European Memories

of the Gulag

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Ján  ANTAL

Ján Antal was born with the name Kawasch in Magadan on 24 February 1950. His mother, Irena Kawaschová, had been deported nearly five years earlier and was then in a camp in Kolyma. Ján was sent, soon after his birth, to an orphanage in Elgen, north of Magadan. At the age of 2 he was sent to another orphanage in Vladivostok and then to Moscow. His mother was released in 1953, returned to Slovakia and began to look for her son, managed to find him and got him put on a train of returning soldiers on 29 April 1955. Ján took the surname of his mother’s husband and began to ask about his father’s identity, but his mother would only reply, “He was a good sort”.

When he grew up, Ján left to work in Prague and lived there thirty years. He studied at the Charles University and began to take an interest in philosophy. When he married, he took his wife’s surname and is now Ján Antal. In 2006, he accepted the offer of the Trigon film studio to make a film about his story and the researches he has made over many years to find his father’s identity. The film was called Môj otec Gulag (My father, the Gulag).

He set off for Magadan and visited the places where his mother worked, his first orphanage, consulted the local archives in Magadan and those in Moscow, but could not find the answer to his search. Ján Antal now lives with his wife and five children in Svodín, Slovakia. 

He is still looking for his father.

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His mother in the camps

Ján Antal does not remember the other children in the orphanage. He was only 5 when he left it.

On his return, his mother would tell him about her work in the Gulag, first in a gold mine. After an accident, she worked in the laundry then in the kitchens, where she met his father. Then her work was less hard and her food was better.

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His mother’s deportation and the camp

Irena, Ján’s mother, told him about her journey to “Russia”. She was pregnant and had a miscarriage on the train. In Poland, she threw notes out of the train window in the hope someone would find them and send them to her brother-in-law. When a deportee died, his body was thrown out of the carriage. The soldiers were nasty and you couldn’t ask them for anything. She spent three months on the train and always found it hard to talk about the experience.

From Vladivostok she went by boat to Magadan. She remembered that in the summer, when there was less work, they built roads or repaired things. Some prisoners ran away but they died or were captured. There were no fences, they worked in the open. To escape you would have to walk 800 to 1,000 kilometres with no food or warm clothes. She remembered one man who was caught and beaten.

Relationships between prisoners were sometimes violent, there were thefts. But some stuck together and supported each other.

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Difficulties on her return

Ján Antal speaks of his mother, Irena, with great admiration. After her return she had considerable money problems because her nine years working in the Gulag were not recognised by the authorities. She did a succession of odd jobs to survive. She taught Ján how to cook and work. She acted as both mother and father to him.

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Support on her return

Ján’s mother was fairly well received when she returned. She met some Adventists who were very understanding. They gave her a lot of help. Ján speaks about his mother’s first husband, Kawasch, who asked for his wife’s death certificate five years after she died and then remarried. Some locals looked down on her when she returned, because she had a child and had remarried, but on the whole they were fairly tolerant. Irena first stayed with the Adventists, then she managed to get half the house she had lived in before her deportation.

His mother was admired by people for her character.

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1968, Prague

In 1989, during the upheavals in Central Europe, Ján was in hospital and could not join the crowds. He also remembers 1968 because he was in Prague at the time. He got to work and his colleagues told him the Russians were in the city. He said nothing. He drove his motorbike to see a friend and they were arrested by the Russians. He took out his identity card, on which it said he was born in the USSR and spoke to the soldier in Russian. They were then let go. Ján remembers other instances when having been born in the USSR was an advantage for him.