Chapter II

One snowy morning the train stopped on a siding. In the distance, stretching some twenty miles all around us, were small hills of coal completely barren of snow. About half a mile away I saw some long, low barracks surrounded by a high wooden and barbed-wire fence. We had arrived.

It was late in the afternoon before they began unloading our boxcar. The sliding doors were opened and three heavily armed guards motioned us to get out. The men jumped down first and helped the women from the high car. Everyone was shaky after having been cramped up for three weeks.

When I reached the ground, I looked back to help the next woman. She turned out to be an epileptic who had been having five or six attacks a day during the long trip. She jumped into my waiting arms, and just as I was placing her safely on the ground, she began foaming at the mouth and making guttural, inhuman noises. I tried to get rid of her by laying her down in the snow, but a guard kicked me. I understood from this that I was to continue holding her. Meanwhile, everyone else fell into single file and marched off toward the barracks. I was getting tired, so I crouched down with the squirming woman in my arms. After a complete attack of contorted jerks, moans, and drooling, she finally came out of it. When I told her to get up, she refused until I shook her by the shoulders a few times. She staggered to her feet and made an effort to follow the column of prisoners, but she was so shaky that I had to support her all the way.

We moved slowly, and our long thin column looked like a black snake, crawling and winding through the cold white snow. Some of the people were struggling with suitcases, and although I was still supporting the epileptic I was given a suitcase to carry also. My only possessions consisted of my three schoolbooks, which I now clutched very hard, and a spoon a woman in the train had given me.

Our camp consisted of twenty-one bleak wooden barracks, in three rows. There was no kitchen, no washroom, no toilets, and no bathhouse. The compound was surrounded on all sides by barbed wire.

We entered the camp through the guard shack. Inside, two officers counted us as we passed. From there we followed a path leading to the barracks. The snow was ankle deep and the drifts were shoulder high in some spots. The angry wind howled, biting and stinging and bringing tears to our eyes.

The first of the barracks buildings was about 88 yards long; thin clay walls separated it into eight compartments, four on each side. We were met by seven or eight growling guards who counted us again as we went in. They looked like Mongols, and they kicked us freely and frequently. I was kicked into the last room or compartment. Inside at the far end stood a little fireplace with some coal in it.

When we first came in, the barracks seemed warm, but after a while we felt chilly again. The only actual difference between inside and outside was the lack of wind and the heat generated by our bodies; since we didn't have any wood, we couldn't light a fire. That night, sleep was out of the question. Those who hadn't brought blankets with them had to sleep on the hard dirt floor. It was a nightmare of crying, complaining, and praying. Couldn't these people realize that they were only making our situation worse?

Somehow morning came. All during the railroad trip I had been frightened by the uncertainty of what lay ahead, but that first morning I was especially anxious, for I realized that what we were supposed to do was now more important than where we were. My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a guard and an interpreter. The interpreter announced that men were needed for the following work details: bringing bread from a nearby town and distributing a loaf to every five prisoners, digging a latrine, building a kitchen, and unloading boards and pipes that were to be made into bunks. Then he asked for carpenters, and several men volunteered.

My job was digging the latrine with three other men. I had no gloves, and my shoes didn't protect me from the snow. I cried as my hands began to freeze, and the tears froze, too. In frustration I worked furiously with the pick, hoping to build up a little warmth.

It took us three days to finish the latrine. Each evening after work our reward was a fifth of a loaf of bread. The only thing we could look forward to after that was the next day's distribution. It's amazing how quickly people's reasons for pleasure can be simplified. Waiting for bread after work became the greatest joy on earth. It came fresh from the bakery in large canvas bags, and the saliva gathered thickly in our mouths as the odor pervaded the barracks. We would be herded into a corner of one of the rooms, while the opposite corner was stacked up to the ceiling with bread. Our eyes ate every crumb. Each of us imagined in his own way what he would do if an entire bakery fell to his disposal. During the first few weeks such daydreams kept me alive as much as anything else.

It took about twenty days of heavy work before the camp functioned with even a semblance of organization. They were painful weeks with painful lessons. In my compartment there was a blacksmith who had been arrested with his eighteen-year-old son. He was a tremendously powerful man; huge biceps and forearms would flex at us when he took off his shirt to look for lice. It made me laugh a little to see this powerhouse of a man scanning his body for tiny insects. But when he found them it was no laughing matter, for he would kill them with the same vengeance and lust that it takes to kill a man. Once, after we had received our rations, the blacksmith ate his up fast. He just devoured it. The he snatched half of his son's bread. When his son complained, he slapped him, with a terribly swift, catlike motion. The son cried quietly, but kept his mouth shut. I was stunned. Father and son. My father and me. If hunger could get the best of a man's paternal instincts, it could do worse. It was each one of us for himself. No relationships here, no room for the heart.

