Helene Celmina. Women in Soviet Prisons

After the ordeal of interrogations and courts, some new prisoners felt relief and adjusted easily to camp life.

While the difficulties, humiliations and starvation of camp life are not yet known, the camp appears to newcomers like a mirage in the desert. This mirage is especially true in summer. With flowers blooming all around and birds singing in the trees, the camp appears as a welcome change after the jails and boxcars. Such was not the case with one new prisoner.

On a sunny, summer day, a new arrival came into the zone, sat down on the bench nearest the gate and began to cry. A well-dressed, gray-haired stout lady, she almost filled the whole bench. She cried through dinner. She refused supper too, and only after the evening roll call was she willing to come to bed. Without a word she lay down and continued to cry. If she had not breathed a few "no, thank you's," "it's nothing," "thank you," we would have thought her to be a deaf-mute. Not until the next day did she tell us briefly what happened. And what happened was so extraordinary that it aroused the whole camp.

She introduced herself, "My name is Natalia Franzovna." This form of introduction, by name and patronymic, indicated that she expected to be respected, and was used to such treatment. Natalia's language, manner, and movements were correct and refined. In spite of her size, she moved gracefully.

She started to speak, "Women," she began in a soft voice, "none of you can imagine the cruel fate I have met." She paused and continued. "In 1948 I was given twenty-five years. In 1956, when everyone was released after the great commission, I too was released. I organized my life, worked, raised my daughter who had lived in an orphanage for eight years. And suddenly, after seven years, I am brought here and told that I have to serve the remaining seventeen years."

There was an uneasy silence, then a voice stated, "It is obvious the era of Stalin has returned."

After wiping her tears, which streamed over her cheeks, she continued, "I asked why I was arrested. And without blinking an eye, he said, 'According to the will of the nation. I can explain nothing more. If there is something you do nut like, when you are at the camp, write whomever you want to. I have orders to get you to the camp. Tomorrow you will go on transport!' With that the conversation was ended and I, in a state of utter confusion, was taken to the cell."

"But your belongings, underwear, clothes . . . how did you get those?" someone asked.

"After my insistent pleas the head of the prison allowed two armed soldiers to take me to my house to fetch clothes. Obviously, they had no clothes my size in the prison storerooms, and so they had no choice."

She spoke no more, as she started to cry again. Everyone understood that her ease was extraordinary and that she suffered severely. For several days there was great unrest in the camp and many felt that those released after the great commission in 1956 would return again. Natalia was a living example. No one was indifferent to her case, which involved seventeen years. Everyone knew that the highest penalty was fifteen years. Those with a twenty-five year sentence feared they would have to serve the whole sentence instead of the fifteen-year maximum introduced by the new law. The worry affected the health of several inmates, resulting in heart attacks, insomnia, and other nervous ailments.

When Natalia calmed down, she began to write complaints and requests about her case to Moscow. She did not mind reading them to the others, she had no secrets. Her case was exactly as she explained. The only thing we could not understand was what "nation" wanted Natalia to return to prison. What kind of nation was it and where was it located? What was Natalia's relationship with the nation? In 1956 Natalia settled in a city in Siberia, far from her former residence. No one knew her. She worked in the drug store, was kind to people, and was easy to get along with. What kind of nation was it? Natalia revealed her secret. Regardless of the circumstances in which women live, the curious ones are usually also talkative. "The nation" demanding that Natalia spend another seventeen years in prison was her husband. Natalia made no secret of it. She was highly indignant that the Cheka could call one man a nation.

Meanwhile, an article appeared in one of the Moscow newspapers saying that Natalia Franzovna Greenwald deliberately chose to live in a remote place to evade her penalty. The nation's alert eye had spotted her and rendered her harmless, so that she would not escape serving the just sentence for her terrible crime. The "nation" was the signatures of three men, whom Natalia did not know. The camp director brought in the newspaper which went from hand to hand. Natalia was indignant about the article and the fact that the Cheka used complete strangers against her.

Natalia received the news that her husband, fifteen years younger and now rid of his wife, was selling their belongings, actually bought by her. Before the law their property belonged equally to husband and wife. Even though in Siberia, their city apartment was well furnished with rugs, a television, and a refrigerator. As he was selling the property, the husband obviously intended to move; money is always easier to transport than furniture. However, to throw a wife of seven years into prison is not the testimony to a good man.

