An Interesting Life [English]

An Interesting Life [4] — Life in the USSR

By July 22, 2020No Comments

So Adam and his two brothers-in-laws left for Russia. Although the pass that my father had for travel to Russia helped a few times, they were eventually arrested by a German patrol near the new border with Russia. They were led to the barracks in a single file at night on a country road. There were many of them. Most Polish roads had then and have now a deep ditch on both sides. My father whispered to his brothers-in-law that it’s time to try and escape. They quietly fell into the ditch, waited until they could not hear anyone, and disappeared into the thick woods.

After a few days, they eventually found work for a few weeks on the property of a rich landowner. Unfortunately my father was denounced by some well-meaning citizens and taken by the Russians into the USSR proper. He never mentions the two brothers-in-law again. They might have survived the war; they were much younger; I don’t know…

Adam had no legal papers for residence in the USSR. As with many Poles who ran from the Germans and ended up in Russia, he was accused of being in the country illegally and being a spy – shpion – a common accusation to get rid of people uncomfortable for the regime and send them to prison or worse.

When in prison, the news got out that he had a great tenor voice. One day the inmates began chanting from their cells: “Adam sing, Adam sing”. He obliged with a couple of love ballads. The prison guards sentenced him to solitary confinement. He has no idea how long he was in there: it was dark and the meals (dark bread and water) were not brought in at regular times. It was too small a room to lie down and the floor was wet with an inch of cold water – cold and dirty. He stayed in there in his underwear for a couple of weeks.

A couple months later he was sent to timber gulags (slave camps), first in the Komi Republic. He was moved into the far North, to Siberia, closer to the Bering Sea to harvest timber to build build tire, tank, car, and plane factories desperately needed for Stalin’s war efforts. He stayed in Russia until May 1944.

Siberia was cold. His expertise with timber gave him some privileges so he was not starving. On a bread-run to the supply depot, a couple of hours from the camp, he needed to pee. He was driving a “troika”, a large sled pulled by three horses harnessed side-by-side. This means of transportation was vital in Siberia, fast (30-40mph) and reliable on the snow. The temperature was so cold that your spit froze before it hit the ground. Opening his pants would probably cost him his penis. Wetting his pants would cost him his life – freezing to death. He suffered for an hour thinking all the time that he will faint and freeze to death anyway.

Russian troika three-horse sled

In Siberia, as if the cold was not enough there were mosquitos. They were huge, very hungry, and very persistent. They got into the clothes, under the hat, into your shoes around the shoe laces and bit you through the socks. By the way, there were relatively few guards and certainly no fence around the camp: escape was unthinkable.

One story my father told me was that the factory builders ran out nails. Iron and steel were used to build tanks and trucks for the army. They sent several telegrams to Stalin asking for nails. He replied: “Can’t. Build without nails!” So they did. They used hard wooden pegs. The factories were built.

Adam’s beautiful tenor voice helped him get out of the Siberian hellhole. The Russians are very fond of singing and large choirs. How he was discovered is a mystery. Either he traveled west on some assignment or some high official heard him sing. He was assigned to a large military choir and ended up near Moscow. His Russian was impeccable; he sounded native: very difficult for a Pole because of the similarity of the two languages, Poles typically keep a polish accent in Russian. He did not.

He traveled a lot with the choir, performing at different locations, helping raise the troops’ morale. One day, after performing for Nikita Khrushchev, then the governor of Ukraine, and his staff, he had an interesting interaction with the future premier. After he sang a few solos, Khrushchev asked: “Who is this? Where is he from?” He was told: “It’s a Pollack!”  Khrushchev was incredulous but so impressed that he gave my father a pair of new shoes: a treasure in those times.

There were a few really bad months during which famine struck western Russia and the Moscow region. At one point in time my father’s weight was 40 kilos. He looked like death itself with a big, distended stomach. He did recover after a short stay in the hospital.

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