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Surviving Freedom

Surviving Freedom: After the Gulag

Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 269
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  • Book Info
    Surviving Freedom
    Book Description:

    In 1941, as a Red Army soldier fighting the Nazis on the Belarussian front, Janusz Bardach was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. Twenty-two years old, he had committed no crime. He was one of millions swept up in the reign of terror that Stalin perpetrated on his own people. In the critically acclaimedMan Is Wolf to Man,Bardach recounted his horrific experiences in the Kolyma labor camps in northeastern Siberia, the deadliest camps in Stalin's gulag system. In this sequel Bardach picks up the narrative in March 1946, when he was released. He traces his thousand-mile journey from the northeastern Siberian gold mines to Moscow in the period after the war, when the country was still in turmoil. He chronicles his reunion with his brother, a high-ranking diplomat in the Polish embassy in Moscow; his experiences as a medical student in the Stalinist Soviet Union; and his trip back to his hometown, where he confronts the shattering realization of the toll the war has taken, including the deaths of his wife, parents, and sister. In a trenchant exploration of loss, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and existential loneliness, Bardach plumbs his ordeal with honesty and compassion, affording a literary window into the soul of a Stalinist gulag survivor.Surviving Freedomis his moving account of how he rebuilt his life after tremendous hardship and personal loss. It is also a unique portrait of postwar Stalinist Moscow as seen through the eyes of a person who is both an insider and outsider. Bardach's journey from prisoner back to citizen and from labor camp to freedom is an inspiring tale of the universal human story of suffering and recovery.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92984-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  4. Maps
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
    (pp. 1-4)

    On May 9, 1945, the war with Nazi Germany ended and we prisoners working in the central hospital in Kolyma hoped for a general amnesty. My best friend and mentor, Dr. Nikolai Rafaelovich Piasetsky, had already been released and was living in Magadan, the capital of Kolyma. My brother Julek, a colonel in the Polish army, had informed me through our correspondence that he was working to secure my early release. The summer dragged on. Only a few other prisoners had been liberated, and my spirits plummeted. Then in late August I was called to the Office of Registration and...

    (pp. 5-21)

    On a gray, cold, gloomy afternoon in March 1946, I arrived at the Moscow-Vnukovo airport. No one was waiting for me. No one knew I was coming. For several hours I trod the Moscow streets in spitting rain and snow looking for my cousin Katia’s apartment. Sleet soaked through my leather shoes and unlined leather jacket, making me shiver and my teeth chatter. It was still winter in Moscow, and the Muscovites wore sheepskin coats or long military coats without insignia. I headed down Gorky Street, passing armed militiamen on street corners and in front of prominent buildings. Raindrops poised...

    (pp. 22-32)

    Julek extended the writing board from his desk and handed me the application form from OVIR, the Office of Visas and Registration of Foreigners, which I had to fill out to get a permit to visit Wlodzimierz-Wolynski. I scanned the sections, subsections, fine print, and detailed questions. The first four pages requested information about myself; the last four pages requested information about my parents, siblings, and other relatives. I had to sign each page at the bottom, swearing that all statements I made were true. Underneath the space for the signature, in bold letters, was the customary warning that false...

    (pp. 33-45)

    On the train from Lvov to Wlodzimierz-Wolynski the clicking of the wheels changed its rhythm, and the words I heard were not words of love and hope but despair. The wind howling through the telephone wires reminded me of Billy, my German shepherd, and the way he howled when he contracted rabies. To keep him from being shot I lied to my parents that I saw him drinking water and eating his food, despite the fact that for several days he had had severe rabies hydrophobia. I also hid the wound where he’d bitten my hand when I tried to...

    (pp. 46-58)

    Lying on the thin mattress in the Bristol Hotel, I closed my eyes, hoping to drop into a deep, forgetful sleep. Mosquitoes buzzed around the hotel room, and the sticky night air clung to my aching body. I didn’t want to think anymore. I didn’t want to be hurt by one more memory. I tried counting forward and backward in all the languages I knew, but my mother’s voice kept intruding: “Where are you? We need you.” Her voice was calm and steady. I tried to remember my father, but his face was contorted. Taubcia and Rachel cried out my...

