Jan Plovajko

* 1922  †︎ 2020

  • “When I was in Cernovice they called me from the headquarters. I was called by the political lieutenant Turjanica. He was a communist and an agent of NKVD. He told me: ‘Your brother died at Kyiv and you don’t have to go to the front line. Stay with us. We do not proceed any further, you would work for us and you will have a good position here in Subcarpathia. I refused and I think that since then they kept me in their records as the one who refused.”

  • “Listen, don’t go anywhere, they will send you to Gulag, you will be hungry and you will have lice and suffer with diseases. He must have been there that he knew all this. I kept in mind that there are people at the border who informed to the Gestapo, so I said: ’Thanks for advice, but I have already decided and my brother is already there.’ And he said: ‘You will remember my words!’”

  • “The cargo ship brought us to Dudinka and from there we went too Norilsk. Norilsk is by the sea. There was a whole complex of camps, a city. That was the actual labor camp. It was in the hottest time of the year, the ‘otepel’. There were a few houses where we slept a few times and then we built our own houses. The houses were made of planks nailed to a pole construction. We had planks from both sides and the space between was filled with sawdust and so on. Now we were in a real Gulag.”

  • “I was invited to the headquarters to the major of the counterintelligence. And I knew that it would be something big. I already had experience with NKVD. I said hello and he started: ‘Comrade. Would you like a glass of brandy?’ And I said: ‘You know well that I don’t drink.’ So he offered me a coffee and I already knew what was going to be next and I didn’t want to have anything in common with them so I said: ‘I get heartburn from coffee.’ And he asked if I had any problems and I answered that I had much less problems than at the front line and he said that they could help me. He gave me three papers to sign. And it said something about Malous – Listening to foreign radio stations, spreading information among the soldiers, links with the agents abroad and similar bullshit. I read it and I began to laugh and I thought: ‘I will teach you a lesson. You will see who you are talking with.’ His face became purple and he asked: ‘What are you laughing at?’ And I knew that he wrote it and I said: ‘Why wouldn’t I laugh? Who is the asshole that wrote it?’ And then I thought that he would suffer a heart attack, he couldn’t speak for a moment but then he said: ‘But you will sign!’ And I said: ‘I won’t. It’s a lie. How could he listen to the illegal radio if we live in the same room and we don’t even have a receiver?’ So I told him goodbye and left. Then he invited me again. He was speaking about the career and so on but I refused and that was it, concerning the cooperation issue.”

  • “We formed a group of four lines and there were guards in the front and guards in the back. And they shouted the ‘prayer’: ‘Šach vprávo, šach vljévo, peremeňáju oružije!‘ – ‘A step to the left or to the right and you will get shot.’ And they kept the promise. Some prisoners did it no purpose to get shot. As we went to work, we passed barrels with salted fish. The guards were only in front and in the back. They weren’t afraid that you would escape to Siberia, north of the Arctic Cycle, where there was only the cold and no food. You were more likely to survive in the camp. Those who went in front cracked the barrels with a mattock and the others took a fish here and there. We couldn’t do it always because sometimes they shot a prisoner just as a warning.”

  • “What affected you the most? What was the greatest change for you?” “For me it was that they rehabilitated me. Yes. Because in 1969 I spoke out at a rally in Prague – that was when they took Dubček and the government to Moscow – I spoke out in their defence and criticised the events of August 21st 1968. I condemned them. I said: ‘Look, those are our allies. I fought by their side. I marched from Buzuluk to Prague and liberated her.’ I spoke out hard against them. I said that there were thousands of different ways how to get an army here! Without pillaging, without breaking our border blocks, without all the dead here – on one side and the other! So that‘s what I said and I was well received. Smrkovský came to congratulate me. And everything! Then they fired me and in 1989 I was rehabilitated.”

