Komi’s Northern Lights

Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in the Soviet Union

After the last episode, in a Soviet POW prison camp for Polish soldiers, my dad, Stefan was sentenced—in a routine fashion—to eight years in a forced labor in a Gulag in Komi, west of Siberia. By now, in this episode, he had already endured one year of imprisonment and chopping the taiga. . . .

Fall and Winter 1940

The night-less summer days vanished as soon as they had arrived. The berry-plentiful, mosquito-infested taiga surrendered to the arctic autumn that brought icy winds and snowfalls to Bereznik’s “Colony #12” labor camp and its surroundings. Temperatures dropped deep below zero. The virgin boreal forest’s flora and fauna took on a drastic, new appearance.

Curious deer, hares, foxes, and wolves populated snow-laden blue spruce and nude birches. They greeted Stefan and his work column every day. White-furred, the animals blended to perfection with the monochromatic world. The bucks, their antlers branching with regal elegance, came within touch and stared at the inmates through languid almond eyes. At the end of their stubbed tails a black splotch betrayed their presence to clawed and taloned predators. They stood curious for hours and sniffed the air while pricking their ears. A shy harem of does backed them closely.

Hares, as if hypnotized, sat motionless around the deer. Their charcoal eyes caved like two intense slits below their elongated ears. Lips in constant prayer. Wolves and foxes circled at a prudent distance. Taiga’s king, the bear, seldom showed itself.

As if on command, the creatures would occasionally dart away at the sound of cracking frozen tree limbs and the soft descent of snowcaps. A second later a penetrating screech and a whirlwind of black wings would compress the air above the prisoners’ heads. A dozen pairs of ravens’ savage pupils scavenged the area. At their sight Stefan and the other men would duck to the ground, hatchets in hand, covering the soft flesh of their faces with their hats

The prisoners would inch toward one another. Stefan feared that the flock of ravens, consumed by hunger, would tear into and devour his eyes if he failed to swiftly burrow into the human pack. Word had spread that these attacks had happened to loners who dared distance themselves from their work column.

The Cheka guards had given the prisoners strict orders not to hunt the wildlife. They reserved that pleasure and sustenance for themselves. The men didn’t dare disobey.

The days grew shorter until the sun hid wholly from the world. At times northern winds swept dry snow crystals pounding at Stefan’s eyes. Other days, during work hours, his toes, frozen inside rubber boots cased in snow, seemed as removed from his body as his family. He spit blood on the snow. Stark red on glittering white. Other prisoners stained the permafrost with greenish trails of diseased stools—or collapsed, never to stand again.

They lived or died from day to day without calendars and watches to track the passage of time. Month after month, deprived of weekends and holidays, they worked for nine days straight and on the tenth were free to take turns cleaning outhouses and heating water for their showers. They had set up the bathhouses by placing a boiler on a metal platform under which they kept a fire. A pipe carried the warm water out. Instead of soap they had to use a gummy substance hand-scooped from a bucket. Compliments of Stalin.

In Stefan’s barrack, the prisoners had organized groups of twenty men who rotated to perform the bathhouse duties every tenth day. Afterward, they, too, would take a shower and spend the remaining hours killing lice embedded in their overalls.

Stefan’s friends, Panek and Kazio, had negotiated with a guard the privilege to meet and chat with Stefan in the courtyard during the rituals of squishing lice with their fingernails or hammering them with stones on tree stumps. “Last futile effort to salvage human dignity,” according to Stefan. In spite of the freezes, some fellow inmates stripped and shook their overalls over a stump to drop the lice–the itching more unbearable than the cold.

As Dr. Swirski had predicted, the husky Stachanowcy POWs, mostly Belarusian peasants from the eastern villages and farmlands of Poland, were the first to get injured, grow sick, or die. In addition to monstrous hernias, torn shoulder muscles, hatchet injuries, eye splinters, eye hemorrhages, and blindness, they suffered starvation and scurvy before anyone else. Heart attacks among them were an everyday occurrence, usually followed by death. Others crumbled gradually. Or they’d go to work in the morning lucid but return babbling nonsense. Then they’d collapse and perish in the night.

