Many of them died of hunger and disease, and some were eaten by rats

An extermination campaign: the mistreatment of orphaned children in communist Romania

The criminal treatment of children in communist dictatorships is a topic that can provide content for writing a long series of articles.

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WARNING: this article contains images that may hurt your sensitivity

Children, the most vulnerable victims of the crimes of communism

When we look at the figure of more than 100 million deaths at the hands of communism, we must not overlook that many of them were children, without a doubt the most vulnerable victims of that totalitarian movement. A communist genocide that especially targeted the little ones was the Holodomor perpetrated by Stalin in Ukraine, with 3.9 million dead, according to estimates by the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. In addition to the massive death of children, the degrading and inhuman treatment that many children received in the communist dictatorships deserves attention.

The thousands of victims of the horrendous orphanages of Romanian communism

An especially illustrative case of this mistreatment is what happened in the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu in Romania. In December 2019, Shaun Walker wrote an article in the British newspaper The Guardian about what happened in the orphanages of that dictatorship. The case is being investigated by the Romanian Justice, and the figures are chilling. Florin Soare, a researcher at the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER), who has spent years collecting testimonies, estimated that between 1966 and 1989 there were between 15,000 and 20,000 unnecessary deaths of children in the network of children's homes of the communist dictatorship. Most of these deaths occurred in centers dedicated to disabled children.

Orphaned children at the Stefan Nicolau Hospital in Bucharest in 1990, photographed after the fall of communism (Photo: Mike Abrahams/Alamy).

"When we started investigating, we knew there were abuses, but we never imagined the extent of the crimes that were committed," Soare said. The results of that investigation were handed over to Romanian prosecutors in 2017. That investigation could not only serve to make the culprits pay for what they did, but also so that Romania does not forget its own past. "Bucharest has no museum of communism, and the city’s history museum ends its displays in 1918, with visitors enquiring where the 20th-century section is given an irritated shake of the head by the attendants," Walker noted.

The issue of communist orphanages seems to have been subjected for years to a veil of silence. Walker explains why: "Orphanages are a particularly sensitive point, with many Romanians feeling that the wide publicity for the footage, and subsequent massive global adoption campaign, is a stain on the country’s reputation that is best forgotten." Walker adds: "Many of those in the orphanages were not actually orphans, but those whose parents felt they could not cope financially with raising a child."

Children photographed in a Romanian orphanage in 1989. The conditions that many of these places met during the communist dictatorship were inhumane, with children suffering from frostbite and some literally eaten by rats, kept in cages or stained with their own feces (Photo: Isabel Ellsen/Corbis).

Disabled children were separated from their families and placed in these orphanages

"The most horrific abuse took place in homes for disabled children, who were taken away from their families and institutionalised," Walker notes. "At the age of three, disabled children would be sorted by hospital commissions into three categories: so-called “curable”, “partially curable” and “incurable”. The children who were sorted into the third category, some of whom had minor or no disabilities, were subjected to particularly brutal conditions." In communist Romania there were 26 children's homes that cared for those children who were arbitrarily classified as "incurable".

Another image of a Romanian orphanage in 1989. Deaths due to the poor conditions of these sites were especially high in those reserved for disabled children (Photo: Isabel Ellsen/Corbis).

Some children died in those orphanages literally eaten by rats

Conditions in those centers were subhuman. In three of the households analyzed by the researchers, "70% of the registered deaths were for pneumonia. They were dying of external causes that were preventable and treatable." In some of these centers, the researchers found scenes typical of a concentration camp, with testimonies of children who suffered from frostbite and children literally eaten by rats, kept in cages or stained with their own feces. Soare is blunt in expressing his conclusion about what was happening in those orphanages: "it is clear that the ultimate goal of this was an extermination campaign."

In January 1990, after the fall of communism, British journalist Oliver Gillie traveled to Bucharest, taking a horrifying series of photos of orphaned children in subhuman conditions. Many of them were chained to their cots (Photo: Oliver Gillie/The Independent).

In Cighid there were 138 dead in three years: they were buried in a mass grave

In June 2017, the IICCMER presented its results on these three orphanages (Cighid, Păstrăveni and Sighet), as part of a criminal complaint for the death of 771 minors. A provisional figure, according to the Institute. The most striking cases were those of the Cighid orphanage, with 138 deaths registered in less than three years, between October 1, 1987 and March 26, 1990. Regarding those children considered "incurable", the researchers pointed out that it was "a category in which the state was not willing to invest and not even acknowledge." And they added: "To the communist ideology only the healthy man was taken into consideration, the “waste” was hidden or evacuated."

On Cighid's case, the Foundation For Hope notes: "Instead of caring for the children, the staff severely abused and neglected the children turning the place into a death trap. Each child was only given 1 piece of bread, a bowl of thin gruel, and water a day, and the older and stronger children often stole food from the younger and weaker children leaving them starving." Today it is a home for disabled adults, many of whom are survivors of those children of the communist era. The orphanage cemetery is full of white crosses over the mass grave in which the corpses of children killed during the communist dictatorship were thrown, and the bars of the old orphanage cribs have been placed around its perimeter.

The Cighid orphanage cemetery, which recorded 138 deaths of children in less than three years, between October 1, 1987 and March 26, 1990. Next to the children's names are the ages at which died: most of them were only 3 years old (Photo: Foundation For Hope).

The IICCMER experts found "numerous cases in which the children, who were in perfect health or suffering minor deficiencies, were erroneously sent to units destined for the disabled." In its statement, the IICCMER added: "The testimonies regarding the living conditions in this three hospital homes reveal inadequate alimentation, the lack of minimal hygienic and sanitary conditions, lack of clothes, cold, dampness, lack of medical assistance, isolation from the outside world."

In the Siret orphanage, more than half of the dead were between 1 and 4 years old

In June 2018, the IICCMER filed another criminal complaint about the Siret Pediatric Neuropsychological Hospital, known as the “Orphanage of Terror”. The IICCMER figures explain this nickname: "In Siret, between 1956 and 2001 there have been hospitalized 8586 children; 1500 lost their lives." Specifically, between January 1 and December 22, 1989, 340 deaths were recorded in that hospital, with a record in 1981 of 81 children killed, while in 1991, after the fall of communism, there were only 2 deaths, thanks, largely to aid received from foreign charities. "The majority of deaths took place in winter, their causes being, by and large pulmonary illnesses, followed by epilepsies, and cardiac, renal, liverish, or gastrointestinal illnesses," the IICCMER says. More than half of the dead children were between 1 and 4 years old.

The general secretary of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), Santiago Carrillo, with the Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Carrillo used to spend his summer vacations in Romania. Today the deputies of the PCE continue to refuse to condemn the crimes of the communist dictatorships.

The complicity of Spanish communism with Romanian communism

While Romanian children suffered these inhuman conditions, Santiago Carrillo, leader of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), traveled to Romania to spend the holidays with his friend Ceaucescu. The Romanian dictator even gave Carrillo an armored Cadillac that had been his official car. In March 2021, in the Spanish Parliament, deputies of the far-left coalition Podemos (which includes members of the PCE) voted against a condemnation of the crimes of communism: crimes such as those committed by the Romanian communist dictatorship with those children crossed out of "incurable". That vote was a warning of how necessary it is to remember the atrocities of that totalitarian ideology, whose supporters want to repeat the history.


Main photo: Kevin Weaver/Getty Images. Orphaned children in an orphanage in Bucharest, shortly after the revolution that brought down communism in Romania in December 1989.

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