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  • Beth Lantinga

Kolyma Stories

I must have absorbed fear from conversations at home because, as a child the word Siberia made me shiver. It wasn’t until I read Ann Applebaum’s book “Gulag” that I began to understand what Barna Horkay endured during his stay in Kolyma, one of Siberia’s most brutal places. Bootless and shoeless prisoners constructed foot coverings from tire scraps and rags. These “boots” protected them from sub-zero temperatures almost as effectively as the rags that served as coats. Horkay worked cutting trees in the forest, a job that many labeled Siberia’s worst. In some locations, “snow days” were allowed only when temperatures reached minus 60 degrees Farenheit. Other places were more lenient and allowed prisoners to return to the camp” at minus 50. Varlam Shalamov spent 17 years in Kolyma and described its brutalities in “Kolyma Tales,” a book still available in libraries and online.


When Dolorosa Horkay had finished telling her story, we turned to her husband, Barna Horkay. His 95-year-old face revealed a kind of measured radiance. He began softly and with a grin said these words, “Goodnight, I love you,” his only English words. And then he told of his arrest and his memories of Kolyma life. He was arrested at his home and taken without any identification, any papers, and without even a change of clothes. There was not really a court hearing. A three-man tribunal sentenced him to a camp in Siberia, evidently a result of his refusal to become an informer. He was led to believe that he could return home after two years.


When he seemed to drift off, his daughter said, “They are interested, sweet father, in your imprisonment.” Barna seemed to be at such peace in his own current situation and in his memories, so that his first response was to say that God took care of him and was gracious to him. He had not suffered any real harm. Dolorosa looked a bit surprised by that statement and said that surely his life had been in danger. He conceded that pastors were beaten with their hands tied behind their backs. He remembered a pastor who was launched back into their cell by a vicious kick from a guard.


In response to a question about his work, Barna began by describing the effort needed to cut down virgin trees but soon slipped into a kind of reverie. “The sun was still shining a 10 o’clock at night, and even at midnight you could read by the light of the sun. The northern lights were so very beautiful. One night . . .”


It seemed that the calm memories abruptly ended when, without a hint of nostalgia, he began to describe life in Siberia. “We lived twenty to a barrack. On one side were the beds and on the other was the door. In the middle was a small pot-bellied iron stove. We had to feed it. Winter lasted from September through May – nine months. June was spring, July was summer, and August was autumn. Snow fell during the first week of September.”


Rev. Barna Horkay

“One winter, he continued, “They wanted me to perform a task that was impossible in knee deep snow. I was supposed to build an outhouse in that snow. I couldn’t possibly do it. So, I decided to build a facility like one in another camp: two posts with a board between over a hole.” Without pausing he continued. “In that other camp the board was too weak. A man was sitting on the board when it broke; he fell into the hole below and drowned. It didn’t happen to me, but I witnessed it.”


Suffering from the extreme cold, Barna’s feet became so swollen and painful that he could not walk. A medical officer came by and became angry that Barna couldn’t do the work. Another lower-ranking officer asked why he was lying around. Barna described what happened. “He told me to take off my boots. I had no socks, just rags to wind around my feet. I and unwound the rags. The officer pushed on my badly swollen foot, and his finger made a deep impression. He asked whether I had told the doctor. I answered ‘yes’ I had told the medic, but he had sent me back to work. This officer was different. He told me I was going to the nearest hospital 300 km away.”


“I had to wait outside for a truck to come. They wanted me to pull myself up to climb into the back of a grain transport truck, but I couldn’t do it. Finally, two cars came by, and I was able to get into one of them. I arrived at the hospital at night on a Saturday. A Hungarian boy visited me every single day and brought me a little food to eat. One day, without any notice, the doctor took me into an examining room and discharged me. I said I was still ill, but the doctor said that all the time allotted to me was used up. Even the amount of time one could be sick was controlled!”


And then, it seemed that recalling his Siberian days had exhausted him, or maybe he needed a nap. In any case, it became clear that it was time for us to go. We left, touched and grateful.


Through Anna’s Eyes


Dolorosa Horkay

Horkay’s daughter Anna had been present at the June 2003 meeting. I met her again in 2011 when she lovingly described her mother, Dolorosa.


“It is certain that my mother’s strong faith surely helped her survive those hard years, but there was something about her personality that was also important for her survival. Maybe it was somehow related to her artistic personality, but she had the ability to see beauty in the ordinary details of life and could celebrate something as ordinary as having enough flour to bake with. She wasn’t dragged down by the troubles of her life; her soul was always lifted up.


After we left Transcarpathia and moved to Sarospatak (Hungary), we again saw this side of my mother in a new way. One time we were walking home from church, and I had to grab her arm so she wouldn’t stumble because she was looking up, entranced by the beauty of the clouds.


When we were growing up, we didn’t always recognize those qualities; we only resented her strictness. When we became adults, we could understand that strictness was her way of protecting us from Soviet influences, but as children we often protested against her rules. She wouldn’t let us go on school excursions, and said that those children were not proper friends for us. Our life was protected and sheltered within the community of the Reformed church.”

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 © Beth Lantinga 2020