Chapter III

I was assigned to the afternoon shift at Mine 89, a long way from the barracks. On the way we passed an enormous trench about twenty feet deep and twenty feet wide. Later I learned that it had been dug a few years back to delay the German tanks. It was hundreds of miles long, and the ground was very rocky. I thought about the hours of sweat and labor that must have gone into it. I asked several Russians how it had been done. The reply was always the same: with pick and shovel. It reminded me of the great wall of China, which I had read about in school.

After walking for about an hour and a half we got to Mine 89. I was put to work on the atkatka platform, which was a small hill where the coal was unloaded. A winch with a long cable pulled two one-ton cars at a time out of the mine shaft, and then lowered two empty cars to replace them. The full cars were rolled onto the top of the coal hill, tipped over, and shoveled out. On the opposite side of the hill from the mine shaft the coal was loaded into trucks that took it to the railroad at Mine 31, seven and a half miles away.

I worked with a Russian girl and an older Russian unloading cars. They both seemed to like me. I was the only prisoner on the atkatka. The first day was long. My felt boots got all black, and I realized they wouldn't last very long in the sharp-edged coal. The Russian workers all had rubber shoes.

At the end of our shift, at 11:30 P.M., we walked back with a guard. The night was crystal clear. There was no wind, just a dry, penetrating cold. I gazed up at the sky. Millions of stars shone not very far away. The stars were impersonal; only the bright moon looked a little friendlier.

Several weeks passed, and I began to lose track of time. My bread rations were now seven hundred grams, or about twenty-five ounces, a day. One afternoon a Russian worker from our shift was sick. Our foreman suggested that I take his place for eight hours. A lamp was hung around my neck, and I joined the rest of the forty Russians and prisoners going down into the mine.

The shaft descended at a forty-five-degree angle, and I slipped and fell many times. We finally got to the first level, where a tunnel ran off horizontally in both directions. Some of the workers got off here, and the rest of us continued our descent until we reached the second level. We went into the tunnel to the right. It was very wet. I tried walking on the rails where the cars rolled, but I slipped off them. Finally it made no difference whether or not I stepped in dry places, because my feet were soaked. The Russians had galoshes, and two or three of them even wore rubber pants and jackets.

After a fifteen-minute walk we stopped. In the wall at about shoulder height was a hole, three feet square. A stream of water poured out of it. Two of the Russians hoisted themselves up and crawled into it, and then it was my turn. Inside, the hole became a tunnel about ten feet wide and four feet high which ascended at a forty-five-degree angle. This level was called a lava. A jungle of braces held up the ceiling; in some places they were so close together we had trouble crawling between them. We climbed up about a hundred yards until we came to the point where the coal vein started.

I was handed a half-broken shovel. One of the Russians broke the coal down with a pick and crowbar, and I shoveled it into an open tin chute that ran down the length of the level. A Russian girl with a piece of rubber tied to her backside sat in the ch ute and pushed the wet coal with her feet, traveling down with it. When she got to the bottom, it fell into the car underneath the hole and she came back up and started over. It was a never-ending nightmare. Water dripped from everywhere. Since the le vel was only four feet high, I had to shovel the coal on my knees and heave it over my shoulder in a crippling position. One of the Russians put up new braces as we went along, and every once in a while I could lean against one of them, making it a littl e easier to work. I was wet right from the beginning.

At last our shift was over. As we went up, the Russians said I was a good worker. As soon as we came out into the cold, my wet clothes turned into ice. I was dead tired and my back hurt; I had bumped it several times trying to stand up in the mine. I was filthy and frozen. On the walk back to camp my feet became warm, and I tried to concentrate on them and forget the rest of my body. That night I made up my mind to escape as soon as I could.

About a week after that, two men did escape. Their names were Ion Steinger and Stephan Pivas. There was a lot of confusion. Three days later, when we got back from the night shift, we were told to wait in front of the barracks. The other prisoners were herded outside. An interpreter hollered, "You will see an example of what will happen to anyone who tries to escape."

It was just getting light. The commandant came out; he stood about fifty feet away from me while they dragged the prisoner out of the guard shack. He looked as if he'd been badly beaten. The other man had been killed when they were captured. The comma ndant told the prisoner to kneel down. Then he pulled out his pistol and shot him in the neck. The man fell over, and his legs kicked a couple of times.

I froze. It was so sudden. But perhaps he was lucky; no more cold, misery, hunger. I wondered vag uely: If I jump the commandant, will he shoot me immediately, or will he torture me first? The mere thought of torture sent shivers through me. On second thought I wanted very much to live, and get out of there. If I wanted to escape, it would have to be very carefully planned, and then carried out with absolute determination.

