Janusz Bardach, author, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
JANUSZ BARDACH: I pressed my forehead into the soft earth. With each breath I inhaled the fragrances of the forest. This would be my last breath, I thought. I waited for the shot. Waited to feel the cold barrel of the gun against my skull, the bullet penetrating my brain. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, only sorry that my loved ones would never find my grave.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: In 1941, 21-year-old Janusz Bardach, a soldier in Stalin’s Red Army, was sentenced to death for treason. His crime: getting his tank stuck in the mud. Instead of being executed, though, Bardach was sent to Stalin’s most notorious gulag in eastern Siberia. We hear the story of his survival during this edition of Common Ground. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
BARDACH: My view of the Soviet Union was extremely positive. My view of the Soviet Union before I was conscripted into the Red Army was that this is paradise of the social justice. It was very idealistic. It was totally non-realistic.
DAVIDSON: Janusz Bardach was a young Jew in Poland when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. So when Stalin’s Red Army first arrived in Bardach’s home town to fight the Nazi’s he was overjoyed, believing this brave new Soviet society would liberate the Poles.
BARDACH: I didn’t know anything about the Soviet Union. I know my mother, who was born in Odessa, she was influenced and she influenced me with this distant love and admiration for what was going on over there. I never experienced anything except being in the underground anti-fascist organization. Because I knew what fascists, especially what German fascism, was doing to people, especially to Jews. However, on the opposite side there was the Soviet Union which seemed to be to me is heaven.
DAVIDSON: So, a black-and-white view.
BARDACH: Black-and-white view. And when you are 16, 17, 18, this is how you look at the world. And the ideals of social justice of course appealed to me. They appealed to me always as they appeal to me today. But in a different context.
DAVIDSON: So you heard the propaganda but not the reality.
BARDACH: That’s correct.
DAVIDSON: Bardach joined the Red Army and was assigned to drive a tank. In the summer of 1941 he was ordered to find a safe crossing for the tanks across a river. In doing so the tank tipped over and was swamped. His tank-mate blamed Bardach and accused him of being a traitor.
BARDACH: When the war started between—in `41—between Nazi Germany, when they invaded Soviet Union, I was sent to the front line. On the front line I had an accident with my tank. On top of it I talk a lot. And I talk, not always things that people who are raised in the Soviet Union and who are used to be very quiet about politics, especially about criticizing Stalin or the leadership. I was not used to this. So I talked freely. So a combination of the accident with the tank and my talking to my tank-mate resulted in my arrest. I was accused of being a traitor, of trying to sabotage, trying to criticize Stalin and his leadership. And since I was raised in the bourgeois society they considered me enemy of the people.
DAVIDSON: Even though you were happy to be fighting the Nazis.
BARDACH: I was very happy fighting the Nazi’s, because first of all I am Jewish, so the Nazis were really the worst enemies. Then they occupied my hometown where my family lived. So I really wanted to fight them. And what happened, it was just an accident. But I was arrested.
DAVIDSON: The next day Bardach was ordered to dig his own grave, which he recounts in his recently published memoir titled Man is Wolf to Man.
BARDACH: [reading from his memoir] The pit I was ordered to dig had the precise dimensions of a coffin. The Soviet officer carefully designed it. He measured me with a stick, made lines on the forest floor, and told me to dig. He wanted to make sure I would fit well inside. As I chopped up the tangled vines and hacked out the roots the officer followed my movements with a keen eye and mounting agitation. He appeared to be about the same age as me, his face smooth and glossy in the waning light, his blond hair sticking out from his cap like flax. “Faster!” He jabbed the stick into my ribs. “We haven’t got all night.” I dug frantically at the remaining debris then placed the shovel into the soft black soil. The oily earth clung to my boots and stuck to my shovel, which I beat against the ground. I imagined swinging at the officer’s head, wondered if I could strike him before the pistol went off. But he seemed to know what I was thinking. The gun was pointed at my face. I pushed the shovel into the ground harder and faster, keeping the angles of the pit straight and the walls vertical, just as the officer commanded.
