Three Thousand Days in Romanian Prisons
Lena Constante
Translated by Franklin Philip
    University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995
    ISBN 0-520-08209-5


"I have lived, alone, in a cell, 157,852,800 seconds of solitude and fear. Cause for screaming! They sentence me to live yet another 220,838,400 seconds! To live them or to die from them."—from The Silent Escape

Victim of Stalinist-era terror, Lena Constante was arrested in January 1950 on trumped-up charges of "espionage." She spent the next twelve years in Romanian prisonsthe first eight in solitary confinement, where she was tortured, starved, and subjected to daily degradations. Constante's only crime was her friendship with the wife of Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu, a popular communist leader who was purged in one of the period's infamous "show trials."

THE SILENT ESCAPE is the extraordinary account of Constante's years of solitary confinement, during which she was kept in small, cold cells without even a book for company. The only woman to have endured such a long period of isolation within the Romanian penal system, Constante is also one of the few female political prisoners behind the Iron Curtain to have written about her ordeal. Unlike other prison diaries, which focus on political events, this book draws the reader into the practical and emotional experiences of day-to-day life in a Romanian jail.

With candor and eloquence, Constante describes the continuous forced walks, beatings, exposure to cold, and long periods of sleep deprivation that were the common lot of the communist-state political prisoner. She also recounts the particular humiliations she suffered as a woman, such as having male guards watch her in the bathroom.

Constante survived by silently escaping into her mind—translating favorite poems and creating entire artistic compositions. Finally, she discovered the "language of the walls," which enabled her to communicate with prisoners outside of solitary confinement. By this means she established a remarkable solidarity with the other female inmates and learned about their world, a world she would enter during the last four years of her prison term.

THE SILENT ESCAPE is a powerful work and an important contribution to the literature of "prison notebooks," at once a testament to the endurance of the human spirit and a story documenting the frightening realities of totalitarianism.

"THE SILENT ESCAPE is not simply another memoir, but a volume that ranks comparably to Eugenia Ginzburg's In the Whirlwind and Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope. It is a heartbreaking, human document about the infernal conditions in Stalinist prisons and the possibility of the individual to maintain his or her dignity even under the most degrading circumstances. There are pages in the book that. . . capture the whole agony of the individual placed in absolutely hopeless circumstances. And still, Lena Constante shows, there are secret resources in the human psyche that can help one transcend this humiliation."

—Vladimir Tismaneanu
University of Maryland, College Park

"A superb book . . . that will rank with the best prison books. . . . Without ever lapsing into self-pity, it allows the reader to enter the nightmarishly vindictive Romanian political prison system."

— Daniel Chirot
University of Washington

"It is this will to live, this incredible capacity to create vast imaginary worlds in a narrowed universe, that makes the reading of this text, more a novel than a testimony, so gripping."

Est républicain

LENA CONSTANTE, an artist and writer living in Bucharest, won the 1992 Prix Européen of the Association des Ecrivains de Langue Française for the French edition of this book.

FRANKLIN PHILIP is a freelance translator living in Boston.

GAIL KLIGMAN, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, is author of The Wedding of the Dead: Ritual Poetics and Popular Culture in Transylvania (California, 1988).


Lena Constante spent twelve arduous years incarcerated in Romanian prisons. She had been accused and convicted of participating in the "espionage conspiracy" organized by Lucrețiu Pătră-șcanu, the popular communist Minister of Justice who became a principal scapegoat of Romania's Stalinist-era show trials. Lena Constante, an artist, came into close association with Pătrășcanu through her work with the minister's wife, Elena Pătrășcanu. In 1945, Lena Constante joined Mrs. Pătrășcanu in her efforts to create the first puppet theater in Bucharest. Little did these two women realize that they themselves would take part in one of the most sinister forms of "puppet" theater—the Stalinist show trial.

