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Gabriel Hershman; Life in the Bulgarian gulag shows the indomitability of the human will.

Gabriel Hershman

Some years ago I interviewed a Bulgarian survivor of State Security, Georgi Saraivanov. He spent nine years in prison, beginning in 1953. Altogether, he was kept in chains for seven months awaiting execution. He said the pain from being chained was beyond description. (His sentence was eventually commuted to 20 years’ imprisonment.) He told me he still kept those chains dangling from his ceiling at home in Sofia.As is often the case with people who’ve been through harrowing experiences, catharsis comes through remembrance, not trying to erase the past.

As is often the case with people who’ve been through harrowing experiences, catharsis comes through remembrance, not trying to erase the past.

Apart from exposing the obvious evils of dictatorship, survivors’ accounts are – almost by definition – testament to the resilience of the human spirit. At the end of the story you whoop with joy. It’s like the final scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when the Indian chief throws the hydrotherapy console through the window of the mental institution and escapes.

What stayed with me from Botchev’s book was not so much the political slant as the way the survival instinct kicks in when stretched to the limit. Botchev said the first three months at Belene were crucial. You had to adapt to your surroundings, accept your situation and procure what you needed to survive – tools, food and contacts. If you lapsed into self-pity, bemoaning your lost life, you were finished. He added that, contrary to what some may think, prisoners were keen to keep themselves clean, shaved and looking as ‘civilised’ as possible even when half-starved.

More surprising still, Botchev said that all able-bodied men at Belene wanted to work. Ironically, whenever the authorities wanted inmates for some heavy physical activity, hundreds of men volunteered even though, of course, they realised that they were being exploited. It was not just that their meagre food rations were increased. The human body is not made to be idle; it is built for physical labour.

Botchev added that he and the other prisoners were keen – even in the hellhole of Belene – to cultivate a good reputation among locals. They didn’t want to be seen as lazy! Whether felling trees, building rafts, doing back-breaking working in the mines or in the fields, the work was perversely, if not exactly rewarding, at least proof that they were still alive and capable of producing something meaningful. They wanted to show something for their labour. It is not capitulation or even collaboration but simple self-preservation. Of course, sometimes, rather like Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, you find that your wish to bequeath a monument to posterity is counter-productive.

Ultimately, in such extreme situations, human survival means using every little thing that comes one’s way. There’s a great passage in the book. “There are people who when stumbling on a branch will curse and kick it away. But I would pick it up and use it as a stick to lean on. Altogether, I left the camps physically invigorated and mentally enriched.” And he quotes a French expression “faire fléche de tout bois” (using all available means).

But, of course, some didn’t or couldn’t. Personally, I’d have probably gone crazy quickly and been shot.

 

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