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Chapter Three:

My Stay in the Camps in Russia
(March 1940-July 1948)

szc027.jpg
A section of the map of Poland, the various places that I stayed in are: 1, Szczuczyn; 2. Grajewo; 3. Augustów; 4. Bialystok; 5. Wlodawa (Sobibor Forest is located a few kilometers south of Wlodawa); 6. Brest (Brisk); 7. Rastenburg.

 

Crossing the border to the Russian zone, the Russian prison in Brisk and the sentencing:

On 23 March, 1940, on Saturday, the eve of Purim, I was about to cross the border through the Bug River in the direction of the Russian zone, in order to return to my hometown Szczuczyn. Earlier, the leader of the Judenrat came to an agreement with the Germans that they'll not be at the border at the appointed time, so we could cross the border without interruption. The Jews of Wlodawa gave us food and other items, and many of them accompanied us to the border.

Upon our arrival to the border, we heard shots from the other side of the river, and we debated whether to cross the river or not. While we were debating, a German with a dog suddenly appeared to the place, and forced us to cross the frozen river. It was a very dangerous thing to do, because parts of the river began to thaw, and indeed, some of us fell into the river and drowned.

Immediately after we finished crossing the river, Russian soldiers stopped us and took us to a bath- house, which served as a temporary detention center, in a settlement called Tomaszowka. We stayed there for two days. Two days later, they transferred us to the city of Brest-Litovsk (Brisk in Yiddish), to an ancient fortress that was used as a prison. Overall, I was happy that they didn't return us to the Germans, because at that time it was customary that each side returned the border smugglers to the other side of the border. In my innocence, I didn't know what awaits me on the Russian side.

After several days of detention in this fortress, they transferred me to a cell in the largest prison in the city. The procedures for entering the prison included the most rigorous examination: policemen stood and rummaged inside my bundle and my utensils, and conducted a thorough search in my clothes and inside my shoes. Afterwards, I had to stand naked before the prison guards, who peered inside the ears, mouth, underarms, and between the fingers. They even peered into the intimate parts of my body after they ordered me to bend over.

At the entrance to the prison they took from me, like from all the prisoners who arrived there, every sharp object like twine, shoelaces, belt and metal buttons, to prevent any possibility of suicide. A registration of all the items that were taken was conducted. Then, I was sent for a wash, medical exam and the shaving of all the hair in my body. At the end of the tests, I was left naked and destitute, and I felt like I've lost my humanity.

After the inspection, I was taken into a room where there were about 90 people, including murderers, thieves and other criminals. Among them there were also four mental patients who erupted from time to time. In the corner of the room stood a large can (“Parasha”), which was used as a toilet by the prisoners, and the strong smell spread through the room and filled it with a terrible stench. In the middle of the night we were taken to the toilet in two groups, while the guards prodded us shouting “hurry, hurry.” Throughout the period that I spent in the prison I was taken for a walk in the yard only three times.

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The lice plague in the prison was the most difficult, and they hid in each good part of the body. All of us were all busy in a collective ceremony of hunting lice.

The guards in the prison were very strict that the prisoners will not be able to converse and influence each other. Prisoners, who were accused of the same offense, weren't kept in the same cell. Moreover, the guards tried to prevent any possibility that the prisoners will know the name of the other prisoners who were incarcerated in the prison. Therefore, when someone was called in for interrogation the guard didn't state his name, but stated a certain letter. Each prisoner, whose name started with that letter, had to say his name, and the prison guard chose the man that he meant to. The prison guard took the prisoner to the location of the interrogation with his hands clasped behind his back. When they passed through the prison's corridors, the guard used to make a sound or clap his hands so he won't encounter a guard who was also leading a prisoner. If this happened, he had to turn the prisoner towards the wall so he wouldn't be able see the prisoner in front of him.

Until then, I didn't have any contact with my family, and they didn't know if I was still alive. Later, I found out that they had learned about the shooting in Sobibor from the survivors who managed to return to the city (those who crossed the river before us), but they didn't know whether I was alive or not. A Jew, who was in the same cell with me, was released. I gave him my family's address and he contacted them. later, I received a letter and a package from home.

In the preliminary investigations I was accused of spying, but after my interrogators were convinced that I was innocent, they changed the charge to crossing the border without permission. Of course, they didn't take into consideration the circumstances that caused me to do this offense. In August 1940, I was put on trial. Three judges sat in the room, and without asking or saying anything, they sentenced me to three years of hard labor in labor camps, and re-education.

After my sentence was determined, I was transferred to a very small cell where there were about 40 prisoners. The heat was intense and we walked almost naked. There were a lot of bedbugs, and after we crushed them on the walls, the walls turned red. The bedbugs were worse than the lice because they not only stung us, they also stank.

A few days after my sentence was determined, I was put on a “Sostauo,” a train, which consisted of a number of cattle cars and was used for the transfer of prisoners. There were a number of tiered bunks for sleeping, a drainpipe in corner that was used as a toilet, bars, locks and bolts. In the train there were also a number of cars for the armed escorts (“convoy'), dogs, weapons, and storage for spare parts. Guards always stood between the cars. They communicated with each other through various means of communication and spotlights. From time to time we stopped on a side track for feeding, roll call, exchange of shifts, and security checks. At the same time the soldiers entered the cars and inspected the floorboards and the roof. The food that we received during the journey was mostly rusk [a hard dry biscuit], and salted fish. We drank boiled water (“Kipiatok”), which were free in all the train stations. The amount of water that we received was inadequate and we were very thirsty, especially after we ate the salted fish, and quite often the shouts “water, water” were sounded in the cars.

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After several weeks of traveling across Russia we arrived to Arkhangelsk, a port city in northern Russia next the White Sea. It was exactly on Rosh Hashanah. I knew when Rosh Hashanah occurred, because I remembered the method that I learned for calculating the dates of the Jewish holidays. I used this method during all the years of my stay in camps in Germany and Russia, and it helped me to know when every holiday and festival was.

We stayed in Arkhangelsk for a few days, and then they led us to the Northern Dvina River[3]. We sailed on the Dvina River from Arkhangelsk to the city of Kotlas, where a special method of transportation was waiting for us - a flat-bottomed boat (Barz'a in Russian) - a large square cargo box made out of coarse wood. It was chained to a gasping steamship, which towed it quietly and heavily. The barge was built specially for transporting prisoners across rivers.

We were put into the barge in a tight squeeze. We lay side by side, and we were able to roll over only if we did it together according to prearranged sign.

For food, they gave us rusk, which was very hard and it was possible to break the teeth with it, and rotten salted fish. The toilets were in a special facility on the upper deck, and a huge queue stretched on the way to them. People begged to their friends to let them go to the toilet ahead of them, but no one was willing to give up his place. Guards stood next to the toilets and with shouts urged those who were relieving themselves.

