Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Alfred Martinovich Mirek

Introduction

Alfred Mirek was arrested when he worked as an electrician in Moscow. He was sentenced to seven years in the camps. After some time in Lubianka and Butyrka prisons he spent two years, from 1942-1944, in Unzhlag working in the logging industry. After Mirek was released from the Unzhlag camp he returned to Moscow and was fully rehabilitated in 1956. In 1984 Mirek was again arrested and was incarcerated for another two years.

Arrest

“On August 29, 1942 at the end of the working day two portly men walked into the shop of the headquarters of the Ministry of Communications, where I worked. They wore blue caps with big flat visors, and their faces had content expressions of hunters who did not venture into the woods in vain. They placed the search warrant on the workbench and sluggishly went through the routine motions of searching me. They took my wallet and documents, including my Komsomol membership certificate, which I worked so hard to get. Then they walked me through the courtyard to the black car “Emka”. They took me to the internal prison of the Lubyanka. The interrogation was led by Novikov. The interrogation occurred only at night. The interrogator with persistence I could not understand kept repeating one thing: ‘Are you going to talk, bandit?!”...I felt that he had not presented himself very clearly, about what he wanted to hear from me and what I was supposed to say. I could understand even less, so I kept silent. I only wanted one thing: for him to leave me alone. ... After one interrogation the detective decided to use another, unconventional method to encourage discussion: he approached me from the left and suddenly stuck a burning cigarette in my neck. For many years a round scar reminded me of this man.”

Labor

“We went to work every day, regardless of weather and day of the week; our workday lasted ten hours… We walked for about an hour on a country road, then turned into the woods (unlike other camps, devoted to construction, mining, and other industries, ”Unzhlag” was a logging camp). In clear warm summer weather this march was not difficult, but clear days occurred rarely there, so only endless rains stayed in my memory. Already at the exit from the zone my warm quilted jacket and the knees of my cotton-wool pants begin to collect water, and by the time we reach the woods they were entirely wet… Each of us would cut smaller trees alone… Four-five trees would make one row on the ground, more precisely, on the beams that were provided. But how many of these rows did we need to make a pile one meter high? If the height of the pile was one meter then, they would say we had collected 4 cubic meters of logs. This was the minimal norm. If we didn’t reach it, we could have problems, but if we did, we got the minimum ration of bread and food… At first I reached the minimum norm only with great difficulty, but when I got used to the job, I could collect as much as 6-8 cubic meters of logs.”

Suffering

“A mechanical engineer from some airplane plant washed a big cell only to get an empty bucket that used to contain oatmeal. It had not a single seed—it was scrubbed clean with a wooden spoon when the oatmeal was given out to prisoners. But when he rinsed the walls of the bucket with boiling water from the tea kettle, and then carefully washed them with his hands, the water at the bottom of the kettle became murky and smelled of oatmeal. He drank it blissfully and greedily, savoring every mouthful. ... [When we were transported to the camp,] in the train car each of us got a 300-gram piece of bread and two small herrings for the entire trip. This ration was well thought through: the herring quenched our appetite, and it didn’t matter that we got extremely thirsty. Each of us could use the restroom only once a day, alone. I remember well how two of us peed into their boots, and when we arrived and exited at Sukhobezvodnaia station, each of them got out half barefoot, poured out the contents of the boot and put it on right after.”

Propaganda

“A mechanical engineer from some airplane plant washed a big cell only to get an empty bucket that used to contain oatmeal. It had not a single seed—it was scrubbed clean with a wooden spoon when the oatmeal was given out to prisoners. But when he rinsed the walls of the bucket with boiling water from the tea kettle, and then carefully washed them with his hands, the water at the bottom of the kettle became murky and smelled of oatmeal. He drank it blissfully and greedily, savoring every mouthful. ... [When we were transported to the camp,] in the train car each of us got a 300-gram piece of bread and two small herrings for the entire trip. This ration was well thought through: the herring quenched our appetite, and it didn’t matter that we got extremely thirsty. Each of us could use the restroom only once a day, alone. I remember well how two of us peed into their boots, and when we arrived and exited at Sukhobezvodnaia station, each of them got out half barefoot, poured out the contents of the boot and put it on right after.”

