(It occurred to me yesterday when I was writing the next chapter of my father’s memoirs. He never discussed with us as far as I could remember his time before and after the war then he came home. I obviously know he did, though “how” in details is perhaps a conversation I will have to have with my mother.)
We worked eight-hour days, six days a week, yet many times forced to work on Sundays too. The Sunday work was called “Cultural Work” by the Russians. I could never figure out what Sunday had to do with “culture.” The only difference from any other day was, we didn’t work our regular jobs. Sundays cultural work prisoners were volunteers. If there wasn’t enough volunteers then the guards just grabbed anyone who was wandering around the camp. I was usual able to avoid this by staying away from my barracks room on Sunday mornings. Several times I wasn’t lucky enough or I volunteered to work, perhaps suspecting there will be something waiting for me. The following happened on a cultural Sunday.
The only way I could relate culture to this work was trying to culture my body to survive. For myself at least the system wasn’t anything else then a big loot. Everybody trying to take something for one reason or another. Mostly to survive and in this case there was no difference between prisoners and Russian civilians, soldiers, officers, etc. They were prisoners like us; the barbwire was their own system and the guards were the secret police, N.K.V.D. in the name of the state. Equality was nothing more than a lie, unless we considered the gulags. In that case there was barely a difference between slaves and keepers or masters. I divided them up in three classes. The first, who where in the gulag, the second who are in the gulag and the third who will be in the gulags.
One Sunday I volunteered to go work in some sort of warehouse. There was no way to know in advance what kind of warehouse it was, so I took a chance I wasn’t fussy. Common sense indicated that a warehouse must contain something valuable. With an armed guard escort we marched to the nearby warehouse. I remember by now it was spring time because the melting snow made the roads and sidewalks very slippery and muddy. We didn’t have to walk a long distance, about ten to fifteen minutes or so. Today’s group of volunteers consisted mostly of those with wood-working skills; like cabinet-workers and by this time myself. Once we reached the warehouse they assigned us to work on make-shift wooden sidewalks. Each Russian guard was in charge of two to three cabinet makers. Due to all the deep mud the guard went inside the building leaving us temporary by ourselves. I was alone with my old friend Ferenc. We talked freely in Hungarian knowing the guard didn’t understand a word. The possibilities of food or finding it was a slim chance.
After a while the guard ordered us inside the building to start repairing doors, loose hinges, door knobs and windows. We were in a two-story wooden structure with a full basement and as usual short on tools. There were times when four of us worked with only one hammer, hand saw or chisel. We used to say “the Russian way to work.”
Time went by and it was early in the afternoon; all my efforts to find food was in vain. I was walking in and out of the building to retrieve tools from the other carpenters. On my way back in I noticed a corridor leading into the basement. This was one area I had not explored and I wondered what could be down there in the darkness. It was very dark so I used my hands to feel my way around until my eyes got more accustomed to the lack of light.
In one of the basement rooms I faintly made out a cylinder shaped object that looked like a barrel. A faint smell of fish entered my nostrils. I knew right away I had hit a gold mine. I lifted up one of the covers from the barrel and put my hand inside. I was right! It was fish preserved in a salt barrel. Before I knew it, I grabbed a large fish off the top and began to walk out and up the stairs. The long johns I wore where too big on me so I kept them tied at the ankles and the waist. The only opening that was easily accessible was the “fly” opening in the front. I took the fish and started to shove it down through the hole and quickly realized the head of the fish was not going to fit. I was standing about half way up the stairs between the first floor and the basement when suddenly, I heard noises from the second floor corridor. It was the guard, I said to myself. Instantly I grabbed the fish by the head, pulled it out of my pants and threw it down on the basement floor. I was right it was the guard. Instead of walking out the “exit” door I started to walk up the staircase and waited until right before he saw me and began to button my fly. I hoped the guard seeing this would think I just came back inside from the odd house. I went to the room where my friend was working and tried to stay calm. I told him about the fish and told him not to worry because I would find a way to get some and that is exactly what I did.
(to be continued next week. Kati~)