- Contributed by
- Margaret Krupa
- People in story:
- Marian Jan Krupa
- Location of story:
- Pechors USSR
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 November 2004
The camp was located in this vast forest of small trees far from any civilization. At least the accommodation had already been built. Many of the prisoners in labour camps started with no shelter other than tents. Part of their job was to clear the site, cut the logs and erect the fences and buildings. Pechora district was in the far north of the Russian continent and stretched as far as the Arctic Circle. The main industries in this almost uninhabited region were coal mining, tree felling and oil drilling. No ordinary workers could be persuaded to voluntarily take on the jobs in this harsh and inhospitable part of the state. Russia needed the commodities and so the Labour Camps were set up, manned by the thousands of prisoners who were recruited occasionally via the courts and more often summarily as we had been, and whose offences were both real and imaginary.
This camp and the others through which we had passed reminded me of a red indian stockade. The perimeter fence was made of close fitting rough wooden stakes at least 3 metres high. At each of the four corners was a small hut like structure on long stilts where the armed guards oversaw the camp and from where high-powered searchlights beamed during the hours of darkness. Cleared ground on the outside of this fence totally surrounded the camp and this was patrolled twenty-four hours a day by guards and their dogs. There was an entrance gate suitable for allowing large contingents of men and lorries to enter or leave. There was also a small door, which was used by the guards when they were coming on or going off duty. Just inside the gate was the guardhouse through which everyone had to pass when entering or leaving the camp.
Inside the camp was a smaller perimeter fence, about half a metre in height and about 1 metre away from the main fence. The area between these two fences was no mans land and you risked being shot without warning if you dared to set foot on it. In the centre of the camp was a two-storey building, which contained the administration block. This was also topped off with a powerful searchlight. Other buildings of various sizes were the sleeping quarters. All the accommodation huts were constructed of logs with several glazed windows and one door. The inside of the sleeping quarters varied slightly according to size. The larger ones had what can only be described as a long wooden shelf down each side raised up from the floor, which served as the beds. Smaller shacks had individual bed shelves. Heating was by either one or two wood burning stoves and there were electric lights. Each cabin had a small vestibule containing a wooden tub of drinking water and each man had a wooden bowl and wooden spoon. There was no bedding of any kind and prisoners had to rely on their clothes for warmth.
The first day in our new home we were allocated our prisoners clothes, which were supposed to be suitable for the climate. We were really pleased to get these clothes as it was getting extremely cold. Russian caps made of two layers of cotton with padding inside and with ear flaps which could be either pulled down over the ears or fastened on top of the hat; Jackets and trousers made out of the same type of material and padding which were easily torn and so invariably patched and darned; Roughly shaped pigskin mittens; Rectangles of flannelette about 2 ft long whose use puzzled us until we found out that they were for wrapping round the feet as a substitute for socks. Footwear comprised of compressed felt roughly shaped like a wellington boot and suitable for all sizes and shapes of feet. These were passable in dry weather but useless in wet. For the wet weather the issue was what can only be described as primitive galoshes, also of only one size for all, obviously fabricated out of old lorry tyres with the tread removed. They were either stitched or riveted into shape. This was our total kit. We were allowed to keep our own clothes and these came in very useful as extra warmth under the kit and as bedding during the cold nights.
When we donned our prison clothes everyone looked the same. The only thing that differentiated our uniforms from the guards was the colour. Ours were blue that soon faded to grey and the guards wore khaki green. Those guards on guard duty in the open-air sported long loose fur coats drawn together in the middle sometimes with a belt but more often with string. The triangular hammer and sickle insignia was prominently displayed on their caps. They also carried rifles.
This was the first time we Poles had been exposed to Russian prisoners. Some of them were murderers, some were political prisoners and it was essential for us to watch our step as the violent Russians tried to hold the upper hand and it could be suicidal to enter into an argument with them. They also, because they were long-term prisoners, tried to keep in well with the guards by offering goods, which they had stolen from other inmates. Luckily for us these Russian prisoners were in the minority in this camp.
Besides the Russians there were also some Finns working there and four or five Russian women who worked in the laboratory. The women were housed in a separate zone, which was fenced off from the rest of the camp. The Poles decided among themselves that these women were out of bounds as they probably had V.D. Not that there was much danger of us testing this theory out in our state of mind and body. It wasn't long before the women were removed from the camp and their accommodation opened up and allocated to relieve some of the worst overcrowded barracks.