A few days later we sailed to a labor camp called “Kunitz Gury”(?) in the Berezniki region. It was exactly on Yom Kippur. The salted fish that we received in the barge served me as the meal before the fast. I ate maybe twelve of them so I won't starve during the fast.

After a few days in “Kunitz Gury”(?) some of the people remained there, while others, me including, were led a long distance through a forest to a camp called Pechora. The walking was very difficult. We were led by armed soldiers who threw curses into the air. When we complained about the difficulty, the guards told us “It doesn't matter, you'll get used to it, and if not - you'll die.”

 

The Pechora Camp (September 1940 – November 1941):

Most of the prisoners in the camp were brought from Poland. Among them were about 50 Jews. In general, the Jews in labor camps in Russia tended to connect and help each other. Each time a new group of prisoners was brought to the camp, we immediately searched if there were Jews among them. The camp's inmates were divided into brigades, and each one of them consisted of 25 people.

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One of the brigade's members was appointed as “brigadier.” He had to make sure that the people will work, and that each person will get his food ration in accordance with the labor quota that he filled.

Immediately after we arrived to the camp we had to build the barracks and four watch towers around the camp. To do so we had to cut trees, a work that we did for many years afterward. We had no experience in this work, and we barely knew how to hold an ax. As a result, one of the prisoners, a Jew from Warsaw named Dempsey, was killed because someone accidentally dropped a tree on him. Over time we learned the job properly.

Within a short time we entered a work routine, which was repeated every day, until it caused us a lot of despair: Every morning, at a very early hour, there was a wakeup call (“Podium”). Officially, it was supposed to take place at five, but in fact, it took place much earlier. The silence of the night was torn by a mallet pounding on an iron bar, and terrifying sounds spread to all corners of the camp. Then, the brigadier walked around the barrack and gave each one of us a tiny piece of bread in accordance with the quota of work that we've completed - 100% of the quota, 60% or 80%. At times, the calculation was done in accordance of the work quota of the previous day, and sometimes by the average of the three previous days. The bread resembled clay, because those who were involved in its production stole a little flour for themselves, and replaced it with other products. After we received the bread, we ran into the kitchen like ghosts to get a portion of turbid soup. Many times I was planning to keep the piece of bread and eat it with the soup, or save it until evening, but I was never able to do so and ate it on the way to get my soup. Shouts, which urged us to hurry, sounded in the background.

After the meal, we went outside the camp's gate. There, we organized by brigades and a roll call was conducted. Each brigadier had to register how many people went with him to work and signed a pledge that they'll return. We were also counted when we returned. A rifleman (“Convoy”) was attached to each brigade. Every morning the Russian “Convoy” repeated his words, which were along these lines: “Brigade, listen! Those who will not fulfill the requirements will be shot without a warning. Every step, to the right or to the left, will be considered as an escape, and those who will not comply will be shot.” In conclusion, he used to ask: “Is that understood?” and all of us had to shout the answer “Yes.” He used to harass us if we didn't answer that way. After the roll call we went to the “tool shed” to get our tools. A wide window opened and we were given different tools - saws, axes and shovels. The tools were given to us by the “tool operators,” prisoners like us who worked all night in sharpening saws, polishing axes and strengthening hammers. Those, who were considered to be “Stakhanovtzim” (meaning, outstanding workers, after an outstanding worker named “Stakhanov”), received the best tools such as a bow saw, which had the length of a meter and a half. One person was able to cut the thickest tree by himself with this saw. The weaker workers received a frame-saw that two people were required to operate it,

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and also defective axes that fell apart after each blow. Each brigadier signed a written guarantee for the tools. When we came back from work he had to make sure that all the tools were returned. If a tool was missing, the whole group wasn't allowed to enter the area until each prisoner was searched, because the camp's authorities feared that the prisoners will smuggle tools into the camps.

Then, we walked to the workplace by brigades. We had to walk a long distance to the workplace in the forest. An escort walked behind us: initially it contained two soldiers with rifles and a dog, and later it only contained soldiers. While walking I washed my face and hands in the snow to freshen up, and muttered to myself the prayers that I had memorized. These prayers helped me to walk more easily and quickly.

When we got to the area where our brigade had to work, the Russian rifleman marked the “domain” (or he asked one of us to do so) between four trees, and we were only allowed to be in that area. If the rifleman saw a man crossing the “border” by mistake, he cursed him, or beat him with his fist or with the butt of his rifle. None of us thought of escaping from there, mostly because there was nowhere to run. One day I saw several blueberry bushes behind the “border.” I reached over to pick them, but at the last moment I saw that the politruk (political officer), who happened to be there at the moment, was pointing a gun at me and was about to shoot me. Of course, I gave up eating the blueberries and by doing so my life was saved.

Like most prisoners our main job, for many years, was felling trees and eradicating the stumps: we had to walk to the tree, topple it, prune the treetop and the branches, and cut the tree by certain dimensions. After we cut the trees we had to uproot the stumps in order to create a clear track for the transport of the timber out of the forest. To do so, we had to split the ground around the stump with a pick, ax and a hoe. The ground was very hard, and its degree of hardens varied according to the different types of trees: in a muddy areas the roots of a fir tree weren't very deep, but the roots of a pine tree, in a sandy area, reached a great depth.

We built a fire in the forest to burn the branches and the leaves that we removed from the trees so the area will remain clean. We didn't have the means, such as matches or paper, to start a fire, and we had to use primitive means such as a stone, iron and a cotton tread: with one hand we held the stone, and with the other hand we struck it with a piece of iron until a spark was created. We lit the cotton thread with the spark, and used it to light a birch bark which burnt well. In this manner we built a fire. With the fire we warmed our feet that froze from the snow that entered our shoes[4]. Because of the cold it was impossible to feel the fire until our shoes started to burn. When we left the fire, our shoes were full of water because the snow melted in them.

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Shortly after you moved away from the fire the water froze, and the foot, the rag and the shoe became a solid frozen block.

In the next stage of the work we leveled the ground and lay railroad tracks so the trolleys, which carried the timber, will be able travel on them to the gathering area near the river. Usually, the Chinese workers in the camps performed the ground leveling work. After we marked the route, we built the railroad track for the trolleys by laying rails and sleepers. Once I built a bridge over a small stream without nails, only with wood and an ax,

There was another way to transfer the timber besides on trolleys - by using sleds. And indeed, another role in the forests was the role of the “haulers.” I also served in this role a number of times. Every morning the “haulers” went to the stables and harnessed the horses to the sleds. The harness and the sleds were frozen and with every movement they pinched the flesh in the swollen hands and together with it, they also pinched the heart with pain. Tears streamed from the eyes because of the intense pain and cold. After the horses were harnessed to the sleds, the “haulers” moved with the sleds to the forest. A “loader” walked behind each sled and his duty was to load the trees (that their tops and branches were pruned) on the sled. Since the trees were very heavy the “loaders” had to use a thick pole, made of a long pine branch, to lift them to the sled. Then, they fastened the timber to the sled with an iron chain.

