Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead.
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Thursday, 14 December 2006

How the War Began in Poland

The first regular act of war against Poland that marked the beginning of the Second World War for the country, took place on September 1, 1939, at 04:40 hours, when the German Luftwaffe attacked the Polish town of Wieluń, destroying 75% of the city and killing close to 1,200 people, most of them civilians. Five minutes later, at 04:45 hours, the old German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish military transit depot at Westerplatte, in the Free City of Danzig on the Baltic Sea. At 08:00 hours, German troops, still without a formal declaration of war issued, attacked near the Polish town of Mokra; the battle of the border had begun.

The Allied governments declared war on Germany on September 3; however, they failed to provide Poland with any meaningful support. The German-French border had a few minor skirmishes, although the majority of German forces, including eighty-five percent of their armoured forces, were engaged in Poland. Despite some Polish successes in minor border battles, German technical, operational and numerical superiority forced the Polish armies to withdraw from the borders towards Warsaw and Lwów. The Luftwaffe gained air superiority early in the campaign. The Polish armies were splitting up into uncoordinated fragments, some of which were retreating while others were delivering disjointed attacks on the nearest German columns.

Polish forces abandoned regions of Pomerania, Greater Poland and Silesia in the first week of the campaign, after a series of battles known as the Battle of the Border. The German advance, as a whole, was not slowed down and the Germans moved quickly, overwhelming secondary positions. Warsaw, under heavy aerial bombardment since the first hours of the war, was attacked on 9 September and was put under siege on September 13. Around that time, advanced German forces had also reached the city of Lwów, a major metropolis of eastern Poland. 1150 German aircraft bombed Warsaw on September 24.

The largest battle during this campaign, the Battle of Bzura, took place near the Bzura river west of Warsaw and lasted from 9 September to 18 September. After the defeat, Poland lost its ability to take the initiative and counterattack on a large scale.

From the beginning of the Polish campaign the German government repeatedly asked Stalin and Molotov to act upon the August agreement and attack Poland from the east. Worried by an unexpectedly rapid German advance and eager to grab their allotted share of the country, Soviet forces attacked Poland on September 17. It was agreed that the USSR would relinquish its interest in the territories between the new border and Warsaw in exchange for inclusion of Lithuania in the Soviet "zone of interest."

By 17 September 1939 the Polish defence was already broken and their only hope was to retreat and reorganise along the Romanian Bridgehead. However, these plans were rendered obsolete nearly overnight, when the over 800,000 strong Soviet Union Red Army attacked and created the Belarussian and Ukrainian fronts after invading the eastern regions of Poland. This was in violation of the Riga Peace Treaty, the Soviet-Polish Non-Aggression Pact and other international treaties, both bilateral and multilateral. Soviet diplomacy claimed that they were "protecting the Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities of eastern Poland in view of Polish imminent collapse." In fact Soviets were acting in co-operation with the Nazis, carving Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence as specified in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Polish border defence forces in the east, known as the Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza, consisted of about 25 battalions. Many Polish lives were lost and the Soviet invasion was one of the decisive factors that convinced the Polish government that the war in Poland was lost. Prior to the Soviet attack from the East, the Polish military's fall-back plan had called for long-term defence against Germany in the southern-eastern part of Poland, while awaiting relief from a Western Allies attack on Germany's western border. However, the Polish government refused to surrender or negotiate a peace with Germany and ordered all units to evacuate Poland and reorganise in France.

Meanwhile, Polish forces tried to move towards the Romanian bridgehead area, still actively resisting the German invasion. From 17 September to 20 September, the Polish Armies Kraków and Lublin were crippled at the Battle of Tomaszów Lubelski, the second largest battle of the campaign. The city of Lwów capitulated on 22 September in a turn of events illustrative of the bizarre turn due to Soviet intervention; the city had been attacked by the Germans over a week earlier and in the middle of the siege, the German troops handed operations over to their Soviet allies. Despite a series of intensifying German attacks, Warsaw, defended by quickly reorganised retreating units, civilian volunteers and militia, held out until its capitulation on 28 September. The Modlin Fortress north of Warsaw capitulated on 29 September after an intense 16-day battle.

Civilian losses
The Polish September Campaign was an instance of total war that would be repeated continuously throughout World War II. Consequently, civilian casualties were high during and after combat. From the start of the campaign, the Luftwaffe attacked civilian targets and columns of refugees along the roads to wreak havoc, disrupt communications and target Polish morale. Apart from the victims of the battles, the German forces (both SS and the regular Wehrmacht) are credited with the mass murder of several thousands of Polish POWs and civilians. Also, during a pre-planned Operation Tannenberg, nearly 20,000 Poles were shot in 760 mass execution sites by special units, the Einsatzgruppen, in addition to regular Wehrmacht, SS and Selbstschutz.

At the end of the September Campaign, Poland was divided among Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Slovakia. Nazi Germany annexed parts of Poland, while the rest was governed by the so-called General Government. On September 28, another secret German-Soviet protocol modified the arrangements of August: all Lithuania was to be a Soviet sphere of influence, not a German one; but the dividing line in Poland was moved in Germany's favour, to the Bug River. Even though water barriers separated most of the spheres of interest, the Soviet and German troops met each other on a number of occasions.

