are you still alive?: A German in the Gulag
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Hildebrandt, Georg. Why are You Still Alive?: A German in the Gulag. North Dakota State Univesrity Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2001.
From March 1930 to December 1953, 23 long years, Georg Hildebrandt
was moved from one detention camp to another in the Soviet Gulag.
His offense for such a harsh punishment? He was an ethnic German,
born to a prosperous farm family in a village called Kondratjevka
in the Don district of the Ukraine. The fact that he has survived
to the age of 90 and has lived since 1974 in the beautiful west
German city of Heidelberg is totally amazing because his places
of exile included Kolyma, the area in the northeastern Soviet Union
from which few of the millions sent there returned. In a personal
account that will absorb readers Hildebrandt recalls these years,
telling in chronological order his sojourn through what were death
camps. Diaries were forbidden, so he did not have notes to jog his
memory as he wrote this book, but he focuses carefully on the persons
and happenings in each place. The title is a cynical comment by
an NKVD agent.
Hildebrandt's survival skills were impressive. He learned to tell
time by the stars of the Arctic night, and he determined temperatures
above and below -50 F by whether or not his breath hissed when he
blew. He found that wild berries and a tea made of pine needles
fought the scurvy that threatened to weaken him and the other ill-fed
prisoners. He capitalized on a correspondence course in technical
drafting he had once taken. This and other technical skills often
allowed him to work in an office instead of in the deadly mines
or on road or railroad or forestry crews. He came to understand
what motivated the officials who held the power of life and death
over him, and he learned to negotiate with the dangerous criminals
who were mixed with the political prisoners. He knew there was almost
no one he could really trust but shrewdly accepted help whenever
it was offered and shared the occasional package he received from
his family. From day to day, he did not allow himself to become
incapacitated by his anger at the persons who murdered most of his
family or by the physical and psychological stresses that felled
so many. He does not deny that, more than once, he woke to another
day because of his natural good health and stamina or because of
coincidence or sheer luck.
Throughout the book, Hildebrandt traces recurring griefs: the unrelenting
fear, the humiliations big and small, the hunger little assuaged
by the carefully-measured pieces of wet rye bread and thin barley
soup that were his daily diet, the cold during the long, dark winters,
the hopelessness at the long sentence that stretched before him,
and his separation from family. A growing file, sometimes overlooked,
sometimes read carefully by his overseers, followed him from camp
to camp. Legal niceties were always observed by the NKVD, the secret
police who ran the camps, and he could never deny being German.
A few heartwarming anecdotes enter the story. He once soothed a
birthing horse by surmising that it was one sent from Germany and
speaking German to it. But there were few such incidents to report.
His sentence finished, he still could not leave the Kolyma area
for the Urals, where he longed to rejoin his mother and wife, who
were his remaining family. He became ill with a contagious form
of tuberculosis and, at the insistence of a series of medical personnel,
managed to work his way west, being moved from camp to camp.
After the death of Stalin, many things eased for the prisoners in
the north, but the system that had sent wave after wave of persons
to the camps and undersupported them in a hostile environment, had
a momentum of its own.
Hildebrandt always struggled with what his bottom-line principles
should be. He tried to heed his fathers advice not to become
an informer, though he avoided this in part because informers became
targeted for death by criminals. He did not focus on the particulars
of faith, but the strong, internalized faith of his childhood and
youth hummed away in his subconscious, sustaining him at a deep
level while his conscious mind paid attention to how he would get
through yet another ordeal.
He expresses understandable anger with Roosevelt and Churchill,
who agreed that Russians who made it to the west would be returned
to Russia. Were they truly naive enough to believe that Stalin would
return them to their normal lives?
This book, here in translation from German, is not a polished piece
of writing, but Hildebrandt recorded his thoughts and experiences
as faithfully as he could so we would know what happened. Sketches
(remember the technical drawing course) help the reader visualize
his settings, and he lists by name 25 members of his family who
died. He includes maps showing where his camps were and some photographs
of his family in more prosperous times.
At the end of the book, Hildebrandt reflects on what Stalin and
those who carried out the destructive life in the camps could possibly
have hoped to gain by it all. The camps were the instrument of killing
not only ethnic undesirables like himself but also persons who had
committed minor offenses. A Tatar boy who had drunk a container
of cream cooling in a neighbors basement was there, as were
Russian ex-prisoners of war who had seen the west, convinced communists
who were deemed untrustworthy for some reason, and women with young
children at home. Was building roads in the far north that important?
Would they not have won these people by good treatment and giving
This is a book that will be of interest to Germans from Russia and
others who want to know what happened to many persons, including
perhaps their family members, who were sent to the Gulag camps.
Hildebrandt does not depict violence gratuitously, but there was
plenty of evil to report. We thank him for his efforts in writing
this book and appreciate those who translated it into English and
made it available in North America.
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