Days and Lives

Listen to the sound or read the movie transcript below.

Days and Lives takes you inside the brutal system of forced labor concentration camps and the internal exile institution called the Gulag. Soviet authorities found the Gulag to be a useful tool in neutralizing, and often physically destroying, all real or imagined opposition to the Communist Party's dictatorship beginning in 1917. Since it also served as the main Soviet penal system, political prisoners were imprisoned with violent criminals. In the Stalin era, some 18 million people passed through the prisons and camps of the Gulag, and perhaps another 6 or 7 million were sent into exile. More than one and a half million prisoners died in the Gulag at the hands of their government. Even those who survived struggled to rebuild their lives when they were finally released.

In this exhibit, one former Gulag prisoner will accompany you through themed sections. Each section explores one piece of this brutal institution by presenting individual experiences, photographs, documentary films, and historical context to describe life in the Gulag.

Prisoner: Joseph Scholmer

Joseph Scholmer was a doctor working for the Central Health Authority in Berlin when he was accused of being an agent of the Gestapo and of the American and British Secret Services in May of 1949. He spent the years from 1949 to 1953 in the Gulag camp at Vorkuta. Assigned to work in the wood yard, Scholmer soon realized that he would never be able to achieve the work norm and asked a fellow prisoner to smash his hand so that he would be unable to do hard labor. He was then assigned to assist in the burials of dead prisoners and watched as guards smashed the skulls of the corpses to assure that they were really dead.

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