Man Is Wolf to Man

Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving Stalin’s Gulag (Simon and Schuster) by Janusz Bardach and Kathleen Gleeson

The Israeli critic, Dov Sadan, symbolised the 20th-century experience as the nations of the world crowded together in a room. The Jews were squeezed in at a coiner of a table, but in the centre of the room.

This encapsulates both the significance of the Jews in our time and their marginalised, precarious existence. In the 20th century, the uncertainty principle has never operated with more certainty for the Jews.

And yet, it began hopefully. Many young Jews in Russia became entranced with Lenin’s establishment of a regime which, at least outwardly, offered a messianic vision of hope with justice.

Large numbers renounced Zionism, social democracy, Bundism and Judaism to embrace the new order to build “a Palestine in Moscow.” When that dream began to turn sour, many Jews outside Russia needed that vision, stripped of the Soviet reality, to confront the rise of Fascism, the anti-Semitism of the moneyed classes and the sheer injustice of it all.

Janusz Bardach, a Polish-Jewish teenager, believed fervently in the Soviet cause and in Comrade Stalin. He had been harassed by his Polish schoolmates and forced to transfer to a private Jewish gymnasium.

His applications to go to university were rejected because he was Jewish. A boycott in his town, Wlodzimierz-Wolynski closed many Jewish-owned businesses. No wonder he embraced a secular socialism and wished to join the International Brigade in Spain.

Bardach’s world changed dramatically on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis began to bomb Warsaw. Bardach attempted to enlist and was told by a Polish Army captain: “Listen, there are enough good Polish soldiers to defend the country. We’ll call on you when we need you, but, for now, go home and hide with your families.”

Yet this is not another Holocaust story. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact allowed the Red Army to invade Poland from the East. Wlodzimierz-Wolynski became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Bardach’s elation at the triumph of Communism soon turned to dust with mass arrests and deportations of “capitalists.”

Bardach quickly understood the arbitrary nature of the exercise — a face that didn’t fit, a need to fill a quota, a crude anti-Semite’s prejudice, a betrayal by a jealous neighbour, an independent mind, a religious disposition, an educated person.

His conscription into the Red Army further opened his eyes to the brutality and perversity of Stalinism and soon he, too, became another commodity, passed from one location to the next in the Gulag Archipelago.

Yet this imprisonment saved his life. For the Nazis attacked their former allies and swallowed up the rest of Poland. The Jews, of course, were once again history’s victims and Bardach’s family and friends never saw the sun again.

This book tells the story of Bardach’s sojourn and survival in the Gulag in graphic detail. It is a sordid world of criminals and bureaucrats, liberals and lapsed Communists, opportunists and market-Leninists, the broken and the strong.

Bardach existed in this hell because he pretended to be a Feldscher, a medical orderly. He convinced the authorities that he had been an experienced medical student. He emerged from the camp at Kolyma to study medicine in Moscow and then to become a well-known plastic surgeon in Lodz, Poland.

In 1972 he was allowed to take up a post at the University of Iowa. The fall of the Soviet Union opened many archives and the publication of an abundance of harrowing memoirs. Many have been wooden, but this account is compelling and spellbinding, no doubt due to a second auther.

Unlike Hitler’s willing executioners, their Soviet eqnivalents sleep soundly untroubled by prosecution. They and their heirs wait patiently for the collapse of Boris Yeltsin’s anarchic regime and the return of the true believers to “save” Russia.

Jewish Chronicle 1 January 1999

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