Things I Would Rather Not Know. But I Do

By
Real Estate Broker/Owner with Daytona Condo Realty, 386-405-4408

Skip this post if you want an uplifting light reading. This one is not. It is about terrible events.

I did not plan writing this post, but it comes to me every day...

My mom died in 1988. Several days after the funeral my older brother, who lived with my mom, asked me whether I wanted to meet one of her friends, whom I did not know. My brother told me that he knew a lot about the Extreme North, where I lived at that time.

I wanted, both because I thought she would like me to meet her friend, and I also was curious as to his connection to the Extreme North.

He was in his early 80s, not a big guy by any standards. He shook my hand and something was weird with his hand, but I could not figure it. He lived in s small studio apartment 5-10-minute walk from my mom's apartment. I asked him how he got to the north, and he smiled at the stupidity of my question. In 1939 there was only one way to get there - GULAG. Yes, I was sitting with a man, who was in the GULAG in the most terrifying years, and yet survived. Very few did, really very few...

In 1939 he was a young railroad engineer working in Siberia, when there was one of so notoriously famous initiatives by the workers -well organized propaganda thing- when they find the deserving hero among the workers, and then make it as if the workers came with the initiative, and then they would take him all over the country, and he would go to places and speak at the meetings, and they would be in every newspaper across the country and on every radio station. That was a great patriotic movement. There were intiatives in each major industry.

But my guy in Siberia did not have the skills to say what was expected, or better simply shut up to survive. So, when the hero spoke at the meeting in the railroad Depot where my mom's friend worked, he did not get the political significance of the movement and started asking practical questions, and the problem with great propaganda things is that they usually fade when people ask practical questions, and ask a lot of them.

He was arrested the very same night, declared the enemy of the people (paragraph 58 of the Penal Code), and taken to the NKVD (later KGB) station for interrogation. At that time if they could get your admission of guilt, it was enough ground to indict you and excecute you at the direction of Troika (3 people, who represented justice). So, the officers tortured people trying to get the admission. And then it struck me that his fingertips were flattened. They put his fingers between the door and the jamb and then smashed them. Every interrogation. No wonder that people signed anything prosecutors wanted, people wanted to end it and die fast. Not so easy with my mom's friend.

"At first I fought with them. Then I got weak, and I could not fight, so when they bring me into the interrogation room, I would kick and spit and then fall to the ground trying to protect my head from the boots". He never admitted guilt, and this saved his life, as they could not shoot him without it. He got 15 years (at that time this was the longest prison term in Russia), but then do not forget that the lifespan of inmates in the GULAG in the Extreme North was only 3 months.

He was lucky. He was a railroad engineer, and an experienced one, and the authorities needed him to lead workers in building the railroad to Vorkuta, my Arctic city. He was the lead engineer on some stretch of this road, so they fed him, they took care of him. They needed him for more than 3 months. Many things he told me, I mostly knew, and it was shocking.

In the 70s and 80s the Soviet Union was building Baikal-Amur Railroad in Eastern Siberia and Far East of Russia. It was a huge project, and it took more than 10 years to build, even though it is still unfinished. I remember reading and hearing how they were overcoming obstacles and one of the biggest was permafrost.

My mom's friend was building a railroad, where there was way more permafrost, and it was not the 70s, these were the end of 30s, with less knowledge, technology... The war started in June 1941. Germans cut access to Ukrainian coal, and the country needed Vorkuta coal to help keep the metallurgy up and running. Without metal the war was lost. Stalin gave them until the end of the year to put the railroad through tundra to Vorkuta and get the coal. The working day was extended to 12 hours with no days off. These were not stationary camps, these were mostly tents, where people slept. And they built several hundred miles in less than 6 months, and the first echelon with coal for Leningrad left Vorkuta December 30, 1941. Stalin did not joke.

I asked him how come they could do it, and in the 70s they couldn't. They did not know nothing about building railroads over permafrost, there was no roads built that far north before. He got dark in the face, got closer to me and whispered "it is on bones".

If you go and read about the construction of the Northern Railroad, you would easily find that there was an extreme shortage of everything. And in the tundra there is no construction grade wood. They did not have enough wood sleepers to put under the rails, and they started putting two out of three.

Of course, you would read about the heroism of Soviet people, who in incredibly difficult conditions heroically completed the construction of the railroad. Nobody ever did it before.

If you happen to travel from Moscow to Vorkuta - 38 hours of uneventful journey - you would be bored by a bleak unpronounced landscape, vast spaces with nothing for the eye to notice. You will not see cemeteries. People were people even in the harshest and most inhumane times. Prisoners buried the dead and moved ahead with the railroad. And when they already could not see it, the bulldozers were going along the railroad leveling and messing up all graves so that there was no trace left. It is just all bones. In summer permafrost occasionally releases them, and locals are used to that.

A glorious place. Nobody died. They vanished.

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Rainmaker
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Tim Maitski
Atlanta Communities Real Estate Brokerage - Atlanta, GA
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Jon, thanks for the dose of reality.  Makes today's problems seem so insignificant.

Nov 17, 2008 10:22 PM #5
Rainmaker
400,669
Hugh Krone
Weichert Referral Associates - Hamburg, NJ
Realtor, Sussex County NJ

Jon ,

I read it,don,t know what else to say, But I will pray for relief from your memories.

Nov 18, 2008 12:48 AM #6
Rainer
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real estate real estate
Providence, RI

Jon, I understand the story. I read lots of stories about Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. It is sad that communism can bring such dictators into power. Do you have any comment about the current politics in Russia? It is hard to interpret the politics there.