Stefan’s strength had declined. For weeks a dry, convulsive cough shook his body, filling his mouth with blood. In spite of the sharp light of an arctic moon filtering through openings in the barrack walls, due to night blindness caused by cynga, he could barely distinguish the bulks of his comrades sleeping in rows of gray.

One late evening Stefan couldn’t sleep. He sat up and felt around for his only possession, the tin cup hidden under his head. He spat blood in it and touched his loose teeth with his tongue. That awful metallic taste! He collapsed back on the bunk. The hay under him had clumped and stabbed at his body.

Marta’s and the children’s faces hovered above him. “Oh, God Almighty,” he remembered the prayer he and Marta had recited before he’d left home, “allow us to survive this war. Give us spiritual strength and bring us together again. Only You can change the world.”

“I promise you, Marta. I’ll come back,” he said out loud in the barrack’s silence. Would he really see his family again? He had counted the seasons: more than a year had passed since he’d left them. He tossed and repositioned his sore body until his birch-log bed frame chewed into his swollen foot swaddled in rags. He surrendered to an overwhelming weakness. How long had it been since Christmas? When would it be Easter? Limp, he closed his eyes and drifted back in time. Random images appeared before his weary eyes: the calm oval of his mother’s face; the No. 7 red-and-yellow trolley stopping with a screech in front of his childhood bedroom window; clusters of white and lavender lilacs bulging down and swaying in a soft, May breeze—their intoxicating aroma so powerful he could smell it in the barrack’s polar air.

 


The scent carried Stefan off to his parents’ apartment on the second floor. To an Easter celebration in Lodz. He was a boy of eight or nine and lay in a bed surrounded by freshly cut birch branches and sweet flag’s grassy leaves. He loved to linger in his bedroom on Easter morning. His mother had gone around the apartment and, according to tradition, stuck greenery in buckets filled with sand. She placed the smaller branches and grasses on his dresser next to a framed picture of Jesus holding out his arms, iridescent rays emitting from his blood-filled heart. She had fitted twigs behind the wall hangings and spread others on the floor. Next to lilac, birch aroma was Stefan’s favorite. He inhaled through his nose like a puppy while imagining he lay in a meadow instead of his bed, in a valley so lush and shiny with life he had to squint.

“Why are you so lazy, Stefan?” his mother, Julia, called from downstairs. “Get up! It’s time for the priest to bless our food.”

“I’m coming!” Stefan sprang into a sit and dangled his legs from the bed. Following another Easter tradition, his family had sprinkled their floors with white sand. Stefan’s father, Stanislaw, had scattered the sand in the hallway and stairway leading down to the courtyard. Their neighbors had dressed Lodz’s blackened by soot city streets with a pale sand coat, immaculate and saintly.

Stefan kneeled on his bed and wiped moisture off his window with his pajama sleeve. In the courtyard below, grownups from the apartment complex chatted as they waited for the arrival of Father Pietruszka. Men wore their best white shirts and dark suits with a white kerchief in the left chest pocket. Fedoras and polished shoes a must.

Women were in festive dresses and stood in tight pumps, swaying from one foot to the other. The children had to dress in church clothes and wear stiff, squeaky shoes.

Stefan slid down from his bed, got dressed, and hopped in his socks to the top of the stairs. Shoes in hand, he spit and smeared saliva first on his unruly hair and then on his dirty right shoe. Another spit and smear and he was ready. He twirled around and hollered, “I’m coming down, Mamusia!” He zoomed down the railing and through the kitchen. He threw a quick kiss to his mother, squeezed his shoes on, and joined the boys outside as they trumpeted without mercy by blowing on sweet-flag leaves held firmly between their thumbs and index fingers.

When they spotted the priest’s horse and buggy in the distance, the boys’ cacophony escalated to irrational proportions. They bubbled with excitement, like a pot of boiling water. Alerted by the racket, the men came out on the street, removed their hats, and saluted Father Pietruszka as he pulled up. The women stood nearby with reverence. Stefan’s father, elder of the building, helped the priest off the buggy and escorted him upstairs to their apartment.

Father Pietruszka pulled the holy-water bottle out of a leather pouch. Stefan’s parents, Stefan, and his two sisters surrounded the priest. All eyes were fixed on the dining-room table where, in the center, reigned the swiecone, a silver Easter food tray draped with starched, white linen. Stefan’s mother had filled it with a round loaf of rye bread, six hard-boiled eggs painted by the children, kielbasa, salt, pepper, and an Easter babka. Stefan’s sisters balanced on their toes to have a better view of the goodies.