In Eastern Europe, these trials took place between 1948 and 1954.1 Although directed from Moscow, the show trials were scripted in the respective satellite countries. There was a basic plot structure that required elaboration. "Plausible" conspiracies had to be concocted in which espionage for imperialist powers was a central element. Loyal communists in good standing—such as Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu—were vilified as deviationists, bourgeois nationalists, and traitors. Those accused were painstakingly obliged to "learn" their designated roles for the "show trial" during the investigation period, more accurately termed interrogation period.

For the Pătrășcanu affair, this lasted five years. The participants were uncooperative and often uncomprehending of what was expected of them. The conspiracy plot was repeatedly reworked by one of the accused in this scenario.2 The secret show trial was held from April 6 to 14, 1954. As predetermined, Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu was condemned to death; he was executed sometime between dusk on April 16, 1954 and the dawn of April 17, 1954. Lena Constante, like her companion Harry Brauner, received a sentence of twelve years. By the time her conviction was secured, she had already served five of these years. There were seven more to endure. She did, and was released in the early part of her final year in 1961. In 1968, all of those tried and convicted in the Pătrășcanu show trial, including the deceased, were exonerated and fully rehabilitated.3

The Silent Escape is Lena Constante's recounting of the first eight years of her imprisonment. Why these particular years? Her response paid tribute to all of those who had been forced to waste too much of their lives in Romanian jails. Some prisoners never emerged from the depths of these living hells; instead, they perished within the confines of the prison walls, the stony guardians of many of Stalinism's dark secrets. There was nothing especially distinctive about spending twelve years in prison. Many others "did more time."4 However, what Lena Constante feels to be unique about her experience is that she is the only woman political prisoner to have endured eight years of solitary confinement in Romanian prisons. These eight years are the subject of her telling.5 It is an extraordinary account.

Lena Constante was born in București in 1909. Her father was a patriotic Romanian-Macedonian from Skopje; her mother, of a petite bourgeois family from Bucharest. Lena was the second of three sisters. During the first World War, the family moved to Iasi, a town overpopulated with refugees.6 After the armistice, the family began a lengthy homeward odyssey which took them through Odessa, and then London, and on to Paris, where they remained for several years before returning to Bucharest. At home, she completed her studies in fine arts. In spite of the difficulties that familial financial insecurity added to the traumas of those war-torn years, Lena Constante has fond memories of her childhood. "I believe that is why I get along well with children, even though I don't have any of my own." Her fondness for the young at heart has found creative expression in books that she has illustrated for children, puppet plays that she composed (and which helped her discipline her mind against the insanity that threatened to engulf her throughout those eight lonely years), folk dolls clad in "traditional" village dress which she fashioned, and greeting cards using folk motifs which she designed. Such creations were often the products of necessity, enabling her to eke out a meager living in the midst of hard times, of which there have been many.

As a child, Lena Constante recalls struggling with "extraordinary" questions that she was unable to resolve: "What is truth?" or "Which is real life—that which I experience during my waking hours, or that which occupies my dreams?" or "Mother taught me that the grass is green, the sky is blue. But how do I know that what she sees is the same as what I see?" or "I would notice that sometimes my parents would tell what could be called social lies. There was this very tiresome family friend to whom we had to be very polite when she visited. Yet I overheard my parents talking together, commenting about how stupid this person was. I wanted to know what they really thought! When were they telling the truth? When not?" These concerns about truth, about public representations and private thoughts, about social justice, and human frailties—these have confronted Lena Constante throughout her life's experiences.

As a teenager, she remembers commenting on what today would be labeled "feminist" tendencies. During a spirited discussion at home, Lena interjected into an adult conversation about women and politics that she thought women would not make the same mistakes of judgment as did men. Lena also decided that she did not want to marry before the age of forty. She knew that in Romania, a married woman would not be able to pursue her artwork; she would have too many familial obligations. Circumstances were such that she and her longtime partner and fellow "accomplice" in the Pătrășcanu conspiracy, Harry Brauner, did not marry until they were released from prison. Lena was then fifty.

