European Memories

of the Gulag

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Janos  ROZSAS

János Rózsás was born into a working-class family in Budapest in August 1926. From his earliest youth he loved books and had a talent for languages, but he had to leave school at 14 to provide financial help for his family.

He was sent to the front against the Red Army at 18, was quickly taken prisoner and sentenced for high treason to ten years’ forced labour and exile for life in the USSR. He did not understand his sentence but felt relieved because he thought he was going to be executed. He was sent first to Odessa, then to the Ukrainian camps at Nikolayev (Mykolaiv) and Kherson, where he learnt Russian in a few months. In 1946, he was moved to a camp in the northern Urals where he just survived in atrocious conditions of cold and hunger, or rather, he said later, he lived “trying to build a little world around me with books. It was important to dream, to rise above reality. I would spend my nights reading secretly and then I followed with days of work.” In 1949, he was sent to Kazakhstan, where he met and made friends with Solzhenitsyn, thanks to a passion for Russian literature and culture that was unusual for a Hungarian imprisoned in the Gulag.

In 1954, he was amnestied and returned to Hungary. There he started writing about his nine years in the camps, as he had decided to do long before his release, if he survived. He also began another long-term project: with his knowledge of Russian he undertook to write rehabilitation requests for hundreds of his fellow Gulag prisoners. His memoirs were published in Munich in 1987 and translated into English and German. Despite the cold, the hunger, the humiliation and the violence, Mr Rózsás says, “I do not regret my nine years in the Gulag. If I had to do them again, I would. I met people and learnt such interesting things!” and adds, concerning Russia, “I feel homesick for that country that I love so much, that is where I spent my youth.”


 

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His sentence of ten years’ forced labour

“We hadn’t hurt anyone. We hadn’t even fired a single shot. We were kids sent to the front by the Germans and, in spite of that, there were sentences of death and 10, 15, 20 and 25 years… I was one of the lucky ones, I only got ten years and deportation for life from the military tribunal of the third Ukrainian front.

That meant that after the ten years, I could never return home, I was leaving for eternal exile in the Far East.

Of course, at the start, we didn’t even understand it, we didn’t believe it, we couldn’t grasp it. And we knew even less that on our arrest we had immediately become Soviet citizens so that they could sentence us as such…

I was alleged, under Article 58.2, to have prepared an armed insurrection against my Soviet motherland. And under Article 58.9, I had been an agitator against my motherland… a legal nonsense! 

We, of course, couldn’t understand a word of Russian, we only saw that we were surrounded by armed guards… first, they wanted to execute us! That was the order of one of the commanders, to execute young prisoners sentenced under Article 58. But then another officer came with another order from Comrade Stain: it had to be the military tribunal that officially sentenced us to death.

So after six weeks of unpleasant imprisonment we were expecting to be sentenced to death. To our surprise, some of us only got ten years.

It may seem ironic, but believe me: when the interpreter, a Ruthenian woman whose Hungarian wasn’t very good, showed us her ten fingers because she didn’t know the word for ten, and said, “that’s what you’ve been sentenced to, you have been bad, you are going to Siberia”, we were relieved! Siberia meant life for us.”

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Russia and the Russians

“I’d even say I like the Russians. They are a very interesting people, inclined to mysticism.

They are so ambivalent: when they’re drunk on vodka, they’re like wild animals; when they’re sober, they’re as meek as lambs.

They are a willing people, credulous, capable of sharing their last bit of bread, they know how to help, they like helping. They are a people full of generosity. But throughout their history they have been slaves, serfs…

First in the time of the Boyars around the year 1000, then during the Mongol invasion, which lasted 300 years, then there were the 300 years of the Romanov dynasty, which was not a “garden of raspberries” either, as the Russians say. And then, the Soviet regime. I don’t know when there will be a democracy over there; because quite simply this people as lived under continual oppression and an eternal slavery, servitude.

Have you been back to Russia since?

I’ve been, several times. I feel homesick for that land. That’s where I spent my youth. I feel really happy among them.”

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The Gulag as a school

“Believe me, it was such a school for me that the articles about my experience published later in Hungary had headlines saying that I didn’t regret my nine years in the Gulag! Because for nine years, I met so many interesting people, heard so many interesting things… I’d never have been able to come across them otherwise.

Just imagine, there were still among us prisoners from the time of the war between Russia and Japan, the 1917 Revolution, the Ukrainian famine… and the 1936-1938 purges, when the Army was decapitated… everything that was revealed at the 20-21-22nd Congress of the CPSU.

I was living alongside surviving witnesses of these events, who had the courage to speak of them to people they could trust.

So it was a good school for me… I quickly learnt Russian and I could understand their conversations. And since I seemed harmless to them, they would talk about these things in front of me.

I accumulated so much information that when I read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago later, I recognised many of the things described in it.

I gained a lot by surviving those nine years… by living through them. In fact, I tried to create a little world around me, thanks to literature among other things.

Mihály Vörösmarty (Hungarian poet) says that “dreaming destroys life because it looks towards troubled skies…” Vörösmarty hadn’t been in the Gulag!

If you didn’t dream, if you didn’t daydream, if you didn’t think about somewhere else, if you didn’t have hopes, you’d die. We couldn’t complain, say ‘Oh God, I’m hungry! Oh God, what misfortunes!’ Out there you had to rise above yourself, surpass yourself;

And books helped you do that?

Books… and faith.”

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“Free” people

“In summer 1945, my mates went to talk to the camp commandant. They said to him, ‘Commandant. The death rate is huge. The work is hard. We are asking for better food.’ He replied, ‘Realise this – we were at Nikolayev – in town there are many people who would like to be in your places because you get your bread ration every day but out there they haven’t even seen bread for weeks.’

Then, during the rubble shifting, we had a chance to contact and talk to free people – at the time, supervision wasn’t so strict – and they told us that they were indeed living in great poverty. So we were sharing the suffering and privation of the Soviet people!

The distinction between freedom and imprisonment was extremely vague.

For example, in Kazakhstan, in the steel works at the camp where I was working on the blast furnace, the director was a free man and a Party member and the chief engineer was a prisoner… So we were working alongside free men. On one machine there would be a free man; on another a prisoner.

Once, I heard that one of the free men – well, ‘free’ but probably exiled, deported or recruited… no matter, one way or another he had ended up in Kazakhstan, a young man, he asked the chief engineer for three days’ leave: 

‘Vasya, I won’t give you any leave.’ Because there was an opencast coal mine and a part on the excavator was broken. ‘Until we’ve finished making the spare, no one will get any leave, because the excavator isn’t working and production has stopped.’

So the prisoner chief engineer refused to give the free worker three days’ leave! What can you say?”

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Solidarity among prisoners

“What were relations with the Russians like?

At the start, not too good. Because during the war, we Hungarians, Germans and Romanians had been on the other side.

But the USSR also sentenced its own nationals as fascists for having collaborated with the Germans. Since the camps needed lots of labour, they found plenty of excuses for sentencing people as war criminals.

So that is why our Soviet fellow prisoners would say to us, ‘It’s because of you we’re in the camp, because it was by mistake we were considered to be fascists, whereas you Germans, Romanians, Hungarians, you really are fascists. We’re here because of you.’

Ilya Ehrenburg, who was as much a rabble-rouser as Goebbels, stoked up the hatred of the foreigner, the enemy… the enemy, he said… on the one side there were the Hungarian peasants shooting and on the other, Russian muzhiks. Broadly speaking, simple people shooting at each other.

But later, things got better, the Soviets knew our names or at least our way of being; and then solidarity among prisoners came first.

To make work easier, flannel the guards… for that we were really united.

Then it didn’t matter if you were Russian, Ukrainian, Tajik, Tatar… in order to bamboozle the brigade leader so we didn’t have to do the work imposed on us. Faced with that, we were all the same.”