Excerpts from his book "Surviving Freedom, After the Gulag"
Janusz was born into a well-to-do family, then spent eight years living the impoverished life of a prisoner and civilian in the Soviet Union. He knew the despair of loss and atrocity and the pride of reaching world-renowned status in his field.
In 1941, as a Red Army soldier fighting the Nazis on the Belorussian front, I was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. I was twenty-two years old and had committed no crime. I was one of millions swept up in the reign of terror that Stalin perpetrated on his own people between 1925 and 1953.
When I look back, I try to pinpoint the hour my life changed, the moment that my peaceful, provincial life ended and my tumultuous journey began. Was it the morning in 1940 when I left my family and hometown to join the Red Army? The moment of my arrest one year later? The evening I dug my grave and slept in it? My court-martial, when the guilty verdict was read and I was sentenced to die? When did the relinquishing begin, not of the freedoms, such as what I would eat and where I would sleep, but of the self? Spirit, drive, audacity, largesse—qualities I possessed before I became a prisoner— did I lose them or did they help me survive?
For five years I had no choices and made no decisions. I listened to no voice except the barked commands of the guards. Some faceless officials in the NKVD decided when, what, and how much I ate, where I lived, where I worked, what kind of work I did, how much I had to produce, and when and where I could relieve myself. These officials decided what my destination was and how I would get to it, how I would be dressed, and when I would be shaved and deloused. Breaking an order was punished harshly.
As I learned to ignore the churning in my stomach, the filth, and the lice crawling over my body, I forgot what I’d learned in school, the ideas I believed in, books I’d read, and people I’d met. The only decision I made for myself was to follow the compass of my instincts and survive day after day, hoping that I might be lucky and finish my term, although I knew I would be a very different person when I got out and wouldn’t be going back to the life I’d left behind.
In the camps I had dreamed of being a doctor, and I knew I’d be a good one. Working in the Kolyma hospital, I could give even the very sick TB patients hope that their future was not in the morgue. Fedia, only twenty-six years old, had come to our ward from the mines. He’d been bleeding for several weeks: both of his lungs were infected with TB.
I held Fedia’s sweating hands when he told me his story. “I haven’t even begun living, and my life is already over,” he said. “There are so many things I’d like to see, learn, and read. So many people left to meet.” With his spiking fever, he burned like a candle and sweated profusely. He spit up blood and coughed spasmodically. His dark eyes looked even darker against his flushed cheeks.
He was losing weight, but every day I told him he was getting better and that in the spring I’d let him walk outside. He held my hand and looked in my eyes like a little child and asked, “Please, tell me, am I better today?” I don’t know if he believed me, but I lied all the same because it brought a smile to his face. Soon he was too weak
to walk, and I held his feverish body close to me, trying to transfer my strength, health, and energy to him. He died quietly at night, and I carried his body to the morgue. I missed him like a little brother, and I missed hundreds of others who died holding my hand, all of them believing until the last breath that they would get better.
When I took care of the patients in Kolyma, I discovered that I enjoyed the nascent attachment of the patients who needed me. I believed that they needed not only a good doctor but a warm, compassionate person to take care of them. Although my duties were limited to taking temperatures, measuring blood pressure, giving injections, and distributing medications, I wanted to do more for the patients, who never stopped hoping that something good would happen and they would be cured.
When I came onto the ward, I saw hope and apprehension in their eyes, as if I were bringing them some miracle drug, not ordinary cough syrup or sleeping pills. They asked how I thought they were doing, and I lied to them to make them feel better.
A few patients lost the will to live and asked me to end their suffering. It was more than disease that inspired their death wish. They were old communists who felt betrayed, their lives and struggles wasted. They had once been strong and courageous, but they had nothing to live for anymore.
Even now I wonder where I got this intuitive knowledge about people and why helping them came so easily to me. With my neo phytic enthusiasm, I believed I was special, and I trusted my lucky stars that I wouldn’t get infected on the open TB ward. Dr. Piasetsky and the nurses warned me to spend as little time on the ward as possible, to wear a mask, and to turn my head away from coughing, spitting patients, but I felt my mission was different from that of the doctors and nurses. My mission was to make the patients feel better by holding their hot hands, talking to them as they fell asleep, and giving them hope even if it was false. I tried to transfer to them my strength and will to live. Taking care of TB patients kept me from thinking about my own misery and pitying myself. I felt I had a purpose in life.
In 1944, as the Red Army forced the Nazis to retreat and liberated many cities, I thought more and more about the fate of my family. I sent a letter to a cousin in Moscow asking her if she’d had any news about them, and through her I found out my brother had survived the war. He’d become an officer in the Polish army organized in the Soviet Union. Through his connections, he obtained my early release from the labour camps in 1945.
On May 9, 1945, the war with Nazi Germany ended and we prisoners working in the central hospital in Kolyma hoped for a general amnesty. My best friend and mentor, Dr. Nikolai Rafaelovich Piasetsky, had already been released and was living in Magadan, the capital of Kolyma. My brother Julek, a colonel in the Polish army, had informed me through our correspondence that he was working to secure my early release. The summer dragged on. Only a few other prisoners had been liberated, and my spirits plummeted. Then in late August I was called to the Office of Registration and Distribution, which oversaw prisoners working in the camp hospital. The NKVD officer in charge handed me a document to sign and told me I was
free. It was six years before my term would have expired.
Standing on the dirt road with the watchtowers, guardhouse, and barbed wire behind me, I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I was twenty-six years old; I had no money, no education, and no pro-fession; I was fourteen thousand miles away from home; and I didn’t know if my parents, wife, and sister were dead or alive. In the few letters he’d sent to me, Julek hadn’t said anything about them.
Most ex-convicts remained in Kolyma after serving their terms—they were prohibited from living in large cities—and knowing this, I thought that if I survived I, too, would remain in Kolyma as a civilian worker. I was attracted to the freedom of roaming through the vast northeastern territories, many of which had never been explored, and considered myself familiar with rocks and rock formations, especially those that might contain gold. Without an education I couldn’t predict the richness of a vein once it was found or its direction, but I could work on a geological team.
Although I eventually came to hate gold, the beauty of the subarctic landscape, with its snow-capped mountains and hills, crystal-clear streams teeming with fish, and white-water rapids, captivated me.
When the taiga awakened from its winter hibernation, deer, reindeer, and jackrabbits, black and brown bears, badgers, and wolves roamed the forest and open fields full of wildflowers and blue and red berries. I never saw mushrooms as large and healthy as those in Kolyma. Boulders that had formed during the Ice Age lay everywhere, even in the thickets of the taiga and on the highest mountain tops. It was wild,
pristine wilderness where no human had ever walked, and it was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Janusz Bardach died of cancer in August 2002, before Surviving Freedom: After the Gulag was published. He was eighty-three. His previous book was Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag.