Silviu Craciunas’s only book, “The Lost Footsteps” is a record of his experiences in Rumania as a nationalist leader fighting against the Soviet occupation of his State, in his own way. It is not a novel but more than a novel. It is an autobiography but not in the conventional way. It speaks of the reality in intimate fashion. The book is a human document against communist occupation at certain period of history. Frank and exact, it is a document more accurate than a historian can keep for the posterity. Let us enter into the story to gain experience of the situation in our own way.
“March 1950 . . . .
“Not a blade of grass stirred in the deep silence of the night. Suddenly a searchlight flashed out on our left; its beam swung and searched the ground, yard by yard. We threw ourselves down, hoping that our carefully chosen grey clothes would blend with the withered grass.
“The beam passed over us.
“With every nerve taut, we waited for its probing to begin again. Great flights of migratory birds passed over our heads. The sky held the serenity of spring, but the starlight was too faint for us to see the Iron Curtain, which loomed ahead of us. . . .
“My two guides, Stephan the butcher and Paul the blacksmith had spent days and nights concealed in the bushes, spying on the frontier, studying the defences and movement of patrols. . . . At night, mounted patrols with bloodhounds, and guards hidden up to their necks in trenches, watched for even the suspicion of a movement. At all times, radio-sets, flares and telephones were ready to give the alarm at any sign of an attempt at a clandestine crossing of the border. . . .
“Our time was limited. We had to cross before the moon rose.
“‘I will go on alone to cut the wires,’ whispered Stephan. . . .
“The most dangerous moment of the operation depended on the least reliable of the human senses, for it involved groping with the finger-tips among hard tufts of grass, in an infuriating darkness, for the fine wires camouflaged by skilled military engineers. . . .
“I lay motionless on the damp grass. . . . The cold starlight caught me up into its magic world. I felt a wave of peace and utter reassurance flooding over me. God would sustain me on my road. I no longer wondered whether to turn back. . . .” (Craciunas.13-15)
Mines were attached by hair-thin wires to the double barbed wire fences stretched about six inches off the ground, after these wires were raised and people crossed the border, destroying all scent for the bloodhounds by scattering paraffin or pepper. A slightest touch on such wires would cause them to explode. “These were the wires which Stephan had cut. But we had still to cross over the buried mines. ‘Now the bridge,’ whispered Stephan.” (Craciunas.15)
Bridge was made by two two and half yard long planks to be raised and fitted over the poles of two lines of fences. One after the other they would cross by creeping, crawling and jumping over the bridge, helped by the other two. Thus they came from Austria to Hungarian soil. Both the countries of Eastern Europe were seized by the Communists, led by the Soviet forces. The narrator expressed high gratitude to the two guards who could easily manage to get their pay even after stabbing him and throwing him in a ditch which too happened, for faith and trust was very fragile in such situations.
“We walked very quickly. The dark outline of a wood appeared on our right. Very cautiously, and only after pausing a few moments to make sure the guards were out of earshot, we crossed a high-way.
“About midnight we stopped on the top of a hill among leafless orchards, silent and abandoned in their winter sleep. To the east the sky was growing lighter: it would soon be moonrise. . . .
“Paul, who knew the place well, opened the door of a barn and signed us to go in. When the door closed behind us, we found ourselves in pitch darkness. I flashed my electric torch and saw two cows and a white goat lying on the straw: their bright friendly eyes looked at us in astonishment.” (Craciunas. 16-17)
They all found their place in the barn to sleep with the cows. “Suddenly we were all woken up by a cold rush of air and a dim yellow light from a smoky lantern directed on to our faces. The lantern was held by a tall old man who stood peering in at us; . . . Gazing at us in terror, he exclaimed: ‘God, who’s here- who are you? What are you doing in my barn?’” (Craciunas. 17)
Soon he called his wife who came accompanied by two sons. The wife was more furious as nervous. “‘Don’t you know what’s going on!’ wailed the woman. ‘At any moment, soldiers will be here, and they’ll arrest the lot of us and they’ll take everything we have- it happens every day.’ Weeping, she went up to Paul and took his hand: ‘Quickly, go into the wood before it’s too late. You too will be safer there. They’ll kill you if they catch you here. Don’t you know we can’t as much as go into our fields or visit our relations in the next village without a written permit?’ . . . .