Lena Constante met Harry Brauner while he was working as the assistant to the Romanian ethnomusicologist, Constantin Brăiloiu. Brailoiu was responsible for the popular (or folk) music component of the village monographic studies organized by the Romanian sociologist, Dimitrie Gusti. Lena's older sister, a sociologist, was engaged in these reseach projects and invited her to visit. It was then that she met Harry with whom a lasting friendship and partnership developed.7 Brauner, a Jew, was handsome, spiritual, popular, and talented. He loved the richness and diversity of Romanian folk music, to which he devoted his life's work as an ethnomusicologist and folklorist. Together, he and Lena traveled throughout Romanian villages as opportunity permitted, both before and after their imprisonments. These shared interests in the popular arts of Romania had profound consequences, positive and negative, for their lives.

As mentioned above, Lena Constante participated in Mrs. Pătrășcanu's project to create a puppet theater in București. The Pătrășcanus became intimate friends with Lena Constante and her partner, Harry Brauner.8 With Lucrețiu Patrășcanu's assistance, Brauner was able to create the Institute of Folklore in București, which in 1948 was not a state institution.9 This detail was later used against them as evidence of their conspiratorial activities. Foreigners came to the Institute of Folklore, which in the script for the show trial was transformed into a meeting place for spies. This was its "real" purpose, and was why Pătrășcanu aided Brauner in his efforts to form it. For her part, Lena Constante was accused of being a spy, among other things. The source of these kernels of truth distorted into rewritten histories was Belu Zilber, the other person among those accused known to Lena Constante.10 She had met Zilber in the early thirties. During the second World War, he and other Jewish intellectuals often came to her apartment to listen to classical music.11 Some years later, he would by and large author the Romanian version of the Stalinist show trial that "legitimated" the death of his formerly close friend Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu,12 and the guilt of the others accused, including himself. It was a slow process; it took the "puppet" prisoners nearly five years to "recognize" what Zilber had written and to learn their roles properly. In the end, at the trial, Pătrășcanu did not acquiesce. He believed that communism could not be built on lies, and that he could not engage in them. With or without confession of his "crimes," Patrășcanu's fate had been sealed long before the trial.13 Most of the others eventually found their way out into the world beyond the walls again.

Upon release, Lena Constante was not allowed immediately to live in București. Neither was Harry Brauner, who was subject to another two years of probation with forced residence in a small locale in the Baragan, the plains of Southeast Romania. It was there that the couple married. After their return to București, they each attempted to become reengaged in their respective professional lives: Brauner, in ethnomusicology and folklore; Constante, in popular art.14 In 1968, they were fully rehabilitated. This official declaration (ritualized throughout the socialist world) vindicated them of any wrongdoing, and enabled them to resume their lives as "normal" citizens.

It was partially a consequence of this special status that I was able to meet them in 1975, and to continue to do so throughout my years of cultural anthropological research in Romania.15 At the time, Lena Constante was embroiled in another fabricated conspiracy of sorts in which the themes of national identity, representation, and "truth" were again, if differently, involved. Beginning in 1963, Lena Constante collected pieces of the richly enbroidered sleeves and bodices of the stunning peasant blouses worn in a remote village of Hunedoara. When the blouses were too faded or torn, the women would either sell them by the kilogram to a mill for "recycling" or they would use them as rags.16 Lena Constante arranged to have some of the peasant women send these "rags" to her. She then began making them into tapestries. An exhibit of these stunning creations was held in București in 1974. However, Romanian nationalism a la Ceausescu was quietly burgeoning at this time, and so began another saga.17 In 1975, a law about the national cultural patrimony was introduced. Nothing of national value was allowed to be removed from the country. Constante was later accused of destroying these embroideries (of national value) for which it was suggested she be arrested!18 She was not; nonetheless, false accusations were again made in the self-interests of others. Among the "conspiracy" theories offered was that she profited from her Jewish folklorist husband Harry Brauner's discovery of this treasure of embroidered blouses in Hunedoara. He then hid them "who knows where, to later give them to me to cut them up!"19 The scandal eventually died down. Yet again, Lena Constante had found herself in the vortex of a conspiracy about which she had to become informed, but which affected her everyday life's tranquility (or lack thereof). The consequences of this "episode" were, however, little more than aggravating.