About 65,000 Polish troops were killed in the fighting, with 420,000 others being captured by the Germans and 240,000 more by the Soviets (grand total 680,000 prisoner). Up to 120,000 Polish troops escaped to neutral Romania (through the Romanian Bridgehead) and Hungary, and another 20,000 escaped to Latvia and Lithuania, with the majority eventually making their way to France or Britain. Most of the Polish Navy succeeded in evacuating to Britain as well.

The Polish September Campaign marked the beginning of the Second World War in Europe, which combined with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and the Pacific War in 1941 would form the conflict known as World War II.

The invasion of Poland led to Britain and France declaring war on Germany on September 3; however, they did little to affect the outcome of the September Campaign. This lack of direct help during September 1939 led many Poles to believe that they had been betrayed by their Western allies.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

Remembrance Day

Hi all, it's Romany here. I feel that this week more than any other, we should relate to the significance of Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead. November 11, 1918 marked the end of the First World War, when governments across the world, shaken by the devastating losses their countries had received, vowed never to let such atrocities happen again. Yet in 1939, just 21 years later, it started all over again. Whilst researching the Polish involvement in WW2, I realised that an awful lot of real facts and figures are missing and that Garri Urban's personal account of escape is only one of many that went largely unrecognised...until now. Have a look at this site dedicated to the men and women who escaped from Poland to fight in World War II. I think you'll find some of the information both fascinating and disturbing.

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Family Torn Apart

I imagine that most of us find it hard to contemplate how life under the Nazi regime must have been. Garri Urban's struggle to survive is an incredible story, but what about those family members he left behind, in particular his younger brother Menachem, pictured left? With his father dead believing his brother to be dead for 25 years, he received a telegram from London asking him the names of his closest family members...

Speaking in 2006 in Tel-Aviv, Menachem recalls how Garri was deported to the Gulag. As the Nazis invaded in 1941, their father had “benched” Menachem, letting the 15-year old go to join the partisans. He knew that his father as well as the rest of the family had died in the Holocaust, and presumed for 25 years that his brother had perished in the Gulag. Then, one day in 1964, a telegram from London arrived, asking him the names of his closest family members….

We learn from Menachem and Garri about the amazing and emotional reunion of the two brothers and visit the spot where it happened near Tel Aviv. We also hear from Menachem how he told his brother of the fate of the rest of their family and how he returned home after the war to encounter the man responsible for murdering their sister and nephew. Menachem joined the Jewish underground, capturing several senior SS officers, and handing them over for trial and execution by the Jewish underground movement before emigrating to Palestine, where he became a decorated elite commando in three wars for Israel. We recall how the discovery of a brother brought so much happiness to Garri and his family. Menachem’s stories also help shed light on Garri’s singular character: how he had become tough and fearless when physically assaulting gangsters and anti-Semitic gangs.

For a detailed and harrowing account of what befell the Jewish community of Garri and Menachem's home town (nearly half of which was Jewish before WW2),in one of the biggest yet least reported liquidations of the Holocaust, click here.

Monday, 6 November 2006

Brief History

The Soviet system of forced labor camps was first established in 1919 under the Cheka, but it was not until the early 1930s that the camp population reached significant numbers. By 1934 the Gulag, or Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps, then under the Cheka's successor organization the NKVD, had several million inmates. Prisoners included murderers, thieves, and other common criminals, along with political and religious dissenters.

The Gulag, whose camps were located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North, made significant contributions to the Soviet economy in the period of Joseph Stalin. Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions. GULAG manpower was also used for much of the country's lumbering and for the mining of coal, copper, and gold.

Stalin constantly increased the number of projects assigned to the NKVD, which led to an increasing reliance on its labor. The Gulag also served as a source of workers for economic projects independent of the NKVD, which contracted its prisoners out to various economic enterprises.

Conditions in the camps were extremely harsh. Prisoners received inadequate food rations and insufficient clothing, which made it difficult to endure the severe weather and the long working hours; sometimes the inmates were physically abused by camp guards. As a result, the death rate from exhaustion and disease in the camps was high. After Stalin died in 1953, the Gulag population was reduced significantly, and conditions for inmates somewhat improved. Forced labor camps continued to exist, although on a small scale, into the Gorbachev period, and the government even opened some camps to scrutiny by journalists and human rights activists. With the advance of democratization, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience all but disappeared from the camps.

For an excellent account of this period in history, please visit Anne Applebaum's site. A contributor to the Tovarisch film, her account won a Pulitzer Prize for its harrowing and accurate portrayal of life in the Gulags.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

History Revisited

Hi all, this is an introduction from the latest member of the blogteam. I'm Romany and I have been awe-inspired by the story so far. Having learnt history at school in the traditional way, I can't help wondering whether I would have paid far more attention if every story was as fascinating as this one! Wasn't it Wilfred Owen, the First WW poet who stated that the poetry is in the pity? Well, Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead evokes equally strong feelings. Now that the book is available on, everyone can read it. I look forward to all your comments.

Monday, 25 September 2006

A Gulag World?

Hi all, Tom here. I'd like to ask visitors who have direct or indirect experience from the gulags if stories from Iraq about torture, interrogations, extra-territorial renditions and the like are familiar, disturbing, frightening...?

