Days and Lives :: Prisoners

Michael Solomon

Introduction

Michael Solomon was a journalist living in Bucharest when World War II began. He fled to Palestine and in 1943 joined the British Army. He returned to Romania in 1948 and was arrested as an enemy of the Soviet state. He spent most of his time in the Gulag system imprisoned in Kolyma. After his release in 1956, he was imprisoned in Romania for an additional nine years. After his release, Solomon and his wife immigrated to Canada where he worked as a writer.

Arrest

Michael Solomon was arrested while walking down the street in Bucharest by six men in black leather coats and caps. They placed him in a car and took him to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. “What if they hold me for good? What if this sort of thing was really happening now in Bucharest? No! They couldn’t possibly keep an innocent man in jail just because they hated his opinions, could they? They must bring me before some kind of tribunal, class tribunal, party tribunal, martial court – anything.”

Labor

While Solomon was being transported to Magadan, he met a friend of his brothers who was able to get him a job as a doctor even though he had no medical training or experience. “I don’t quite know how it happened, but the next morning I was masquerading as a doctor with a Red Cross armband on my left sleeve, a first-aid box, and two nurses as assistants. As we marched out of the camp I found that I was in charge of fifty sick men and women. In charge of all of us was a free woman just out of junior medical school who had been sent to Kolyma as a nurse.”

Suffering

At Berlag, part of the Magadan complex there were daily propaganda broadcasts. “From five in the morning until midnight, propaganda…was constantly bored into people’s minds. A free man was in charge of the broadcast operation, relaying the official version of the news to all camp outlets.”

Propaganda

At Berlag, part of the Magadan complex there were daily propaganda broadcasts. “From five in the morning until midnight, propaganda…was constantly bored into people’s minds. A free man was in charge of the broadcast operation, relaying the official version of the news to all camp outlets.”

Solidarity

“I went that very first evening (after arrival at Matrosova) to see the camp doctor who as usual was also a prisoner. He listened attentively to my story, and when I had finished there was some hot tea on the table with bread and jam. When I put on my bushlat (padded overcoat) I felt something heavy in one of my pockets. In one I found a bottle of vitamin C orange syrup, an elixir as precious as life; in the other pocket there was a small package of butter wrapped in a 25-ruble note. I went back to the door of the doctor’s office, and as he opened it, I said, ‘There must be some mistake, doctor. You put something into my pocket in error.’ I wanted to return the gifts, but he only patted me gently on the back.”

Conflict

Solomon witnessed a murder of one of the criminals by the other criminals. “Sashka got up from his bunk. He was a young lad, bony, with hollow cheeks and watery blue eyes. Like all of us, his head was shaven. At 23 he had been jailed several times, and now, as a habitual criminal he had been sent to work in the mines of Kolyma. In the Arctic camps, Sashka, like all of those of his kind, refused to work and managed to live from what he stole from the kitchen or from the poor meals of his fellow inmates. He didn’t earn much as he had to share the “fats” and the sugar with the senior thieves. Now he faced judgment for the worst offense in the criminal world: ‘selling’ his brother thieves to the camp administration. For such a crime of betrayal there was only one punishment – death.”

Guards

“Among the soldiers guarding us there were men of all the nationalities living within the borders of the Soviet Union. Quite a few were Bessarabians, whose mother tongue was Romanian. When the armistice between Romania and Russia was signed on September 12, 1944, they were discharged from the Romanian Army and sent to their native Bessarabia. They were arrested as soon as they crossed the border, kept under interrogation for several months, and then given the alternative: agree to serve three years in the NKVD or go to jail as ‘traitors to the motherland.’ They made their choice and now were guarding other ‘traitors’ under barbed wire.”

Survival

“One evening my cellmate was taken away, and I was alone for the first time. Only now did I become aware of my loneliness, my weariness, my hopelessness. I paced up and down the cell for 24 hours to tire myself out so that sheer fatigue might force me to sleep. I longed for my wife, my loved ones, my lost paradise outside. I went over every happy event that I could recollect from previous years. When I remembered some forgotten detail, I explored it minutely, as a surgeon might with a mysterious case. I tried to speak in the different languages that I knew. I gathered all my knowledge of the arts, poetry, philosophy, history, politics. But it didn’t last long. My nerves were giving in. I was like a swimmer exhausted by heavy seas, unable to make his way back to the shore.”

Fates

“Our many frustrations seemed to have come to an end and our dreams closer to being realized when on the afternoon of the 7th of September, 1955, 14 men and one woman, all Romanian citizens, were put on a truck and taken to Magadan airport.” But Solomon’s incarceration was not yet over. He was transferred to Romania where he spent nine more years in prison. “Nine years of captivity were to follow that night I came ‘home.’ Seventeen years had gone out of my life; I was still a young man when I went in. If I do look back at those years of torture and terror in Kolyma, I can only ask myself: ‘Is there anything in the world more splendid, more precious, more irreplaceable than freedom?’”

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