At the end the timber was transported to the gathering points by the rivers. In the summer, when the river thawed (the river was frozen for 160-180 days a year), the trees were sent according to their destination - the pine trees were sent to the sawmills, the fir trees were mostly designed to support the ceilings of the coal mines, and the birch trees were intended for heating.

Among the prisoners were also those whose job was to move around and register the workload that each one of us filled. Because at that time there weren't any writing tools, they entered their records on a piece of plywood and a piece glass served them as an eraser. The various records were given to the brigadier and he took them to the office.

The workload was very high and it was very difficult to fill it. The physical effort was great: the ax and the saw that we were given weren't sharp enough, we had to carry very heavy trees and the feet drowned in the deep snow. Besides that, we worked continuously, day after day, for very long hours and without a vacation.

The most difficult conditions also contributed to our great suffering. We went to work in the forest also when the temperatures reached 39 degrees below zero. At times, we prayed in our hearts that the temperature will drop to 40 degrees below zero, because according to the regulations we were didn't have to go to work. The clothes we wore weren't warm enough. We didn't have pants, only a jacket made of thin fabric and stuffed with cotton wool, and also fabric gloves stuffed with cotton wool.

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Our clothes were full of holes because sparks flew on them from the fire and they tended to flare up immediately. Sometimes you didn't feel the fire until it reached your flesh. When the cold was particularly strong, we sometimes received a cover for the face, but it didn't help much. The intense cold caused many deaths.

Within all the terrible tragedy that occurred in these areas was a spectacular natural phenomenon. It was the “Aurora”: on cold nights, when the sky was clear of clouds, you could see colorful lights twinkling in the sky in the form of arcs and horns which rose and fell. The lights were usually in shades of green and yellow, and at times, when the phenomenon was particularly strong, they also appeared in additional colors.

The summer brought its own problems: in those areas there are “white nights,” meaning, that the sun doesn't set for three months. In these conditions it's very difficult to sleep. Also the buzzing of the mosquitoes, which arrived to the area in the summer and stung us mercilessly, didn't let us sleep. Our faces and hands were swollen from the bites. Sometimes, we were given a cloth (called “Nekomernik”) to cover our heads, but it was difficult to bear it in the heat, and the mosquitoes managed to get through it and sting us. Besides that, it rained often in the summer, sometimes for several days. The Russian soldier who escorted us had a rain coat, but we didn't. Our clothes got wet, and it was very difficult to work that way.

Even the lice didn't let us rest all year round. We didn't change our clothes for weeks, and the lice lived in our bodies and in our garments in regiments-regiments. You could catch them by the handful and throw them on the ground, or crush them with your nails.

But in those days we suffered the most from hunger: after we received a slice of bread and soup in the morning, we didn't get anything to eat during the long hours at work. During those hours the only thought that occupied our mind was the thought of food. We almost didn't think about the time that we have left to serve, and the life that we left behind, but we thought about the meager soup that we will get in the evening. We also dreamed about bread crumbs, barley porridge, cabbage soup or a piece of cooked treska fish (this fish was found in large quantities in the northern rivers, and was a constant guest in our menu, in the soup or as a separate dish). While working, we barely talked to each other. Each one of us was focused on himself and on his hunger. In the rare moments, when we sat together, our sole topic of conversation was food and each one of us described what his family ate at home. When people talked about other issues, such as women, it was

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only in the rare occasions and only after they were able to slightly satisfy their hunger. In time, the signs of hunger were visible on all of us. We became very skinny and our skin hung on our bones like a rag.

The smokers among us suffered from a double shortage. A few of them were willing to exchange the meager rations that they've received for a piece of paper or tobacco, which were hard to come by. They used to search the snow for fallen birch leaves or pieces of moss or bark. They dried them, crushed them, and tried to smoke them. They coughed and burned their palate and their tongue, just to taste the flavor of smoke.

When we came back from work we were dead tired, but we had to perform many tasks: first of all, we ran to get the soup (“Blanda”), which contained mostly water and a few cabbage leaves. When you stood in line, you wished with all your might that the cook will mix the soup just before he poured it to your bowl, so you will get from the best that was situated at the bottom of the pot. Your world collapsed if at the exact moment they brought buckets of water from the stove and poured them into soup. In this case, even if you begged before the cook to mix the soup, it wasn't the same as before.

After we got the soup we went to search the garbage can for potato peelings, or went to the cook to ask him for another serving of soup. Usually, others preceded me, but I sometimes ate grass and special leaves that we brought to the barrack to dry. The Chinese prisoners ate lice, and there were also those who ate mice. I couldn't bring myself to eat such things even in the worst hunger.

Additional occupation in the hours after work was the repairing our clothes, or bringing them to the sewing workshop so they will be ready for the next working day.

Once every few weeks, or once a month, we had to take a “bath” (“banya”) when we returned from work. It was one of our worst nightmares. On that day we didn't get our food if we didn't take a bath. At the entrance to the bath hall we had to give our clothes for disinfection. We entered the hall, which was usually unheated, naked and shivering from the cold. Four to five people sat back to back to keep warm. Large wooden water barrels stood in the hall. They were supposed to contain hot and cold water, but there was always a shortage of hot water. More than once we stood covered with the black smelly stuff, which was called soap, and we had nothing to wash our bodies with. We didn't have enough tools, such as “Skopec” (a wooden tub with a handle), and it was necessary to fight for them. Dozens of people used one razor to shave under their armpits and around the genitals. Next, we had to go down the hallway and wait naked until the window of the disinfection room opened. There, we got the clothes that we gave at the entrance. More than once our clothes were burnt during the disinfection process, or taken by someone else. Then, we had to wait naked in the cold until they brought other clothes. In such cases, we often lost our portion of the meager soup.

I lived in a barrack together with about 200 people. There was a door in the barrack but there weren't any windows. We slept on two-storey bunks, which were made from rough wood, without a mattress and without a blanket.

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All that I had to cover with was the same “kyptka” (jacket) that I wore on my skin. When I covered the lower part of my body with the “kyptka”, I was cold in the upper half of my body. Since we didn't have a change of clothes we had to sleep in our work clothes, which were often wet (we could only take off our shoes and put them under our heads so they wouldn't be stolen). Indeed, there were two small ovens on which we were supposed to dry our clothes, but most of the time they didn't dry out. At any rate, there was a strong stench in the barrack as a result of drying the stinking clothes.

Since there was no light in the barrack we used to burn dry twigs to illuminate it. The twigs created a large amount of soot and in the morning, when we got up, our mouth and throat were full of black soot.

One day, in March 1941, in the middle of the night, a fire broke out in the barrack and all of us ran out. I was barefooted and cold and my feet stuck to the frozen snow. After the fire was put out, we returned to the barrack. I was sure that I got sick, but to my surprise nothing happened to me and on the next day I continued to go to work as usual.