Now the Nazis were everywhere: in the air, on the roads, in the forests. Invading Soviet towns with their tanks, trucks and motorcycles. They had almost certainly taken over my hometown. I pictured my parents, my sister, my young wife, sitting on the sofa next to the wood-burning stove in the dining room, my mother’s favorite place. I saw my wife, her green eyes scared and inquiring. Our first anniversary was just a week ago. I envisioned my mother hugging her just as she did when I left for the Red Army. My father, pacing his office, trying to find a way to keep the family safe. Was he still alive? In hiding? In a Jewish ghetto?
I pressed my forehead into the soft earth. With each breath I inhaled the fragrances of the forest, aromas I had learned so well as a child when I used to hunt for wild mushrooms. This would be my last breath, I thought. I waited for the shot. Waited to feel the cold barrel of the gun against my skill, the bullet penetrating my brain. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, only sorry for that my loved ones would never find my grave. I waited, waited, but there was no sound. Night passed with no hint of a moon or stars to brighten my dark cocoon. The night and earth and sleep and death had merged. All felt the same.
DAVIDSON: With the intervention of a stranger, the first of many to help Bardach, his death sentence was commuted to 10 years of hard labor in one of Stalin’s gulags. He eventually ended up in Kolyma, in far eastern Russia, where prisoners mined for gold in almost incomprehensible conditions.
BARDACH: Before I got to the labor camp they took almost months before—because the labor camps I was destined to, they are 12,000 miles away from the place that I was arrested. Across the entire Soviet Union…
DAVIDSON: Soviet Union…
BARDACH: …from one prison to another, from one prison to another. Mostly in the cattle cars, mostly with terrible conditions. It’s overcrowded, it’s filthy, it’s dirty, it’s without bath, it’s without food, without water. It’s, conditions are terrifying. I tried to escape once but was not successful and I didn’t try anymore because I was almost beaten to death for this one. In meantime these prisons and camps especially, there were harsh conditions. But also people were dying not only because of hard, back-breaking work, not only because of hunger and cold, but also because some commanders and some people were trying to finish what Stalin was doing. Since Stalin was killing all his political enemies, they were trying also to follow him and randomly killed people.
DAVIDSON: Stalin sent millions of people like Janusz Bardach, people who had committed no crime, to the labor camps. It was a virtual death sentence for many of them. The world eventually became aware of what Stalin had done to his own people through the publication of books like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and his earlier short novel titled One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, the story of one man’s struggle to survive even one day the bitter cold and starvation that defined life in the camps. In this 1980 movie version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, starring Tom Courtney, the epic struggle to survive is highlighted when the main character Chukov awakens sick and feverish. It’s 17 degrees below zero outside and not much warmer in the unheated barracks. Chukov goes to the infirmary with the slim hope of getting some relief and possibly an exemption from work that day, and waits while the medic on duty takes his temperature.
CHUKOV: [from sound track of the movie version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch] And so he was dreaming of being ill. Not dangerously ill of course, but bad enough to lie in bed for 3 weeks or so.
PRISON CAMP MEDIC: [from sound track of the movie version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch] Neither one thing or another. 99.2° If it had been 100° there’d be no problem. No. I can’t exempt you. Stay behind at your own risk if you want. The doctor will examine you. If he thinks you’re ill he’ll exempt you. If not, well you’ll be put in the cells. You’d do better to go to work.
[sound of door opening and closing]
CHUKOV: [from sound track of the movie version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch] How can you expect somebody who’s warm to understand somebody who’s cold.
DAVIDSON: In addition to battling the bitter cold temperatures prisoners struggled daily for enough food. Their rations were barely enough to survive on and they only received the full ration if they made their work quota each day. Janusz Bardach.
BARDACH: You see the norm was something that was obligatory in every single camp. You have to fulfill your norm. If you are not fulfilling your norm you are not getting the food ration, the full food ration. If you are not getting the food—full food ration you are getting weaker. Then you can’t fulfill your norm. So then you are getting the vicious circle and finally you are that weak that you are all going into the garbage pile and start being “Doghadgha”, which means “person on the edge,” or just getting very sick and die.
DAVIDSON: And you saw that if people had resorted to eating from the garbage dump they were just steps away from death. I, I guess I didn’t really understand. It seemed like if, well, you had really meager rations and were starving, eating from the dump would make sense. But you never allowed yourself to do that.
