Journey into the Land of the Zeks

People in the gas chambers knew, when they were dying, that the world had risen up against their executioners. People in the (Soviet) camps, however, did not have even this consolation.

These stark, shocking words were written by Julius Margolin over 70 years ago in Tel Aviv after a forced sojourn of five years in a camp in the Gulag Archipelago.

His account as “an accursed zek (prisoner)” and the daily struggle to survive in the permafrost is now being published for the first time in English this month.

Margolin’s memoir, Journey into the Land of the Zeks and Back (Oxford University Press, translated from the Russian by Stefani Hoffman), was not only one of the earliest accounts of the incarceration of millions by Stalin’s regime, but one which significantly also mentioned the suffering of Jews in the Gulag.

Born in Pinsk, Margolin was a follower of Jabotinsky and a writer on Zionism. He was the archetypal Polish Jewish intellectual who spoke many languages and completed his PhD in Germany.

In 1936, he emigrated to Palestine with his wife and son, but had to borrow £1,000 to qualify for a visa. In order to pay off this debt, he returned to Poland to manage a textile factory in Łódz. He was due to return to Tel Aviv on 3 September 1939 — the very day that war broke out between Nazi Germany and this country.

Two days before, Hitler had invaded Poland from the West. Two weeks afterwards, Stalin invaded Poland from the East. Poland ceased to exist — the outcome of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the friendship treaty between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.

A desperate Margolin tried to cross the border into Romania, but discovered that Jews were barred from entry. He returned to his aged mother’s home in Pinsk, which became a centre for gatherings of the Jewish intelligentsia.

In many towns, the entry of the Red Army was welcomed by the Jews as salvation from official discrimination. In Pinsk, Jewish youth demonstrated in the streets — carrying portraits of Pushkin and Stalin. Reality soon began to overwhelm such enthusiasm.

The NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) began the Sovietisation of Pinsk with the closure of newspapers, libraries and bookshops. The Jewish school of 700 pupils was closed down. The works of the Hebrew poets, Bialik and Tchernikovsky, were declared illegal. Yiddish replaced Hebrew as the language of educational instruction.

The phoney war ended with the invasion of Norway, the fall of France and the Battle of Britain in 1940. In Soviet-occupied Poland, Zionists and Bundists were arrested and deported in increasing numbers. It is estimated that between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, more than a quarter of a million people were arrested by the NKVD in eastern Poland. As Margolin comments: “They were doomed to fall into the meat grinder and to be reworked into a formless glob in the Soviet kitchen.’

Margolin regarded the Soviet Union as being in neither Europe nor Asia, but more a hybrid where arbitrary commands by indifferent apparatchiks could mean the difference between life and death.

Some Polish Jewish refugees could not cope with this environment and actually crossed back into Nazi-occupied Poland — much to the astonishment of the Germans. As one returnee put it: “With the Germans, there is the threat of physical death, but here it is moral death. With the Germans, you don’t have to lie or conceal your thoughts.”

Polish Jews were prevailed upon to take Soviet citizenship. Margolin refused because he knew that if he did so he would never be able to return to Tel Aviv. Margolin placed his hopes in receiving a visa for Palestine. He suspected that the British in Tel Aviv were blocking entry as a matter of policy.

Although he did eventually receive a visa extension because he possessed a permanent residence certificate, the NKVD still arrested him for violating passport regulations. His Polish passport was one of a country that now no longer existed. His documents were not recognised and instead he was imprisoned for many weeks, awaiting deportation.

All the prison inmates were covered in armies of lice. Margolin remarks: “Lice of all sizes and colours swarmed on the undershirts: chestnut, brown, black and transparent white lice, brunettes and blondes and powerful pregnant lice.”

Within weeks, he was one of 700 people, aboard “the Wondering Coffin”, a train pulling bolted boxcars to the Gulag.

In the camps, only the strong survived. In Margolin’s camp, the work of tree felling began at 5 am, at -30°C during the harsh winters. Margolin describes the bewilderment of Galician Chasidim from Złoczów and the proud aristocratic wives of Polish officers on arrival. The descent into “Dante’s Hell” included both Silesian coalminers and Jewish writers from Vienna. The “urki”, Russian camp criminals, preyed on the newcomers and stole their possessions with total impunity. Women who fell pregnant had their babies taken away after birth.

Everyone had to work. Fundamentalist Christians, “the little christs”, refused to work on a Sunday — and were shot.

There were four levels of food supplied. Those who did not fulfil the work norms were given 500g of bread and “a thin soup” in the morning and evening.

The bread ration rose to 700g for those who fulfilled the norm. The third level was those who passed the norm by 125 per cent and the top level those who surpassed it by 150 per cent. They received macaroni and peas — and “a goulash” of rotten horsemeat.

The prisoners of the first two levels simply did not survive through lack of food. The zeks were reduced to “hungry beasts” — labouring machines for their masters.

Margolin survived years in the camp because he was able to avoid the rigour of inhuman labour. His proficiency in language, friendship with doctors and plain luck saw him through. He was able to occasionally read books in the camp and regarded his sole weapon as “the power of the word”. Yet other prisoners now called him ‘Grandpa’ instead of ‘Dad’ as his hair had turned white — he was still in his forties.

Margolin writes that antisemitism was widespread and that all intellectuals were regarded as ‘Jews’. Religious Jews, he observed, possessed “great moral strength and fortitude” and yeshiva students seemed to fare much better than former members of the Komsomol (Young Communists).

News filtered into the camp sporadically. When Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland, the zeks believed that this was an attempt to forge a pact with Britain in which both countries would turn against the USSR.

After several false starts, Margolin was finally released from the camp into a year’s internal exile. His aim was to return to Poland and then travel home to his wife in Tel Aviv who had no idea of what had happened to him.

In Poland he came across starving German prisoners. “While remembering that my tortured mother lay in a mass grave in Pinsk, with a feeling of fastidious horror, I gave them bread.”

When Margolin had completed this book, he found it extremely difficult to find a publisher. No one wished to criticise the Soviet Union whose armed forces had helped to defeat Hitler. The imagery of the victory parade in Red Square was preferable to the knowledge of the parallel world of the Gulag. No European Communist wished to believe this “fake news” about the beloved Soviet motherland. Margolin regarded his book in the same light as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — it was a clarion call to condemn slavery and slave owners.

Margolin died a few weeks after the first show trial of Soviet Jews in Leningrad exactly 50 years ago this month. He lived long enough to bear witness therefore to the genesis of the great emigration movement which eventually brought one million Jews to the state of Israel.

The publication of his book finally in English brings his remarkable story to a new generation.

Jewish Chronicle 4 December 2020

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