As I'm American (the only Yank on the team here), I guess I'm curious. What my country is doing--is it the same as what happened in the U.S.S.R.? The Washington Post published an article centered on an interview with Vladimir Bukovsky about interrogations in the Soviet era-- here's the link. How true is this?

I'll probably write more on this later--I don't want this to become the dominant issue of this weblog, but I am curious about this.

Thanks for your input.

Monday, 4 September 2006

The Holocaust Denied, Part II

Breaking news - David Irving, the British Historian has had his conviction for denying the Holocaust upheld in the Austrian Supreme Court.

During his initial trial Irving admitted that he had publicly denied the fact that the Nazis had murdered millions of Jews during World War II.

A second court is due to rule on the length of his jail term which currently stands at 3 years - the ruling on the length of his jail term is not expected for at least 2 months.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Remembering The Gulags Through Art

While searching for information about other survivors of the Gulags I came across the story of an artist who spent 8 years in Stalin's prisons. Nikolai Getman was arrested in 1945 for the crime of meeting with other artists - one of them drew a caricature of Stalin and all of them were arrested. Nikolai, after his trial in 1946 was sent to Taishetlag in Russia's Irkutsk Oblast.

While Nikolai's story echos many that I have read, it is the images on his site that made me feel I had to include his tale as part of Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead.

As an artist Nikolai felt that he should make a record of the Gulag, and upon his release in 1953 he started a 40 year project, in secret, to create a series of paintings and sculptures.

The images on both pages on the site that I found are both moving and disturbing, and are accompanied by the artist's own recollections.

Gunter Grass

I thought I should write a piece about the recent news concerning Gunter Grass.

Gunter Grass is, as I am sure you know, the Nobel prize-winning author of the great anti-Nazi war novel The Tin Drum. Until recently his work and character were unquestioned, but recent revelations would, if you believe some of the reports, throw all of that into doubt.....

Gunter Grass recently admitted that part of his time in the German army was served in the Waffen SS, an elite unit with a terrifying reputation for brutality.

The Waffen SS was an elite fighting force, but the unit had a much darker side. The force grew into a one-million strong unit and was used to run the death camps in which millions of 'undesirables' were murdered during World War II. Could it be that Gunter Grass, the anti-Nazi author was part of this madness?

None of the most recent reports place Gunter Grass at the heart of the SS, nor is it suggested that he requested a posting to this 'elite' unit... indeed he has expressed feelings of shame that have burdened him over the years that he felt unable to confess to his part in the SS, but further details are to be published in his upcoming memoirs..... and that, I am afraid to say, is the point of this post.

Gunter Grass is undoubtedly a great writer but, it appears to me, that the recent revelations concerning his time in the Waffen SS have been released to increase interest in the publication of his new book. Indeed orders of the Tin Drum are said to be outpacing supply.

While Gunter Grass has always spoken out against the Nazi regime and is known as an outspoken peace activist I feel that he may have betrayed his beliefs and the memory of those who died in World War II and the Concentration Camps by allowing his war record to be used to gain media exposure.

Your thoughts?

Visiting Auschwitz

I have never visited Auschwitz, nor have I visited any of the other Nazi death camps or Russian Gulags... I have never had the opportunity to pay my respects to all those that were murdered in the name of progress or some imagined crime against society and, to be honest, I am not sure how I would cope with the knowledge that I was so close to scenes of such terrible suffering and brutality.

I would be interested to hear from you if you have visited any of the camps - please feel free to share the memories of your visit by clicking on Comments.

Thank you.

Sunday, 20 August 2006

Weblogs and the Gulag, Holocaust and Independent/Documentary Films

Hi all,

Tom here on a Sunday afternoon. I've been trying to drag in information off the web regarding the three categories this blog is devoted to--Garri Urban's experiences points us to both the Gulag and the Holocaust, and his son's documentary of his father's life leads us to a discussion of documentary films and the independent film-maker experience.

I need your help. Trawling through the weblogs using technorati, blogpulse, icerocket, etc., is leaving me depressed and angry regarding the first two subjects. There are still a lot of sick and twisted people out there, writing drivel about what happened only 60 years ago. In some ways, what is worse is the way other people are hijacking what should be a sober, if not sacred, memory to twist discussion of current politics. It's an education. Not a fun one. So if you know of any sites (not just blogs) that actually have something meaningful to say about the gulags or the holocaust, send me the URL.

With film making, there are a lot of sites out there, but not many that discuss the day-to-day process of making a documentary or an indie film. (Maybe later on I'll tell you about being exec producer on a martial arts movie and the joy of running out of money mid-shoot, but I'd rather hear from others). Again, drop me a line. Or have a great Sunday and send something over tomorrow.

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Read The First Chapter Of Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead

We have just received the first chapter of Tovarish, I Am Not Dead.. and have posted it here for you to read!

Of course, you can always purchase the entire book - it's on sale now!


Blood and Death


Blood in the Snow

September 1939. The war caught up with me in the little town of Stryy, in what was then south-east Poland. Around me the screams of the injured, crying for help, filled the air: screams that became more agonized still when a massive bomb exploded near the centre of the town, killing and wounding scores of people.

I ran to the edge of the enormous crater it had made and eyed the scene with horror. Parts of bodies were scattered here and there: arms, legs and dismembered trunks – while those still living screamed and moaned in distress. I scrambled down and managed to clear the debris from a man who was still alive. Getting him back up the steep side of the crater was not easy, but by clawing at the rubble and dragging him through I managed it.

