On the other camps – Ruth Franklin in NYRB:
‘My maternal grandparents were people who had suffered. Even in my earliest memories, their faces are deeply lined, their hair sparse. My grandfather, a tall man, was perpetually stooped, his chest sunken; my grandmother’s knuckles were swollen with arthritis. Each wore a full set of dentures. Their expressions brightened when they looked at me, their only grandchild. But when no one was watching, their features would settle into the grim stoicism of those who have endured extreme hardship and can never be confident that it will not descend upon them again.
That they were victims of trauma was unquestionable. Born in central Poland in the 1910s to different branches of the same family, they fled east when Hitler invaded in 1939, leaving behind siblings and parents who decided to stay. On the journey they endured torture and humiliation at the hands of the SS before escaping into eastern Polish territory newly occupied by the Red Army. And here things get murky.’
‘They were the lucky ones. That’s the refrain repeated by Holocaust scholars and others to describe the Polish Jews who survived the war in the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, being deported by Stalin spared them almost certain death under the Nazis. But I don’t think my grandparents considered themselves lucky, even in an ironic sense. Physically and emotionally, they were indistinguishable from my grandfather’s sister, who survived Auschwitz, or his brother, who spent a year in the Polish forest fighting with a group of partisans. Nevertheless, it felt wrong to call them Holocaust survivors. To the inevitable question—“What camp were they in?”—I had no response: I didn’t know the name of the camp they talked about or even exactly where it was. Their story had none of the hallmarks of the Holocaust testimonies I dutifully consumed: no ghettos, no selections for the gas chamber, no death marches.’
‘How is it possible, Adler wonders, that “one chapter of that story was almost entirely displaced by another”? Survivor’s guilt is a likely factor: because their relatives and friends back in Poland were murdered in overwhelming numbers, the deportees who survived in the Soviet Union may have felt reluctant to broadcast their own suffering. But there is another factor to consider—one raised by the writer and philosopher Julius Margolin in Journey into the Land of the Zeks and Back, a searing memoir of his five years in Gulag camps that was originally written in Russian in 1946 and 1947 and only just translated into English by Stefani Hoffman.
Margolin, who died in 1971, argues that the Soviet Union’s enslavement of millions was integral to the functioning of the Soviet state—a position that many in the West were unwilling to accept at the time, or for a long time after. Stalin—“Uncle Joe” to the American media—had been Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1939 and 1942; the Red Army, fighting with the Allies, liberated Auschwitz in January 1945 and helped to inform the world of Hitler’s atrocities. “No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another,” Anne Applebaum wrote in her comprehensive Gulag: A History (2003).’
‘Though much of the archival material related to the settlements remains sealed, it is possible to recognize the scope of Stalin’s actions. Starting in the early 1930s with the mass deportation of well-to-do peasants (kulaks), he ravaged the population in the name of industrial development, sending deportees to remote regions and putting them brutally to work. By enslaving as many as six million Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and other residents of the territories he claimed for the Soviet Union—in addition to millions more of his own citizens—Stalin perpetrated a crime against humanity of drastic and as-yet-unacknowledged proportions, with reverberations into the present and beyond.’
‘Dekel reports in In the East that on February 19, 1940—which happened to be three days before my grandfather’s twenty-fourth birthday—the NKVD signed a contract with the Soviet All-Union Timber Amalgamation agreeing to provide slave laborers for lumber work. The same month, an announcement appeared in Der Bialystoker Shtern, a Yiddish newspaper, requiring all refugees to register with the Soviet authorities. They were offered an ultimatum: they could return to German-occupied Poland or accept a provisional form of Soviet citizenship that would forbid them indefinitely from living within sixty miles of the Polish border. Taking Soviet citizenship might mean cutting off the option of returning later; declining it constituted surrender to the Gestapo. Many of the refugees—including Dekel’s family, Margolin, and my grandparents—registered to return home.
Some refugees later said that by February 1940, time and distance had already dimmed their memories of the Nazis’ cruelty. Others simply wanted to be reunited with family members. But conditions in the Soviet-occupied territories were clearly bad enough for the refugees to imagine that even Nazi-occupied Poland could be an improvement.’
‘The Gulag system, Margolin writes in Journey into the Land of the Zeks and Back, was not merely “a singular method of running a state taking up one sixth of the planet and of controlling a nation that could be kept in submission only in this way.” It also served as a means for the Soviets to develop remote regions of an unimaginably vast land, effectively colonizing their own country: the Gulag was the USSR’s “largest construction organization,” in the words of the historian Oleg Khlevniuk. In many cases, the officials in charge of the camps had suffered incarceration or forced resettlement themselves.
At times, the special settlers constituted nearly half the population of the Gulag system: by one estimate, in 1941 there were close to two million prisoners overall in labor camps and colonies and 1.5 million in settlements (sometimes termed “exile villages”). Referring specifically to deportees from eastern Poland, Applebaum cites estimates that 108,000 people were arrested and sent to camps, while 320,000 were deported to settlements.
The distinction between camps and settlements was not always clear, and there often seemed to be no reason why one person was sent to a camp (as Margolin was) and another to a settlement (like Dekel’s father’s family and my grandparents). Regardless of their destination, deportees were told that they would never return to Poland. “You’ll go home when the entire forest is chopped,” exiles at Dekel’s father’s settlement heard. My grandparents said the commandant in charge of their settlement pointed to a nearby river and told them they would return only when the water flowed in the opposite direction.’
