Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Smothering hope

There were many horrors that one would face upon entry to the labor camps of the Gulag; starvation, privation, rape, murder and a multitude of other hellish tortures were likely to be one’s constant companion throughout the duration of a sentence. One evil endured, that receives very little mention, was that faced by pregnant women and their children.

Given the high incidence of rape in the camps - guards, prisoners and even other female inmates would rape with shameless abandon - there was an endemic wave of pregnancies. A lack of food, sanitation, sleep and protection from the elements meant that pregnancy brought with it a high likelihood of death for both mother and child. Heavily pregnant women were placed on the deadly transport trains, thrown in to cramped, cold environments, the result of which was often miscarriage. It is well documented that new mothers would often leave their babies to perish out in the snow, so horrible was their expected fate.

When a baby did make it through pregnancy and into the world, life did not much improve. Children were essentially treated as if they were mini-prisoners: they were locked in barracks, surrounded by barbed wire, and given little or no food. They were, more often than not, separated from their mother and taken to a nursery in another camp. The record of their name was erased, their, as yet undeveloped, brain was unable to retain a memory of their parents and, as such, they were lost forever. Growing up in the camp atmosphere meant that they would never develop, never become educated and, more than likely, their only viable option for survival was a life of crime.

There were also women that conceived deliberately. This was due to the hope that they would receive an ‘amnesty’, which was not an uncommon event throughout Stalin’s reign. Every now and then a decree would be issued in which a particular group - sometimes pregnant mothers - would be ‘pardoned’. However, for the most part, pregnancy was imposing a fate worse than death on both mother and child.

The book that I’m currently reading, Gulag: A history, details many such tales of misery, but there was one story - that of a mother who lost her child to the meat grinder of the Gulag - which stuck in mind, and which I feel compelled to quote here:

“But there were women who wanted their children, and tragedy was often their lot too. Against everything that has been written about the selfishness, the venality of the women who bore children in the camps, stands the story of Hava Volovish. A political arrested in 1937, she was extremely lonely in the camps, and deliberately sought to give birth to a child. Although she had no special love for the father, Elenora was born in 1942, in a camp without special facilities for mothers:

‘There were three mothers there, and we were given a tiny room to ourselves in the barracks. Bedbugs poured down like sand from the ceiling and walls; we spent the whole night brushing them off the children. During the daytime we had to go out to work and leave the infants with any old woman we could find who had been excused from work; these women would calmly help themselves to the food we had left for the children.’’

“Nevertheless, wrote Volovich,”

‘Every night for a whole year, I stood at my child’s cot, picking off the bedbugs and praying. I prayed that God would prolong my torment for a hundred years if it meant that I wouldn’t be parted from my daughter. I prayed that I might be released with her, even if only as a beggar or a cripple. I prayed that I might be able to raise her to adulthood, even if I had to grovel at people’s feet and beg for alms to do it. But god did not answer my prayer. My baby had barely started walking, I had hardly heard her first words, the wonderful heartwarming word ‘Mama’, when we were dressed in rags despite the winter chill, bundled into a freight car, and transferred to the ‘mothers’ camp’. And here my pudgy little angel with the golden curls soon turned into a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips.’

“Volovich was put first into a forestry brigade, then sent to work at a sawmill. In the evenings, she took home a small bundle of firewood which she gave to the nurses in the children’s home. In return she was sometimes allowed to see her daughter outside normal visiting hours.”

‘I saw the nurses getting the children up in the mornings. They would force them out of their cold beds with shoves and kicks… pushing the children with their fists and swearing at them roughly, they took off their nightclothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn’t even dare cry. They made little sniffing noises, like old men and let out low hoots.

'This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time. Children already old enough to be sitting up or crawling would lie on their backs, their knees pressed to their stomachs, making these strange noises, like the muffled cooing of pigeons.’

“One nurse was assigned to seventeen children, which meant she had barely enough time to keep all of the babies changed and fed, let alone cared for properly:”

‘The nurse brought a steaming bowl of porridge from the kitchen, and portioned it out into separate dishes. She grabbed the nearest baby, forced its arms back, tied them in place with a towel, and began cramming the spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat not leaving it enough time to swallow, exactly as if she were feeding a turkey chick.’

“Slowly, Eleonora began to fade.”

‘On some of my visits I found bruises on her little body. I shall never forget how she grabbed my neck with her skinny hands and moaned, “Mama, want home!” She had not forgotten the bug-ridden slum where she first saw the light of day, and where she’d been with her mother all of the time…
Little Eleonora, who was now fifteen months old, soon realized that her pleas for ‘home’ were in vain. She stopped reaching out for me when I visited her; she would turn away in silence. On the last day of her life, when I picked her up (the allowed me to breast-feed her) she stared wide-eyed somewhere off into the distance, then started to beat her weak little fists on my face, clawing at my breast, and biting it.
Then she pointed down at her bed.
In the evening, when I came back with my bundle of firewood, her cot was empty. I found her lying naked in the morgue amongst the corpses of the adult prisoners. She had spent one year and four months in this world, and dies on 3 March 1944...
That is the story of how, in giving birth to my only child, I committed the word crime there is’

How did this senseless evil creep into the world? From whence did it come? If the human race can look upon the purist thing there is - the love of a mother for her child - and crush it without mercy, is there any hope for the future?

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