Thursday, January 24, 2008

One Tank Counted a Million Times

My friend Murray is Jewish, as are a lot of friends of mine from RPI, because RPI gets a lot of smart kids from the northeast, especially New York City, Long Island, and Philadelphia. Murray’s father, Meyer, was originally from Poland, spent the last part of WWII in a Soviet labor camp (a lucky thing, considering the alternative), and had the sense to stay on the last train out of Poland at the end of the war, rather than going back home to the last Polish pogrom. You thought that only the Nazis were killing Jews in 1945?

Once, during one of my extended visits with Murray, his brother Sol decided to do an oral history of the family and got out a tape recorder to get some of Meyer’s stories down for posterity. Because I was the only one in attendance who hadn’t heard the stories, Meyer basically told them to me, which I’ve always considered quite a privilege. One of them, for reasons that will be obvious, always stuck in my mind.

It was from the Soviet labor camp, a frontier post out in a Siberian forest, cutting trees to supply wood for the war effort. The conditions were as brutal as you might imagine, though, since timber output was the main purpose, the camp wasn’t deliberately for the purpose of killing people. Nevertheless, no one in authority cared much when someone died, and sometimes the prescribed rules had that effect.

One particularly pernicious rule was the timber quota/food ration rule. Basically, if a work gang didn’t meet their timber quota, their food rations were cut. Since the rations were barely subsistence anyway, cutting them would render the workers even weaker, more sluggish, less able to work, than before, which would result in more lost quotas, more cuts, etc. spiraling downward into starvation and death. So the quotas had to be met at all costs.

The problem was that the quotas kept being increased, until finally, even fully healthy workers would have been unable to meet them. Again, this wasn’t done with the express purpose of killing anyone; it would just have had that effect.

However, Meyer was the straw boss, and he concocted a plan. The crew would work until noon, cutting as many trees as they could. During the brief lunch period, Meyer would count how many trees had been cut, and calculate how many more they needed after lunch to meet quota. Then, after lunch, the crew would go back over the previous day’s cut logs and saw off the very ends of the logs—where the inspectors had stamped the previous day’s logs with a mark to indicate that the logs had been counted. The log ends would go onto the camp fires, and the inspectors would go over the day’s cut and double count the trees whose marks had been removed.

Now obviously there were probably some inspectors who figured out what was happening, but no one said anything. It wasn’t their jobs to say anything; their jobs were to count the logs with no stamps and to stamp the logs. Nothing more. If they piped up, they risked having their superiors get angry, since all their superiors were interested in was making the quotas as well.

“The whole system was like that,” Meyer said. “If they tell you they have a million tanks, don’t believe them. They have one tank; they count it a million times.”


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