I soon found out what work was carried out in this camp - quarrying, timber felling and some kind of manufacturing process. Other jobs available in the camp were engineer, joiner, plumber, blacksmith, transport, electrician. We were taken to the admin block and questioned on our capabilities. I said I knew something about engineering and was sent to another part of the block to be interviewed by the Chief Engineer. I did know some aspects of engineering from my short apprenticeship as a draughtsman and what I didn't know I bluffed. I had very quickly figured out that this would be one of the less physical occupations and would be an inside job more often than not. With my slight build and weakened condition caused by my recent incarceration I knew that I could not last very long quarrying or timber felling. In these jobs prisoners had to attain a norm (a measured amount of work) which was more often than not set very high. The food received was calculated by your norm. The less you did the less food you got. The less food you got, the less work you could do - a vicious circle that could only end in sickness and eventually death. I was lucky. I was recommended as a plumber - whether this was because of my knowledge or because of my youth I do not know. All I do know was that I found the swarthy, dark-skinned Russian Chief Engineer (Murzyn) a very fair man.
The boss of the plumbing and heating section, a stocky Russian named Grysza, then interviewed me. Here again I was lucky, as I was selected for the job. There were eight of us - the boss, three assistants, 2 boiler men and their assistants. We were now allocated to our 'permanent' huts.
The elite job of the camp was lorry driving because you were allowed to travel long distances and opportunities were there for black marketing. The drivers could sell anything to Russians, especially if it came from the west, and get in exchange other commodities (mainly food and tobacco) that could then be bartered amongst the prisoners for yet further goods to sell on the outside. The Russian convicts who tended to be well in with the Russian guards who no doubt got their cut from the illegal trafficking mainly held these driving jobs.
Each hut housed prisoners from the same work type. We were not confined to our own huts and could visit other huts within the confines of the camp. As the majority of prisoners in the camp were Poles we visited each other regularly in our spare time and often talked of home and mutual acquaintances. We avoided as far as possible the Russian criminals (many of whom were in the transport hut) as they were often violent and would rob you as soon as look at you. In the Engineering Hut half were Russian and half were Polish and each nationality slept alongside their own compatriots at opposite ends of the building.
There was a library of sorts in the Admin building but none of us could spare the mental effort required to read. Everyone conserved as much energy as possible and it was rare to see anyone rushing about. It was as much as we could do to shuffle along to another hut to talk to friends.
Karol, who I had first met when we were loading potatoes in Kiev, was given the job as electrician in the Engineering Section. He knew as much about electricity as I did about plumbing. He had been a student at Lvov Cadet Training Academy and had come from a military family. His father had, unfortunately, committed suicide as a result of some scandal. Karol was about the same age as me, and we shared some of the same interests. He was a confirmed military man and I was set on being a pilot. Discipline had been his whole life and he thrived on it. It was fairly natural that we became close friends sharing the same double bunk in the hut, and sharing our tobacco. He even at one time shared his scabies with me. I discovered that he had been to stay in Krakow at some time with a fellow student. That fellow student was the son of the deaf woman I had rescued from the well. I may even have met him before without realising it.
One Polish Jew was determined to get a job lorry driving which was monopolised by Russian hard criminals. He ingratiated himself by working as an assistant to the drivers hoping they would recommend the Chief Engineer to take him on as a driver. As an assistant he lodged in the drivers hut. However, the Russians must have been aware that the Jewish man had something of value. No doubt he had boasted about it so that he would be accepted. One night we were awoken by shouting and screaming of "murder" and the Pole ran out of the hut shouting that he was being murdered. It transpired that during the night the Russian drivers had crept up on him while he was asleep, thrown his own coat over him, bundled it round him very tight and robbed him of his treasure. His 'valuables' were his gold teeth, which had been extracted at some time and were hidden in his coat lining. Eventually the guards came to investigate and of course all the Russians were feigning sleep. When questioned, one said he vaguely remembered seeing someone sneak into the hut and approach the boy's bed, but he had taken no notice as he thought it must be one of his friends. The guards could not disprove this and so that matter was dropped. The Russian drivers had what they wanted. The Pole lost not only his 'treasure' but also his chance of a driving job, as he dared not re-enter the transport hut. He had accused the drivers of robbing him and his safety amongst them was highly questionable. His own greed had made him incautious and his loose tongue had cost him his valuables. It was a lesson to us all. Do not trust a Russian in a labour camp. Keep a close watch on any possessions - nothing was too small, too ragged or too insignificant to be coveted. It was far safer to stick together with your own kind.
Homosexuality did not exist among the Poles as far as I am aware - we were too under-nourished. I recall one of the Odessa Prison Guards telling us when they knew we were going to Concentration Camps
"You will probably live - but you'll never want to shag again".
