First, an admission – I did not read all of this book. But it is important and compelling and a reminder of how things can be for other people in other lives. Like taking a cold shower – you enjoy a hot one so much more once you know that things, always, can be otherwise.
It is as dispassionate account as one can imagine of one person’s experiences of the Stalin-era death camps. As Stajner (Steiner, in the Austrian version of his name) himself says, he did not want to write about feelings and motivations, just about what happened. He was freed in 1956 after Kruschev met Tito and the Marshal asked about a list of missing Yugoslav officials, who had disappeared into the Soviet Union of the 30s and 40s. Kruschev came back 2 days later with an answer – of the 113 on the list, 13 survived, all as prisoners in Siberia. They were then released, Stajner among them. He had been arrested in 1936.
Stajner’s account is incredibly thorough and detailed. But it is, because of that, repetitive and the reader’s sensitivities become blunted. Its real value is as an authentic record, rather than a narrative masterpiece. He also recounts the stories of the other prisoners he lived with. Many of these are fascinating and you marvel at the appalling waste of humanity sitting in all prisons, everywhere.
This all happened, in Europe, while my parents were alive. Reading of the blank inhumanity and bureaucratic oppression, it makes you wonder where else today such things could happen. Sadly, the list of even the most obvious is not a short one: North Korea, China, several Middle Eastern states, Afghanistan, several African countries, Burma. In all of them, like the Soviet Union, you could be arrested for some transgression, political, religious or social, and taken away from your friends, family and life.
Sure, the Soviet death camps were on a different scale. But that possibility, of the knock at the door and the unyielding force of the state suddenly and inexplicably destroying your life, is present in too many places.
I would not recommend this book to everyone. But even if you only do as I did, and skim a bit, it is sobering, disconcerting and troubling.