‘You had to work on what you were assigned. You couldn’t say that you didn’t want to do it.’ From ZdG.

On 12-13 June 1941, the first wave of deportations took place in Bessarabia and northern Bukovina – regions the Soviet Union had recently seized from Romania in what is now Moldova and Ukraine. Around 30,000 people were shipped to Siberia and other distant parts of the Soviet Union. A second wave took place in July 1949, when more than 35,000 people were deported, followed by a third, smaller wave in 1951. According to historians, the exact number of people who were deported is still not known; estimates speak of several hundred thousand people.

Women, men, children and the elderly were forcibly loaded into wagons and taken to work in Siberia. Seventy-two years after those events, few of these people are still alive, and some can no longer remember the ordeal they endured. Liuba Novac, 92, and Zosim Punga, 88, went through the calamity of deportation, but managed to return home and rebuild their lives. Moldova’s ZdG (Ziarul de Garda) talked to them about how the victims experienced these events, the hardest moments they experienced, and the impact the deportations had on their families. 

The Ordeal Begins

Liuba Novac: That night, my father opened the door and a nachalnik (Russian for “boss”) with a register and another man who was with him entered our house. And when I woke up, my mother was crying. One of the men asked “chego orete?” (“why are you shouting?”), in short, compliments of the good kind. They gathered us at the town hall and took us.

Liuba Novac

Zosim Punga: They found us in the house, sleeping, and kept us locked up [in our own house] until the next day at 5 o’clock. Both my brother and my father managed to escape. Dad went to the orchard and hid there. He hid the horses in a patch of acacia, the cart elsewhere, they hid somewhere and kept on eye on people coming, in case of a search. When they came, they never found either my brother or my father. But they did take away the rest of us. When my father returned home, there was nothing left: no pigs, no chickens, no turkeys, no cows, no sheep, nothing in the yard. The yard was deserted, there was nothing. They took the cows, they formed a kolkhoz [collective farm]. Before, we even had sows with piglets. 

The Road to Siberia

Liuba Novac: What was the road like? They took us to a stantsya (station), I don’t know in which city, but it was big. They took the men to one side and the women to the other, and tears started flowing. 

Zosim Punga: They wrote on the back of the railway wagon that we were going to work po sobstvennomu zhelaniyu(out of our own free will). Can you imagine? Po sobstvennomu zhelaniyu was written on the back of all our railway wagons. But who was reading? Was it for us? We were locked up in the car, so only those on the outside could see it. I cried all the way, and so did my mother. Towards the end [of the journey], everyone was crying. And then, we arrived at a stantsya and there was a soldier assigned to each railway wagon, either a leytenant or a starshiy leytenant (lieutenant or senior lieutenant) – each car had a soldier who made sure that no one ran away.

Zosim Punga: At a big stantsya they received orders to feed us and they brought some borscht, I don’t even know if it had potatoes in it or not, I didn’t get a potato, just a little barley. After that they gave us some little squares of bread, really small, rye bread. The crust was well baked, but its inside was not, it was like clay. And together with that bread came some tiulki (smoked fish). The baking tray for the bread was not greased with oil, but with “solidol,” the kind of grease they used for tractors. They also gave us water, they told us to take water in our pots, in our buckets, whatever we had at hand, and they gave us water from the basin they used for [cooling down] the locomotive. You feel like drinking a lot of water after tiulki. So we drank water from the locomotive, and ate the fish, and ate the bread, except for the bread’s inside. 

Zosim Punga

Liuba Novac: Once we got there [to Siberia], we ate frozen potatoes. We had brought things from home, so we took a rug, and my mother cut it in half, and sold that half for a bucket of potatoes. And we were eight families [living together], 16 people in total, including children. And we would boil all the potatoes together in a pot. We did it like this: we marked some potatoes with zero – mine – with an X – yours – another potato had its ends cut off so you knew they were yours. And after draining the water, each of us chose their potatoes: this is mine, this is yours, and so on.

Work in Siberia

Zosim Punga: Things changed throughout my time there, I didn’t do just one thing. At one point I was assigned to kormodobyvanie (fodder), so I was mowing hay in the fields. And then the wheat was ripe after the hay was done, and I had to gather straw, up on a hill. I collected the straw as winter fodder for cattle. So I would load the straw into a cart, and bring it to the farm. It was the same with hay, we had horses and oxen pulling the carts. You had to work on what you were assigned. You couldn’t say that you didn’t want to do it. It could get very sad for us if we said we didn’t want to do something … no, no. 

