Haya-Lea Detinko -- Surviving Stalin's Gulag

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Haya-Lea was born in 1920 in Rovno, which then belonged to Poland. She grew up in a traditional Jewish family, joined a Zionist youth club called Hashomer Hatzair and looked forward to emigrating to Palestine, just like her sister. But the Soviets took eastern Poland in September 1939 and Haya-Lea's membership in Hashomer Hatzair earned her a ten year sentence of hard labor in Siberia. The rest of her family remained behind, not knowing that the Nazis would overrun the town soon after Haya-Lea's deportation to the east.
Haya-Lea survived the Gulag and moved to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she shared her story with Centropa in 2002.
This film is dedicated to Haya-Lea, who died shortly after the interview.

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Haya-Lea grew up in the city of Rovno, which at that time was in Poland. Now the city is located in the Ukraine and is called "Rivne".  Learn more about the history of Poland


In the film, Haya-Lea talks about Marshal Pilsudski. He was Poland's head of state during most of the interwar period and is seen by many Poles as the greatest Polish statesman. Pilsudski is considered largely responsible for Poland regaining its independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions, and he was the first head of state of the Second Polish Republic until 1922. In the spring of 1926 he returned to power following a coup d'etat and became the de facto dictator of Poland.

Here you can find a 1919 interview with Pilsudski.


The beginning of World War II puts an end to the Second Polish Republic. On the 1st of September 1939 Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany. As stipulated by the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet forces invade Poland two weeks later and occupy East-Poland. The Polish government does not surrender but goes in exile.

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The Soviet Union has its roots in the October Revolution of 1917. The Soviet Union was created in 1922 following the revolt led by Vladimir Lenin, through which the Bolsheviks gained power. After Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin came to power imposing a Terror Regime on the Soviet Union that would be pursued also after his death in 1953.


In June 1941 Nazi Germany attacks the Soviet Union. Read an article on the Soviet-German War 1941-1945 or take a look at pictures of what Russians refer to as the "Great Patriotic War". 


On the webpage of The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, you can find a list with important links to different documentation centers, document databases and museums of communism all over Eastern Europe.


From 1961 onwards Haya-Lea and Shaya lived in Leningrad. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city's historical name "Saint Petersburg" was restored. Founded by Tsar Peter I of Russia in 1703, Saint Petersburg, located on the Neva River, was the capital of the Russian Empire for more than two hundred years.


Saint Petersburg is Russia's second largest city after Moscow with 4.6 million inhabitants. The "Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments" constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is also home to The Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world.


In 1989 communism collapsed across Central Europe and two years later, in 1991, in the Soviet Union.


Toward the end of the film, a picture with tanks and roses is shown to illustrate the peaceful political change in the Soviet Union in 1991. The tall building in the background is part of the Stalinist-style “Seven Sisters” skyscrapers, built in the mid-20th century. This architectural style was copied in many Eastern European states, the most famous example being in Warsaw, the capital of Poland: even today, the Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland.

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An essential element of Stalin's Terror Regime was the Gulag-system. "GULAG" is an acronym for the Soviet bureaucratic institution, Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel'no-trudovykh LAGerei ("Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps") that operated this system of forced labor camps. The system was first established in 1919 under the Cheka, but it was not until the early 1930s that the camp population reached significant numbers. By 1934 the Gulag, then under the Cheka's successor organization the NKVD, had several million inmates. Prisoners included murderers, thieves, and other common criminals, along with political and religious dissenters.


The Gulag-camps were located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North.  They made significant contributions to the Soviet economy. Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions.
See a map collection of the Gulag - camps here.


The Gulag Archipelago is a famous book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about the Gulag-System. The book, first published in 1973, is a massive narrative relying on eyewitness testimony and primary research material, as well as Solzhenitsyn's own experiences as a prisoner in a Gulag labor camp.


While the Gulag was radically reduced in size following Stalin's death in 1953, forced labor camps and political prisoners continued to exist in the Soviet Union right up to the Gorbachev era. This BBC website provides a timeline of the key events of the Soviet Union, from the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 to its dissolution in 1991. 

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Poland was once home to the largest Jewish community in Europe and was an important center of Jewish culture. The country's Jewish history ranges from a long period of religious tolerance, when the Jewish population prospered, to its almost complete genocidal destruction by Nazi Germany in the 20th century. Take a virtual tour through the history of Jews in Poland in the Jewish Virtual Library or read an article on Polish-Jewish relations through the centuries, by Joanna Rohozinska.


Before World War II about 3.3 million Jewish people lived in Poland, ten percent of the total population. For them, the German invasion means the start of a time of repression, isolation, and eventually annihilation. After the invasion, many Jewish refugees fled from the advancing German army to the east of Poland and eventually ended up in Soviet-occupied Poland. Read more about their fate here.


Throughout the history of Russia and of the Soviet Union there have been both periods of flourishing Jewish life and periods of intense anti-Semitic persecutions. You can read more about this topic here.


Read an article by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum about Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust.


In the film, Haya-Lea Detinko mentions a couple of Jewish Holidays like Purim and Pessach, or Passover.

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Haya-Lea was a member of the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. The organization still exists, making it the oldest Zionist youth movement still in existence today. Take a look at their website.


Haya-Lea talks about Hashomer summer camps where "they worked as if they were on a real kibbutz". A kibbutz can best be described as a rural community based on the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation. Learn more about the kibbutz and its history.


The Hashomer Hatzair was a Zionist organization. Most of the members were determined to move to Palestine and help build a Jewish state. The Jewish Virtual Library gives a short definition of Zionism.


The father of modern Zionism is Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). He was an Austro-Hungarian journalist who wrote the famous book Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State"), which you can read online here. In this book he explains his belief that anti-Semitism cannot be defeated or cured, only avoided, and that the only way to avoid it is the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. You can learn more about Theodor Herzl on the Herzl Museum website.


Read more about migration to Palestine before, during and after the war here or here. The term "Aliyah" describes the return of Jewish people from the exile back to Israel.


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    Russia, Poland, Ukraine

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