There was some homosexuality among the Russians although they had to be careful and only practise with consent as this was a punishable offence and the guards would come down heavy on anyone caught. We avoided being alone with a Russian as far as possible. There was strength in sticking together. As the Russians were in the minority in this camp they tended to leave us be and not act as bullyboys as they did in other camps.
Hot water was only for drinking. It was much too precious to waste on washing. Cleansing of hands and face was carried out outside the barracks with cold water. But it was possible to warm it by taking a mouthful, holding it there for a few moments and then spitting it out on to your soaped hands. The soap issued was a brown jelly-like substance, which lathered up with the warmed water. Extra foot wrappings, fairly easily obtained from the stores, could be used as towels. Our bodies may have been reasonably clean but our clothes were never washed. Vessels for carrying the water were fashioned out of old tin cans, which had contained cooking substances and had been discarded. It is surprising what could be made in the Engineering shop from old tin cans - knives, dishes, boxes etc. These could be sold or bartered for other commodities around the camp. The timber workers would, for a knife or a dish, exchange mushrooms, which they had gathered in the forest. Food, any food, however nourishing was the most precious commodity and obtaining more of it was our main obsession. Any reasonably intelligent person had to be aware that with the starvation rations issued none of us would survive. The mushrooms collected by the timber men helped to fill a corner of our bellies and when mixed in hot water made passable soup. The timber workers would use the knives to carve objects out of wood. The objects could then be exchanged for other goods (ultimately some kind of food).
The guards sounded reveille (a piece of suspended rail being struck by a rod) at daybreak. We would get up and go to the cookhouse for hot water to drink and if we had saved any bread from the previous day this would be our breakfast. The timber, quarry and factory workers would then muster on the large open space in front of the admin block and any daily orders would be given. Every day the guards would warn that anyone stepping out of line would be shot.
"Two steps right or two steps left you will shot without further warning".
There was no doubt that this threat would be carried out.
The workshop people went about their daily duties without any guard. We had to pass through the guardroom when leaving or entering the camp and normally used the small door instead of the large gates. We were not under as strict a surveillance as the outside gangs but there was no chance of escape. There was nowhere to escape to. We would soon be missed. We had no papers. One couldn't travel very far in Russia without official identity documents.
The camp and work sites were in a clearing with a small river which had deep sloping banks running through it. This small river ran into a larger river, which flowed at right angles to it. On the same side as the enclosed camp, and near to it, were the guards’ quarters, the stables, the joiners shop, the laundry and stores, and further away on the banks of the main river was the factory. A road from the camp took you over a bridge on the small river and on this side were sited the electricity station, engineering shop, lorry garage and repairs shop, blacksmith, fuel stores, and near the main river were the boiler house, the plumbing workshop and a small factory. Between the boiler house and the factory the steam pipes had to cross the small river that had steep sloping banks. The joiners made a wooden box like structure held up by wooden supports spanning the U shaped valley. The plumbers then had to install the pipes in this wooden box, and insulate them with wood shavings. The joiners then put a lid on the box. This was quite a substantial structure, as it had to bear the weight of the steam pipes and also the maintenance men.
The water for the factory and for the boilers was pumped from the main river and steam and water were essential for the factory to function. The fuel for the boilers was wood, which was brought from the timber site by horse and cart. The boilers had to be kept up to pressure at all times and often in winter with the temperatures sometimes down to - 45oF this became a losing battle.
The factory took in crushed stones from the quarry and loaded them into large wooden tanks about 1 metre high and 4 Metres Square. The tanks were then filled with cold water by a hosepipe the water being pumped from the river. This water was heated to a specific temperature, which was somewhat below boiling point, by a different hosepipe bearing steam. When this temperature was reached, the stirring commenced. With stout wooden poles the workers would agitate the stones until they were thoroughly mixed with the hot water. The mixture was then left to settle. As there were 3 of these tanks the men would then start the process again in the next tank. There was no time for slacking as the 'norm' had to be met. When the mixture had settled, floating on top would be a thick black substance, which was then scooped off with a tool consisting of a wooden frame with hessian stretched across it. This black oily substance was loaded into trays and taken to the drying room beneath the factory and it ended up as a fine black powder. This was put into barrels and taken away by the lorries. The 'norm' was a specific number of barrels filled. The remaining sludge was drained out of the tank into waiting hand wagons and emptied at the side of the factory in a gully.