Liuba Novac: We would go to the big bunker and take two pots, three pots of oats, which were just like rye, because there was no wheat. And we were taken outside to work, even the tiny children. In the autumn, in the winter, they would take us out. In the morning, when you went outside, the snow was frozen, but when we returned, it thawed, it was all water. I would go into the house and take my shoes off, and my legs would be white and wrinkled. Those who did not have children, like me, because I was a loner, were sent to splav les (float wood), we would tie the wood together and make rafts, and send the rafts down the River Ob. A man would be on each raft, so that they would guide the rafts, and make them stop.

Living Conditions

Liuba Novac: Where we lived there, there were 16 souls in a room. There was no matras (mattress), nothing, God help us.

Zosim Punga: It wasn’t like we would be getting komnaty (rooms) or houses. At first there were huts, buried in the ground, about half a meter below the ground, with the window above ground, and the rest underneath, so it was warmer there. But when houses were taller than that, it was cold inside. They gave orders to our women, to our men too, to make clay, and they also cut twigs, not too thick, for fences and for making walls. We stuck the clay to the twigs, made walls, and strengthened them with clay on one side and on the other. We called those buildings barak (barracks). We made those buildings, and lived inside them, but it was so cold inside. At night, around midnight, you had to light the fire again: we would light it in the evening, and, at midnight, we would get up and light the fire once more.

Liuba Novac: The hardest moments were when we all sat together and had nothing to eat. And then some water gathered there, and there was fish in it – tiulky as we called it, fish that we smoked – and that helped with our hunger for a while. Oh, good God. 

Zosim Punga: Both the homesickness and the feelings that my mother had to deal with all the time [were hard]. The rest of the family was not with us; it was like that for everyone. For 12 days, for the whole time until we got there, my mother kept crying. She would relive those moments all the time. After we got there, we started receiving letters. We would send letters too. We first got in touch with my sister. We didn’t even know where my father and brother were. And then my sister sent us a letter and told us where my father was. He was banished from our village, and told, “All your documents are sent to Siberia, so you are not allowed to live in the village, nor in the district. You have to move to another district.”

Returning Home

Zosim Punga: They didn’t tell us anything beforehand. But when Stalin was still alive, we wrote a letter and in the letter we asked: What are we being blamed for? Our family was separated. What kind of law is this? How is this possible? We made about three such zhaloby (complaints) to their [the Russian] parliament, to Moscow. And then Stalin died [in 1953]. And it wasn’t only us who wrote such zhaloby, there were lots of people. And he [Stalin], when he saw that so many zhaloby piled up, and when he felt his death nearing, he gave a prikaz (order) to let us go home.

Liuba Novac: They summoned us to the komendatury (garrison headquarters) and said, “We are releasing you, and we will give you documents.” And so I came back home. And I was happy, but who wasn’t happy? Good God. But how disgusting it was when they took us back. Even after, I would try to go to sleep at night, but whenever I heard a dog barking, I held my breath. 

Deported a Second Time

Liuba Novac: The second time, the secretary came from the town hall, and he was an injured man, with no fingers. He said, “You’re under arrest.” Alas, my husband started to cry, and I started to cry, and they took us to the town hall, and then took me away.

ZdG: Were you taken together with your husband?

Liuba Novac: No, he was not to blame. Only I was guilty.

ZdG: What were you guilty of?

Liuba Novac: That was how it was. If they took you, it meant that you were guilty of something, that your father was the mayor, for instance, I don’t know, that happened a long time ago.

ZdG: And they didn’t give you any reason why they were taking you away?

Liuba Novac: Come on, what could they tell me? They didn’t tell me anything. They didn’t say anything.

Zosim Punga: People were very scared even after they returned [from Siberia]. And that fear spread to those who stayed behind and continued working. People were very scared of the soyuz (Soviet Union), of Stalin, of Stalin’s prikaz. They were very scared. Now our Moldovans have started to talk about this, but back then? They didn’t, everyone was afraid. Everyone was afraid.

Liuba Novac: I started to live life again. I made a home, without any help, without anything at all. I only knew so much, that he [my husband] was a good man, we respected each other, the children were the same, so were the grandchildren – our family was a proper one.

This article is part of the Strengthening Independent Media and Media Literacy in Moldova project run by Equal Rights and Independent Media (ERIM) with the financial support of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of ERIM. 

Cristina Leu is an intern at ERIM and a student of the School of Advanced Journalism Studies in Chisinau. This article originally appeared on the Moldovan news site ZdG. Translated by Ioana Caloianu. All photos come from ZdG, and are used with permission.