Monday, April 30, 2007

Jacques Sandulescu

with Choi Yeong-Eui (최영의)
aka Masutatsu Oyama (大山倍達)

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?

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)
They hid him, fed him, and advised him on which coal train to catch out of Russia.

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:

"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)
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 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.



At 2:49 AM, Blogger The Nagual said...

I had just quoted Mel Lyman's succinct review of Donbas for my friends at the New Cafe when I thought I would do a bit more research and I came to your moving review of the same book. I'll have to see now if Amazon has any leads on the book, or if it's been reprinted again. I did come across a battered old paperback of Donbas, many years ago, but it was titled differently, A Man Never Dies, perhaps, if I remember correctly.

Whenever I think of Donbas, I remember also The Long Walk by, oh, Polish officer seized by the Russians very similarly. His escape with some others from a Siberian prison camp is narrated in his book, and was recently made into an excellent film, The Way Back.

At 7:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the comment. I'd heard of the film that you mention, but I never had a chance to see it. I believe that I read a review in the NYT when it came out, and it sounded interesting.

Maybe I'll look into it. Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've not read Donbas yet but I plan to do so. I heard that his book was republished but it was only offered from used vendors on Amazon. I also heard that he was sick and dying in 2010. I wonder if he is still with us or did he pass? I wish somehow I could have met him and talked with him. I know when I read his book, I'll have more questions.

Another book you should really check out is an out of print book, "ESCAPE FROM THE STORM." It's about a whole family who escapes from Russia by crossing the mountains. The story is written by Ivan Gorelkin,the head of a large family and the one who leads the escape. There was an interesting back-story story about how he became trapped in Russia. He was of Russian origin but when he was little, his family had fled Russia to China and he had grown up in China - and he loved it there. The trouble started when China was taken over by the communist. Ivan's now a young adult and he and his family were going to leave China and immigrate to Austrailia but his aunt in Russia urged them to come visit her one more time before they left for Austrailia. When Ivan and his brother went back to Russia to visit the aunt, the Russians held them - in spite of the fact they had become Chinese citizens and had the passports to prove it. They had felt protected by that.

He becomes trapped in Russia but goes on to become a successful engineer and marries and raises a large family. He was very religious and began to have very vivid dreams of escaping.

It takes him a while to work up his nerve to do something so drastic but he finally steps out and the escape is anything but easy. It's a small book but it's still very profound. The hardships they experienced during the escape were so severe, I had to keep stopping to absorb was I was reading. It's one thing to read about climbing a steep rock during a rainstorm - in the dark - and another thing to actually do it. I wonder how many people really took in what they were reading. It's so small, you can read it very quickly. Unfortunately, it's out of print now. But, if you keep your eye out, Amazon will sometimes have it. It can be expensive and at other times as cheap as $5.

Oh, one more great, true escape story. NIGHT CROSSING. It's a movie. One of my very favorites. You never see it on TV anymore and it was banned from rental. have no clue what that was about. But, it least it's out on DVD now. If you like escape, you'll have to see this.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for a very interesting comment. I'll try to look into these recommendations.

Jeffery Hodges

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