Natalia received answers from Moscow that what happened was lawful and correct. According to the new law, she must serve not twenty-five but fifteen years, of which the eight previously served were credited to her. Seven remained. Natalia, of course, was not satisifed. She redoubled her writing efforts to gain a court trial to which as a citizen of the U.S.S.R., she had full right.

In 1948, when she was first arrested, there was no court procedure. She was brought into prison one day, then called into a room before three uniformed men. There was no investigation, prosecutor, judge, or lawyer. The men simply announced that she, Natalia Franzovna Greenwald, received twenty-five years imprisonment to be spent in the corrective labor camp. Her sentence was final, without right of appeal. This three-man court without investigation was common at the time. This kind of trial was fast, and required no records or personnel. It made no difference anyway, because then everyone received twenty-five years, with or without an investigation.

Natalia wanted a regular court trial with papers, witnesses, investigation, and court procedure, with prosecutor and lawyer present. She wanted to be tried according to current laws, not by those of a system long out of existence. Her demands were justified. But her complaints achieved no results because no one wanted to accept the responsibility to review her case. If nothing could he proved against her, Natalia would have to be acquited. So great a penalty could not be changed when eight years had already been served and she was again Imprisoned. This would mean that the Cheka's right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. Since such a disgrace could not be hushed up, it was better to leave things as they were.

Natalia calmed down, and finding herself in congenial company, related more about her life. That war, how much misfortune it has brought humanity life I had a good husband, a daughter, and we were living a normal al life until the war started and destroyed everything. The Germans and killed my husband. I was taken to Czechoslovakia to work in a factory. My child stayed with my parents, who were still alive and had their own little house."

"And how did you return after the war?" asked Nina, who seated herself a little closer.

"In Czechoslovakia many women workers from Russia were placed in boxcars and brought back."

"Was there any attempt to imprison you then?"

"Not the women, only the men. I came home, stayed with my parents, my daughter started school, and I got a job in a drug store. Then after one month I was suddenly taken directly to prison. There I was told the Germans shot my husband because I betrayed him. I was too startled to speak. My words would have made no difference."

"But that is wrong. How can the accusation come without any witnesses?"

"There was not a single witness to say one word for or against me," Natalia explained and fell silent.

"And you ended up in the camp?" It was obvious that the questioner did not want the conversation to end.

"Yes, at that time the camps were large; our camp contained a couple of thousand. There was a shortage of people with medical training. There was a lot of work giving minimal aid to the sick women. I worked in the medical office. Often the patients made their own diagnosis, pointing with their hands to the part that hurt. In the camp there was no special medication, only pain killers, heart drops, and medicine for stomach aches."

"How primitive!"

"Any, reasonably knowledgeable woman could manage the ten medicine labels and the thermometer. But serious cases did come up which required a doctor. Sometimes it was even possible to save the patient, if she was taken to the hospital in time, and if the doctor's diagnosis was correct: an inflamed appendix rather than cirrhosis of the liver."

"I thought the doctors came from among prisoners at that time."

"That is true. But it is not always , possible to diagnosis correctly without special equipment. At that time the camp medical level was medieval. It seems to be no better now," Natalia added venomously, nodding towards the medical office.

"Were there a lot of deaths in the women's camp?"

"In general, yes, hut not nearly as many as in the men's camps. Men were dying as fast as if death were stalking through the camps, mowing grass. The women did the same work in the woods on the same food in the same circumstances, but showed much greater endurance."


"One possibility is that men are by nature not as frugal. In the morning when the day's bread ration was handed out, most of the men consumed it immediately. They saved nothing for the evening. Then the whole day until the next morning was spent without bread, which had a bad effect on the digestive system. The women, on the other hand, carried their bread ration with them and broke off small pieces several times during the day. This way they were never satisfied, but neither did they stave for long periods."

"And what was it like in 1955, when the great commission was announced?"

"Those were unforgettable days. To begin with, we found it hard to believe the news. But when the commission actually arrived, people cried with joy. Every day several dozen went home."

"But not everyone was released. This camp contains a number of people who did not get out, and the men's camp has many more."

"I am still here from those times," said a middle-aged woman from the Ukraine.

