Days and Lives :: Fates

Prisoner: Joseph Scholmer

“My re-acclimatization to life began by my being unable to sleep. I took large quantities of luminal every evening and equally large quantities of bromide every morning. But I found the impact of Berlin – the movement in the streets, the people, the cars, the trams, all the noise of a great city after the deathly hush of the tundra – as stimulating as a magnum of champagne. The first week passed in continual rejection of everything new. I found myself incapable of reading a newspaper or of looking through a book. Our needs remained unbelievably modest. We looked at the ‘bourgeois’ riches in the shop windows: chocolates, oranges, bananas, etc., and had the money to buy them, but it was enough just to see the things: we had no wish to possess them. Oranges had been the subject of our dreams for years, but the dreams dissolved as soon as an orange lay within our reach.”

Introduction

Survivors of the Gulag often found their former lives torn apart and irrecoverable after leaving the camps. Released prisoners experienced discrimination and alienation making living and working difficult. Those who did survive have contributed immensely to the documentation of the Gulag's history.

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Movie Transcription

Across the former Soviet Union, millions lie in anonymous graves. Whether shot in a prison basement, or killed in Gulag camps by exhaustion, starvation, malnutrition-related illness, labor accident, or the violence of fellow prisoners and guards, millions died at the hands of Soviet terror.

Telling the story of the Gulag through the eyes of its prisoners inevitably excludes the stories of those millions who died. These victims did not make it out of the camps to publish memoirs. Their stories are buried beneath the grounds of Siberia, Kazakhstan and the whole of the former Soviet Union.

Even those who survived the camps emerged traumatized and brutalized. Readjusting to life outside the camps would be a struggle. Many former inmates maintained life-long bonds with their fellow inmates after leaving the camps, and many continue to struggle to keep the Gulag’s memory alive to prevent new human rights abuses in the countries of the former Soviet Union today.