Christmas in a Soviet Slave Labor
Camp: A True Story by the former deportee Leo Oks
Translated by Dr. Joseph S. Height
For the German colonists on the steppe, Weihnachten with its Christbaum and Christkindlein had always been a season of great joy, blessed peace, and spiritual exaltation. But this high festival, like all the others of Christian tradition, was to be radically expunged from the Soviet calendar, and replaced by a day of work. However, even though Stalin and his atheist henchmen succeeded in closing the churches, silencing the bells, and extinguishing the candle-lit Christmas tree, they could not destroy the spirit of Christmas in the hearts of the faithful.
That spirit survived even in the prisons, dungeons, and slave labor camps of the Soviet paradise, as can be seen from the moving account of the German-Russian refugee Leo Oks of Kleinliebental, a former inmate of such a camp. In this account, originally written under the title, "Weihnachten fern von der Heimat," the author states:
Like all the other days in the Soviet labor camps, the 24th of December began with the sound of reveille.
The barracks of the camp headquarters stood right next to the gate of the compound, behind the twelve-foot-high wooden wall crowned by strands of barbed wire. Here the commandant and his staff of officers lived and worked. In front of the barracks hung a piece of iron rail, and at 5 o'clock the HQ orderly came out into the pitch darkness and the prevailing December cold, and roused the camp inmates from their sleep by pounding the primitive gong with a heavy hammer. The dull sounds, eerily reminiscent of an alarm or cries of distress, penetrated slowly and hoarsely the raw hoarfrost of the arctic air and seeped into the sixteen snow-covered barracks which stood, eight in a row, on both sides of the compound. The inmates of the camp--prisoners, exiles, deportees, and civilian internees from every ethnic group in Europe--lay on crude wooden bunks that rose in three tiers and extended some 150 feet along the length of both walls. On the bare, lice-infested bunks the inmates used their clothes to provide themselves with mattresses, pillows, bed sheets, and blankets.
As soon as the sound of the gong reached the ear of the camp warden--a strong, healthy Russian worker from the east--he roused the dead-tired and debilitated sleepers with the repulsive, soul-wrenching cry: "Podyom" --get up! In 15 minutes every inmate who was alive and able to walk (almost every night some had died in their bunks) had to be sitting on the edge of his bunk, to be ready for roll call the moment the camp officer appeared. If the number of inmates checked out and no one was missing, all who could walk were marched off, in separate groups, to the mess hall for breakfast. As quickly as possible, they all received and consumed their bread ration for the day, namely a pound of soggy rye, and their bowl of balanda, a gruel of cabbage leaves and fish bones. Then the men were marched, in groups of six, to the exit gate, where they were checked and frisked before a dozen and more escort guards, who equipped with tommy guns and big sheepdogs, conducted the column to their ten-to-twelve hours of work. After reaching the work area, everyone was assigned to his brigade--a work force of 15-20 men supervised by armed escort guards.
Like all the preceding 360 days, the morning of this day went by without any notable incidents. However, as we gazed towards the east we could see the distinctive traits of the long-awaited coming day. The brightly glittering stars gradually began to pale and very soon they were blotted out by the golden rays of the rising sun.
As we had all wished, the sun rose bright and clear, and all the clouds disappeared from the sky. The air became strangely transparent. That was a good sign, and we all heaved a deep sigh of relief.
Not a breath of wind stirred, and the blue sky radiated a wondrous ethereal purity that filled our wounded hearts. And in our great misery, aggravated by hunger and cold, we rejoiced in the depths of our souls to have lived to see the day on which Christ was born for us. While we worked in deep silence, we summoned our last reserves of strength, so that we would not have to do overtime. But the day was very long and never seemed to end, and when the end came we were utterly exhausted.
The afternoon gradually merged into evening. The sun disappeared in the West, where our thoughts continued to linger. The darkness from the East was already covering the whole sky. It grew dark again, and the stars gazed so delightfully but coldly upon the earth.
Closely watched by the escort guards, we trudged with weary footsteps through the crunching snow to the general assembling place. Strengthened by some invisible power, as though on winged footsteps, we proceeded faster than usual on our way home--to the camp. But several weaker men fell behind, and we had to slow down our pace.
After the roll call and the supper--a single bowl of sour cabbage broth--five of us who had our bunks in one corner of the barracks sat down together in a circle and celebrated Christmas Eve. We celebrated the long-awaited first Holy Night, but only in our hearts, in memory of the beautiful Christmases we had enjoyed while we were still living in freedom. It was a Christmas Eve without a Christmas tree, without sweetmeats and gifts, a Christmas far from home in an alien, desolate place. In whispering tones we sang "Silent Night, Holy Night," and told one another the stories of Christmas in our childhood, and our souls were flooded with the warm glow of joyfulness, love, and happiness that relieved all our sorrows and doubts, our lack of faith and poverty of heart. Peace of soul and childlike faith was enkindled within us. We wondered about the animals who, it was believed, were able to speak to each other in their stable on Christmas Eve, about the lambs who kept softly bleating: "Bethlehem, Bethlehem," about the place were St.Nickolas lived, and how he always managed to fulfill all the children's dearest wishes.
Shortly before the otboi, the ten o'clock signal for "lights out," was to be given, we walked outside the barracks and gazed out to the West, towards home where the sun would now be still shining and where relatives and friends would perhaps at that very moment be also gazing to the East and thinking of those who were deported or missing or who had already perished; and we hoped that our gaze and theirs would meet on some distant star or planet. But no one heard our weeping and pleading, which was like that of a small child who had lost its mother. No one knew of the conversations of our bruised hearts and sorrow-stricken souls.
We returned to the barracks, happy and content to have lived to see the day of the Savior's birth. We also kept hoping for a salvation. It came later, but it came. We spent the following day, December 25--Christmas Day--just as we had spent all the other days of our banishment. Only one peculiarity was noticeable: the number of camp guards was doubled, and the work quota for the day was increased.