Due to the intense cold almost all the prisoners suffered from an overactive bladder and had to urinate frequently, day and night. Those of us who slept deeply became chronic bed wetter, and not once you felt a shower of urine from the person who slept in the bunk above you. Those among us, who were light sleepers, were forced to get up several times a night to urinate. They wrapped themselves with their kyptka and ran to the urinal, but it was a very difficult to get there in the cold and in the darkness that prevailed there. Therefore, they usually stood on the side of the snow and relieved themselves. If they were caught in the act, they were punished. I had to get up and urinate five or six times a night. I didn't always have enough time to get out, and I wet my pants. When I went out to the cold my pants froze and became as hard as tin.

When I went out at night I knew how to calculate, according to the constellations in the sky how many hours remained until I'll get the piece of bread that I eagerly waited for. Even in the summer, on days when the sun didn't set for three months, I knew how to calculate by to its location, how many hours remained until I'll get my piece of bread.

You couldn't get a proper medical help in the camp. The camp's doctor was only able to help you with a day off from work, which under those circumstances seemed like a year of life. Many prisoners sabotaged their bodies in different ways to get a day off from work: they tried to cause themselves high fever, diarrhea, and even cut a finger or a leg with an ax. Many died as a result of these self induced injuries. However, if it was discovered that they deliberately caused these injuries, they received additional years of imprisonment. Not once, on the way to the forest, I also planned in my heart to cut my leg with an ax, but when I stood before the act, my hands refused to obey me.

It was impossible to escape from the camp because it was sealed by barbed wire and surrounded by four watch towers. Besides that, there was no place to escape to. One day, at the beginning of 1941, two prisoners escaped during work.

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The Russians caught them and ordered all of us to come and see what happens to those who try to escape. One of the most shocking sights appeared before my eyes: the two men stood in front of us and their flesh was torn after the dogs had bitten them. This sight wasn't erased from my memory for many days.

Throughout that period, until 22 June 1941, I was in touch with my family. I wrote them many letters from the camp and also received letters from them. Once, I even received a package from them that included a hat and fur gloves, which were stolen from me later. Of course, my letters to them were censored by the Russians. The war between Russia and Germany broke out on 22 June, 1941. The Germans entered Szczuczy and my contact with my family came to an end.

In the summer of 1941, a Jewish doctor named Siemon Gebeib, who was born in Leningrad, arrived to the camp. He didn't want people to know that he was Jewish but the shape of his nose betrayed him. I befriended him and he enjoyed to hear from me about the customs of the Polish Jews. He became very emotional when I performed a Kiddush in Rosh Hashanah, and he cried when I sang “Kol Nidrei” on Yom Kippur. He told me that he was fasting and asked me not to tell anyone.

Siemon Gebeib helped me a lot. When I came to him during his office hours he used to say to me in Yiddish next to the other patients, “Wertman, to you I say “Lamnatzeach Shir Mizmor”[Ode to the winner], and to the Gentiles he said: “Did you understand? It's in French.” I, and the two other Jewish men who were with me, understood that tomorrow we wouldn't have to leave for work in the forest.

In September 1941, the Russians started to release Polish citizens and Jews from labor camps to mobilize them into the Russian army under the leadership of Sikorski. About 80% of the Poles and Jews, who were in my camp, were released, but I wasn't among them.

Various negative characters, criminals and members of the Russian mafia, were brought to the camp in place of those who were released. Often, the criminals had the upper hand in the camps and ruled them with an iron fist[5]. The population of the camps was extremely diverse and included people who were punished for a broad range of crimes - from criminals of all kinds such as murderers, rapists and thieves, and through people who were accused of various political offences and were defined as “enemies of the regime,” sometimes just because they said a word or two against the regime, and ending with people who disobeyed one regulation or another, as coming late to work, absenteeism from work, negligence and so on. Not once, innocent people, who couldn't say a word in their defense, were brought to the camps.

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Lagpunkt 2 (November 1941 – September 1942)

In November 1941, I was transferred to another camp, lagpunkt [small work camp] 2. Occasionally, the Russian authorities moved prisoners from camp to camp so they won't unite against them.

The conditions in lagpunkt 2 were slightly better than in the previous camp: there was light in the barrack in which we lived and also a mess hall where you could sit and eat comfortably. I never enjoyed that, because I used to finish my bread on the way from the barrack to the kitchen, and I also drank the soup given to me standing in the mess hall.

In this camp I worked in the forests until I got sick on December 1941, and reached a state where I was no longer able to work in the forest. In a consultation, which was held by the camp's doctors, it was determined that I was ill and I couldn't work. I was classified into the category of “Slav-Komanda,” a weak group that received a permanent confirmation not to go out to work in the forest. We were allowed to stay and work in the camp for a few weeks, and also received a little better food. It's interesting that hunger, disease, exhaustion and finally death reaped the life of the strongest among us, in comparison with the weak who coped with the hunger more easily.

In the time when I was sick, Dr. Siemon Gebeib came to me one evening and asked to speak with me. He told me that he was going to commit suicide because, as a doctor, he was accused for the high mortality rate in the camp, and they were about to put him on trial. It was clear, that he wasn't guilty because he did his job with loyalty, and the high mortality rate was probably caused by the harsh conditions, hunger, hard work and the lack of medicines. There was an anti-Semitic doctor in the camp, who was a civilian and not a prisoner, and she wanted to place the blame on him. I advised Siemon not to rush and kill himself, because he was likely to be found not guilty at his trial. He listened to my advice. Meanwhile, until the date of the trial, he was suspended from his position as doctor and was sent to work in the forest. Later, he was put on trial, and fortunately he was cleared of all charges.

During my illness I was taken to work in the camp's sewing workshop since I knew how to sew. Every evening the prisoners' torn clothes, which stunk, were brought to the sewing workshop and we had to repair them at night so they'll be ready for the next working day. The person in charge of the sewing workshop and the shoe shop was a Russian named Smorkov, who came to the camp because of a murder that he had committed. All the prisoners feared him, but for some reason he liked me and treated me well. He shared his food with me and even appointed me in charge of the warehouse of the clothes that were taken from the dead prisoners. In January 1942 it was decided that I was slightly recovered, and I was sent to work in the forest.

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In camp 2, and in the other camps in which I was later, many diseases ran wild. Many prisoners died of the diseases, one by one, like flies. Many times, when I woke up in the morning, I discovered that my neighbors to the bunk, right and left, passed away during the night. Under these circumstances, like all the other prisoners, I also developed apathy to death.

Many prisoners died from Pellagra which is caused by deficiency of vitamin B. In this disease the skin shrivels and looks like a rag. While the patient doesn't suffer from pain, he becomes indifferent to what is happening around him and gradually dies. I saw quite a few prisoners who held a piece of bread in their hand without being able to eat it. After they died, the prisoners, who were lying next to them, took the piece of bread from their hand and ate it. The Pellagra has three stages of severity. I reached the second stage of the disease, in camp 2 and camp 1, to which I arrived later. Fortunately, I recovered in both cases.

