of the Gulag
Hunger, not having enough to eat, being constantly hungry, being obsessed by finding something to eat, suffering scurvy and night blindness for lack of vitamins; all these are physical and psychological conditions that recur in the stories of our witnesses, particularly those who were children when they were deported.
Many lost their parents, brothers and sisters because of difficulties in finding foodstuffs, including milk for babies. Some had brought clothes and useful things from home that they could barter locally for food. All learnt to pick mushrooms, roots and berries in the woods when the season was right. Those who were deported before the Germans invaded the USSR suffered even more. During the war some million prisoners died in the labour camps and the invalidity rate was 22% of the survivors. In the remote villages the Russian Great North and Siberia, where thousands of families had been sent, food shortages were the daily lot of both locals and deported.
Anatoly Smilingis tells of hunger
During the first months of their deportation, Anatoly’s family survived on supplies imported from Lithuania. But in the winter of 1942 things got worse and anything went when it came to keeping the family alive.
“My little sister Rita was looked after in the boarding house at school, where the youngest children had board and lodging. We had to eat too, so Mother started going to the stables more often. Occasionally the horses were fed a few grains of oats. She began to bring some home, I wondered where from, she ground them into flour and cooked it. It cost her dear. Someone saw her and she was arrested for a handful of oats. I never saw her again. They took her away and she died somewhere in a camp. I was on my own.”
Anatoly began life as an orphan and had the terrible experience of famine, which he says he really suffered from for nearly six months. In this sequence he tries to explain what a child felt during the final stages of hunger:
“We had nothing left to eat. I remember some episodes. Somehow or other I had managed to barter something for a loaf of black bread, a whole loaf! I ate it and it was as if it was nothing. I ate it and yet it didn’t feel like it. I cut it up into tiny pieces on the stove and suddenly there was none left. And then, you can cry your eyes out, it’s all over, all gone. I can still remember. And I started swelling up, it started in my legs. It was well known: some who started swelling hadn’t long to go, then your stomach swells. And you know, you become completely indifferent to everything, you turn into a zombie. But I was still hungry, except that I had legs like lead and I could barely lift them. I can still remember.”