Nov 18, 2008 02:05 AM #7
Rainer
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Cheri Smith
Prudential Gary Greene, Cypress TX - Cypress, TX
Realtor Prudential Gary Greene

Very sad. what a horrible way to live. Thank you for sharing your story.

Nov 18, 2008 06:46 AM #8
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Jill - And just think that there are countries where this is happenig today. We just do not hear about it every day. North Korea is just like that, China didnot really got far from it, and in the 60s life there was not worth a penny.

And genocide in Africa is beyond belief.

Nov 18, 2008 11:43 AM #9
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Katerina- we collectively do have short memory. Who could believe after WWII  that there will be time when skinheads with Nazi symbols and ideology would march not only in Germany, but in Russia, that lost so many lives in that war.

If we do not remember, we will have it again. We have to remember. We have to stand vigilant, Thank you.

Nov 18, 2008 11:47 AM #10
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Jesse - the paradox of this paranoid society is that not only he survived, but he outlived his interrogators, his camp guards... Tis machine was not acting rationally or even systematically like Nazis'. It is that we understand it now, but people then did not know it. Those who had power did not have it for long, and soon were arrested and become prisoners.

And it all started with "Freedom. Equality. Brotherhood", "Peace to People, Land to peasants, enterprises to workers".

Interestingly, concentration camps were not "invented" in Germany. They were decreed in, I think, 1918 by Vladimir Lenin.

We need a better and longer memory, you are right

Nov 18, 2008 01:33 PM #11
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Bill - Thanks for reading, for letting it go off my chest

Nov 18, 2008 01:56 PM #12
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Tim - memories like these are only tip of the iceberg, and we may never trully comprehend the monstrous scale of this crime of the regime against its own people

Nov 18, 2008 02:12 PM #13
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Hugh -  Thanks for the prayer. I will spleep better now that I told this story

Nov 18, 2008 02:15 PM #14
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Huiting  - What I described is terrible, of course. But considering this normal life was more terrible. Even in the very end of 70s we were sure that this regime was forever. With some modifications, but it was forever.

When I tld my friend that we might see the collapse of the regime somewhere in our lifetime, that this was a collossus on clay feet, he looked at me with enormous disbelief. He told me I was a "lunatic". At the end of the 70s - a lunatic I really was to say that.

As for today's Russia I am no better man than you. I am here from 1991. I did everything to become American. I read news, talk to friends here and there. Germany after the war acknowledged the guilt. Russia never did. It is still there, and may come back. Their politics is farce, but with time it is more an more dangerous.

They do not want to compete in economic growth, development, science... They simply want a bigger piece of pie, and they are not going to wait, they want to take it by force.

It would take Reagan to tame them. Will Obama be the man? I am afraid, he will not. Like Nixon, who could do what Reagan did. But Nixon didn't see it.

Nov 18, 2008 02:30 PM #15
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Cheri' - thank you for listening to this story. It should not be true, but it is.

Nov 18, 2008 02:32 PM #16
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Lane Bailey
Century 21 Results Realty - Suwanee, GA
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It is an amazing story.  It is wonderful that it isn't forgotten.  It is sad that it happened.  Thank you for putting it in front of us. 

Nov 18, 2008 03:01 PM #17
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Lane - it is tough to read, I know. Thank you for doing it.

Nov 18, 2008 03:10 PM #18
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Rob Arnold
Sand Dollar Realty Group, Inc. - Altamonte Springs, FL
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Wow.  Very frightening to say the least.  It makes the day to day problems of America sound like nothing.

Nov 20, 2008 01:49 AM #19
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Rob - I did not make it up, that's ow it was in Russia then, and that how it is in North Korea now. Thanks for reading.

Nov 20, 2008 01:37 PM #20
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Ted Baker
Carmody and Associates LLC - Winter Haven, FL
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Jon - you may sleep better.  For others, not so much.

I think it is difficult for many to understand the vastness of the former Soviet Union and the role that geography and climate of the country played in its history. 

For me, it is history in books or movies that talk of the defeat of Napoleon, Germany's Eastern Front or Pasternak's Dr Zhivago.

And your posts.

Once again, Jon - I thank you for shining a light into dark places.  General Eisenhower's response when he entered the Nazi death camps at the end of WWII was to photograph and document the atrocities that he witnessed so that the world would be forced to remember what had happened - and to protect against the day when someone would deny that it had ever occurred.

 

Nov 20, 2008 03:14 PM #21
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Ted - Yes, I read about General Eisenhower's order to photograph everything. He was a genius to even imagine that there wold be a day when people would be denying that these things happened. But these were Nazi's camps, and documenting the atrocities was somehow possible.

Ted, I wrote a response to your comment, and it was way beyond a comment in mere size. Your thoughtful comment got me, there was a lot that I did not say, and it is burning me. I am guilty of taking the comment and making it a post, and I did it this time. Here's it in its entirety

http://activerain.com/action/blogs_admin/write/800630

 

Nov 20, 2008 04:25 PM #22
Rainer
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Timothy Butterworth
Taking a break - Portland, OR

Jon Thank you for sharing all this. Many people do not know what a different life or times may be like. Others may have seen something similar. This was a very touching story .

Tempus Decit, Sapentia Audit

Time speaks, wisdom listens.

Best to you and yours

Cheers!

Nov 20, 2008 06:25 PM #23
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Jon Zolsky, Daytona Beach, FL
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Timothy - I think even the idea that Americans can imagine that would be crazy. You have to go backward and dehumanize the whole thing to the point of ... being not humans.

I do not blame them for that, this is crazy, and the fact that it is true does not speak well about the society, where it happened.

Thank you very much for your comment.

Nov 20, 2008 06:43 PM #24
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