Another disease, which was common in the camp, was “scurvy” (“scorbutic”). It's caused from a deficiency of vitamin C. It causes swelling in the legs, sores in the gums, and in many cases it also leads to teeth loss. The medicine for the disease was water mixed with crushed pine needles. It was a very bitter medicine, but we were forced to swallow it as a condition for getting food.

Many prisoners died of dysentery. The medicine, which eased this disease, was swallowing crushed coals, but it didn't help in many cases.

Another disease, which ran wild in the camp, was “chicken blindness.” One of the symptoms of this disease is that you can't see anything from sunset to the next morning. One day, my friend Michalski contracted this disease. One night he fell into the snow, and when he didn't return on time I went to look for him. When I found him I helped him to get up, but he couldn't see me. Only later I told him that it was me.

I also contracted “chicken blindness.” In June 1942, when I was sick, a prisoner snatched the piece of bread that I held in my hand and I wasn't able to see who it was. A great suffering was involved in getting up at night to urinate since you couldn't see anything you banged your head on the bunks above you. There were two medicines for “chicken blindness,” - fish oil or liver, but both weren't within our grasp. In their place, they gave us the oil of an animal called Tyolen(?), which was very smelly, but we had to drink it to recover. Once, after I sipped this oil, I drank water to get rid of the bad taste. Because of this, I was weak and had a very strong diarrhea. It was very difficult for me to talk and couldn't eat what was given to me. I couldn't even stand the smell of the kitchen. I lay outdoors from morning to evening, and returned to the barrack with great efforts.

The same anti-Semitic doctor, who earlier cast the blame on Siemon Gebeib, demanded that I immediately go to the hospital. It was a barrack like all barracks. The prisoners lay half naked on the boards, without a mattress or a blanket, and without any medical help. Most of the people, who entered the barrack, didn't come out of it alive. I refused to enter the hospital, and the doctor threatened that she'll send me to work in the forest. I told her that I'd rather die outside than in the hospital's barrack.

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All that I needed to recover was a piece of light food, like an onion or a little sugar, to bring my appetite back, but none was available. Luckily, there were several prisoners who left for work without an escort, and they brought me blueberries in exchange for half of my bread ration. My appetite gradually returned and I returned to work in the camp's sewing workshop.

One day, one of the Jewish prisoners in the camp, a shoemaker named Moshe from the city of Radom, suffered from an illness in his eyes. He asked me to talk to Smorokov, the person in charge of the sewing workshop, to get him a job in the shoe workshop. Smorokov, who liked me, agreed to my request. Since then, for a certain period, I found myself close to Moshe. Because I was very weak at that time, I couldn't eat the extra food that was given to me. Because I was too weak to resist, Moshe took the food and sold it. A few days later, Smorokov suddenly called me and told me that he expelled Moshe from the workshop. I asked him why, and he told me that Moshe informed him that I was selling clothes from the warehouse. In fact, I didn't sell clothes from the warehouse, but I exchanged a pair of pants for a guy named Tzimlich who worked in the laundry. Apparently, Moshe slandered me because he wanted my job. Luckily, Smorokov knew me and knew that the matter wasn't true, and because of this, he dismissed Moshe from his work and warned me that if I'll share my food with him he would throw me out.

I continued to work in the camp's sewing workshop for several months, until we were transferred to the next camp.

 

Lagpunkt 14 (September 1942 – December 1942)

In September 1942, the Russians decided to eliminate all the camps in our region for fear that the Germans would invade the region through the White Sea. They put us on boats and we sailed on the Northern Dvina River to the city of Kotlas. From there we traveled north to the Zheleznodorozhny Raion region where there were many camps. I was taken to Lagpunkt 14. This area was part of the autonomous republic of the Soviet Union, Komi SSSR[6].

Since I got sick on the way to the camp and ran a high fever, I didn't have the energy to fight the other prisoners for a place to sleep on the bunk. I lay on the floor under the bunk, surrounded by dirt and rats that jumped on top of me all the time, and occasionally asked for a little hot water (“Kipiatok”). I lay on the floor for a few days, until I got over the disease. Only then, I went back to work in the forest.

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Lagpunkt 1 (December 1942 – March 1943)

In December 1942, I was transferred again to another camp, Lagpunkt 1. Also there worked in the forests. This camp was the worst of all the camps that I've been to, mostly because of the brutal treatment of our superiors.

In February 1943, I became ill and was transferred to a barrack which was called “hospital.” In the barrack was a Jewish doctor named Badian, a native of Kishinev [Chisinau]. He helped me to extend my stay in the hospital until 19 March 1943. However, I was forced to return to work despite the fact that the state of my health didn't improve.

On the day, in which I returned to work, I was sent to work together with healthy and strong Ukrainian Gentile. He saw that I was too weak to work and suggested that I'll sit by the fire and he'll work for both of us in order to meet the required quota. He cut the trees that were cut and marked the day before, as if he cut them on that day, and managed to fool the brigadier.

The next day I had to work with another prisoner, a Jew. The weather was very difficult, the young man didn't want to work, and I was too sick and weak to work. I told the guard that I couldn't work because of the state of my health, and I didn't work. When we returned to the camp at the end of the work day, the camp's commander (“Nacelnik”) stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted: “Those who didn't fulfill the quota - march forward.” I marched forward and he ordered to send me to solitary confinement. I asked to be checked by a doctor to prove that I couldn't work, but it didn't help. I refused to go to the cell on my own power, so they dragged on the snow and threw me into the cell for one night.

When I arrived, it was dark in the cell. I thought that I was alone in it. I couldn't fall asleep because it was very cold and I was soaked to my marrow bones. The next morning I realized that there were several people in the cell with me. When they brought me my bread ration, my neighbors to the cell attacked me and snatched it from me. I screamed until the supervisor arrived. He shouted at me and asked why I was screaming, and I told me that my bread was snatched from me. He asked me who has done it, but I was afraid to state a name because they could have killed me for that. I told him “Don't you see who's eating?” He opened the door to let me go to the mess hall so I could a least get my soup ration, but I couldn't even walk up there. I got up and fell again and again. By chance, a Jewish doctor named Cathrina Josifovana Shulman, passed by me. She saw my condition and asked what had happened to me. I told her my story and she invited me to come to her for an exam. She checked me and determined that I was unable to work. Because of this, I was transferred to Lagpunkt 3, a camp where all the prisoners were sick.

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Lagpunkt 3 (March 1943 – June 1943)

Lagpunkt 3 was a camp for sick people. The patients lay in the barracks, dressed in a shirt and underwear, and didn't receive proper medical treatment.

In the camp I met a number of people that I knew from other camps. Like me, they also moved from camp to camp. Among them were Dr. Simeon Gebeib (that I met in the Pechora camp), and my townsman Michalsky, who was with me in the camps in Germany. He crossed the border to Russia with me and spent a year in Pechora camp.

