of the Gulag
Vera Chopik-Drozd was born in a village in the Ternopil region, then Poland now western Ukraine, in September 1929. Her parents were farmers, devout members of the Greek Orthodox Church.
From her childhood on, she knew about her father’s activities and his fight for the Ukrainian cause.
When the Soviets entered western Ukraine in September 1939, her father was arrested and transferred to Ternopil prison. That is where she went with her mother to fetch him in June 1941, when the Germans arrived. For the first time she saw the communal graves with the bodies of the real or imagined enemies of Soviet control.
When in 1944 the Soviets managed to regain control of the region, Vera and her family helped the nationalist resistance that continued to fight the Red Army in the Carpathian Mountains. Vera learnt to make medicines with herbs, tailor uniforms, and cook meals with her mother to take them into the forest where the insurgents were hidden.
Her brother and father were arrested first. In summer 1950, it was her turn and she was sentenced to 25 years’ forced labour in the Minlag, one of the special camps for political prisoners near the town of Inta in the Komi Republic.
Three years after Stalin’s death, in 1956, she was included in an amnesty. She left the camp but was not allowed to return home. She lived for 21 years in the Komi Republic and trained to be a seamstress. Only in 1973 was she finally able to return to western Ukraine.
At Ternopil prison in June 1941
My mother and another widow harnessed the horses and we set off for Ternopil. It was June and the weather was very hot. There was an awful smell and flies buzzing everywhere. We couldn’t get near the prison. The German police with batons stopped us some way from the entrance. We got out of the cart, my mother took me by the hand and we walked up to it. The prison was surrounded with lorries and the entrance was blocked by two tanks.
There was silence. I realised that when the Germans had seized the prison they had dug to find a mass grave. And when we looked at the grave, it was already open. And the weather was very hot. There were lots of flies and you could smell the awful smell. The whole town of Ternopil had to be sprayed with chemicals.
And people were looking and crying: the prison was full of corpses. The grave was also full of corpses and the wall was covered with bullet marks.”
“The lorry drove into the yard and the Chekists [NKVD] jumped out. I was already dressed, because it was a festival day. I was wearing a pretty embroidered blouse and a chequered skirt. The Chekists arrested me. They tied my hands behind my back and threw me into the lorry like a sheep. I went for ten days with no parcels from my family, nothing. They then took me to Ternopil in a lorry. It was summer. In the lorry there were already four male prisoners, the Chekists sat opposite them and I was put in the middle. For those ten days in the town I didn’t have enough to eat. There were also other female prisoners with me.”