Sometimes the most important stories to know are the hardest ones to tell. These stories linger in the corners where the light and the darkness meet – always present in a room, but nearly hidden from view. They can break a heart with their raw and painful truths.

My Babcia, my Polish grandmother, carried these kinds of stories with her for more than 70 years. A survivor of war, she saw things no child should ever witness. In 1940, at the age of 11, she and her family were forcibly removed from their home in Poland, and became prisoners in a Soviet Forced Labour camp. From 1939 to 1956, more than 1.5 million Poles were sent to camps in Siberia. My Babcia remained with her mother and older sister, while her father and brother were taken to a separate camp. They lived in the camps for two years before reuniting as a family. For nearly six years they travelled around refugee camps in countries like Uganda and Kenya until they were granted entry into Canada.

My grandmother told me stories about this time as if they happened only a few days before. Her stories were detailed and vivid. She told me about the hard labour she did as a young girl, cutting wood with only a small knife, and gathering it together in the harsh freezing temperatures of Siberia. Upon arrival at the camp, my great grandmother was threatened by guards for refusing to allow my grandmother and her sister to be given Russian names to replace their Polish ones. On their first night, they awoke in the middle of the night to find that their bedding – straw stuffed into sacks – was infested with bedbugs. My great grandmother spent the rest of the night boiling and pouring water around her children to keep them from being bitten. In addition to the bedbugs, they lived in lice-infested bunks and were forced to shave their heads.

The years in the camp made their mark on my Babcia. The eight-month-long winters were unforgiving and relentless. By the second year, my grandmother had outgrown her winter clothing and had no choice but try to pull her ill-fitting, tight coat around her weakened frame. She lost most of her teeth by the age of 18 because she had been so malnourished for the past 8 years.

My grandmother’s stories have haunted me since I was a child; it’s why I grew up fearing the cold. Their presence is not only in my mind but in my blood, which carries her stories of resilience and resistance in and through me. I am made from everything that has come before. I come from a woman who was not meant to survive. I am my grandmother’s dream, in the flesh.

But for all the stories she told me, there are others I did not learn until she passed. In my search to learn more about the labour camps, I realized there were things she kept to herself. During the time my grandmother was in the camp, only 13 percent of all Gulag inmates were women.[1] Grossly outnumbered, the women in the camps were forced to undergo humiliating and degrading physical searches on a regular basis. Rape and abuse were rampant, with some scholars estimating that the number of victims exceeded 100,000.[2] Feeling guilt and shame, many women kept quiet about their experiences, and “did not find a voice that would have enabled them to talk openly of all they suffered at the hands of Soviet males.” [3]

nightsearch
A drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, a former Gulag prisoner. “The night search, the most degrading procedure, was frequently repeated. “Get up! Get undressed! Hands up! Out into the hall! Line up against the wall.” Naked we were especially frightened. “Among the blind, the one-eyed is king,” and next to them I was still a hero—for the time being. Our hair was undone. What were they looking for? What more could they take away from us? There was something, however: they pulled out all the ties that had been holding up the nuns’ skirts and our underwear.” Courtesy of Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia Foundation, Moscow. Translation by Deborah Hoffman. http://gulaghistory.org/nps/onlineexhibit/stalin/women.php

My Babcia never spoke of these things, and I cannot bring myself to think about what might have happened to her, my great aunt, or my great grandmother – it would be my undoing. But I do think about this silence that we keep as women, as if it’s a blanket we wrap around the stories that are the hardest to tell. For all the stories I told my grandmother, I did not tell her of my trauma. I kept a silence, too.

Generations apart but we kept silence just the same.


[1] Emma Mason, ‘Women in the Gulag in the 1930s,’ in Illič, Melanie, ed., Women in the Stalin Era, (Palgrave: 2001); Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 287.

[2] Joanna Ostrowska, Marcin Zaremba, “Kobieca gehenna” (The women’s ordeal), Polityka – No 10 (2695), 2009-03-07; pp. 64-66.

[3] Katherine R. Jolluck, “The Nation’s Pain and Women’s Shame.” In Gender and War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe By Nancy Meriwether Wingfield, Maria Bucur. Indiana University Press, 2006.