Solitary Refinement

How One Man Found Freedom Inside a Communist Prison

Fr. Roman Braga was born to a peasant family in Romania in 1922. They lived near a monastery, which had a profound influence on him. He entered a seminary school when he was 12. After completing seminary in 1943, he studied at a military school until 1945, when the war ended, and then moved to Bucharest, where he continued theological studies. He was arrested by the Communists in 1948 and held prisoner for five years. He was arrested and imprisoned again in 1958 and released in 1964, and was then ordained a priest. In 1968 he was exiled to Brazil, finally moving from there to the United States in 1972. But Roman Braga's escape to freedom, he says, took place inside the Communist prison. Salvo's executive editor, James Kushiner, interviewed Fr. Roman about this in December 2011.

How long were you in prison? Why did they put you there?

I suffered eleven years in Communist prisons. They put me in prison because I was a teacher; I was teaching religion and the Romanian language in high school. When the Communist government came into power, they immediately said everyone in the schools would have to interpret everything in the Marxist, materialistic way. But I didn't want to lie to my students. It was not only me; many thousands of other Christians and intellectuals in Romania did the same.

We wanted to educate young people to be themselves the way that God created them, to know who they were. Personality is something given by God. Each one is unique. God never creates standard types, like bars of soap coming down the conveyer belt in the factory. It may seem that I exaggerate, because I came out of Communism, where the individuals were just numbers, like bricks in a building, all the same, and they don't have any other function.

What did they do to you for teaching non-Marxist ideas?

For five years I worked [in a labor camp] on the Black Sea Canal. We were digging it by hand—the Communists wanted to destroy the intellectual class with the wheelbarrow and with the shovel. They wanted to destroy my generation. But it didn't happen. I was young, and I wanted to survive.

After my sentence of five years I was liberated. At this time they didn't allow me to be a teacher. Once you were in prison—all teachers and professors—you were not allowed back in education. Because the Communists wanted to educate the young generation in their own way, with their own books, they didn't want me to teach.

So how did you end up teaching again?

First, I became a monk, because I found in the prison camp a very good spiritual father, a simple monk who was the abbot of a monastery in the mountains. He was so simple, yet he knew The Ladder of Ascent by St. John Climacus by heart, and also some of the Holy Fathers. Simple monks—how deep they are! They are very simple, because truth is very simple. Because they are not so learned, they are more profound, deeper in their understanding. We complicate things because we know so many things—and we get confused!

I was very much impressed by this simple monk, and I approached him and learned from him in the prison camp. I felt the faith before [I was in prison], but this was an intellectual awakening. So when I came out of prison, I went directly to a monastery.

Then I started to educate young people and children in private. I became a deacon, and I found a Metropolitan who brought me to his cathedral in Jassy, a university city. The students were afraid and came to church in disguise. But they came, and I taught them. The government watched me for five years before they condemned me a second time, to eighteen years in prison.

Was this when you were put into solitary confinement? How did you survive that?

Yes, for six months. I actually found salvation in prison, in a way, in something that the priests and those who believe in God possess, something that the [Communists] couldn't control, that no one can control.

The intellectuals were isolated in solitary confinement for six months or a year. Imagine a little cell, without anything—you don't even have a window to look at nature outside, because the window is so high, it cannot be reached. You are just inside. You don't have any books. That was the good method of the Communists.

They gave books and pencils and everything to the common prisoners, to the thieves, but not to the intellectuals, to political prisoners. For all my eleven years in prison, I didn't see a pencil! I didn't see a piece of paper! They wanted us to become beasts, to become animals. They were very naïve. This was, in fact, a failure for them, because we became ourselves without books.

Outside prison you don't have time to be yourself, because we are reading so many books. We are so busy that we don't have time to say, "Who am I?" or to sit down and to ask, "Why has God created me?" We are always gathering knowledge and notions and depositing them in our heads like a bank. But we don't take time to find ourselves.

