Jan Plovajko

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1922. Arrested entering the USSR in October 1940. Sentenced to three years in the Gulag in Norilsk. In 1943 released into the Czechoslovak army in the USSR.

He was born on 5 February 1922 in the village of Turya Bystra in Carpathian Ruthenia (the easternmost territory of Czechoslovakia, it fell to the USSR after 1945). He attended grammar school in Uzhhorod. There, on 14 March 1939, he experienced the occupation of Carpathian Ruthenia by Hungary. Like many of his peers, he decided to flee to the Soviet Union. He hoped that a Czechoslovak legion would be created there and liberate Czechoslovakia from German and Hungarian rule.

On the night of 20 October 1940 he crossed the unguarded border by the village of Uzhok in dramatic circumstances, reaching Polish territory then occupied by the USSR. However, what happened next took him by surprise. Soon after crossing the border at Sianki he was arrested by a Soviet border patrol and taken to be interrogated by the NKVD, where he met other refugees.

After being charged with espionage he and the others were escorted the following day to the Skole assembly camp, where approximately 400 people lived in desperate conditions. Three months later he was transferred to prison in Stryi, where conditions were better; however, the NKVD interrogations continued.

From there he arrived in Starobilsk at a large monastery where quick “trials” of Jews, Poles, Czechs and other refugees from Nazism were conducted. From there they were sent on to correctional labour camps throughout the Soviet Union. Plovajko fortunately received the lowest possible sentence for illegal crossing of the border – three years in the Gulag.

Ralated panoramic tour: Kitchen, mess hall, clubhouse

After two months he was transported in an overcrowded railway cattle wagon through OmskNovosibirsk and Tomsk all the way to Krasnoyarsk. There in a transfer camp the refugees were mixed with criminal prisoners. Two months later he was assigned to a transport to the polar circle. Several hundred prisoners were placed on a cargo ship that a few weeks later arrived via the river Yenisei at the port of Dudinka on the Arctic Ocean.

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From there he was transferred in an open freight wagon on the world’s most northerly railway to Norilsk. The town, built around a prison in the 1930s, was the centre of the Norillag, a complex of tens of labour camps scattered in the area. Hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of them political prisoners, passed through it during its 20-year history. He spent three years there. Every day in summer and winter (when the temperature fell to as low as minus 50 °C), he had to trudge several kilometres from the camp to work in a quarry or clearing snow. After several years of hard labour and minimal food he became a “dochodyaga”. In the Gulag this term had a similar meaning to “musulman” in Nazi concentration camps, i.e., a person completely ground down as a result of starvation and complete exhaustion.

Like many other Czechoslovak citizens, Plovajko was saved by the establishment of a Czechoslovak military subdivision in the USSR. He was released on 8 March 1943 and later left with another 50 Czechoslovaks for Buzuluk, where on 6 July of the same year he was drafted into the unit. After undergoing basic training he was assigned to large-calibre mortars and took part in battles from Kiev to Prague. His brother Vasil, who had also been through the Gulag, fell in November 1943.

Following the war Plovajko remained in active service as a means of making a living. After officer training he was made commander of a barracks in Trutnov. In 1946 he graduated from the Masaryk state grammar school in Kroměříž. In February 1948, when a Communist putsch took place in Czechoslovakia, he entered the Communist Party; however he was “drummed out” in 1952. In summer 1950, according to preserved criminal charge, “he caused thanks to his crude neglect and irresponsibility” his private 9 mm Parabellum pistol “to fall into the hands of unauthorised persons” who “planned to illegally abscond abroad”. As an artillery lieutenant he was, after a brief period of custody, punished by expulsion from the army. He later worked in various professions until 1970, when he retired.

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