“I was appalled to see the terror under which these people were now living. A year before, when I had made my way through the same village, fleeing to the West, the peasants had been more spirited and had stood up fearlessly to the Security Police.
“‘Luckily the neighbours’ dogs didn’t wake up . . . the Security Police would have been here already. . . .’” Now the husband joined the queue, “‘Don’t you know there are informers in the village? If they know that strangers are about, they tell the police, and soldiers are called in at once. Go off to the woods and hide until it’s dark and then get back to Austria- it’s your only hope.’
“Paul went up to the old people, put his arms around their shoulders and said gently: ‘We can’t do that. It’s already daylight. We would be all shot within five minutes. Remember, I’m your nephew. Would I come to your house to bring misfortune on you?’”
Their sons, the young men, now came to their help. The guests were given milk and bread and were led out of the barn to a large shed at the bottom of the garden and were hid in the dry hay.
“I knew that underneath their outward calm, each was thinking of the help they would still have to give me in my preparation for going deeper into Hungary.
“The first stage of my journey into danger was accomplished. This book tells about what happened to me when I reached Roumania, but in order to explain why I was returning to my country, I must go back three years, to 1947, and give an account of how and why I came to be in the free world in 1950.” (Craciunas. 20)
The above incident is the beginning of Silviu Carciunas’s return journey to Rumania, his native country which he had left a year ago with the secret police on his heels, a price on his head for having smuggled important enemies of the regime across the frontier. During his year of freedom in Paris he met Alba and fell in deep love with her but the Rumanian national committee asked him to go back to Rumania for the same important work and he accepted.
Back home somehow, he carried his mission on behalf of the nationalist’s, resistant group against Soviet occupation; haunted by the police, at the constant risk of betrayal from friends whom they had captured. He helped many important personalities to escape the imminent capture, to flee to the free part of Europe or to Canada. He lived during the period in utter deprivation, in want of the essential supply of money. He lived being chased and even sometimes really arrested and again escaped.
Once he was caught and was being taken to a place where he had appointment with an important woman in the Government service, as he confessed. This was a ploy to gain time. The place named was usually very crowded; the woman would not come there. When they got down from the van, the two secret police personnel escorting him were interrupted by an oddly dressed old man, seeking direction to some address. When they were busy replying him, looking at his paper as he produced without an iota of hints about who they were or what was their errand, taking them to be local people, the protagonist of the narrative suddenly ran while they two were thus busy. He knew every part or Rumania. The escorts were of course keeping eyes on him while replying to the stranger in order not to raise any alarm. “One step hid me from the street, then I hurled myself along the corridor towards the staircase. Up I tore, three steps at a time, until I reached the top floor. There two doors faced me, with a bell push on each. I put my fingers on both buttons and kept on ringing.” (Crasiunas. 40)
Luck favoured him; one of the doors opened after sometime while he was apprehending the escorts to turn up. And by chance the lady opening the door was the wife of a professor known to him somehow. He pushed her and entered without any idea of his escorts being there or not. Finally, when ready to depart by one of the secret routes he had reopened, he was caught. This was after six months of hectic activity while living underground.
For four years he was alternately interrogated and subjected to all the refinements of diabolically clever torture; sort of sadism. He was mentally and physically tortured by different modes including using of machines, aiming to turn him mad to get confession. He was given food only to the extent that allowed him to live and answer his interrogators. He became desperate to take his own life but that too was the most difficult to achieve inside the iron enclosure.
Let us see how unexpectedly spiritual grace came upon him in prison to assure him of his final freedom from bondage and torture, how he felt relieved and eventually got asylum in London and settled with his wife.
“I intended to cut the veins of my left wrist. First I thought of doing it when I lay down at night- I would have a chance to hide my hand under the quilt and the blood would flow into the mattress; then in an hour or so my heart would stop beating without the warder having noticed anything. But, on second thoughts, what would happen if he ordered me, as he often did, to keep both hands outside the quilt or to turn to face the light? He would certainly notice my increasing pallor, or blood stains on the bedclothes.” (Craciunas.165)
He was then frantically searching for a cord to hang himself but was not getting any clue how to achieve it. Two days before the moment when he was planning to execute his idea of a suicide, “the whole team of warders was replaced by a new one and I had to give up my plan.” (Craciunas.166-167) Overwhelmed by frustration he was a victim of repeated hallucination.