In solitary confinement you have to go somewhere! There is no horizon outside of yourself, so you have to go inside. And then you discover who you are! And that was the revolution that happened with us in prison. Many times they have laughed at me when I said, "God bless the Communists!"—because they put the intellectuals in prison. And those who were truly intellectuals—who believed in God—discovered for themselves that true freedom is inside, it's not outside. In solitary confinement I discovered communion with God, with Christ, in the interior, in prayer and conversation with God; true freedom. The Communists could not control that!

I am not surprised that people laughed—what you say is against all expectations.

A journalist here in Jackson [Michigan] asked me about the Christians in Romania under Communism. He didn't believe anything I told him. He said that Solzhenitsyn and I had too much imagination. I replied, "I'm very glad you don't believe anything, because it means you are normal. We are not normal. You are normal; you were born in freedom. You don't know what it's like, when you tune your radio set to the BBC, to go around the house and lock the doors, to make sure nobody's listening to you. You don't know how to be afraid. If you want to experience fear in America, you go into a theatre and watch a spooky movie. So you are normal people," I said. We passed through hell. But God wanted us to have that experience.

That experience was very positive for spiritual people, because they were forced to examine themselves, to ask themselves who they were and to explore the inner universe. Here, in solitary confinement, an American will go crazy. Here you cannot say to a young man, "Sit down there," on that bench or chair. "What am I to do here?" he says. "Nothing. Just sit down and stay there two hours." He cannot do it.

But you did not serve your full 18-year term?

In 1964 Romania wanted to have relations and aid from the West, so they had to comply with some of the conditions, one of which was the liberation of political prisoners. A general amnesty for political prisoners only took place therefore in 1964. So I was liberated the second time after six years.

What did you do then?

I was ordained a priest in 1964. They sent me to a small city of miners, where there was a high school. The miners believed in God. The Communists couldn't stop the miners making the sign of the Cross when they went inside the shaft. I said to them, "Why don't you bring your children to church?"

In Romania during the Communist regime you could not put a little cross around the neck of your child, because the children did not belong to their parents. The children belonged to the state. And it was very dangerous for the parents to give a religious education to their children. But the children came to church with their parents. I made a beautiful choir of one hundred children, and a girl who was in high school directed it. I knew that I could not be put in prison anymore. So I took courage to do things. I was there three years.

Because I was a celibate priest, and also a monk, my sister, Mother Benedicta, was with me, to take care of me. One night the secret police cut the telephone line and isolated us. The police came and said, "Don't move, you stay there on the chairs. We will pack everything." And they packed everything that we had, put us in a pick-up truck, and drove us thirty miles. At two o'clock in the morning, the security officer left the truck. Then the driver said, "Now I have permission to tell you where you are going." They moved us to a very poor village. My sister was crying. I said, "Don't cry, they will not put us in prison." I knew the situation.

You went from prison to a mining town to a poor village—what came next?

In the village there was a church that was not finished. If a community is deep in the mountains, and there is no asphalt road passing by, and no tourists, you couldn't build or finish a church. But I met an engineer from a collective farm—farmers didn't have private farms, everything was put into collective farms. The engineer was a Greek who had been raised in Romania. He came to Romania when Greece was a Communist country. And these Greek children believed in God; Orthodoxy was their blood. So this engineer said, "Father, look here. You want to finish the church. I will 'disappear' from the farm Friday night until Tuesday night. You stay at the church. The people are in your hands, you will have tractors, trailers, and everything—do what you want to do!"

So I finished the church with the people. We worked Saturday until ten o'clock at night, and we held Liturgy the next day, at ten o'clock. When the [officials] saw this, they didn't know what to do with me. But they didn't say anything. They just watched. I knew they were watching—when you have had experience with the security people, you just know.

