Better Dead Than Red
Gheorghe Pașca was a man of medium build. Beneath his black gentleman’s hat he wore a vest and a long, peasant coat made of sheep’s wool. A scope-fitted hunting rifle and a pair of binoculars completed the outfit.
He knew the mountains of Maramureș like the back of his hand. He was an accomplished hunter and adept at the art of camouflage. Using these skills he defied a perfidious system for an eight year period, between 1948 and 1956.
These were the early days of collectivization, denunciations, and betrayal.
Because he chose the path of freedom, Pașca became a pariah. And because he was convinced that the communist regime wouldn’t find a welcome home in Romania, he took refuge in the mountains to wait for the arrival of the Americans and the restoration of the monarchy.
Meanwhile, the Communist Secret Service (the Securitate) was making elaborate plans for his capture.
His numerous hideouts became a veritable nightmare for Securitate Unit 361 (“Gang Squad”), a unit created to eradicate the pockets of anti-communist resistance in Romania’s mountains. But a perilous net was beginning to stretch over ‘The Phantom’ haunting the deep woods of the Țibleș Mountains.
His friends and family were compromised. They were routinely “worked over” by the Securitate – a term for the modus operandi at the time.
Yet the manner in which he managed to evade capture numerous times bestowed legendary status upon Pașca.
60 years after his death, Pașca’s descendants have entrusted the priest in the village of Nepos with uncovering the truth by granting him access to the 1,300 page Securitate dossier.
On the morning of February 5th, 1956, a tip from an informer led the communist pursuers to one of the rebel’s hideouts. Two companies of Securitate troops combed the area and surprised both Pașca and his comrade, Gavrilă Rus.
Gheorghe Rus, Gavrilă’s cousin, still remembers that day. “The machine guns were chattering, rat-tat-tat-tat! That was the day our anticommunist heroes left this world.”
In the report detailing the items found in “the bandit Pașca’s bunker”, were weapons, ammunition and there are also two bibles.
The medical certificate, released following an examination of his corpse, indicates twelve entry wounds; four at head level and another eight in his upper body.
There are, however, accounts that suggest Pașca shot himself when he was nearly out of ammunition. He once told his sister-in-law, “I’ll never surrender to these commie assassins. I’ll end it myself with the last bullet if I have to. I won’t give them the satisfaction!”
The bodies of Gheorge Pașca and Gavrilă Rus were dragged through the forest to the main road, placed on sleds, and taken to the Năsăud town center. They were exposed for three days, in the public restrooms, with the message “If you do what they did, you’ll end up like they did.”
Local authorities even took students out of classes, especially the younger ones and those suspected of having helped the partisans, to make sure they witness the macabre spectacle.
Their corpses were then thrown into a wooden crate, covered with a yellow blanket, and unceremoniously buried in the gypsies’ cemetery.
The Orthodox priest in Nepos, Vasile Rus, has taken on the mantle of investigator into Pașca’s life as an anti-communist dissenter, with the aim of putting together an accurate picture of the events leading up to his death. Pașca’s son, George, passed away this past spring, but had the time to entrust the priest with the task of honoring his father’s memory.
Although the dossier has only come into his possession three weeks ago, he’s already read it twice. In it, he says, he’s found a fascinating individual.
The dossier and its informant notes, along with stories from people who knew Pașca, paint the portrait of a defender of justice who was always willing to help others, even as he was hunted by the Securitate. His mission will end, the priest says, when the hero’s exhumed remains are reinterred in the village of his birth, Săliștea de Sus, in Maramureș.
Back in 2014, a team led by the archeologist Gheorge Petrov from the Institute of Investigations into the Crimes of Communism (IICCMER), began the search at the corner of Comoara cemetery.
In September of 2016 the investigation will begin anew and Vasile Rus is hoping that Pașca’s earthly remains will see the light of day once again; as it happened with the remains of Toader Dumitru in 2009.
Dumitru was Rus’ grandfather, and a former mayor of Rebra commune. He was assassinated by the Securitate in 1949, along with Leonida Bodiu and Ioan Burdet, who were all members of the region’s main anticommunist organization: The National Christian League.
Along with these details, Vasile Rus has helped us piece together a brief biography of Gheorge Pașca.
Born to Maria and Gavrilă Pașca, Gheorghe was brought into the world in 1901 to a large family with 11 siblings. They lived comfortably through successful beekeeping and cooperage activities.
Gheorghe Pașca quickly gained a reputation as having the finest shot in the area. He had a steady hand and was able to hit any target from a great distance. A joke going around in the district suggested that King Carol II had ordered a series of newly minted holed coins from Pașca.
He was commissioned by the king, in fact, but it was to work as a hunting ranger in the Călimani Mountains. There are still pictures of Pașca and his hunting trophies, usually wild boars, felled by his bullets.
In the 1930’s he was asked to supervise a hunting trip organized by the Royal family. It is said that he saved a noble’s life by killing a bear that was at the point of tearing the man to pieces.
His reward was a modern hunting rifle with a silver engraving on its wooden stock. It was a defining moment in his life; Pașca never separated himself from that kingly rifle. Nor would he separate himself from it after ’46 when the communists demanded, numerous times, that he turn it in.
