‘Please don’t forget me’. The story of Paraschiva Candoiu, the lady with no hands from the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ archive

Aleksandr Sokurov, in his latest movie, Francofonia,  wonders through the halls of the Louvre and looks into the eyes captured on canvas, through oil and paint- those painters did us a favour, he says, as they captured the souls, and through the souls the whole worlds those eyes had witnessed. Well, an Archive is a very similar place, a space where long forgotten memories are stored, waiting patiently to be rediscovered (though I sometimes wonder if they really want that).

Naturally, a historian, even an amateur, always has data, personal or at second
hand, to guide him. The present narrator has three kinds of data: first, what he saw
himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses; and, lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands. (Camus 1947, The Plague, via Andrew Hoaen)

Among the diverse and always surprising archive left from the Romanian anthropologist and anatomist Francisc I. Rainer (1874-1944), I have recently discovered a couple of fragments from a one of a kind story, that of Paraschiva Candoi- a lady with no hands. It is probably the only memory left from her life, and after 80 years of ‘sleeping’ in the dark corners of the Institute’s attic I thought it is worth bringing it to light.


On 17th October 1933, Paraschiva wrote to Francic Rainer:

Dear Professor,
Through this letter I bring to your attention that I am the woman you saw at the fair [la mosi], and I also came to the Faculty where I worked in front of you and where the Doctor …photographed me. Dear Professor, at that time you promised, from your own initiative, that you will talk with the Minister of Education to give me a permit to go to schools to show how I work with my feet- after the school starts. Now I come to you and ask if you would be so kind and do me good and talk with the Minister to give me the permit for the primary or secondary schools from the Old Kingdom and Ardeal so that the Directors receive us (I’ve been around 1925 at Cluj, Timisoara and Arad, and where they accepted us we worked and they were happy, while other Directors asked for a paper from the Minister and did not accept us). [..] And to have the money for transport and food and lodgings wherever we go I ask the Minister to fix a tax per pupil so that we have the money necessary to travel from one city to another.
Professor, I also send you a photograph so that you see that I am the same woman that you saw before [..]
Paraschiva Candoi the woman without hands, Nacrich (Sibiu County)
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The letter was wrapped in a folded piece of paper, alongside the photographs she refers to, the ones taken at the Faculty of Medicine, packed with a souvenire image of hers- probably the photograph she mentions as proof of her identity, and 3 samples of her work (probably picked at the fair, or at the Faculty visit). On top of the folded paper she had written ‘Paraschiva Candoi, from Nacrich (Sibiu County), 55 years of age, at 3 years old my hands burnt and at 7 year I started working with my feet. Across this manuscript, a different hand wrote ‘Unpublishable’ and ‘No. 145’.
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Did Rainer follow her request? Is there a trace of her story kept anywhere else? (if she had ready-made printed souvenirs, one wonders about this) Was her ‘case’ ever published? Most probably not. Similar to the osteological collection gathered by Rainer,  his archive became the tomb of such memories- e.g. another story from the same collection of unorganised papers is that about Two crooked legs:

‘on 16th of January 1897, at the surgery of the Saint Spiridon hospital in Bucharest, Ciobanu Iordachi, aged 65, a worker from Lețcani, presented himself with an ulceration where he rested his foot which prevented him from walking (Bothezat 1898). The diagnosis exposed a double congenital club foot. A month later the patient died of pneumonia, but his remains were dissected, his case being deemed interesting by dr. P. Bothezat, who wrote and published a short anatomical description the following year. [..] “From the performed autopsy we could only obtain both thighs with their legs, so we can only present the results of dissecting these pieces. It would of course have been interesting if we could make a study of the spine’s bone marrow lesions, especially today when almost everybody agrees in considering congenital equs varus caused by a nervous system lesion. However, the deformity which affected our sick man, being marked and the anatomical lesions quite advanced, the anatomical description of only the legs is interesting enough, because it can be made extensively.” (Bothezat 1898).’ (Ion 2015)

10 photographs, 3 samples of her work and 1 letter is what remains from Paraschiva’s life. Her body was photographed from all angles, inside and out (having an X-ray taken), and these images, pasted on standard brown square cardboard paper were packed along her own souvenires and put away in the attick. What strikes me in particular about these archival fragments are 2 things:

– in one of these photos, she looks straight into the camera, smilingly, and almost serene, and the whole set-up of the camera- the shoes, the scale of the photo, her 1/2 naked body, the placement on a pedestal, make her look almost doll-like and surreal.

– as a researcher used to deal with death and the dead, the image of a bodie’s feet, lying on a table, is usually associated with the standard picturing of a corpse (with the identity tag hanging from the toe). However, in 2 of the images depicting Parachiva’s feet, the message is precisely the opposite: the feet are her source of income, and those through which life went on for her.

Besides, I found these handful of documents quite fascinating for the multitude of layers they bear within: different scripts cutting and crossing each other (the doctor’s and the ‘subject’s’), fingerprints embedded in the surface of the photographs, photographs pasted on cardboard, folded papers containing other papers etc. Maybe this is the best depiction of what an archive is and what it stands for- folded layers of memories of lives intersecting and affecting each other; ultimately this makes the discoverer wonder: how might have been another life, so different from mine? Of course one wonders about those scientists from the past as well, about the fate of an archive and what we make of the stories within, but those are just my questions- someone else might have others in mind.

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 PS: I decided to write a blog post about her story, and not a ‘proper’ scientific article, as unfortunately the rigours of current academia do not leave too much room for such fragments.
Works cited:Ion A. 2015. Breaking down the body and putting it back: displaying knowledge in the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’anthropological collection. Martor. The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review 20, 25-49.
All the images and their rights belong to the Institute of Anthropology ‘Francisc I. Rainer’

3 thoughts on “‘Please don’t forget me’. The story of Paraschiva Candoiu, the lady with no hands from the ‘Francisc I. Rainer’ archive

  1. ‘Folded layers of memories of lives intersecting and affecting each other’. Beautiful and eloquent, thank you Alexandra as always for a thoughtful post, and one that delves beyond the still image to the lives behind that single capture of a moment in time.

    1. Thank you David! You are most kind! It’s been a while since I posted due to other things, but on the one hand I felt the need to ‘use’ these fragments in a way and not just leave them there, forgotten; while on the other hand I think the post is a comment on some of my recent experiences with non-academics (for whom our kind of life seems odd, especially the quest for looking at how things work/intersect each other at a deeper level).

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