Everyone's food ration depended on them fulfilling their 'norm'. If you did as much work as your 'norm' then you got 500 gm of bread and some watery soup. If you did more work than your norm then you got more bread, but if you did not reach your norm then you got less bread. Men would congregate near the cookhouse area and there would be a mad scramble when the rubbish was thrown out. Any rotting scraps or potato parings were immediately snatched up and either eaten immediately or taken away to make soup by combining them with hot water. Vultures tearing at a rotting corpse could not have been more diligent or thorough than the cookhouse scavengers. Survival of the fittest meant survival of the better fed.
My allocated job was to help maintain the boiler and pipe system. There was no 'norm' for us, as we had to do what was necessary. There was no way at that time to quantify maintenance work. This did not mean that our work was any the easier. There were times when it worked to our advantage but there were also times when we were extremely disadvantaged. We had to cut and thread steel pipes, install new systems; check constantly for leaks and either tighten joints or lay new pipes. We worked from dawn until dusk 6 days a week. There were two boilers, one smaller than the other, and in winter both had to be utilised to keep up the pressure. All the equipment used, was second hand and often had to be adapted. Everything was makeshift but it had to work as efficiently as possible in order to keep the factory running. In winter (which was at least six months of the year here) it was difficult to keep everything up and running and the work was hard and demanding. It was as much as our bodies would allow us to do to eat our meagre rations and put ourselves to bed after our days work. Socialising was left to rest days.
We were paid a few roubles once a month and with these we could buy whatever the 'shop' on the camp had for sale - extra bread, tobacco, a kind of tea substitute made from dried apple and pear cores and eau de cologne. The Poles never managed to buy the eau de cologne as somehow the Russians always knew when it was coming in and grabbed the lot. You may be wondering why in an all-male prison camp men should want this commodity. It was not for its scent. It was for its alcohol. They drank it. It didn't make them drunk. It made them wild. They would start fighting and shouting and chasing each other around and would eventually end up in the cooler. I never had the opportunity to taste this liquid so I cannot say why it had this effect on people, but certainly it was much sought after.
We were vaguely aware of what was happening in the war. It was depressing. The Germans seemed to be advancing far into Russian territory. The war was going the German's way. We heard no cheerful news at all.
Over the long autumn and winter I was quickly improving my understanding of the Russian language. Grysza was my immediate boss in the plumbing section and gave me my orders. He was a Muscovite who was serving 20 years (possibly for murder), and talking to him taught me many new words - especially swear words. He was very interested in the west and would not believe that in Poland we had electricity and did not split matches into four as the Russian propaganda informed him. He was a bombastic man, short-tempered and threatening. He upset me for a while with his,
".... your mother, .... your father,"
until I realised that this was his way of swearing and not to be taken literally. The only way to stand up to him was to talk to him in the same vein. I quickly learned to swear just as vehemently as he did.
One of the boiler men hailed from Bessarabia which was annexed to Russia voluntarily before the hostilities and has now disappeared. He had been a high-ranking officer in the Russian Tank Regiment. He told me of his part in parachuting tanks from aircraft, which I found hard to believe, but had no reason to doubt. He was a staunch communist and he was also serving 20 years for treason.
The Chief Engineer, Murzyn, was a tolerant man. He had been a high ranking air force officer and his sentence and crime was unknown to me. I respected him.
One of the plumbers with whom I worked had no fingers on one of his hands. I felt that he was always on my side when Grysza started cursing and shouting at me. It was he who had told me to take no heed and advised me to shout back in similar vein. As we became friendlier I asked him how he came to lose his fingers.
"I was sent in the early 30's to work on the Moscow Canal. It is true what they say. This canal was built on the bones of the locked up. The atrocities those guards inflicted on their prisoners. If you were too ill to work they would put you to the tree stump. You had to strip naked and stand on this tree stump. The land was very marshy round there and the mosquitoes would bite you mercilessly. If you fell off the stump they shot you. If you didn't you probably died of malaria. It was a no win situation. Working on the canal was deadly - not many survived it. Whenever workers died or were invalided out other prisoners replaced them. Human life is an expendable commodity. The 'norms' were impossible and so were the mosquitoes. The only way to escape death was to injure yourself so severely as to be invalided out. True you were punished for injuring yourself - I got 8 years for chopping these fingers off - but you were sent to other labour camps or exiled to collective farms where your chances of living were much greater. If I had stayed on the Moscow canal I would have been dead."
I could hardly believe his story. What was more difficult to believe was that he was still a staunch communist. Shortly afterwards his story was confirmed by another prisoner with similar experiences. A guard had beaten him so severely with a rifle butt that his face and jaw had been smashed up. Because of his injuries he had also escaped from the Moscow canal.
