants were related to their confidence in us as researchers, and to their desire to testify about their life experience.

Any life history investigation must include some “notes and observations” and, in our case, the camera lens was an observer more faithful than any researcher. The deep emotions, the eyes – sometimes tearful, sometimes crossed by glimpses of pleasant memories – the broad or subdued gestures, the words which created running themes and sprang from deep trauma, the passionate tones or the smothered anger were all recorded on film with the greatest accuracy.

Retelling/remembering past events and personal experiences is always done from the perspective of the present. The past is updated and interpreted based on what Maurice Halbwachs called “the social frameworks of memory”.[6]  These frameworks of memory and history are shaped by the ennounced and disseminated interpretations of the groups to which the various individuals belong to, of the school, the Church and other public institutions and, nowadays, increasingly (maybe exclusively) by the media.

Our research covers both the evolution of post-communist “memory regimes” concerning communism, whose marks appear throughout the memorial discourse of the former deportees, and their personal interpretations. Beyond these considerations, our project documents a drama in Romania’s recent history, which must not be ignored and forgotten, lest it should repeat itself – maybe not in the same shape, but certainly with the same effects.

The ladies and gentlemen we interviewed experienced deportation during their childhood or adolescence. That is why they often do not see the experience as tragic, but rather as character-building, as something which helped them overcome all the other obstacles in their lives. At times, nostalgia for one’s childhood home and garden or for the world of innocence and ignorance of evil also slips into the narration.

Our approach during this research aimed not only to limit our interventions during recording or during the making of the documentary, but also to consciously abstain from a detailed interpretation of the life stories. Indeed, we also did not set out to corroborate the information provided by the witnesses with that present in documents from those times! We wanted to record the recollections of life experiences, reminiscences stirred by our scientific interest, which are part of a collective memory of deportation bearing the mark of an anti-communist “memorial regime” which, paradoxically, condemns Communism as being “illegitimate and criminal”, but does not recognize the moral value of witnesses who testify on the criminal aspects of this regime. 

Our research on the deportations of 1951 highlights two parallel witness rhetoric, which do, however, intersect at times, on both deportation and the communist period. On the one hand, we have “formal” narrations which define deportation as a stage of repression, and in which the discourse on the phenomenon is part of the paradigm denouncing the crimes of Communism; on the other hand, we have life stories with a nostalgic tone, whose narration is made up of benchmarks defining success in life despite the difficulties encountered and successfully overcome.

The explanation for this type of rhetoric is found in the typology of the autobiographic discourse, marked, particularly for those with a high level of culture and education, by a red thread meant to give life a retrospective meaning (which may be formative, or redemptive at times) in the social frameworks of post-communist memory, which incriminate Communism by declaring it “criminal and illegitimate”; in the model provided by the numerous published memoirs and works on Communism and repression; in the example of the memory of the Holocaust, which imposed in the European public space a form of memory and identity based on the idea of suffering; in the relation with the two researchers, namely a grandparent – grandchild relation (as researchers were associated, due to their age, with the grandchildren of the witnesses, who in turn take up the role of grandparents wishing to pass on a certain type of experience, but also to educate), whose role is both moralizing and educative; in the desire to leave behind a testimony of a lost world; and in the aspiration for the recognition and conveyance of an experience which differs from that of the absolute majority of the past and present Romanian population.

To us researchers, these are life stories and, at the same time, life lessons. Lessons on how obstacles can be overcome and on how a space of intimacy can be created even when one’s personal life is forced to become public, on how one can preserve one’s dignity in undignified conditions, on suffering and on surmounting it, on solidarity and humaneness, on oblivion and recall. While we assumed this formative aspect, we did, however, attempt to keep the critical distance necessary for understanding the memorial rhetoric of former deportees.[7] On the other hand, we also took up the mission to pass this discourse onto others and give it the scientific dimension which will grant it a place in the historiography of communist problematic.


[1] The Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania, Raport final (Final Report), Bucharest, 2006, p. 307, available at: http://www.presidency.ro/static/ordine/RAPORT_FINAL_CPADCR.pdf, last accessed in September 2015.

[2] The exact number is unknown; the mentioned number appears in several books on deportation and in Raportul final

[3] These footages can be also found on our project website, www.memorialuldeportarii.ro

[4] Daniel Bertaux, Les récits de vie, Paris, Nathan, 1997.

[5] Paul Thomson, The Voice of the Past, Oral History, Oxford: 2000, p. 137.

[6] The social realms of memory, (les cadres sociaux de la mémoire) are mental, informal and normative frameworks which give identity coherence to individuals and groups. Halbwachs stated that individual memory can not function without the ideas and words that the individual borrows from his/her social environment. Maurice Halbwachs, Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Paris, Albin Michel, 1994.

[7] We intentionally avoided any critical comments which would have perturbed these life stories.