Why 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 father’s 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 neighbor’s 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 advantages?

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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