BARDACH: No. Because I felt and I met other people who felt the same, you see you have to preserve some of your dignity. If you lose self-dignity and if you lose self-respect this is when you are starting to slide down. And I was very afraid of this.
DAVIDSON: Well, if you did your quota of work what were the rations like, typically?
BARDACH: Typical ration in the gold mine where the work was the hardest were 700 grams of bread.
DAVIDSON: Which is about how much?
BARDACH: It may be pound-and-a-half. A pound-and-a-half of bread. Which is, this was the staple. And there was oats in the morning and soup in the evening. So this was, this was all. And this is when you fulfilled. You were still hungry 24 hours a day. But at least you had the basics.
DAVIDSON: And how long were you forced to work in a day?
BARDACH: Twelve hours; 14 hours; it depends.
DAVIDSON: And this was year-round even in those incredibly cold winters that…?
BARDACH: Year-round, unless it was over 50°, minus 50°, then…
BARDACH: No, Celsius.
DAVIDSON: Celsius. Oh.
BARDACH: Celsius. Which is very, very cold. It’s about 70° I think.
DAVIDSON: Below zero.
DAVIDSON: And of course you’re not working in a heated environment.
BARDACH: No. You are working, you are working outside.
DAVIDSON: How can your fingers work?
BARDACH: You have gloves. You don’t take off anything. You watch each other all the time. Because you’re getting white, you’re getting…
DAVIDSON: Frostbite everywhere.
BARDACH: Yeah. Frostbite was so common. Everybody got the frostbite some where. Very, very cold. But you’re getting used to this kind of a cold. So when it’s 20°, 30° it’s not bad.
DAVIDSON: Below zero?
BARDACH: Yeah, yeah.
DAVIDSON: 20° or 30° Celsius below zero
BARDACH: It’s really not that bad as it seems to be. You’re getting used to it. You have to get used to it.
DAVIDSON: I suppose, but you didn’t have big down coats like we have now, with the…
BARDACH: No, no, the coats were very old. It was rugs more than clothes.
DAVIDSON: As you said, it’s kind of…
BARDACH: You see, nobody cared if you live or die. All what they care is to get out of you as much work as possible and then whatever happens to you happens.
DAVIDSON: So if you were going to live it was in a way up to you.
BARDACH: Yeah. If you survived, if you survived, I survived because I was very young and strong enough. People who were in their 40s, 50s, they were dying very, very fast.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. You’re listening to Common Ground, program on world affairs sponsored by the Stanley Foundation. My guest is Janusz Bardach, author of a recent memoir titled Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag. It was co-written with author Kathleen Gleason and published by the University of California Press. The Stanley Foundation a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. As one of its projects the Stanley Foundation published the monthly magazine World Press Review. Tapes and transcripts of Common Ground programs are available; at the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you information on how to order.
DAVIDSON: Besides being young what else do you think allowed you to survive in the gulag? Because many young people died as well. You talked about preserving a sense of dignity.
BARDACH: I think preserving a sense of dignity. I think the will to live. I wanted to live. I didn’t want to die. I wanted very strongly, I wanted to live, I wanted to go back, I wanted to get back to my previous life, I wanted to see my family. I thought that maybe, maybe I would find somebody alive. So I wanted to live. It’s number one. Number two, I tried to preserve some kind of symbols of behavior that I had before I was arrested. Like washing myself every morning. So, I couldn’t wash, so I used snow many times. Everybody thought that I am crazy, I went in the snow and washed myself, face at least. If not, I could spit on my palms and wash myself.
DAVIDSON: But it was symbolic.
BARDACH: Yeah, very symbolic. But it was very helpful. I felt better than people surrounding me who were filthy and dirty as much as I was and full of lice as I was. And not willing to be degraded, kind of. Being afraid to be degraded. I was very afraid to be degraded. Because I knew that then I will go down very fast.
DAVIDSON: So it was just a very slim….
BARDACH: Very slim edge to hold on.
DAVIDSON: How important was the gulag system, do you think, in maintaining Soviet society? Because your experience happened right after World War II, but the gulags existed up until the Soviet Union disintegrated. I was wondering what effect knowledge of the gulags had on everyday life and behavior for Soviet citizens?
