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  • Ilinca Stroe

Fighting Against the Tide of History: Elisabeta Rizea, the Anti-communist Woman Partisan

In popular culture and that casual word-of-mouth sociocultural self-analysis people of any nation often carry out over a drink with friends, Romanians call themselves “mioritici”. The epithet comes from the folk ballad Mioriţa (“The Little Ewe”). In it, a shepherd finds out from a little ewe that two of his fellow sheepmen are planning to kill him and steal his flock. What does he do, once warned about the infamous scheme? Nothing. He does nothing. In the long poem he just instructs the ewe lamb what to tell his mother: let her not know that he was murdered, let her know that he got married to a beautiful princess from afar, that at their wedding the Sun and the Moon were their best man and bridesmaid, etc. To practical minds, that response to an imminent death threat reads as passivity, fatalism, refuge into (delusional) fantasy - since instead of fighting back for his life, our good shepherd prefers to contrive a wonderful lie for his grieving mother to buy, when he’s gone.

“Mioritism” is what younger-generation Romanians tend to charge their nation with, when it comes to how the people failed to oppose the imposition of the communist regime in Romania by Soviet tanks after the Second World War. But the dice had been cast in 1944, on history’s probably most famous napkin, where the even more famous hand of Sir Winston Churchill had put down: “Roumania Russia 90% the others 10%”. It was part of the Anglo-soviet deal (the “percentages agreement”) as to how to carve up Balkan Europe into new spheres of influence, which the subsequent Yalta conference with the “Big Three” that had defeated Nazi Germany only reinforced. Stalin was free to send his troops to Romania to supervise the setting up of the kind of totalitarian regime he had created in his own Soviet Union, and none of the other Allies (i.e. Britain, the US) would oppose that.

Or so it’s been thought. Obviously, Romanian anti-communist statesmen and politicians were either executed or exterminated in harsh prison or labour camp conditions, and so were the country’s military and intellectual elite and indeed any other opponent of the new regime (be them farmers, clergymen or mere high schoolers and students). “Enemies of the people”, they were dubbed by the Soviet-trained prosecutors, and the jails got filled up with them, in “reeducation” programmes which included systematic starvation, beating, torture and an infinite portfolio of Soviet-inspired deprivation and humiliation methods.

And yet. Up around the Carpathian Mountains a plethora of small armed guerrilla groups were resisting, opposing and harrasing the regime, undermining some of the communist authorities’ oppressive operations such as the farmers’ forced collectivisation. Drawing on bygone practices and the lore of the haiduks (Robin Hood-style outlaws), they lived hidden in the woods, some - equipped with smuggled weapons, ammunition and radio transmitters, some - provided with food, shelter and information by the inhabitants of nearby villages. They totalled several thousand partisans, were loosely linked to the Office of Policy Coordination of the CIA, were prepared to fight the Soviets in case the Anglo-saxons decided to start a new war against Stalin’s USSR, and were obsessively chased and hunted by the Romanian communist secret police (Securitate) from the 1940s to the 1960s. (In fact, some of their leaders remained undetected until the late ‘70s.)

One of those groups were based in the Făgăraş Mountains and headed by lieutenant Toma Arnăuţoiu. They originated in the village of Nucşoara in a county back then called Muscel (present-day Argeş), and their secret supplier of food, clothing and information, without whom they couldn’t have survived, was a village woman called Elisabeta Rizea. A graduate of barely secondary school, Romanian history nowadays pays homage to her as the female symbol of anti-communist resistance, an extraordinary woman of extraordinary moral standing, whose resilience, dignity, determination and heroism made her a major 20th-century Romanian female role model.

“ ‘Captain, sir, I’m not Judas to sell them for thirty pieces of silver.’ He knocked me down to the ground, tied me and beat me up with his billy club, from nape to heels.” She was then hung by her hair to a lamp hook in the ceiling. The hair got ripped off from her scalp and she thumped to the floor. Saying nothing. That was her first encounter with the Securitate. For years she was beaten, tortured and maimed to reveal the location and names of the Muscel haiduks, whom her husband too ended up joining: first arrested when she was 38, she was sentenced to 6 years in prison; when she got out, in 1956, she resumed her work with the partisants, providing them again with food and information; in 1958 she was arrested once more and received a 25-year forced labour sentence. More beating. “I used to cross myself with my tongue and pray to God to help me not say anything.” She said nothing. She never gave away her fellow fighters. All that torture, in vain.

After the fall of communism, her story became widely publicised. She was interviewed as part of an impactful documentary series (Memorialul durerii), and her memoirs were published by Romania’s most prestigious publishing house (Humanitas). So much so that it all drew the attention of her first torturer’s son: the offspring of Securitate Captain Cârnu chose to visit her and let her know that his father had hanged himself in post-communist times. There was justice, after all, and some repair. As for Elisabeta, she died peacefully in 2003, aged 91.


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