A Soviet labor camp in Northern Siberia
We went to bed hungry, the day the conveyer gear in our wood processing plant shattered. We couldn’t process the wood and as a result, none of us received our bread card. No processed wood, no bread card; that was the rule.
The reason for the breakdown was irrelevant to the guards. They’d claim we broke the conveyer on purpose, just to avoid work. But we gathered around the pieces of the broken gear as though we had lost a loved one. The camp, of course, didn’t have a spare part. We had to find a solution.
I didn’t realize the significance of losing bread rations when I first came to the labor camp. But I was only sixteen years old then, and after a year I understood it all too well.
Stefan had taught me how to survive. He was in his mid-thirties, and seemed to cope with things better than anyone. He’d been a carpenter before being deported to a labor camp just east of the Ural Mountains. They’d transferred him to this camp without explanation just prior to my arrival.
Stefan taught me that the bread rations were the key to survival. The bread was given out in the evening in six-, nine-, or twelve-ounce rations depending on the work done for the day. For breakfast and lunch, we only got stew and makucz. The stew consisted of black cabbage in water, sometimes fish heads, radishes, and rarely carrots; it had little nutritional value. Makucz was imitation oatmeal composed mostly of chopped grass. It didn’t give you strength, Stefan told me, but it filled the stomach in the morning and kept away the hunger pains.
He also taught me about the death spiral. Missing one night’s bread ration was no problem for all but the most severely sick. The weakness started for most after missing two days’ ration of bread. With the weakness came less ability to work and subsequently, lower production. The less you produced, the smaller your ration. That was how most died; they entered the spiral. If someone was too far down the spiral, you couldn’t save him no matter how much food you gave him. So that night, it was very simple. If we fixed the conveyer, we could process wood. If we processed enough wood, we could eat. We ate; we lived.
We spent the entire evening in the barrack discussing what to do. Patryk, a man in his mid-twenties from Lwow, proposed we go directly to the camp commandant and explain that the situation was simply hopeless; we needed a new part to process wood. But the others rejected the idea, claiming that we would never get to see him, or that he would tell us that there was no parts factory within a thousand miles. "There are engineers amongst yourselves. You must learn to help one another," he would tell us. So we went to sleep not knowing what to do.
That night was cold, but not too bad – about minus twenty degrees centigrade. We’d tried to seal most cracks in the walls of our wooden barrack with mud the summer before, but an awful draft found its way through, most nights. The fire in our stove, fed with only the smallest scraps of wood, had died long ago. I wasn’t sure why the guards didn’t let us bring in more wood for the night. Some of the prisoners claimed the guards feared that we’d build wooden weapons from larger pieces. Little did the guards know that some of the men made weapons, but they were metal, not wooden. The guards had no reason to fear our firewood.
I tried to forget about the gear and get some sleep, but a dim light went on, followed by a growing commotion. I saw Stefan standing near my bunk.
"What’s going on?" I asked.
"Kaz is on to something," he said.
"Kaz is building a gear."
I raised my head and saw a small crowd had gathered around Kaz, seated under the dim lamp.
"Is that cast iron?" Jozef asked Kaz. "If that’s cast iron, it won’t take the strain."
Jozef was tall and thin with some gray in his beard. He had the army in his blood and couldn’t shake off the defeat to the Germans back in 1939. He had been a lieutenant in the Polish Army when the war broke out. His battalion was destroyed fighting the Germans and he returned home to eastern Poland, which had been invaded by the Soviets a few weeks later. Two months after the Soviet invasion, he was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police...the NKVD...and sent to this camp. Whenever someone said the Soviets had stabbed us in the back, Jozef quickly pointed out that we’d been stabbed from all sides.
"Would I be filing cast iron?" asked Kaz. "I know what I’m doing."
"Where did you get the gear from?" asked Tomek.
"You know, I was lying there, and the idea just hit me," said Kaz. "I found this broken hand drill last summer in the mill. Don’t ask me what I was going to do with it."
"You think it will fit?" asked Tomek.
"But then I just remembered it had a gear," said Kaz, ignoring the question. "A gear to turn the drill."
Kaz thinned the teeth of the gear with a small file someone had stolen from the tool shop.
"You didn’t hide that drill under the window, did you? Tomek asked. "I got in trouble a couple of months ago, with that knife."
"I told you a hundred times, I had nothing to do with that knife," said Kaz.
Tomek rolled his eyes. He got the guardhouse once when they found a homemade knife right next to his bunk. He still thought Kaz had hidden it.
"The teeth look too wide," said Tomek.
"I’ll make the son of a bitch fit, don’t you worry about that."
My buddy Kaz...his real name was Kazimierz...had a deep voice, which made you forget how short he was. He claimed he didn’t mind being short; short guys get the girls, he always said. Some men didn’t understand his humor, didn’t realize how funny he was. When he claimed he would become the commandant of this camp someday if he worked hard enough, some of the men called him crazy. Kaz was about twenty, a few years older than me.
The men said I was the youngest prisoner in the camp. Most were in their twenties and thirties; the older men died off. I was beardless and stood out amongst the other prisoners in the camp. My lips weren’t cracked from scurvy yet.
They told me that it was very unusual for a sixteen-year-old to be sent to a labor camp for men. "You’re tall, but your baby face gives you away," they said. "Why aren’t you with your mother?" Most of the time, if you were under eighteen years old, they let you stay with your mother.
"NKVD must have an agenda against your father," they said. When I told them my father was an officer retired from the Polish Army, they nodded and said, "There it is." I didn’t know why the Soviets would have had an agenda against my father. He was spending his time reading and fishing when the war broke out.
Yuriy bent over and examined the gear in detail. Yuriy was a Ukrainian by nationality but his family lived in Poland before deportation. "Don’t file it down too much," he said. "You can make it smaller, but not bigger."