“One evening, when the radiator had begun its mournful music, the wall in front of me rolled back and a chain of snowy mountains gleamed in the rising sun. In the foreground was a little Indian temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. A tall tree shaded it. At its foot an old man sat with his legs tucked under him and his hands resting on his knees in Brahmin fashion. He had a long and very thin white beard. His ascetic face had the same serenity as the blue sky stretching over the dazzling peaks. As I gazed at him he bowed his head slightly, smiled and said: ‘I can see you have forgotten me. Don’t you remember Aurobin Dogose, the Brahmin?’
“I heard myself replying: ‘You have no idea how long I have been looking for you and calling you . . .’
“‘I had to make a long journey to get here,’ he said. ‘It took me sixty years.’
“For months after this I lived in the company of the ‘Brahmin’ whom I believed at the time to be a real person other than myself. But these visions were different in character from the nightmare hallucinations I had had before. . . . I had reached a deeper level of my being and these new experiences, instead of helping my enemies, marked the beginning of a period of spiritual integration.” (Craciunas.167)
He had long conversations with the ‘hermit’ who, in reply to his many questions explained, “‘Some people it destroys, others are challenged by it to resist evil or to undertake some positive, creative act; some are corrupted, lose control over themselves and become cruel and vengeful, others grow in strength and grace.’” (Craciunas.167-68)
In reply to his questions the hermit replied him,
“‘You want to know who I am? I am your spirit; your reason! You appealed to me in a moment of abject despair. In your isolation and helplessness, only I am capable of encouraging you to bolster your morale and strengthen your will; apart from me there is no one who is able to come to your aid. Put your trust in my strength and you will never regret it!’
“This encounter was indeed a turning point in my existence. Gradually my nightmares left me and I discovered an inner calm . . . . (Craciunas.168-69)
“The warders were puzzled by the transformation which had taken place before their eyes: a man who had been frantic, driven to the verge of madness by lack of sleep, now sat calm and as still as a statue. From time to time they knocked on the door and ordered me to move my head or blink my eyes, to make sure that I was still alive and lucid. Inwardly I had reached a peace and a serenity which I had never known before. . . . (Craniunas.169)
“In this book of factual events there is no place for a philosophical treatise. I mention it only because it was the development of these ideas which gave me the will to stay alive in order to pass them to the West. . . .” (Craniunas.170)
“It was true that Communist theoreticians held out the idea of a classless society and of the ‘withering of the State’- of a society without injustices or compulsion. But this was to be reached at the end of a ruthless ‘dialectical’ struggle of opposites, and it was clear to me that it was quite impossible for this to be a means to such an end.
“Sitting in my cell, I had a vision of our century in which the soul and spirit of man were going through a decisive test. Not only social systems but religions and philosophies were passing through the fire of a terrestrial purgatory. The fate of millions of human beings in centuries to come depended on the triumph or defeat of positive, eternal values, and on every man’s capacity to understand and to defend them.” (Craniunas.173)
At length his captors, fearing that he might die without divulging his secrets, sent him for medical examination to verify how much more he could bear. Within 24 hours of his stay in medical detention camp, crippled as he was, he took chance of two minutes’ freedom from surveillance while in the toilet, and escaped from the hospital. Living underground in utter risk and privation, he continued to exist for months and years hiding, avoiding recapture by hair’s breadth; living in visions of horrors. His endeavours to contact his friends in Europe did not fructify as they took him to be long dead. Only his love, Alba, realised his position and kept contact whenever possible.
“There was no danger for me once I crossed the strip, for since the Austrian Peace Treaty had been signed, the Soviet occupation troops had been withdrawn and Austria was neutral ground,” the author said as he was at the border of Hungary at the dead of the night. “‘I will go on!’ I said. ‘Get safely home, Gabor!’” (Craciunas. 298) he said to the underground guard who reached him to the border for his next destination. Carrying a heavy gun on his shoulder, taken from a sentry, killed on an encounter on the way, he was utterly exhausted, mentally and physically and was lost in the Hungarian forest, walking to the opposite direction to the border. There were streams and marshy lands. Uncertain, he was in fright and was face to face with a security guard. He knocked the person challenging his advance with full force on his head who fell from the bank of the stream into the marshy land below. Then he ran and walked in the darkness of the night, somehow, comprehending the right path by the edge of the forest. And towards the end of the night he slept dead at the trunk of a tree.
