Starvation, Surveillance, and Back-Alley Abortions: Romanian Dissident Reveals Horrors of Living Under a Communist Regime

By Andrea Mew

“Women were a symbol of everything,” Daniela Ionescu said, reflecting on the role of a woman in her birth country of Romania. “She’s young, she’s fertile, she’s ready to procreate for the Communist Party.”

Yet, she said the “idolized” propaganda-poster imagery of womanhood in Communist Romania (1947 to 1989) was not reflective of women’s true experience under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime.

Ionescu lived through this era and watched firsthand the dismantling of Ceaușescu’s authoritarian government. Even after the Romanian Revolution in 1989 and Ceaușescu’s public execution, however, Ionescu and her husband Andy knew they needed to flee their still-corrupt nation for the United States, a country they viewed as “a symbol of freedom, liberty, and opportunities.”

In Kindergarten, “The Indoctrination Started”

Ionescu was raised in a city called Constanța, an ancient metropolis, one of the oldest cities in Europe and Romania’s largest seaport, located on the Black Sea. She thought, generally speaking, that her childhood was normal, but then in kindergarten, “the indoctrination started.”

Ionescu recalled that her teacher showed her posters of Vladimir Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, and urged the children into believing he was a better role model than their own families.

“Beginning in first grade, of course, we were introduced to the political organization,” said Ionescu, reflecting on how she and her classmates were required to participate in the youth organization called The Pioneers. They had to wear red ties to reflect the color of the Communist Party, recite poems, and sing songs. Children this age, Ionescu said, didn’t understand what messaging was being pushed on them at the time.

“I had an uncle from my mother’s side who was a mayor in a village in Romania, and he was killed by the communists when they took power in 1946 because he didn’t fit their narrative,” she said.

Brutalities of the regime, like this, would remain under wraps for children such as Ionescu until 1989; parents, she said, were afraid for their “innocent souls.” But while adults hid certain truths, Ionescu recalled witnessing many depressing situations firsthand.

“In sixth grade, I remember it was the first time when I had to stay in line for sugar,” she said. It was a hot summer day, and Ionescu said that after three hours of waiting, she fainted. “You could stay in line for four, five hours, six hours, seven hours waiting for the car to arrive with produce for the trucks. But that didn’t mean that everyone was able to get something. You never knew. You never knew if it was meat, sugar, or oil.”

Ionescu did her homework at times by candlelight, since access to stable electricity beyond a few hours in the morning wasn’t always guaranteed. When she was in high school, Ionescu began working so that she didn’t have to wait in lines for food. But she was in “continuous starvation,” and recalled how her appetite was suppressed by cigarettes, small dried pretzels, and produce from a farmer’s market—when it was available.

“‘We are being buried alive,’” Ionescu recalled writing at the time. “I could see my breath because of the coldness. And I said, ‘this is not a life. It’s impossible.’ I saw my life like a black hole.”

Ionescu worked at a bank doing accounting, which was considered a “woman’s job.”

“95% of us were women, of course, but the leadership was 99% men,” she said. Ionescu would work eight hours a day, Monday through Saturday, but after she could clock out, she said the Party required employees to attend unexpected political meetings which could last up to three hours.

“The political meetings were nonsense. Nothing. They keep repeating themselves, I think, just to make sure we are brainwashed enough,” Ionescu said.

Women’s Bodies: Property of the Communist Party, Pushed to Procreate Without Proper Resources

One of the country’s most notorious efforts to control its population was through controlled fertility. Decree 770 restricted all forms of contraception and abortion, but as Ionescu explained, its purpose couldn’t be compared to the Western world’s pro-choice movement.

“It wasn’t about the sacredness of life, it wasn’t about the woman’s rights over their bodies, ‘my body, my choice.’ It wasn’t about the fetus’ rights,” she said. “Women’s bodies were property of the Communist Party and she had to procreate.”