People were dying already; there was a regular burial detail, and the men assigned to it complained bitterly. One man in particular complained and complained. Finally I asked him, "Don't you think everyone is working hard? What are you crying about?"

"You don't understand," he said. "It's not the work. It's that we're digging graves for people who came with us from home. Today I dig a hole for somebody or other, and tomorrow who knows who's going to dig a hole for me, or for you? How long are we going to last?"

"But what good does your complaining do?" I asked him. "Try to put it out of your mind. I'm sure we weren't brought here to dig latrines until there's no one left to use them, and dig graves until we've all buried ourselves. When the camp functions, we're going to have to work somewhere, and if you keep complaining and worrying you'll just wear yourself out and tomorrow they'll dig your grave and that'll be that. You're better off saving your energy and staying alive."

He gave me a funny look and said, "How can you be so hard?" but he didn't complain any more after that.

One morning, three weeks after we had arrived, four officers and three civilians wearing fur coats came into our barracks with an interpreter. The civilians were party members and bore themselves with an air of superiority. We were told that we were in the greatest anthracite coal region in the world, the Donbas. We were to work in the mines as slave laborers. From school I remembered that the Donbas region covered many square miles of the Don valley in southern Russia. Hundreds of coal mines were scattered all through the area.

We were to be divided into three shifts: 7 A.M. to 3 P.M.; 3 P.M. to 11 P.M.; 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. Men and women would be treated the same. Also Stalin had passed a law to provide everyone, regardless of nationality, working underground in the Soviet Union with a thousand grams of bread a day. So far we had been getting about three hundred. Everyone working outside the mine -- that is, on the platform surrounding the entrance -- would get seven hundred grams. They told us that the soups would become richer and the kasha thicker and more abundant. We would be issued new clothes when we needed them. In general, everything would improve, since we were in the workers' paradise.

A day or so later, as I was passing through the guard shack coming back from a water detail, a young Russian officer spoke to me in a friendly way. I didn't understand what he was saying, but from his gestures I understood that I was to give my two pails of water to two of the older men who carried only one and come closer to him. I was limping badly at the time, because my socks were rotted and full of holes and my shoes were beginning to fall off my feet. The officer told me to take my shoes off. When he saw the state of my feet, he shook his head and said, "Yakoy numer?" several times. I understood that he wanted to know my shoe size and drew the number 48 with my finger in the ashes next to the little iron stove. The officer made a phone call and then went out, saying "Podasdi [wait]." He went off in the direction of the officers' quarters. Thirty minutes later he came back carrying a pair of brand-new felt boots. He motioned for me to try them on. They fit perfectly. I took them off and went outside to wash my sore, dirty feet in the snow. Back in the shack I started to put my old shoes and socks on again, but the officer gestured emphatically to take the felt boots. They were mine.

I couldn't believe it. I thanked him, almost in tears, and he said to me "Vanya budish [you shall be Vanya]." It was to remain my name. Never in my life have I felt so much gratitude. The boots looked so new and clean I didn't even want to wear them. They were warm and comfortable, and walking in deep snow became a pleasure. I loved them, and I loved that officer. He was the first decent human being I had met since I had left Romania. But it wasn't long before he was transferred, because he didn't approve of the unnecessary hardships and beatings and often stopped the sadistic guards from torturing and harassing the prisoners. He had a stern face and steel-blue eyes, and he seldom smiled. I think the other officers were afraid of him and arranged to have him sent away.

That night there was a terrible snowstorm. The wind howled and whined like the song of the devil. Everyone slept badly. The next day the storm continued. I was sent out on a water detail. It was murderous in that wind. After a while I lost the feeling in my ears, face, and hands. But my feet were warm and comfortable. That night they brought in a half-frozen guard. He had been drinking and had stumbled and fallen on his way from the guards' quarters; two hours later they found him almost dead. They brought him into our barracks, which was closest to where he had fallen. When he came to, he started crying, and through his tears he cursed all the prisoners lying in their bunks. We became afraid of the wind, wondering what it would do to us, when in two hours it had almost killed a well-fed guard in a fur coat.

The next day the entire camp was marched out to Mine 31, about two miles away, to dig out the railroad tracks. A train of full coal cars was snowed in on a siding. Coming out of the siding, the tracks went through a low valley where in some places the drifts were ten and twelve feet high. Looking at the bright snow became painful.

That evening we were told that the following day we would be divided into shifts to work at several mines in the area. I looked forward to the change anxiously, because my rations would triple and also because it would take me away from the miserable camp.

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Reprinted with permission from Jacques Sandelescu. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.