Lena Constante finished writing The Silent Escape in 1985. The original is handwritten in French, in a tiny scrawl. In 1990, she gave the manuscript to a publisher in France. Since then, she has finished the second volume about her years of incarceration.20 Both of these books differ from the more customary prison memoirs because hers are not primarily political reflections. Instead, Lena Constante draws us into the practical and emotional experiences of everyday life in Romanian prisons: how "interrogations" proceeded, what methods were employed to persuade, punish, and torture prisoners. She opens up the emotional and "thoughtful" world of prison life. This is an entirely human account about endless days, hours, and minutes of gripping despair, of pain from the physical and psychological means employed to control prisoners. Her style of writing underscores the unrelenting presence of time. Lena Constante re-creates the rituals of daily life, the habits of the heart and mind that saw her, and many others, through these ordeals. She writes of her artistic compositions, usually formulated in her thoughts and committed to memory, her attempts to engage (and discipline) her mind so as not to lose it to the temptations of fear, submission, and so on. She, like so many others, was not always successful in her resolve to maintain her "dignity." Personal and existential concerns about human frailty and human dignity are more easily tackled in the classroom or in the cafe than they are in the bowels of a prison where the machinations of torturers test the human will and spirit beyond comprehension.

Eight years of solitary confinement—that is also beyond everyday comprehension. As the years progressed, Lena Constante became fluent in the "language of the walls," the method of communication that enabled prisoners to "talk" with each other through a kind of Morse code tapped through the walls. Few accounts written about the sufferings of too many of the world's peoples explicate this critical feature of prison life as vividly as does Lena Con-stante's. While prison routine, particularly during the Stalinist era, was rigidly structured in time and space, this secretive communication through the walls was not. It was not a mode of communicative exchange predicated on familiar time frames. She describes the characteristics of the walls that had to be mastered so as to avoid drawing the attention of the guards. (Of course, some abused this mode of "talking" in the interest of informing on fellow prisoners.) This type of communication opened up a world of active social communication. In Lena Constante's particular case, her sheer pleasure, derived from involvement in the "secrets of prison life," from her reengagement in a social world, brings the rigors of her solitary experience more sharply into focus.

Lena Constante also introduces us to prison life for women in general, about which there is relatively little known. As she writes, "These women, all admirable and miserable, they were all in solidarity with each other." She tells us about the affective relations between women prisoners, about sexual desire, about friendships that would have been unthinkable "outside." There are profoundly touching passages about her growing relationships "through the walls" with fellow prisoners.

Lena Constante experienced and underlines for us that in spite of excessive privation of all sorts, the lack of elementary hygiene, the incidence of illness and the inadequacy of treatment— indeed, prison doctors determined the limits of torture for those who were ill so as not to provoke an "accidental" death due to maltreatment—in spite of all of this, everyday life in prison was characterized by an extraordinary female solidarity in the face of hardship, harshness, and suffering. Lena Constante offers us an eloquent rendering of this female solidarity, of the will to survive, and of human dignity. Yet, ever respectful of an essential humanism, she also reminds us that "we were not the only to suffer. The majority of the Romanian people were crushed under the weight of an inhuman and aberrant regime." In this deeply moving account, Lena Constante has graced the too often brutal pages of history with the eloquence of her humanity.

Gail Kligman


1. For readers wanting more background on these trials, see G. Hodos, Show Trials: Stalinist Purges in Eastern Europe, 1948-1954 (New York: Praeger, 1987). The discussion of the Pătrășcanu affair is one of the few accounts available in English. See chapter 10, "The Reinterpreted Show Trials in Romania."

