VORKUTA, by Edward Baca. 352 pages (Constable). 15.95.

In 1945, Edward Buca was a 19-year-old member of the Polish Home Army. Poland at the end of the war was no place for an ardent nationalist. The victorious Red Army was in no mood to tolerate an independently-minded man and Buca soon found himself in a death cell.

But fate spared him and he was sent to the camp complex known as Vorkuta, west of the Ural Mountains. This complex became one of the largest islands of the Gulag Archipelago. When Stalin died in 1953, there were almost one million prisoners there, many of them Jews.

Up to this point, Buca’s story is no different from the accounts of numerous other survivors. His special contribution is that he not only participated in, but was in fact a leader of, the revolt in Mine 29, Camp 10, in the Vorkuta complex immediately after Stalin’s death. Buca was able to co-ordinate tire factions within the camp during a weeklong strike in the summer of 1953.

Over 5,000 people refused to work in the mines. As their spokesman, Buca negotiated with the commandant of Vorkuta and demanded an inquiry into conditions in the camp. A commission of high-ranking generals arrived, listened to their complaints, proposed reforms — and went away. On August 1, 1953, loudspeakers outside the camp broadcast a message fr9m the party and the Government to the strikers, asking them to return to work within 40 minutes.

The prisoners’ decision was unanimous—death rather than surrender. At the entrance to the camp, they assembled and linked arms. The gates opened and through them came General Roman Rudenko—shooting. Within minutes, hundreds had been killed and many more were dying.

Buca survived and was put on trial. But the Kremlin had been shaken by the extent of the revolt. As they had taken a decision to open the camps and to renounce Stalin’s policies, no political capital could be made by victimising Buca and his comrades.

He received the “light” sentence of ten years. Yet he did not serve the full term and, like others, returned to civilisation in the thaw of the post Stalinist era. In the spring of 1958, he returned to Poland after 13 years. For another 13 years, he was kept under close surveillance. In 1971, he escaped to Sweden and from there emigrated to Canada.

General Rudenko became the procurator-general of the USSR and is still sending people, including Jews, to strict regime labour camps.

Last year in Israel, I met two Jews who were interned in Vorkuta during this period. Their accounts differed in some details from Buca’s story but did not contradict it.

Jewish Observer 17 March 1977

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