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.
The Gulag system was one of the most ominous parts of life in Stalin's Soviet Union, and a central aspect of the regime of terror that reached its height in the interwar years. The term Gulag is an acronym for the administrative body that operated the forced labour camps: Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel'no-trudovykh LAGerei (in English, Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps).
After her release from the Gulag, Haya-Lea spent the rest of her life in the Soviet Union. From 1961 onwards she and Shaya lived in Leningrad. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city's historical name "Saint Petersburg" was restored.