    (pp. 59-75)

    Visiting the house on the hill didn’t help me feel any better prepared to face the future. I still needed to go to the apartment we lived in on Farna Street, even though there were no happy memories for me to recover there. From almost the day we moved in it brought nothing but death and destruction to my family, and I held it as accountable for our suffering as I held the house on the hill accountable for my happiness.

    The apartment on Farna Street was a step up in life for my parents. Modern, spacious, it had indoor...

  11. 6 NO MAN’S LAND
    (pp. 76-85)

    I leaned my head against the cool glass and closed my eyes as the train pulled out of the Wlodzimierz-Wolynski station. I didn’t want to think about anything or remember anything. I just wanted to lose myself in the wind, with the sun shining warmly on my arm and life outside disappearing as quickly as it had come.

    Another train sliced through the roaring wind, and I opened my eyes to see the silver cars rush by on the adjacent tracks. It was the commuter train heading toward Wlodzimierz-Wolynski. For a moment it was hard to tell if I was...

    (pp. 86-103)

    My interview was scheduled for 4:00 p.m., but I left the embassy early in the afternoon to spend time at Clear Ponds and rehearse the lies I intended to tell about my past medical education at Warsaw University and military service in the Polish army. Lying and cheating had become a way of life, and it came easily because it had saved my life in the gulag. Since arriving in Moscow I’d gotten used to lying about my past during the war, so another lie about my medical education seemed to me an extension of my new persona. Sitting on...

    (pp. 104-111)

    It wasn’t long before the sleep deprivation caused by the extra work with Sioma and Viktor and the commute to and from their apartments began to wear on me. At first I was just tired during the day, but as the fatigue accumulated I lost my ability to concentrate, and then my ability to control my fears and obsessions. Abgarian’s threat loomed over me. Fear of failure in chemistry and physics led to fears of flunking out of medical school, which made me question my future, which ignited fears of illness, joblessness, and home lessness. To make matters worse, the...

    (pp. 112-122)

    I missed the November 7 parade marking the anniversary of the October Revolution. I’d always thought it strange that the October Revolution was celebrated in November. This came about when the communists took power in October 1917. They changed from the old Greek Orthodox calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which pushed the date of the Revolution forward to November 7. But the anniversary retained the original name: the October Revolution holidays.

    On the day of the parade I lay sick in the embassy guestroom with coughing and a fever, and I was terrified I had a recurrence of TB. I...

  15. Photos
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 123-133)

    There were changes in the Polish embassy. Ambassador Rabbe had been recalled to Poland, and a devoted communist by the name of Wolpe became chargé d’affaires. He didn’t like the few diplomats, Julek among them, with roots in the Polish Socialist Party. Julek was notified that after summer vacation, he would be moved from the embassy to the Grand Hotel, an old, fashionable hotel right across from the Kremlin. Although the Grand Hotel was in a prime location, being removed from the embassy did not bode well for Julek.

    Two rooms had been reserved for him in the hotel, and...

    (pp. 134-145)

    Julek took me to the Belarussky station to see me off for my summer vacation in Poland. It was already evening and I was relieved when no one else came into the compartment. I pulled down the bunk, stretched out, and fell asleep. Several hours later, I was awakened by loud knocking at the compartment door. I opened it and the Soviet border guard barked, “Give me your passport and prepare your luggage for customs control.” He handed me two forms. “Fill them out. Be specific.”

    The train rolled to a stop. Footsteps pounded across the roof and loud blows...

    (pp. 146-157)

    The warehouses lined up along the tracks were scorched and pitted, but none of them had been bombed or burned to the ground. The station name, Lodz-Fabryczna, was painted in faded black letters on the sides of the warehouses. Before the war Lodz had been the second largest city in Poland and had had the largest textile industry in the country, and the Jewish population had been the second largest in Poland, next to Warsaw’s.

