|The Vitim River at Sinyuga, summer|
The camp – the lager – where my family lived consisted of two long wooden barracks, one on either side of a creek; there was a hanging bridge which connected the two buildings. Six kilometers downstream there was a second camp, at twelve a third camp, and at eighteen kilometers, where the creek emptied into the Vitim, there was Sinyuga, the administrative center for this area of forest. Sinyuga was where supplies came in, where the infirmary was located, and where the bosses lived.
The deportees were given work – to chop down trees, trim them, bring them down to the water and prepare to raft them downstream with the spring thaw. There were quotas for this work, and their pay in rations was made according to work produced.
There were about a dozen families in each barrack. Each family had a room, which opened to a long corridor in the middle of the building; there was an iron stove at either end of the corridor, where the cooking was done and clothes were hung to dry after the men came back from the forest.
On Sundays the internees were free to go down to Sinyuga to meet people and trade. There were people living in various encampments in the forest who’d been deported here a long while back; they’d figured out where they could grow vegetables in the short summer, and how to keep animals. It was important to meet these old-timers and trade with them, since it was almost impossible to live on food rations alone.
Mechel describes the struggle to survive in the taiga. (Tsivye’s comments have been incorporated.)
We arrived in the taiga on Tisha B’Av. Our job was to chop down trees. You can only take wood out of the forest in winter, when there’s snow to slide logs on. In the beginning when we arrived, there was no snow yet. So what were we supposed to do? They told us to tear out grass by hand – they didn’t even have sickles to give us – for winter hay for the horses. We tore up bushels of grass and dried them – they paid us for this work. We stored hay above the horse stalls – there was enough for the whole winter. We did this until Rosh Hashanah.
It began to snow in the middle of Elul, and from then on it’s winter. Every day we had to be out in the forests, from seven in the morning to four or five in the evening. In the winter months, it was very dark in the morning when we left the barracks, and dark again when we came home. Our job was to chop down trees and trim them into logs. We cut out ways through the forest so that the horses could get to the logs and haul them down to the river. The logs were up to six meters long. We carried them to where the horse could go in. The horse hauled out five, six pieces at a time. You chopped down a tree by cutting out a wedge on one side, and then you chopped from the other side and the tree would fall down on the side of the wedge. Once Leibish Tisser and I were cutting a tree, and a wind rose up. This time, instead of falling forwards, it began falling backwards, towards me. I heard Leibish yelling “Shema Yisroel!” I didn’t have time to run. I threw myself into the snow. The tree crashed down beside me, the branches caught my feet, but I was okay.
We weren’t forced to work. But the bosses told us that we would get bread only if we worked. In the taiga you didn’t have to die of starvation. There was hunger, sure, because the rations were never enough, and I was one man, and I had to work for Tsivye, Tsili and my father; but not starvation. If you worked you got bread. Some people died of cold and disease, and if you were hungry you succumbed more easily. There was no medicine. If you went to the doctor he gave you iodine. He treated everything with iodine – it was the only thing he had. It was only later on, when we were out of the taiga, that the real hardships began, that people began dying in numbers. But if we hadn’t left the camps when we did, we would never have gotten out of Russia.
There were some families who didn’t want to work. They said, “Don’t give us rations, we don’t care, we’re not going to work.” What they did was to trade the things they’d brought with them for food. But when they had nothing more to sell they couldn’t get food. Later on they became weak and some of them died. It was their fault. We said, “We’ll work and we’ll eat.” We worked and survived.
We had to work no matter how cold it was, until fifty-five centigrade below zero. How do you know when it’s too cold? You take a pot of boiling water outside and throw the water into the air; if it comes down as ice, it’s too cold. Otherwise, we had to be in the forests every day, except on Sunday. No one came out to supervise us, but we had to meet quotas. In the beginning, until Simchas Torah, my crew – me, Leibish Tisser, Monye, Avrum – we didn’t work on Shabbos; we met the quotas by working more the other days. On Shabbos we stood around and waited for the day to end. On Rosh Hashanah I didn’t work either because I had a permit. Then on Simchas Torah, some Russians came by on sleds and we needed to cut down trees to make a way for them in the forest. Leibish Tisser and I had to do it. This was new and bitter for us, and we cried. We made a “Shechyunee” over a tree. After that the days became very cold, and we had to work in order to keep warm, Shabbos or no Shabbos.
