Haya-Lea Detinko -- Surviving Stalin's Gulag

Haya-Lea was born in 1920 in Rovno, which then belonged to Poland. She grew up in a traditional Jewish family, joined a Zionist youth club called Hashomer Hatzair and looked forward to emigrating to Palestine, just like her sister. But the Soviets took eastern Poland in September 1939 and Haya-Lea's membership in Hashomer Hatzair earned her a ten year sentence of hard labor in Siberia. The rest of her family remained behind, not knowing that the Nazis would overrun the town soon after Haya-Lea's deportation to the east.
Haya-Lea survived the Gulag and moved to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she shared her story with Centropa in 2002.
This film is dedicated to Haya-Lea, who died shortly after the interview.

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Haya-Lea grew up in the city of Rovno, then in Poland. The city is now located in the Ukraine, and is called Rivne. Explore this website to learn more about the history of Poland.

Poland had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria since 1772. This partition period, of almost 150 years, came to an end in 1918, the Second Polish Republic being formed in 1921. Though Poland's independence had been promised by Tsar Nicholas and Woodrow Wilson, the Republic was created by internal, Polish action.

Haya-Lea talks about Marshal Pilsudski, Poland's head of state for most of the interwar period. Pilsudski is considered largely responsible for Poland regaining its independence, and led the Second Polish Republic until 1922. Following a coup d'etat, he returned to power in the spring of 1926, becoming a de facto dictator.

Find here a 1919 interview with Pilsudski.

Haya-Lea would spend her adult life in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was formed in 1922, following the 1917 October Revolution, when the Bolshevik party seized power. The 1922 declaration of state was led by Vladimir Lenin: after his death in 1924, Josef Stalin seized power and imposed a regime of terror that would continue after his death in 1953. Read more about the early Soviet Union here.

The beginning of the Second World War put an end to the Second Polish Republic. On the 1st of September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. As stipulated by the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet forces invaded and occupied East-Poland two weeks later. The Polish government did not surrender but went into exile in London.


The Second World War began with the invasion of Poland. On the 1st of September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. As per the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet forces invaded and occupied East-Poland two weeks later. Read about Jewish refugees in Soviet-occupied Poland here.

Following the invasion and partition, the Polish government went into exile in London, where they were central in exposing the atrocities at Auschwitz to the rest of the world. More information on the Polish government-in-exile can be found here.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and attacked the Soviet Union. The Axis invasion of the Soviet Union was destructive and brutal: millions of soldiers and civillians died, food stores were burned, and infrastructure destroyed. Read an article on the Soviet-German War (1941-1945) or take a look at pictures of what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. It was during this time that Germans occupied Rivne and made it the capital of the Ukrainian region.

Not long after Haya-Lea was deported to the Gulag, her remaining family in Rovno were killed. The Rovno Massacre, taking place throughout November 1941, claimed over 25,000 lives. This was carried out by the occupying German forces, with assistance from some of Rovno's Ukrainian population who collaborated with the area's Nazi authorities. Flip through this ebook for more information on wartime Rovno (focus on the second chapter, "Aktion: The Holocaust in Rovno", to learn about the Rovno Massacre).

Soviet forces beseiged and captured Berlin in April 1945, effectively ending the Second World War. In narratives of this event, the experiences of soldiers, civilians, and the military high commands differ significantly between Western and Soviet perspectives. Read a Soviet and an Allied account of the Seige of Berlin, and consider their similarities and differences.

Read here about Poland at the end of the war, and the political situation in Europe.



The Gulag system was one of the most ominous parts of life in Stalin's Soviet Union, and a central aspect of the regime of terror that reached its height in the interwar years. The term Gulag is an acronym for the administrative body that operated the forced labour camps: Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel'no-trudovykh LAGerei (in English, Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps).

The system was first established in 1919 under the Cheka, the Soviet Union's first secret police organisation. However it did not reach its peak until the mid 1930s, when, under the control of the Cheka's successor, the NKVD, the system held several million inmates. Those imprisoned in Gulags included murderers, thieves, and common criminals, along with political and religious dissenters.

Explore this website for an in-depth account of life in the Gulag.

The Gulag-camps were located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North.  They made significant contributions to the Soviet economy: Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions. A collection of maps showing the location of Gulag camps can be found here.

The Gulag Archipelago is a famous book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about the Gulag system. The book, first published in 1973, is a massive narrative relying on eyewitness testimony and primary research material, as well as Solzhenitsyn's own experiences as a prisoner in a Gulag labour camp.

While the Gulag was radically reduced in size following Stalin's death in 1953, forced labor camps and political prisoners continued to exist in the Soviet Union right up to the Gorbachev era.


After her release from the Gulag, Haya-Lea spent the rest of her life in the Soviet Union. From 1961 onwards she and Shaya lived in Leningrad. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city's historical name "Saint Petersburg" was restored. Founded by Tsar Peter I of Russia in 1703, Saint Petersburg, located on the Neva River, was the capital of the Russian Empire for more than two hundred years. After the 1917 Revolution and 1922 formation of the Soviet Union, the Russian capital was moved to Moscow.

Saint Petersburg is Russia's second largest city after Moscow, with 4.6 million inhabitants. The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is also home to The Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world.

In 1989 communism collapsed across Central Europe and two years later, in 1991, in the Soviet Union. Read about the dissolution of the Soviet Union in this article.

A timeline of Soviet history, from 1917-1989, can be found here.