Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Jacques Rossi

Introduction

Born to a wealthy French family in Lyons, Jacques Rossi became a committed communist at a young age and joined the Polish Communist Party at the age of seventeen. At 20 he became a secret agent of the Comintern. In 1937, while on a mission in Spain, Rossi was asked to return to Moscow where he was charged with espionage for France and Poland and sentenced to eight years in Butyrka prison. In 1947 he received conditional release only to be once again sentenced in 1948 to a 25-year term on charges of espionage, this time for France, England, and the United States. Rossi, who became known as “the Frenchman” by his Gulag companions, was finally released in 1956. Upon release he returned to France and devoted his life to recounting his experiences in the Gulag.

Arrest

Upon his arrest, Rossi was asked to fill out his papers. "Family name, given name, member of the party or not, date of birth, place of birth, nationality… an entire page of questions I answered mechanically, still not understanding why? Rossi Jacques Robertovitch. I flipped through pages containing a multitude of questions. I arrived at the last page and read: Signature of the accused. Of the accused! I was “accused”! I returned to the beginning of the questionnaire, I reread the heading on the first page that I had not even looked at that stated in enormous letters: QUESTIONNAIRE OF THE ACCUSED. In my confusion, I had skipped this line… but when we do not want to accept reality! Yes this was happening to me. Later on in prison, I continued for a while to not want to hear the groans of those being tortured."

Labor

The inmates were entitled to one day off for every ten days of work, but no days off if they were unable to work due to bad weather conditions: “When that was the case they would leave us in the cells and that day of not working replaced our regular day off. If the blizzard or storm lasted three days straight, that was it for the month, no days off. When it lasted six days in a row, an exceptional phenomenon, we subsequently worked two months straight.”

Suffering

“Below 40 you’d feel every additional half-a-degree in your skin and you’d feel your bones freeze. Below 50, you’d struggle to open your eyelids; every breath felt like a knife being plunged into your lungs. The lowest temperature I can recall was 57 below. It happened only once for two consecutive nights… You’d pull your bonnet to your eyes and you’d rap your neck and face with a rag. Your breathing would form ice as it froze. Of course you didn’t have anything resembling a handkerchief. You’d continuously try to blow off the ice forming at the tip of your nose and some would clear their noses in case it froze.”

Propaganda

“Below 40 you’d feel every additional half-a-degree in your skin and you’d feel your bones freeze. Below 50, you’d struggle to open your eyelids; every breath felt like a knife being plunged into your lungs. The lowest temperature I can recall was 57 below. It happened only once for two consecutive nights… You’d pull your bonnet to your eyes and you’d rap your neck and face with a rag. Your breathing would form ice as it froze. Of course you didn’t have anything resembling a handkerchief. You’d continuously try to blow off the ice forming at the tip of your nose and some would clear their noses in case it froze.”

Solidarity

After having arrived in his jail cell from a night-long torturing session: “At around five in the morning they were bringing me back to my jail cell where I could theoretically eat a cloud soup from the previous evening. I would not eat because I was too anxious, too upset. I would lie on the planks. My jail mates would crowd around me; they’d take my shoes off and massage my legs. There was always one jail mate with a little bit of money who would buy a sweet at the cafeteria and would give me a piece to make me feel better. This was done out of solidarity.”

Conflict

“Even if I would swallow my six hundred grams of black bread, an inmate’s permitted daily portion of bread, all at once, my hunger would remain. Besides, such haste would not be unjustified. In the crowded cells, it sometimes happened that you’d have the piece of bread you hadn’t yet swallowed ripped out of your mouth by another inmate.”

Guards

“As the inmates would leave to go to their work sites, they would at times come across one or more corpses lying on the ground outside the prison gates. These were escaped prisoners who were caught and beaten to death by a guard who didn’t appreciate the prisoner’s companionship outside the prison gates. The corpses would remain there for many days as an example. This was an old tradition from the nineteen twenties. And as with all other institutions that hold themselves in high regards, the gulag holds on to its traditions.”

Survival

“In the Butyrka prison, at a certain point, I succeeded in placing a match in the wall. On this match I was able to hang my shirt, because, when we slept one stuck to the other, we would sweat and it was disgusting to always wear this same wet shirt. It was an extraordinary comfort to be able to hang my shirt above my head on the wall thanks to this match being help by bread, because wet bread can hold as strong cement. This match remained there for a while. Luckily the guards didn’t get mad… This comfort, you see, I searched for it in all possible conditions.”

Fates

Explaining how and why he survived, Jacques states: “I was in good health, I wasn’t sufficiently beaten up, I didn’t have any family and therefore wasn’t vulnerable, I was forever curious about the others and I wanted to understand what was happening to us. And I read and studied. Basically, I was lucky.”

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