Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Margarete Buber Neumann

Introduction

Margarete Buber-Neumann and her husband were members of the German Communist Party. They were sent to Moscow to work as translators in 1935. Her husband was arrested in 1937; she never saw him again. In 1938, Buber-Neumann was arrested and charged with “counter-revolutionary organization and agitation against the Soviet state.” After spending two years in the Gulag camp Karlag, Buber-Neuman was handed over to German authorities during the period of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. She spent the next five years in a Nazi concentration camp from which she was released at the end of World War II.

Arrest

“I had been a month in prison now and I was still left in ignorance of the formal reason for my arrest. Apart from leaving the cell with the others for exercise and so on, I had not been outside it except to have my finger-prints taken and to be photographed, but every day from the stories of others I extended my knowledge of the procedure at the questionings, of the charges and the likely sentences. My friends in the cell told me to make up my mind to a charge of espionage at least, and perhaps counter-revolutionary organization as well. ‘But don’t be alarmed,’ they said consolingly. ‘Everyone gets that. When they question you insist that you don’t know anything at all. Stick by that through thick and thin. And, above all, don’t sign anything. It doesn’t matter how long they keep you here; it’s still better than Siberia.’”

Labor

“I began hacking up the weeds. The sunflower plants had been sown by machinery and they were not more than an inch or so high. The sun began to get hot and burn my arms. More and more often I had to straighten my back and wipe the sweat from my forehead. The rest were far ahead of me. They were more experienced in the work, particularly one young woman, who had been a peasant. I heard afterwards that sometimes when she felt like it she would do a double quota in order to get a double ration of bread. She was a danger to the rest of us; because she could do the quota so easily the inspector used her example to raise the quote for the rest. The women talked from furrow to furrow in shrieks. They all seemed to know each other. I was the only stranger.”

Suffering

Buber-Neumann dared to ask that her case be re-opened and was sent to the punishment compound. “It consisted of a block for women, another for men, a house for the natchalnik and a block of cells. At the gate was a small wooden hut for the guard. Prisoners entered one at a time through a narrow space. The dirt in the camp was bad enough, but in the punishment compound it was shocking. The place around the latrine pits was covered with piles of human excrement. The prisoners did not bother to use the pits. It was impossible to get away from the stench. The block for the women was worse than anything I had yet experienced in the camp. The sleeping places were knocked together out of rough bits of wood of various sizes and thicknesses, and some of the women slept on the floor.”

Propaganda

Buber-Neumann dared to ask that her case be re-opened and was sent to the punishment compound. “It consisted of a block for women, another for men, a house for the natchalnik and a block of cells. At the gate was a small wooden hut for the guard. Prisoners entered one at a time through a narrow space. The dirt in the camp was bad enough, but in the punishment compound it was shocking. The place around the latrine pits was covered with piles of human excrement. The prisoners did not bother to use the pits. It was impossible to get away from the stench. The block for the women was worse than anything I had yet experienced in the camp. The sleeping places were knocked together out of rough bits of wood of various sizes and thicknesses, and some of the women slept on the floor.”

Solidarity

“When I look back on the first two months of my stay in the Birma punishment compound, I hardly remember the laborious work in the fields, the scorching sun beating down, the constant hunger, the terrible nights with bed-bugs and lice, the malice and chicanery of my fellow prisoners, and I think instead of my friendship with Boris Resnik. We met every morning before the roll call. He would make me the morning cigarette of mahorka in newspaper, and together we would stand and smoke and marvel at the daily wonder: the rising of the sun over the mountains in the distance. One day we decided to work in the kitchen garden instead of the fields. Our work there consisted in weeding a patch of grass with our hands. We progressed on our knees singing softly.”

Conflict

“In the Siberian camps criminals are a favoured category. They occupy all the minor posts in the camps and they lead what might even be called a social life. Unlike the political prisoners, their life in the camp did not represent any very great break with their normal lives. One might almost say they were strictly organized. They had their leaders whose word was law and if one of them decided for some reason or the other that there was to be no work the next day not a single criminal would dare to disobey, although after refusal to work on twenty-five occasions the penalty in Karaganda was death. These criminal elements regarded the political prisoners with the greatest contempt. We were enemies of the people, whilst they, although they might be criminals, were loyal Soviet citizens.

Guards

“One night the door of our cell opened. I was asleep and it was not until my neighbors shook me back into life that I realized that I was meant. I crawled over the sleeping bodies and staggered out into the corridor, where I found a uniformed man waiting for me. He seized me by the arm and hustled me along the corridor as though I were a tough criminal likely to offer resistance. We came to a staircase. The banisters were extended by a wire netting to prevent those who were tired of life from throwing themselves over. We went down a long corridor which was carpeted so that our footsteps made no sound. We came to a halt before a door. There was a picture of Stalin on the wall and behind a desk sat a robust young man in his shirt-sleeves with the self-confidence of a limited intelligence.”

Survival

“At the end of my fourteen days’ convalescence I was told to work in the vegetable cellar. From then on I became the chief provider for our little circle. There were wonderful things there: potatoes, carrots, beetroot, and onions – things we hardly ever saw in the punishment compound and then only illegally. It was an exciting and satisfactory life. My chief problem was how to steal without being found out. All the members of the vegetable gang were searched on leaving the cellar and again on returning to the punishment compound. In order to run the blockade, I made myself a bag which was fastened round my waist, and during the course of the day I would fill it with whatever came to hand. For the first time we were getting enough food, and good food. Our spirits were higher and we were in much better condition altogether.”

Fates

Without explanation, Buber-Neumann and some other German prisoners were released from the camp at Karaganda. They arrived at the train station in Moscow, hoping they were to be freed. “We went out into the station yard and my heart sank suddenly. There stood the Black Maria. I don’t quite know what I expected; I hadn’t thought about it. But after that pleasant journey it was a shock. And we had almost felt ourselves free.” In reality, the prisoners were on their way to German concentration camps. Buber-Neumann spent the next five years at Ravensbruck concentration camp and was not released until the end of World War II.

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