Janusz Bardach’s Man Is Wolf To Man: Surviving The Gulag ranks among the best prison-camp memoirs of the Second World War era. As an epic of suffering and survival, it makes an excellent companion to Siegfried Knappe’s Soldat: Reflections Of A German Soldier, 1936-1949, another dark chronicle of a dark era.
Bardach was a young Polish Jew living in the city of Wlodzimierz-Wolynski in the late 1930s. His family was solidly middle-class and his father a practicing dentist. His mother’s family had emigrated to Poland from Odessa in Russia; Russian was spoken in the home and he absorbed the language at an early age. When Poland was partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, Bardach’s city happened to fall within the Soviet zone, and at that point his life took a nose-dive into the depths of horror.
The true reality of Stalinist Russia cannot really be explained to the modern Westerner. One can recite the statistics and mechanically describe the nature of Soviet society at the time. But to understand fully the nature of the regime and what it did to countless millions, we must read–and re-read–books like Bardach’s. And even then, how can one convey hell to someone who has never been there? You cannot. But you can at least hope to waft some fumes of the Devil’s brimstone under the reader’s nose.
As a young man of only twenty when the Red Army arrives in town, Bardach initially hopes for the best. His family had absorbed the emigre’s usual sentimental attachment to the ancestral home in Odessa, along with a naive view of the nature of communism. It was a mistake that many leftists of the time made. But they would soon find out just what Stalin’s Russia was all about.
The NKVD swept in an arrested anyone tagged as an “enemy of the people”: meaning, of course, anyone educated or with any money to his name, along with artists, intellectuals, nationalists, or anyone else who ran afoul of the local commissar. Bardach initially tried to lie low, but as the son of an educated Jew he was a marked man. Impressed into service with the Soviet Army, he was assigned to the tank corps.
Things seemed to go reasonably well for a time. Then Germany invaded Poland and Russia itself, and Bardach’s unit was hurled back along with the rest of the Red Army. Blamed for a tank accident (and already under suspicion for his background), he was court-martialed and sentenced to death; the sentence was miraculously commuted to ten years of penal servitude in Stalin’s gulags when a commissar happened to know Bardach’s family.
Thus began Bardach’s descent into the belly of the beast. To catalog the scenes of brutality, starvation, labor, violence, and cruelty would almost sound clinical. One has to read them in the context of the book to appreciate them fully. Where Bardach was sent, Kolyma, was one of the most remote–and most terrifying–of all the gulags:
In the darkness of the barracks, a political prisoner lying next to me explained that the commander sought to purge the camp of political prisoners–Trotskyites, Bukharinites, and Zinovievites, all of whom were given the mode KRD or KRTD. These acronyms stood for counterrevolutionary activity or counterrevolutionary Trotskyite activity. The camp commander felt it was his obligation to finish Stalin’s extermination of these traitors, and he made it into a game, trying to distinguish the political prisoners by their faces and leading them off to their deaths outside the camp. No one ever returned, and it was rumored that he didn’t simply shoot them.
I soon learned that this was one of the worst camps in the Soviet Union. The hard labor and the sadistic commander earned it the nickname dokhodilovka [the place where one reaches the edge].
Starvation was routine. We weren’t given enough food to sustain us throughout one day of hard work, let alone weeks and months. Starving prisoners hunted for mice and rats with sticks and stones. They cooked them on the wood-burning stove and peeled off the fur before engulfing them. It made me sick to watch, despite the emptiness of my own stomach…
But Bardach learned to survive by his wits. His life was saved by some incredible strokes of luck, and reading these incidents makes one feel that he was marked out for survival by some higher power. Ordered to dig a pit for his own grave and facing the business end of a pistol, his executioner relents at the last moment. Given a chance to work as a medic, he lies about his background and claims to be a medical student. This gives him the chance to get away from the worst areas of the gulag, and into job for which there was some demand. These little breaks increase his odds of survival, and he makes the most of them.
It goes without saying that this is not a book for the faint-hearted. But then again, what book worth reading is? We are fascinated by the psychology of men under extreme duress, and the lengths to which they will resort to survive. Siegfried Knappe’s book (mentioned in the first paragraph above) is similar in its description of what life was like in a Soviet prison camp for a captured Wehrmacht officer in the Second World War.
The epigram in the title “man is wolf to man” is mentioned in the context of the author witnessing a brutal rape of a fellow prisoner. And yet there is something redeeming about this ordeal: the author does not lose his humanity or abandon himself to despair as do some of his fellow inmates. This, in the end, is what separates man from beast.
If we value stories of survival and endurance, then we must Bardach’s account its proper due, and rank it among the very best such narratives of the twentieth century.