How is it possible to work in such cold? At twenty below you hardly feel the cold. But in the two months of summer, when it rains, the winds are so strong they uproot trees. There are other regions, like Omsk, where the winter winds are fierce and people have to tie themselves to ropes in order to move from one place to another; but in our region it was still. I had special padded cotton pants, made like a quilt, and a shirt with stripes that was sewn out of heavy material. Tzivye sewed this from a curtain, because I’d sold my original shirt and pants – I sold everything. I had to cover my face with layers of cotton cloth; otherwise, when I came home, I’d have icicles hanging from my beard. There were times when we had frostbite: the skin would turn white, and you had to rub snow on it to make the blood flow there. I had it on my hands, Monye on his nose and ears. When it was wet I wore uchikes on my feet, boots made out of soft leather, which you put on like a sock: they were without soles. You stuffed rags inside, in order to keep warm. You couldn’t wear them in winter because your feet would freeze. Instead, we had valenkis, made out of felt. When it was very wet you couldn’t wear the valenkis because they absorb water. You could only go with the valenkis when the snow was dry. During the first two or three weeks of winter, when it began to snow, you couldn’t wear them, and the same at the end of winter. But what kept us warm weren’t just the clothes; we were working, even on Shabbos.
Every morning we’d walk five or eight kilometers into the woods to work. It was a white world, very beautiful. Snow begins to fall in the second half of Elul, sometimes for two or three days continuously; and from then until after Shveeus the ground is covered in snow. As soon as the snow begins to fall the wind stops; it’s so quiet, a feather doesn’t move. Since there are no winds, there are no drifts; the ground is covered even, no place higher, no place lower. Our barracks were in a hollow, and it was a hard climb up out of it, we had to go zigzag. Down slope, we had sticks like skis, and I had a pole I used to keep me from going too fast. In the taiga the snow could be over our heads. We had to dig out a way for the horses to come in to pull out the logs. We also had to bring the logs to a place where the horses could get to them: we didn’t want to overwork the horses. Then, when spring begins in March and April, during the day the sun shines, the snow settles and melts at the top; at night it freezes again, and a crust forms. In the morning when we went to work we walked on top of this crust, and didn’t fall in. By the middle of the day the snow becomes soft again. Going back was more difficult.
When we returned in the evening we had arguments, everyone was pushing, everybody wanted to get close to the fire to dry himself; but there were never real fights. Then we hung our clothes and rags to dry on lines fixed to the stove. The fires in the stoves were going all day – this was the women’s job, even though there were some who didn’t do their share. At night, there was no one to keep the fire going, we were all too tired, so the fire went out, and we woke up in frost.
We slept on planks of wood: Avrum and Monye slept on one plank, Tsivye, Tsili and Scheindl on another, and I and my father on a third. How to soften the wood? We cut grass, dried it, put it underneath us and it got rubbed into a paste. There were always bedbugs in our beds, and they would bite! And the lice! When you squashed bedbugs they gave off a terrible smell. In winter inside the barracks the smell wasn’t so bad, but when it got warmer it stank terribly and you had to go sleep outside. But then you were attacked by mosquitoes! I had a beard, so they couldn’t bite my face because it was covered. But Tsivye they ate up.
A ration of bread was 400 grams. But for my family I needed four times that. After a couple of months in the taiga I got a promotion, with more bread. It happened this way. There was a Russian who was responsible for us, who lived in our camp. He saw if we were out in the woods or not. Once he saw me leaving later than usual. The winter months had begun, the days were short, it was light only at eight-thirty, and I’d stayed in to daven and put on my tefilin. The boss cursed me out. I answered back. I told him he should be happy that I was going out at all. Well, we weren’t supposed to answer that way. At night when I got back I was sent to Sinyuga. I was brought in to the commandant. He asked me why I didn’t go to work. I said that we weren’t being paid properly, that we were being robbed. He gave me a week in katalashka.
Tsivye told me that when I was sent to Sinyuga other children in the barracks teased her – “They put your father in the katalashka!” She was ashamed. But in truth, it wasn’t serious. The door was closed by a block of wood, no lock. When the commandant wasn’t around I called a boy and he opened the door and I went out. I wandered around the camp and got to know some people. I even bought two cans of conserves, which I brought home. When the week was over the commandant asked me again if I’m ready to work now, and I say again, I have several dependents and I need more pay. This commandant knew that I was a good worker, he wanted me. So he told me he would give me a better job. He put me and Monye in charge of the horses taking logs out of the forest. This paid well. The others in the barracks were jealous, because they had to do harder labor, and we got to work with the horses. But the Russians said, “Work like Beck and you’ll get paid like Beck.”
Shivak was my horse’s name, a grey horse. I had one and Monye had one. Siberian horses – this was worth seeing! The horses had no trouble going through mud, snow, and underbrush, whereas people slipped and fell all the time. A horse won’t make a wrong step. It’s so difficult to walk there, but a horse is careful, he chooses each step of his way. Or his intelligence! – When you were hauling out wood, the horse turned around to look at you. If he saw you were helping by pushing or levering the logs, he would go. If not, then not. When he came down the embankment, he knew to gallop very fast, otherwise the logs would have spilled forward on him and crushed him. And when he came to unloading he stopped dead at the exact spot. In the summer when I came back from work I pulled Tsili up to sit with me on Shivak and we went galloping down to the barracks. All the women were screaming at me, “What, have you gone crazy?” Tsivye was screaming at me too.
