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Chapter III

Residence in Siberia

The Drucker brothers, Yeshayahu and Aaron, were lost, wet, hungry and exhausted along the Polish-Lithuanian border. Aaron said, “Let's walk to the nearest farm and spend the night.” The smuggler had given up on them and they had no choice. They saw a farm and entered it. The farmer greeted them and gave them food and a place to sleep. They paid him and asked him whether he could help them cross the border. He answered in the affirmative. The farmer then told them that he had to visit a nearby friend and when he returned he would help them cross the border. They waited in the house and the farmer returned with two Soviet soldiers. They told the brothers to follow them to the police station where they were frisked and searched. Everything was spilled on the table. The brothers told the Soviets that their parents were in Vilna and they wanted to join them.[1] They had heard from other people that the Soviets usually let anyone go to Lithuania without a problem. But they were not aware that the order had been changed as of January 1, 1940. The Soviet Union now no longer permitted people to cross to Lithuania. A policeman asked questions and they answered. The brothers were then told to leave the base. They left the place but were stopped by a Soviet officer who told them to follow him. He began a series of questions that had nothing to do with the border crossing. The officer then saw Yeshayahu's Hebrew Bible and was certain that it was a code book. This impression was further strengthened by the fact that the Bible had written notations along the margins. As a student, Yeshayahu had taken notes of the explanations given by his Bible teacher, Dr. Moshe Guliger, and entered them in his Bible, his favorite subject. The Soviet officer refused to accept the explanation and insisted that the written items were codes. Furthermore, he said, “I am also Jewish and I know what the Bible is all about but the writings are codes.”[2] He ordered the brothers detained and sent to a detention prison in the hamlet of Aszmarna along the old Polish-Lithuanian border where the sanitation facilities were beyond description. The place was overcrowded and they were assigned places next to the night pail. Every prisoner who had to relieve himself stepped on them, especially at night in the darkness. The stench was unbearable.

The detention room was locked and they remained there for days on end. Then, the night investigations began. The same questions over and over about the “code book.” There was no physical violence but the dragging from and to the investigation room via narrow corridors was hell itself. Questions, questions and more questions all in Russian while the Druckers spoke Polish. The documents were then signed by each individual without reading the Russian content. During their stay in this prison, they were given the opportunity to write letters to their family. They wrote a postcard to an uncle in Wilno and a postcard to their mother in Krakow. After three months of investigations they were taken to the train station where a special train with barred windows awaited them. The train took them to the city of Slutsk, in White Russia. The prison there was well organized, the cells provided room for three inmates. The food was also reasonable. They were condemned to three years forced labor without ever appearing before a judge. The friendly guards revealed this information to them. They remained in Slutsk for about three months and then were taken to the railway station where they boarded a train consisting only of prisoners. The windows were barred and the doors were locked. The train started to roll and kept rolling eastward. The trip was never- ending and took weeks. They crossed rivers, forests, mountains and valleys and the trip continued. Occasionally, the train was shunted to a nearby station for an army or express train and they then resumed their trip. After weeks of traveling, they finally arrived at some forgotten station where they left the train and boarded large river boats. They navigated the large river for days and were fed black bread, salted fish and drank the water from the river. They then left the river and headed on foot to their desolated camp called Krotoi in the Uktizemlag area of the Archangelsk region, very close to the North Pole.