This decree had severe, adverse consequences. Teenagers were subjected to gynecological examinations during school, and their parents were not informed that strangers would be checking to see if their daughters were pregnant. This practice was even a normal process in factories where a majority of workers were women, Ionescu said.

Women were instructed that it was their patriotic duty to have as many children as they could, and they could only have access to abortions after hitting a five-child minimum quota. Meanwhile, people were starved from food rationing and impoverished from a lack of resources.

“How can you have more children if you can’t afford them, right?” Ionescu asked. “Women started to have these back-alley abortions. Many of them died because of infection—at least 10,000 women died from 1966 to 1999—but the thing is, we’ll never know the real number because on their death certificate, the cause was septicemia or renal blockage or something like that.”

Women having back-alley abortions often ended up in the hospital, where representatives from the Securitate—Romania’s secret police, similar to the Soviet Union’s KGB—would try to get them to divulge the name of the doctors involved.

Many women refused, Ionescu added, saying that they’d prefer to die than snitch. Ionescu’s 23-year-old cousin was one of them. Happily married with two children, she found herself pregnant with what would have been her third.

“They couldn’t afford to have a third child. She had this type of abortion and she got infected,” Ionescu said. “She went to the hospital, and the representative of Securitate was there, and the doctor could not treat her because she didn’t want to divulge the name of the person who did the abortion. She passed away at 23 years old.”

Another unforeseen consequence of Decree 770 was that, when a woman went through with her pregnancy but couldn’t afford to raise the child, the child was released into Romania’s now-infamous prison-like orphanages.

“It’s a really big stain on our Romanian nation,” Ionescu said. “700 orphanages were housing 100,000 abandoned children. And from these children, 20,000 children from these orphans died because of starvation and diseases including AIDS. No one took care of them.”

All of these facts about Romania’s orphanages were hidden by the Party, said Ionescu, and were not discovered by the general public until after the revolution.

In 1986, Ionescu said, their dictator decided that, because their communist society was a “perfect society,” they could not have AIDS. So, blood in hospitals was restricted from being tested and by the end of the 1980s, Romania had the largest number of children with AIDS in Europe.

Ionescu had a relative who took her six-month-old baby to the hospital for unrelated stomach problems. Her six-month-old received a blood transfusion and sadly became infected with AIDS.

Disadvantaged children in this generation, generally speaking, had three fates. Their mother couldn’t afford them and attempted abortion; their mother couldn’t afford them and put them into the orphanage system; or their mother had to work and they were placed in daycare facilities rife with communist indoctrination.

This pipeline for brainwashing is why, Ionescu said, women were encouraged to become a part of the working class.

“You Are the Enemy of the People”

Ionescu, still unmarried at the time, worked around the clock at the bank. There, she said she was sexually harassed by a representative of the Communist Party for over a year and a half. He was in his forties, was married, and had two children.

“He said, ‘if you don’t want to accept me, I will inform the Communist Party that you are the enemy of the people, the enemy of the Communist Party. You are not a good citizen. And I will throw you in jail. I will destroy you,’” Ionescu recalled.

She said he continued to blackmail her to the point that his persistent threats caused her to develop a pain in her sternum from feeling such a heightened sense of fear—which she now recognizes was a symptom of PTSD. This painful fear of the Securitate followed her throughout all other elements of her day-to-day life—even during mundane tasks such as replacing an expired identification card.

Ionescu’s friend connected her with a policeman who she said would expedite ID card services, but she ended up being strung along for several appointments during an entire month, waiting in the policeman’s office for three to four hours at a time.

“In the end, on the last day, the policeman said, ‘we want you to be an informant for us,’” Ionescu said. She told him that she wasn’t interested, but he continued to push for her to become an informant for the Communist Party and snitch on her coworkers in the bank who were eating better than her, going on vacations, or dressing better than her.

In return, she said, the policeman promised he would help her begin her dream career in theater and would sweeten the deal with food incentives like a box of oranges, a package of meat, or a few bananas.

