Jack NEUHAUSEN: «…I realized that her entire family was destroyed, and she spent 20 years in prison…»

This is a very interesting and important topic these days. Because people of my generation are probably the last witnesses of the GULAG. People who were either there themselves or communicated with those who were in the camps, who suffered there, who were deported, who ended up there, in that GULAG.

The word GULAG, of course, appeared later. When I was little, and I was born after the war, in 1948, we did not know such a word – GULAG. The adults may have known it, but we only heard from our parents: these were deported, and these ended up in camps. Siberia, Magadan, Kolyma — all these words evoked a dreadful feeling of cold. Not even knowing what it meant, for some reason we children were afraid of it.

I first met a woman who spent 20 years in the GULAG when I was about six years old. The memories of when you were six are not based on some important conversations that I never heard. They are based on small details. I am a person who has loved details and observations since childhood. And this is very strongly imprinted in my memory. This is exactly what I want to convey to you today. We lived on the fifth floor of a large house. And my mother had a friend in this house named Sarah. I didn’t know where or when they met. I only knew that Sarah was from Leningrad and that she lived in our house on the floor below. Moreover, she did not have an apartment but lived in a girl’s room.

And what’s strange is that the owners of this apartment, whose last name was Lusis, had “an extremely anti-communist mindset.” They really loved talking to my dad about the past, about capitalist Riga. It seems to me that they didn’t even charge Sarah any rent because they knew that the Soviet government had mutilated her life. She couldn’t live in Leningrad, so she somehow ended up in Riga. Maybe even my mother helped her get into this apartment below us.

It was one tiny room. The first time I came into this room was after some kind of feast at our home. Everyone was drinking and partying, the atmosphere was wonderful, and my mother said to me: “Go, knock on the Lusises, take food for Sarah.” I, an obedient boy, drunk on lemonade, took this tray, went downstairs, and knocked on the door. Old lady Lusis opened it. And she said, “Sarah is in that little room.” I knocked on the door – a tiny door, like a closet. There comes out a small, hunched woman, and for some reason, she doesn’t look me in the eyes. I hand her this tray and say: “Raya gives this to Sarah.” But she doesn’t look at me and says: “Thank you.” She takes the tray and quietly, like a mouse, leaves and closes the door to the room. This is how I saw Sarah for the first time.

Who she was, what she was, didn’t bother me at all, I didn’t know her. But later I accompanied my mother there. Mom went to see her once a week, or once every two weeks. And for some reason, she directed me to this small room with a window so that I could look at the pigeons in the yard. And they were quietly talking about something. After one such visit, I asked my mother: “Mom, who is this Sarah to you? Are these our relatives?” Mom said: “No, son. She was treated very badly, back in the thirties. This woman has been in Siberia for twenty years.” Mom avoided difficult words. And I knew that there was a law in our house set by my dad, probably from the moment I first learned to talk. My dad said: “Whatever you hear in this house, never repeat anywhere.” Because he was “an extreme anti-communist.”

I think: “Twenty years… they treated her badly…” I’ve already become interested. The next time my mother went to Sarah, I said: “Mom, I’ll go too.” She always had pigeons there on a small windowsill; there was a tiny window there. “I will feed these pigeons.” Mom replies: “Take the bread with you.”

This time I looked carefully at the room, and I was deeply amazed. I was almost 7 years old then. So, in the room, there was a narrow bed, evenly made. Mom and Sarah were sitting on it. And there was one empty chair that they wouldn’t let me sit on. They didn’t want me to even see or hear them. I was sent to the window. Slowly, standing at the window, I could turn around — look left and right. To the left lay a pile of huge books. Of course, I don’t know the names. And at the very top of the books was a black and white photograph. I still remember it clearly, as if it’s before my eyes. There is a beautiful woman in a white dress, next to her is a military man. A man in some kind of military clothing. And a little boy. And the photograph — which is why I remember it so well — was colored. Rosy cheeks, like they did in the thirties. We had some photos like this at home. Of course, I didn’t hear what they were talking about. When we left, I asked: “Mom, tell me, who is this?” “This is her son. He never returned from Siberia.” I say: “And that military man, so handsome?” Mom says: “And he died in Siberia.” These are all the words of my mother.

Sarah came to visit us occasionally, at the invitation of my dad. At that very moment, I was taken to the kitchen. And my mother always showed me to be quiet. Why? They talked there for a long time, drank tea, and smoked continuously.

Later, when I became an adult, that’s when I realized that her entire family was destroyed, and she spent 20 years in prison. She was like a mouse that couldn’t even look my dad in the eyes. And though mom seems to be her friend, her eyes are always downward. She was about the same age as my mother but looked like an old woman. This was my first contact with what today is called the GULAG, but then they called it deportation to Siberia.