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A Polish survivor of the Siberian prison camps during WW2

Posted in Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Friday, 30 August 2013

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This edited article about World War Two originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Siberia, picture, image, illustration

Siberia

One bright, sunny morning in the summer of 1941, young Esther Rudomin’s world suddenly crashed around her. She was looking forward to working in the garden of her parents’ home in the Polish city of Vilna when there came a loud, persistent ringing on the front-door bell. Mrs. Rudomin went to answer it and found her husband standing on the step, flanked by two Russian soldiers with fixed bayonets.

In those early days of the Second World War, Poland was occupied by Russia, who sided with Germany for the first 22 months of hostilities. Mr. Rudomin, a wealthy engineer, was arrested on a charge of being a “capitalist” (someone who uses money to make more money). Although he protested that he was a good employer who paid his men good wages, Rudomin was branded an “enemy of the people” and was sentenced to be deported to Russia.

Before ten-year-old Esther could grasp what was happening, she was bundled into a truck and taken to the railway station at Vilna. Accompanied by her parents and grandmother, she was thrust into a packed cattle-truck bound for an unknown destination. Only one thing was certain: it would be a long time before she tended her beloved garden again – if she ever did.

For six nightmare weeks the train crawled towards the Russian border village of Rubtsovsk, in the mountainous region of Altay, in southern Siberia. After spending so long living on cabbage soup in the “perpetual twilight” of the cattle-car, Esther was dazed and almost blinded when at last she emerged into the “too strong, too strange” daylight.
Together with hundreds of peasants accused of being enemies of the state, Esther and her family were marched to a distant group of buildings. The sun burned down “like a torch” on their heads.

On arrival they learned their fate. They were to be sent to work in a nearby gypsum mine, gathering the grey-white powder used in the making of plaster casts. Russia needed a vast supply of these for her war-wounded.

Esther’s heart sank still further. “Siberia,” she says, “was the end of the world, a point of no return. Siberia was for criminals and political enemies, where the punishment was unbelievably cruel, and where people died like flies. . . . Siberia was wolves.”

After another daunting truck ride, the Rudomins were deposited in the heart of the Siberian steppe – which stretched as far as the eye could see, flat and featureless, like an “enormous, unrippled sea of parched and lifeless grass.”

The settlement which was to be their home in the months to come consisted of 12 bleak huts and a couple of wooden shacks. There were some 20 to 30 people to a room.

The work was graded according to sex, age and strength. The children worked in the fields; the women did the job of dynamiting to loosen the gypsum; the old folk shovelled it up; the men drove the horses and carts in the mine itself. It was a hard, spirit-breaking existence, made even more unendurable by loss of hope and too little to eat.

With a dozen other children, Esther was employed in weeding a potato patch. As she had always enjoyed gardening – her garden at home had been her world – she did not find the work too unpleasant. Far worse was the monotony of the daily routine.

Before the winter set in and the wolves gathered around the mine, there came an announcement which gave fresh heart to Esther and her family. By this time the Russians had been attacked by Germany and were fighting alongside Britain. A pact was made between Russia and Poland, and an amnesty was granted to “all Polish citizens detained in Soviet territory.”

To their delight, the Rudomins were allowed to move into the nearby village, where they shared a hut with a peasant family. For the first time in many weeks Esther knew the joy of eating “real” food – meat, carrots and onions. Before long she was going to school and learning the native language.

The snow and storms of winter started in October that year and the young girl spent most of her first Siberian winter in bed with severe bronchitis. She recovered, and celebrated her 12th birthday by eating an enormous potato goulash (a dish flavoured with red pepper) which her mother cooked for her.

All the Rudomins’ Polish friends came to the party, bringing with them the best presents they could – “an apple, a piece of meat, a sweet beet, a large bag of sunflower seeds; lovely gifts, deeply appreciated.”

Soon after this, Esther, who had always loved books, discovered the true benefits of reading. As her knowledge of Russian improved, she went to the village library and borrowed novels by the great Russian masters as well as works by Alexandre Dumas, Jack London, Mark Twain and William Shakespeare.

“It was in that log cabin,” she writes, “that I escaped from Siberia – either reading there or taking the books home. . . . It was there that I learned to line up patiently for my turn to sit at a table and read; to wait – sometimes months – for a book. It was there that I learned that reading was not only a great delight, but a privilege.”

From then on, helped by her reading, Esther played an active part in the local community. She recited a passage from Pushkin’s novel, Eugene Onegin, at a “declamation contest,” and even became editor of her school paper. She attended gay social functions, and when the war ended in 1945, was almost reluctant to leave her second home.

“Our exile,” she declared, “had saved our lives. Now we felt ourselves to be supremely lucky to have been deported to Siberia. Hunger, cold and misery were nothing; life had been granted us. As Mother and Grandmother said their prayers, I joined them in thanking God for saving us.”

Esther Rudomin Hautzig, as she became, now lives in New York with her concert pianist husband and their young family. She has never forgotten or regretted the years she spent on the barren Siberian steppe.

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