Life in the gulag, 1940 – 1941

Writing about Kasia’s time in Noshul has been a hard task. Every time I thought I had got the majority of the information needed for this post I would stumble upon more. But as I’ve said before, its never ending; there’s always another detail, another aspect, so while I’ll obviously continue researching this episode in Kasia’s life I’ll write what I’ve found out so far.

On the 23rd February 1940, after almost two weeks in the dire conditions of the cattle train, the Oko’s finally arrived at Noshul Railway Station (Polish: Noszul, Russian: Ношуль). “I am looking out across a vast expanse of forest; trees as far as the eye can see and we are overcome by fear as we realise what is awaiting us” Kasia writes in her diary.[1]

From the station they were ordered onto buses and trucks, convoys of which travelled through the dense pine forests of the region to the gulag where they would endure forced labour and imprisonment. “We travel all day by bus, seeing neither the ground beneath us nor the sky above.”

Their section of the gulag was known as ‘Kwatar 180’ or “Quarter 180” and they were later moved to Quarter 160, which begs the question how many quarters made up the gulag. There were three long wooden cabins each housing several families. Their cabin housed nine. Kasia describes the wooden log cabins as “cold, dark and dirty…[with] no linen, no beds” where “one person lies right next to another like herrings in a barrel.” The cabins were completely empty save for planks of wood on the floor that were meant to serve as beds and one stove in a corner beside the door. There were no walls so when the weather improved, blankets that were no longer needed for warmth were hung up as partitions. Outside the cabin was a communal toilet and steam bath and although the camp was not fenced, armed guards and trained dogs patrolled its perimeters.

On arrival everyone was provided with a pair of trousers, a jacket and shoes, all of which were padded with cotton for warmth. They were then allowed to rest for a few days before they were sent to work.

On the 3rd March 1940 Kasia wrote an entry detailing what appears to be the first day of forced labour.

“The wind blows and snow is falling and we are all standing in front of a building awaiting instruction. A military officer emerges and brings out shovels, brooms, axes and distributes them among us. These tools confuse us and we are not sure what we are meant to do with them. We are taken into the forest, the snow is to our waists and walk for four kilometres and he shows us a clearing. We don’t understand. We walk on, barely alive. We can’t walk anymore and our military officer laughs at us. He says menacingly “If you don’t work, you won’t eat!”… We arrive at this clearing and there are pine trees as far as the eye can see. Every tree is covered in two metres of snow and this is where we have to work, removing the snow from the branches. The Russian officer tells us the quota of trees we have to fell. We will be paid 8 1/2 roubles a day. He demonstrates what we need to do and we follow his instructions. As we watch him we naively think the work will be relatively easy but when we begin we realise it is not.”

Polish deportees cutting timber 1940
Polish prisoners in a Soviet gulag, Siberia, 1940.

Later Kasia’s work involved attaching felled trees to horses and leading the horses from the forest to the river. Her sister Lucia removed branches from felled trees. Meanwhile their father worked in cutting logs into planks, perhaps for the railway being constructed in the Komi District, which sometimes took him away for weeks on end.

Because Kasia’s mother had young children her role was to cut wood for cooking and heating, a task deemed not too arduous and time consuming and thus didn’t interfere too much with caring for her toddler and three other children under the age of ten. Children who were slightly older but deemed too weak for the physical labour of working in the forests were also expected to cut wood and collect water from the wells and aid in taking care of younger siblings. However, it was only Kasia, Lucia and their father who got paid, collectively receiving around thirty roubles per week. This was not enough for a family of twelve and my great aunt Lucia remembers her mother often complaining to the camp commander that they didn’t have enough food, to which he would always reply “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Reading first hand accounts by others incarcerated in the gulags this seems to have been a common mantra from the mouths of Soviet soldiers.

Food purchases were rationed, with each adult being allowed to buy only one kilo of bread. Only 200 grams of bread was allowed to be purchased for each child and thus, “we were always hungry”, Julia recalls. Cooking was done on the one shared stove in the cabin and the daily meal consisted of soup and bread cooked by each family separately. To supplement the rationed food, particularly in the summer and autumn, Marysia (aged fifteen) and Janek (aged sixteen) would venture out into the forest to collect berries and mushrooms.