‘Like Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz, Margolin devotes much of his memoir to the straightforward description of camp conditions. At “Square 48,” the geographical designation that served as the only name for the logging camp in the Baltic–White Sea Industrial Complex where he was first sent, winters were so cold that trees in the forest cracked and the guards removed the camp’s only thermometer “so as not to upset people.” The zeks were given shoes made “without size or form” from rubber repurposed from old tractor tires, and padded stockings tied with string around padded trousers, with a padded jacket on top; they used towels or rags as scarves. All this padding sometimes ignited as they tried to warm themselves around a bonfire: “Friend, you are burning,” they warned each other.
Margolin graphically describes the effects of “alimentary dystrophy,” or chronic malnutrition. His weight eventually dropped to ninety-nine pounds; he had difficulty walking, climbing to the upper bunk, or even getting undressed for the night. Rashes appeared on his skin; his bones protruded. The prisoners devised rituals for making meals last longer, adding water to the soup or mixing in bread to make it thicker. They ate anything extra they could find: mustard that the cook smeared onto their fingers, black bread with straw baked into it, rotten scraps of potatoes that pigs left behind. Some prisoners died after eating grass. In 1945 Moscow ordered the camps to stop listing alimentary dystrophy as a cause of death. “The fact that this order was marked top secret indicates its authors’ awareness of its shameful meaning,” Margolin writes.’
‘Most of the Polish prisoners were released from the camps and special settlements in August 1941, after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Stalin renewed diplomatic relations with Poland. According to the Polish government-in-exile, the number of Poles to be released was 1.2 million, of whom approximately one quarter were Jewish. Jewish sources estimated that the number of Polish Jews in the USSR was larger—between 350,000 and 500,000. Some settlements were so cut off from the world that the news of the amnesty did not reach them for many months. Others learned of it from newspapers that their relatives in Poland had strategically used to wrap parcels. My grandfather, on the day of his amnesty, dared to ask the commandant in charge of his settlement which way the river was running now. Fifty years later, his memory of that moment still brought a triumphant gleam to his eye.’
‘By the winter of 1943, Margolin had become a “goner,” camp parlance for prisoners who had lost the will to live. (Levi and others have described long-term prisoners at Auschwitz in similar terms.) “I was like someone who had fallen off a ship into the sea,” he writes. He found himself envying people who died at home in their beds, heroes who died on the battlefield, even a dog who could die in a kennel: “Our deaths were many times more hideous and agonizing.” A doctor intervened on Margolin’s behalf: he was declared an invalid and sent to the hospital to recover. This status, which allowed him to be excused from work, enabled him to survive another year in the camp. But in the spring of 1944 there was a labor shortage. Along with a group of other Poles, he was transferred to Vorkuta, a mining camp beyond the Arctic Circle notorious for its dangerous conditions. Miraculously, at a transit camp along the way, he encountered the same doctor who had saved him in Kruglitsa, who hospitalized him again and shared his own ration with Margolin. He survived and was released on June 21, 1945.’
‘The question I find myself returning to is whether it is possible to measure suffering. A dictator’s evil is usually defined by the number of people he killed. By sheer number of victims, Stalin would come out ahead, but Hitler killed a higher percentage of those who passed through his hands. Yet death is surely an incomplete metric for human misery. Margolin felt no reluctance to draw an equivalence between the two dictators. “We looked at the well-groomed beards, the golden pince-nez, at the mountain of baggage, and we imagined what would happen to all this tomorrow, when they would force them to go by foot for hundreds of kilometers,” he writes of a group of Lithuanian Jews bound for Square 48.
Later, we heard that only a few of these people survived the camp. The Dutch and Belgian Jews who were transported in passenger trains to the gas chambers of Auschwitz must have looked just like these Lithuanians. In Auschwitz, their agony ended on the very day of their arrival. These people waited years in camp. Whose death was easier; who knows? Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)—published two years before Stalin’s death, when the Gulag was still fully in operation—called the fate of his millions of victims a “symmetrical phenomenon” to Nazism. In his foreword to Margolin’s memoir, Timothy Snyder notes that there is no Soviet counterpart that we know of to the Nazi death factories of Birkenau, Chełmno, Bełżec, and Majdanek, but he echoes Margolin in pointing out that the Soviet system was “older, larger, and more durable.” Regardless of the similarities to the Nazi system, what happened in the Soviet camps must be understood in its own historical context—but we cannot assess what we do not know. Until the KGB archives are fully open to researchers, Stalin’s crimes will remain incompletely examined.’
Read the complete article here.
It’s hard to measure suffering, and by doing so one easily becomes a bookkeeper of suffering, which is not a very desirable pastime.
The ‘Historikerstreit’ in the 80s was an attempt to compare the crimes of Stalin with those of Hitler, but it was rightfully understood as an operation to whitewash the crimes of Hitler.
Also, many fellow travelers did defend Stalin and his crimes till late in the 20th century.
The idea that the extreme right can be compared to the extreme left is till today seen by many on the left as diminishing the horrors of fascism. They have a point.
But to look at the crimes of Stalin – and it’s not easy to separate Stalinism from real existing communism – is necessary to understand history. It should not be understood as a way of balancing different crimes. In the hope of reaching comforting conclusions: communism and fascism are equally bad.
Also, contemporary Germany is not a paradise, but ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung' took place in Germany.
Nothing like that ever happened in the Soviet-Union.