Brutal Russian labour camps still haunt my dreams
Anyone reading Kazimierz Szmauz’s book will find it difficult afterwards to moan about irritations like late trains, parched lawns and repeats on TV. Nearly killed by Nazis, he was then imprisoned in the Soviet Union’s inhumane labour camps. Unlike many prisoners he survived . . . just. Steven Russell hears an amazing story
“I looked down at my skeleton-like frame and felt the horny skin on my face and hands and the deep furrows in my cheeks. I had been strong, athletic, healthy and full of energy and vitality eighteen months ago. Now I was a bundle of rag and bone.”
Somewhat miraculously, he manages to regain some limited strength and struggles on. Life has fresh nightmares in store, however – such as having to remove stinking just-thawed topsoil with his bare hands while bitten by insects, incessant hunger, and being sentenced to another eight years of hard labour for insulting the Soviet Union.
A summary like this doesn’t do justice to the barbarism and horror of the period. The full powerful story is captured in Kazimierz’s book The Numbers Had to Tally – a reference to the Soviet obsession with counting its prisoners at every turn.
It’s been years in the making. The catalyst for reviving painful memories was 1968, when the Prague Spring uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks. It’s taken another 40 years for the book to come to press – issued through son Andrew Summers’ publishing operation. (Summers is an Anglicised version of Szmauz, since Brits found it difficult to pronounce the Polish surname.)
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It is, as the secondary title suggests, An Extraordinary Tale of Survival.
Kazimierz, now 94 and living in retirement on the Suffolk coast, was born 95 miles from Warsaw. Father Josef was a glassmaker. The family of five children lived in two tiny rooms.
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Kazimierz was 23 and a law student in Warsaw when Poland was invaded by the Nazis in 1939.
On September 7 the president of the city orders all young males to head east, to new defensive positions by the River Bug. Kazimierz boards a train, but about 20 miles outside Warsaw it’s attacked by a dozen or so Stuka aircraft, which shoot those running from the train and wreck the locomotive itself. The young man presses himself as best he can into the earth of a potato field and manages to survive.
Three weeks after the Nazi invasion begins, the Soviet Red Army occupies the rest of the country, as “liberators”. What the Poles don’t know is that Hitler and Stalin have hatched a plan to partition the country.
Later, finding himself on the Russian side of a redrawn Poland, Kazimierz joins Lwow university while he draws breath. He endures mind-numbing lectures on how wonderful the Soviet Union is. By the second week of December he’s tired of the parody and seeks to slip west through Hungary or Slovakia.
He and another couple of men are caught by border guards, however, and subjected to mock executions.
Kazimierz is imprisoned with adults, children and babies in an old chicken farm. They have to relieve themselves outside, communally. On Christmas Eve many are herded onto a lorry and taken to Brest’s medieval fortress. Anyone trying to escape will be shot.
It puzzles him why the Russians are locking up so many people who are obviously only confused and innocent of any crime. When he is called for questioning he puts this to his investigator. “His answer was astounding. It was worth locking up thousands, he believed, rather than to miss one spy.”
Into 1940 – and now in the hands of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD – the awfulness begins in earnest. He is taken to Brest-Litovsk’s city prison and forced into a cell meant for about four people. It holds about 40. He falls asleep standing up, pressed within a mass of bodies. Two men die before morning.
As the days pass, interrogations initially long and laborious become violent. “They accused me of a series of fantastic crimes – spying, sabotage and organising an armed revolution. With each new accusation I was beaten to a different degree . . .”
More time passes. A youthful interrogator, leafing through Kazimierz’s now-thick file, lectures the prisoner. He would be a difficult case for re-education, having been infected with capitalist ways, and would be a danger to law-abiding Soviet citizens.
Kazimierz has been there nine months. He is so skinny his cellmates nickname him Mahatma Gandhi.
In August he’s taken to a camp by cattle wagon. The commandant tells him papers have arrived from Moscow and reads out the sentence from the Troika court. “I was declared a dangerous element and thus an enemy of the Soviet people.” He is sentenced to eight years’ forced corrective labour.
“The courts had become an important means of recruiting unpaid labour for Stalin’s economy and they dispensed justice at will . . . Millions of people had been purged from civilian life and had been declared enemies of the state. They were now engaged as slave labour in the colossal task of changing the country from a land of peasants to an industrial and military powerhouse.”
Another camp. The work site is an hour’s march away. The job is to build new barracks for the next batch of labourers. The overseer measures the earth each man digs. “We now learnt that we were to be fed according to our individual efforts.”
“Normal” performance earns about 800g of bread per 24 hours – about the same as a standard large cut loaf. Work at 30% of the norm and you’ll be on a punishment diet equivalent to three or four slices.
“The pattern of our life as human beasts had begun.”
At times he works as a carpenter; sometimes he spreads cement. Another time, pretending to have TB in order to be put on light duties, he has to bury patients who have died of terminal illnesses. Another task involves cutting through ice to lay an electrical cable across the River Volga.
