As the winter wore on, our daily required
quotas became higher and higher. Nothing was mentioned of rest periods
or activities, which had been the daily routine in the recovery camp. Every
indication that we were still human beings as well as prisoners seemed
to have died out. We had the feeling that we were no more than robots,
meant to do only work, work and more work. There is already so much in
the world written about oppression and slavery under the Bolschevist system
that I don't need to waste my breath telling these stories again. But we
felt the misery of this brutal system now, in all its harshness, in our
own bodies and souls.
The daily slave labor in the mines was made especially complicated and dangerous by the fact that not even the most basic resources were available. In the mine shafts, on the railroads, in the forests or at the quarry, nowhere was even the simplest, most necessary hand tool at our disposal. Either that, or what we did have was in indescribably poor condition. In spite of this, we were required to meet a work quota which under normal conditions, for example in German mines, would have been quite an unusual accomplishment.
Naturally, it came across as pure derision that we were deluged at every opportunity with propaganda about the Soviet paradise as a land of progress, culture and rights of the worker. Posters and sayings about the worker being praised as the most important person in the land hung in every room of the camp.
It was the beginning of December.
The weather had grown bitterly cold, inside and out. Snowstorms had raged
for days. Soon the snow lay over a meter high in places. All of the streets,
railroads and tracks to individual mines were snowed over. Traffic came
to a complete standstill, even though each of us, down to the last man,
was assigned to work day and night without pause to free up the transportation
It didn't matter that a man went to ruin here and there because of the lack of winter clothing. All that mattered was the shoveling of snow, even though the continual blizzards ensured that everything would be snowed in again after a few hours. Work continued without rest, but with little success due to the lack of organization and primitiveness of the equipment.
Civilians were also forced to help. Whenever special assignments were ordered, they shared with us the same fate. Men, women and children were pitilessly driven together. Foremen oversaw the civilians, soldiers the prisoners. Healthy and sick, prisoners and civilians, everyone worked side by side all day long in -30C weather so that there would be no interruption in meeting the quotas from the pits.
The norms were set and had to be fulfilled under any circumstances. So demanded the almighty government. How this happened didn't matter. The mine directors were held responsible, but even they were not free to make their own decisions. As members of the Communist Party, they were especially watched and could count on severe punishments if their production goals were not met. It was always surprising how fast one could find oneself in Siberia.
Just one story by way of example:
One Natschalnik (engineer) had the misfortune of failing to meet the daily quota because some loaded coal wagons had derailed during shunting from the loading area. He was promptly dismissed from his position and a suit was brought against him for negligence. A few days later he was already on his way to Siberia, and civilians informed us that he had received ten years hard labor.
One day, a small commando of prisoners
was sent out to get lime marching for two days to an unknown destination.
As the healthy men were all in the mines, sick and weakly men were assigned
to this commando. After two days, they returned completely exhausted, the
very picture of lamentation.
Two by two, they had carried the lime in wood-carriers on foot back to the camp after a full day's march. The unending icy storm had blown the lime, piled in open wooden crates on their shoulders, into their eyes, and many of them later became blind. Others collapsed on the way but were forced to rise again, beaten and trodden upon like cattle.
Most of the men returned only barely alive and, in spite of medical attention, never stood again. They died within days. Their tales of this inhuman march through snow and ice, under the merciless driving of the guards, were absorbed with appall throughout the camp. The atmosphere was terrible. We were shocked and indignant as never before. The labor camp at "A" had turned into a veritable death camp.
Even the lot these days of the men in Group 3, to which I now again belonged, was terrible. We were constantly forced to unload coal in the open air. Scarcely would we arrive at the work place, tired and broken from our continuous hunger and the struggle through the heavy snow, before we began receiving our daily beatings. The commands and orders of the guards were given in Russian, and as most of the prisoners could not understand their guards well or at all, many often made mistakes. Then the beating, kicking and ghastly maledictions would begin.
The civilian watch personnel at the workplaces treated us like slaves. Mercilessly they swung at the prisoners with any instrument that they happened to have at hand. If someone tried to light a fire in the bitter cold, it would be stamped out by the guards. The offender, after being severely beaten on the spot, would be reported for further punishment.
One civilian watch guard, a particularly coarse journeyman, was especially unpopular. He was of the opinion that men could not work well in coats. When we tried to make him understand that it was impossible in this freezing cold to work without coats, he ran enraged from one man to the next, tearing the coats off our backs into shreds. Then he mercilessly beat the prisoners who were lying on the ground with a coal shovel.