Others had run to the crater too and were desperately locating and freeing casualties. Standing on the edge was a Polish army officer, hands on hips, shouting instructions to the civilians working below. There were two seriously injured men still down there: one was a bearded Jew, a Chasid, with his arm blown off, crying for help in Yiddish. The Polish officer had seen them too; and, although he had not gone forward to save anyone himself, he continued to shout out his commands. One of the passers-by jumped into the crater and was trying to free the other victims. The officer shouted to him and pointed to the two badly injured men who were lying close to each other. When the man went over to them and was about to start freeing the one with his arm blown off, the officer cried out:

‘Zostaw Zyda! Leave the Jew! Take the other one!’

I can still hear those words today. But the man, a Jew himself, took no notice and continued to clear the wreckage.

Once we had rescued all the injured we could find we returned to the top of the crater, looked at one another, and saw the same instinctive rage in each other’s eyes. We turned on the Polish officer, snatched his gun away, and threw him down into the crater. Stains of blood, not his own, seeped across his uniform as he lay wedged between the corpses.

‘Get me out of here! Help!’ he whimpered.

I stood where I was. But the other man went back into the crater again, pulled the officer to his feet, and got him to the top. Then I waved my clenched fist in his face.

‘You see!’ I cried. ‘A Jew has saved you!’

He was shaken and humiliated.

‘Tak, tak. Yes, yes,’ he snuffled.

A food truck had been hit by the blast of a bomb, and people were looting and carrying off the food. As the three of us stood watching another plane flew in very low, strafing the street with machine-gun fire. When it had passed I picked myself up and looked at the destruction around me. To my horror I saw that, of the three of us, I was the only one alive: the other two were lying on the ground, both riddled with bullets. I could feel a warm trickle of blood running down my back: there was a shrapnel wound in my neck.

But, wounded or not, I had at least survived. No, I was not dead – though little did I guess, as I stood there in a semi-trance with my own blood gradually seeping all over me, how many dangers I would have to survive, how often I would have to thank not only luck but my own resourcefulness and sheer determination to go on living, and never never to give in over the next six years if, at the end of that time, I would be able to claim, proudly and gratefully: ‘No, my friend, no, my enemies, despite everything – I am not dead!’

That summer had been one of the finest within memory. I had been spending the late summer holiday at the resort of Truskavice in south-eastern Poland, an idyllic break for a young medical graduate living in Warsaw, brought to an abrupt close by the German invasion and blitzkrieg.

Young men were hurriedly called up for military service by special radio announcements and instructed to report to the nearest military centre, but within days the German invasion had totally disrupted communications and it was impossible to comply. I was doing my best – Stryy was en route to

Warsaw– when Poland was subjected to another, sudden blow. Two weeks after the German invasion, the Russians marched forward into eastern Poland and occupied all the territories east of the Curzon Line.

Were they justified? What must be said is that, despite the treacherous stab-in-the-back of the Soviet leaders, most of the inhabitants of eastern Poland looked upon the Russians as protectors. The Russian army did not fight the scattered remnants of the Polish forces; they simply rounded them up without fighting or killing; and to the Poles the Russians looked a better bet than the Germans, whose pretext for invasion had been the freeing of down-trodden German minorities. But the situation was not simple, for the Ukrainian Nationalists, who detested Russians and Poles alike, occasionally made forays from their forest hide-outs, heavily armed, and attacked the Russians. There were even, despite their status as official ‘allies’ since the infamous Nazi-Soviet pact that virtually partitioned Poland, some full-scale engagements between the Red Army and the Germans, with infantry, artillery, tanks and air support involved – a presage of things to come.

But in general, confused though the situation was, when the Russians did arrive the people welcomed them. The Red Army soldiers, from private to general, assured the populace that they had come to help them, to save them from the German fascists. Whatever their reservations about the sincerity of the motives the Russians expressed, the people knew they had no choice and in any case they preferred the Russians to the Germans. Very simply the Russians looked kinder, ordinary, more friendly and smiling, whereas the image created by the German soldier was a cruel, frightening one. And, naturally enough, we were afraid; all the news we heard concerning the Germans confirmed our fears. Consequently the Russians appeared to some extent as deliverers.

But then, very rapidly, things changed. The Soviet Government hurriedly organized a plebiscite in the occupied territories and incorporated them into the USSR. Their thirteen million inhabitants were declared to be Soviet citizens. As my place of birth was Warsaw, this new declaration did not apply to me and I was still legally a Polish citizen, technically a member of the satellite rump state the Germans had set up, the ‘General Government’ – though I remained in what had been the Polish province of Galicia which was now a part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of the Ukraine – as indeed it remains today.

The Soviet economic and administrative system was quickly introduced. This was not to the taste of many people. There were deportations and arrests. It was not to my own taste. I made up my mind, like countless other Polish citizens or ex-citizens, that I would have to get out. Obviously there could be no question of returning to Warsaw now – that would be out of the frying pan perhaps but into the fire with a vengeance. No, the obvious escape route was in the south-east, across the border to Hungary or, better still, to Romania– both neutral countries, Romania being pro-allied whereas Hungary was both pro-German and anti-Semitic. And fortunately I was in the south-east. Therefore my first move would be to go to the nearest large city, Lvov, and from there make my plans to cross into Romania and go on to wherever I should decide. I was not alone. From all parts of Poland and the Ukraine people were converging on Lvov, each and every one with a fixed idea of how to get away and which country eventually to go – Poles who wanted to continue the fight determined to get to France, others like myself with no reason for loyalty to the Polish state, wanting only to escape from the tyranny of the dictatorships and rebuild our young lives elsewhere in the wide world outside.

In November 1939 Lvov, the traditional gateway into Poland, was occupied by the Russians, and army personnel of all ranks, officers and soldiers, men and women, thronged the city. They sat in the cafes and crowded into the shops where most of them bought watches, silk stockings and luxuries to take home to Russia. They seemed quite jovial and had pleasant manners and appearances, especially the women who were good-looking.

I was a very young man full of the joy of life. She was an elegant woman, a doctor of medicine with the rank of major in the Soviet army. I was first attracted by her beautiful blue eyes which she fixed on me as we sat in the Palace Cafe. I moved straight to her table and started an entertaining conversation with her. Her military uniform rather intimidated me, but I was overcome by her eyes, and I could see she had fine breasts in spite of her uniform. I forgot she was a major in the Soviet army, and my state of excitement became obvious. It was around five in the afternoon. I told her that, since she was a doctor and I was too, we should go to my room to continue our conversation on medical matters. Kira (by now we were on first name terms) laughed and replied:

‘Of course, but we can talk here too, it’s so pleasant.’

I asked for the bill and stood up, holding my coat in front of me to hide my embarrassment. She reacted against this and blushed at the idea of leaving the cafe with me in front of all her brother officers. She must have been about thirty-five -I was much younger. I took her by the hand and said: ‘Let’s go!’ There were no taxis to be had and my flat was some distance away, but we walked. I opened the door and followed her inside, took off her greatcoat and drew her to me.

I unbuttoned her tunic and put my hand on her breasts – I confess I have a weakness for firm breasts. She tried to resist but I gave her no time, she was helpless against my onslaught. As we embraced my hand touched an enormous pistol she was carrying and the touch of that cold metal momentarily cooled my desire. However I went on undressing her and, as I did so, she whispered, ‘Niet, niet, proshu astabtye. No, no, please stop.’

But she continued to remove her clothes and, as she did so, I kissed every part of her body. She got on to the bed wearing nothing but her knickers – they were long red flannel ones, and I couldn’t get them off quickly enough. Here we were on the bed, flaying around like two fish in water, she heightening my ardour by her continued resistance and cries of ‘No, no’, and now I was denied entry by her red flannels. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t pull them down, so I tore a hole in them and finally reached my target. Her cries gradually changed from ‘Niet, niet’ to ‘Kak charasho! How wonderful!’

After some time Kira eventually confessed to me that it was the first time she had betrayed her husband and, to make matters worse, it was with a capitalist, myself. I replied that it was the first time I had had to make love through a tear in a pair of red flannel knickers. So our discussion of medical topics had become a practical demonstration. I might have repeated the attack but I caught sight of the offending underwear and lost the urge, and the pistol on the floor didn’t help matters either.

She must have sensed how I was feeling and quickly pulled a sheet over her, saying:

‘We Soviet women do not give such great importance to things like underwear as you in the capitalist world.’

I would have made love to her again, since she was beautiful, and I loved women older than I was; but those flannels were just too much, and the moment passed. That was my first, but not my last, sexual encounter with a Soviet female officer. War is, however, surprisingly inducive to love-making; and it was less than two months later that I found myself breaking a train journey towards the Romanian border at the town of Stanislav in order to pay what I imagined would be a last visit to a very beautiful friend of mine, Cristina, a well-known singer with a most attractive voice.

We – I was with a little man, Manek, who had pleaded with me to help him to escape too – took a droshky, a horse-drawn cab, from the station. It was dark when we reached Cristina’s house and I tapped on the window. She rushed out when I spoke, recognizing my voice: ‘Kochanie! My love!’ she greeted me. She was completely oblivious of the presence of my friend Manek – at least till our first raptures were over – but then came the problem of where to put him for the night. Cristina had a girl-friend who usually slept in the same room, which was the largest in the house, but there was no second bedroom for Manek. This wasn’t the only difficulty: Maruha, her friend, didn’t like the look of him. We could have divided the room with a curtain, but it was obvious that he felt out of place, and so he said he would go to a hotel for the night. He gave me an envious look as he left and said he would come back in the morning.

Cristina was as lovely as ever, and she produced a large bottle of vodka which we proceeded to drink by the tumbler. Maruha joined in the drinking with us, but it soon became clear that her presence was not required, and she went into the bathroom. The poor girl must have stayed in there for two hours but, in the end, the noise and shouts she heard made her knock at the door and she came back into the room. She was a dark good-looking girl, and I encouraged her to come in. I love women too much to see them suffer. Old and young, one must treat them well. But I had not foreseen that Cristina would become jealous. She suddenly bit my lip and called me a ‘Swine!’ However, Maruha’s instincts had been aroused and were not to be left unsatisfied. I did the best I could that night to satisfy both those Polish girls – the last, as it happened, I was to make love to for many years. They seemed to have no complaints.

Next morning, poor Manek returned. He wasn’t bad looking, but he had no life in him, no personality. We knew a train would be leaving for Kolomyya at noon, and from there it would take about two hours to reach Novoselitsa on the frontier. It was late November and got dark early, around four o’clock, so I wanted to arrive in Novoselitsa in plenty of time to reach the River Prut, the actual border, by four.

We all sat down for a chat and a drink before leaving, and Cristina confirmed that the Russians were shooting people trying to escape across the frontier. She cried and begged me to wait, not to leave now; but once I have decided to do something I never go back -I have been like that since childhood. Manek however was shitting in his trousers with fear; and he decided he couldn’t go on. He tried to make excuses and explain but I was only too pleased to be without him as I considered him a liability. So, saying a fond farewell to them all, I set out for the station by myself.

Hours later, about three thirty that afternoon, I was trudging through open country; snow-covered fields very close to the frontier. It must have been about twenty degrees below zero; I was lightly clad in a grey suit, blue coat and white scarf, all autumn-weight clothes. I breathed in deeply through my open mouth: it made my lungs ache. I was happy to be alone.

At first I walked fast past the notices which read:

ENTRY STRICTLY FORBIDDEN EXCEPT TO RESIDENTS, OR TO THOSE WITH SPECIAL PERMISSION, but I felt I was being observed and purposely assumed a slow steady pace. Two Soviet guards were coming towards me wearing heavy winter greatcoats and carrying rifles mounted with bayonets which flashed in the waning afternoon light.

I came to a little house. In front of it, on the opposite side of the road, rose a snow-covered bank about ten feet high. On the far side of the bank was my objective – the River Prut. Between the road and the river was a wide snow-covered expanse, treeless, without cover of any kind. Lights began to twinkle on the opposite bank, almost half a mile away.

I walked up to the door and knocked. A girl of about twenty appeared and asked me inside.

It was invitingly warm and cosy. An orthodox Jew was sitting at a table. He looked up. ‘We don’t want you here,’ he said in immediate alarm. ‘You will get us into trouble. Get out. Now.’ He would have said more, but the girl looked at him. Rather shamefacedly he repeated, more pleadingly: ‘Get out of here!’

From the window I could see that the guards were retracing their steps and coming slowly back towards the house. The girl came forward and asked her father if she could give me a hot drink. He became agitated. I intervened and said : ‘Look, I have come to visit your daughter. I have no intention of crossing the frontier,’ and I winked at the girl.

She said : ‘Yes, father, I asked him here.’ He looked at us both, and we all looked at each other. He knew the girl was lying and that I had lied but he accepted it and for a moment it looked as though my situation had altered. After what seemed several minutes he asked me to sit down. I kept the road in view, and could see the heads of the guards and their bayonets as they walked along a dip in the road, their bodies obscured by a bank. They were still coming towards the house. The father saw them too, and shouted: ‘Now there will be trouble! They’re coming here!’

It was a desperate moment for him and the girl, and only later did I reflect that the fault was entirely mine. The room had three windows, hoary with frost on the outside. Through one of them I could make out the lights beckoning me across the river: behind us the empty fields stretched away into the distance. I pressed my nose against the window which overlooked the road – the guards were much closer, steadily approaching the house. It was dusk, but the clear skies and the snow gave good visibility.

The old man was getting whiter and whiter. His eyes stood out from his head. ‘Oh my God! How shall we explain this?’

Before I could answer I saw that the guards had stopped and were standing only a few yards from the house. We all looked at each other, listening – ‘He’s inside the house. Let’s go in,’ said one. There’s no need,’ his companion replied. ‘He’ll have to come out sooner or later, and we’ve made fools of ourselves enough times before when they’ve had visitors. Let’s wait outside.’

‘Alright, but I don’t like standing here in the front. Let’s go round the back.’

Without consulting the old man, I opened the front door and went out. ‘What are you doing?

Why don’t you go about your business and move on? I asked the old man to make me some tea, but he’s frightened. I don’t know why, because I didn’t come here to drink tea. I’m really interested in his daughter. Please, carry on ... move away ... you understand ... she’s a lovely girl. Do you want to see my papers?’ – and I put my hand in my pocket for my non-existent papers. They looked a little nonplussed. ‘There’s no need for that,’ the shorter of the two answered, ‘but you must be gone from here before nightfall.’

He laughed and took out some cigarette papers and a tobacco pouch to fill himself a cigarette. I quickly reached for the long Belomorcanal cigarettes which I had loose in my pocket and offered one to him. At that time I was a heavy smoker.

He laughed and said: ‘Thanks no, I prefer my Machorka.’

‘Alright,’ I replied, ‘let me try one of yours.’ He offered me a smelly cigarette which was not at all pleasant.

I turned with a cheerful wave and went back inside. The girl was full of gratitude but the father was still petrified:

‘You may fool them, but you don’t fool me. I know why you’re here, and I want you to go now, immediately.’

I paced up and down the room looking from each window; the guards were walking away in a northerly direction. I could see the River Prut and even make out people standing on the opposite bank in


. I had been there only twenty minutes, but to the old man it was obviously twenty minutes too long. I thanked the girl for the tea, and thanked him too. He, with tears in his eyes – old men are very changeable – pronounced a blessing over me in Hebrew, which I didn’t understand entirely, but I knew he had asked God to help me. I certainly needed God’s help – but I also needed the girl’s information.

