Foreign News: Vorkuta

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Two Americans stepped through the Iron Curtain last week, free men. Private William Marchuk, 38, of Norristown, Pa., who disappeared from his Army unit in Berlin in 1949, asked for a cigarette and grunted, as he dragged on it: "First American cigarette in six years." His companion, John H. Noble, 31, of Detroit, had been arrested by the Russians in Dresden in 1945. Said he: "I have much to tell."

What Noble had to tell about was Vorkuta, a name that is likely to live in infamy with Dachau and Belsen. Marchuk and Noble had been held for years in Vorkuta slave camp, and they brought out word that a handful of other Americans are still there.

In the past three years, Germans, Russians, Spaniards and Greeks have also been released from Vorkuta; some have told their stories to interrogators, others have filled twelve issues of a refugee magazine with firsthand descriptions of the Soviet slave camp system. Together their stories present a well-documented picture.

Forty Pitheads. Vorkuta is a complex of prison camps, situated in the bleak tundra territory of European Russia on the river Vorkuta above the Arctic Circle, about 1,400 miles northeast of Leningrad. A century ago Czar Nicholas I's advisers suggested to him that he make a colony for political prisoners at Vorkuta, but when he learned the conditions, Nicholas decided that it was "too much to demand of any man that he should live there." The Soviets let the native Komi remain there, virtually ignored until 1942, until the invading Nazis captured the Donbas coal mines. Then, gathering a vast horde of war prisoners, refugees from the Baltic states and the Ukraine, the Russians built a railroad to Vorkuta and began mining coal in its permanently frozen ground.

Today, in a vast area, there are 40 pitheads, serviced by the camps of the Vorkuta complex. There are an estimated 235,000 people in the Vorkuta complex, some 12,000 of them guards, technicians and officials, about 105,000 of them prisoners, and another 120,000 of them prisoners freed from the camps but forbidden to leave the area. Vorkuta supplies about 6% of the Soviet Union's coal production.

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