I found that the Russian prisoners would talk honestly to me when there were no other Russians there. Whenever there were two or more Russians they would be very cagey - they would never utter any criticism of the regime. Informers were everywhere. No one could be trusted. It was impossible to tell who was in the pocket of the state.
The Russian guards did not fraternise with the prisoners. They also trod a precarious path. Any suspicion against any of them and they would have ended up on the other side of the fence. It was the in-joke at the time that in Russia there were two classes of people, the guards and the prisoners. Every so often they just changed places.
One day an electric welder arrived in my workshop. It was a monstrous thing and as there was insufficient room for it in the Engineering shop it was placed in the only place where there was room - the Plumbing shop. The Chief Engineer had acquired it to try and speed up some of the engineering processes. A petrol generator powered it. Like most things that arrived in the workshops it was old and it didn't work, but a plumbing assistant who came from Silesia spent as much time as possible overhauling it. Any spare time I had was utilised in helping him. Any parts that were required were fashioned out of any scrap available on the lathes and milling machines in the engineering shop. Eventually, after much trial and error, we finished it. There was one further difficulty that had to be overcome before we could try it out. The generator ran on paraffin that we had, but would only start with petrol that we hadn't. Petrol was scarce and we were not allowed any. But we desperately wanted to test it out and the Engineers wanted to use their new toy.
Ever resourceful the two of us went to the fuel store on the pretext of collecting paraffin. As this was a regular occurrence the store man who kept watch on what we were doing directed us to the paraffin tank. The petrol tank was next to the one containing paraffin. One of us started chatting to him while the other collected the fuel. While the store man was distracted the bucket was quickly transferred to the petrol tank for a short while then returned to paraffin to finish filling the container. The store man being so absorbed in the conversation was unaware of the switch. We then hurriedly left the store carrying the fuel in the large bucket very carefully across the clearing to the Plumbing shop. The full bucket was very heavy and we had to carry it between us on a stout pole. The bucket was then left until the contents settled. The petrol being lighter than paraffin rose to the top and we carefully skimmed it off and stored it in cans for future use. This was an example of the Russian mentality. Equipment would be sent that was either broken or of no use. If by chance something arrived in working order its use was frustrated by petty officialdom. Subterfuge was the only way round many of our problems.
By the way, the generator and welder did work - noisily.
Our work was not confined to that which was necessary for our camp. Rig boring tips would arrive in the workshop. These were cylindrical pipes with tungsten carbide teeth, which had worn down. Our job was to replace the tungsten carbide and to manufacture new parts when required. There was obviously some geological drilling going on in the vicinity.
There were my compatriots who did not survive the camp. Gusek who came from Krakow and worked in the Engineering shop died of pneumonia. Adam, a cheerful soul, who also came from Krakow and with whom I had many stimulating conversations started eating more and more salt with his food. We remonstrated with him and reminded him that he was digging his own grave but to no avail. He swelled up bit by bit like a balloon and there was very little we could do other than to watch him die. He was an educated and intelligent man and had been either a student or a professor at Krakow University and well understood what he was doing. His death had been self-inflicted when he had got to the stage where he couldn't take it any longer. His death upset me very much. What a waste of a life that could have achieved so much. This system has a lot to answer for come the day of judgement. I wondered if I would yet plummet to those depths of despair. He had been put to work in the quarries.
Another boy who was a Polish Jew also committed suicide. One day when being marched out to work he took the fated two steps to one side and began shouting obscenities at the guards. He was shot. This caused quite a stir in the camp and the guard who had carried out the shooting was quickly transferred to another camp for fear of reprisals. To give the Russians their due they would have done the same to one of their own compatriots in the circumstances. All prisoners were alike to them and no bias was shown.
Round about October and November the snow started to fall. It continued regularly falling and freezing. There was no attempt to clear any away - we just trampled it down as we walked along our roads to and from work. Eventually we would be walking on about 2 feet of compressed snow and where it had not been trampled it was waist high. It got colder. The river froze over. The pipe supplying water to the pump had to lie on the riverbed just to keep the supply going. The stoves in the barracks were inadequate. The centre of the room was warm up to a radius of about 2 metres but the rest was icy cold. The inside walls of the hut were covered in frost and it was impossible to keep warm. Everyone returning from work had to bring two logs to fuel the stove and even this was not always sufficient. Most huts kept an axe, which was illegal, but there was no other way of splitting the logs small enough to fit the stove. Every so often when the huts were searched and these axes, which the administration said could be used as weapons, would be confiscated but within twenty-four hours there would again be an axe in every hut. Necessity is the father of subterfuge.