‘How deep is the water?’ I asked her. She replied that it was very shallow at the edges, and about two yards deep in the middle with a very swift current. That didn’t sound too good. But, as always in the most difficult moments of my life, I remembered my mother whom I loved very much and who had died very young. I called on her to help me and be with me.

A handful of zlotys had remained in my pocket, and I placed them on the table: ‘If anything happens to me, honour the memory of my mother, she died in the month of December.’

The old man pushed back the money: ‘Please take it, we don’t want it.’ His daughter looked at me with woe-begotten eyes. I suppressed the urge to kiss her, squared my shoulders, walked out of the house, crossed the road, clambered cautiously over the bank, and started to wade through the snow which came up to the top of my thighs. I reckoned that for the first stretch the house would give me cover, and that I could be seen only from the Romanian side. As the snow became less deep I started to run as quickly as I could, and broke into a sprint as I neared the river.

I had covered about four fifths of the distance and was only about a hundred yards from the river when the rifle shots began. The intervals between shots told me it was a sniper. I started to swerve and zigzag, then other snipers opened up cross-fire from other directions, I knew they would get me, but I had to keep running. From the other side of the river I could hear the Romanians shouting encouragement: ‘Run! Run!We’re here!’

The shots came faster and faster. I threw myself on the ground and started to crawl the last five yards to the water. I heard more shots: the pebbles jumped and split around me. My hat had gone; there were drops of blood on the pebbles. I lay there. Everything grew still around me. I could smell the spent bullets.

On the other side they shouted ‘They’ve got him! He’s dead!’ My blood froze on the stones. I tried breathing deeply and, when I felt that there was no major injury, I crawled slowly to the river. I was still well within range: they had only stopped firing because they thought me dead. I moved imperceptibly so that they wouldn’t realize I was still alive.

However, as I reached the river’s edge, a burst of machine-gun fire spattered the water in front of me. If I moved they would finish me off.

One of my hands dangled in the icy water, and I could hear the Romanians shouting to each other: ‘Yes, he must be dead. They would have got him in any case, he would never have made it.’

As I lay there, I realized too late how I had made my mistake: I shouldn’t have crawled towards the river. If I had stood up and run, the snipers could not have continued firing for fear of hitting the onlookers on the opposite bank where they were waiting for me with blankets.

I was weak from loss of blood, I could hear horses coming near, then two mounted officers circled me, armed with machine-guns and revolvers.

‘He’s dead.’

‘You’re wrong, Comrade,’ I replied. ‘Tovarisch. I am not dead!’

They made no attempt to lift me out of the water.

‘You are no comrade of ours. If you were you wouldn’t be running away.’

One got down from his horse while the other covered me with the machine-gun. He tried to lift me but I resisted. ‘Don’t touch me, I can get up alone.’ But when I stood up all I remembered was falling down again.

I fell face down. One of them turned me over, and I heard him shouting: ‘Call for help. Get a stretcher.’

They put me on the stretcher. I vaguely remember soldiers moving about me and watching the steam of their breath in the cold air. The voices on the other side were raised in protest and sympathy as I was carried across the snow and on to the road in front of the house where I had started my attempt. They laboured up the steep, sloping bank and brought me to where an open army truck was standing on the road. As they lifted me on to it I saw the girl come out to the doorway, pale and panting. Perhaps she thought I was dead.

The officer in command shouted: ‘Skoray, bistro! Hurry!’ As we moved off, soldiers jumped aboard and sat on the seats along the sides of the truck.

In spite of my weakness I knew my wounds were not serious, but the bumping movement of the vehicle made me feel worse. I told myself: ‘Keep your mouth shut till you get to the hospital.’ From time to time I opened one eye to look around me to see if there was any chance of escape, but all I could see were the vast grey skies above. I had the sensation of swimming, as though I was going under an anaesthetic in the old days when a mask was used over the mouth. The smoke of their Machorka cigarettes nauseated me. They held their weapons at the ready so that there was no possible chance of escape.

After about three miles we reached the barracks in Novoselitsa. The truck slowed down and came to a halt, I heard the noise of heavy doors being unbolted and the truck moved inside. The back flap was released and the soldiers piled out quickly: I counted four of them. My stretcher was lifted out and I was carried through a dark door. I kept looking about me every so often with one eye.

‘Ifpodval! To the cellar!’

Thursday, 10 August 2006

The Holocaust Denied

I find it astounding, but there are those who feel able to deny that the Holocaust took place, or at the very least question the numbers that were murdered and the level of suffering experienced.

The weight of evidence to show that the atrocities took place appears to be irresistible, and I can only assume that those that deny the Holocaust harbour what I find to be unpalatable views on race and religion.

I have no particular religious beliefs, nor do I have a leaning to any political wing, but I do believe that history should be respected and learnt from. To deny the Holocaust appears to be, at best, crass stupidity and at worst criminally negligent.

Hi, it's Tom with an Update: In one of the strangest stories I've ever seen, the online edition of the Pittsburg Post-Gazette carries a long feature on a Holocaust denier who was finally convinced. Read it here. I guess it's heartening that the truth can win out... but some of the other characters in the story are pretty scary--and they weren't convinced.

