This is the story of one of the most enduring anti-communist partisan groups in Eastern Europe. It is linked to the Romanian village of Nucşoara (former county Muscel, now Argeş) and the Arnăuţoiu family.
In January 1949, Lieutenant Toma Arnăuţoiu of Nucşoara was contacted by one Colonel Gheorghe Arsenescu to explore the possibility of setting up a group of partisans to fight the Soviet-imposed regime. Arsenescu was an experienced soldier who had seen action in Russia while Romania was an ally of Germany. Arnăuţoiu, who had just graduated from the cavalry school, had fought the Germans in Hungary once Romania had joined the Allies against Hitler. Both had been discharged from the army as the new regime started promoting its supporters. They planned to set up a group of partisans ready to neutralize local authorities once the wished-for war between the Allies and Stalin's Russia broke out, making possible the overthrow of the Communist regime in Romania.
In March 1949 Colonel Arsenescu, alerted by the detention of members of a short-lived resistance group in Dragoslavele which he had set up the previous year, retreated in a hurry to Nucşoara accompanied by Toma Arnăuţoiu. There they were joined by Toma’s brother Petre and his father Ion (Iancu) Arnăuţoiu, school-teacher Alexandru Moldoveanu, priest Ion Drăgoi and his student son, Cornel Drăgoi. They met to discuss their plans in the homes of Petre Arnăuţoiu and of Gheorghe and Elisabeta Rizea (who after 1990 would become a symbol of those who survived the Romanian Gulag). Several future partisans and other villagers who were to supply them with food, clothing, and weapons also attended the meetings.
Twelve men and four women took to the mountains. One night, when venturing into the village for supplies, Arsenescu, the Arnăuţoiu brothers and two others were surrounded by Securitate (the communist secret police) troops in a house. In the ensuing shootout, two soldiers were killed, and Toma Arnăuţoiu wounded. The partisans managed to break free and re-join their group, but it became clear to them that there was no way back. By July they decided to split: the group was too big to hide from Securitate troops combing the area, and there were growing disagreements over tactics. Some stayed with Colonel Arsenescu, while others followed Toma Arnăuţoiu. In November Arsenescu left his group and went into hiding until 1960 when he was caught and sentenced to death.
The Arnăuţoiu followers carried on for nine years. Constantly harassed by the Securitate, their ranks were gradually depleted. They had to change regularly their hiding place and requisitioned food from shepherds, foresters or even chalets, always leaving a receipt for what was taken. During the summer they also relied on food from villagers. Furthermore, the most trusted sympathizers provided them with a radio set, binoculars, boots, and guns and kept them informed about developments in their area. They occasionally distributed manifestos or posted written warnings to the new village leaders. The youngest of the group kept a diary describing their harsh lives during the long winter months, sheltering in underground hide-outs, surviving with little food, occasionally mixed with bark. They clashed on several occasions with troops chasing them or with Securitate agents posing as mountaineers or tourists. Of the initial 16 one surrendered, a few were caught, and a woman was shot dead. Their relatives and the villagers suspected of helping them were brutally questioned, detained, or handed heavy sentences. The Securitate opened their letters and monitored their conversations. It did not shy away from any method to secure information leading to the capture of the partisans.
Towards the end, the group was reduced to Toma Arnăuţoiu, his brother Petre, Maria Plop (a former maid in the Arnăuţoiu house) and Constantin Jubleanu.
They carved out a shelter on a rocky but wooded hillside (in a place called the Fir Tree Ravine) not far from the hamlet of Poenărei. That is where a baby daughter, Ioana, was born to Toma and Maria.
With no progress in their search, the Securitate masterminded a plan to blackmail Grigore Poenăreanu, a former schoolmate of Toma’s to help with the capture of the group. The plan succeeded.
On the night of the 19th of May 1958, the Arnăuţoiu brothers came down from their hide-out to the house of Grigore Poenăreanu to collect supplies. The Securitate had instructed Poenăreanu to offer them a glass of plum brandy laced with a powerful tranquilizer. Once they had drunk the potion, they were unable to resist arrest by the surrounding troops.
They were marshalled to the hide-out where Maria Plop, the two-year-old baby and Constantin Jubleanu had stayed behind. Plop and Jubleanu were ordered to surrender. Maria Plop, holding the child in her arms, came down a rope ladder. Jubleanu fired at the Securitate troops and was shot and killed.
The partisans were taken to the Piteşti Securitate headquarters where they were held for interrogation for one year. A military court sentenced the Arnăuţoiu brothers to be shot alongside 14 villagers who had helped them in various ways. The Romanian Parliament rejected the appeal to have their death sentences changed. The 16, including three priests, and four members of the original group who had already spent eight years in prison, were executed in the night of the 18th of July 1959 at the Jilava Prison.
Maria Plop and the parents of the Arnăuţoiu brothers were handed heavy sentences and died in prison. Their sister and others who had helped them languished in prison till 1964, when almost all political prisoners were released by a regime keen to trade with the West.
Ioana, the daughter of Toma Arnăuţoiu and Maria Plop, was taken to an orphanage. A family from Bucharest adopted her being unaware of her origins. She only discovered who her birth parents were after the fall of communism. The story of the Arnăuţoiu group and the photographs are based on her research in Securitate files.