On the way back into the barracks a lot of the prisoners started crying and praying for the executed man's soul. A lot of good it did him...The Russians obviously meant business, and that was that. I slept badly. Every detail of the scene went through my mind a hundred times. But during the next few days, as I considered the episode more calmly, I decided that the two fellows had been very naive and inept. One had to be mad to try to escape in the winter, and without any knowledge of Russian. They had been nineteen and twenty-three years old. Result: two deaths. I made a mental note to learn Russian as fast as I could. Spring was only one or two months away, and summer would soon follow. Late in the summer I knew I could sleep in the fields...

Ion, Stephan, and I were planning the escape. I was confused. We planned it on the way home from the mine. Inside the camp we got our bread rations, volunteered for water detail, and just kept on going. Night fell. We walked through the night and decided that during the day we would lie low. We lay down in a young, green cornfield, but there was a foot of snow on the ground. I couldn't understand it. Peering out from behind the green stalks, I saw three guards walking toward the field, their rifles in their arms and a dog trotting behind them. Instead of doing something, I just lay down quietly and wonder why it was so cold and snowy on the ground when we were lying between green cornstalks. Then the guards' voices became louder and closer. I closed my eyes and thought about dying. I heard a click, and when I opened my eyes a rifle was pointing straight at my head from about two feet away. Stephan also had a rifle pointing at him. Behind the rifles were two savage, growling faces. I knew that Ion was already dead. Stephan tried to reach for the rifle and the growling of the guards grew louder and louder and...boom! Stephan's forehead had a round hole in it; blood oozed out of it over his eyes. They were still open, looking at me. The guards turned to me, raised their rifles...

I was in the cold, dark barracks.

We worked six days and had the seventh day off, but this turned out to be no great treat, for there were always innumerable details to which we were assigned. The worst detail -- I had to agree with the old man -- was burying the dead. Almost every day someone died, sometimes three or four in a day. The only remotely pleasant detail was distributing the bread ration. But after a while this was permanently in the hands of a few people who had managed to bring something valuable with them from home, such as a watch or a fur hat, which they gave to the officer in charge of our barracks or to the interpreter.

The only valuable thing I had turned out to be my books. Cigarettes were very expensive, and everyone smoked rough Mahorka tobacco rolled into pieces of old Pravda newspaper. One of the friendlier guards, who occasionally gave me a wink or slapped me on the back, was a heavy smoker, and one day as I was going through the guard shack on my way out on a water detail I saw him looking around for some paper. I remembered that I had the books and when I got back from the detail I went to my barracks and brought him my German history. He was immensely pleased, and a few days later he came into the barracks with a small satchel of cornmeal and asked me if I had any more paper. I gave him my geography book, and he ripped out about ten pages. Then he measured out three glassfuls of cornmeal into my cooking pot, thanked me, and left. I boiled the cornmeal with water and a little salt, and it was very filling. The books provided me with cornmeal every few days for several weeks, until there was nothing left but the covers.

There was a very pretty and fiery eighteen-year-old girl in one of the women's compartments in our barracks. She was from one of the better families at home. Our interpreter wanted to seduce her, but she insulted him when he propositioned her. Some people said that she had slapped him, but I found that hard to believe. In any case, a few days later the officer in charge asked for her, and she went off with him to his quarters. Ten minutes later she ran back crying hysterically, "Never, never will I submit to a Russian officer." The next day she was assigned to work in Mine 89. She came along with our shift. At the mine she was told that she would be working inside, on the second level. I could picture her sitting in the cold, dirty chute, pushing the wet, mud- like coal with her her feet. It mad me shiver. Just before she went down, she asked me what it was like. I lacked the heart to tell her and just shrugged my shoulders.

Eight hours later, she came up changed from a girl into a black body. The tears had made gray streaks on her black face. She must have cried the entire eight hours. She wouldn't speak; she just looked straight ahead and marched off with the rest of us . Back in camp, she immediately went to see the officer. They agreed that she would be permanently assigned to a kitchen job, and in return, every few days she would visit the officer's quarters. I didn't blame her, but I hated that rotten interpreter. She could not have survived more than a few weeks in Mind 89. Now she might outlast us all.

