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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Broken Man

I’d be willing to bet that at least a few of you read the title to this entry and thought it likely to be a self-referential title to another solipsistic entry. Well, OK, it could have been…I am broken in several fundamental ways…but, no, tonight I want to write about another human being.

My mind has drifted back again to that amazing evening in Vilnius. In fact, my entire sojourn in the Soviet Union, so long ago, was an intensely powerful personal experience. I may return to those memories someday (or not…depending on the vagaries of my dendrites and synapses). But, for now, allow me to dwell a while on the man who came to dinner whom I have not yet mentioned.

He deserves mention.

He was of smaller-than-average height, seemingly in very poor health. His back was bowed, evidence of severe osteoporosis. He was inordinately quiet. He sat, listened and observed the celebratory festivities, but generally did not participate. At odd times, when the conversation turned to hilarious or poignant denunciations of Communism, he would utter a weak defense consisting mostly of tepid bits of simplistic, Stalinist sloganeering. He was oddly out of place; yet, no one seemed to mind. No one stood to rebut his mutterings. He was simply there…more a shadow than a man.

One could not help but notice his discordant presence. Clearly, he was an esteemed, beloved member of this eclectic group, but he was unlike any other, unlike any man I had ever met.

The next day, when again in the company of several of the hung-over revelers, I inquired about “the quiet man.” A grayed head leaned toward my shoulder. Sotto voce, my sofa-mate explained:

“He was an actor. He is harmless. We look after him because we know he would never betray us. He was sent to Kolyma.”

That was it. No further details were proffered; nothing more followed other than a momentary silence. The conversation shifted to other topics. I was left sitting there with this one word…Kolyma…as if that explained everything.

I had absolutely no idea what "Kolyma" meant.

* * *

The years, the decades, rushed along (as years, then decades, seemingly must). One night, while watching some late, late programming about mining and notable ore mines, I felt a visceral shock when Kolyma became the prime subject. It was, apparently, the most infamous gold mine in human history.

With a gut-wrenching jolt, I remembered the quiet man.

In the years since glasnost…since the disintegration of the Soviet Union…more and more information has seen the light of day regarding the hell on earth named Kolyma..."the land of gold and death."

The Kolyma region in Siberia is one of the most mineral-rich regions on the planet. It is also one of the harshest environments imaginable.

That meant nothing to Joseph Stalin. What better place to exploit slave labor? And so he did. He sent millions of political prisoners and common criminals to Kolyma to work the mines, to starve, to suffer and to die. The slaves were quite deliberately served inadequate rations; after all, there were always more prisoners on the way...
millions more on the way.

Kolyma was a death sentence.

According to Wikipedia:

Death in the Kolyma camps came in many forms: overwork, starvation,malnutrition, mining or lumbering accidents, exposure, murder at the hands of criminals, and beatings at the hands of guards. Escape was difficult, owing to the climate and physical isolation of the region, but some still attempted it. Escapees, if caught, were often torn to shreds by camp guard dogs. The use of torture as punishment was also common.

One can find a survivor’s brief summary of Kolyma here.

* * *

There are matters in this life that I simply cannot fathom, cannot process. Our species’ capacity for cruelty is at the very top of the list. Although blessed with a hyperactive imagination, I cannot imagine the hells we’ve created at various times in various cursed locations.
I simply cannot imagine the suffering we’ve inflicted on our fellow human beings.

I simply cannot.

Nor can I imagine the human fortitude necessary to endure, to suffer, and still survive. I’ve never been thrown into the flaming cauldrons that others have. I’ve never remotely suffered what countless millions have suffered.

The closest I have ever come to any of this horror was to break bread with a quiet man…a broken man with a broken soul…

* * *


Blogger anna said...

I share your inability to imagine some of the cruelty and suffering we've inflicted on our fellow human beings. I don't understand cruelty or the ability or will to repeatedly harm another.

This was a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing it.

Wed Dec 12, 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger PattiKen said...

Hatred, discrimination, oppression, hunger for power, greed... all and much more are all too common within the human animals who walk this earth. Fortunately, so are love, kindness, fortitude, perseverance, survival.

Victor Hugo wrote, "It is by suffering that human beings become angels." You had dinner with an angel.

Sun Apr 03, 10:30:00 AM  

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