Days and Lives :: Prisoners

George Bien

Introduction

The NKVD arrested George Bien and his father in Hungary in 1945. His father soon perished, but young George Bien suffered ten years in the notorious Gulag camps in Kolyma. He briefly returned home after his release, but fled when the Soviets crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising first to Austria and later to the United States, where he lived until his death in 2005.

Arrest

George Bien was only 16 years old when he and his father were arrested in their Budapest home in 1945. “Two NKVD officers showed up at our apartment with a translator and very politely asked to speak with my father. The officers conducted a superficial house search and came across a radio set with earphones that we used when there was no electricity. Suddenly agitated, they asked whom the radio belonged to; I told them it was mine. They said, ‘You come along with us, too.’ What we didn’t know then was that my father would never return, and I would see my home again only after ten years had passed.

Labor

“Geographically, we were just below the Arctic Circle. Prisoners were excused from work if the temperature dropped below -40 degrees Fahrenheit. This was not to protect the prisoners, but to keep the guards happy; the guards didn’t like the cold. The laborers here were mainly political prisoners, but the administrators of the camp were recruited from many of the more capable criminal prisoners. I worked inside the camp, swabbing barracks floors and helping the doctor in the examination room.”

Suffering

“Interrogations took place exclusively after dark, and it was at night that I too was called. By this time I could only crawl, and in the darkness two guards pulled me into a room where there was a single lamp on a writing table. There sat a high-ranking officer who, without saying a word, slapped me on the face. I started to cry, not because the slap hurt, but over the hopelessness of my situation. Through an interpreter, the officer told me that all members of the spy organization, including my father, had admitted their crime, and he wanted me to sign a thirty-page confession. By then I was so exhausted and disinterested that it didn’t really matter what they accused me of. My brain had stopped functioning clearly, and my body only craved water. I signed every page.”

Propaganda

“Interrogations took place exclusively after dark, and it was at night that I too was called. By this time I could only crawl, and in the darkness two guards pulled me into a room where there was a single lamp on a writing table. There sat a high-ranking officer who, without saying a word, slapped me on the face. I started to cry, not because the slap hurt, but over the hopelessness of my situation. Through an interpreter, the officer told me that all members of the spy organization, including my father, had admitted their crime, and he wanted me to sign a thirty-page confession. By then I was so exhausted and disinterested that it didn’t really matter what they accused me of. My brain had stopped functioning clearly, and my body only craved water. I signed every page.”

Solidarity

“No matter how miserable my condition, I tried constantly to learn Russian. It was perfectly clear to me that my only chance of survival depended on being able to speak and understand this language. I gradually began to communicate with the Soviet prisoners, and my isolation slowly dissolved. I finally met a young Russian fellow who helped me write a letter to my mother. Like everywhere else I had been, neither the prisoners nor the guards in the camp had any pencils or paper. Amazingly, my Russian friend managed to find a pencil stub and a piece of paper bag in which they kept cement. We wrote to my mother that I was well, and that she should send some tobacco and ham. My mother never received the letter – not this one or any other I sent. She heard nothing from me for more than eight years.”

Conflict

Bien along with many other prisoners was transported to camp in cattle cars. “Criminals from the Soviet underworld (blatnoy, in Russian slang) occupied the bunks and upper spaces, they would kick them down. These criminals, like the guards, seemed used to the whole routine. Probably they had been born in prison and raised there by the state. They couldn’t talk without cursing; they fought constantly among themselves, and screamed with hatred at us, the political prisoners. The guards put the criminals in charge of other prisoners and gave them responsibility for food distribution. After taking food for themselves, the criminals threw the leftover scraps to us: black bread, salted fish, and a piece of sugar. We had no cups, so we drank from a bucket like horses. After a few swallows, someone else would already be yanking at the pail, and a lot of water ended up on the floor.”

Guards

“Our guards were women. At first they yelled and called us fascists, but they soon learned there was nothing to fear from us, human wrecks that we were.”

Survival

“The long winter of 1946 slowly gave way to spring, and we continued to toil in the fields. After the difficulties of the first months, I began to find my way, but I suffered constantly from hunger. As a weak, skinny kid, I just faked working. In fact, I tried to get away with doing as little work as possible, simply looking busy with intervals of loitering.”

Fates

“It was already past ten o’clock when I got my first glimpse of the apartment building where I had spent my childhood. I was sixteen years old when I left, and I was now twenty-seven. I walked slowly. My heart ached. I scanned the windows of the building, one after another, until I found the window of our apartment. I rang the doorbell, and my mother opened the door. Her hair was now white, but her beautiful face had not changed at all. We hugged one another and cried. My sister came out, and then her husband. We stayed up all night. No one stopped talking until dawn.”

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