Yesterday, I finished reading Jacques Sandulescu's Donbas: A True Story of an Escape Across Russia, a man and a book first made known to me by his wife, Annie Gottlieb, via her blog. Three things struck me in reading the book.
First, I was impressed by the young Sandulescu's will to stay alive under conditions that killed many others. Imprisoned as a 16-year-old worker in one of Stalin's slave-labor camps in the Donbas coal mining region of what is now eastern Ukraine, Sandulescu survived for two and one-half years through his youthful vigor and high intelligence. He learned enough Russian to speak it well and understand it perfectly, and that helped him, especially toward the end, when he was forced to escape under the worst possible conditions, as a severely injured man during the Russian winter.
Sandulescu had been buried under a cave-in that had covered him for over four hours. Somehow, he had survived, managing to breathe well-enough the entire time and even emerging without broken bones after being dug out. But the muscles of his legs had been injured, and -- though he does not specifically say this -- the blood must have been cut off long enough to leave some parts necrotic. Here is his own description of how his legs looked at their worst (and stop here if you have a weak stomach):
In the evening the pain was at its worst, eating me up, burning my insides out. I looked at my right ankle and realized that the color was a darker red than it had been before. I wondered how it had managed to grow so much. It looked larger than my waist. I stared at it, fascinated. I became cold and then hot, but I kept staring at my ankle. Just above the joint of the ankle I saw something like a blister growing, but I couldn't understand what it was. I stared at it harder than before. It was slowly growing larger. I thought that I was going crazy. Involuntarily my big toe twitched, and the blister slowly burst open. Then I twitched my big toe again, and the pus came gushing out. It was a yellow, greenish-blue color and smelled putrid. The pressure eased, but I stared at my leg unbelievingly. (page 169)The pain eased, too, at first, but then a number of holes opened in his legs, and the doctor who showed up to look at Sandulescu's condition wasn't pleased at what he saw:
A day or so later, the doctor appeared again, and when he saw my legs he grumbled, looked at the sores, and then smelled them. I heard him say something to the nurses about amputation. I froze inside. He left, saying that the next time he stopped by he would bring along the necessary instruments and they would see then. (page 172)Unwilling to risk having his legs cut off, Sandulescu found an opportunity 48 hours later and escaped to a coal train, where -- without food or water and severely injured -- he rode toward the west, the direction of freedom.
And this leads me to the second thing that impressed me, the kindness of ordinary Russians. Even in the mines of the Donbas, Russians had helped him, going so far as to invite him into their homes for meals though they themselves had little food of their own. Now that he was making his escape, Russian strangers helped him. Not even one threatened to turn him in. One of his first encounters after he fled from the likely amputation was in a blacksmith shop where he had taken refuge from the cold and fallen asleep:
When I awoke, two Russians were leaning over me. From the questioning looks on their faces I knew that they wanted an explanation: who was I and what was I doing there?They hid him, fed him, and advised him on which coal train to catch out of Russia.
I sat up, wondering what I should tell them. The best chance I had was to arouse their pity. I started telling them that I was a Romanian who had been a very good worker in the Donbas. But a mine cave-in had injured my legs, and the doctors, instead of trying to save them, were going to amputate. I said that if someone my age lost his legs, it would make him a pretty useless worker, and I had decided to save them myself.
They pondered this story awhile and then asked to see my legs. I untied my mine pants and then the white pants from the hospital and started to unwrap the bandages. While I was doing this, I forgot that my legs would be in a terrible condition. The sight of the pus-soaked bandages was unbelievable, and the smell was repulsive. It didn't smell too bad to me, because I was used to it, but they were not. They looked at me, and I saw nothing but pity in their eyes. (pages 177-178)
The third thing that impressed me was simply how extraordinarily lucky Sandulescu was. Out of the blue -- or, rather, out of the darkness -- he knocked at the door of a house in the Polish city of Brest-Litovsk:
I went up to the door and knocked lightly. My knock was answered by a rough voice, which was speaking not in Russian but in Polish. I answered in Russian, saying, "Please let me in. I am a Romanian." I heard a stealthy shuffle and the door opened. It was a bald-headed man in his fifties. He beckoned for me to come in and close the door. (page 188)The man asked for Sandulescu's story and listened as he prepared a pot of soup on the stove:
I began to tell him everything that had happened to me. While I was talking, he put a pot on the stove. As it warmed he stirred it several times so that whatever was in it wouldn't burn. When I mentioned that I hadn't thought it possible to survive in the open coal cars, he just crossed himself and said:The man feeds him well and advises him on the best means of escaping further. Another kindness from a stranger, and great luck -- or was the Polish man right, that God was helping Sandulescu?
"If you had God's help and were strong and tough enough to emerge alive from such a train ride, it is God's will that you will escape successfully." Evidently he was strongly religious. (page 189)
If so, then God must have been looking for the right man to fight as a professional boxer in Canada, open literary cafés and jazz bars in New York City's Greenwich Village, and become an advisor to the worldwide Kyokushin Karate organization, among other things (such as acting bit parts in movies, television, and commercials), for Sandulescu went on to do all these things.
I strongly recommend the book.
Labels: Jacques Sandulescu