After he had beaten several prisoners to the point that they could no longer work, the Russian guard, who had been looking on at these atrocities, finally stepped in and forced the journeyman to desist. Under such circumstances, many could not avoid falling into a state of utter confusion. We no longer knew heads from tails, and we made many mistakes in our helplessness and fear.
A quota of 60 tons of coal had to be dragged daily and unloaded onto the wagons with a Nasilka (a primitive wood-carrying rack) carried by two men. We received nothing to eat. The whole day long, until we returned to the camp. The guards, on the other hand, were constantly being bribed by the mine Natschalniks. They received special rations, particularly of schnapps, so that they would be able to beat us and drive us even more and keep us working overtime for as many hours as possible.
As a general rule, we worked until late at night, even though our shift was supposedly over at 3:00. The daily quota, which for us was impossible to reach, had to be met, no matter what became of the work slaves.
A truly pitiful pack of misery dragged itself back each night to the camp, marked by hunger, beatings and cold. Many could not walk by themselves, and had to be supported by their comrades. When would there ever come an end to this suffering?
There was still not enough water available. Black and dirty, we each received a cupful of water to wash up with. Then began the nightly battle in the dining room, the hunt for some rusty mess gear, and the search for a tiny space to sit. Hours of waiting at the kitchen distribution window; shouting, bumping and shoving back and forth of and by extremely petulant prisoners -- all this was on the daily bill of fare.
And we suffered it all just to receive 3/4 liter of barley or millet gruel and 1/4 liter of potato porridge. The crowdedness of the room and the extremely agitated atmosphere caused many a bloody altercation, during which prisoners would often jostle just-received food out of others' hands. Naturally, there would be no replacement.
In spite of all this, the night came to us faithfully; and with it, blessed, blissful and all-forgetting sleep. Even though bugs came forth out of the chinks in the walls to ambush us in great numbers in the darkness, we were all so exhausted that we fell into a deep sleep on the bare wooden cots, covered only by our coats, and let these new tortures gorge themselves on what was left of us.
The miserable lifestyle naturally claimed its sacrifices. Our production figures decreased in inverse proportion to the brutal treatment. Refusals to work increased steadily, and the numbers of men in the punishment brigade rose. The "ice bunker" was never empty for a moment, and only those who had high fevers were set down as sick.
Many soldiers brought an end to this agonizing life through suicide. No one even knew their names.
For the first time, cases of insanity began to crop up. In the middle of the night, pitiful creatures jumped up, let out blood curdling screams, whistled, laughed and cried, called for their fathers and mothers, wives and children, then stared rigid and exhausted for hours at the ceiling, only to jump up later and repeat the whole crazy performance again.
In this mood came Christmas, 1944.
The work columns went to work in the mines, just like any other day. Instead
of 8 hours, we worked 12 hours, as usual. This was our Christmas present
from the Russians. Then, the Russian camp commander suddenly remembered
that he had told us upon our arrival that he would treat us as if he were
our father. Surprisingly, he allowed us to hold a small celebration, and
we observed Christmas in our way. It lasted only one hour, but it was a
outcry of deepest agony, of profound longing and bleeding homesickness.
On New Year's Eve, the camp kitchen was busy baking and stewing all day long. The Russian garrison was celebrating the New Year. From the barrack of the watch guards, we heard cries and noises, broken by the shrill laughter of women's voices. An accordion played dance music, vodka was consumed and the celebrating and rioting continued the whole night through.
In the prisoners' blocks, on the other hand, it was deathly still. We lay on our wooden cots and could not sleep. Our thoughts flew again and again to the West, where we knew that our homeland, our beloved country, on whose borders the Soviet Army stood in these very hours, was in grave danger.
Others waited for the camp alarm to ring, signaling the night shift to move out of the gate and into the mines -- just like yesterday, just like on Christmas Eve, just like every night.
Full of bitterness, we thought about our fate of the past year and, full of aching fear, of that of the coming year, which stood before us all with an anxious question of uncertainty.
The silence was suddenly broken. Full of impatience, as if under attack, a voice tore through the silence of the night with its sharp words: "I won't think any more! No, I don't want to think any more!"
Even in that moment, comrades were already at the man's side, giving him words of encouragement, telling him that the war would certainly end in the next year, and we would all be sent back home again. In spite of all of our troubles, our belief in life itself had not been completely extinguished.