Fishel Michalsky was in charge of cleaning the doctor's barrack. One day he came to me and told me that the doctor had left some food, and offered me to join him to eat it. I quickly ran with him to the place, and we found a pot of peas in cold fat. Fishel wanted to warm the food, but I couldn't wait and ate it quickly while it was still cold. As a result, I got very sick. My friend Yitzchak Gelbach (who lives today in Jerusalem), took care of me for several days and nights until I recovered.

In those days, on 23 March 1943, the three years of my imprisonment ended. I asked to be released, but the Russian authorities refused to release me. They said that they would release me by special order. As long as my release date was before my eyes, I saw some comfort in every passing day because the dose of my suffering has diminished a bit. However, after the release date has expired without any change in my condition, I was bitterly disappointed. I began to hope that I would be released when the war will come to an end. We had general information about what was happening at the front from the camp's politruk [political commissar], who updated us from time to time about the events.

 

Lagpunkt 8 (June 1943 – November 1944)

In June 1943, after I recovered and was able to work, I was taken to Lagpunkt 8. Again, I had to work in the forest and also in agricultural. In terms of conditions, this camp was slightly better than the previous camps. Here, at least, people didn't die one by one like flies.

The brigadier knew that I was a milliner by trade, and asked me to sew him a hat. I always had a needle that I've made from a wire that I sharpened its edge with a stone. I pulled the threads from a piece of cloth that I had in my possession. The brigadier allowed me to sit for a few days by the fire so that I could sew his hat. In return, he increased the registration of my work quota, and occasionally eased my work.

On Friday nights I really wanted to make a Kiddush with a slice of bread, but it was very difficult for me to keep a slice of bread from morning to evening. One day, I was determined to do so: immediately after I received the slice of bread in the morning, I left part of it in the barrack under a bag and immediately went to work. Throughout that day I thought longingly about the slice of bread that was waiting for me. As soon as I returned from work I ran to

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to the piece of bread and discovered to my surprise that a small piece was taken from it. I called the person, who was in charge of the barrack, and asked him if he saw who did it. He told me that he saw my neighbor, a Ukrainian named Ivan Ivanovich, who was released from work that day due to an illness, eating bread. I turned to him and asked him if he ate my bread. He said that he ate bread, but it was his bread. I asked him to show me the piece of bread, and found it was dry, while my piece of bread was fresh. I told this to the barrack's supervisor and also to the brigadier's assistant, and in response, they beat Ivan Ivanovich and transferred him to the barrack of the inferior prisoners - thieves and criminals of all sorts. A short time later he died from the beatings.

 

Lagpunkt 5 (November 1944 – October 1946)

In November 1944, I was transferred to Lagpunkt 5. In this camp the conditions were a little easier: in the previous camps we worked every day, including Sunday, but in camp 5 we had a day off on Sunday. In addition, in camp 5 we left for work without an escort of soldiers. We signed up when we went work and when we returned to the camp.

In this camp there were people from various nationalities - Chinese, Koreans, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Greek, Armenians, Kozaks, Uzbeks and Kazaks. There were 35 people my barrack, and almost each one of them came from another nationality. I “represented” the Jews and the Poles.

In camp 5 we worked mostly in agriculture. We grew vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, turnips, and radishes in greenhouses. In the summer, which started in June and lasted three months, we planted them in the fields. Of course, while sowing, I occasionally ate the seeds.

In the winter we mostly worked in producing peat from the swamps. Later, we scattered it on the fields. To remove the peat from the ground it was necessary to rake about a meter or more of snow, and then to break the frozen ground for about half a meter. We had to carry many tools with us: a wooden shovel to rake the snow, a heavy ax with a long handle to break the frozen ground, and a metal shovel to dig the peat from the ground.

An additional work, in which we worked in the same camp, was the preparing greenhouses for the cabbage: with the aid of a simple tool we prepared lumps in the shape of cups from a mixture of peat, manure and a little ash. We froze them after we placed small leaves with a cabbage root inside them. We placed the “cups” inside trenches, which were at the depth of about 70 centimeters and at the length of about 3 meters. We put manure, peat and black soil in them, covered them with a framed glass panel, and placed mats on top of it. On sunny days we removed the mats and in the evening we put them back so they will absorb the light. We kept on doing it until the ground thawed. Then we moved the “cups” with the plants to the field.

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We also made manure from the dung of cows and horses, and also from our waste product that we collected in a barrel. We collected the manure in one place and warmed it in the ovens. Later, we moved it from place to place to avoid rot. Indeed, the vegetables grew much faster in the areas where we placed manure.

At that time I was allowed to return to the camp only after I finished 150% of the quota. This quota was very high and I couldn't meet it. The food was given to us in accordance to the amount of the finished quota, and was very small. Since I was a little freer in this camp, I used to search for leftover food at the houses of the families of the camp's staff. At most, I occasionally found a frozen potato peel.

One day, I suffered from a terrible toothache. Of course, there wasn't a dentist in the camp. I ran in the middle of work to the barrack of Alexi Platonovich, the clinic's assistance, and asked him to extract the aching tooth. He was appalled by the idea, and said that he had no idea how to extract a tooth and he didn't have the necessary tools for that. After a long argument he agreed to my request. I sat on a stool and he took a pair of pliers. He was white from excitement and fear, and said that it was his first and last time to do such a thing. It took a long time until he was able to pull my tooth without an injection and without disinfection. I suffered severe pain, but at the end, the operation was successful

The camp director (“Nacelnik”) was a wise man. From time to time he organized various activities during our vacation like dancing, a singing club, and a drama group. I participated in the singing club, and we sang when there was an event in the camp.

In the camp was a barrack which housed women after childbirth. They worked and breastfed their babies at the same time. Usually, they were young women who came from various camps to which they were sent in the wake of minor offences, such as coming late to work. Among them was a woman who loved to hear me sing, and occasionally brought me a piece of bread because their conditions were slightly better than ours

In January 1946, the man who was responsible for cutting the bread fell ill and Senka, a Jewish guy from Leningrad who was a barber[7] by profession, was appointed in his place. Senka asked me to be his assistant and, of course, I was happy to accept the job. We used to cut the bread at night so the men of the brigades will be able get it the next morning. Not once I slept in the cutting room. I asked Senka to lock the door from the outside so the various prisoners wouldn't bother me with requests for bread, and went to sleep on a bench in the cutting room. The rats jumped around me, I didn't fight them but I got used to live with them

I worked very hard at that time: the cutting of the bread was done at night and during the day I continued to work outside. I walked around like a lunatic and my friends told me that I could collapse. However, the biggest advantage in this work was the ability to take bread for myself. Not once, when the woman who was in charge of the bakery didn't pay attention, we pinched a loaf of bread for ourselves.