It would be interesting, although disturbing, to hear exactly what those that deny the Holocaust say in the face of direct evidence from the mouths of survivors from the German and Russian concentration camps.

I can't imagine how anyone could contemplate ignoring the evidence of the Holocaust, yet there are an incredible number of sites on the Internet which seek to deny or downplay the horrors of the Concentration camps and Gulags.

There are world figures, such as the Iranian leader Mr Ahmadinejad, who openly denigrate the holocaust and support those who question its place in history - Did it really happen? Has the number of victims been exaggerated? Could the tale of the Holocaust actually be a political / religious plot?

These terrible events will also, unless the memory of them is kept alive, be written out of history by the very countries that committed them - Russia's President Putin actively downplays any cultural focus or consideration centered on the massive Soviet Holocaust which, according to many historians, caused the death of even more people than the atrocities committed in the name of Hitler's Third Reich.

Frankly it sickens me to even contemplate the views of those who would doubt the Holocaust, and I see Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead and other documentaries as the perfect answer to such obviously biased thinking. How could anyone refute the first hand evidence of survivors, like Garri Urban, who lived through such events?

The documentary uncovers disturbing evidence of suffering - from interviews with those who experienced day to day life alongside Garri, to stark images of bullet riddled headstones within Jewish cemeteries. The Nazis, with typical bloodthirsty irony, had lined up Jewish victims in front of these headstones before executing them by firing squad.

It has been upsetting to watch the early footage of the documentary, to see Garri's obvious distress when facing up to the demons hidden in his past, but I feel a better person for the experience. I feel the film Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead, and any others that include first hand recollections of the atrocities that took place in the German concentration camps and the Russian Gulags, should be made compulsory viewing in schools across the country.

I would also suggest the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum. Not only is she an important on-screen contributor to Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead but she is also a major force in documenting the Soviet Gulag experience. Her work on this subject includes the book Gulag. You may also wish to visit her website.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, 8 August 2006


Garri Urban died on October 16th 2004, before the story of his life could be seen on film. Read the full report in The Times.

He had spent many years researching his past with his son, revisited the scenes of his imprisonment and the two had uncovered secret KGB files which still had Garri listed as a dangerous spy..... yet it wasn't his battle for survival under the Soviet regime that was at the centre of obituaries published in The Times, The Guardian and the British Medical Journal, but the fact that he went on to practice medicine in a way that promoted universal care for all citizens regardless of race, religion, nationality or social status.

Click here for an excellent obituary in the Independent

Sunday, 6 August 2006

The Relevance of Garri's Story in Today's World...

Garri Urban could be seen as just one of millions of people who suffered so terribly during a period of history which showed mankind's darkest nature, just another victim of the totalitarianism and extreme ideologies that swept across the world in the latter part of the 20th Century.... but it is clear from studying his life that Garri was a survivor, not a victim of the Holocaust and the Gulags.

With the troubles that are currently present in this world, and the issues that we all face in our everyday lives, there are lessons to be learnt from Garri's experience, issues that I feel it is important for us all to understand and share...

Garri's story has been told in his book, Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead and will also be available for all in the form of a documentary which was made about Garri by his son, Stuart Urban.

The documentary was created as father and son went in search of answers - to discover the truth behind imprisonment and torture.

Interviews with fellow survivors, friends, lovers and even with representatives of the secret police who imprisoned Garri and so many others were recorded over a period of 14 years and give an incredible insight into man's ability to cope with and overcome adversity.

The documentary draws on Garri's own work, home movies and years of video diaries recorded from 1992 when Garri ventured back into the former Soviet Union.

Having suffered so terribly and endured so much it would be easy to imagine that Garri, or indeed anybody else, would have simply been grateful to survive, yet throughout his life Garris struggled to maintain his core beliefs. A very detailed picture emerges of a man who feels compassion for his fellow man, whichever side of a conflict they may be on, and who will strive to make the standard of life better for all those around him in whatever way he can.

Garri Urban was an singular man - intelligent and loving with a determination to succeed and survive, but with the requisite toughness and charm to emerge unscathed from a machine which mangled so many millions. The documentary film explores the mysteries of the man, asking what it takes and what it means to be a survivor like Garri S Urban.

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

There were countless victims of the Russian gulags, and indeed of the German concentration camps. Some estimates suggest that over 6 Million people died in the German camps during World War 2, while the Russian gulags and terror claimed, it is estimated, over 10 million lives and saw millions of people imprisoned in terrible conditions.

If you or your family were affected by these events and you feel able to share your experiences then please feel free to add a comment to this post.

We would also welcome your views and comments on the coverage that the film Tovarisch, I Am Not Dead will give to these events.

Those that lost their lives suffered a terrible fate while the survivors carry the scars of their imprisonment with them. Families have suffered from sorrow and loss - the trauma of these terrible events is still fresh in many people’s minds.

Developing This Site

I would just like to say that working on the development of this site has been one of the most difficult projects I have ever worked on...not for any technical reason, but because of the obvious human suffering that becomes apparent when any research is carried out on the subjects surrounding the film.
In order to write about the gulags and concentration camp I have had to research the darker parts of mankind’s recent history. This left me thinking - do others share the same difficulty dealing with the Holocaust and the oppression in Russia? Is this a subject that you feel should be discussed? How should the film deal with these issues?

I look forward to your comments.
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