I will tell you a story what happened to me once when I was riding Shivak. Around Shveeus snow begins to melt. There are dams that fill with snowmelt, then they are opened and water is released with a powerful current. On this current they send logs downstream. Isru Hag Shveeus I’m riding my horse across the creek when suddenly a huge wave of water hits us. The horse rears up. Then a second wave comes and we overturn. I’m knocked off. The horse swims to safety, but the current carries me on. I think I will drown at the bottom of the river, and my body will never be found. This was my thought: “Lord, nobody lives forever, but that no one will know where my bones are?” I had no strength left, I was already saying Vidui, my confession. At that moment a Russian boy saw me and started yelling. Someone came with a long pole and somehow they fished me out. They carried me to a house and they poured a whole bottle of spirits down my throat. I lay in bed in that house a whole day; then I came to myself and walked home at night. There was a great celebration. I always remember this day as my second birthday.
I always made sure of one thing, that we would have food to eat. Everyone got a ration of bread and sugar. We made dishes out of bread: we fried dried bread with onions, or we ground up dried bread and cooked a soup. In the summer, during the white nights, we picked berries, cooked them, or froze them as preserves for winter. (When we went picking berries I would come back with pails-full, and Tsivye would come back completely bitten up; the insects are terrible in the summer.) We’d take berries and bread with a little sugar and oil and make kugel. Once they gave us dried fish. Another time, a Russian left a trap in the creek, and I saw a fish there and took it. There was a lady in our camp named Rosa, she sang beautifully. An official came by and she sang for him, and as a reward she also got a fish. Once, in Sinyuga, I traded for five chickens. On the First of January the first egg came – there was a great celebration. Two of the chickens wouldn’t lay because they had too much fat, so before Pessach we slaughtered them, and laid away the schmaltz to eat on the holiday. Every child in the barracks had a drumstick or wings, and Tsili had the meat. Also my father Leib ate. Five chickens we had – we lived like that together, four family members and five chickens. How their feet didn’t freeze I don’t know. They were Siberian chickens.
Relatively, Tsili was well off. Occasionally she had a piece of meat, milk, she got an egg every day – nobody else dreamed of this. Milk we got frozen, from which we chopped off pieces, and later there was condensed milk. Sometimes there was milk from reindeer. Every month we’d get a kilo of rice. Besides, I knew how to get things. For example, once I came back from Sinyuga with two cans of fruit conserves. Who had things like that?! Also, I used to steal from the horse’s oats. This was a capital crime. There was always bread in the house. I always paid attention to this. I sold our things – for example, my wedding suit, which I’d taken along. Tzivye took a sack and sewed a pair of pants out of it, and various other kinds of garments, and we sold these too, in order to survive. We sold our watches. If you had money you could buy things, but most of the dealing was barter.
I want to tell you about how we had a Bes Din which stayed up till early in the morning to decide what to do about a piece of bread. This is very important. This happened on Pessach. Some days before Pessach a lady came to Tsivye and asked her for a loaf of bread; she promised to return another. Well, she kept her promise, but she returned it the afternoon before the Seder, when already we were already supposed to have cleaned out all the hametz from our homes. What to do? Bread was like gold! I threw the loaf on the roof of the barracks. If an animal would eat it, it was my loss. But if not, then the cold would keep it and I could have it when the holiday was over. The eight days of holiday went by. Now, always in Russia, as long as my father was alive, we had a minyan in our house; so when we finished the evening service at the end of Pessach, I told the others to stay, and I would treat them to a piece of bread. “How did you get bread so soon?” I explained what happened. I took them out and showed them the bread on the roof. There was a Jew, a talmid chuchum. He said,“Wait, let’s think about this.” It turned out there was the problem. If a Jew has hametz in his possession during Pessach, afterwards you’re not allowed to eat it or have any benefit from it. When I threw the bread on the barracks roof I wanted to make it hefker, that is, without ownership, so then the bread wasn’t in anyone’s possession during Pessach and you can eat it afterwards. But to make something hefker you need to abandon it in public space. I’d thrown the bread onto the back slope of the barracks roof, not the front; so the question was, is the back slope of the roof to be considered public space or private space? There were Jews with us who observed every iota of the law. On the other hand, bread was a matter of life and death. We had no books to consult, everybody searched their memories for the relevant rules. The Bes Din sat a good few hours, then there was a decision. Because of the uncertainty, I wasn’t allowed to eat the bread. It was cut up into ten pieces, and these were given to the ten neediest people in our camp. For them it was a matter of survival, so the hametz law was overridden. I wasn’t told who received the pieces; if I had been told, it would have given me pleasure to know that I helped them, and even the pleasure of knowing I had done a mitzva to someone specific was forbidden me.