Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Joseph Scholmer

Introduction

Joseph Scholmer was a doctor working for the Central Health Authority in Berlin when he was accused of being an agent of the Gestapo and of the American and British Secret Services in May of 1949. He spent the years from 1949 to 1953 in the Gulag camp at Vorkuta. Assigned to work in the wood yard, Scholmer soon realized that he would never be able to achieve the work norm and asked a fellow prisoner to smash his hand so that he would be unable to do hard labor. He was then assigned to assist in the burials of dead prisoners and watched as guards smashed the skulls of the corpses to assure that they were really dead.

Arrest

“During the afternoon a fat little Russian with a pale, puffy face appeared in my apartment in the centre of Berlin, accompanied by a woman interpreter. ‘The officer says, will you come along with him, please; he would like to have a talk with you.’” Scholmer was taken to a prison in Berlin. “My clothes were very thoroughly searched and then I was allowed to dress again. Wallet, identity card, photographs and letters were taken away from me. Then the guard took me down to a cell. The door was bolted. I found myself alone, and began an inspection of my new home. The cell measured fifteen feet by fifteen. It was empty except for a wooden bunk. No window, no palliasse, no blankets. A ventilation hole protected by two iron bars led to the outside. An electric light bulb was burning brightly over the door.”

Labor

“For a week I unloaded goods trucks, carried tree-trunks about or worked on the two-handed saw. I myself felt that I would never be up to this type of work. It was not possible to shirk in this brigade. The norm was fixed so high that everyone had to work as hard as he could if the brigade was to be finished before the early shift came on. If I didn’t do my work then someone else had to do it for me. And they couldn’t do that because they had more than enough already. There was only one thing to do. 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?’”

Suffering

“In the three months between my arrival at Vorkuta and the beginning of November I lost more than two stone in weight. Each time we went for a bath, which was every ten days, I could see the signs of malnutrition developing rapidly. My ribs began to stick out, my legs grew thin, my arm and shoulder muscles disappeared. Severe malnutrition was staring me in the face. As a result of continually lifting heavy weights I had developed a double rupture. This seemed to offer a possible respite. I went to the surgeon during his consultation hour and asked him to operate. ‘I can’t,’ he answered. ‘Ruptures can’t be operated on during the winter. One prisoner in every three or four has a rupture. They’re very common in the camp due to the combination of hard work and undernourishment. But everyone waits till the winter for the operation. An operation means four weeks’ rest in hospital. Now do you understand?’”

Propaganda

“In the three months between my arrival at Vorkuta and the beginning of November I lost more than two stone in weight. Each time we went for a bath, which was every ten days, I could see the signs of malnutrition developing rapidly. My ribs began to stick out, my legs grew thin, my arm and shoulder muscles disappeared. Severe malnutrition was staring me in the face. As a result of continually lifting heavy weights I had developed a double rupture. This seemed to offer a possible respite. I went to the surgeon during his consultation hour and asked him to operate. ‘I can’t,’ he answered. ‘Ruptures can’t be operated on during the winter. One prisoner in every three or four has a rupture. They’re very common in the camp due to the combination of hard work and undernourishment. But everyone waits till the winter for the operation. An operation means four weeks’ rest in hospital. Now do you understand?’”

Solidarity

The interpreter who sat in on Scholmer’s interrogations gave him some advice when the interrogator was out of the room. “‘I’d like to give you a friendly piece of advice. I know all about your case. You’ll get twenty-five years whatever happens, that’s certain. If you’re really stubborn you might succeed in shaking off the espionage charge, but it’d take you a year or two. Then they’d get you on something else. Admit that you carried out a little espionage for form’s sake. That’ll bring your interrogation to an end and your case will be closed. You’ll be sent to a camp where things are better than here. You can get help from your comrades there, but they can’t do anything for you here. The important thing is to preserve your health. Another year or two of prison conditions and you’ll be ruined. You know that yourself.”

Conflict

“We said very little to each other on this first day. We loaded up our sledges and pulled them over to the building site. I saw to it that the old man didn’t do too much. When we said good-bye to each other he made a little bow and said: ‘Thank you very much.’ The next day I put him wise to the basic rules of camp life: (1) Do as little work as possible. (2) Eat as much as possible. (3) Get as much rest as possible. (4) Take every opportunity you can to get warm. (5) Don’t stand any nonsense from anybody. (6) If anyone hits you, hit back immediately without a moment’s hesitation. ‘But I’ve never hit a human being in my life,’ answered Moireddin. ‘If you hit anyone here you’re not hitting a human being but a bit of human scum. If you once allow anyone to hit you without sticking up for yourself they’ll never stop. A week later he was transferred to a brigade loading up slag. It was a filthy job for him. I saw Moireddin every day when the shifts changed. One day he wasn’t there. I asked the people in his brigade what had become of him and they said: ‘Moireddin’s got five days in the bur [punishment barracks]!’ ‘What for?’ ‘For hitting the brigade leader!’

Guards

“Most of the soldiers at Vorkuta are simple creatures, who are really just as much prisoners of the tundra and victims of the cold as the prisoners themselves. Service up there in the north is a sort of exile for them. Their life consists of guard duties, drill and occasional visits to the cinemas in the town to which they are marched off in little columns. They put up little black targets in the snow for rifle practice. The whining of the bullets reminds the prisoners why these soldiers are being trained at all. Today they are shooting at targets, tomorrow it may be at them. People are always asking themselves how the soldiers would behave in the event of trouble. ‘Will they shoot, or will they refuse to? Will they come over to us? The government recognizes the dangers of fraternization between guards and prisoners clearly enough.”

Survival

“A considerable part of my illegal medical practice in the camp consisted of trying to delay the recovery of my patients. I also had many cases in which the prisoners were being made to do such very heavy work that their only chance of survival lay in getting me to make them ill. I had the opportunity of learning a whole host of methods which prisoners use to induce or fake illness. They inject themselves under the skin with petrol. This leads to a chronic festering which stubbornly defies every form of treatment. A sore on the lower part of the leg is produced easily enough by breaking the skin and rubbing in dirt. I took over all these methods myself and perfected them. Nose bleeds are engineered easily enough by tickling the mucous membranes of the nose with a piece of wire.”

Fates

“My re-acclimatization to life began by my being unable to sleep. I took large quantities of luminal every evening and equally large quantities of bromide every morning. But I found the impact of Berlin – the movement in the streets, the people, the cars, the trams, all the noise of a great city after the deathly hush of the tundra – as stimulating as a magnum of champagne. The first week passed in continual rejection of everything new. I found myself incapable of reading a newspaper or of looking through a book. Our needs remained unbelievably modest. We looked at the ‘bourgeois’ riches in the shop windows: chocolates, oranges, bananas, etc., and had the money to buy them, but it was enough just to see the things: we had no wish to possess them. Oranges had been the subject of our dreams for years, but the dreams dissolved as soon as an orange lay within our reach.”

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