“I couldn’t betray my coworkers,” Ionescu said of her response to the proposition. “I was afraid that I would get arrested for a while. I was expecting the police to be at my door and take me. I was sure I was dead. I mean, I lost so much weight in that period.”

According to Ionescu, the police used psychological warfare in an attempt to pressure her into working as an informant. One day after a meeting, for example, she returned home and a plant that was normally on her coffee table had disappeared. Ionescu said this was done to warn her that they were watching her.

Then, during another meeting, she said the police played mind games with her, telling her she was already an informant. They showed her “her file,” which they alleged had her signature on it. When Ionescu said she asked to see her own signature—which she hadn’t written—the policeman agreed to show her it for a fraction of a second.

“It wasn’t my signature,” Ionescu said. “I stood my ground. I was ready to face jail. I was ready to be tortured and killed.”

Throughout the late 1980s, Ionescu continued to brainstorm ways she could leave the country. She asked her parents if she even had a drop of German or Jewish blood because Germany and Israel respectively, for example, were buying the freedom of people with some genealogical heritage. Her father said she was 100% Romanian.

Otherwise, Ionescu said she was thinking of trying to cross the Danube River, but many who tried this were shot by the Romanian army. Furthermore, she couldn’t swim.

Emerging Triumphantly Out of the “Dark Ages”

A few months before the Romanian Revolution in 1989, Ionescu married her husband, Andy. They dreamed of “a better future” together, took part in demonstrations, and dodged bullets from law enforcement attempting to suppress the revolution.

Regicide in Bucharest” was one 1989 Washington Post headline written by the late Charles Krauthammer, and read by audiences around the world that covered the overthrow of this communist regime—which resulted in over a thousand civilian casualties.

Revolutionaries successfully overthrew the dictatorship. Ceausescu and his wife were executed. However, Ionescu recalled that the new government leaders still wanted to keep many of the old ways.

Ionescu gave birth to a son, and while the new parents felt happy he was born in a “free country,” she said they didn’t want him to be raised in “dark ages.” The new government, Ionescu said, appeared on face value to operate like a capitalist nation—businesses were privatized, citizens could vote, and there were several political parties to pick from—but Ionescu recalled that communist corruption still found its way into the new government.

Her husband, Andy, had dreamed of living in the United States since he was a child, so the two of them worked to apply for visas. During this time, Ionescu made her first trip to America and said she was “mesmerized” by how much it was like an “alien planet” compared to the world she was used to.

She said she even had trouble accepting smiles from strangers as this experience was so unusual for her.

The two, with their young son, lived in America, but it took 11 years before they could finally become American citizens. Newly empowered by the ability to choose her own career, Ionescu went back to school to study art history, first earning a bachelor’s degree and then her Master’s in Art History in 2018.

Today, she said her family is very happy in the United States, but sees the proverbial writing on the wall: the growth of a centralized, socialist-lite government in America could eventually destroy the country.

“It’s very important for Americans to learn from our tales, cautionary tales,” Ionescu said. She recalled how, when she was growing up, she always envisioned the United States stepping in to help the Romanians in the end.

“Not just myself, but my grandparents and my parents, we were waiting for more than four decades for the Americans to come and rescue us,” she said. Eventually Reagan’s administration did—helping to free the entirety of Eastern Europe from socialist rule.

“Everyone wants to immigrate to America. That means it’s a great country. If this country is no longer that symbol of all liberty and freedom, as humanity, we are lost. So I mean, this is the last bastion.”

To Ionescu, who grew up with truth being veiled by a latent—yet powerful—fear of the Securitate, she made sure that her son knew the irreplaceable value of the freedoms afforded to him upon their family becoming American citizens.

“This tendency to go far-Left towards socialism and communism because the government will take care of you is the worst thing that could happen to us,” Ionescu warned. “In so many countries—communist countries—the government took care of us, and it was a pure nightmare.”

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