of the Gulag
David Josefovich was born into a modest family in Kaunas in early 1930. His father was a small shopkeeper; his business prospered and they bought a house in Kaunas in 1939, which was then expropriated by the Soviets a year later. The shop was nationalized. The school where David studied in Hebrew was closed, and he went to a school that taught in Yiddish. They were arrested and deported on 14 June 1941. The soldiers who came for them gave them 3 hours to pack, recommending winter clothes and valuables. They thought it was a mistake because one of the brothers was a komsomol member and they were not hostile to Communist ideas. Although many fathers were separated from their families, his remained with them in the same railway truck for no apparent reason.
After a long journey, they arrived in the Altai and were put up in a former school. They all worked on a sovkhoz farm, and his father died shortly after. He was 56. In June 1942, they were moved again to Irkutsk, then shipped along the River Angara and down the River Lena to the Arctic Ocean, where they disembarked at the village of Bykov Mys in the Lena delta. They worked in a small fish-processing factory and lived in poorly heated yurts. There were 50 to 60 people in each yurt. Later, David was allowed to go to school in the town of Tiksi, where he was ‘well treated despite [his] status’. After the war, the family applied for a release that was eventually granted. Probably the fact that his brother had been in the komsomols and had friends there, and that another close relative had fought in the Lithuanian Division, is the explanation, for most of the other deportees were not so lucky.
All his family and friends who stayed behind in Lithuania were shot by the Germans and local collaborators. They found out about this while they were in exile, from a cousin in the Red Army, who discovered it when the Soviet troops arrived in Lithuania. Despite all that, on his return he could sense the anti-Semitism. Indeed, he had to conceal his former status. He would say that he had ‘moved to the Autonomous Republic of Yakutia’.
From the Altai to the Laptev Sea
David Jozefovich relates how he was moved by train, lorry, and barge from his first place of deportation at Kamen na Obi (Kamen on the Ob) in the Altai to the shores of the Laptev Sea in the Arctic Ocean:
"In June 1942, they took us off again, as if we hadn’t already lived there enough. They put us on a train to Irkutsk. Then on a goods train, yes, in goods trucks. Gnats again. They didn’t take everyone. Izer, for example, you interviewed him, well, he stayed in Kamen na Obi. Why? They didn’t take that family because the children were still small. Izer was 3 or 4, as was his twin brother. Taking them made no sense. But our family could supply a labour force, you see, my sister was 22, my brother 21, and then there were me and my other sister. So they took us to Irkutsk. I’d like to tell you about an interesting episode on the way. At one railway halt, I still remember the name of even now, it was Taiga, I got out to have a pee, and another man got out of the truck, right, I didn’t step out, we weren’t in passenger coaches, we climbed down from the train on an iron ladder. We went a little way off, and the train began to move and pick up speed. I remember that people held out their hands for us to climb into other trucks, but the train was already going too fast and me and this man, the two of us, were left behind. What to do? We went up to the railway halt, and the staff suggested we got on the following goods train, a train carrying no exiles or prisoners. We got on it and caught up with ours at some other halt.
We arrived in Irkutsk, through which the River Angara flows. They put us on a steamboat, and we sailed down the Angara to a landing stage called, if I remember rightly, Uskut. The landing stage is not far, about 200 km from the River Lena, so the Angara and the Lena are about 200 km apart, and in Siberia, 200 km is not far.
They put us in goods lorries, well, in the trailers, and drove us off, the whole group once it was off the boat, as far as the landing stage on the River Lena, and we sailed down the river to Yakutsk. They loaded us onto barges, in the hold, and we sailed in these barges for 3 days. Then in Yakutsk, they took us off and put us on other barges heading for the Arctic Ocean.
So in autumn 1942, we found ourselves beside the Laptev Sea in the village of Cape Bykov (Bykov Mys). But on the way, people were taken off the barges not only in Cape Bykov but also in Trofimov, Tumat, Tit-Ary, other villages in the Lena delta.
And that’s how our journey from Kamen na Obi to Cape Bykov came to an end."
Arriving at Cape Bykov on the Laptev Sea
David Jozefovich describes his arrival on the shores of the Laptev Sea in the Arctic Ocean in autumn 1942:
"How to describe Cape Bykov? It’s at the very end of the land on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, a deserted place, tundra, no vegetation.
Who was with us? Probably mostly Lithuanians, second came Jews, but there was no particular difference between Lithuanians and Jews, all of them were exiles. At the start, they housed us in a place that was just as empty, the school. In this village of Cape Bykov, there lived fishermen, Yakuts and Russians. The fish factory was not big. The school burnt down. After we, shall I say, arrived, they built yurts. A yurt consists of a timber frame covered with earth, 40 metres long, 5 metres wide, and inside, a small stove to heat it a little. In each one lived 50 or 60 people. We slept on bunk beds; the people worked in the fish factory. My elder brother and sister worked fishing, and my other sister, who was born between my elder brother and me, if I remember rightly in 1924, had died of exhaustion."
© David Jozefovič Fronts of two envelopes sent from the Front to Cape Bykov, passed by military censorship
© David Jozefovič Front of a letter sent to Cape Bykov via the central information bureau in Chkalov (Orenburg)
© David Jozefovič Front of a letter sent from the Front with a quotation from Stalin (‘We can and must cleanse the Soviet land of the Hitlerite scum’)
© David Jozefovič Back of previous letter sent from the Front, written in Yiddish
© David Jozefovič Front of a letter sent from the Front, with on the envelope the words ‘Well, why not be proud: two shots, two Fritzes’
© David Jozefovič Back of letter, dated 6 April 1944
© David Jozefovič
Correspondence between the Front and the end of the world
David Jozefovich, deported to the Altai in 1941, then to the shores of the Arctic Ocean beside the Laptev Sea, did after all receive letters from close relatives serving on the Front. Some were sent to him directly, others went through the NKVD’s central information bureau in Chkalov (now Orenburg). The bureau was set up in March 1942 in the town of Buguruslan and handled letters sent by people looking for relatives. It received up to 20,000 letters a day.