A KATRINA MOMENT

Survival in New Orleans

Excerpt from No Place to Call Home

 
 
 
Chapter 12 Czortkow Prison
 
As the “Black Maria” stopped in the tiny wall-encased yard, each of the prisoners was led out and records checked.  The other prisoners completed the procedure uneventfully, but Stanley encountered a problem as his data was being verified.  According to their records, he was two years younger.  He tried to correct it, but the prison guard refused to accept the modification.  It was inconceivable to the man that the Soviet paperwork would be inaccurate.  For the length of his imprisonment, Stanley would  remain a younger man.
 
The guards threw the four into the same cell.  The room, approximately 6X6, accommodated eleven prisoners, lying side by side.  One electric light bulb on the ceiling dimly illuminated the enclosure.  Barely human bodies had already managed to acquire the meager floor space.  The cell had no ventilation and the prisoners, dressed only in underwear, lay sweating in silence.  It was not long before they reached the capacity at eleven inmates in space once reserved for one.
 
Daily sustenance consisted of a lunch of thin, foul-smelling soup and a supper of tinted water called “tea”.  The first day, Stanley could not bear to put it to his lips.  A neighbor happily consumed the contents. Stanley still had his carefully hoarded bread provided by the secret benefactors in Potok Zloty. By the evening of the first day, Stanley happily gulped the foul tasting water.
 
Early the next morning the guard informed them, they would be allocated to proper cells.  But first, they were required to bathe.  This small reminder of civilization was a gift from heaven.  They filed down towards the basement where this indulgence was to take place.  The rusted pipes, strained from the overcrowded population, failed to offer the promised comfort.  Instead, they were brought to their predetermined cells still encrusted in filth.  As ordered, Stanley grabbed his personal belongings and the remaining bread and walked slowly towards what was to be his newest accomodation.
 
As he walked along the long corridor, a cool musty breeze overpowered his senses. The corridor loomed, empty with no conceivable end in site.  His boots reverberated on the hard stone floor with the uniform beat of a funeral drum.  Each step multiplied into a thousand echoes, simultaneously self-perpetuating into a thunderous clamor.  Behind another set of steps resonated.  It was the sound of his shadow, the guard escorting him into this ghastly pit.  Stanley dared not look behind; he felt the burn of the guard’s vigilant eye.  They walked in unison to the same end, but with widely divergent feelings in their souls.
 
Endless rows of steel doors faced them, each with a round spy hole at the height of the human eye. Stanley could feel the insidious gaze of those incarcerated within the tombs.  He felt their stare focus upon him, wondering who the newest victim was. He dared not let his eyes communicate with theirs for fear he might be beckoned inside, forever entrapped in this place of horror.
 
Behind the doors, he heard a continual humming sound of discontent.  The murmurs grew in volume to a crescendo that gradually fell flat.  He knew it would not be long before his voice would be united with theirs.  The guard stopped in front of cell number 23.  This space hidden in semi-darkness was to become Stanley ’s newest home.
 
The guard moved around him as he faced the door.  The echo of their footsteps could still be heard in the hollow space of the corridor.  The echo died with the pernicious sound of the key squeaking in the lock. The squeal persisted and grew stronger with the sharpness of a steel blade. The black steel door opened in a slow ceremonial manner as if allowing the entrance of an honored guest through the aperture of a royal residence.
 
A steaming bathhouse atmosphere greeted the new resident like a dense morning fog.  The guard swiftly forced Stanley into the thick gray matter.  An unsavory odor of polluted air rushed past him in an attempt to escape the gas compressor. He desperately tried to hold his breath but it embraced him, overpowered him until he inhaled its poison.  He saw nothing in front of his dizzy eyes but a steaming vapor of spoiled air hovering over an unrecognizable space.
 
He visually attempted to penetrate the gray curtain of the steaming mass.  A force from the opposite side came to his assistance.  Two meager beams of light filtered through two small windows barricaded practically to the top.
 
Standing in the doorway, he measured the power of his eyesight with the grayness of the matter that hung above the floor.  Gradually his eyesight became accustomed to the dim surroundings and strange apparitions emerged from the mist.
 
It took time before the apparitions assumed human form. He took a step into the mass of human bodies stretched at his feet.  There was no room to walk except over them. He stopped before proceeding further and these ghostly creatures opened a passage to a middle row. They squeezed closer to offer a share of their floor space.  He proceeded to curl into the vacant space to make another roosting phantom in the limbo of prison walls.
 
One phantom sat mute in the middle of the floor with a dirty blanket pulled over his head, ignoring everything that was going on in the cell. His were the only eyes which did not look out with the eager curiosity of a man isolated from the outside world; his were the only motionless legs which did not pull in to let Stanley pass; his was the only face that did not betray itself.
 
At the time, Stanley was not ready to question this apparent indifference to life. He had not reached that point of prisoners' mentality at which curiosity seeks solution to every enigma.  Later Stanley would come to know his name, though never him.  He was Jaworski.
 
Under the perceived appearance of ghostly creatures, there was human life that belonged to a much different form of existence than was known on the outside. Stanley slowly adapted to the new conditions, accepting the thin fetid soup as a tolerable form of nourishment.  His most precious commodity would become the daily piece of thick rye bread. 
 
The heavily polluted air began to serve his breathing needs.  And the small allotment of space began to feel comfortable.  This cell became his school of life, providing him with the experience to deal with the harsh reality of incarceration.
 
Inmates began to create alliances.  In the beginning of this captivity, Stanley was approached by an undernourished prisoner offering a space on the straw bag that substituted for a mattress.  Starved for companionship, he immediately took advantage of the invitation.
 
The tall pale man with sunken cheeks covered by a heavy beard spoke with the clear Polish accent of an educated man.  Quietly he asked of news of the outside world.  What information Stanley had was weeks old, but for one locked in a cell, it was new and fresh. Suddenly Stanley felt a hidden touch upon his back and when he turned, dark eyes issued a silent warning. 
 
Stanley was later told he had been speaking to a Ukrainian nationalist, a prison trusty, someone who had once held a high position in the Soviet senate, and was now used to supply information to the jailers. The Soviets typically infiltrated cells with informants. Acknowledged as a spy by his fellow inmates, all held his intentions suspect.
 
Next two pale-faced inmates invited Stanley to join them.  One was a Polish engineer and the other a teacher in a village where some of Stanley ’s relatives lived. 
 
Newcomers to this hovel were usually required to assume a position either at the door or by the latrine.  Luckily his position, though not very comfortable or safe, was definitely preferable to either of the aforementioned locations.  The proof became evident the next morning when his remaining loaf of bread disappeared.  Although everyone expressed regret, the thief was never found.
 
The daily process of life assumed a familiar routine.  Days ran into each other as they spent their time remembering the taste of real food. What food they received was often just watered down soup and stale bread.  It was a lucky day when one found a piece of vegetable floating in their ration.