European Memories

of the Gulag

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Childhood  IN THE GULAG

After the Red Army’s advance into Eastern Poland and the Baltic states, waves of deportation begin in 1940. Families are sent with their children to remote villages in Siberia and Central Asia; children are born there. Although some go to school, most have to work. Some spend time in orphanages.

From 1944, as the Soviets move back towards the west, hundreds of thousands of farming families are deported and a large number of children and adolescents are arrested, interrogated, found guilty of “nationalism” or “espionage” and sentenced to long periods of forced labour in the camps of the Gulag.

Deportation and life in the camp become the background to the early socialisation of an entire generation of Europeans and leave a mark on their childhood.

The voices and stories of the witnesses reveal the unique intensity of an experience in which fear, pain, hunger and cold are mixed with amazement at discovering a new country, sharing games and moments of happiness; an experience that they now see as a decisive lesson for their entire lives.

Marta Craveri and Anne-Marie Losonczy 

See MEDIA
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Irena Ašmontaitė – Giedrienė in an orphanage

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Child working in the forest
© Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius
Irina Tarnavska (right) in deportation with her sister and grandmother in 1951
© Irina Tarnavska
Irina Tarnavska (below right) in deportation, 1951
© Irina Tarnavska
Irina Tarnavska (left) with her father and sisters in Siberia
© Irina Tarnavska
Families of resettlers in the wagon taking them to the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia, October 1951
© Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius
Siiri Raitar (top right), in her class in Siberia, 1951
© Siiri Raitar
An Estonian family in Siberia
© Siiri Raitar
A family of resettlers in 1952
© Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius
Famille d’un résistant lituanien déportée dans la région d'Irkoutsk en Sibérie, 1949
© Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius
Juliana Zarchi (centre) at school in Tajikistan
© Juliana Zarchi
Elèves de l’école de Khara Koutoul, république autonome de Bouriatie, en 1954
© Rimgaudas Ruzgys
Rimgaudas Ruzgys’s mother and sister Regina, 1953
© Rimgaudas Ruzgys
Rimgaudas Ruzgys’s mother and sister with friends
© Rimgaudas Ruzgys
Rimgaudas Ruzgys with children using tree-trunks to cross swamps, 1955
© Rimgaudas Ruzgys
An orphanage for Polish children
© Janina Borysewicz
Funeral of Danuta Woyciechwska’s sister in Kazakhstan
© Danuta Wojciechwska
Siiri Raitar (top, 2nd left), first year at school in Siberia, 1949-1950
© Siiri Raitar
Family of a Lithuanian resistance fighter resettled in the Irkutsk region <br/> in Siberia, 1949
© Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius

Growing up in the Gulag

A childhood with the shock of leaving home, the journey without end, the cold, the hunger, the fear, work to have an extra ration card, but also the discovery of an unknown natural world, school, friendship and games shared: that was how children grew up in the Gulag.

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Silva Linarte tells of her meeting with the wolves

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Klara Hartmann describes her interrogations

 

“I was in prison, locked up with Russians. So I couldn’t really talk either. Basically, I didn’t realise what was happening to me, where I was, what I was doing there, what they were going to do with me. After two or three months, they transferred me to a single cell. And then the interrogations started, to get me to admit that I was a spy and who I was working for. There was an interpreter, a soldier from Transcarpathia who spoke Hungarian fluently. He said I should confess, because if I stretched it out I would die in prison. But I told him, “I haven’t been a spy. I don’t know what it means.” He insisted I should say I had and this nagging and pressure went on a long time. Because the interrogations were at night, in the daytime, they wouldn’t let me sleep. I had to stay upright in the cell all day. And a soldier would look through the spyhole to see I didn’t lie down but kept walking. Altogether, they were torturing me that way to get me to quickly say what they wanted to hear. In the end I couldn’t do anything. I was completely exhausted: they wouldn’t let me sleep or eat. So I said that indeed I was a spy, but I also had to sign a paper saying so. I also had to say where I’d been trained, in which school, who my teachers were, etc. And I couldn’t give any answers to that because I wasn’t a spy and I had no idea. And with the advice of the interpreter they wrote down what they could. Then some months passed. And just before Christmas I was called into the office and I had to sign that I had got ten years. The interpreter told me that I was being sent for ten years’ forced labour, but I shouldn’t be afraid because it would be all right and I could even survive perhaps, and after ten years I would be released and would live in Russia with a job and a flat and things would pass. I was almost glad.

I can’t tell you or, what shall I say, I can’t describe the things that happened to me in that prison because there were all sorts: sometimes I was put under a tap with drops of water falling on my head all the time. They would torture me that way with cold water. They called in the “box”. I nearly froze to death. Then they would take me out to go for interrogation.”

 

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Adam Chwaliński work in the taiga

In these two extracts, Adam Chwaliński describes how at the age of eleven and a half he worked sawing lumber in the forests of Siberia.

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An orphenage in Irkutsk

An orphanage in Irkutsk

Propaganda picture of a Soviet orphanage, taken from an Eastern Siberian newsreel, far from the actual conditions there.

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“Repatriated” Latvian and Estonian orphans

 

In 1946, at the instigation of the Latvian Ministry of Education, the “orphans and half-orphans” in the special settlements were allowed to return to Latvia. Many children had indeed lost one of their parents during the war and for the surviving mothers, sending them back to Latvia, for all the shock of separation, meant increasing their chances of survival.

 

So some 1,300 children, mostly Latvian but with a few Estonians, returned to the Baltic republics in 1946-1947. Often the escapees could not believe that their return was legal, although it is recorded in the Soviet archives, and put it down to a combination of luck and heroic individual initiative. For Silva Linarte and her sisters, arriving at the orphanage in Riga meant the discovery of (relative) abundance. When the children arrived after their exhausting journey from Siberia, they distrusted the food they were offered. The medical officer was the only one to understand and suggested cooking them potatoes, the only food they knew.

 

For these children, this return – ahead of other categories of resettlers – was a shock that is graven in their memories, the rediscovery of their homeland. Austra Zalcmane, her sister Lilija Kaione and Peep Varju benefited from this same exceptional treatment.

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Alexandra Belomestnykh, as a child, follows a plough