Sunday was the day off but it was made clear by the camp commander that this was only because it was the last day of the week and had no religious significance. Indeed, no religious occasions were allowed to be celebrated and any that did not fall on a Sunday would be a normal working day. In the camp school (education was compulsory until the age of thirteen), Lutka recalls how her younger siblings were told not to pray to God but to pray to Stalin so that sweets would fall from the classroom ceiling. Extraordinarily, this seems to have been a popular anecdote by teachers in the gulag schools. In another first hand account, Stanisław Euzebiusz Manterys relays a remarkably similar episode at his nursery:

“The kindergarten was a sunny room. The young blond teacher was a merry soul and popular. On the wall hung a large portrait of a smiling, kind-hearted man with thick whiskers. The teacher told the class that this man is granddad (batiushka) Stalin; that we should pray to him, because he is better person than our own parents; that God does not exist and that Stalin will give us anything we ask for. To prove this, she told us to fold our palms in prayer and to pray to God to send us down sweets. Good and obedient children that we were, we did what she asked. Laughing, the teacher said that of course no sweets would fall down from heaven. She now told us to pray instead to Stalin. During our “prayer”, she stood by Stalin’s portrait and called out: “Granddad Stalin, please give us sweets”. […]She thought that the children were so naïve that they did not notice how she lightly shook the portrait and sweets poured down from her copious, loose sleeves. We all burst out with laughter, thinking it was a joke. When I told my mother about this upon my return to the barrack, she was furious. I learned later, that the parents of the Polish children went in a delegation to the camp’s commandant and told him that although he has the power of life or death over our bodies, but let him not dare contaminate their children’s souls, otherwise there will be a rebellion. The commandant gave in and there was no repeat of that type of indoctrination. I now know that the commandant did not fear a revolt, but he feared his punishment by Moscow if his quota of timber was not met. However, they still tried to turn us into model Russians and to lose our Polish identity.”

The bitterly cold winter months in Noshul lasted from late September until late May and the monotony and hardship of working six days a week, twelve hours a day seems to have only been broken by the changing of the seasons.

“Spring approaches. Though there is happiness there is also hardship. They send us log driving. We are in water up to our knees. We have to carry on despite the extreme frost and extreme longing for our homeland. They do not care that we are suffering…Many fell into the river and some even drowned. We are scared… We can no longer bare the suffering. We cannot bare this log driving any longer. It seems never-ending! As we finish one lot of work, another begins!”

Come summer, they had the mosquitos to contend with: “Mosquitos do not let us live! They are everywhere! In our eyes, in our mouths!

In 1940, as winter approached, a typhoid epidemic broke out in the camp. In November that year Kasia’s mother Maria, expecting her twelfth child, became ill. Marysia who was fifteen at the time and Stefania who was ten also caught typhoid. All three were sent to the camp hospital for treatment.

Stefania remembers initially sharing a hospital bed with her mother. “We were bitten by fleas” she recalled in a letter to my mother, recounting the memory several decades later, “and they cut our hair short then they put me in another bed.”

One of the only memories that my own mother has of Kasia (her mother) talking about Noshul is her retelling the desperate attempts to see Maria in hospital. She was repeatedly refused entry and so each time she would go around the hospital building desperately peering through the windows trying to catch a glimpse of her mother but to no avail.

Marysia and Stefania survived, Maria, didn’t. After three months she passed away on the 25th January 1941 in the hospital and was buried in a makeshift graveyard.

In an entry entitled ‘Longing for Mother”, dated the 26th January 1941, Kasia wrote about her mother’s passing.

“These are torturous times for me amidst the Siberian forests and longing rips at my heart. These forests took my kind mother…My heart is in pain…

I will plant flowers around [her grave] and water them with my tears so that they will grow tall and become tokens of remembrance to where our loved ones lie.”

The death of Maria resulted in the family being split. Apart from Julia who was considered too young to be taken away from the family’s care, Stefania (aged 10), Kazik (aged 8) and Władzia (aged 5), were placed in an orphanage in Noshul. The repercussions of this decision by the Soviets would rip the family apart and cause a family schism that would reverberate down the generations, dictating fortunes, and causing unimaginable pain.


[1] All text in italic is from the writings of my grandmother, Kasia (Katarzyna) Oko.



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