Solidarity

“In ”Butyrki” I met an acquaintance—a talented Polish variety artist Yevgeniush Bodo… We became friends and shared the meager packages I received. He told me a lot about his performances and tours in other countries. In early April 1943 when I was about to leave for the camp, Bordo tore a square piece of lining from his light raincoat, pulled some threads out of a towel, asked somebody for a thick home-made prison needle, folded the edges, and hemmed it. He thus made a handkerchief. This was all he could give me to remember him by. And this memory I carried through the searches and camp transfer points and I kept it to this day. I found later by chance that he died soon after arriving at a camp near Kirov, in the summer of 1943.”

Conflict

“Although I remember, during the summer in one barrack three newly arrived criminal prisoners refused to fell trees, demanding easy work at the camp. The next day they didn’t get any bread, but they didn’t stay hungry. The next day they refused to go again. Maybe in the end they would have been accommodated but five other seasoned, tough criminals, long-time camp residents, joined them in the barrack. It became clear, that tomorrow the entire barrack might refuse to go to work… In the morning before “razvodka”—the roll call near the watch-room—the head of the camp, the foreman, and six guards. The head of the camp warned and threatened, the foreman, himself one of the criminal prisoners, cajoled and calmed them down, but they didn’t budge. Then they took them out of the barrack and moved through the watch-room to the zone. The were sure that they were to be taken to “BUR” (high security barrack, something like an isolation cell for several people). But the group turned the opposite way, to the left, when they left the gate. They were taken along the wire fence to the stables, seen very well from the watch-room where we congregated. At the wall, the eight saboteurs were shot… After that, nobody ever considered refusing to do anything, nor breaking any rules.”

Guards

“Our camp had a chief foreman who controlled everything. Our Stepan Gavrilovich—the local aristocracy, the criminal prisoners, foremen, heads of canteen, storeroom, and bakery, called him Stiopka-Butuz or simply Butuz—was stocky, young, red-faced bandit, always a little drunk… Crews, coming from the wood, went through the gate. He seemed to notice me one of those times. He looked at me intently (I probably looked extremely haggard and miserable) and I could detect compassion somewhere deep in his eyes. He came up to me and said that he has work for me: tomorrow morning he will show and tell me everything. He turned and left quickly before I could understand anything. In the morning, when we lined up near the gate, he indeed came up to me, took me aside where a horse and a carriage with a big barrel without a cover, and said: “You won’t go to work any more, you will clean latrines in the camp.” Of course, this was much easier than felling trees on the swamp after walking for 3-5 kilometers, and I, touched by his kindness, thanked him with all my heart. He blurted out something elaborate in his criminal slang and left.”

Survival

"...One of our favorite pastimes were tales about tasty dishes and the cooking of them. “It’s better to fry this in this way… Or also in this way… And you would make the sauce from… adding… then mix and heat a little…” ... In the cell two or three people would sit near the teller listen without blinking. The tale was sort of a verbal movie with an extremely gripping plot. After listening life got easier—as if we ate something (if only in our imagination).”

Fates

After Unzhlag Mirek returned to Moscow. ”...I returned from the camp with tuberculosis, pellagra—a serious stomach illness, extremely emaciated… Leaning on a long stick, which I brought from the camp, I came up to a trolley bus or a streetcar and waited for someone to help me up the steps. ... When I arrived in Moscow, I was accepted to Music Pedagogical Institute. But I lived and studied always looking behind my back, as a wolf in the woods: at any moment my school, work, life with my family could be cut short if someone recognized me. I felt like a human being only when Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev came to power, when his policies brought the country out of its spiritual slumber. The critical year for me, and millions of others, was 1956. That year, my case was retried and I, too, was rehabilitated.”