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Land of Fire & Ice

Aharon Granot, Siberia

Think of Siberia; you imagine infinite miles of frozen wasteland. Home to over 25 million people today, that hasn’t erased the past for those who remember yesteryear’s slave labor

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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MODERN PYRAMIDS “It was only through our sweat and toil that all this has emerged today,” says Shmuel Konzetzky, whose grandparents were exiled on foot back in the days of Czar Nicholai. Even a modern shul is part of Krasnoyarsk’s building boom. Times have changed since the days exiled Jews broke through ice to fish with their bare hands and baked matzah in secret (Photos: Shlomi Cohen)

W ho would have imagined going to Siberia willingly — and on a heated flight instead of a frightening weeks-long journey in a frozen, packed cattle car?

Think of Siberia and your mind undoubtedly conjures up unending miles of frigid wasteland dotted with thousands of Gulag prison camps and millions of political exiles. But this region, which accounts for 77 percent of Russia’s land area, is actually extraordinarily rich in minerals, containing ores of almost every valuable metal — it has some of the world’s largest deposits of nickel, gold, lead, coal, gypsum, silver, zinc, and diamonds, as well as untapped resources of oil and natural gas. For the Russians, the severe cold has never been viewed as an issue when it comes to staking its claim over this vast resource.

Over 25 million people live in the greater Siberian region today, in cities and industrial towns that had at one time been prison and forced-labor camps. We wanted to meet the second-generation Jews of the region, people whose parents were shipped off by Stalin, yet who survived and even thrived in their unwitting new frozen homeland.

Taltzy: Fishing and Frozen

After a six-hour flight from Moscow to Taltzy — a town in the Irkutsk region that had once been a forced-labor camp — we entered a warm terminal and from there immediately jumped into a heated car. But even the few minutes we were outdoors came as a shock — today it’s zero degrees outside (that’s -18 degrees Celsius), a cold like nothing I’d ever experienced, although for some northern Siberian cities when a winter day can read -20, this is considered almost toasty. I had all the amenities necessary to warm my frozen bones, but I couldn’t help thinking about the fate of the millions of people who didn’t have the means to shield themselves so many decades ago — those who were pushed onto trains, who rode in open carriages, or even walked — most of them wearing little more than the shirt on their backs. How did any of them — more than 14 million between the years of 1929 to 1953 — manage to survive?

Yet upon emerging into the frozen landscape, I discovered that even in this harsh, icy wilderness, there is life — and modern life to boot.

Waiting outside the airport was Semyon Rosenblatt. He was born in Taltzy after his father was exiled by the Ukrainian authorities to forced labor in this region of numerous frozen rivers and huge reserves of gold.

“My father was exiled after getting into a fight with a non-Jewish neighbor. He came to this labor village and met my mother, whose entire family was sent here,” Semyon says, as he deftly loads our luggage into his car.

Semyon explains in fluent Hebrew [he lived in Israel for a few years before returning to Taltzy] what the work entailed: “The laborers, my parents among them, needed to ‘fish’ in the ice, often with their bare hands, in order to extract the gold that accumulated on the riverbanks and in the shallow waters.”

The landscape is icy white, and drivers must wear sunglasses to protect their eyes from the blinding glare. The white desert expanse is broken only by the black strip of asphalt we’re driving on, when seemingly out of nowhere, a cluster of neglected structures and tents appear. A silent testimony to the Soviet Union’s slave-labor camps.

“This,” Rosenblatt points to another patch of ice that can hardly be discerned from the other ones all around it, “is the Angara River. It’s entirely frozen, and like many rivers here, it flows only for a few months during the summer. Beneath the surface there is a lot of fish… and gold.” I don’t really feel like leaving the warm car, even though I’m supposedly dressed appropriately. What did those prisoners who were abandoned in this frozen jungle without any protection do? “Come on out,” Semyon chides. “What are you here for?” Welcome to the Taltzy slave-labor camp.

There’s no guard at the entrance, no fences surrounding the camp. There was no need for them. The starving prisoners were guarded by the soldiers of “General Winter”: the wind, cold, and snow that have free reign here. Looking at the endless expanse of ice, it makes sense that prisoners could be kept incarcerated without guards and guns — there was nowhere to escape to. Every step away from a heat source or food ration was a step toward a certain death.

Only when seeing the Gulag firsthand can you believe, and understand, the stories that people “from there” relate. “When we get to Irkutsk, you’ll see a modern city with warm homes and nice streets. Don’t be deceived, though,” Semyon says. “It wasn’t always like that. The slaves who came here built the houses, and their blood that spilled warmed the frost and then congealed on the ice. Most of the exiles came to camps just like this one.”

The starving prisoners were guarded by the soldiers of “General Winter”: the wind, cold, and snow that have free reign here. Surrounded by this endless expanse of ice, prisoners could be incarcerated without guards and guns — there was nowhere to run

The new Russian government that came into power after the Communists were toppled turned this former slave-labor village into a museum and memorial. Artisans were brought in to restore the buildings and the living quarters, as well as the tents. “Putin came to inaugurate the site,” Semyon says. Inside the huts, which look far better today than they did originally, many of the instruments used by former residents are on display, including the nets the fishermen used to catch fish for government factories — although they were not allowed to partake of the catch, which was considered “government property.” In order not to starve, Semyon’s parents “would dig a hole in the snow, and keep digging until they got to the frozen water, and with exposed hands, they would pull out their own fish.”

To their credit, the museum staff went to great lengths to recreate life at that time. Here we saw how some workers lived in a large, round tent called a yurt. “I was born in such a tent,” Semyon relates. “Our family’s life revolved around the oven. If it was not lit, it was impossible to survive the night… My father would walk around the area collecting branches to fuel the oven. Sometimes it was so cold that we had to actually sleep on it.”

A lesser-known facet of Siberian life was the danger of wild animals that prowled the area, especially bears looking for food — they didn’t hesitate to kill humans in the process. And so, the exiles fashioned tools and axes in order to kill the bears, and then used the meat to satiate their hunger. We saw those tools on display, as well as the sleds the workers used. They lugged the cargo sleds laden with their daily haul of fish or gold with their bruised, cracked, ice-burned hands. In exchange, they would receive the valuable ration cards. Woe to anyone caught touching a fish, though. The crime of “harming government property” was tantamount to treason.

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