“I was awakened by the song of a bird; high above me a lark was trilling. I had no idea how long I had slept, but as dawn was just breaking I thought it could not have been for more than half an hour. The first rays of the sun told me where the East lay; over there was Hungary: the road to the West lay in the opposite direction. My shirt, soaked by perspiration, felt like a corset of ice. Between the trees and the undergrowth I saw fields, some ploughed, some sown, stretching out into the distance. . . .
“The hills, the valleys and the villages, which daylight gradually revealed, were all familiar to me and the tall, slender, white tower of the church in Kleinmutschen- the village from which I had set out seven years before- seemed to welcome me. I offered a prayer of thanks to God. The glorious sun, the grass, the flowers, the wide world, happiness- all these had been restored to me.
“My journey to Eastern Europe and my return to the West had taken exactly seven years- March 1950 until March 1957.” (Craciunas. 302)
“In August (1957) Alba came to Austria. Our meeting in the Westbahnhof in Vienna was quite different from the one in spring. Our daily correspondence had bound us closer together in a way which is hard to express in words. We were both convinced that nothing could ever separate us again. . . .
“Efforts made by the World Council of Churches to facilitate our emigration failed. South America, surfeited with European refugees, had closed its frontiers for indefinite period.
“In the autumn of 1957, however, Ion Ratiu told us that a British Publisher was interested in the story of my experiences in far-away Eastern Europe. Here at last was something concrete.
“Our departure for England seemed to me symbolical; I was filled with new hope. Standing on the deck of the white ship which brought us from Ostend to Dover, gazing at the thin line of horizon where sea and sky met, I felt a sudden happiness, a hope that perhaps the country I was now approaching would grant me asylum, security and the chance to have my say, as it has done to so many other lovers of liberty. Eastern Europe seemed a long way off and all that I had experienced began to fade into the past. And yet it was the past and its experiences which had nourished my spirit and given it new life.
This fragment from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” has always held great significance for me:
“ . . . . We imagine that all is lost the moment we are forced to leave our narrow grove, whereas, in reality, it is only then that life begins to be novel and beautiful. As long as life lasts, there will also be happiness! So much of it, believe me!” (Crasiunas.316-318)
Silviu Craciunas, the author of this book, was a doctorate in Law, Economics and Political Science. He studied medicine too. He became member of the board of glass factory and gradually became member of the boards of directors in many sugar factories until 1948 when all the privately owned factories were nationalized by the Communist Government. Craciunas lost all his posts. But he had been engaged in nationalistic work, joining the secret organization in 1942. He was subjected to constant pressure and persecution by the Government and its agents, police and military.
In his foreword, Salvador de Madariaga wrote, inter alia, “On a first plane of experience, this book is a thriller. Once you have opened it, you must read through, page after page, egged on by a tension of interest no novel can give. The waves of danger and escape succeed each other so relentlessly that you are hardly relieved from one when you are caught by the maelstrom of the next. . . .The dangers the protagonist lived through not to escape away from the asphyxiating atmosphere of a police state, but to smuggle himself into it! Then you cogitate that there is something unbribable in the human spirit. Of course, there is. For, as the story shows, this man was the object of the concentrated attack of a community determined to destroy him by means of sadistic techniques which the Soviet police have developed by drawing on every branch of the sciences that control the workings of the body-mind of man. And it lasted for years. And he won.” (Madariaga. the Lost Footsteps. 7-8)
Fact is stranger than fiction, it is said; I think that mere fiction cannot reach the height of fact, however much cleverly, accurately or imaginatively it is written. He is really an unsung hero as he did not perish like millions of others in the face of those iron rules, iron laws and inhuman torture, designed by the vilest of human spirit, as it was at that time. No detective fiction can reach its footstep, it is so thrilling, at the same time so hair-raisingly actual. Life and death was walking side by side with the protagonist, as with the rare revolutionaries. I believe that the writer was cent percent honest to tell the courageous tale of his life for which he was gasping, without which a glaring truth of the means and movement towards establishing classless society would have been lost and the writer would feel lost in spite of regaining his freedom. Classless society is far from something practically achievable but the trace of such ghostly theory still hangs overhead though its complete annihilation is not unachievable, it seems.