The transport was escorted into the desolate camp full of barracks and buildings. They were all assigned beds and issued eating utensils. They were given supper and sent to bed. Lights out at ten oclock. Next morning, the transport was lined up and the commandant of the camp read the rules pertaining to the behaviour in the camp. He spoke in Russian which the Drucker brothers did not understand. Then the men were organized into labor brigades and marched off into the forest. They walked several kilometers until they reached a clearing site. Here they were explained their job, namely they all became lumberjacks. They were given primitive tools and assigned sections of the forest where the trees had to be cut. Then the tress had to be cleared of branches and cut to specific dimensions. The logs were then stockpiled.[3] This required a great deal of strength and experience which the prisoners lacked. These logs were piled on top of each other and formed sizable triangles of logs. In the spring, the poles that held the triangles in place were removed and the logs rolled down the banks to the river. They floated downstream to a factory that converted them to wood products. Frequently, the logs jammed each other and prevented movement. The prisoners were given poles and were forced to ride the logs to unravel the jams. Lacking experience, many prisoners fell into the water and had to be rescued by their team mates. Many accidents and injuries resulted from the lack of experience and primitive tools.. Many prisoners like the Drucker brothers were city folks who never did such hard work and for so many hours per day. The tasks assigned to each labor group were beyond their ability to finish during the day. They soon devised ways of cheating the daily ratio by shifting logs from previous days to the present day. Obviously, no one did daily inventories in bitter Siberian cold, or better yet, accounting was sloppy, carried out by people who could not care or did not know any better. Nobody really cared as long as everybody went through the motions of working. Everybody was looking for food, clothing, or for other needs that one had to get through a barter system.. Money was useless since no one could purchase things for there were no stores. The camp inmates or enemies of the Soviet Union as they were called were bartering slowly the things that they brought with them for food. The supervisors, all former prisoners but restricted to the camp did not particularly take an interest in their work. They were primarily interested in acquiring food and spirit. Drinking hard liquor was their favorite past time.

Conditions in the camp were terrible, lack of food, lack of medicine and harsh weather caused many prisoners to be sick The physical work drained the prisoners, who had to drag themselves kilometers to the work place and back. They received 600 grams of bread and soup barely sufficient for such physical labor. Many prisoners exhausted themselves became sick and died. The medical facilities were practically non-existent and the mortality rate amongst the prisoners was high. Sunday was the day of rest when the prisoners had to tend to their needs. Some prisoners worked their former skills namely barbers, tailors or shoemakers and earned a few rubles that enabled them to buy extra bread to keep going. Of course, there was a black market in the camp where prisoners and frequently officials bought and sold items that they needed. The camp was transformed into a trading post that seemed to engulf the entire country.

The camp officials stole everything they could lay their hands on and sell it. Of course, food was the hottest item. Every so often, the camp police raided places and arrested people and their merchandise. But the black market continued since the camp store or canteen had nothing to offer but pictures of Stalin and Lenin or books of Marx and Engels. These books were used primarily by ripping pages and using the paper to roll cigarettes. Some officials lived off the camp in a special section of the camp where the oppressive atmosphere was a bit freer. But they were not permitted to leave the camp area. They lived in small, poor and desolate places. Completely isolated from contact with Russia except for the official government messengers that the regional offices sent. These officials were were also watched and observed by the secret police who were everywhere and instilled fear in everybody, even in these remote areas. Of course the camp population knew that there were worse camps where one can be sent for violating camp rules and a number of people disappeared without leaving a trace. Indeed the camp population felt their situation was hopeless.[4]

The prisoners were constantly watched even in these remote areas where they could disappear into the Siberian air. There were forests everywhere but no chairs or tables or furniture in the barracks. Everything was done in accordance with the five-year plans devised in Moscow. These plans did not always consider the needs of particular places, such as chairs for the camps. The heating in the barracks was provided by the burning of wood. The summers were hot and literally millions of mosquitoes were busy attacking every inch of exposed skin. The lumberjacks had to cover themselves from head to toe. In the winters the temperatures reached -50°C. On such occasion all work stopped and they remained in the camp. The hot summer and the bitter winter cold made life very difficult. The production was very limited since most of these workers were under fed and exhausted. They lacked basic tools. The Druckers brothers managed to stay together. That made life easier to endure. As mentioned earlier, Aaron Drucker was mechanically very handy. His skills were soon noticed by the officials as he would fix machinery that broke down. The maintenance of machines and tools was very sloppy in the camps and they constantly broke down. He began to repair and was successful. Word soon spread about him. As he moved about the various labor groups he came in contact with many Russian Jewish prisoners who were sent to the camps for various charges. They had families back home who sent them packages of food or clothing. Some of the stuff they sold and bought other items. They also needed the services of Aaron Drucker to repair items that they needed. They could go through channels and wait for months to repair an item or fix it within a few days. The charge was paid in bread, jam, sugar, dry fruits. The economic situation of the brothers greatly improved as did their food supply. The partnership soon came to an end.