    Julek’s apartment at 74 Gdanska Street was in a modern, four-story building that had belonged to a German manufacturer during the war. The man left...

  19. 13 SUMMER 1947
    (pp. 158-169)

    In Lodz I met more Jews from Wlodzimierz-Wolynski than I expected, but only two were friends from the Jewish gymnasium: Izia Geller and Silek Shternfeld. Silek had completed his studies at the Moscow Theatrical Institute and was now acting in the Jewish theater in Lodz. The other Jews I met were my parents’ friends. Although they quickly became my friends, their presence disturbed me because it reminded me of my parents’ absence, the untimeliness of their deaths, and their refusal to go into hiding. I could picture them getting ready for guests to come over, greeting them at the door,...

    (pp. 170-177)

    As the train cut across swollen rivers and furrowed through the golden grasses of eastern Poland, I had an untidy sense that I’d failed to find what I was looking for. I wanted Poland to be my homeland and the Poles to be my compatriots because after completing my studies, I’d be going back to Poland and would have to adjust to the new conditions there. I wanted to have the same attitude toward Poles as Julek, Jacek, Genia, and Silek did, but I believed that no matter how hard Jews might try to be assimilated, they weren’t going to...

    (pp. 178-189)

    Pathology was the most boring class I had during my second year. Professor Soloveyev, a tall, gaunt, somber man, lectured as if he were giving a sermon at a funeral. Accustomed to dealing with corpses, he didn’t notice that no one listened to his lectures. I felt as if I were suffocating in class with each passing minute and tried to rouse myself by looking out the window at the squirrels jumping around in the elm trees. When the bell rang no one waited for Professor Soloveyev to finish the lecture. Our books were packed, and we were out the...

    (pp. 190-205)

    It takes a long time for memories to fade and to learn how to concentrate on things not connected to the past. Going into the third year in the institute I obsessed less and could immerse myself for longer periods of time in my studies. I got better at weeding out the bad memories and retaining the good ones. Like training my muscles with daily exercise, I trained my mind to memorize information quickly, and I worked hard not only to survive but to succeed. I was ready to begin classes, but my summer visit to Poland, Julek’s departure, and...

    (pp. 206-218)

    As I lay on my bed listening to my snoring, hacking, farting roommates, the camp saying “No animal would survive the conditions in the labor camps, but a human being can adjust to anything” ran through my mind. But I never compared my present quarters to the embassy or Grand Hotel. I compared them only to the overcrowded barracks where I slept on raw bedboards fully dressed and full of lice. Before long the cramped, stinky dorm room became my refuge. My iron-spring bed was the only space I claimed as home, and my suitcase, shoved under the bed and...

    (pp. 219-232)

    Back in Moscow I dropped off my suitcase at the dormitory and hurried to Sretensky Tupik to see Lena. I carried the last letter I had received from her, which I’d read so many times on the train it had torn along the creases. Holding a small bouquet of flowers in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, I knocked on the door. Now I regretted not having written to her about the stipend, worrying that perhaps she was gone or worse, that she’d started seeing someone else. But when the door clicked open and Lena threw...

    (pp. 233-246)

    In the last months of 1952, I wanted to be blind and deaf so I didn’t have to see or hear what was going on around me. I wanted to preserve the tiny island of Lena’s and my happiness, but it had already been eroded by the militia’s nighttime visit. I wondered if I could withstand another personal disaster—being deported to Poland and separated from Lena forever—and the stress of the threat made me take a hard look at myself to see if I could endure another loss. For the last several years I hadn’t attempted to perform...

    (pp. 247-250)

    When Lena and I went to Poland in 1954, I was frightened but ready to face the formidable challenges of new colleagues, a new culture, and a new position in life. The Polish Ministry of Health delegated me to work at the Medical Academy in Lodz in the position of assistant professor. Our living conditions were slightly better than those in Moscow—Lena and I were given two rooms in an apartment that also housed three other families. Three years later I became chairman of the Department of Maxillofacial and Reconstructive Surgery. I organized the first Polish Center for the...

    (pp. 251-251)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 252-252)