“May the newly resurrected Christ our Savior bless this family,” Father Pietruszka said, “and the food they have prepared for this solemn occasion; in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He sprinkled the food with holy water, splashing a good bit on the girls’ faces. They squirmed and giggled until Stefan’s father stopped them with a cross look.

Stefan’s mother handed Father Pietruszka a monetary offering in an envelope and a crystal flute filled to its brim with cherry vodka. “Only one, Father, to warm you up.”

He took a sip and excused himself. “Imagine, Mrs. Julia, what would happen if I emptied a glass of vodka in every household along my way.”

They both nodded, smiling. Stefan couldn’t wait to dive into the treats on the silver tray.


“May the newly resurrected Christ our Savior bless this family,” Stefan said, and opened his eyes.

A voice moaned in the dark night of the barrack, begging, “In the name of God, don’t spare me. Let them kill me, please, Jesus.”

It would be one of the man’s last nights, Stefan knew—he’d been delirious for two days and would surely be the fourth prisoner to die in bed this week. Most of them lived and died in silence, afraid, like Stefan, to complain and be heard by favor-seeking informers. Outside of a few close friends, Stefan treated everyone as an enemy. A lousy wrong word and one could end up naked, freezing in the trench. For some, survival at all costs, even by betrayal, had overpowered their natural bonding instinct.

Stefan had witnessed the agonies of men: skeletal bodies lying still as death, skin patched in brown, eyes staring for days at the log ceiling as if in contact with God. Shortly after their deaths, the Cheka guards, the black ravens as the inmates called them, would order their corpses thrown over the barbed-wire fence into the snow. A simple solution to life’s most dramatic passage— Bolshevik style.

Sadness filled Stefan as he recalled that clear summer day before the German-Russian invasion of Poland when a military truck with enlisted young men had stopped at a railroad crossing near Lodz. The soldiers’ shining eyes, their enthusiasm, and their boyish faith in victory so disarming. It seemed another lifetime.

Stalin had other plans for them: to perish, but in a torturous slow manner.

Stefan understood those wasted men in his barrack who had lost hope, who wished to die. Especially the nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, still adolescent boys, unable to cope the way grown men could. Camp authorities had deprived them of receiving news from their families and the world. Soon, the rotten fish soup alone would purge them to death, fulfilling their plea.

The thought of remaining here was killing Stefan as much as hunger and disease. He wondered why he kept living. Before his imprisonment, he had no experience with physical labor. His faith in God had given him spurts of energy, but day after day he had to win the battle of not giving into weakness. To the lure of rest. Yet each new death drew him closer to his end.

He took off his mittens and pressed the back of his left hand with his right thumb, leaving an indentation that failed to fill. He scratched himself raw from the bites of lice and bedbugs. He’d have to wait seven or eight more days for his free day, so he could stone the little devils. “Cholera!” he swore. Wedging his mittens back on, he rolled to his side, his bloated thighs and legs aching inside his mud-stiffened overalls.

Without a change, Stefan calculated he had less than six months to live. If his cough progressed to pneumonia, he’d be over the fence in a few days. Either way, only a miracle could save him. He surrendered to God and His will. But exactly at the point of giving up, a surge of anger and an urge to survive overtook him once more, and he vowed that from this moment on, nights wouldn’t be nights because he intended to battle lethargy with every cell in his body and pray without end.

That last thought brought Stefan peace. During the long hours of vigil and prayer, death couldn’t catch him dozing. He’d climb a ladder, get close to an opening in the barrack’s wall, and watch the Northern Lights—a sight that had fascinated him since his arrival to Bereznik: an ever-changing miracle of brilliant red, yellow, green, blue, and violet streamers swaying like gigantic scarves on the lapis dome above. When the silhouettes of spruce trees stood outlined in ice against the sky, he had to persuade himself he was still on Earth and not in heaven.

He remembered the night he dreamt about the Black Madonna, the Virgin of Czestochowa, against the background of the Aurora Borealis. Not her picture, but her in the flesh.

