Jan Demčík

* 1913  †︎ 2005

  • “I got into a group which was ordered to bury corpses. It didn’t matter if it was a corpse of an ox, a horse, or a man, be it a Soviet, a Hungarian, or whoever else who was dead. It was in summer, on the Don River, and it was hot. It was not like today, but it was so hot that one wasn’t used to it. Everything was decomposing very quickly. As long as the corpse held together, it was still all right. But if there was a killed horse, either a riding horse or a cart-horse, its corpse would get all inflated. When you moved it, the corpse would break and rot and there was terrible stench. The ground there was composed entirely of sand, and we were supposed to dig a hole under a corpse. The Don River used to flow there in the past, and therefore sand was everywhere, and digging a hole five metres deep was a matter of minutes. We would then throw all the corpses in there. We didn’t care if it was a dead Russian, a general, a Hungarian, or a Slovak. But the stench, that awful stench! We were taking turns and covering it with sand immediately. But then the officers found out and they told us not to place a Soviet soldier in the common grave with some oxen or Germans, but to bury them separately with other Soviets. But when the officer left, we didn’t care. We were putting everything that was there into one grave. Anyway, the area was mined, and we were only able to walk on the paths, it didn’t matter if they had been made by Soviets or Germans. And if somebody stepped aside, he got killed or his leg got torn off. It’s true that the Soviet soldiers made the work easier for us, because they cleared the place where we were supposed to work.”

  • “It was still possible there. We stayed in that jail only for sleeping, and we slept there quite well. I was not much of an eater, and we ate quite well there, too. It was still in summer, and in the afternoons and evenings... There were many people who were lovers and who had come over from the Carpathian Ruthenia together. They were really lovers. A guy would cross the border with his girlfriend, they would get arrested and each of them would be jailed in a different barrack.She would be in one barrack, and he would be in the males’ barrack, but they would spend the afternoons walking together between the barracks, and he could see her, and take her hand and they could walk together like lovers. While there, this was still possible.”

  • “We drank water from the spring; in the Carpathian Mountains, the water was clear, and you could drink from a spring anywhere. We drank and ate the food which we still had left, and then we started downhill along this stream. We knew that this stream would lead us to a bigger stream and to a road, and it was exactly so. We began walking and we continued along that stream, and there were other streams flowing from right and left, and it was becoming wider and wider. We reached a mountain path. It was not a road which would be passable for a car or for a horse wagon. But the path really followed the brook and we knew that it would lead us to a village. We slept a bit, ate, and rested, and when we washed and dried ourselves, we put our arms around our shoulders and we began singing the song: ´Široká strana moja rodnaja´ (Wide is My Native Land). This song was popular at that time, and we had learnt it, because we supported the Soviets. We were strongly opposed against fascism. I knew some German, and while I was in one teacher’s home, I heard Hitler’s speech on the radio – at that time there were no portable radios like today, which you can carry wherever you like. It was big like this glass, and one evening, when I was visiting this teacher, I was listening to Hitler’s speech from Godesberg, from his headquarters, and he called Czechoslovakia a swine nation, and he also called President Beneš a communist swine. This was very humiliating and offensive to me.”

