Saturday, October 1, 2016

Survival in the Gulags of Northern Russia - A Polish Young Man's Continuing Saga

by Cindy K. Stewart

Today we will start with part two in the life of Mietek Rymaszewski. If you missed last month’s post, you can read about Mietek’s adventures in Eastern Poland at the start of WWII at a teenager at the time, Mietek’s fascinating story of courage and determination is inspiring. Last month’s story ended with the Soviets locking Mietek and other Polish prisoners in cattle cars at the train station in Lomza, Poland.

Mietek in 1943
The next morning the train pulled out of the station headed east. The prisoners united to sing a patriotic Polish song, vowing to “defend the Polish spirit” from the Russians. The guards riding between and on top of the cattle cars unsuccessfully tried to quiet the prisoners.

After passing through five cities and into Byelorussia, the train stopped at Gomel near the Ukraine, and the prisoners were escorted in groups of fifty to the local prison. Mietek saw the largest rats he’d ever seen. They ran along the top of the wall and fed on corpses in the mortuary.

Fifty men shared the 4 by 5 meter cells (13 x 16 feet). They were only allowed to exercise in the yard for ten minutes each day. As they marched down the winding stairs, a number of prisoners committed suicide by jumping down head first, forcing the Russians to install netting on the bannisters to prevent these deaths. One prisoner hid in an outbuilding and escaped over the wall after dark. Dogs tracked him, and the Soviets beat him up, put him in a penal cell, and reduced his food allotment.

An epidemic of dysentery passed through the prison—those with the worst cases went to the hospital on the ground floor. They were stripped and given only a blanket so they wouldn’t climb out the bathroom window, jump onto the wall and attempt to escape.
NKVD Badge - 1940

In August of 1940, the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) sentenced Mietek to serve three years in corrective camps of the Northern Railway in Kotlas, Northern Russia. He refused to sign the paper, so the NKVD officer signed the documents for him, using Mietek’s false name since the NKVD had never discovered his true identity. He was taken to a new cell, and one of the occupants jumped up calling out Mietek’s name. To everyone’s surprise, Mietek’s cousin Edward was also a prisoner. The two remained together for the rest of their captivity.

Again the Soviets separated the prisoners into groups of fifty, escorted them to the railway station, and loaded them in cattle trucks. They traveled through Minsk and then Smolensk where Mietek’s grandfather had been wounded during WWI.

Soviet Deportation Train

Between Leningrad and Kotlas, a Bielorussin cut a hole in the floor of a cattle truck with a piece of flint and dropped between the rails. Unfortunately the guards saw him, stopped the train, and beat the prisoner black and blue.

Gulag in Kotlas Region - USSR
They arrived at Kotlas to find a camp holding a few huts, a high barbed wire fence with a tower in each corner, soldiers brandishing rifles and machine guns, and knee-deep mud. There were two ditches – one for drinking water and one for a latrine. After a short time at this camp, the prisoners were taken in groups of fifty about eight kilometers through the taiga to the Northern Dvina River. They sailed north on barges for a few days, stopping at night. They were given 300 grams (10.5 oz.) of bread and a small piece of boiled fish during the journey.

Kotlas Region - USSR

The new camp was a completely empty square piece of ground, so Mietek and his fellow prisoners used tools lent to them and cut down trees to build shelters and fires. Since Mietek had grown up in the forest, he built a safe shelter for himself and a small group of fellow prisoners; however, others built inadequate shelters which collapsed during the night, killing the occupants.

Soviet Labor Camp Prisoners

Mietek and the other prisoners decided to escape while they were out of camp collecting firewood, but on the planned day Mietek woke up with legs so swollen his flesh hung over his boot leggings. He had scurvy and the escape was called off. The prisoners later learned to boil pine and spruce needles and drink the brew to fight scurvy. They boiled willow bark and twigs to make a drink substituting for aspirin. They also boiled the twigs of bilberries to cure diarrhea. The water in the ditches overflowed and mixed with the drinking water, causing dysentery, so the prisoners learned to only drink water from melted snow.

After a few weeks the prisoners moved to a new camp where they found marquee type tents pulled over a wooden frame-work with a small metal stove and firewood inside. A group of Estonian sailors shared Mietek’s tent. These strong, healthy, intelligent, and good-looking young men needed lots of food, but they didn’t get it and were the first to die. The old and weak perished next. A group of Lithuanians in the tent also died – the last one with his head frozen to the tent. From November, 1940 to February, 1941, 300 of the 360 captives died.

Labor Camp Prisoners - USSR
The prisoners built a railway line from Kotlas to Vorkuta by digging soil from the hillside and taking it in wheelbarrows to the embankment. If they didn’t obtain the required cubic meters of soil each day, their food rations were reduced - 300 grams (10.5 oz.) of bread and some watery soup twice a day.

A Russian railway supervisor, also a prisoner, asked to buy Mietek’s jacket and boots – hunting boots with high leggings made of very good leather. Mietek agreed, although the items were worth much more than the supervisor paid for them. But he did reward Mietek with a new job - measuring and recording the soil in each man’s wheelbarrow. It was wise Mietek was meticulous in his measurements because a supervisor checked his work. Later he heard that six million cubic meters had been overbooked and two Russian engineers were shot for it.

Eventually, illness struck Mietek, and he was taken to the hospital.

Come back on the first of next month to find out more about Mietek's fight for survival.


Cindy Stewart, a high school teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, was the historical category winner for ACFW’s 2014 First Impressions writing contest, a 2014 Bronze medalist in My Book Therapy’s Frasier contest, and tied for second place in the 2015 South Carolina ACFW First Five Pages contest. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-five years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and three adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Thanks for sharing more about this....looking forward to reading more.

  2. Thank you, Debbie. More coming next month.

  3. The hardship Mietek endured is heartbreaking. Thank you for continuing his saga on HHH.

  4. Thank you, Marilyn. Mietek's hardships are heartbreaking, but, as is often the case, they strengthened him for the battles to come.