By Jessica Reynolds Contributing writer
The Daily Star
---- — Imagine attending a local board meeting and questioning the motives of a political figure. You speak up and say, “I don’t really see where this is going.” Imagine instead of being seen, heard and perhaps supported by your colleagues, you are immediately arrested for speaking up, taken away and are punished by having your eyes injected with chlorine.
That is just one of the horrifying tales of torture that authors Thomas Sears and Radu Cristea tell in their historical biography, “Faces of Freedom, Lives of Courage.” The book tells the brutal stories of nine individuals living in communist Romania, under the dictatorship of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu.
In 2005, Sears, a professor at Hartwick and a former Daily Star freelance columnist, traveled to Romania on a faculty research grant in hopes of studying the country’s tax system. However, Sears said, his life was forever changed when he met Cristea, a Romanian man who grew up during Ceausescu’s reign. After discussing the country’s communist past, the two men became passionate about the topic and decided to write a book.
Cristea and Sears became fast friends and set off on a journey to uncover the history of communism in Romania. Over the course of four years, they made several trips across the country, researching and interviewing Romanians whose lives had been affected by the strict communist rule. They dug through secret prison files and saw the cells where torture was inflicted on citizens who were seen as a threat to the government.
Determining that the little-known history of atrocity had to be told, Cristea and Sears decided to focus their book on the people affected by the regime.
“I became very emotionally involved with both the people and their stories, and realized that once these people died, their stories would die with them,” Sears said.
One by one, Cristea and Sears learned the detailed stories of the tortured Romanians. Many of them had been arrested at a young age, for “crimes” as small as keeping a letter addressed to Radio Free Europe. The authors uncovered painful truths about the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, and the interrogations, torture and beatings that occurred at Romania’s many extermination camps.
Some interviewees had memory loss, they said, because of harsh attempts at mind-erasing. Many of the survivors that Sears and Cristea interviewed did not want to talk, even 24 years later, in fear of being tortured again.
The terror was so widely spread that many Romanian people simply did not know whom to trust, according to the authors, who said the government saw anyone educated, such as doctors, or even college students, as potential threats. Many people lived on $300 a month, while their torturers lived on $3,000, Sears said.
People were blackmailed into turning in co-workers, neighbors and even family who could be seen as a “threat” to the government, Sears said. Despite widespread torture, many people, including the young generation of Romanians, were not aware of its history.
Growing up during the frightening time, Cristea himself did not realize the extent of what was going on. He said even today’s Romanian history books only have about two pages that touch on that time in the country’s history. It apparently became tradition to forget and not dwell on the past, despite the nature of what happened.
“We wrote the book for two main purposes,” Cristea said. “The first is to remind people what communism is all about and tell them what happened in Romania. The second is to make people aware that a dictatorship can slip into any country fairly easily. The government starts taking rights away, and it almost goes unnoticed.”
After a year of sending out queries to different publishers, “Faces of Freedom, Lives of Courage” was finally printed by Tate Publishing and Enterprises, which describes itself as a Christian-based organization in Mustang, Okla.
Sears said that he truly fell in love with the Romanian people and still gets emotional when telling their stories. Although the expenses of travel will never be returned to them, he said, the pair truly believes that it has been worth the cost because, they say, many people do not realize how precious their freedom is, and that it should not be taken for granted.
Sears and Cristea frequently give presentations to local high schools and Rotary programs. Sears said he hopes to bring a group of students to Romania in January 2015, and the two men are considering writing a second book.
“We’re not finished, yet,” said Sears. “There are still more stories to tell.”
Released last month, “Faces of Freedom, Lives of Courage” is available through bookstores nationwide, from the publisher at www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore, or by visiting barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com.