Vasil Coka

* 1923  †︎ 2015

  • “They loaded us into cargo wagons and then took us through the taiga goodness knows where into Siberia.” (Q: “What was the train like?”) “The train, that was a disaster. I know that anyone coming to Siberia had to have gone in those wagons. Those were wagons with plank beds. There was a Vincie, a small stove. They gave us logs to heat with, but no knife or axe. Just the logs. The worst was what they fed us with, they called it tyulky. Those were small marinated fish pickled in barrels, and then bigger fish. And that made you so thirsty. But there was nothing to drink. I made myself a wooden spoon with which to scratch off the hoar frost that we formed by our breathing, to try to satiate my thirst. They fed us once in a while. They opened the doors and gave us some soup. We knew then that things were bad. I was constantly ill, I couldn’t use my legs. There were completely swollen. I had the same clothes that I had set off in. They didn’t give us anything and it was cold. It was bad. There was so much snow there, and thirst, and we couldn’t get to the snow. Some boys were so desperate from thirst and hunger, they lost their mind and jumped into the snow. That meant they died. It was a disaster.”

  • “I was there with one boy who believed in the Sabbath. He was felling timber and he had the tree tied up so that it wouldn’t fall. And he climbed up the tree and began singing his Sabbatarian songs. When he didn’t do any work, they locked him up in the cooler (the morgue). I was locked up in there too, but I don’t remember why. I was there two nights. They always put us there for the night and in the morning we got up to work. One time I saw them slit a bloke’s throat. He was newly captured, a fresh convict from the inland. All the Russians wore high shoes. Then there were the three zhuliks [crooks] there, they didn’t work either. And one of them says: ‘Look, he’s got shoes.’ So they jumped down, clobbered the bloke and took his shoes. There were three of them, and so they played cards for who would get the shoes. The commandant came in the morning and herded us off to work. So off I went together with the Sabbatarian. And the roughed up convict, and the commandant says: ‘What about the shoes?’ He only had socks. He still had sock, we just had foot wraps. He said that they’d taken them from him. The commandant went back, took the shoes and returned them to him. We went back for the night. Now I’m sitting there and the Sabbatarian is in the corner. And the Ruskie, the zhulik says: ‘Look, that’s the one who took our shoes.’ They jumped down, clobbered the bloke so badly that they killed him. But they weren’t able to uh...So they hacked at him with a knife they’d made from sheet metal. They weren’t able to slit his throat, so they beat him dead. I could always just see the whites of his eyes bulging out at me. ‘Don’t you dare tell anyone who did it.’ A man came in the morning, took the dead bloke and threw him next door into the morgue. And life went on.”

  • “I was in the anti-tank company. Our commander was the Slovak Bačkovský, I was a corporal because I had completed NCO school. Through fire, through rivers of blood, that was my baptism. But I was happy to have escaped the gulag, so I didn't have any fear. I had a superb anti-tank gun. That was the only weapon I respected. I used it myself. And when I aimed at a bunker, I hit on spot. Even into the slit. From the copse - when we started the big offensive, as the Germans had Kiev surrounded by trenches, anti-tank barriers, meaning two and a half metres of sand and a barbed wire on top of it. When a tank drove into that, it often couldn't get out. But we didn't have a lot of tanks, not till later. To our left and our right were the Soviets. The attack on Kiev wasn't so bad because we had agreed with the Russians on Operation H at eleven o’clock. That meant that everything what could fire, had to fire. And the Russian planes, those were devils. They appeared low above the trees, right above their trenches. They bombed it all. The Germans had it secured so that those bunkers were supply depots, with food, they had it all connected all around Kiev.”

  • “During the winter we made ourselves these kind of buckets from birch bark. We cut open the birch, we made a kind of channel and left the birch sap to bleed out over the whole night. It was finished by morning and then the cook made a kind of starch out of it. Or in the summer I would go through the forest with the commandant, or a guard, and pick grass. We put that into a cauldron and cooked it, because there was nothing left in the camp to feed us. By that time the Germans were coming at Moscow and the Russians had nothing left. Of course, my life was just about getting through that. That was why I went fighting at the front. I wasn't afraid of death. War meant nothing to me. I liberated Vsetín. My unit was in the forest and I was already liberating Vsetín. I was in an anti-tank unit. In Bystřice pod Hostýnem, five people came to me, saying [the Germans] wanted to burn down part of the town. So I took the cannon and they towed me right in amongst the Germans. That finished me.”