  • “I bought it and ate it, and I was returning to the train station, which was near. I noticed NKVD members leading a group of some people in my direction. I made place for them to pass, because the street was very narrow, and one of them asks me in Russian: ´A ty što takoj?´ – ´And who are you?´ I told him: ´I’m on my way to join the Czechoslovak army. I explained everything to him, I showed him my ration coupons, and told him that I just went to buy some milk. ´Davaj, davaj, s nami!´ – ´Come with us!´ I noticed the prison building, just a few steps away, and I turned and joined this group. A policeman was standing at the entrance and letting us in. We stood in rows of three, and they were already waiting there, a group of sundry people whom they had picked up somewhere. I stood in the line and I thought – this is the end! I was standing by a desk with two clerks who were registering the people and sending them inside the building. I stood there as the last one. It was hot and there was nobody around, only one elder colonel from the NKVD. He was wiping his forehead and he must have had a headache; he was leaning against the wall. I said to him: ´Comrade colonel!´ I was not allowed to call him so, because I was a prisoner, and I was supposed to call him citizen only. To make it short, I told him: ´I am on my way to the Czechoslovak army, and they were escorting a group and they picked me up, too. I don’t even know why.´ He didn’t say a word, he just waved his hand, pointed to the gate and ordered me to go. I bowed and went away. I was afraid of everything, even of my own shadow, because I feared that I might run into another such group, and so I took a different path. There was another path, too. The prison house stood on a little hillock, actually, the whole place was flat, but the jail was built on a slightly elevated ground. There was another path and one trail. I didn’t turn left, but instead turned right to avoid meeting another group. But I did run into another group on that trail. They asked me: ´Who are you?´ I repeated everything about my going to the Czechoslovak army. They ordered me: ´Come with us!´ And so I came to that prison again. The colonel was no longer there, and they sent me directly to the prison, to the warehouse. It stank terribly in the warehouse, because they stocked uniforms taken from killed or wounded Spanish, Soviet, Hungarian and other soldiers there, rags that have remained there after the war. They told us to choose whatever we wanted and put it on. And so I picked a hat and some trousers. I looked just like a circus clown, and it was all smelly and blood-stained and dirty, but I was already used to it.”

  • “Apart from the (Soviet) officers, who had been in captivity in Finland before, I need to mention another very important thing, which has helped me survive. There was a nurse, who was a Russian of Polish origin. She was a prisoner, and she served as a nurse. She was the wife of an NKVD member, and since she was of Polish origin, and since he then fell in love with a prosecutor’s daughter who was younger, he turned her in and he planned to divorce her in this way. Anyone could do whatever they wanted there, and especially if they were from the NKVD. This woman helped me with everything. She cured me of that disease caused by lack of vitamins. When they brought me there, I was almost unable to walk. For instance, a louse would get into my eye and I was not able to take it out or kill it, because my fingers were all crooked. And so were my legs; I looked like a monkey when I walked, I cannot show you now, because there is the microphone in front of me, but I would show you how I had to use the toilet. I simply walked like a monkey. She recognized the disease and she helped me, using a native Soviet cure for it. She used a flat surface, a tray or a bowl, and she placed moist gauze over it, and then she put peas on it. When the peas began to sprout, she would feed me a spoon or two of the stuff. I ate it, and one evening she gave me about half a glass of tomato purée to drink, and when I woke up in the morning, I found out that I was able to do everything!

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    Praha, 03.08.2001

    duration: 02:42:14
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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My life had been saved by bean sprouts and tomato purée

Jan Demčík
Jan Demčík
photo: http://codyprint.cz/codyprint/gulag.html

Jan Demčík was born in 1913 into a farmer’s family in the village of Voloska, in the Irshava district in Carpathian Ruthenia. He attended elementary school in Bilky, and then the commercial school in Mukachevo. In 1938 he began working for the financial guard in the village of Brustury. After the Munich conference and the occupation of Czechoslovakia he decided to leave for the USSR.He eventually accomplished this with friends in August 1940. Like many other antifascists and patriots from Carpathian Ruthenia and Czechoslovakia, instead of being given asylum, he was arrested and sentenced to three years of internment in the labour camp Vorkuta. In 1943, he made use of the opportunity to join the Czechoslovak unit which was being formed in Buzuluk. He became the commander of the 2nd platoon of the tank battalion. Among others he was involved in combat at Dukla, and he took part in the Ostrava operation as a liaison officer of the Czechoslovak corps staff. After the end of the war he remained in Czechoslovakia as an army officer. Holding a colonel’s rank, he retired from the army in 1968 to protest against the Soviet occupation. He died in 2005.