One day, a Russian Jewish prisoner from another section of the vast camp came and took Aaaron to his place of work. The man turned out to be a mining geologist. They left Drucker's camp and entered another sub camp. This place lodged technical people that worked at the oil fields. They also searched for new oil wells. The camp had a great deal of tools, even sensitive tools that were scattered and in dire need of repair. The engineer gave him some items to repair. Aaron managed to repair some of the items and restored them to working condition. The engineer was pleased and informed him that he would be transferred immediately to this new sub camp. A policeman escorted Aaron to his old camp where he assembled his few belongings and left the lumber jack camp. He could not say good bye to his brother who was chopping trees in forest.

Aaron was assigned to a nice room with a bed. The food was much better than in the old camp. The secret police was still everywhere but living conditions were much better The fact that his work was basically inside buildings already improved his welfare. Aaron was pleased with the assignment and met his brother whenever he could and brought him food or other necessities. The separation between the camps was strict and they had to get permission to enter each others place of residence.

The camp was huge and contained other sections, namely drilling sections for gas. These workers were better fed and received better housing. Many of the workers were Russians and included many Russian Jews. They were familiar with the Soviet system and also received food packages from home. The entire camp was watched and observed by the secret police who were everywhere and instilled fear in everybody even in these remote areas. The officials were merely interested that everybody should look busy, as long as everybody went through the motions of working, the guards were pleased. In reality everybody was looking for food or for clothing or for other needs that one had to get through a system of barter or exchange of goods. Money was useless since no one could purchase things, for there were no stores.

Yeshayahu continued to chop trees and clean them before shipping. The logs were cut and placed on movable platforms that tractors dragged to the edge of cliffs.The safety retainers were removed and the logs rolled down to the river. Yeshayahu decided to hop a ride one of the platforms. Apparently he fell asleep and fell off the moving cart. The next cart rolled over his shoulder. The tractor driver continued to drive. Nobody was there to help and he could not move. He was on the ground helpless when a huge dog towered over him. The dog did not bite but kept barking. Finally a policeman appeared and helped him get up. He could not walk so the policeman helped him and jokingly asked him, “Where did you want to run.” They reached the infirmary and the doctor told Yeshayahu to go back to work, adding, “I know an artist when I see one.” Yeshayahu managed to reach his brother and explained the situation. Aaron contacted some officials and received permission for Yeshayahu to enter the technical camp. He also managed to contact the head doctor of the camp who happened to be Jewish. A new doctor was assigned to the case and he gave Yeshayahu a note stating that he had a clavicle fracture and must rest for three weeks. The rest period was extended and Yeshayahu was removed from the lumber jack camp to a section where a variety of workers lived. People that did not work as lumber jacks could not stay in this camp. Yeshayahu managed to register for boiler maintenance course with the help of his brother. The technical camp had extensive drilling fields where the search for new oil wells was constant and crews needed all kinds of equipment, including boilers to keep the water pressure steady.[5] Yeshayahu began to work at this new job and was pleased; at last he was finished with lumberjacking.

Yeshayahu worked with the boilers for several months and then he was transferred to a blacksmith. The blacksmith was a Russian German who did not like particularly Yeshayahu because he made serious mistakes in hammering the hot metals. The two did not get along. The blacksmith had been sentenced to 20 years hard labor but his term was always extended under one pretext or another. Finally, the blacksmith returned Yeshayahu to the pool of workers at the camp. Yeshayahu worked at many jobs but never returned to the forest.

 

June 21, 1941 Germany attacked Russia

On this day in 1941, over 3 million German troops invaded Russia in three parallel offensives, in what was the most powerful invasion force in history. Nineteen panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces poured across a thousand-mile front as Hitler went to war on a second front. Despite the fact that Germany and Russia had signed a “pact” in 1939, each guaranteeing the other a specific region of influence without interference from the other, suspicion remained high. The German forces advanced very rapidly in Russia. The German tanks were unstoppable. Russian cities fell one after the other. Russian armies disappeared or were chopped up into pieces at an alarming rate. Russian prisoners of war were marched by the thousands to Poland.