A few weeks later at Mine 31 I saw a Romanian woman on her first day at the mine who was unable to unload a car of slag. The Russian foreman kicked her a few times in the rear and was cursing her, calling her a lazy parasite, when one of the prisoners who had just finished his shift inside the mine came up, took the shovel out of her hand, and unloaded the car for her. The prisoner was one of the best workers. The foreman and several other Russians stood and watched him, amazed. Then they started laughing and making fun of him. It seemed ridiculous to them that this man who had just finished working for eight hours should help a woman who to them wasn't worth the bread she consumed. In Russia the women worked like the men and had the same rights. I remembered the Russian woman in Brasov who had never seen silk pajamas and wore them out on the street.

During the first few weeks, we had built a bathhouse, and we were each given one quart of water to wash with every day. Just after the shift change, the line in front of the bathhouse would be hundreds of yards long. There were three rooms, and the water was heated in six big gasoline drums in the central room, scooped out in cans and handed through windows to the prisoners in the two washrooms. Each washroom had twelve wooden basins, most of which leaked. When the water ran out, they would dump snow in the drums, and if your turn came right afterward, your bath water would hardly be melted. On the other hand, if you were first in line after work, the water would be so hot you couldn't put your finger in it. The bathhouse itself was always freezing. Of course there was no soap, and after we washed, we had to put on the same filthy clothes. I began to think that the place had been erected purely for laughs. I hated to go in there. Undressing, we could see how skinny we had become.

No matter how careful I was, my felt boots would always get wet. Actually it didn't make much difference, since I had them on my feet for eighteen or twenty hours a day and they were getting very worn. I just hoped that they would last until the snow wa s gone. They barely did, and the last two weeks they had large holes in the sole. After the snow melted, I cut the bottoms off the boots and used the rest as a pillow. I didn't want to part with those boots; they had saved my feet.

Just as I was getting used to walking barefoot, one of the foremen from inside the mine suggested to the atkatka foreman of my shift that they could make galoshes for me if they took two pairs, cut them at the right place, and sewed them together with wire. They spoke to me about it, but I said that the officer in charge would never issue me two pairs of galoshes. The two foremen just laughed.

"The mine will issue them, because they need young, strong, willing workers. Anyway, what are two pairs of galoshes to the Soviet Union?"

Sure enough, the supply officer sent two pairs of galoshes to one of the local shoemakers, who made me a special pair. I was given some old canvas material to wrap my feet in, and considering everything, the galoshes didn't fit badly. However, it occurred to me that all this kindness was only so that I could work inside the mine.

For a week I worked on the wet level in Mine 89, but then I was inexplicably transferred to Mine 31. I thought it must be some bureaucratic mistake. In any case, I escaped an almost certain death from exhaustion and exposure. Later I heard that they had given up the wet level entirely, because it was impossible to get the quota of eight tons of coal out of every shift.

Life became reasonably simple. Mine 31 wasn't far from the camp, and I received a ration of a thousand grams, or about a third of a loaf of bread every day. In the mine I always filled my quota, and for this I was liked among the Russians; whenever they could, they gave me extra food, which they knew I needed badly and appreciated even more.

Hardly any of the prisoners seemed to notice the coming of spring, for their strength was getting low and they only had enough energy to work and eat and rest. But still one could feel a change. The sun was getting warmer, and her warmth was so precious and necessary. Grass was coming out, and little flowers were opening up, and looking at them whenever I could steal ten or fifteen minutes to myself was like putting salve on an open wound. The spring brought up floods of memories from the past, which were all that I really possessed of my own. I clung to them, but at times when my feelings became too intense I would have to suppress my tears. I thought that indulging in sad memories was too great a luxury and would weaken me. During eight hours inside the mine I had to be alert. It was impossible to be a dreamer.

One day when our shift was over, I was thinking about my bread ration when the guard who marched us back to camp took me aside and led me to the foreman of the next shift. The foreman asked me if I wanted to earn an extra thousand grams of bread. Naturally I said yes, and he said that he was one loader short and needed a man badly on the samaia zapadnaia lava, which was the easternmost level. The guard broke in and told him that it was unnecessary to give me an extra ration of bread, since I had to do as I was told, anyway. But the foreman winked at me behind the guard's back and told me to see him at the end of the shift. The guard went off muttering, and I started back down into the mine. The prospect of working another eight hours didn't even bother me as I thought about the extra bread. Two thousand grams! Still, I would have liked some of it now.

The samaia zapadnaia lava was on the lowest level. When I got down there, one of the Russian girls pointed out the direction and said, "Vanya, you have a long walk ahead of you." I thanked her and set off down the tunnel. It was a wet level. I walked and walked and walked. Gradually I realized that I was all alone inside the earth. Water was dripping everywhere; each drop echoed as it hit the ground. As I thought about it, it became louder and louder. I stopped. I could hardly move for fear. The dancing shadows from my lamp...the dripping water...the old rotten braces...the stale moist smell...I was in hell. I was under the impression that I had walked for hours, but there was no sign of the samaia zapadnaia lava. How long could this level be?

