European Memories

of the Gulag

BioGraphie

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Irena  AŠMONTAITĖ - GIEDRIENĖ

Irena Ašmontaitė-Giedrienė was born in Šiauliai, Lithuania, in 1935. Her father was a mechanic and her mother a telegraphist. In 1941, the family was arrested and the father separated from them and imprisoned. Her pregnant mother and the three children were deported first to the Altai region (where their little brother was born) and a year later to the Far North of Siberia, to Trofimovsk near the Laptev Sea in the Arctic Ocean. There, their mother fell ill and the three children were placed in an orphanage. Irena lost nearly all her family in these freezing, inhospitable places: first her little brother, born in the Altai, a few days later her mother and a month after than her sister.

Then she was moved to an orphanage in Bulun, in the Yakutsk region. Her grandmother wrote to Polina Zhemchuzhina, Molotov’s wife, to be allowed to bring her back to Lithuania. The first attempt failed because the person who was supposed to look after the trip took the money and disappeared, leaving the girl at Yakutsk airport. Finally, in 1946, Irena managed to return to Lithuania with other orphans. She moved in with her grandmother in her native town where she went to school and became a nurse.

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Life in the orphanage

…they issued a permit for me to be brought back home

At Bulun, we had no electricity. Six months night, total, polar. There was one month of continuous day, June. At night, white bears prowled around the house, scavenging… Instead of panes in the windows they put in sheets of ice, because glass could not stand a cold of -60°C. We got water by melting snow, we brought river ice back to the children’s home. If they needed to run a bath or anything, they brought lumps of ice. Once a month they ran a bath… In summer we had to fetch fuel. Nothing grew out there, nothing except little bushes, there were no trees. They floated logs down river from the Yakutsk region. The biggest boys in the home pulled them out of the river, sawed them up on the bank and we carried them up the hill to have a few reserves for the winter. There was no electricity, we had oil lamps. We used to go to school, but when a blizzard blew up, we couldn’t set foot outside. They sometimes rigged up ropes from the home to the school. You’d go outside and things seemed to be all right, but suddenly you couldn’t see where to go. By holding onto the ropes, either we got to school or we went back home.

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The life of an “ice child”

In 1941, Irena Ašmontaitė-Giedrienė, her brother and sister were deported to the Altai region with their mother, who was expecting her fourth child. A year later, they were moved to the far north of Siberia near the River Lena delta, as  “physically weak” workers. She recalls disease and death in her family:

“It was 1942. My mother fell seriously ill, she was working… somewhere or other… they built a hut, she started working in the hospital they set up there, it was a hospital unit, a few rooms. When she fell ill, they sent her to hospital there, because scurvy, famine and disease had started. Every day they would bury 10 or 12 people. There was no cemetery, just big pits. Trofimovsk was on a sort of ice island, they dug holes in the ice. They were all laid out on top of each other, hundreds of them, thousands.

My brother was taken on by a fisherman brigade, he was 15. My younger brother was born in the Altai region, he wasn’t yet one year old. They put the three of us in a children’s home. It was a big hut with the hospital on one side and the home on the other. We moved into the home. A little while later, we woke up one morning and found our little brother dead. A careworker took us to see our mother. She was in the hospital, she couldn’t speak, she was all puffed up, she just asked where Romukas was, our little brother, he wasn’t with us. We said he was dead. She shut her eyes, tears fell, and they took us away. Three days later, the careworker came and told us our mother was dead.”

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Molotov’s wife helps her return to Lithuania

"My father wrote a letter to my grandmother in Šiauliai saying I was out there. How he found out where I was, I don’t know. People told her to write to Molotov’s wife, Zhemchuzhina, to have me brought home. She went to see a lawyer, he drafted a request, which she sent. Zhemchuzhina was the head of all the children’s homes, that was her job. And she actually contacted the Yakutsk education department, then the director of our children’s home. They said I could go home…"