"Yes, I discovered that here. But while I was still in the camp, everyone was released. When I was called before the commission, my sentence was read in five minutes. It was announced that the commission, upon reviewing my case, decided that I spent enough time in prison and was dropping the rest of my sentence. The next day I left the punitive zone to return home. It was the same for everyone."

"Was there any order or system by which the release was carried out? Was the length of the sentence considered, or perhaps those with shorter sentences were released first?"

"The first ones released were the seriously ill and those whose sentences were nearly up. And then at random, without any particular method. When we came out through the gate, we felt confused and could not believe we were free. I sat with my two suitcases and did not know which way to turn. Then a young fellow, also released, talked to me. He had nothing to carry and offered to help carry my suitcases to the railway station. The suitcases were heavy, containing many handicrafts, gifts from the women whom I had helped with medication."

"He must have been a rare bird, to offer help. Was he a Russian?" Natalia's story was interrupted by Nina.

"Yes, he was a Russian. It's not possible to identify every scoundrel immediately: Some can pretend for years."

"Why a scoundrel? Did he steal your suitcases?" Nina's interest increased by the minute.

"Quite the opposite. He told me all sorts of good things about himself, promised to help me in every way, until I was willing to go with him, and we got married."

"What, on the spot?"

"Not quite, but almost. He exploited my confusion and my upset state. I cannot describe the great tension after sudden release. No one, who has not experienced it, can understand it. I wanted to cry and laugh-at-the same time. It was impossible to think. Few knew what they were doing. Most of us didn't even have a place to go. It is impossible to decide immediately. We knew that even with an early release, no one was waiting for us, or needed us. No one likes to know or befriend ex-prisoners. Even relatives sometimes will not receive us. So, it was not surprising that I was ready and willing to follow a complete stranger, as I had no relatives left, except my daughter in an orphanage. Also, he was young and strong, promised to work, so that we would be well off, as he, too, was without family. At first we couldn't decide where to go. I longed for familiar cities, like Moscow or Leningrad. He convinced me that we couldn't go where there would be no chance of finding an apartment and getting registered."

"Well he was right."

"Exactly. He persuaded me so that I depended on him and believed every word he said. He suggested Siberia, where it would be possible to better ourselves fast and to live well. At the industrial centers of Siberia workers were always in demand and getting an apartment was no problem. He explained this so logically that I was so glad to have met him, thinking that fate had brought him to me."

"You received an evil fate instead of good."

"It amounts to that. However in the beginning I couldn't imagine it would end that way. We settled nicely. We lived first in a rented room, then in an apartment much nicer than any I could have imagined. Then I brought my daughter. I worked in the drug store, my husband in the factory. It seemed that nothing could cast a shadow in our life."

Here she sighed, shed a few tears, and continued, "My parents died while I was in the camp, but an aunt was still alive. I knew her address and once I had a permanent address, I wrote to her. Much to my surprise she wrote that she wanted to give me our family's valuables and money. My parents once were quite well off. I received all that my parents left, except the furniture and clothes, which I gave to my kind aunt. Upon my return, I immediately bought all that money can buy to make life more pleasant: a T.V., carpets, a refrigerator, good furniture. No one ever knows how long money will be valid. If a monetary reform comes, all could he lost. And as soon as I spent the money, a reform occurred and the money and prices changed. With the new money, there was never enough. But now listen to what my husband was up to. While I was trying to improve our place and our life, he left work.

"At first he went off in the morning as if he were going to work, and I knew nothing. I found out only after this was going on for six months, and he was not ashamed to stay home and sleep. When I asked why he didn't get up, he replied indifferently that he did not have to go to work. Money was often missing from the drawer. He informed me cynically that he borrowed it for card games. When I hid the money, valuables disappeared, which he borrowed to pawn or sell. Who could watch him when I had to be at work every day?"

"Was he a laborer?" Nina asked.

"He was a laborer, yes. He did not speak of his parents, but he was obviously from that background. Why do you ask?"

"The thought occurred to me that the Russian laborer is a good laborer as long as he wants to eat. As soon as he is satisfied, he does not want to work. It is the opposite with the intelligent Russian. As long as he has nothing he drinks up his property. But as soon as an opportunity arises to break out of poverty, he works like crazy."

"Your comparison hit the nail on the head."

After a while, Nina asked, "Why didn't you get rid of the parasite?"