The shadows kept getting larger and smaller, and the dripping water louder and more punctuated, like an insane infernal clock. I started walking again, but very slowly and cautiously, for I was afraid if I walked fast, my light would go out. The thought made me shudder. I walked even slower. I was losing all conception of time. Then I heard a faint, faint noise. It gave me a start at first, but nevertheless I increased my pace toward it. It sounded human. Soon I saw a gaping hole in the wall about five feet up. It was pitch black. Carefully I started climbing up the level. The ceiling was four and a half feet high, which was typical of the levels in Mine 31. I saw a faint light about fifty-five yards away. As I got closer I heard terrible, panting grunts, sometimes subdued, sometimes loud and desperate. I still couldn't see where they came from.

Finally, about twenty-three feet from the light, which was fastened to one of the braces, I saw an ageless blackened creature, working furiously with his long-handled pick, chopping under the coal as far as the pick would reach. Then with a crowbar he broke the coal down. He paused, and then he raised his head and hollered, "Dobiciiiiiii...[more coal]." The sound echoed down the level. I saw his face; he had deep-set eyes, a long nose that had been broken several times, and a huge gray, bushy beard. His wr inkles were all filled with coal dust. He looked at me and then asked whether I was Vanya from the camp. I said yes. He crawled toward me and reached into the satchel that was hanging from his shoulder and took out a huge chunk of bread. He broke it in half and gave half to me. I was really surprised, for abuse and curses were what I had expected from this old man. Instead, he handed me bread.

I shoveled the coal until the chute was full and then pushed it down into the empty cars. At times Andryushka, the old man, would shovel while I was pushing the coal down. Together we filled our quota of eight cars without much trouble. Then we went out, leaving the cars there, and I waited by the atkatka platform for the foreman and collected my thousand grams of bread. I ate it on my way back to camp, and there I got another thousand grams. I had only three hours to sleep before I would have to get up for my regular shift, but I didn't mind, for it had become increasingly difficult to sleep in camp.

As it grew warmer, millions of cockroaches appeared. One of the men stayed up one night and told us that he had killed thirteen hundred of them. They were especially active after dark, so it was better to work the night shift and sleep during the day. During the warm weather we had permission to sleep outside within ten meters, or about eleven yards, of the barracks, but even outside, they crawled into your ears and nose as you slept, and if you squashed one it smelled terrible. Sometimes I was so tired that they could crawl anywhere they wanted to; I couldn't care less. Nevertheless, every day I got more and more determined: I had to escape.

Ever since the camp had gotten fairly well organized, the Russians had been showing propaganda films every week. The guards woke up the sleeping shifts, for everyone had to watch. The movies were shown in the first-aid barracks where rows and rows of benches were set up. I had seen such pictures in Romania. The only difference was that this time the Soviets were the saints, and the Germans were the foremost villains, worse even than the rest of the capitalists. After each film we had to shout enthusiastically and clap our hands as hard as we could. After the war ended, on the eighth of May, 1945, the enthusiasm of the more patriotic Russians doubled. Everywhere we heard: "We beat the German capitalist warmongers; now we'll beat the Americans."

One day Andryushka, whom I still saw at times, told me that he had heard rumors that the best workers among the prisoners would be moved to another camp. Thinking about it, I decided that it couldn't be any worse than our camp, so my only regret was losing the Russian friends I had made at the mine. I could talk with them already, and every day I learned a few more words.

The rumor turned out to be true. Five days later I was told, along with four other men from my shift, to stay behind when the others went to work, and a few hours later fifty men and twenty women from the camp were loaded into five trucks. They were large American transports with eight wheels in the back and two in front. In fact, practically the only trucks I had seen in Russia were American. The coal from the smaller mines was brought to the larger mines in trucks to be shipped from there by rail. This went on twenty-four hours a day, and if it rained a little the clayish ground became like glue. I doubt that an ordinary truck could have made it, but these American vehicles seemed indestructible. They growled, sputtered, and whined, but they got through. The few Russian trucks I had seen had only four wheels, and they were used to carry food and lumber. Sometimes they got stuck in the mud even when they were empty, and the American trucks would have to come and pull them out. Meanwhile the propaganda films continued to insist that the trucks and automobiles in America operated on wooden wheels, because there was no rubber left.

Return to the DONBAS home page

Reprinted with permission from Jacques Sandelescu. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.