The temperature at midday is still well below freezing. His boots stolen, Kazimierz has to fashion footwear out of pieces of an old tyre tied on with rags. Minor victories, such as covertly tipping tools into the river or breaking a box of glass, are cherished.
Another move. Incarceration has turned him into a wild beast. Provoked, he uses a jagged cup to attack a thug. “Primitive ugly instincts were aroused. Every possible means, no matter how degrading or devious, were used to stay alive.”
Another move. A lice-infested camp . . . an apparent typhoid outbreak . . . less than half the camp’s 2,000 prisoners survive . . . an imprisoned young Russian dancer whose crime was to complain about not being able to find a new pair of ballet shoes.
A train journey takes them 1,300 miles, and beyond the Arctic Circle. There’s another 200 miles on foot. Those who fall far behind have the dogs set on them and are shot. “We just walked on and didn’t look back.”
A huge project is under way to build thousands of miles of railway, linking central Russia with the rich mineral resources close to the Arctic sea. In a forest clearing stands a tall pole with a little white board on it. The number 123 is painted in black. “That was all there was. We were going to build a camp for ourselves from scratch.”
To engineer a move to different duties, Kazimierz pretends to be slightly unhinged. He gets that job in the quarry, collapses and somehow recovers.
In May, 1941, he’s on the move again: a long march along narrow-plank “roads” with swamp either side. Prisoners are told they’re going to make a railway – removing topsoil with bare hands, initially.
“We worked deep in glaucous mud, with the hot Arctic sun blazing down on us but where daylight was almost blotted out by clouds of mosquitoes and midges that tormented and bled us. The guards were vicious and had no hesitation in whipping workers in a sadistic attempt to speed up the work.” The pangs of hunger, though, were the hardest deprivations to bear.
“As we worked, the diet, poor hygiene, lack of medical facilities and brutally long working hours took their toll. Often those who worked hardest died first, followed rapidly by what might be classed as the intelligentsia, the teachers, lawyers, administrators and artists.
“Ordinary labourers and peasants survived longer. They were tougher, knew how to pace themselves and had better immune systems. They were more enterprising in the face of adversity.”
Then, after he’s made a sarcastic remark about his Russian-made boots, he’s hauled off to a kind of court and sentenced to another eight years for insulting the Soviet Union.
On September 3, unbelievably, release comes. A senior official explains the Poles need to fight to help drive out the Nazis from Russia. Of course, there’s no mention of the pact that divided Poland, or the brutal treatment. In the blink of an eye the “Polaks” are transformed from “fascist lackeys and enemies of the people . . . to friends and honest citizens” asked to unite against the marauders.
In the afternoon the Poles leave the camp. There are no vicious guards hounding them; no dogs; no whipping – just one unarmed guard carrying the men’s documents.
Kazimierz is given 70 roubles, a travel document and official release form, and three days’ rations – this time including fish and bacon fat. For the first time in 19 months he is a free man.
In November, friend Josef says volunteers are sought to form special attachments, which will be sent to Britain as reserves. They join the navy section and in late January leave Murmansk on HMS Trinidad. “At long last we were free from that cruel land and the terrible anguish that came with it.”
Passing east of Iceland, through waters full of Nazi submarines and skies haunted by German planes, they sail for Scotland. “On the voyage we had our first English lessons. The first two sentences I learnt were ‘The sailor drinks the brandy’ and ‘All the nice girls love a sailor.’”
He discovered that people here knew very little about Eastern Europe. “When I talked about my experiences to British or Canadian people I was met with incredulity and disbelief. ‘He is a foreigner and probably not very sound in the mind’ was the usual reaction.”
Kazimierz (who would become known to his friends as Kazik or Stan) made a life in the UK, marrying Diana in 1945 and working as a chef in many top restaurants in London. Later, he was at the country club in Thorpeness, near Aldeburgh.
He’s dedicated the book to his wife, sons and their families, “in the hope such circumstances will never be repeated . . . be vigilante!”
Kazimierz is glad the world has learned of the atrocities committed by the USSR on its own citizens and its neighbours.
“The camps still haunt my dreams. Often I have looked into the eyes of my new friends and asked myself whether they would turn into brutal beasts or inhuman monsters given the wrong conditions.
“I have spoken often to many former camp inmates. We always agree (that) if anything we had been toughened up in body and soul. Sadly we became hardened and not easily moved by the suffering and misfortune of others. Religion, ethics and fair play learned previously had been discarded. We had been stripped of our ideals. Goodness, fairness, honesty, pride and tolerance were severely undermined.
“Whenever I feel downhearted or miserable, as we all do at times, I think back to the camps and cheer up immediately. I thank providence for allowing me to live in a country without fear or hunger.
“Believe it or not, I feel lucky. I went through so much and I did survive. Unfortunately, many of my fellow countrymen did not.”
n The Numbers Had to Tally is published by Summersbook (UK) at �8.99. ISBN 978 09 55 229 572