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The Power of Stories

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One of the best aspects of my job as a writer is that I often have the opportunity to travel and interview amazing people.  A few years ago, while researching in Latvia, a friend arranged for me to meet with one the most famous poets in Latvia.  His name is Knuts Skujenieks and  when he was a young man he was sent to a Gulag prison camp.  His big crime, he told me, was that he had on his book shelf a single volume of an Encyclopedia Britannica.  That was enough during the days of Soviet occupied Latvia to earn a man seven years hard labor in a camp.    I had read enough about these camps to know that very few people survived them.  Usually prisoners were worked to death within the first year.

“How did you survive?”  I asked.  “What was your secret?”

He smiled .  “Poems,” he said.  “I wrote poems.  Two a day.  And I told jokes.   This is what made me strong and this why they thought I was a dangerous man—they couldn’t break me.”

As I left his house he gave me a gift:  a book of jokes Latvian tell about Estonians.  “My garden gate is always open for you.”  He said lifting his hand in a wave.  And then he darted back into his house, to write another poem, I guessed.

On the bus ride back to the capital city of Riga, I thought about Knuts.   When he had told me of all the torments he’d been put through, the beatings, the many humiliations, his voice never took on a note of bitterness. “Do you hate them for what they did to you? “  I had asked.  And he said no.  He hated regimes, he hated any system that sought to crush human though and imagination.  He hated the absurd Soviet rhetoric.  But he did not hate people.  He refused to do that and that was his strength.

A few years later I met another Gulag camp survivor.  His name is Leonid Svetlo.  When Leonid was seventeen years old, he was sent to  a Gulag in Vorkhuta, in the far north of Russia where the nickel mines were located. He was a Christian and he refused to renounce his faith.  At that time in Soviet Russia  having faith in anything other than the Soviet regime was considered “Anti-Soviet” and a punishable crime.  So off to a gulag Leonid went to work in the mines where the temperatures hovered  in winter at -50 Celcius.  Sometimes, he told me, the guards  would make the prisoners strip in their cells and hose them down with freezing water.  They were made to stand in the water all night long.  In the morning, if they were still alive, they were given a slice of bread and marched back to the mines.

“How did you survive?”  I asked him.   Like Knuts had done, he smiled wide.  “Prayer.  That’s what saved me.  Also I have a good head for mechanical things.  God gave this to me.  While in the mines the conveyors and haulers often broke down.   I’d pray, ‘God, show me how to fix this thing!’  and then God would send the answer.  I’d fix those big machines and over time,  the supervisor took a liking to me because I kept production going. “   Leonid was so good at fixing things that soon that’s all he did and he was spared the back breaking work of mining.  This too, he said, saved his life.    His journey from the camp to the United States was not an easy one and he was persecuted in many different ways, all on account of his refusal to renounce his faith.  

I’m in awe of both of these men and their incredible, unbreakable spirits.   I have never suffered in the ways they have and I have a hard time finding anything in common between me and them.  My life is quiet and ordinary.  But  as I consider the impact that their lives have had on so many others I am left with the notion that we all have a story to tell, whether that story is Hollywood film-worthy or not.    Telling what we have experienced and have learned uniquely inspires those around us.  Knuts and Leonid, each in their own particular way underscored for me the value and importance of knowing who you are and what you believe in.    The next step then, is sharing that with others.  So, what’s YOUR story?