The terrible death of a genius: how the communists “got hold of” Nicolae Labis

Nicolae Labiș had a short destiny that ended in the most tragic way possible. However, he will forever remain in the collective memory of our country as the poet who wrote the saddest Romanian poetry of all time.

You may remember Death of the Deer, the poem by Nicolae Labiș that made you shed rivers of tears in elementary school. A poem of particular sensitivity and one that, reread now, in 2022, almost seems prophetic for the poet’s life.

Nicolae Labiș portrait
Nicolae Labiș – archive image

The life of Nicolae Labiș, from the beginning

Nicolae Labiș was born on December 2, 1935, in a small town in Suceava county, the son of teachers.

During the Second World War, his father, Eugen, left for the front, and his mother, together with all three children of the family, took refuge in the commune of Mihăești, near Câmpulung-Muscel, and later lived in Mălini, after the end of the war.

He went to high school in Fălticeni, and in 1951 he won first prize at the National Romanian Language Olympiad in Bucharest.

That was also the moment when he was noticed by the editors of the newspaper Viața Românească, who published a poem about him.

He managed to pass the Baccalaureate exam in 1952, and later enrolled at the School of Literature, where he was taught by “heavy names” such as Tudor Vianu, Camil Petrescu and Mihail Sadoveanu.

So, in a short time, he became the new poetry sensation within the communist regime. However, it was not long before the board of the School of Literature became suspicious of his conduct, applied to the norms accepted by the Communists.

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As a result, Nicolae Labiș was suspected of being “guilty” and was proposed to be expelled from the school. All this time, Sadoveanu was to become one of his most ardent defenders, the great writer having a particular sympathy for the young poet.

After graduating from this educational institution, he took a job as an editor at Contemporanul, and later collaborated with Gazeta Literară.

In 1955, Nicolae Labiș enrolled at the Faculty of Philology, but he only spent one year there, dropping out of the courses.

Perhaps one of the most important moments in Labiș’s life was the publication of the poem Moartea Căprioarei (Death of the Deer) in the newspaper Viața Românească in 1955.

A year later, Nicolae Labiș met his death.

Nicolae Labis, as a child – collage of archive images

The end of Nicolae Labiș, shrouded in mystery

In 1956, Nicolae Labiș turned 21. Shortly after his birthday, the Romanian wonder poet was to meet his end.

According to an official note, Nicolae Labiș would have travelled by tram on the night of December 9-10, 1956, after having partied quite intensely at Casa Cupșa, and then the party would have moved to the Victoria Restaurant.

It is said that, in an advanced state of inebriation, the poet would have lost his balance and slipped between the curb and the tram platform. This story would be supported by the ballerina Maria Polevoi, whom Labiș had met that evening, by the tram driver, and by other eyewitnesses, including the pianist Isac-Grișa Schwartzman.

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However, according to the book written by Stela Covaci, the wife of the poet’s best friend, the accident was not exactly an accident.

“Four people are waiting to get on the tram, Labiș is the third, but he still hesitates. The fourth is Grișa. When the tram starts, the fourth pushes Nicolae Labiș onto the grating between the two carriages. Grișa shouts that the fallen man is drunk, while Mary (ballerina Maria Polevoi, who accompanied the young poet), declares that she knows him and asks to be taken to hospital,” she writes.

“At the hospital, Labis told me how the accident happened… I remember that he was talking about a short visit to Capșa, then accompanied by two men and a woman, a ballerina, who had gone down the passage to “Victoria”, from Balcescu Square he wanted to take a tram, not to his house, but to the woman’s house, he tried to get on at the front of the second class, but someone pushed him and, at the last second, he caught himself on the intermediate grating between the carriages”, Mihai Stoian was to declare in his turn, in a rather daring article published in 1970.

According to the same Stoian, Nicolae Labiș confessed that he had been investigated and followed by the Securitate.

His salon was guarded by Securitate agents.

In the following days, his health worsened substantially, and on the night of 21-22 December 1956, Nicolae Labiș breathed his last.

On December 27, the newspaper Scânteia Tineretului published, in a short note somewhere near the end, information about the poet’s premature death.

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