  • “In the morning we gathered for breakfast. They gave us half a liter of water and a piece of fish. For the whole day you had 900 grams of bread. There was no lunch. For dinner we had a soup and some mush. When you worked, you got the bread in accordance with your working results. It was 80 – 90 grams if you worked hard and 70 grams if you worked less, and if you failed to fulfill the plan you got 30 – 35 grams and that was really bad. The advantage was that the cold was up to sixty degrees Celsius below zero. We worked only up to 40. If you worked in lower temperatures you could catch up with the plan. It would do for a healthy man, but imagine that you are in prison, psychologically, you are constantly under strain and you walk every morning up to five kilometers to work. In the morning we had breakfast and then we gathered for work. You had to be quick because the murderers would immediately beat you. And people were hiding because they didn’t want to work. It was cold it was horrible. You would rather be hungry than to go outside.”

  • “It didn‘t make everything the way it should be – democracy and so on. Now it‘s just about money. Whatever you look at, whatever has happened: the fuel oil (scandal – transl.), everything. It‘s the millions that are important, and it was all just hushed up… And here I am working away for two years on the case of just one State Security agent…”

  • “There were coal mines, platinum mines, gigantic factories and foundries. People were making roads in summer and ploughed them in winter. There was a quarry and other sites. I got to the quarry and we dug up stone for the roads.”

  • “I know only too well, because, like I say: I‘ve studied both the capitalist and the socialist, or rather the communist, ideologies. I know the pros and cons of both of these ideologies very well. And I say: the worst is what we had here. That wasn‘t communism, that was socialism. That was filth…”

  • “We blasted the rock and then cracked the stones with chisel and mattock. There was a prisoner who was very weak and he sat on a piece of wood and was hitting the stone with a mattock. One of the guards came and hit him three times with a rifle. He was dead in twenty minutes and nothing happened. The cold weather came and a snowstorm called ‘purha’ and everything was covered with snow so we had to dig tunnels to get to work or to the kitchen. If you ploughed the road you had to spade two meters of snow, then another two meters and then you had steps of two meters by the road. It went hard like stone. And we also ploughed the way to the foundry, and there was heat from the furnaces and from time to time we dropped there to get a bit warm. And I was there once and a guard saw me. And I ran away and he tried to hit me with a rifle, but he lost the grip and the rifle hit me, but not so strong as if he had control. But anyway, I couldn’t walk properly for half a year. This was the way they got rid of people.”

  • “We spent there a few months and then we traveled with a cargo ship north of the Arctic Cycle. The Russians were also on the boat, the robbers and so on. And on that boat, there were already some murders. I never witnessed any, but we always heard that somebody killed somebody and that he was executed by the soldiers and thrown to the water. They didn’t bother about these things.”

  • “I went through the woods and then I heard the hooves and it was a Soviet Patrol. I stood there waiting. And when they were about 30 meters away they pointed their guns at me and shouted” ‘Ležiš!’ – for me to lay down. So I laid down. They came. I had to spread my arms and so on and: ‘Kdě je oružije?‘ – If I had a gun? I said I had no gun. So they searched me and allowed me to stand up. Then they dragged me back to where I crossed the border; one horse on the side, one on the other and the third one behind. I was a sportsman so I didn’t mind. They took me to the border to show them where I had crossed. I showed them and they put me in a cabin to make a preliminary protocol. Why I escaped and so on. In fact it was quite friendly.”

  • “I was a sportsman, I did athletics and football and I did exercises at home. We had a farm so I worked hard and I didn’t mind bad weather and so I survived. But in the camp I lost weight, I had 40 kilos and I was too weak to work. So they put me to taking old nails out of the planks. I did it for several months.”

  • “They put me next to a pole and I was waiting if they were going to hang me. But then one of them took me upstairs and the interrogation of the NKVD began. There was a light pointed at you so that when you moved every muscle was visible. And they asked me why I escaped and I said: ‘During the World War I there were the legionaries in the Russian forces and now I escaped, because I think there is an army being formed to fight against the Germans to liberate Czechoslovakia.’ And they wanted to know how much money I got, how much gold, and where is the central office of our intelligence service. They didn’t believe me I was a student. They thought I was a spy and so on. And I kept on repeating the same, because you had to repeat the same. If you changed anything they would charge you five years more.”