Now everything was in short supply in Russia and especially in the camps. Everything was needed for the army. Still the German armies advanced rapidly through Russia to the gates of Moscow where the harsh winter, the excellent defense system and the exhausted German armies came to a standstill. The Soviet government abandoned all slogans and reverted to the national Russian slogan ”defend Mother Russia”. Even in the distant camps of Siberia, films were shown describing the brutality of the German behavior towards the civilian Russian population. Newspapers like Pravda began to appear in the camp. The Druckers understood the spoken Russian language since it is similar in pronunciation to Polish but the written Russian language was written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The government tried to enlist the entire population in the war effort even the enemies of the state. The general

 

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German tanks attack Russia

 

feeling eased a bit and people began to make an effort to help the country in the war effort.

Then the Russian papers carried the news that Russia and Poland signed an agreement. The Sikorski–Mayski Agreement was a treaty between the Soviet Union and Poland, signed in London on 30 July 1941. The signatories were the Polish Prime Minister W³adys³aw Sikorski and Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom Ivan Mayski.

 

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Polish prime minister Wladyslaw Sikorski

 

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Ivan Mayski, Soviet ambassador to Britain

 

With the advancing German armies across Russia, the latter needed all the help it could get in the war. The British urged Russia to renew relations with Poland. The same pressure was applied to the Polish government in exile in London. The Poles resented Russia for its invasion of Poland in September ,1939 when it was being attacked by Germany. Sikorski decided to overlook the treacherous deed and talk to the Russians. His aim was to reestablish contact with the Poles in Russia. It is estimated that approximately 2 million Polish citizens including 250,000 soldiers were in Russia. The talks also resulted in a military alliance that was signed in Moscow on August 14,1941. Later that year, Sikorski went to Moscow with a diplomatic mission (including the future Polish ambassador to Moscow, Stanis³aw Kot, and chief of the Polish Military Mission in the Soviet Union, General Zygmunt Szyszko-Bohusz). The military agreement called for the formation of a Polish army in the Soviet Union under the leadership of General Wladyslaw Anders who was in a Russian prison. All Polish citizens were granted freedom. Stalin permitted the recruitment of the Polish army in the Soviet Union and granted it freedom of organization and action. All camps received orders to release Polish citizens for army duty in the Polish army.

 

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General Wladyslaw Anders

 

Yeshayahu and Aaron discussed the news regarding the creation of a Polish army. They wondered whether to join this army if given the opportunity. They wanted to go home and saw the army as a way out of the Russian prison. They feared that they may have to stay in Russia forever. They saw about them people who had been condemned for a few years and when the prisom term was about to end, the term was extended for one reason or another as was the case with the blacksmith. They saw an opportunity to leave the prison camp and head back home with a rifle in their hand. Of course, they had no knowledge of what was happening in Poland. They gathered that the situation was bad according to the Russian propaganda films that were shown in the prison camp. Since they arrived in the camp they had no contact with their family in Poland. They assumed that the Russian films exaggerated the bad situation, especially for Jews. Both brothers decided to join the Polish army.

They did not wait too long, when an announcement was made that all Polish prisoners were to report to an assembly yard. They were lined up and proceeded to a medical office where they were examined for army duty. Those that passed the test were ordered to go to their barrack and pack their belongings and return to the assembly yard. Yeshayahu and Aaron passed the test and joined all other Polish draftees in the yard. They were then led to a special section of the camp and assigned to barracks. They were ordered to rest, no work details and to eat. They were given plenty of food. They rested and enjoyed their leisure, awaiting orders. Both brothers were hopeful that they would return to Poland and see some of their families. Most Jews had heard rumors that the Germans mistreated the Jews but the extent of the destruction was not known. Yeshayahu began to visualize his return to Krakow. Orders arrived and the Polish group was taken to the railroad station and off they went to the Polish military base.


Footnotes

  1. Drucker, Testimony, p.16 Return
  2. Ibid., p.16 Return
  3. Related by Jacob Leibner Return
  4. Ibid Return
  5. Drucker, Testimony, p. 22 Return

 

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