A twenty four-hour watch had to be kept on the steam pipes to try to prevent them freezing up. The boilers couldn't cope and the stokers couldn't feed enough logs into the boilers. It was a constant battle against the elements. The plumbers and stokers were working round the clock and still not maintaining even the status quo. I was really beginning to feel the strain, but I was determined not to let the bastards get me down.
The coldness and the debilitating effort needed took its toll. Just before Christmas, one of the boiler men’s assistants fell ill and I had to take his place. There were two shifts - a day shift and a night shift. I was on the night shift. The work was hard. The wood was used in relation to its dryness to control the boiler's pressure. Dry wood to increase the pressure, wet wood to dampen it down. The logs were brought in by the timber men and stacked up outside the boiler house. These were the full diameter of tree trunks and were too big to feed into the boilers. They had to be split down to a manageable size. We used a very heavy axe to chop up the logs and every stroke sent shock waves through your body. The pieces then had to be loaded on wagonettes 2 metres high, wheeled into the boiler house and unloaded where they were stacked for use. In the freezing cold winter it was difficult to keep up with the boilers. The wood was being used in such quantities there wasn't sufficient dry enough to raise the pressure. We couldn't keep it long enough in the boiler house to dry out. The odds were stacked against us with a vengeance.
As Christmas got nearer and nearer, the Poles started organising a small celebration. We intended to sing carols round the stove and hopefully forget our troubles for a short while. This would be the first Christmas I had not shared with my family and more and more I began remembering all the happy family gatherings. What was happening in Krakow now? Was my family all right? Would they still be celebrating under German Occupation? I felt sure they would. Were they wondering where I was? I was glad that they did not know and couldn't see me in this poor bedraggled state of utter exhaustion.
When Christmas Eve came I had to work as the boiler stoker on the night shift. It was just my luck that I was stuck out here when my fellow Poles were having their meagre celebration. I was determined, however, not to forget Christmas altogether however hard I had to work and however little respite from feeding the insatiable open mouth of the big boiler. As I was chopping the logs outside I was looking for the First Star. The night was extremely cold and even my winter prison clothes could not keep out the bitter cold which penetrated to the marrow. Even the effort needed to swing the axe repeatedly on to the unresponsive wood was insufficient to quell the violent shivers, which racked my body from time to time. I swung my arms out and then in across my body and stamped my feet in an effort to increase the blood circulation. But all to no avail. It needed the constitution of an ox and the superhuman effort of an Atlas to survive this Godforsaken place. I chopped logs, I looked for the star, I wheeled wagonettes into the boiler house. I chopped. I looked. I Wheeled. I felt very lonely, very sentimental, very frightened and extremely low. I thought of my parents looking for the star - the same star I was seeking. Were they looking for it and thinking of me? I felt sure that they would be. My mother would be praying for my safe return. Why are you not answering a mother's prayer? A deep despair began to take hold of me. I couldn't shake it off. Tears pricked my eyes. I sniffed them back. Again they welled up and this time I was unable to control the sobs, which caught the back of my throat. I gave in. I sobbed uncontrollably. Something snapped. I shrieked out at God through my heaving breast and called Him to account for sending me to this inhospitable place and landing me in my present predicament. I became more and more hysterical, screaming and shouting at God and hurling lumps of wood in the air at Him. I accused, I blamed, I reproached, I pleaded, I shook my fist at Him. I challenged His very existence. I must have seemed such a pathetic figure trying to hit God with my logs with tears freezing on my cheeks.
Eventually the boiler man heard my shouts and came out to see what all the noise was. Who was I shouting at? What was happening? Have you gone mad? This brought me to my senses. I composed myself. He was a Russian and Christmas meant nothing to him. He would definitely not understand. I made the excuse that I had dropped a log on my foot and he appeared to believe it. Nevertheless, that night I sank to the lowest despair of my life. I could see no way out. Moreover, I didn't even see the First Star.
There were many times during the winter when it became impossible to keep the boilers going but it was imperative that the pipes did not freeze. If the overflow pipe started to freeze we had to put an oily rag round the pipe and set light to it to thaw out the frost. If the pipe froze it meant disconnecting it and letting water out of the radiators so that the steam could flow. If this wasn't done the whole system would have to be shut down and questions were asked. Woe betides you if they felt you were to blame. You were liable to get another 5 years for 'sabotage'. We walked a precarious tightrope.
