My grandfather was a very private person and never talked to anyone about his life. After he passed away in 1998, I was going through his papers and found a number of documents that dealt with his arrest, time in GULAG, work records, prison release and “rehabilitation” paperwork. I started interviewing all of our family members and recording their stories. I poured through photo albums, disintegrating envelopes full of photographs of long dead family members and friends. The more stories I heard and the more photos I saw, I realized that many family friends that I grew up seeing at our dinner table were former prisoners of Varlag. I began tracking my grandfather’s friends and people whom he knew in Varlag. Many responded with stories of their own, sending me handwritten manuscripts, photographs, and even book chapters. At this point I have collected dozens of hours of audio interviews, close to a hundred photographs, and more connections than I ever expected.
I am currently trying to find the time and resources to travel to the following places:
- Grodno, Belarus. The city of Grodno (sometimes written as Hrodna) used to belong to Poland and became part of the Soviet Union at the end of the World War II. My grandfather was born in Grodno and lived their until his immigration to Argentina around 1935-1937. I contacted the National Archives of Belarus and they have information on my grandfather’s family and the property they owned in Grodno. The Great Synagogue of Grodno also has birth and marriage records that will hopefully help me shed some light on my family history.
- Verkhnyaya Salda, Russia. Verkhnyaya Salda (Верхняя Салда) is a town in Russia where my grandfather was arrested and sentenced to death. He was transported to a GULAG camp in Karaganda (Karlag – Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp) to await execution
- Karaganda. Karlag (Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp) was one of the largest Gulag labor camps, located in Karaganda Region, Kazakhstan. My grandfather spent a year in that camp awaiting execution.
- Vorkuta. Vorkuta is a coal-mining town in the Komi Republic, Russia, located north of the Arctic Circle. My grandfather spent 10 years (from 1943 through 1953) in Varlag (Vorkuta Corrective Labor Camp), after his death sentence was replaced with 10 years of corrective labor. After his release in 1953, my grandfather met my grandmother Olga Marchevskaya, who was evacuated to Vorkuta during WWII. My mom, Irina Payes (Babichenko) was born in Vorkuta in 1955.
I already contacted many of these places, archives, and governmental organizations in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. My plan is to re-trace my grandfather’s path through the war and through labor camps, find documents, photos, and stories. I also hope to meet in person with a number of people who knew my grandfather and who are willing to share their stories. My hope is to put together a book of photographs, documents, and narrative telling the story of my grandfather’s life and my own search for his story.