Surviving the Gulag
A German Woman's Memoir
Hans Rudolf Gahler, Translator
(University of Alberta Press)
Ilse Johansen had the misfortune to be working with the German military in Bucharest when the city was overrun by Russian troops in 1944. The battles passed her by and she was a stranger in a Soviet-dominated country so she decided to go west to Hungary and find the front. Her plan was to somehow cross the battle lines and rejoin the German military(!)
She got all the way to Debrecen where she was caught by the Russians and questioned. Fortunately for her, her family had originally come from Kamenka. After the revolution, they had fled the Bolsheviks to settle in a German enclave in Riga, Latvia. She grew up bilingual, speaking both Russian and German.
This fact is crucial to all that happens to her in this book, for the Russians were not willing, she found out, to easily yield up someone who could bridge the chasm between the two warring states. Ilse ended up being sent to the prison camp at Focşana, Romania, and ultimately, from thence, during the course of the next four years, to six different gulags in Russia.Goodreads lists 134 "Popular Gulag Books" by the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov. This newest addition should immediately make 135, for Surviving the Gulag is an unflinching story of being a German woman in the very places that have been written about by so many men.
What with all the mosquitoes, bed bugs, lice, diarrhea, frost-bite, never enough sleep, wretched food, and, clothed in threadbare jackets and trousers, working in sub-zero temperatures in the forest - - - cutting paths, building railroads, or digging potatoes, I found myself exhausted, hungry and quite certain that this would be my last trip through the steppes. Although, several years ago, I did manage to make it through Aleksander Topolski's wonderful Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russia from Steerforth Books.
Topolski advised the reader to imagine the words "I Am Hungry" inscribed at the top of each page as we read along. "Not the kind of hunger most of us feel when dinner is late or you go without food for a day or two. The hunger I am talking about is gnawing, incessant, pathological. It was the result of being underfed to the point of starvation for years." In Czortkow prison,
Food became the main topic of our conversations. Finding a morsel of disintegrating potato in one's soup was a great event and warranted congratulations and comments from everybody. Between meals we talked a great deal about the dishes we ate at home or in restautants. And woe to him who interrupted Roman's description of a succulent roast duckling stuffed with apples and served with new potatoes in dill sauce, or Epstein's exploit of eating exotic concoctions in a Chinese restaurant in London.Hunger also manages to pop up every few pages as we go through Johansen's autobiography until we wonder how in hell anyone ever survived to be able to write their memoirs. The truth is, most didn't. Deep in the statistics of the Second World War lie hidden stories of milllions and millions who simply died because there wasn't enough food to go around. During any war, all national considerations outside of running the war are discarded. The very old, the very young, the peaceful, the scholarly, the artists, the disabled, and not the least, the prisoners are the ones who are dumped aside without a trace.
We find Johansen out laboring in the forests surrounding Sucress, Vilva, or Samo Sweet (lovely names!), forced to saw down a giant juniper in a -25° midwinter day; said tree she will then have to drag back to camp through the snow even though she's wearing a thin jacket and a pair of meagre summer shoes (not boots - - - none available). She often wonders if it wouldn't be better just to go off, lie down in the drifting snow, let it take her away.
Yet, if there is anything she makes clear to the reader, it is that she is putting up with these indignities, and will continue to put up with them, in ungodly weather, with ungodly conditions . . . and not giving up because she is indignant.
Especially at the people around her. She wants the reader to know, repeatedly, that she thinks that these low-lifes (guards, most fellow prisoners) are jerks: uncouth, common, uncivilized, and that she knows that when she finally gets the hell out of there she doesn't plan to give the time of day much less a thought to any of these Dummkopfes.
Especially those lunks who think that, just because she is a woman prisoner, they can hustle her. Like one of the guards at Rezh who manages to smuggle her out of the camp for a little walk on the wild side:
The guard suggests we sit down. I have an eerie feeling about this adventure but I trust my knowledge of humans. I wasn't mistaken. As I suspected the guard makes an attempt to hug me, but I manage to distract him quickly by bringing up a theme which he must have thought about quite often himself. What can we little people do about the wars our countries lead against each other? Why is it that we have to be enemies? Why do I have to stand in front of him as a prisoner; why does he have to be exiled to the dark Urals to guard us, and why does he have to live under these same miserable conditions?
