are you still alive?: A German in the Gulag
By Katie F. Wiebe
Hildebrandt, Georg. Why are You Still Alive?: A German in the Gulag. North Dakota State Univesrity Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2001.
On my desk is Why
Are You Still Alive? A German in the Gulag by Georg Hildebrandt,
published by North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from
Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, N.D., 2001, 267 pages, $35.
Researchers of Russian history have been adding to the number of
people who perished as a result of Communism since 1920 as more
information becomes available to them. Today the figure stands at
Georg Hildebrandt was supposed to be one of those statistics. He
was shipped off to the gulag, but he survived to tell his story.
Twenty-five of his relatives never made it.
Late in his imprisonment, a KGB officer cynically asked him, "Why
are you still alive?" By sentencing him to prison camp, his
death had been decreed.
Hildebrandt's story begins with his arrest as a "public enemy"
in 1930 in a village near the Don River with other men of his family.
The only reason was that they were German. He escaped several times
but was rearrested each time and returned to a labor camp to live
with criminals and other political prisoners. Life was cheap.
In 1948 he was sentenced to seven years of forced labor and loss
of civil rights for five years thereafter. He spent several years
in the dreaded Kolmya camp, near the Arctic Circle. He tells the
story of his experiences in that vast "graveyard." They
were marked by "hunger and hell," extreme cold to 70 degrees
below zero, arduous work with the pressure of filling quotas, and
separation from family.
He saw prisoners murdered and tortured by sadistic guards. Some
prisoners' bodies were cannibalized to feed the others. He, like
many others, endured sickness and poor health without medical attention.
Toward the end of his imprisonment, he contracted tuberculosis.
Added to these hardships was the constant terror of additional harm.
Even later on, when free, the fear of being reimprisoned was a daily
He describes mass murders and methods the authorities used to cover
up their crimes so that the Western nations would not discover them.
He does not omit the degradation forced on women prisoners to "service"
guards and criminal prisoners.
"The most intelligent minds, the best people, the conscience
of a country, the great thinkers...none has a gravestone...They
are victims of prisons, detention camps, gas chambers and psychiatric
institutions," he writes.
The low points of his terrible ordeal were many. A small high point
was find cranberries and rose hips near the camp. Even a little
vitamin C helped. Any little extra morsel was a highlight.
He stayed alive. Why? A childhood dream that someday he would go
to Germany kept him going. He always had hope he would survive.
He reminded me of Viktor Frankl's observation in Man's Search for
Meaning that those who survived the Nazi concentration camps during
World War II were those who realized they could choose their attitude
toward their situation when it seemed all choices had been taken
from them. Those who gave up hope died.
Several times his skills as a technical draftsman rescued him from
death. Those skills were needed. The story shows he was respected
for being a decent person, "a good guy." People trusted
him, and he listened to their burdens. He treated other prisoners
fairly, never exacting revenge, even when he had opportunity. He
admits that his "German efficiency" helped him out on
Above all, he heeded his father's advice never to collaborate with
the guards and officials to become an informer, regardless what
perks they offered as an enticement or what penalties they threatened
if he refused. He clung to his principles.
After rehabilitation, he located a friend from prison camp. That
friend had never felt free to talk about what had happened, even
to his wife. The memories were too painful. He feared his listeners
would think he was making it up. Hildebrandt admits that even he
has not been able to tell all. His soul has been to wounded. He
emigrated to Germany in 1974, where finally he felt compelled to
share his story so that all these people might not have died in
The book is generally easy to read. The translation falters at
times and becomes a transliteration, using German syntax, verb forms
and idioms. Some English verbs are incorrect. Yet it is a book not
easily put down. It is a significant book in telling the story of
Germans under communist rule.
Nowhere in the book does he mention having Mennonite roots, although
many names he mentions are common among ethnic German Mennonites.
Katie Funk Wiebe, of Wichita, Kansas is retired from teaching
English at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.