When he’d awakened that night, for a moment he believed, like those prisoners who against orders went outside and knelt on icy snow and prayed, gazing at the unbelievable Aurora sky, that a change could be possible. That God in His infinite power could generate that change. The Lord who had resurrected.

The annoying cough tore once more through Stefan’s chest. More blood gushed from his gums. His bladder gave out, warming his crotch. More than from his physical discomfort, he ached, beyond human measure, for his family.

The gray twilight faded into a gray dawn. Maybe he had slept a little. Maybe he had dreamed. He dragged himself up, ate his kasha, and, although he craved rest, walked outside to work. As he’d been doing month after month.

Watercolor of Colony #12 painted by one of Stefan’s fellow prisoners

From the wooden watchtowers, machine-gun barrels pointed at the wobbly prisoners standing on the snow, some shoeless, aligned in groups of twenty. The Cheka guards cleared their throats before thundering orders.

Stefan knew better than to disobey. He secured the wrappings on his feet and marched with the others to the taiga. As long as he could walk and work, he would receive food. And food would keep him alive.


Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II :  Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir  and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows.

A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.

 

15 Replies to “Komi’s Northern Lights”

  1. Oh Junia, what torture your dad, and so many others endured. Thank God Stefan survived. You write so beautifully about the pains he lived through, minute by minute. I also loved to hear about his happy memories from childhood.

    You are a brilliant writer! Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Anne, for your interest in history and in a Christian person’s memories of the most diabolical war. They may be too extreme for many folks to swallow . . . as you can see by the absence of response.
    There is always hope for better times and long-lasting peace in this, our dear world. God bless.

  3. Dear Al and Theresa, thank you very much for the surprising illustrations that bring to life so brilliantly this story–one of my dad’s lowest points during his WWII experience as a Polish officer fighting to liberate Poland from its two neighboring aggressors: Stalin and Hitler–both ruthless mass murderers.
    I’ve written his story based on 40 cassettes in which he relates his life to me.

  4. This is so eloquently and movingly told, Junia. And your descriptions of the comfort your father drew from thoughts of family and home are vivid and heartbreaking. Thanks for reminding us
    how lucky we are to live in a free society.

  5. I’m astonished at your parent’s strength, Junia. The wildlife (and the Ravens in particular) emphasize that we are really just part of nature. Although sometimes the processes humans put in place make me wonder what part of nature, exactly?
    Beautiful, if harrowing, writing.

  6. Thanks Peter, never closer to nature than chopping the taiga for the Siberian Railroad–a railroad soaked in Polish blood….

  7. Dear Junia,
    I have read your two dramatic books. Your story here is devastating. I am reading Beloved for Kevin’s class, The Nickel Boys to meet Colson Whitehead tomorrow night, and Babi Yar and poems by Yevtushenko . Even the politics around us show us man’s inhumanity to man. Thank you for your stories so that we may never forget. Your writing evokes so much emotion. Thank you.

  8. Dearest, eternally young lady,
    Your vitality, strength, and jovial mind is extraordinary! Thanks for taking the time to read a forgotten, long ago era…

  9. Junia, You are such a beautiful writer! Your description of your father’s harrowing experiences in the labor camp brought tears to my eyes. He must have been an extraordinarily strong and determined man to survive the brutality. Thank you for sharing and reminding us of our good fortune to live in a free society despite all the challenges it presents.

  10. Oh, thanks Evelyn. Did the beauty and magic of the winter taiga arouse a poem in you? Yes, my dad was my backbone. He oozed positivity and determination–qualities so useful when you have been sentenced to die…

  11. What an amazing story of the ultimate strength of the human spirit; told through the experiences of one person which illustrates the deep well of human resilience. A story told with honesty, depth, and unassailable love. And this one experience can help us also understand the larger context of the tragedies of life under the czars, and the all too many unfree societies we can enumerate in the past and in the present. And of course, our free society today owes much to the unfree tragedies of slavery and eradication of native peoples. And of course our society is more free for some than for others ….In order to expand and maintain freedoms, we must understand the larger historical and contemporary issues.

  12. Thanks Marilyn for your empathy and knowledge of history. Yes, most freedoms have a tortuous past. This example of one man’s suffering and humiliation is just like a drop of water in an ocean of misery caused by extremist dictators… and history repeats itself constantly because of the human race’s quest for power.

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