Most people I ask have no clue what the Gulag was. They are often shocked when they find out.
The Gulag was the government agency behind the atrocities that occurred as a result of the Soviet Union’s forced labour camp system; the infamous prison camps themselves are often referred to collectively as the Gulags. Millions of innocent people passed through the Soviet regime’s forced labour camps, and well over a million died of starvation, exposure, and overworking within their brutal confines, most of which were situated in the remote Russian wilderness.
This week, members of Hamilton’s Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian Communities – a trio of Northern European nations known collectively as the Baltic states – congregated at Our Lady of Mercy Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of citizens to the Gulags beginning in June 1941. The Baltic states, which along with much of Poland were invaded and absorbed into the Soviet Union in the early summer days of 1941, commemorate the 14th of June as a holiday of national mourning for the victims of these atrocities.
Reverends Hannes Aasa of the Hamilton Estonian Society, Ivars Gaide of the Hamilton Latvian Community, and Audrius Sarka of the Lithuanian Canadian Community sang songs, the national anthems of Canada and the Baltic states, and led ceremonies with the stated goal of “remembering with sorrow the forced deportation, suffering, and death of hundreds of thousands of people at the hands of a repressive regime” so that “the memory of those who suffered and perished will be a source of strength for those who seek truth and freedom.”
Among the deportees was my grandmother’s father, a Major in the Lithuanian army. “After hiding in the woods for days, my father finally came back home” my grandmother, Aldona Gailius, recalled mournfully after the ceremony “but the morning he came back, the Russians came, kicked down the door, arrested him, and told us to say goodbye.” He was deported to Siberia, never to see his family again.
That same year, a quarter of the entire Gulag’s population died of starvation. More than half a million prisoners died in the following two years, many a result of the horrific conditions and lack of provisions for prisoners during the brutal Siberian winters.
It is estimated that by 1953, one in five Lithuanians had been deported – a total of about 400,000 people. Like hundreds of thousands of other Europeans in danger of deportation, my grandmother did the only thing she could: flee to safer shores. Eventually settling in Hamilton in the early 1950s, she is one of the few remaining people to have seen the deportations firsthand.
The struggles of World War II are a distant past to most, but this small ceremony served to remind us that its horrors echo among its victims to this day. That the older Baltics like my grandmother continue to honour the Gulag’s victims, more than 70 years on from the onset of the atrocities, may be a testament to the search for truth and freedom mentioned by the reverends. “We must remember these horrible events,” stated my grandmother “otherwise all the victims will have died completely in vain.”