Witnessing Horrorism: The Piteşti Experiment

Arleen Ionescu

Abstract


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This article presents an irrational, sadistic experiment based on cruelty and complete disregard of human values, carried out between 1949 and 1952 in Romania and known under the infamous name of the Piteşti experiment. Its agenda was based on ‘re-education’, metaphorically presented as a sort of ‘healing’, supposedly performed to eliminate the ‘rot’ from prisoners. In the light of existent theories on the process of witnessing and testifying, I explore Dumitru Bacu’s, Grigore Dumitrescu’s, Paul Goma’s and Virgil Ierunca’s accounts of this despicable experiment and discuss the different roles assumed by witnesses while writing about Piteşti. Using the notions of ‘terror’ and ‘horror’ as developed in the works of Hannah Arendt and Adriana Cavarero, as well as Judith Lewis Herman’s findings from Trauma and Recovery and Anne-Marie Roviello’s work on ‘the hidden violence of totalitarianism’, the article suggests how the Piteşti experiment can be compared to the Shoah. Through this comparison, I point out the ‘unnarratability’ of the events that happened in the Piteşti penitentiary and, explaining the positions of the victims, I discuss the elements that made this experiment a uniquely tragic event in the history of communist prisons: on the one hand, that any tortured prisoner was forced to become the torturer of his fellows, on the other hand, that no one was allowed to die.


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