Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Gustav Herling

Introduction

Gustav Herling, or Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski as he was known in his native Poland, was born in the city of Kielce in 1919 and attended the University of Warsaw. He was arrested by the NKVD in 1940 and was charged with attempting to cross the Soviet frontier. He was sentenced to five years in the Gulag, which he spent at camps in Kargopol, Yertsevo and Arkhangelsk where he unloaded trucks and cut timber. He was released early in 1942 when most Polish prisoners were amnestied. For the rest of the war, Herling served in a military unit comprised of men who had been released from the Gulag and POWs. After the war, Herling lived in various cities in Europe. He worked actively in the dissident movement and wrote anti-Communist materials. He died in Naples, Italy in 2000.

Arrest

“The first accusation in my indictment was based on two points of evidence. First the high leather boots which I wore supposedly proved that I was a Major of the Polish Army. Secondly, my name, when transcribed into Russian, became Gerling and this supposedly made me the relative of a well-known Field-Marshall of the German Air Force. The accusation therefore read: ‘Polish officer in the pay of the enemy.’ But fortunately it did not take me long to convince the interrogator that these accusations were quite without foundation. There remained one undisputed fact-when arrested I have been trying to cross the frontier between the Soviet Union and Lithuania.”

Labor

“Forest work was considered to be one of the heaviest forms of labour in the camp. The distance from work to the camp was usually about three miles; the prisoners worked all day under the open sky, up to their waist in snow, drenched to the skin, hungry and exhausted. I never came across a prisoner who had worked in the forest for more than two years. Whenever a fresh transport of prisoners arrived in Yertsevo, the youngest and strongest were always picked to be ‘put through the forest.’ It was impossible for a forest brigade to surpass its norm except with the help of what was known as ‘toufta,’ a whole system of ingenious cheating. Various methods were used; the logs were stacked so that the piles would look full from the outside and yet be loose inside, with spaces between logs.”

Suffering

“The small bath-hut was always full of murky grey light which filtered in through the dirty window-panes, and of steam which rose from a huge vat of boiling water. Before going in, we handed over our clothes to be deloused, and received in turn a piece of grey soap the size of a domino counter. When the clothes had been deloused they were brought in, hung on rings on a long pole, by an elderly priest who, sloping the pole, let the bundles fall on to the floor of the passage. It was pleasant to feel the hard plasters of heated clothing on a clean body. There was no other way of changing clothes; we went to the bath-house once every three weeks, and these visits were the only time that we really washed ourselves.”

Propaganda

“The small bath-hut was always full of murky grey light which filtered in through the dirty window-panes, and of steam which rose from a huge vat of boiling water. Before going in, we handed over our clothes to be deloused, and received in turn a piece of grey soap the size of a domino counter. When the clothes had been deloused they were brought in, hung on rings on a long pole, by an elderly priest who, sloping the pole, let the bundles fall on to the floor of the passage. It was pleasant to feel the hard plasters of heated clothing on a clean body. There was no other way of changing clothes; we went to the bath-house once every three weeks, and these visits were the only time that we really washed ourselves.”

Solidarity

“It is only too understandable that a man robbed of everything but hope should begin his day by turning his thoughts to hope. Soviet prisoners have been deprived even of hope, for not one of them can ever know with any certainty when his sentence will come to an end. During my year and a half in the camp only a few times did I hear prisoners counting aloud the number of years, months, days and hours which still remained of their sentences. Hope contains the terrible danger of disappointment. In our silence, humility was combined with a quiet resignation and anticipation of the worst. Disappointment was a fatal blow to a prisoner who lacked this armour against fate.”

Conflict

“To stake the possessions of other prisoners in their games of cards is one of the urkas’ [thieves] most popular distractions, and its chief attraction lies in the fact that the loser is obliged to force from the victim the object previously agreed upon. In 1937, during the pioneer period of labour camps, they played for human lives, for there was then no more precious possession; a political prisoner sitting at one end of a barrack, did not guess that the greasy cards, falling with a smack on the small plank spread across the knees of the players, were deciding his fate.”

Guards

“In some brigades the degree of friendliness between the prisoners and their guard was so close that, as soon as they were out of sight of the guard-house, the “strelok” [shooter] put his rifle on his shoulder and began to chat pleasantly with the last few pairs. This insignificant expression of human feelings gave us not so much the pleasure of raising ourselves from humiliation and contempt, but rather excitement at an infringement of prison rules. Occasionally the guard treated his brigade with politeness, and even showed signs of a rudimentary guilty conscience with them. Therefore the days when the guard of a particular brigade was changed were among the most memorable for the prisoners. Some time had always to pass before a fresh understanding could develop between the slaves and the new overseer.”

Survival

“For a man unaccustomed to the violent contrasts of Soviet life, camp hospitals seemed like churches which offer sanctuary. It is not surprising, then, that the prisoners strove by every possible means to obtain admission to the hospital. This was most frequently procured by self-mutilation at work, and I saw many prisoners with fingers missing from one or both hands. When self-mutilation was prohibited, other ways were found of ensuring a visit to the hospital. At our low level of physical resistance a little dirt, rubbed into a small scratch, resulted in blood poisoning, which sometimes caused only a slight fever, but occasionally sent the temperature up to the required degree.”

Fates

“The junior officer finally remembered my existence and told me to report the next morning at the office for a certificate of my release from camp. Only two friends saw me off at the guard house. I walked slowly beyond the zone-for the first time in two years with a guard-to the office where my papers had been prepared for me. I was given a list of the places for which I could get a railway ticket and a permit for residence. That evening I saw the camp from a hill near the station; it looked so small that I could have put it in the palm of my hand. Vertical columns of smoke rose from the barracks, lights shone in the windows, and but for the silhouettes of four high crow’s nests, cutting the night with the long knives of searchlight-beams, [Yertsevo] could have passed for a quiet, peaceful settlement.”

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