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In 1941, as a Red Army soldier fighting the Nazis on the Belarussian front, Janusz Bardach was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. Twenty-two years old, he had committed no crime. He was one of millions swept up in the reign of terror that Stalin perpetrated on his own people.
In the critically acclaimed Man Is Wolf to Man, Bardach recounted his horrific experiences in the Kolyma labor camps in northeastern Siberia, the deadliest camps in Stalin’s gulag system.
In this sequel Bardach picks up the narrative in March 1946, when he was released. He traces his thousand-mile journey from the northeastern Siberian gold mines to Moscow in the period after the war, when the country was still in turmoil. He chronicles his reunion with his brother, a high-ranking diplomat in the Polish embassy in Moscow; his experiences as a medical student in the Stalinist Soviet Union; and his trip back to his hometown, where he confronts the shattering realization of the toll the war has taken, including the deaths of his wife, parents, and sister.
In a trenchant exploration of loss, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and existential loneliness, Bardach plumbs his ordeal with honesty and compassion, affording a literary window into the soul of a Stalinist gulag survivor. Surviving Freedom is his moving account of how he rebuilt his life after tremendous hardship and personal loss. It is also a unique portrait of postwar Stalinist Moscow as seen through the eyes of a person who is both an insider and outsider. Bardach’s journey from prisoner back to citizen and from labor camp to freedom is an inspiring tale of the universal human story of suffering and recovery.
Lying on the thin mattress in the Bristol Hotel, I closed my eyes, hoping to drop into a deep, forgetful sleep. Mosquitoes buzzed around the hotel room, and the sticky night air clung to my aching body. I didn't want to think anymore. I didn't want to be hurt by one more memory. I tried counting forward and backward in all the languages I knew, but my mother's voice kept intruding: "Where are you? We need you." Her voice was calm and steady. I tried to remember my father, but his face was contorted. Taubcia and Rachel cried out my name. I couldn't recall Rachel's smile or the exact shade of Taubcia's green eyes.
In Moscow I'd begun taking Luminal to sleep, and when the hands on the clock slid past midnight I got up and took a pill. The Luminal slowed and stretched my thoughts, dissolving their connections. I lay awake and dreamed at the same time. In the middle of the night someone knocked at the door, and I sprang out of bed. In prison I slept like this. I'd fall asleep as soon as I found a place to lie down but slept vigilantly, afraid of being robbed, raped, beaten, killed. Like an animal, I woke up alert and ready to respond. The pounding continued. I expected to see an NKVD officer who had come to tell me that something had happened to Julek or that something was wrong with my visa. I put my hand on the lock, ready to turn it, and asked gruffly, "Who is it?"
A slurred voice responded. "Open the door, you dog's prick." I opened the door and stared at a flabby, pale-chested man standing in his underwear. "Who are you?" he asked, glancing inside my room. Then he slapped himself on the forehead and said, "What an idiot I am. This isn't my room. Sorry." He extended his hand and drunkenly bowed again and again.
Unable to sleep, I put on my pants and sat on the windowsill. I could see the old movie theater and the small park where all the trees had been cut down. The silhouette of the Roman Catholic cathedral was on the horizon. Just before dawn I lay down and fell asleep. I awakened a few hours later in the sunny, stifling room. I got up and went to look for a newspaper and cigarettes on Farna Street.
I sat down on a bench and watched people scuttling off to work. Most of the workers were Soviet-Ukrainians and Russians who'd relocated after the war. I could tell by their drab clothing and purposeful gait. Before the war people used to linger while walking down Farna Street. They stopped to talk to friends or bought something in a shop before going to work. But not a single storefront on Farna Street was the same as it had been before the war. Lerners' clothing store, where my father, Julek, and I bought our clothes, had been turned into a food store. The privately owned shops had been replaced by nationalized stores. Second-floor apartments had been gutted. Storefronts were boarded up.
I don't know how long I had been sitting with the unread newspaper on my lap when I recognized a tall, lanky, blond-haired woman. Her name was Miriam Tabak, and she'd been in Julek's class. Her father was a carpenter, and I played soccer with her younger brother, Moyshe. I wouldn't have recognized her if it hadn't been for her rounded shoulders and slightly stooped walk. Her blond hair was cut to the chin, and her face appeared longer and more angular. I leapt off the bench and ran across the street to meet her. "Miriam!" I shouted. She looked around and clutched her bag to her chest. I called her name once more, and when she saw me she ran into the street to meet me, cutting across the path of several pedestrians. We hugged each other like family members, even though I'd barely known her before the war. Miriam's eyes darted left and right. "I work in the pharmacy in your grandfather's building. Moyshe and I still live in our old house on Kowelska Street," she said, grabbing my arm tightly. "Come back to the pharmacy with me." Her beige jacket slipped off her arm and onto the street, and I bent down to pick it up. I noticed she wore the same bulky black shoes as most Soviet women, and a pair of mended black tights.