BARDACH: I think, I think that gulags served two purposes in Soviet society. One purpose is to keep the entire nation in permanent fear. You see a dictatorship can survive only by extreme power. Okay? And when everybody in the society is frightened, frightened to the point that nobody will revolt and nobody will oppose and nobody will say “no” to the governing class. The second, in my opinion, it was free labor. Incredible, millions of people, free labor. They would never accomplish this huge so-called “heroic” things in industry that they accomplished if they would not have free labor. They built all these industrial complexes. They built these channels between White Sea and Caspian Sea and Black Sea. And all these huge things that happened in this Soviet industry in the first Five Year Plan and the second Five Year Plan and the third Five Year Plan, they were based on this fully free labor. Slave labor. It was slavery. It was slavery of the twentieth century. It’s the same what happened in the Nazi Germany.
DAVIDSON: Janusz Bardach’s book ends at the point where he’s released from prison. But his story of surviving in the camps is matched by an equally remarkable story of how he eventually went on to become a world-renowned plastic and reconstructive surgeon developing new surgical techniques for people with congenital facial deformities.
I’m just amazed about your life even after this experience in the gulag, which would even for many people if they had survived I think that might have been the end of leading a really productive life. But you were able to build a new life. Go to medical school in the Soviet Union and live there for a number of years. What has kept your hope in the future?
BARDACH: You see, I got out of the camp and I had to decide what to do with my life. I wanted to be a taxi driver. I thought this would be the best thing. I will live quiet, peaceful life and nobody will bother me. And I don’t need to deal with anybody. So, because I…
DAVIDSON: How old were you when you got out of the camp?
BARDACH: I got out of the camp I was 26 and I had no profession and I had no money and I had no idea what I am going to do and I had no skills.
DAVIDSON: You’d just been through high school essentially?
BARDACH: I was through high school and that’s it. And that’s it. And whatever I learned I forget over those years. And I was lucky enough to deal with all the problems. Because you have a lot of problems inside yourself. You have a problem of guilt of survival, which is a very heavy problem. You have a problem of how your family died and why nobody who you considered being your friends and knowing people around for all your life, never helped them. There are a lot of people, how you relate to the people who are alive, how they survived. So I was able to go through all this period just step-by-step, not all at once, but over years. To get free of all this very heavy problems inside myself and try to live a normal life. You see, living a normal life, it’s not very easy after going through something—it’s not only that I was in prison, it’s loss of the whole family.
DAVIDSON: Loss of your family.
BARDACH: Yeah. This was…
DAVIDSON: What happened? Could you just briefly describe what you learned?
BARDACH: Well they were all, all, they were killed by the Nazis. And it was, it was, when I was faced with this, I lived all these years in the camps I lived all the time with the hope, faith that maybe somebody, maybe not everybody but maybe somebody is alive. When it happened to be that everybody was dead except my brother who didn’t live in this city at that time. So he survived and I survived. Two of us. And the rest, everybody was killed. And murdered. So you are dealing with this which is much heavier than dealing just with your own imprisonment and memories of violence, of evil, inhumanity, hunger, cold, and all of this. So I wanted to do something for myself and I wanted to do something for the people. So it just happened that I became a doctor.
DAVIDSON: I heard you speak once and you were talking about your mother and it sounds like she gave you some pretty useful tools for coping with some most difficult events in life. In fact, didn’t she provide this title for your book, Man is Wolf to Man?
BARDACH: Yes. That’s exactly right. She was always, she used, she knew a lot of wonderful sayings and this was one, “man is wolf to man.” And the other was that “the world is not without good people.” And I would never survive in the camp if there would not be good people that I met on my, in those years. I would never survive. Because I met people that helped me, that gave me hope, that showed that even in those conditions there is some human spirit, that there is some humanity left.
DAVIDSON: I really like those two expressions. It kind of sums up…
BARDACH: That’s right.
DAVIDSON: humanity. You’ve, people can greatly disappoint you, but the there are the good people out there who will surprise you, too.
BARDACH: That’s right, that’s right. So I never was, I never was pessimistic about people. And I also believe in people. And I like to be with people until now.
DAVIDSON: Now, as he approaches the age of 80, Janusz Bardach is working on a second book about how one goes on and survives in the world after a horrific experience like years spent in the Soviet gulag. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
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