Gulag at the 55th Parallel North

The gulag in Yelabuga was located at 55th Parallel North.  During the long long trip lasting twenty-three days from Kraskino westward by freight trains, I experienced the temperature of 55 degree below zero in Khabarovsk. I felt pain all over my face rather than feeling cold.  I felt as if all of my eyelashes, hair in the nose and even eye balls were becoming frozen.  While I got off the train at a station in order to allocate food, I just took off my gloves. Then my pinky on the left hand quickly turned white, got frozen, and lost feeling.  On such an occasion, heating with fire is not the thing to do.  After rubbing my pinky with snow for about one hour, the feeling finally came back, and I could avoid frost bite.  Later, that incident kept coming back to me as such a scary experience. 

At the 55th Parallel, winter is very long.  It starts at the end of September when it begins to snow, and the winter lasts until the following May.  Around the winter solstice, the sun came up at about eleven o’clock in the morning and sank in the horizon at around three o’ clock.  The sun made a very low arc and disappeared quickly in the eastern sky.

I kept thinking about how long I had to live here and where I was going to be taken. I was helpless anyway, but  the only thing that came to my mind under those circumstances was getting enough food.

Gulag A was in the middle of a forest with some open space around it.  German officials were already there before we came, and I saw several two-story-high barracks. These barracks had a few rooms inside.  In each room, there were wooden bunk beds all around the wall.  Rather than a bed, it was like cabinet shelves for raising silk worms.  Sleeping in such a tight space was exactly the same as our accommodation on the freight train.  In an open space, there was a table with long benches. However, there was not enough space for everyone to sit down.  Therefore, the lower beds were used as seating. 

We had a hard time with the seeing at night.  Since there was no electric light, we only had the reflection of light off of the snow after sunset, but even that did not help us see anything inside the building.  It was so dark that we could not tell who was standing next to us.  After a while, we came up with an idea of burning wood chips.  Necessity is really the mother of invention.  Large wood chips were not useful, so we broke the firewood to the size of disposable chopsticks, dried them completely on top of the stove and then lit a fire with a match. That helped us for a few minutes during our trip to the bathroom.  I recall a really dark hallway on our way to the latrine. 

Meals at Gulag A were so terrible at the beginning.  As weighed myself, I could tell I was losing 10 kilo grams every few months.  Physical labor for such a body was truly difficult.

When I was drafted as a  college student, I weighed about 60 kilograms. I maintained the same weight even during the strict training at the accounting school.  When I was working at the headquarter in Beijin, I probably weighed close to 70 kilograms.  When I was transferred to central China and worked as a chief of accounting office for the headquarters of the Anning brigade, I had malaria and dropped in weight to 50 kilograms.  I remember the head of the brigade called me a ghost back then.

However, during the time I worked in the military headquarter at Hankou, I drank a lot of sake wine every night, and gained weight back above 60 kg.  It may have been close to 70 kilograms.  However, after being taken to Yelabuga, my weight went down to 60 kilograms just like everyone else who was there.  I think I could tolerate the daily labor only because I was young.