  • “We went to the forest in sandwich formation and weren’t allowed to make a step left or right. When they let us out through the gates, the guards with guns said: ‘Shag vpravo, shag vlevo, strilayu bez przeduprzirizhdeniya.’ That means a step right, a step left, I shoot without warning. If you had diarrhoea, you had to run up to the first man and quickly do your business before being passed by the end of the line, or they’d shoot you. We came to the forest, they showed us our designated zone where we could move around. Whatever happened, we weren’t allowed to leave that zone, or they’d shoot us. We had to first gather the dry wood and make a fire for the guard and mainly for the Russian convicts, the mafiosos. We weren’t allowed to warm ourselves by the fire, yet it was terribly cold. I remember one time I was in such a bad condition that I sat on a tree trunk to rest a bit, and I started freezing. I was already imagining myself going along a lovely path, amongst the green grass. That was me dying. But we would keep an eye on each other, and so my mate quickly started rubbing me with snow and that got me out of it.”

  • “I had a small bag from rags stitched together with a fish-bone needle. And I also went begging to the village. I came there maybe the last person, because I was so weak I just couldn’t. The stronger ones who were in a better condition and who came first, second or third, they got potatoes or a piece of bread. The Russians gave us everything when they saw the beggarly state we were in, that we were coming from a gulag. They knew what a gulag was, so they gave even the last of what they had. I got just one half of a cooked potato and one half of a raw one. And I put that into my bag. So we then returned to the wagon and we each hid our bag behind ourselves so that no one stole it from the other. We were like animals, you know. We didn't distinguish between yours, mine. So in this way we travelled to Buzuluk. When they opened the gates in Buzuluk and when we saw the soldiers dressed in English uniforms, belt with the lion, hat with the lion, so when we saw the Czechoslovak lion and the Czechoslovak soldiers dressed in English uniforms, and not Russians, we started pinching each other to make sure if it was true or if we were just imagining it. That's how I remember it.”

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    Frýdek Místek, 31.10.2013

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    duration: 05:20:15
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After a while you became a mindless animal

Vasil Coka was born in 1923 in the village of Dulovo in Subcarpathian Ruthenia. His story is a testament to what a young man is able to endure. After the Hungarian occupation of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, in 1939, Vasil Coka and one classmate of his from grammar school decided to flee to the Soviet Union. Upon crossing the border they were arrested by a Soviet border patrol. A Soviet tribunal sentenced Vasil Coka to three years of forced labour in Siberia for illegally crossing the border. He survived the three years in drastic conditions where death was an everyday companion; he was placed in gulags surrounding the town of Ukhta, which lies hundreds of kilometres to the north-east of Moscow. It was not uncommon for the temperature during winter to drop to minus forty degrees Celsius. And in the summer the prisoners were harassed by ever-present malaria-infected mosquitoes. He was freed from the hell of the gulags by the formation of Czechoslovak army units in the USSR, where Vasil was drafted to in February 1943. He then took part in the famous battles of Kiev, Bila Cerkva, Dukla Pass, and Liptovský Mikuláš. As he himself says, although his friends were dying left and right, he himself was not afraid of death after what he had been through in the gulag. Shortly before the end of the war, on 6 May 1945 while liberating Bystřice pod Hostýnem in Czechoslovakia, he was hit and the bullet passed through his lungs and stomach; he spent the rest of the year recovering from this heavy injury. In 1947 he was released from active military service due to his ongoing health problems, and in 1949, after the Communists took over the country, he was deemed unreliable and demoted to the rank of Private. Sometime towards the end of the 1950s Vasil Coka joined the Communist Party, but he was expelled in 1971 for disagreeing with the intervention of the Warsaw Pact armies. He passed away on January, 9th, 2015.