PITESTI, Romania (AP) — An art exhibition went on display Friday at a former Romanian prison where communists tortured and killed political prisoners in a gruesome re-education program.
The collection of 11 sculptures at the Pitesti Prison, southern Romania, aims to remind visitors about the horrors that took place there from 1949 to 1951.
The 3.5 meter-tall (11.5-feet) grey, polystyrene figures depict detainees who were tortured and humiliated to force them to become communists.
Several thousand prisoners who had fallen foul of the communist regime underwent what was known as "The Pitesti Experiment." Prisoners were forced to stare at lightbulbs, eat feces, given electric shocks and head butt each other. They were also encouraged to inform on each other and torture fellow inmates. About 100 died from mistreatment.
Alexandru Bogdanovici, who was imprisoned because he'd been a member of the fascist Iron Guard, was co-opted to re-educate fellow prisoners. But the prison commander later considered him disloyal and he was beaten, denied water and eventually died.
For the exhibit, artist Catalin Badarau sculpted contorted, anonymous figures which lie in hallways or in former prison cells. One figure stands awkwardly on his head, others have their hands tied behind their backs or are covering their faces.
Badarau says the oversized figures, of a mottled grey color which is similar to the prison walls and floors "show the fragility of human beings."
"They were strong people when they went into prison but they came out physical wrecks," he told The Associated Press. "But conversely, they became spiritual giants."
Among the detainees that survived Pitesti are Romanian Orthodox priest Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa who spent 21 years as a political prisoner and Corneliu Coposu, an anti-communist politician and well-known dissident who died in 1995.
An estimated 500,000 people, members of the pre-communist intellectual and political elite, were locked up in political prisons until a general amnesty was declared in 1964.
Similar art exhibitions will be held this year in other cities that housed political prisons or had anti-communist revolts, sponsored by the Nasui Collection & Gallery and a government institute tasked with investigating crimes of the communist era.
Badarau said his sculptures challenge people to ask themselves: "What would I have done? Would I have become a victim or a torturer, or both?"