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.”

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.