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Bernard Grzywacz and Anna Szyszko

two Poles who survived the GULag

Bernard Grzywacz and Anna Szyszko in Vorkuta

Bernard Grzywacz and Anna Szyszko in Vorkuta

Testimony of their daughter Barbara Grzywacz, 7 May 2004

My parents were both Polish but they actually met, not in Poland, but in a gulag in Siberia.
When war broke out my mother was just 16 and my father, who had already graduated from the Warsaw Polytechnic, was in France doing work experience. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, my mother joined the resistance as a courier and became a nurse in the AK Home Army. My father immediately returned home and started working for the resistance (NOW and AK), with various positions of responsibility, first in Warsaw and then in Leopoli.
The end of Nazi occupation came when the Red Army moved in and mass arrests began, among members of both the AK and the general public. My parents were both arrested by the KGB in 1945 and were tried by the War Tribunals on charges of treason and conspiracy: my mother was sentenced to 20 years, plus 5 years forced labour, my father to capital punishment. After months awaiting execution in the company of common criminals, his sentence was changed to 20 years, plus 5 years forced labour. They spent the first year in a series of prisons, including Lubianka and Butirki in Moscow. Then, in 1946 they were packed into cattle trucks and transported to the extreme north of Siberia, beyond the Arctic Circle. Vorkuta was one of the huge lager complexes of the GULag system, where those condemned to forced labour worked in extreme conditions, building railways and digging in the coal mines. My parents got to know each other there, in that hostile and inhuman environment, initially by means of secret correspondence, despite contacts between prisoners being forbidden and harshly punished.
In 1947 my father discovered from a Russian who had been sent to Vorkuta as a free-intern, that in mine no. 2 there were a number of female Polish detainees, including Cristina, one of his relay couriers with the AK: he wrote her a note, which the Russian agreed to deliver, despite the risk. The reply reached him months later and my father discovered that Cristina belonged to a very close-knit group of five Polish girls, known as the “Quintuplets”.
Groups had also formed in mine no. 6, where there were around 100 Poles. My father’s called themselves the “KASK” (or Old Bachelors Club). Its seven male members decided to exchange notes with the girls; their correspondence was fraught with risk but it brought a glimmer of hope into the terrible grind of their daily lives. They drew for the names of the girls and fate assigned Anna Szyszko to my father. None of them could imagine any future for themselves because they all imagined that they would not survive the hardships of the camps. For years they wrote to each other, exchanging harmless little gifts that would not arouse any suspicion; no matter if presents sent before Christmas only arrived in time for Easter.
A chance to actually meet only came in 1955, when they were granted partial freedom. After their release in 1957, Bernard and Anna married and lived together for 36 years, until my father’s death. They had managed to smuggle certain small items, handmade by the prisoners, out of the gulag, as well as around forty photographs that my father had taken when in partial freedom, despite the risk of discovery and a further sentence. They include a view of the Vorkuta camps, the only extant document of this kind. The photos have been displayed in various exhibitions, first clandestinely in Poland and after 1990 openly in numerous countries. The prisoners’ objects have been displayed in an exhibition staged by the Fondazione Feltrinelli: “GULag. Il sistema dei lager in URSS”, all over Italy.
My father did not like to talk about the events he had witnessed and of which he had been a victim, but thanks to his memories and to a documentary about him, his extraordinary experience has not been lost. Now his story is about to be published in Poland in a book entitled “the Vorkuta Circle”, complete with his photos.

From the interview with my father (a 1991 documentary entitled “Bernard Grzywacz’s document”)
I often wondered whether it was worth talking about all this, these horrors, in times that have changed and in a world that has changed, and whether I would be understood. I know that not everyone will want to believe that the bare corpses of dead prisoners were chucked out into the snow, that human bones were scattered around the tundra, that during the Arctic summer the melted rivers bore with them the remains of human beings; that in that place there was hell on earth for us. It is difficult for me to talk about all this, to make others understand what we felt in those moments. And yet not only I, but others too thought about how to hand all this down to the future generations, because it is only from us that those generations can learn about what really happened.
(…) We were still detained, but at last we were able to go out; we were partially free and could even live outside the camp. I bought a Soviet FED camera, which was actually an old German Leica made in the factory transported from Germany. But we had to be careful not to be discovered taking photos of objectives that Communism considered strategic, such as the bridge, the only electric power station, the camps. If the authorities had found us out, we would have been accused of spying and would have risked a death sentence and in any case would never have been able to leave that place. But man will always take risks. This desire to testify and our sense of duty towards the nameless who would never go home, helped us to overcome our fear of a further sentence.

Taken from my father’s memoirs
November 1948

(...) At that time, in the region of Vorkuta, all within a 10 kilometre radius, there were over 15 mines linked to the camps but none of us knew what was going on in the one nearest to us; everything was cloaked in State secrecy. Only 2 years, 8 months and 26 days had passed since 18 February 1946 and yet I had already been through so much, I had witnessed so many terrible things and had had to reflect upon so much! During that time I had witnessed so much human suffering, I had shared so many tragedies and had had to say farewell to so many who had been unable to withstand such cruelty and had succumbed. On several occasions I too had thought my time had come. Such memories brought back floods of reflections!
And yet the war had finished... During the war we could still hope that the nightmare would come to an end; but here we struggled to survive with no hope of ever returning to our world. (...)

Even without the supplementary sufferings, life was hardly enviable. The climate, the dominant atmosphere in the camps, the bullying and the endless monotony of our meagre rations made us feel sick. In my country and in the West, people were living with food in their bellies, with decent clothes, and even furs, on their backs and complained in winter whenever the temperature dropped below minus 20°C and there was one metre of snow... Up there, beyond the Arctic Circle, in the tundra, we had to withstand temperatures as freezing as 60 degrees below zero for more than 9 months a year, starving and in rags compared to the local population, who wore reindeer skins.
(…) When partial freedom eventually came, it lifted all the detainees’ spirits. So many years excluded from civilization, culture and all social life! For 10 years I had not seen a glass, a plate, cutlery; tea, coffee, milk, butter and other fats were non-existent, as were fruit, vegetables, soap, toothpaste and even real bread. 10 years! Now we were allowed to walk out of the camp and into town, in Vorkuta, we could observe life lived differently, in a certain sense rebuilding our own lives, breathing the air everyone else was breathing.
After 10 years’ isolation, we all had to learn how to cope with ordinary, everyday life, the sense of which had deserted us completely. The atmosphere was very different from the Polish society I remembered. I felt like a man returning after many years to his natural habitat, where, during his absence, major changes had taken place, making him feel like a stranger; everything was different from what had been stored in the inner recesses of his mind; he had a sense of total depersonalization.
(...) Everyone could still remember what life was like before Stalin’s death. But something had changed; there was no longer an idol to be worshipped at all costs, even via the media, according to which the cows produced more milk, the pigs got fatter faster, the land produced more and people married the cause “of their own free will”, ready to give their all.

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The difficult defense of human dignity

In communist totalitarianism

The Gulag as the organized system of soviet labor camps was a powerful instrument for the extermination of entire groups of citizens by the communist totalitarian regime, in the USSR since half of the Twenties and then by emulation of the other countries of the communist bloc, both in Europe and in the Far East.
Through terror, the regime exerted an iron grip over the population who completely submitted to the regime. 

For those who opposed the regime the question was not about risking their lives to rescue other human beings, but to save their true identity at the cost of their life. Through this, indirectly, other lives were saved and this courageous kind of moral resistance contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire, which collapsed at the end of 1989.