European Memories

of the Gulag


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A minority began to return from the camps and resettlement after the war, but the great wave of amnesties and liberations began after Stalin’s death and continued until the early 1960s.

Prisoners and resettlers returned after a long journey to native lands they did not recognise, with a changed political regime and sometimes changed borders (Baltic countries, Poland and western Ukraine), to families often decimated by war and purges, and subject, like the entire population, to systematic checks of their biographical background.

Hiding the traces of their dangerous past and keeping silent about it, in order to rebuild a life in a society of many unstated constraints, was a strategy shared by the survivors and their families.

But the silence they were locked into by this strategy affects their memories of return and reintegration with a painful burden of solitude and isolation, increased by the loss of their fellow detainees.

Despite all their efforts, for most of them the stigma of their disreputable past made finding legal housing, a job, higher education or membership of a mass organisation an uphill slog of frustration and danger.

Only in the late 1980s did the political pressure ease off and gradually their thoughts and memories re-emerged within the family and then in public.


Antanas Seikalis’s difficult return

“I suffered a lot before I managed to fit in.

I had no propiska, the residence permit you had to have then, and without that you couldn’t live. For a whole year I lived in lavatories. They weren’t working as lavatories, of course. But I had my folding bed and table. And I even had to pay rent for the lavatories. I was sent from one job to another, I would work for two months, or one month, and when the KGB found out, they ordered that I should be sacked. The most important thing was that I should not work with young people; they said ‘sack that misfit!’”



Irina Tarnavskaia remembers her return

In this extract, Irina Tarnavskaia describes the difficulties she faced when she returned to Ukraine.


Marite Kontrimaite kept her silence

Marite Kontrimaite did not talk about their past: “What would be the point? It was nothing extraordinary.” But in 1987, she spoke out publicly.


Klara Hartmann, under a stigma on her return

"I felt better, too. But I was still home-sick. It was awful: being far away in the middle of nowhere. You could see the air quiver in the heat, like an oven heating up. And you look and you think to yourself, ‘My homeland is over there somewhere’. I wanted so much to go home even though I knew that I had no one there, because my family had left. If I went back, what would I find, since I had no one?

Had you no brothers or sisters?

No. I had no… I don’t know. My family life is like that: I know nothing of who, what, how. I was just told that they were dead and… later, I found a cousin who is still alive. They live in Kál.

He was really, as I remember, the only person I felt belonged to my family… but nothing more. He was alone too. Really, I didn’t find anyone I felt closer to. My adoptive parents did go home. But he was imprisoned and died there, and she went mad. Altogether, the whole family broke up entirely.

I went back. I did not dare get myself noticed because when we returned we were all considered to be enemies of the fatherland, traitors. Even those who knew did not talk much to us, for fear of asking a question or hearing something they weren’t supposed to know. Then gradually all that faded away. Those nine years wiped a lot away, all the same…

So it lasted nine years…

Yes… Those nine years wiped a lot away in me too. I ended up feeling I belonged nowhere. To be honest, I was even afraid when they put us on the train back home. I was afraid: ‘Where am I going? What will happen to me?’ Because I knew nothing about Hungary, what was going on there, what the situation was. We knew nothing. At any rate, I didn’t"


Discrimination against former deportees

Austra Zalcmane, and her elder sister especially, were faced with restrictions because of their background: daughters of an enemy of the people, resettled in Siberia, they had to fill in an autobiography before they could gain a university place or job and were often refused. They learnt to conceal their origins.

Austra also refused to deny her father’s memory and was not allowed to join the komsomol communist youth movement.