Days and Lives :: Fates

Prisoner: Edward Buca

“Buca was released into the hands of the Polish authorities in 1958 but remained under suspicion. “I was under continual surveillance. In 1959 I obtained work in a coal-mine at Katowice in Upper Silesia. All my demands for a passport to go abroad were refused. I decided at last to make my escape from Poland. For several days in cold October weather I hid out near a motel. Then, what I had been waiting for arrived. This was a heavy truck of foreign origin in transit through the country, and sealed so that no inspections are carried out. I discovered it was bound for Sweden. With my knife I cut out a right angle in the canvas roof, and dropped through. The drivers came back and the truck moved off. When the truck finally stopped outside Swedish customs and the drivers got down for a while, I cut my way out and was gone. I was free on Swedish soil!”

Crosses in Forest

The Gulag’s Ultimate Victims

Historians have established that at least 1.6 million died in the Gulag camps. The real number may be higher, as camp authorities had many ways to hide true death figures, including releasing prisoners who were on the verge of dying. In this way, a prisoner reduced to the point of death by labor and starvation would die outside the camp and thus be excluded from official Gulag mortality statistics. Many of the unmarked graves will never be found.

In this excerpt from Stolen Years, Nikolai Getman describes the anonymous markings placed on prisoner graves.

When the guard filled out a report on the burial, he wouldn’t say that the corpse had a name like Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov. Instead, he would write down a certain designated number. Such as M3720. This number, M3720, was then stenciled into a tin can, using a hammer and nail. Usually the perforated number would appear on the lid, but sometimes people would go through the trouble of cutting apart the whole can, thereby leaving more room for the inscription. This piece of metal was attached by wire to the foot, and that was proof that a certain person, M3720, was buried right there under the hill. I can still hear the sound of this piece of wire and can lid tinkling in the wind.