At the beginning of January the temperature dropped so low that the spirit in the thermometer froze. All work stopped. That is all but the essential maintenance of boilers and electrics and the felling of timber for the boiler and generator. Those men who had to be out were instructed to always go in pairs. This was to prevent frostbite attacking without being noticed. It was essential that we watched each other's faces for the telltale signs. The river froze to its full depth. We had to get water to the boiler. Luckily the feeder tank was full and as we were not producing steam this lasted for some time. We had to find some way of melting the ice on the river. Fires were lit on top of the ice and fuelled with old engine oil and logs and eventually the ice melted sufficiently for us to refill the tank. This cold spell lasted several days. It then took another two days to restart the steam for the factory.
The Russians told us that if they needed you for work they would pin anything on you in order to lengthen your sentence. Should we work hard and be good at our job? Would the Russians want to keep such good workers? Should we be not so good? These were the questions we were asking ourselves. If we were released we understood that as criminals we had to settle in the area. There was no hope of gaining civilisation again. Some of the prisoners would give up hope, do less work, get less food and eventually die rather than live for this prospect. It was the fear of the unknown. No sign of hope.
At one point the Commander of the camp ordered everyone to be reselected for jobs and it fell to my lot to be allocated to the quarry. I was given a pickaxe and a shovel and allocated to a six-man gang. There was a knack to breaking rock with the pickaxe, which I did not have, and so every strike sent shock waves through my body. Here a 'norm' had to be reached. The 'norm' related to the number of wagonettes filled with stone. It was more economical on effort to load these wagonettes with as large pieces as possible. Often the chunks would require two men to lift them. I was a seven stone weakling and there was no way that I would be able to keep up this kind of work more than a few days. It was far too hard for my weakened body. My hands were blistered and I achieved very little, but fate took a hand.
I started suffering from blinding headaches. Then a large swelling appeared behind my ear. I was in agony and had to report to the Doctor. I was suffering from a mastoid, which is an infection behind the ear. I was in excruciating pain and the doctor signed a chit to say that I could not work. The camp doctor was afraid to lance it because this could have killed me so I had to sign a special document permitting him to do the operation. If I died the doctor would not be to blame. There wasn't much choice. I would probably have died if he hadn't done anything. Anything was better than the pain that shot through my head. There was no anaesthetic available in the camp but I begged the doctor to operate. The pain of the operation couldn't be any worse than that which I was already suffering. The symptoms were worse than the cure. Two men were conscripted to hold me down. The doctor took out his knife and the blade pierced the skin. I fainted, not from the pain but from the release of pressure that was on my head. The operation was a complete success.
I was off work sick for three weeks after this. The doctor prescribed some extra food - two raw potatoes every day - and he kept me under observation. When I was fit again I was allocated to work in the factory. So far my life had been spared. This work was also fairly hard as muscle power was required and we had to work to a 'norm'. It was reasonably easy to fiddle the norm in the factory and for the short time I was there we received extra rations for exceeding the 'norm'. These extra rations consisted of some thick starchy gruel. On top of this we were given a teaspoonful of Sunflower oil that tasted magnificent.
Here I met and talked to an elderly man who was the night watchman in the factory. He was a Pole by blood and name but resided in Moscow. He had been in charge of a Printing works in Moscow but something went wrong and he was charged with sabotage. He was a sad character. He had a wife and family in Moscow but expected never to see them again.
Fate interceded once more on my behalf. With constantly having my hands in water I suffered from a 'whitlow' on the thumb. Once again this meant an operation - this time a minor one -the end of my thumb had to be cut off. Although this was again without anaesthetic I needed no hefty hands to hold me down. I was fit for work shortly after this and was relieved to be allocated back to my old job as a plumber.
Somehow I survived the winter. The battle of Leningrad began and the Russians were running short of front line soldiers so they offered Russian prisoners their freedom as long as they joined the army at the front. My supervisor in the plumbing shop volunteered and so I was put in charge. I was not sorry to see him go. I suspected that he was a homosexual although he had never approached me and I gave him no opportunity. He was a bit of a dandy and wore some kind of scented oil on his hair. I couldn't stand the smell of this preparation and avoided being anywhere near him.
Very little news reached us from the outside world and the little that did reach us was bad. We felt that we had nobody to speak for us, nobody to care. We felt doomed for life. People were dying around us. How long could we last here? How long before I would be detailed to work in the quarries or the timber yards? I could not survive there. I had some short experience of the quarrying and I knew it was too hard for me.
At the back of the boiler was a wooden water tank about 2 metres deep. When everything was running smoothly I would heat the water with one of the steam pipes, and climb in to have a luxurious bath. When I had put stones in the bottom of the tank to stand on, the water would reach up to my neck. I had to stop using the brown soap in this water as I found it affected the injector that then had to be stripped and cleaned. Nevertheless, it was nice to feel clean skin even if my clothes smelled of the linseed oil and red oxide
we used every day. Showers were available but their use was strictly limited to something like once a month. I was able to bath at least once a week - often more.