Again, one night in 1968 the secret police came—Mother Benedicta was with me—and gave me a passport for Brazil! They said, "Your patriarch is sending you there." And when I talked to the patriarch in Bucharest, he said, "I don't have any mission there in Brazil, especially in Goiania. But you have to go where they send you."

So you escaped the Communists through Brazil.

Well, we were expelled to Goiania, a small city of Indians, the capital of the state of Goyaz. I was eager to go there, and you know how good the Brazilian people are. God is everywhere! After one year, Bishop Ignatios came from Sao Paolo. He looked at me and said, "You come with me to Sao Paolo." He gave me a parish, and in six months I was speaking Portuguese, because Portuguese is a language very similar to Romanian, and it was easy for me.

How did you end up coming to the United States?

The Romanian archbishop of Detroit, Valerian Trifa, found out about me because I published some articles in the Romanian papers in the United States about the relation between state and church in the Communist world.

So in 1972 I came to the Romanian Episcopate in Grass Lake, Michigan, a suburb of Jackson. Archbishop Valerian said, "For one year I won't give you anything to do. But in one year you will have to deliver a sermon in English!" He gave me all the audiovisual resources to learn English. Sure, in one year, I could communicate with people. I worked in Grass Lake for seven years with our research institute for Romanian life in America. And I worked in religious education camps teaching children. And I learned English from the children. Children are very good English professors. They ask you a lot of questions—and you have to answer them!

You spent a good portion of your adult life—your mid-twenties to your mid-forties—under Communism, or as we used to say, "behind the Iron Curtain." What can you say about Communism today?

Communism is a religion. It is a mystical movement. It turns religion upside down. There is a book, Toward Middle Age is the title of the book in French, where the author says that Marxism is religion upside down. Communists are mystical like this: they think, they really believe, that they can transform man. They can create a new Communist personality, to completely replace what man is. It's impossible, and that's why Communism is finished now.

I'm afraid that other methods will take over today. You know what is happening in the European Union. Even the governments of the countries don't count anymore. Everything is centralized in Brussels. They are moving toward a very dangerous reality that they want to create through globalism, in which the individual disappears. As in Communism, they believe that "society" is important, but society is an abstract; the individual doesn't matter, there is just society. In so-called globalism the individual will not have anything to do other than to be just like bricks in a building. I'm afraid of that.

There is a Psalm that says, "God fashioned each individual in his own way." Martin Buber, the wonderful rabbi and scholar, wrote that "God never repeats himself in creation." Buber was speaking about how young people commit suicide and don't realize that when a man commits suicide, there is an empty place in the universe, because he is unique. No, each individual, he argues, is different. Each is a universe. My relation with God is completely different from your relation with God. That is the beauty of Creation, of society, of the person.

But I am afraid especially that there also is a revolution coming in genetics. They want to create artificial persons. As you put in it Salvo, they want to create a new species, they want to demonstrate that evolution continues. They want to combine an electronic brain with a biological brain to create something extraordinary, and they will not stop. Genetics is very wonderful, but it also is very dangerous when it is used to destroy the personality. Without God, we think we are free, but without God, we also create things that will destroy us.

As society becomes more atheistic, will this danger increase?

There are few real atheists. There is nostalgia in our soul for God; we are looking for God. Because we lost Paradise, there is nostalgia for Paradise. God is like the magnet that attracts us. God reflects himself in the heart of each individual in a specific way, and we have to embrace that specific way. We are not robots of the state created to move to the right or to the left on demand. God is the prototype, and we are the icon, the image. The image wants to reach the prototype. This growing in God and in knowledge of God will be infinite.

Someone may say, "I'm an atheist, and I'm still searching." What is he looking for? For the truth? What is the truth? Nobody knows all truth. But Someone said, "I am the Truth"! And Christ reflects himself in the hearts of each individual in a specific way—that is the whole beauty we find in this world, and no power on earth will destroy it. •

From Salvo 26 (Fall 2013)
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is the executive editor of Salvo and the  Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #26, Fall 2013 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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