Days and Lives :: Labor

Prisoner: Michael Solomon

While Solomon was being transported to Magadan, he met a friend of his brothers who was able to get him a job as a doctor even though he had no medical training or experience. “I don’t quite know how it happened, but the next morning I was masquerading as a doctor with a Red Cross armband on my left sleeve, a first-aid box, and two nurses as assistants. As we marched out of the camp I found that I was in charge of fifty sick men and women. In charge of all of us was a free woman just out of junior medical school who had been sent to Kolyma as a nurse.”

Avoiding General Labor

Even if prisoners managed to meet their outrageous production quotas, food provisions often failed to replenish the calories expended. Prisoners all knew that those most likely to survive were those most successful at avoiding hard labor.

If prisoners could not avoid work entirely, they sought light work in camp kitchens, offices, hospitals, or barracks.

“We all agreed on the following maxims,” recalled former prisoner Dmitri Panin, “a day of shirking guarantees a longer life; don’t put in a single day’s hard labor if you can help it; work is not a bear—it won’t run off to the forest and disappear; even horses will die if they’re overworked…We agreed that we would serve out our sentences, but not to end them prematurely along with our lives.”

Many prisoners intentionally injured themselves to avoid work—an act that could be prosecuted as sabotage. Joseph Scholmer remembered his desperation, “One evening I went to my friend Richard, the Estonian, and explained my predicament. ‘You must smash my wrist for me with a piece of wood.’ I had everything prepared. I had hidden a stout piece of wood in the snow. Richard asked, ‘How hard shall I hit?’”