Daily Archives: 23 April 2005

Sixteen Months in the Life of Hava Volovich

Against everything that has been written about the selfishness, the venality of the women who bore children in the camps, stands the story of Hava Volovich. A political arrested in 1937, she was extremely lonely in the camps, and deliberately sought to give birth to a child. Although Hava had no special love for the father, Eleonora was born in 1942, in a camp without special facilities for mothers:

There were three mothers there, and we were given a tiny room to ourselves in the barracks. Bedbugs poured down like sand from the ceiling and walls; we spent the whole night brushing them off the children. During the daytime we had to go out to work and leave the infants with any old woman who we could find who had been excused from work; these women would calmly help themselves to the food we had left for the children….

Every night for a whole year, I stood at my child’s cot, picking off the bedbugs and praying. I prayed that God would prolong my torment for a hundred years if it meant that I wouldn’t be parted from my daughter. I prayed that I might be released with her, even if only as a beggar or a cripple. I prayed that I might be able to raise her to adulthood, even if I had to grovel at people’s feet and beg for alms to do it. But God did not answer my prayer. My baby had barely started walking, I had hardly heard her first words, the wonderful heartwarming word “Mama,” when we were dressed in rags despite the winter chill, bundled into a freight car, and transferred to the “mothers’ camp.” And here my pudgy little angel with the golden curls soon turned into a pale ghost with blue shadows under her eyes and sores all over her lips….

I saw the nurses getting the children up in the mornings. They would force them out of their cold beds with shoves and kicks … pushing the children with their fists and swearing at them roughly, they took off their nightclothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn’t even dare cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots.

This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time. Children already old enough to be sitting up or crawling would lie on their backs, their knees pressed to their stomachs, making these strange noises, like the muffled cooing of pigeons….

The nurse brought a steaming bowl of porridge from the kitchen, and portioned it out into separate dishes. She grabbed the nearest baby, forced its arms back, tied them in place with a towel, and began cramming spoonful after spoonful of hot porridge down its throat, not leaving it enough time to swallow, exactly as if she were feeding a turkey chick….

On some of my visits I found bruises on her little body. I shall never forget how she grabbed my neck with her skinny hands and moaned, “Mama, want home!” She had not forgotten the bug-ridden slum where she first saw the light of day, and where she’d been with her mother all of the time…

Little Eleonora, who was now fifteen months old, soon realized that her pleas for “home” were in vain. She stopped reaching out for me when I visited her; she would turn away in silence. On the last day of her life, when I picked her up (they allowed me to breast-feed her) she stared wide-eyed somewhere off into the distance, then started to beat her weak little fists on my face, clawing at my breast, and biting it. Then she pointed down at her bed.

In the evening, when I came back with my bundle of firewood, her cot was empty. I found her lying naked in the morgue among the corpses of the adult prisoners. She had spent one year and four months in this world, and died on 3 March 1944 … That is the story of how, in giving birth to my only child, I committed the worst crime there is.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 319-321

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