2. Belu Zilber, Pătrășcanu's friend, succumbed to the persuasiveness of torture. He essentially wrote the script for the show trial that his fellow accused had to learn to "recognize." See A. Serbulescu, Monarhie de Drept Dialectic. A doua versiune a memoriilor lui Belu Zilber (București: Humanitas, 1991). (Șerbulescu was Zilber's pen alias.) Constante discusses him at greater length in her second book, Evaderea Imposibila (București: Fundația Culturala Româna, 1993).

3. The factionalist struggles in the Romanian Communist Party made Pătrășcanu an ideal candidate to be sacrificed in the show trial. Pătrășcanu was Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej's most formidable rival. The former was always suspect because of a general characteristic of intellectuals: a lack of sufficient dogmatism. Pătrășcanu and the others accused with him were rehabilitated by Nicolae Ceaușescu, Gheorghiu-Dej's successor. Again, factionalist rivalries motivated Ceaușescu's reconsideration of this case.

4. Corneliu Coposu, leader of the National Christian-Democratic Peasant Party, spent seventeen years in prison. After the collapse of communism in Romania—that is, after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime—an "Association of Former Political Prisoners" was formed. This Association belongs to the "Democratic Convention," a political umbrella of opposition Parties and groups in postcommunist Romania.

5. A second volume about the last years of her imprisonment has been published in Romania. See footnote 2. Lena Constante was transferred from solitary confinement and integrated into "normal" prison life.

6. During the war, the government retreated to Iași. Lena's father worked in the government as the equivalent of a civil servant. The family moved with him.

7. Lena was so taken with Harry Brauner that she resorted to a folk practice to assure the fruition of their relationship. He was a handsome and popular man. With a laugh, she tells of how she asked the village "witch" to cast a spell that would bind them for life. Lena was told to bring something of his. Not knowing exactly how to acquire such an item, she made up a story about having a men's shirt and needing a tie to wear with it. Brauner lent her one, which she took to the sorceress who then chanted over it; she also had a bottle with basil (a holy and magical plant) and water. Lena didn't know what the witch did or said, but obviously it worked!

8. Many people assume that Lena and Harry were a married couple sharing a residence during this period. That was not the case, although, fortuitously, they lived in the same neighborhood. They found this arrangement stimulating for what she termed a relationship of "art in process."

They had become close friends of the Pătrășcanus. Elena Pătrășcanu (known to friends as Sașa—a nickname given to her by Constante) was Jewish; Pătrășcanu, Christian. Constante describes him as an idealist, and like most idealists, naive in many ways. While talking about Pătrășcanu, she commented wistfully about how complexly intertwined everything seemed to have been; how it had been possible to "rework" events that changed innocent persons' lives.

9. Precious collections that had been hidden during the war needed to be catalogued and properly placed in archives. However, for Pătrășcanu to help Brauner in this endeavor, Brauner had to join the Communist Party. Neither the Institute of Folklore nor the Puppet Theater was founded in 1949, the official year of their opening. This was the year when these both became state institutions.

Both Brauner and Pătrășcanu were Romanian "nationalists" of different sorts. Harry Brauner loved the expressive cultures of Romania. Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu, a committed communist, was committed first to his country's interests (and not dogmatically to international communism). Brauner and Pătrășcanu, both intellectuals, would pay dearly for their different but related efforts on behalf of Romania.

10. Constante claims to have met most of the other coconspirators at the secret trial itself. One of the standard elements of conspiracies is the ever-expanding network of persons often unknown to each other, but known to a central figure. "Belu" is the name by which Herbert Zilber was popularly known.

11. Jews were not supposed to have radios during the war, so they came to visit Constante, who was not Jewish.

12. Remus Koffler was also sentenced to death. The others received punishments varying from twelve years to life imprisonment. (Belu Zilber was sentenced to the latter.) Following their rehabilitation in 1968, all sentences were commuted to freedom for those still alive and imprisoned. Koffler and Pătrășcanu were not among them.