"I threatened him several times with the militia. Of course, I would never have done it, but what doesn't a person say when his heart if full? Secondly, because the apartment was in my husband's name, my daughter and I would have to leave, but everything in the apartment was bought with my money. How could I walk out into the street empty-handed? Often in my sorrow I wondered but was unable to find a solution. Until once during a sharp exchange he told me that my days were numbered if I continued to interfere in his life; I should he quiet and consider myself fortunate that he kept me under his roof. At the time I did not take these words seriously, and I could not imagine what he would do."

"I would feel very scared living with a person who told me my days were numbered," Nina commented.

"I thought things are said often in anger that are not really meant. But now, knowing the identity of the nation's will' everything became much clearer; obviously the rest of the 'nation' was his card-partners."

"You do not know them?"

"No, how could I? They did not come to our place and I considered it beneath my dignity to follow my husband to find out where he roamed."

"You should have explained to the Cheka that the 'nation' was your husband with whom you were at odds."

"The Cheka knew that, but I did not know it then."

"In that case the only solution to your ease is the court."

"That's exactly what I am waiting for. Let's hope that someone will listen to me and give me the opportunity to appear in court."

Days went by, months, years, but no court for Natalia Franzovna. To all her requests and appeals regularly came the answer that she received the correct sentence and that a new investigation or court procedure would not be useful. After every answer Natalia cried for days, not knowing to whom to write next. No one had any advice to offer since her case was unique. From the tension and the frequent crying, Natalia lost weight. In the span of one year she shrank to one third her original size.

Once Natalia received some Important guests who called themselves journalists from Kiev. For several hours they questioned her about her charges, about her relationship with her first husband, shot by the Germans. After several hours, they left. Natalia walked around in thought, at times in tears. Natalia knew the strange visitors were not interested in helping her, but only in satisfying their curiosity. They would not promise to help her, when she asked them.

In a few months the purpose of their visit became clear. A long article appeared in the newspaper, stating that Natalia Franzovna Greenwald was one of the greatest criminals of the century and that her crime provided the basis for a film being produced in Kiev. The article mentioned that Natalia served eight years previously, but was returned to the punitive camp by the will of the nation to serve her sentence in full. At length the article described the conscientiousness of the nation in helping the security forces to detect and unmask such a dangerous state criminal. The people who requested that Natalia be returned to the punitive camp were considered ideological leaders.

The newspaper passed from hand to hand. Every woman wanted to read the article with her own eyes. As Natalia told us, she was accused of betraying her husband, who was active in the Kiev underground, to the Gestapo. Several others from the underground were shot by the Gestapo. Natalia was accused of betraying four people, receiving as payment clothes taken from the dead people. Knowing Natalia, the story about the clothes sounded unbelievable. It was difficult to imagine her putting on something another had worn. Besides, she could earn money through her profession.

After the appearance of the article, opinion divided among the women in the camp. The majority thought that Natalia fell into disfavor and that the article was not true. It is well known that in cases where the jurists of the Cheka knew their accusations were unfounded and could not be proved, they used the newspaper to persuade people to believe their lies about the guilt of the accused. However other women thought maybe she was guilty. When one of the inmates asked Natalia how the Gestapo had detected her husband and his friends, she said through a betrayal.

"I strongly suspected an actress who was known to participate in concerts fur the higher German officers. The same actress knew the underground men."

After the appearance of the article, Natalia cried every day. Everyone understood that nothing would change her case. Hope now vanished that a court trial could convince the judges and prosecutors of her innocence. It was painful to watch this gray-haired lady for whom nothing remained but tears. During the time she sent letters to the All-Soviet Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Justice, she did not cry. Now however she had nothing to do. In the span of a few weeks, she withered dramatically.

Natalia clearly recognized her destiny, one shed by many other women. According to the Soviet law, only those with at least twenty-five years of service have a right to an old-age pension. The years spent in prisons and camps do not count, even though the inmates have to work forty-eight hours a week. If an elderly woman is released after spending twenty-five years in the correction camp, she has to work for another twenty-five years in order to receive a pension from the state. If her health has been destroyed in prison and she is unable to work, she has no choice but the poorhouse.

From camp #17-A several women went straight to the poorhouse under escort, after they finished their sentence. There the circumstances are slightly better than in prison. At the camp many women had no other prospects. Now Natalia Franzovna joined their ranks, because at the time of her release she would be seventy years old with destroyed health.