Apart from the thrilling and chilling experiences of terrestrial life there is an experience of extra-terrestrial life too in this story. And as the writer has told it with all sincerity in the same breathe, it should be accepted as truth; the appearance of an Indian sage, giving him all psychic and mental help with such spiritual touch and grace that he felt rejuvenated, decided to live and escape at the slightest opportunity as he regained hope with all psychic and mental vigour.
In the subtle plane the protagonist suddenly met "Aurobin Dogos" with whom he lived for months, “For months after this I lived in the company of the ‘Brahmin’ whom I believed at the time to be a real person other than myself.” (Craciunas.167)
He further wrote, “This encounter was indeed a turning point in my existence. Gradually my nightmares left me and I discovered an inner calm . . . . (Craciunas.168-69)
“The warders were puzzled by the transformation which had taken place before their eyes: a man who had been frantic, driven to the verge of madness by lack of sleep, now sat calm and as still as a statue. From time to time they knocked on the door and ordered me to move my head or blink my eyes, to make sure that I was still alive and lucid. Inwardly I had reached a peace and a serenity which I had never known before. . . .” (Craniunas.169)
From this it appears that he had achieved an extraordinary fit in his body and mind; a complete transformation that carried him further till freedom and perhaps beyond that. It is sure from the narrative that he never before come across the name of "Aurobin Dogos". While I am coming to the name portion a little later, the background scene and figure of the person seen may have resemblance with the idea and knowledge of the protagonist of the ancient Indian culture, as he was highly educated and cultured. And the scene is complete with an image of Kali, the Hindu Goddess. Let us see what the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, who was a long time spiritual companion of Sri Aurobindo, remarked about this incidence on 15 June 1963:
“Because do you know the story of that Romanian who was tortured by the Communists and had visions of Sri Aurobindo (Silvius Craciunas, author of The Lost Footstep, he didn’t see him as he is, in fact, he saw him according to his own conception: thin and ascetic), and finally the apparition told him, ‘I am your soul,’ and so on? But he had never read Sri Aurobindo’s name, he only heard it, and he wrote it in a very odd way ["Aurobin Dogos"]…. It SEEMS to be something of Sri Aurobindo. Anyhow it gave him the strength to go through all those tortures – appalling tortures, unimaginable. And he was able to escape, somebody helped him escape (now he is safe in England). But before that, he suffered so much that he thought of letting himself die, and that “voice,” that apparition which came and spoke to him for hours, was what gave him courage and told him that ‘the soul NEVER gets discouraged, it has something to do, and you must endure.’ He endured thanks to that voice.
Well, similar things may have happened elsewhere and some people may have received inspirations- we cannot say.
It’s clear that wherever there is a receptivity, the Force acts, there’s no doubt.” (Satprem. 171)
"Aurobin Dogos", as he heard, is the homonym for Aurobindo Ghosh, the Indian nationalist leader and a revolutionary who was jailed for a year and was tortured variously, including a solitary confinement in jail for sometime. He later settled in Pondicherry and became a great yogi. He was originally a poet and writer. The word “transformation” is a particular aspect and aim of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga which makes one
As Craciunas experienced. A yogi usually sits “calm and as still as a statue”, the condition to which the protagonist reached in spite of all adverse conditions of life continuing; “Inwardly I had reached a peace and a serenity which I had never known before”, he confirms.
It is absolutely true that the victim in the prison, in the core of his heart and being called for divine help and in appropriate time the grace touched him though somehow differently, for Sri Aurobindo looked not like the one he saw, nor he was Brahmin in caste. Sri Aurobindo was of another caste. Usually the sages (munis and rishis) were Brahmins in ancient India. But it was never a rule. The others too were yogis and rishis by dint of their sadhana. Sri Aurobindo transcended caste as a yogi, one with the divine.
Besides the story, the content and expression, the language and diction make the story remarkable. Undoubtedly it is a lesser known but an extraordinary book.
1. the Lost Footsteps. Silviu Craciunas. New York; Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. 1961 2. Mother’s Agenda. Satprem. Auroville; Mira Aditi Centre. V.4. 1987.
(c) Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2012