An informant's note in his dossier says that following the withdrawal of Hungarian troops in '44, Pașca and his men commandeered three carts full of weapons. He would have agreed to turn the ammunition over to the authorities, but was firmly opposed when it came to his scoped hunting rifle: "Over my dead body!"
When it was no longer possible to keep resisting, but still possible to keep his freedom, Gheorghe Pașca headed for the mountains. His brother, Dumitru followed.
They were convinced that it was only a matter of time until English and American troops would swoop in and put an end to the communist nightmare.
For a while, the two brothers were aligned with the Dragomirești group, the largest anti-communist resistance group in Maramureș, led by the plowman Ioan Ilban, but in February 1950, Dumitru was shot in a home in Şandra. Gheorghe then decided that he would continue the battle on his own. For the following 6 years he took at most one other trustworthy man with him in the mountains.
This is without taking into account the love of his life, Ioana Vlad, the girl who'd served in the Pașca family home. Legend says that the Securitate used Ioana Vlad to discover his hideouts, but there is no information in his dossier to confirm the story.
Vasile Rus, the priest, says that Paşca's wife, Anisia, sent Ioana Vlad to bring the fugitive food in the winter of 1950 and that was when she decided to stay with him.
Two years later Ioana gave birth to baby girl in Paşca's mountain hideout but was pregnant again a year later. George would be born in the Satu Mare penitentiary.
Ioana Vlad's name appears in the investigative report with regard to the identification of Pașca's corpse in February '56, but also in a 1953 document relating to the attack on Comarnic Mountain.
In 1953, the Securitate had received information about the existence of two hideouts on mount Comarnic, where Pașca, Ioana Vlad, their one year old daughter, and one of his comrades, Gheorghe Vlad, had taken shelter.
In the morning of June 4th, 1953, numerous Securitate troops moved in to surround the area. The ensuing firefight lasted five hours.
Pașca and Vlad had disappeared, but Ioana remained, not wishing to endanger her children.
She came out of the dwelling waving a white cloth. They dressed her in military fatigues took her along in ensuing searches as a way to urge Gheorge to surrender. She was then locked up in the Satu Mare penitentiary for several months where she brought a baby boy into the world.
Meanwhile, her one year old daughter, Ioana, was sent to the orphanage until her mother's release. Pașca's sister was also imprisoned, after attempting to take little Ioana to a priest for baptism.
"That night on Comarnic he dreamed of beehives. The bees wanted to climb all over him. But instead, they ended up climbing on me and my mother. He woke up and said: They're coming for us and they'll find us. I'm going to escape, but you won't." (Pașca's daughter's testimony)
But that was not the only time Pașca foresaw the machinations of his pursuers. Subsequently, at the beginning of 1955, the Securitate's operations intensified. They were no less than seven major search operations that year, to which considerable resources were allocated.
The noose was tightening, and Pașca was ever more exposed as he tried to help his family with food and clothing.
The security forces built a vast network of informers to help them flush him out. The Fir, the Gull, or Pupeza are some of the code names found in Pașca's dossier.
Various homesteads, known to be frequented by "the bandit" were staffed by four soldiers at a time and selected as rotational ambush points. But information made its way to the authorities with difficulty.
One of the most zealous informants was Ioan Bondane, a priest from Telciu. He even hand-drew a comprehensive map of the area's mountain trails.
At some point, Pașca wanted to go to Bondane for confession. The priest had promised that he would meet Pașca in a few days, but in the meantime he would leave provisions in a place known only to them.
Bondane warned the Securitate of the plan and they poisoned the victuals. But somehow Pașca's intuition proved the stronger and he didn't follow the priest's instructions.
Among the area's isolated mountain houses, the hunter was able to move much faster than his foes. For instance, a note describes how an NCO was taken by surprise during a search operation.
Wearing full camouflage, the fugitive appeared suddenly behind him, as though he'd come out of the ground, and put a pistol to his temple. He was then forced to jog back to his comrades in underwear.
That was Pașca's way of meting out justice. He doled out the same punishment to forest rangers who took liberties with their privileges, but also on the collectivization officers who enforced the mandatory quotas on citizens' agricultural products.
He only released them after putting them through a grueling 3 to 4 hour work out, complete with push-ups and squats. He then left them in their underwear and sent them running back home.
Those suspected of helping Paşca were beaten mercilessly, as was the case of Vasile Scuturici, a 16 year old who alerted Paşca to the danger waiting for him in the homestead he was on the point of entering.
Paşca heeded the warning and ran off. The young man was nearly beaten to death. A villager was hit repeatedly until she passed out from the blows, simply because a resting place was found in her shed and it was assumed to be the fugitive's shelter.
In the final year of his life, Gheorghe Paşca told those closest to him that maybe he'd been wrong, and that the monarchy would not be restored after all.
He had the same habits wherever he stayed. He would always read the bible before going to bed. Some nights he would wake up suddenly and tell those who'd hosted him, as though he had the gift of premonition: "Close the doors and windows after I leave. They're coming for me!"
There are at least four notes in the dossier that confirm his precipitated departures: "I had information on X date to search Y homestead, but Pașca had left 10 minutes prior."
Pașca was killed in February 1956, in a confrontation near the village of Bichigiu. For over 60 years his remains have lain in a crate within the gypsy cemetery of Nasaud.
In September 2016 they might finally be exhumed and buried once again, according to the Christian rite.