European Memories

of the Gulag


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Micheline  HERC

Micheline Herc was born in 1937 in Warsaw, where she lived with her parents. She was two years old when the Germans and Soviets divided up Poland. To escape the Germans, her parents left for Białystok, then Vilnius. Refusing to take Soviet citizenship (her father was prepared to, but her mother firmly refused), they were deported in June 1940 to the Arkhangelsk region, where they stayed until the Poles were amnestied in August 1941. Then they left for Central Asia by train and boat to a small town near Tashkent, then to Kazakhstan, where Micheline lived alongside the Kazakhs, learnt their language and took part in their cultural and religious activities.

In May 1946, they were finally allowed to leave the USSR, crossed the devastated Ukraine and got to Poland, where they discovered that all their family who had stayed had been exterminated. They went to Warsaw and then Łódź. There, her parents prepared to leave for France, where an uncle was expecting them. They arrived in Paris in September 1946. Micheline trained to be a doctor and specialised in psychiatry. Now she is retired and has taken up painting again: the devastations of war she saw from the train home, the landscapes of the Russian Far North and the colours of the Kazakh steppes recur in her paintings and her memories.


Refusing nationality and deportation

Micheline’s mother refuses to take Soviet nationality. The whole family is deported.


Childhood memories from Arkhangelsk


Letters from far away

In deportation, in the remote corners of the Russian Far North and Kazakhstan, Micheline Herc’s parents got letters from Paris, Châteauneuf-la-Forêt, and Moscow, all from relatives. These letters bear witness to the sparse but real communication between these worlds distant from each other.

The most surprising one is probably the letter that left Châteauneuf-la-Forêt on 18 March 1941 and arrived at “Lake Shirb point, Osinov postal centre, Priozyorny district, Arkhangelsk region”, a remote place deep in the Soviet Far North. Unfortunately we do not know how long it took to arrive. It appears to have been forwarded via the Red Cross.

There are also a number of letter sent to Sayram, where Micheline spent her Kazakh childhood. The delivery times were long: one written in Paris on 14 June 1945, passed through Moscow on 12 January 1946, Alma Ata on 12 March and only arrived on 5 April, after going through the military censors. It took just under a year to reach its destination. Micheline Herc received it, but only just, because she left Sayram for Poland one month later.

The letters from France came from Marie (Mary in the letters) Rosenberg, Micheline Herc’s mother’s sister, who was living in France.

There is also a letter from Ida Radilovski, a lyrical singer, the wife of David Radilovski, Micheline’s great-uncle on her mother’s side, who was the director of the GUM department store in Moscow after the Revolution. The letter was sent from Moscow on 10 September 1945 and arrived in Kazakhstan on 18 September.


Extermination – anti-Semitism

On her return to Łódź, Poland, Micheline Herc discovers she is Jewish and suffers from anti-Semitism.


Memories of Central Asia


Radio portrait of Micheline Herc

Yasmine Chouaki’s programme En sol majeur (RFI) on Monday 27 February 2012 was dedicated to Micheline Herc


The Kazakhstan school in Paris


Memory – repression