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Also, when we cut the bread I occasionally put a piece of bread in my mouth. Thanks to these tastings I grew stronger and gained weight after long years of deprivation. Over time I became a stahanovich [hard worker], and I was also allowed to grow my hair

In August 1946, I was sent together with nine other guys to cut grass for the cows and the horses in the marshes that were about 10km from the camp. We took tools and supplies for a week stay outside the camp. We arrived at the place walking along the Vychegda River, as we pulled a boat containing the work tools.

We had to cut the grass inside the swamp by using a long sickle. Throughout the day the lower part of our body was in the water. We wore clogs made of reeds that the water entered and left them. One day, my clogs broke and I went after work to get another pair of clogs which were brought to me to a certain point. As I walked slowly in the path I picked raspberries from the wild bushes that grew on the side of the road. Suddenly, I heard a powerful rustling behind me. I turned on my heels and saw in front of me a large brown bear. I didn't lose my senses, and stood facing him in silence. I knew not to run away from bears. The bear looked at me, and I at him, and finally he turned around and walked back. Luckily, he was not hungry (maybe he also ate raspberries earlier). I didn't continue on my way, but I quickly returned to the encampment

When I stayed in the camps, and also in the period before my return to Poland, I prayed every day. I remembered well the prayers and the various religious songs from home, and used to sing them on different occasions. At times, it eased my situation and also helped me to pass the time. In addition, I also fasted every Yom Kippur. Of course, it was very difficult to fast in the camps without a meal before the fast, and also when you are hungry and the slice of bread in your pocket and the hunger don't give you rest. For example, on Yom Kippur of 1941, I worked in a place where there were berries. I collected the berries in buckets and didn't put them in my mouth because of the sanctity of Yom Kippur. Of course, it was a very great suffering

However, I wasn't extremely religious. Before I separated from my father he advised me: “In time of need, don't check what's kosher and what isn't kosher, eat whatever they give you.” And indeed, I listened to his advice. For example, in 1948, after I was released from the camps and lived in Kanin-A'os, I cooked the blood of a pig, which was slaughtered by the local residents, and I enjoyed its taste.

Later, when I was in charge of the kibbutz, I didn't allowed the members to eat on Yom Kippur, and eat chametz on Passover in the kibbutz grounds, more for reasons of tradition than reasons of religion. I also continued to keep the tradition later in my life

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The release from forced labor and the stay in Kanin-A'os (October 1946 – July 1948)

In October 1946, after six and a half years of hard labor, I received a message that I was released from the forced labor camps. I was sent to the place where all the freed prisoners were assembled. There, I met three guys that I knew: Meir Suratzki and Yalon Hertzki, who also survived the shooting in Sobibor and were together with me in the concentration camps in Germany, and also Natan Kimhi, who, in 1940, was in Pechora camp with me. But, the story of my hardship didn't end there. Unfortunately, the Russians decided to deport us to Ust-Tsilma, a place that was very difficult to get out of

We traveled by train to Pechora[8] where we had to catch a boat to Ust-Tsilma. After we climbed on the pier we were told that the Pechora River froze and there won't be additional sailings to Ust-Tsilma. As we stood waiting on the pier, Yalon Hertzki came running and told us that there's an additional sailing to Ust-Tsilma at midnight, and if we hurry we will be able to take it. I told him that we shouldn't hurry. If they need us, they would have to take us there. Ust-Tsilma was a desolated place that supply only reached it once every three months. I also told Yalon that there is more hope in a place with a railway line. Two days later they closed the pier and drove us out of there. We didn't know what to do because we were supposed to report in Ust-Tsilma. I suggested that we'll go to the office of the NKVD, which was responsible for us, in a place called Kozhva

We arrived to the office of the NKVD in Kozhva and told the superiors that we need to get to Ust-Tsilma but we are unable to do so, and that they had to decide what to do with us. For two days they let us sleep in the hallway in the bitter cold. At the end, they decided to keep us in Kozhva. We received identity cards that the citizenship clause was left empty. Once a month we had to register at the NKVD to prove that we didn't escape. In fact, it was impossible to escape from there.

At that point, we were free men. We worked in jobs that were offered to us in exchange for wages and food stamps. I started to work in the local sewing workshop. Two months later I started to work again in the forest. The working conditions were worst than in Lagpunkt 5, the last camp that I was in. Also the problem of hunger remained.

We received a place to live in an underground structure, which was designed to retain the heat, in a town called Kanin-A'os a few kilometers from Kozhva. When heavy snow fell it covered the entire building. We, four Jews and several Gentiles who were also released from labor camps, lived in a room with eight beds and a kitchenette.

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In February 1947, the person in charge of the place decided to send us again to Ust-Tsilma, together with eleven Chinese who were with us. We stopped getting food stamps. Before we left the place we had to work for Trusov, the Nacelnik [director] of the NKVD, in order to get an exit permit from him.

When I came to Trusov I told him that I refuse to go to Ust-Tsilma, and as far as I'm concerned, he can shoot me on the spot. He asked me why I was talking like this, and I told him my story: I told him how I was taken in September 1939 by the Germans to concentration camps in Germany, and that in 1940 they brought us to Sobibor where there they shot everyone and only I and a few of my friends survived, and how in March of the same year I crossed the border to get home, but the Russians stopped me at the border and I was sentenced to three years of hard labor, and instead of three years I worked for six and a half years. I told him that I now want to return to my home in Poland and I don't even know if someone from my family is still alive. I added that in my point of view, I've nothing to lose.

Apparently, he was a decent man and my words touched his heart. He canceled our transfer order and allowed us to stay in the place. Moreover, he also advised me to apply for a permission to return to Poland. I asked him where I should send my request, and he offered to send it to the Supreme Soviet and the Polish consul in Moscow. My friends and I managed to get paper with great difficulty, and sent our letters of request to both locations. It was in February 1947[9].

Afterwards, we returned to work in the forest. After we completed 40 work quotas of cutting timber, we received vouchers to buy various products (other than food) - fabrics, stockings for women, soap, galoshes, and so on - in a special store at a relatively cheap price. We took the goods that we bought to the city of Pechora, which was a distance of about 8km from where we lived, to buy food in exchange for the goods. Every Sunday there was an exchange trade between people who brought various goods from the north and from the south. We walked to Pechora at night, in the intense cold, to sell our goods and to buy products such as bread, oil, sugar and more. At that time, bread dipped in oil and sugar was a king's meal in our eyes. We divided between us what we had bought and what we sold. For example, one day my friend Natan Kimhi sold a coat that was sent to him from Israel, and with the money that he got in return he bought bread and shared it with me

In one of the winter Sundays of 1947, Nathan and I went as usual to the market in Pechora. Suddenly, a strong wind, which can be very dangerous in the cold season started to blow. We packed our bags immediately, and started to walk back in the direction of Kanin-A'os. In such weather conditions, you have to walk with at least one person and to look at each other every few minutes to make sure that an organ didn't freeze in the face. Halfway, Nathan looked at me and noticed that my chin and my cheeks turned white. It was a sign that these organs were frozen. In this case, you have to rub the affected area with snow. I did, and it helped a little, but following this incident I had wounds on my face and I couldn't shave for several months

In May 1947, when we reached Pechora to sell our goods, a militia man suddenly appeared. He started to shout and accused us that we were Jewish speculators. He confiscated the items that we've brought with us

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and took us with him to the militia office. Before we entered I noticed that he hid the galoshes that he confiscated from us in the dark hallway. When we entered with him to the room of the person in charge, he claimed that he was following us for a long time and we're only greedy speculators. When he put the items that he confiscated from us on the table, I noticed that a bar of soap was missing. I approached him, removed the bar of soap, and said in a loud voice: “Are you not ashamed to steal? You're a disgrace to the entire militia! Also, bring back the galoshes that you left in the hallway!” Immediately, he started to stutter and swore that he didn't take anything, but eventually he brought the galoshes.