Miriam found two stools in the back of the pharmacy. She told me that a Polish friend arranged for her and Moyshe to escape from the ghetto and that for over two years she and Moyshe hid in the cellar in her friend's home in the village. Her parents didn't dare to leave the ghetto, afraid of the hardships imposed by a life in hiding. Miriam got up to check the counter for customers. "How's Moyshe?" I asked.
Miriam began to cry. "He's not well. I have to lock him in the house whenever I go out. He's still frightened, and he doesn't want to see anyone but me. He won't go to a doctor. I don't know what to do. I want to live like everyone else, but I can't leave him."
The bell on the pharmacy door rang, and Miriam dried her eyes and hurried to the counter. When she came back she sat down and resumed talking. "Tell me what I can do to save Moyshe. He can't stop talking about the war. He's tried to kill himself, and I don't have anyone-." I took Miriam in my arms and held her tightly, unable to find any words to ease her pain.
When I left the pharmacy I promised to visit her again before I left, and she smiled with a smile that reminded me of how much she had been admired for her beauty and charm.
Throughout my life, whenever I met a person who survived the war in hiding, I thought about Moyshe. I regretted that I didn't go to see him that day. Perhaps my presence would have triggered good memories from the past and helped him get back into the real world. Moyshe was one of the last people I would've thought would become psychotic under the duress of hiding. He was one of the smartest students in class, the toughest in school, and the most athletic on the soccer field.
I often wondered why some people were able to persevere under the conditions of hiding, while others became chronically depressed, even psychotic. Everyone who survived in hiding lived with the fear of being discovered and killed. In addition, there was the fear that something bad would happen to the hosts, leaving the survivors to starve to death in the darkness of their shelter. Poles and Ukrainians who hid Jews sacrificed a great deal emotionally and financially and endangered not only themselves but their families.
Hiding places were often shared with strangers, and tensions ran high and fights erupted with little or no provocation. After years in hiding, most survivors suffered from a mental disorder. Paranoia and depression were the most common afflictions. Phobias-avoiding other people, open spaces, close quarters, or anything that reminded them of their years in hiding-were rampant. Survivors tried to go on with their lives in a number of ways. Some people spent many years in psychotherapy trying to regain mental stability and a feeling of inner safety. Others never talked about their past, not even to their own children. A few became so ill that they spent most of their time in psychiatric hospitals or in total isolation.
Most of the survivors I knew tried to start new lives after the war. They studied, worked, married. These people did much more than survive; they regained their dignity, security, and self-assurance. Some of them talked and wrote about their years in hiding. But others, after a period of living seemingly normal lives, became depressed and withdrawn, evidence that they had never recovered from the years under Nazi occupation.
I walked down Uscilugska Street toward the "house on the hill," the name our family and friends gave to our light gray house, the place I lived from the time my family moved from Odessa when I was an infant until I was sixteen years old. With its barn, stable, yard, and garden of fruit trees, the house on the hill was the only home I ever wanted to have, and while we lived there life was good and I thought the goodness would last forever. After my family moved downtown I returned frequently to the house on the hill, like the two cats that returned to live in the barn there.
Walking to the house on the hill, I felt its presence in my bones before I saw it. I felt it as I tore moss and weeds from the stone wall at the bottom of the hill, and I felt it as I opened the gray, weathered gate and walked up the red-brick footpath. The house appeared as it always had but without the apple and cherry trees around it-they'd been chopped to the ground. The porch still had four frosted window panes and one transparent pane, which my father had replaced when a bird slammed into the window. On each corner of the house there were downspouts with wooden barrels underneath to collect rainwater, which my mother considered very special for washing hair and delicate clothing. I imagined that fish, frogs, and eels lived in the barrels, and I spent hours trying to catch them.
It was just a small, wooden house, half the size I remembered, with a cluttered veranda and broken gray shutters. My father used to close those shutters every evening, and if I heard the squeaking and banging I came running home so that I could walk around the outside of the house with him, especially when it was dark or the weather was bad, so he wouldn't be alone.
