There isn't much snow on the ground and there is no ice in the river yet. Nevertheless, the nights are frosty in Periprava, a remote and seemingly forgotten Romanian village in the Danube Delta.
Periprava lies in a forgotten corner of the country, right up against the old border with the Soviet Union. Every other day, a ferry crosses the river from the Ukrainian side, passing the rusty skeletons of ships, the onion-shaped domes of Orthodox churches and abandoned observation posts. Periprava, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the spot where the northern branch of the Danube empties into the Black Sea, is the last stop on the ferry route.
The village consists of a few dozen squat-looking houses made of dried mud with reed roofs. The children playing in the streets are Lipovans, the blonde, blue-eyed descendants of so-called Old Believers, dissenters from the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church who fled persecution in Czarist Russia over 200 years ago. Three kilometers from the village outskirts, between the crumbling walls of old barracks, lies the winterized "Last Border" Hotel.
The building looks nondescript from the outside, but inside it has been renovated to the standards of a four-star hotel. It represents a new beginning in this remote corner of Romania. Beginning this spring, the management intends to attract sport fishermen, ornithologists and adventurous tourists from far and wide in the hope of revitalizing the region, which lies in the midst of a unique natural environment. However, the guests will have to get used to the idea of staying in rooms that, until 1977, housed the office of the commandant of the Periprava Labor and Prison Camp.
"0830 Periprava" was a feared address among political prisoners in the Stalinist Romania of Dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. Exposed to scorching heat and swarms of mosquitoes in the summer and icy winds in the winter, they vegetated here in brick-walled, 24-square-meter (260-square-foot) pens that held up to 160 men each. They spent their days cutting reeds and building dams, ate porridge and drank water from the Danube.
The weak died of dysentery, and prisoners who were unable to fulfill the daily quota of eight thick bundles of reeds were beat unconscious by guards wielding rubber clubs. More than 100 bodies of the nameless dead are buried in the village cemetery. Forty-two prisoners died during the winter of 1959/1960 alone, exactly half a century ago.
The path from the former gulag leads along the Danube and across a dike. Sylvain Remetter, a native of the French region of Alsace, lives in the last house on the edge of the village. Stranded here seven years ago, he decided to awaken Periprava from its post-communist slumber with a plan to develop a back-to-nature resort with the barracks of the former gulag as a backdrop.
Remetter is a lean man, close to 50, a youngish-looking jetsetter with a penchant for expensive casual wear. In Periprava, a fishing village, he sticks out like a flamingo among gray herons.
Remetter sounds almost prosaic when he talks about his tourism project. He says: "People pay to have fun." And now there is a piece of land that promises to deliver fun -- in the middle of the delta, where pelicans congregate and the water is home to catfish up to two meters long. Unfortunately in the overfished Danube, the giant catfish will be off-limits for Remetter's guests, who will have to make do with farmed carp and pike.
The first tourist arrived in October -- to the sight of the ruins of prison buildings in waist-high grass, surrounded by white poplars, rowan trees and the constant call of cuckoos cutting through the stillness in a place that once saw terrible suffering. He slept in the building that housed officers of the secret police, and he drove around in an electric car, past abandoned guardhouses and the outside walls of the casino, where folk singers once performed for the camp guards.
The ruins of the gulag, as they stand today, are an open-air museum of the Romanian communists' mass murder of their own people. Remetter, who has spoken with the camp's last commandant, is familiar with the history, and as soon as his request for European Union subsidies is approved, he plans to build a small museum at the site. He says: "The Romanians cannot forget what happened here."
But the idea that little here will change, at least for the time being, and that Remetter does not intend to build "an Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe" on the grounds, is only partially the result of any reverence he might feel for the site. The Frenchman has reached the end of his savings, and his business partners are growing impatient, anxious to see the "Last Border" Hotel finally become a haven for tourists.
Ion Tiriac, a former tennis player and Davis Cup contender in the 1970s, and now a business tycoon in the new Romania, has already been to Periprava twice on fishing trips with Remetter. Tiriac's crony Robert Raduta, notoriously known as the "Shark of the Delta," acquired a large share of the fishing rights in the region during the administration of former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Remetter, who worked for the "Shark" in the past, was given a tiny piece of the monopoly that the post-communist glitterati grabbed for themselves.
But now the political heirs of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu are no longer in power in the capital. Licenses have been cancelled, and even the generally passive Romanian people are becoming increasingly resistant to the business schemes of Bucharest's fat cats. Some have sharply criticized the sell off of the Danube delta, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spokesmen of the Association of Political Prisoners, on the other hand, were "beside themselves" when the post-communist mayor of the Black Sea port city of Constanta decided to pay a visit to the resort among the ruins of the Periprava gulag.
To this day, nothing but a white cross, with no inscription, commemorates the dead from the Danube marshes. The elderly women who tend the graves in the village cemetery say that the cross was erected on precisely the spot where the bodies of the prisoners were buried.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan