Days and Lives :: Survival

Prisoner: Nina Gagen-Torn

“During that tour my memory began to grow weak—whole pieces fell out, and I didn’t have an assistant who could help me restore them. But my cellmates absorbed even these pieces with passion, like dry ground taking in water. Even those who never thought about poetry or rhythm when free began to absorb and recite poems… I read them Blok and Pushkin, Nekrasov, Mandelshtam, Gumilev, and Tiutchev. Their faces brightened…We got used to the agricultural base: domestic customs emerged. We weeded the carrots, ate thin carrots’ tails, sitting right at the ridge. We collected the first harvest of cucumbers and sent them in boxes to the railway station. We ate them by hiding in a sleeve. Our foreman knew, but pretended he didn’t—by rule he could not allow us to eat. We had a silent agreement: don’t get caught!”

Picture of Janusz Bardach

Maintaining Dignity

In the following clip from Common Ground Radio, Mary Gray Davidson interviews Gulag survivor Janusz Bardach about how he survived the Gulag. The complete September 22, 1998 interview can be heard at


DAVIDSON: In 1941, twenty-one year old Janusz

Bardach, a soldier in Stalin’s Red Army, was sentenced to death for treason. His crime, getting his tank stuck in the mud. Instead of being executed though, Bardach was sent to Stalin’s most notorious Gulag in eastern Siberia.

Besides being young what else do you think allowed you to survive in the gulag? Because many young people died as well. You talked about preserving a sense of dignity.

BARDACH: I think preserving a sense of dignity. I think the will to live. I wanted to live. I didn't want to die. I wanted very strongly, I wanted to live, I wanted to go back, I wanted to get back to my previous life, I wanted to see my family. I thought that maybe, maybe I would find somebody alive. So I wanted to live. It's number one. Number two, I tried to preserve some, some kind of symbols of behavior that I had before I was arrested. Like washing myself every morning. So, I couldn't wash, so I used snow many times. Everybody thought that I am crazy, I went in the snow and washed myself, face at least. If not, I could spit on my palms and, and wash myself.

DAVIDSON: But it was symbolic.

BARDACH: Yeah, very symbolic. But it was very helpful. I felt better than people surrounding me who were filthy and dirty as much as I was and full of lice as I was. And not willing to be degraded, kind of. Being afraid to be degraded. I was very afraid to be degraded. Because I knew that then I will go down very fast.

DAVIDSON: So it was just a very slim....

BARDACH: Very slim edge to hold on.”

DAVIDSON: I heard you speak once and you were talking about your mother and it sounds like she gave you some pretty useful tools for coping with some most difficult events in life. In fact, didn't she provide this title for your book, Man is Wolf to Man?

BARDACH: Yes. That's exactly right. She was always, she used, she knew a lot of wonderful sayings and this was one, "man is wolf to man." And the other was that "the world is not without good people." And I would never survive in the camp if there would not be good people that I met on my, in those years. I would never survive. Because I met people that helped me, that gave me hope, that showed me that even in those conditions that there is some human spirit, that there is some humanity left.

DAVIDSON: I really like those two expressions. It kind of sums up...

BARDACH: That's right.

DAVIDSON: humanity. You've, people can greatly disappoint you, but then, then there are the good people out there who will surprise you, too.

BARDACH: That's right, that's right. So I never was, I never was pessimistic about people. And I also believe in people. And I like to be with people until now.