I walked over to the sun-scorched yard between the house and barn, where I played with the two dear friends of my youth, Billy and Lady. My father gave me Billy when I was eight years old. Our handyman, Ignatz, said that Billy was half German shepherd and half wolf, and I believed him. Billy's muzzle was long, black, and narrow. His palate was black, and he had large black spots on his tongue. He had a black saddle, dark brown legs, and a light brown underbelly. His dark brown ears cocked forward when he was alarmed, and his bark sounded like a half bark, half howl. He acknowledged only my father, who trained him; Marynia, our Russian maid, who fed him; and me, who ran with him in the garden and spoiled him with bones.
For my fourteenth birthday my father gave me Lady. She was a retired racehorse, and Ignatz taught me how to wash, brush, and saddle her. She was dark brown, with white socks and a white star on her forehead, and she had a mind of her own. She taught me that if I rode out one way I had to return the same way or she would throw me off and go back alone. I felt a special sentiment for these two animals because they were my friends only. I felt responsible for them. I used to talk to them, thinking they understood me, because Ignatz told me that the only way to develop a close connection with animals was by talking to them, and I did everything Ignatz told me. The barn and backyard were my private kingdom, and Billy, on a long chain, made sure no strangers entered.
No one had played in the yard in a long time. I couldn't find the outlines of the makeshift soccer field or the circle Billy had worn into the ground, and I came back and sat down on the front porch. Looking at the windows of my parents' bedroom, at the peeling paint, broken shutters, boarded-up kitchen entrance, and rotting roof, I couldn't stop crying. I cried because everyone I loved was gone and I would never see them again. I cried because I didn't know where to lay flowers. I cried because I didn't know what to do with my life when no one was with me for whom I would like to live.
I didn't hear the man and heavy-set woman walking up the footpath, and I was startled when I caught sight of them out of the corner of my eye. I wiped my face with my handkerchief and stood to shake their hands. "I'm sorry to be on your property," I said, and introduced myself. "I lived here with my family before the war."
The man wore a Soviet military uniform with the insignia of the engineering service and introduced himself as Vitali Semyonovich Glebov and his wife as Ariadna Nikoleyevna. He paused awkwardly for a moment, then put down one of the avoski he was carrying and opened the door. "Please, come inside," he said. "A guest in the house is like God in the house."
In the dining room, Ariadna offered me a chair at the round dining table. Vitali brought out a bottle of vodka and three glasses, while Ariadna chopped up onions and herring and placed them in a glass bowl. I told them about my family and said I was living with my brother in Moscow. Vitali poured vodka in the glasses and said, "Let's drink to the memory of your family. May they rest in peace." We drank our shots and remained quiet for a moment. I felt that these two people, childless and in their forties, would honor the memory and spirit of my family. "When did you move here?" I asked. "The house was assigned to us two months ago," Ariadna said. "Do you know who lived here during the war?"
"A Ukrainian family," Vitali said. "The man and his brother-in-law were in the Ukrainian police during the war. They're awaiting trial along with seven others."
"Do you know who?" I asked, hoping it wasn't anyone I'd been friends with before the war.
"I don't know the names, but there are plenty of these people around. We're trying to track them down, but they've got hiding places with people in nearby villages." Vitali poured another shot of vodka and said, "Let's drink to their being found and hanged." We clinked glasses. Vitali gulped his shot forcefully. "You're welcome to look around the house," Ariadna said. "I'm afraid we don't have much furniture. We live a simple life here."
I got up and went from the dining room into what used to be my parents' bedroom. Sunlight shone through the long lace curtains. A double bed and two nightstands were pushed against a wall. When I was growing up my parents had two beds pushed next to each other and nightstands with ceramic knobs and reading lamps. Until I was seven I slept on a loveseat at the foot of their bed, separated from them by a tall curved footboard and gauze curtains.
This room had been my mother's sanctuary, and it brought back memories of the time we spent there together when I was young, the time when I was closest to her. I was a highly energetic child, exploring everything, unable to sit still for longer than thirty seconds. I wanted to be part of every conversation and every activity, and I'm sure I exhausted my mother, who was quiet and reflective. The bedroom was filled with her books, paintings, journals, jewelry, and perfumes. Our closest moments were when I was sick with bronchitis, which happened frequently, and during these spells she kept me next to her in my father's bed, where I could cuddle up to her, feeling safe and loved. I liked it so much that I often faked being sick, sending my father to the couch and me to his bed. I loved my mother's touch, the smell of her powdered skin, her sparkling gray eyes and bobbed auburn hair. I thought there was no woman in the world more beautiful and better than she.
Excerpted from Surviving Freedom by Janusz Bardach Kathleen Gleeson Copyright © 2003 by Estate of Janusz Bardach and by Kathleen Gleeson . Excerpted by permission.
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