  • “What helped me survive in the camp? I had a friend, his mane was Malinič. He was from Orichovice near Uzhhorod. He slept next to me. And one day he said: ‘Hey. Aren’t you hungry?’ And I say: ‘You bet I do!’ And he… took out a fish. Jesus Christ! And I wasn’t hungry anymore. And the other day it was the same. The fish were marinated and you could eat them raw. I asked him: ‘Where do you get them?’ And he says: ‘From the NKVD kitchen.’ Imagine that! He didn’t tell me how, but he sneaked in every night even though it was guarded and brought back a fish. But guess what happened with him. He was a real hero. When we were working in the area with not so many guards, he sneaked out and went to the city to beg for some bread. And a dog turned him in on the way back. The guard began to beat him with a rifle, the dog tried to bite him, but he defended himself. They got him, but he resisted, you should have seen that.”

  • “At Skolja, there was the first transitory camp. Before I escaped to the Soviet Union I had a dream. I dreamt that I got to a camp. When we arrived to Skolja, the hill, the stream and the houses were exactly the same as in the dream. Jesus Christ, and when I saw the people in rags. Everybody asked you what is new and so on. People were divided into groups for food but we didn’t have any plates. So everybody made something out of wood or a tin. I couldn’t eat. I wasn’t used to such food – everything mixed together. And how all the others ran when I offered them my portion. I also gave them the bread we got for the journey and they were crazy about that. The bread wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t used to the food, so I didn’t eat much. We were sleeping on plank beds and when we came everything was occupied. So we had to take turns. So sometimes you walked the whole night. In a few days everybody had lice. The conditions in the camp were horrible. Every other day they took us from the camp to the interrogations. And they said that you were a spy, and threatened us: ‘I will shoot you in pieces.” But it was only psychological, they didn’t beat us.”

  • “And when Beneš signed the contract with the Soviet Union which allowed the formation of Czech forces, they announced in the radio that we can enter. And when they released us, they put us in the platinum mines. And the conditions we worked in where terrible. We had a sledge, one of those that Josef Lada used to draw, and we pulled it with an iron string. It was used for disposal of the soil. When I got my first salary, I bought a whole loaf of bread, about a kilogram of butter, tea and sugar. I came home from work, boiled three liters of tea and ate the two kilograms of bread with butter. I told myself that I will have a proper mean at last. I thought that they wouldn’t believe me at home, but I was so hungry that I ate that all. And I was very sick, everything began to hurt, I thought I was dying, but after a time, I managed to fall asleep despite the unbearable pain.”

  • “It was a beautiful day and there were a lot of people, mainly Jews. It was hot, about 40 degrees. We gathered out in the yard and they read the verdicts: ‘In accordance with the paragraph 80 or 90 this and this person is sentenced for intruding the state border… and the verdicts! Five years, ten years. During the First Republic we received brochures, they were called ‘Different Countries, Different Customs’ and they also reported about the Soviet Union. There were photographs – frozen wagons from Siberia and the Far East. They reported about the cold and so on. And now I was sentenced to three years in the Far East. It was the lowest sentence that day but as they read it, I felt the chill going up my spine. I imagined myself in the cold described in the brochures.”