13. Although the circumstances bear no comparison, there is a disturbing resemblance between the executions of Pătrășcanu and Ceaușescu, whose secret trials differendy represent travesties of "due process."

14. In 1964, Harry's brother, the painter Victor Brauner, who was established in Paris, tried to "buy" Harry out of Romania. At the time, this did not work (although by die eighties, this was a customary practice; Jews and Germans could be bought out with "hard" currency). Victor Brauner died in 1966 before the opening of his art exhibit, to which Harry had been invited. With pressure from the French Government, a visa was obtained. Harry and Lena assumed that the Romanians wanted to show that former prisoners had the same rights as all citizens. ("Show" this was, because years later, most Romanians—unlike former political prisoners with the ironically "privileged" status of having been rehabilitated—did not have the right to travel.) In fact, thereafter, Brauner and Constante traveled frequently, invited by friends and family, especially in France and Switzerland. They always returned home to Romania.

15. After their rehabilitation, Brauner taught at the Conservatory of Music. He also continued his folklore collections and wrote about the "Pollution of Folklore" that was introduced by Ceaușescu through the mass cultural festival system, "The Singing of Romania." The pollution (through homogenization and standardization) of expressive cultural practices was anathema to Harry. Sadly, Harry Brauner died in 1988 before the fall of Ceaușescu.

It would have been much more difficult for me to visit Harry Brauner and Lena Constante after 1978 when the interdictions against meeting with foreigners became ever more stringent under Ceaușescu's rule. However, given their status (and their publicly known work in culture), it was possible. Much, however, remained unsaid between us, particularly in-depth discussion of their prison years.

16. I was not surprised to hear that these peasant women would use their seemingly faded yet exquisitely hand-embroidered blouses as rags. I encountered this in villages in Oltenia; this was at a time when the "folkloric" machine-sewn embroidered blouses of Romania were all the rage in the West. While Romanian peasants discarded what they considered to be worn-out shirts, westerners were paying high prices for poor facsimiles.

17. These works are not tapestries in the classic sense, although they are closest to them. Lena's creations are compositions in the style of tapestries in which the embroidered pieces are creatively arranged by her. It is beyond the scope of this introduction to discuss this ongoing episode in detail. The noted philosopher Constantin Noica wrote the following lines about her tapestries: "Four hundred embroidered blouses met Lena Constante: 'They are going to throw us away, dear lady!' they said to her. 'They are going to throw us away!' Then she took them in her hand, passed them through her soul, and sent them to Heaven!" And, "When we reach the end like old, worn shirts, when everyone who has seen Lena Constante's tapestries come to the end, some of us will think, perhaps: if she is there, one day, with her deft hands, may she transform us into tapestries for the Great Collector." (I copied and translated these texts presented to Lena Constante; they were signed by Noica, April 1,1974.)

18. Underlying some of this dispute about the public domain and art was the basic interest in preventing citizens from receiving payment in hard currency. Over the years, various exhibits of her work did occur, but with the agreement that she would not sell privately except to cover her travel expenses. There is a fundamental irony in this case: Constante was accused of destroying the national patrimony (when she salvaged and reworked worn-out blouses whose creators were destroying them themselves) during the period when the state was engaged in "destroying" cultural practices through the ho-mogenization and standardization of "Cîntarea România" (The Singing of Romania). Since the fall of the Ceaușescu regime, her work has again been exhibited in France, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

19. In a letter written by a villager to Constante regarding the accusations against her, the peasant woman wrote: ". . . those that think that we've cut up our new blouses for you are either stupid ... we thought that only we Pădureni and peasants are stupid, but the professors and directors are stupider than us! Would they destroy their new clothes? Nor do we!"

20. Since 1990, she has not worked much on her tapestries. This is partly because she no longer has the strength or the sharp eyesight needed to repair, design, and sew these inspired creations.