- Beth Lantinga
In the Gulag Archipelago
In this post, Rev. Gulacsy touched on some of the difficulties of life in the Kazakhstan gulag. His reluctance to revisit the horrifying memories matches that of others who shared his experiences. To understand Gulacsy’s camp life more fully, one only needs to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn was well acquainted with the Kazakhstan gulag. Anne Applebaum's Gulag also describes the life Gulacsy must have lived.
How to Choose a Camp Career
Eventually they took us from Ungvar to Lemborg, a transit prison, where 50,000 prisoners were collected to be disbursed according to our qualifications. There were many examination stations where we had to go one by one. Each prisoner had to appear totally naked and then we had to walk by, and one of the women physicians came to examine us. It was a strange thing for us to see how each prisoner would be categorized. The test was by pinching the skin. If the skin went back quickly, the person was put in category 1, but if it went back slowly, they were in category 2. My skin went back quickly, but because of my eyes, I was put in the second category. The first group went to hard labor, the second went to build, and the third went to work in agriculture.
Off to Kazakhstan
"I was sentenced to be imprisoned together with those who got 25-year sentences. Oddly, they were allowed to leave a month ahead of me when the Soviet Union joined the Helsinki Accord and was forced to release political prisoners. In Lemberg they put us into a train normally used to transport animals and we were given a tiny packet of food. There was a bucket for a toilet which was emptied once each day. In each car there were between 80 and 100 prisoners. Of course, we couldn’t sleep. The frigid cattle car reminded me of the cold chill I felt in elementary school when we studied Siberia.
After 17 days we arrived, and although it was very cold, we had to sit for six hours on the frozen earth before they took us into the prison. It was the Soviet way of welcoming prisoners. In our train there were about 150 women. In the camp where I landed, there were 15,000 men and 2000 women, many from Baltic countries. Many died. It was especially difficult for the older people. Every day, early in the morning, around 4 o’clock, we began with a thin breakfast, and then we had to go to work. Sometimes we were so weak that we could not work, so a committee asked for more food. For two years we were forced to work day and night without a break - without any time off.
I had bad eyes already and had to build houses and do many other jobs there in Kazakhstan. For a while I worked underground mining and really think that it is beautiful there. You cannot understand how beautiful it is – an amazing world of different rocks. I even brought some home and gave my collection to a school. But above the earth - it was 60 degrees C. in the summer and in the winter, it was minus 45 - 50 degrees. Yesterday it was 32 degrees C. There it was 60 degrees Celsius. Kazakhstan was in the desert towards the Chinese border.
For me in the camp from age 24 to 32 it was one thing, but there were people there who were 70 years old. We received a heavy coat for winter, and everything fit me. Also the shoes were good because my feet were small. There were huge people who nothing would fit. This is where I came to terms with my short height. There is always wind there in summer and winter. Because I was small, I could surround myself with bigger people and even the wind couldn’t find me. Before that I was always angry with God because in school I always had to sit in the front seat and the girls were not interested in me because I was small. But in the prison camp it was good to be small, and since then, I have been at peace with my size.”
Keeping prisoners hungry was one form of control; psychological terror was another. After Stalin’s death massive revolts developed in many of the slave labor camps. Like most of the prisoners, Gulacsy joined the strikers, and once it was quelled, he also suffered the consequences. Here’s what he told us. “Once they took me away as a punishment because I took part in a revolt against the work. So, we got two months of especially hard labor. I had to sleep on an icy piece of wood, and one night, along with other rebels, I was put on a truck and driven out into the desert. It was dark, and the further we drove into the desert, the more convinced we were that we were going to be shot.
I was pretty sure I would die because we had been told that every tenth person would be shot. I was a 'tenth' person.” Yet no one cried or shouted, we all remained silent, accepting that we were going to die, though we knew that truth was on our side. Once you accept the fact that you are going to die and are willing to give up your life, then it isn’t so difficult. In some ways, accepting suffering is something like this. It’s when you fight against the inevitable, that you become troubled.” When the morning light came, the terrified prisoners realized that they had not been driving far out into the desert, but had been circling the camp in huge loops. After the night of terror, all were released.
“During the terrible seven and a half years, I thought of Joseph in Egypt where there were seven years of famine and then seven years of plenty. We had both at the same time. The highest school level is the degree achieved in prison. We were together with 89 nationalities, all sorts of people: simple and uneducated, but also pastors. After the death of Stalin, we got a little more freedom and formed a free university. I met people that I would never have met in any other time or place and heard lectures that I could never have heard in the university or seminary. Reformed, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Jewish - they were all there.
There is a saying that we remember only the nice things from the past, so it is interesting that the bad humiliation, the bad nights all have disappeared. The great conversations remain - as if they happened yesterday: the communion we had in the working place with bread we saved and some water, with Roman Catholics, Baptists and other small groups. It was truly ecumenical, and since then, I have been a member of the ecumenical movement.
I am grateful that I could attend this school, but admit that those years were difficult. We were very hungry; we were humiliated. For two years we didn’t one free day - we worked without any break. Everyday we got just a small piece of bread - just enough to survive. When they gave us soup, it was awful. If you took one spoon of soup there were maybe three tiny pieces of cabbage. That was all. Rice was part of our diet too, but they gave the amount a cat might eat - three times a day. I wasn’t picky; I just ate what they gave me - just so it didn’t say meow. In the camps we organize for young people today, I tell them to just eat the food set in front of them and say that it is good. It’s awful to think that humans were kept in much worse conditions than animals are kept today. We hope that the 21st century will be better.”