Spring comes in that part of the world very suddenly. One morning I woke up to hear what sounded like cannon fire. I was told that this was the ice on the rivers cracking as the warm water flowed both below and above it. Flood time. The water rises very quickly as the snow and ice thaw rapidly. The ice starts packing and floating down the river and anything that gets in its way is demolished.
The plumbers have to quickly dismantle all the steam pipes that go across the small river before the ice and floods reach it. It is a race against time. When the floods come the ice crushes the wooden structure and water flow into matchstick size pieces and it disappears before your eyes. It is a fantastic sight. It is all over in a few seconds yet seems to be happening in slow motion. Pieces of wood erupt into the air, hang for a second and then sink back into the fast flowing water quickly disappearing with hardly a plank left to mark where the structure had been. Everyone except the plumbers and electricians are confined to camp and work has to stop until the flow subsides. Then the structure has to be rebuilt and the pipes re-laid once more.
The land is very marshy and consequently in the short summer there are plagues of midges and mosquitoes. It was compulsory to wear gloves and a mesh sack over the head to avoid blood poisoning from the insects' bites. Again I was lucky as I was young and my body could stand up to the terrible conditions but many older men couldn't take it and died. Almost everybody suffered from the bites and diseases such as scurvy were commonplace. Some people suffered from huge suppurating boils, which were almost the size of potatoes. It was difficult to say which was the lesser of two evils - the bitter cold or the biting insect.
It was not quite as difficult to keep the steam up during the warmer weather and so our efforts could be slightly relaxed. This was the time when the boilers were stripped and overhauled. Having two boilers, one large and one small, meant that production didn't have to stop whilst this essential maintenance work was carried out. Spare parts had to be made on the spot out of anything available and often all our ingenuity was tested in making difficult components.
During the summer nearly all the Russians had left under the conditions of freedom in exchange for fighting at the front. The camp now was almost all Polish. Some of the threats, which had been kept at bay, were now discharged. There was some sense of relief.
There was a radio in the main admin building, which was occasionally amplified so that the prisoners could hear the broadcast. From here we heard vague pronouncements that the British and Americans were sending aid to Russia and there was some mention of negotiations to release the Polish prisoners. Dared we hope?
At the end of the summer the news came. America and Britain had persuaded the Russians to release us.
Shortly after this the gates were opened and we were told that we were free. What did this mean to us? Where were we? What did freedom mean in this uninhabited land? If we left the camp where could we go? We had no identity papers. So for some time not a lot changed apart from the gates being opened. We went to work as usual. We were no better fed. However, we were free men.
Eventually lorries came in and transported us to the railway station. Although free we were still under guard. We were taken in front of the Russian Commissar who handed us our belongings and documents. I was amazed that these items, which had been taken from me when I was first captured all that time ago, were there almost intact. The only thing missing were my school certificates. My watches, although there, were confiscated as contraband.
The Russian official asked each of us where we would like to go. This question came as quite a surprise to us as we had not expected any choice in the matter. None of us had much idea of place names but all of us wanted to go as far south as we possibly could - the nearest place to civilisation as we remembered it. The places I knew were in German hands. I racked my brains to try to think of a southern town. Tashkent and Samarkand were the only ones, which I remembered as somewhere in the south, so that is where I asked to go. He argued. I argued. He suggested. I refused. Eventually he gave in and agreed. He brought his official stamp heavily on a document and passed it to me. When I looked at it there was no mention of Tashkent or Samarkand only Komi SSR. I remonstrated with him.
"You have given me a document for this state. I asked for Tashkent."
Without looking up he shrugged,
"Too late, I have issued it and stamped it. Can't be changed now."
I argued, but got nowhere. He finally dismissed me,
"When you get to your destination, you can apply to go to another state. There will be no trouble."
Surprise, surprise, everyone's documents were for Komi SSR. There had been no choice. We should have expected it. I suppose we had had some vague hope that they would treat we Poles differently from the Russian criminal who knew he had to stay in the place where he had been working. Would we ever learn? So much for promised freedom. Russian freedom had little similarity to that which the Americans and British had negotiated.
We were packed on the train, again under guard, and taken to the banks of a river. Here we were loaded in barges and set off in a convoy. As we progressed down the river the convoy got shorter and shorter as men were disembarked. I was in one of the last barges to pull in to the bank and I was eventually put ashore near a timber settlement. We were told
"This is your stop. Get out."
We were "free".
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