Very shrewd. This Ilse with her golden tongue gets the horny young guard to forget his prurient interests, open up about his life from before. That bit of him being "exiled" to this ghastly camp. As one of my favorite writers has it, she is telling him what he already suspects: that We're all doing time.
She returns to her cabin unmolested.Since all prisons run on the parceling out of the elements of power, threats of loss, reprisal, and, ultimately, rumor, and since someone claimed they saw the two of them heading off into the woods, one of her fellow cell-mates rats on Ilse, so she is called in by the local branch of the NKVD - - - the Russian secret service - - - and is accused of having made hay in the pleasant fields around Rezh.
But no matter how much the officer tries to trick her, she refuses to admit what she did or did not do. He informs her that "the guard has already admitted it!" Her response:
I am indignant. What got into this young man? Did he want to brag about it? What reason could he have had to cause me such unpleasantness? I try to think calmly, and the more I do, and the more the officer confirms it, the less probable it appears to me.
There it is again, Ilse's trump card: her indignation. One comes to realize towards the end of Surviving the Gulag that Ilse's indignity is the very thing that made her not go off in the forest to die. Her feelings for Russians in general (guards, trusties, officers, apparatchiks) reflect this indignity. Turns out her best pals in the gulag are Germans, sometimes the Poles or Hungarians, or even the Russian minorities - - - the Ukranians or the mountain folk of the Urals.
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Some of the most touching scenes in the book come during those rare moments when Ilse and her companions are allowed to celebrate - - - Christmas (in a supposedly atheist Russia), or other holidays, or those times when the prisoners have merely managed to smuggle in enough potatoes from the fields where they've been working all day. These are the rare moments when she can stop, look at the glory of the country about her. On an overcrowded prison train through the Urals,
Magnificent unspoiled nature. Sky-high pines look up from deep gorges, lovely mixed forest. The gentle green of larches glitters in the darker forest. Huge boulders are covered with wild roses. Slopes are covered with strawberries; lush meadows covered with colorful flowers. I feel lighthearted; could this country be so cruel and terrible when nature is so gorgeous?There is another oddity in this volume. It has to do with Ilse's self-imprisonment. As we read about the crowded huts, the cutting winter's winds, the lice, the rats, the crude and casual cruelty of the guards, the impossible internal politics of the impossible bureaucratic life that is so routine in Russia - - - the routine that delays her release so unconscionably - - - we have to remind ourselves again that Ilse did not have to go through all this.
It's all because of Heinz, and that love business: the man she met at her first gulag, at Focşana. He plans to escape, and as she is being transported to another camp, she sneaks off the train, returns to Bucharest, where she hides while looking for Heinz. After five months, she decides he is still in Focşana prison and because love will out, even with our usually indignant Ilse, she heads to the prison in mid-July in "my chic little summer dress."
She comes across a band of prisoners working at the side of the road, and goes over, despite several warnings, to ask about her Heinz. A guard recognizes her, says: "I remember you very well! Did you come here looking for your man? He too escaped; he left a long time ago. You came for nothing. But now we have you!"
Four years in the gulag because she broke the law, the singular law of love: if your love disappears, don't try to dig him up. You might well end up in something worse.
Still and all, we don't want to get too swept away with Ilse's romance, as rare as it was. She survived. And the photograph below, taken after she had been, finally traded out of the prison, was shot in 1950, in Germany. It was knowingly - - - we suspect - - - placed by the editors at U of A on the very last pages of Surviving the Gulag. A glance at it shows that, until the day of her death many years later, Ilse was one tough cookie. Indignant, yes. But perhaps something else.
Can you see it? Her eyes. The set of her chin. Perhaps it was the Prussian in her. The part that made it possible for her to survive her fate, knowing, somehow, as she did, that she would end up doing better by far than the low-lifes that surrounded her for those four long years.