I asked the director of the militia to contact Yergin, the Kozhva district manager, to hear from him that we aren't speculators and we're allowed to sell the items that we purchased in the special store. A few hours later, he obtained the permission and we were released. Meanwhile, the market's hours have already passed, but the people of the militia helped us to sell the goods that we had in our possession

A short time later we got a new job - as porters instead of the cutting down trees. There was a large food warehouse in Kozhva which contained flour, rice, cornmeal, sugar and fish in barrels. The four of us, together with Yergin's son, moved the goods from the warehouse to the stores and to the bakery, and also moved goods from place to place as needed. When a train arrived with supplies we had to unload the sacks and bring them to the warehouse. It was a very hard work, a flour sack weighed 70 kg, a sack of rice 90 kg, a sack of grain 90 kg, and a sack of sugar 100 kg. Initially, it was very difficult for me to carry the sacks and in the first period I nearly broke, but I found an easier way to carry them

We were also asked to unload sacks from trains that arrived after work hours, or at night, for extra pay by tons. The next day we had to work as usual. We had to work under great pressure because the cars carried a very large quantity of goods - a regular car contained 36 tons and a Pullman car 60 tons - and we had to unload the train immediately after it arrived, otherwise, it was necessary to pay fines. The Russians weren't willing to work in such a hard work, and certainly not during the hours of the night.

Despite all this, the accountant, Shevchenko, thought that they were paying us too much and suggested to cut our wages. One evening, a few days after Rosh Hashanah of 1947, Sulcha, the supervisor, came and asked us to unload a number of cars after work hours. I told him that we aren't willing to work, and the accountant can work as a porter in our place to see what this job entails. Sulcha begged us to go to work, but we refused. An hour later he returned and promised that if we work everything would work out. At the end, I agreed and asked him go give us a day off on Yom Kippur in return for our work. Sulcha agreed to my request and we worked all night. And indeed, when Yom Kippur arrived we got our day off. The Gentiles didn't understand why we celebrate a holiday in which we aren't allowed to eat and drink

When we worked as porters, we always made sure to “accidently” rip one of the sacks of flour, rice or grain that we unloaded, so we can fill our pockets with these products. I always wore two pairs of pants,

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one on top of the other: in the upper pair, the pockets were torn. I tied the bottom of the lower pair with a rope, so when I filled my pockets with flour, rice or grain they accumulated inside my pants. When we returned to our quarters I spread a rag on the floor, placed my feet on it, untied the rope that held my pants, and all the food spilled on the rag. I took the sugar directly from the sack into my mouth. I pierced a small hole in the sack with a thin stick, and retrieved the sugar through that hole. At that time we survived on those leftovers

In March 1948, I was invited to come to the NKVD office. The unexpected invitation aroused great fear in me because I had known about a number of cases in which people, who were invited to the NKVD office, disappeared immediately after as if the earth had swallowed them. On the day that I had to report at the office I asked one of my friends, who was ill on that day and didn't go to work, to accompany me, so he could tell what had become of me in case I vanished. When I entered the office an NKVD officer he asked me to show him my papers. He asked me if I sent a letter somewhere. I told him that I sent letters to the Supreme Soviet and the Polish consul. He asked who advised me to write them, and I told him that Nacelnik Trusov from the NKVD advised me to do so. He asked me to leave the room and wait in the hallway

The militia office was on the right side of the corridor, so from time to time I glanced in that direction to see if they were coming to take me. After awhile, the investigator called me to come back to his office, and ordered me to sit. He started to dig inside a big box, searched and dug for a long time, until he finally found a document. Then, he told me that I could go back to Poland. I can't describe in words the feelings of happiness that surged through me at that moment.

At the beginning of July 1948, my friends, Natan Kimhi and Yalon Hertzki, also received permission to leave Russia and travel to Poland and they traveled ahead of us. Two weeks later, Meir Surski and I, also received the official approval to leave Russia. Later, all of us arrived to Israel and we kept in touch through the years

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Map of Russia in which are marked with a circle the various places that I was in: Pechora, Ust-Tsilma, Zheleznodorozhny, Kotlas, Arkhangelsk.


Footnotes

  1. The Northern Dvina River is located in the European part of Northern Russia. It was formed by the junction of the Sukhona and the Yug Rivers in North Central Russia. It flows in a northwesterly direction through plains, swamps and forests, and enters the Dvina inlet of the White Sea 400km from the city of Arkhangelsk. It length from its mouth is 756km. The Northern Dvina's important tributaries include the Sukhona, Vychegda, Vaga, and Pinega rivers. The city of Kotlas sits on its bank and close to its spill is the city of Arkhangelsk, an important timber exporting port. The river's main cargo is timber, which is transferred through the forests by barges. return
  2. Our shoes (which were called “Sorogtni”) were made from the rubber of tires which were separated at high temperature, and closed by a thread that didn't close the shoes properly. return
  3. Once I learned about a shocking act of one of those bad characters: In camp Lagpunkt 19, the person who was responsible for cutting the bread was a noble Jew named Michelsom from the city of Brisk. I knew him because both of us were in the Pechora camp in the years 1940-41. One morning, when the prisoners left for work, one of the prisoners approached him and decapitated him with an ax, only to take a loaf of bread from him. return
  4. Komi is a multinational republic, 70% of the population are Russians, Belarusians and Tatars. The native Komi people constitute only 30% of the population. They belong to the Fenno-Ugric group of nations and have their own language and culture. Most of them live in the Komi Republic, which is under Russian rule since the 14th century. The economy is based on forests and large coal deposits. Most of the sawmills are located in the basins of the Pechora and Yugyd Va forests. In 1941, a railway line, which connected Komi with Central European Russia, was paved. Many prisoners died during the construction of the railway. The agriculture is prevalent in south Komi. In the north, the Komi people engage in raising reindeer and hunting of fur animals. return
  5. At times, the craftsmen worked in their profession in the camp and as a result received preferred conditions. return
  6. Pechora is part of Komi Autonomous Republic. return
  7. I wrote the request in Russian even though I never studied the language in an organized manner. I taught myself to read and write in the camps by attaching letter to letter with a great willpower return

 

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