of the Gulag
Jakow Shats was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1929 to a well-off middle-class Riga family; his father was a pharmacist, they lived in a fine flat in the city centre and every year moved out to their house in Jūrmala on the Baltic coast.
They were deported on the night of 14 June 1941 to the Krasnoyarsk region. His father was sentenced to hard labour as a “socially dangerous element” and separated from them to be sent to a camp. But by good luck, during the night the railway workers didn’t manage to uncouple the men’s carriage from the train and on arrival many families were reunited.
Her parents were set to forestry work, Jakow spent his days in the hut, because he had no warm clothes to go out or go to school in. Life was harsh, the days were long and sad, his parents’ distress upset the boy’s life and in the summer he joined in with the farm work to help the family survive through the hard war years.
His paternal uncle was a journalist and at the end of the war managed to get them released by demonstrating the charity work that Jakow’s father had done for political prisoners in pre-war Latvia.
In 1946, they were allowed to return to Riga, they could not get their flat back, but his father was able to resume his work in a pharmacy and Jakow completed his studies, became an engineer and started a family. With Latvian independence he got his house in Jūrmala back and since then he has spent his summers there with his wife.
"They ordered us out of the train and onto buses and took us north of Kansk [Канск] in Taseevo district ([Тасеевский райог]. There, they found us accommodation with local people, took our passports away and gave my father a paper to report with every week. That is how our life in Siberia began.
My parents were not allowed to do intellectual work, they had no authorisation. They could only do very hard physical tasks, such as work in forestry, kolkhoz or camps. Remember that all of us deportees were townsfolk, not used to hard labour in the fields.
Remember, too, that in that region it is very cold in winter, down to minus 50°C. We were not prepared for the cold; we’d been arrested and deported in June and hadn’t brought any warm clothes with us; there were major supply problems, the locals also suffered from the lack of food, and a lot of deportees who didn’t manage to sell or barter clothes died of hunger.
Q. Did you go to school?
I didn’t go to school because I had no warm clothes to go out in; in winter you had to have fur coats, hats, warm boots, and I didn’t have any; so for three years I couldn’t go to school and it wasn’t until 1944 that my parents could afford to buy clothes, so I then went to school for two years. We spent five years in Siberia.
Q. You didn’t go to school. What did you and your sister do?
All of us in the family worked, my parents started working because if you didn’t work you had no money and you couldn’t afford the essentials. My mother worked, my sister worked. In 1943 my elder sister was drafted again and sent further to the east, where a railway line was being built.
Q. What work did your family do in the Krasnoyarsk region?
We felled trees, my second sister was drafted to help with floating timber downstream. I was younger than 18, under age, but I went working too with my mother in the fields on the kolkhoz, I helped my mother during the harvest and took part in the fieldwork in that way."