“Unhindered by the guards, we stood by the barbed-wire fence which separated our compound from the men’s, and gazed spellbound at the long line of men who passed before us–silent, with bowed heads, plodding wearily in prison boots similar to ours. Their uniforms were also similar, but their trousers with the brown stripes were even more like convicts’ garb than our skirts. Although one might have thought the men were stronger than we were, they seemed somehow defenseless and we all felt a maternal pity for them. They stood up to pain so badly–this was every woman’s opinion–and they would not know how to mend anything or be able to wash their clothes on the sly as we could with our light things…Above all, they were our husbands and brothers, deprived of our care in this terrible place. As someone expressed it, quoting from one of Ehrenburg’s early novels, “The poor dears have no one to sew their buttons on for them.”
Each face seemed to me to resemble my huband’s; I was so tense my head ached. All of us were straining to try to find our loved ones. Suddenly one of the men at last noticed us and cried out:
“Look, the women! Our women!”
What happened next was indescribable. It was as if some strong electric current had flashed across the barbed wire. It was clear at that moment how alike, deep down, all human beings are. All the feelings that had been suppressed during two year of prison, all that each one of us had borne solitarily in himself or herself, gushed to the surface and mingled in a flood that seemed to be both within us and around us. The men and women were shouting and reaching out to each other. Almost all were sobbing aloud.
“You poor loves you poor darlings! Cheer up, be brave, be strong!” Such were the words that were shouted both ways across the wire….
The next stage was the throwing of “presents” across the wire. The emotional tension on both sides needed an outlet in action: we each longed to give something, but we had no proper possessions to give. So one heard:
“Take my towel. It’s not too badly torn!”
“Girls! Anybody want this pot? I made it from a prison mug I stole.”
“Here, take this bread. You’re so thin after the journey!”
There were also violent cases of love at first sight. As if by magic, these almost disembodied human beings recovered their sensibility, which had been dulled by such cruel sufferings. Tomorrow or the day after, they would be led off in different directions and never see one another again. But today they gazed feverishly into each other’s eyes through the rusty barbed wire, and talked and talked…
I have never in my life seen more sublimely unselfish love than that which was shown in those fleeting romances between strangers–perhaps because, in their case, love indeed was linked with death.
—-Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, Journey Into the Whirlwind (trans. Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward)
Ginzburg (1904-1977) was a mother, wife, educator, journalist and dedicated Communist who was caught up in the Stalinist purges starting in 1934. She spent two years in solitary and 18 at hard labor in the notorious gulag at Kolyma.
The above scene took place at a Siberian transit station where both female and male inmates, recently released from solitary confinement, interrogation, and in many cases torture, were being transported to draconian work camps.