By Katie F. Wiebe
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.
On my desk is Why Are You Still Alive? A German in the Gulag by Georg Hildebrandt, published by North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, N.D., 2001, 267 pages, $35.
Researchers of Russian history have been adding to the number of people who perished as a result of Communism since 1920 as more information becomes available to them. Today the figure stands at 60 million.
Georg Hildebrandt was supposed to be one of those statistics. He was shipped off to the gulag, but he survived to tell his story. Twenty-five of his relatives never made it.
Late in his imprisonment, a KGB officer cynically asked him, "Why are you still alive?" By sentencing him to prison camp, his death had been decreed.
Hildebrandt's story begins with his arrest as a "public enemy" in 1930 in a village near the Don River with other men of his family. The only reason was that they were German. He escaped several times but was rearrested each time and returned to a labor camp to live with criminals and other political prisoners. Life was cheap.
In 1948 he was sentenced to seven years of forced labor and loss of civil rights for five years thereafter. He spent several years in the dreaded Kolmya camp, near the Arctic Circle. He tells the story of his experiences in that vast "graveyard." They were marked by "hunger and hell," extreme cold to 70 degrees below zero, arduous work with the pressure of filling quotas, and separation from family.
He saw prisoners murdered and tortured by sadistic guards. Some prisoners' bodies were cannibalized to feed the others. He, like many others, endured sickness and poor health without medical attention. Toward the end of his imprisonment, he contracted tuberculosis. Added to these hardships was the constant terror of additional harm. Even later on, when free, the fear of being reimprisoned was a daily torment.
He describes mass murders and methods the authorities used to cover up their crimes so that the Western nations would not discover them. He does not omit the degradation forced on women prisoners to "service" guards and criminal prisoners.
"The most intelligent minds, the best people, the conscience of a country, the great thinkers...none has a gravestone...They are victims of prisons, detention camps, gas chambers and psychiatric institutions," he writes.
The low points of his terrible ordeal were many. A small high point was find cranberries and rose hips near the camp. Even a little vitamin C helped. Any little extra morsel was a highlight.
He stayed alive. Why? A childhood dream that someday he would go to Germany kept him going. He always had hope he would survive. He reminded me of Viktor Frankl's observation in Man's Search for Meaning that those who survived the Nazi concentration camps during World War II were those who realized they could choose their attitude toward their situation when it seemed all choices had been taken from them. Those who gave up hope died.
Several times his skills as a technical draftsman rescued him from death. Those skills were needed. The story shows he was respected for being a decent person, "a good guy." People trusted him, and he listened to their burdens. He treated other prisoners fairly, never exacting revenge, even when he had opportunity. He admits that his "German efficiency" helped him out on several occasions.
Above all, he heeded his father's advice never to collaborate with the guards and officials to become an informer, regardless what perks they offered as an enticement or what penalties they threatened if he refused. He clung to his principles.
After rehabilitation, he located a friend from prison camp. That friend had never felt free to talk about what had happened, even to his wife. The memories were too painful. He feared his listeners would think he was making it up. Hildebrandt admits that even he has not been able to tell all. His soul has been to wounded. He emigrated to Germany in 1974, where finally he felt compelled to share his story so that all these people might not have died in vain.
The book is generally easy to read. The translation falters at times and becomes a transliteration, using German syntax, verb forms and idioms. Some English verbs are incorrect. Yet it is a book not easily put down. It is a significant book in telling the story of Germans under communist rule.
Nowhere in the book does he mention having Mennonite roots, although many names he mentions are common among ethnic German Mennonites.
Katie Funk Wiebe, of Wichita, Kansas is retired from teaching English at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.