  • “We went on smoothly. The heavy artillery had torn everything to shreds, so the trees were like matches and a living soul hadn’t survived the attack. The worst fights were at Vracanka and Michnovka. We arrived to Vracanka in the night. I wanted to dig the trenches in the morning. Captain Semenďák said that no trenches are necessary because we should continue in the morning. I dismantled my machine gun and started to clean it and said: ‘Boys, it will be very hard today. Get ready.’ And I hadn’t even finished when a grenade came. ‘Ok, let them shoot.’ But then other grenades came and that was bad. Without an order, I run to the other side to get some ammunition and there were already some casualties. Those who boasted that they had experience began to withdraw and I shouted: ‘Don’t panic.’ and they were very angry, but somehow I managed to get them back. And then a plane emerged and we ran into the trees. Then we run out of ammunition. The Russians were passing with the ammunition for their forces, so we asked them to give us some and we managed to defend against the attack. There were a lot of casualties there. But if we hadn’t stopped the attack there would be more.”

  • “There were always casualties but the worst fights were at Mikulov. It was -20 C and they put those mobilized in the front. Young boys in the front. The Germans had a good defense - a steep hill from both sides and a lot of concrete and a heavy fire. A lot of people died. Some of the young ones wanted to withdraw but the Russians were behind them… one shot and it was done. At Vracanka there were also needless casualties but I don’t want to talk about that.”

  • “In Krasnojarsk we were unloading ships. The ships were good because we could get bread and similar stuff, because in the camp it was a misery. The soup we had in the morning was like water after washing the soup pot. When you found a potato you had to exhibit it to the others. The food was bad. The prisoners were already a mixture of the political and criminal cases. There were Russian robbers, burglars and other specialists in the field. I f you walked twenty metres near them you were robbed. They stole everything.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Trutnov, 17.01.2007

    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
  • 2

    Trutnov, 01.01.2009

    duration: 16:56
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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“We were merry on our trip from a Gulag to Buzuluk.”

Jan Plovajko after war
Jan Plovajko after war
photo: archiv pamětníka

  Jan Plovajko was born on the 5th of February 1922 in Tuří Bystrá in Subcarpathia. After the Hungarian invasion, he escaped to the USSR with the aim to fight against the intruders. He was arrested by Soviet soldiers and interrogated at the NKVD and sent to a camp in Skolja. After three months of interrogations, he was sent to prison in Strij. He had better living conditions, but he was still interrogated by the NKVD. From Strij, he was transported to Starobelsk into a large monastery turned into a camp where trials were held for fugitives, who were then sent into Gulags all over the Soviet Union. After two months in Starobelsk, Plovajko was sentenced to three years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. After Krasnojarsk, he has transported to Norillag a complex of work camps around the city of Norilsk where he spent three years. After the treaty of alliance, signed by president Beneš in 1943, Plovajko was released from Gulag to enter the newly formed Czechoslovak Army. After a few months of recovery, he set out with other 50 Czechoslovaks on a journey to Buzuluk. He passed basic training at major Moravec and heavy artillery training. In Kamianets-Podilskyi, he trained 40 Volhynian women. He gathered his first experience in small fights with the Bandera groups. His strongest memories from the battles at Dukla and Liptovský Mikuláš. After the War, Jan Plovajko decided to stay in the Army. With the rank of lieutenant, he served in the Český Těšín district and later at the Austrian border. When the situation grew more stable, he was sent to a re-qualification course to Olomouc from where he was transferred to Trutnov. As the head officer in the local infantry barracks, he served during the events of 1948. The communists tried to persuade him to enter the Party and to cooperate during the purges in the Army. When Plovajo refused to accept high ranks in the Army and the public administration in exchange for cooperation, he was accused of fictitious crimes. In 1948, a group of state policemen broke into his officer’s flat in Trutnov and searched it. On the basis of evidence consisting of legally kept weapons and personal correspondence, Plovajko was accused of subversive activities, grouping with enemies of the state and murder. Given the absurd accusations and the number of witnesses that had supporting testimonies for Plovajko, all the accusations were held back. After new accusations of the state police, Plovajko was dismissed from the Army on 17th September 1950 on the basis of ‘repeated disobedience’. He worked in several workers positions until the late 70’s when he retired. He lives with his wife in Trutnov.