Concordia University MIGS

Back to Holocaust Memoirs | Back to MIGS

Michael Zimmermann

How I Survived the Wars and Peace:
My Life in the Gulag


For the record: this is the 3rd of August, 1995, and today I am starting my autobiographical sketches. I deliberately chose this type of memoir as it allows me just to highlight some more interesting events and periods of my life and completely ignore those of no interest to the prospective readers (I have in mind my wife and my son). I am also not bound by chronology of the events, can go forward or back as the occasion requires.

Now, I am going to identify myself in order to tie my person with the following text. To be very precise, I am going to copy the pertinent data from my Canadian passport, the document whose only purpose is to guarantee the veracity of the information.


Very clear and loud but, also, grossly untrue. Let me explain and I will start with the place of birth:

WARSAW, POLAND - Poland? in 1907? There was no such country at that time anywhere on the map of the globe for the simple reason that in 1772 Poland was divided among Germany, Austria and Russia. To say that I was born in Poland in 1907 is equivalent that I was born in Never-Never-Land. Poland was reborn in 1919, but at that time I was already 12 years old. in 1907, the city of Warsaw was situated within the borders of Russia as solidly as, say, Moscow. The official language was Russian and my birth certificate was written in Russian.

MICHAEL - Until I was 42 years of age nobody ever called me Michael for the same reason that nobody ever called me Peter or Jeremiah. So, how come? There is a story and I am going to tell it.

On June 24, 1950, I arrived in Montreal as a landed immigrant. Two weeks later I got my first Canadian job with a small company, a partnership of consulting engineers who needed an electrical draughtsman. On the first day at the office my immediate boss, Arthur Mendel, asked me what is my first name. I gave him my Polish name which to him sounded like ‘Mee-at-chi-slav’. Arthur was quiet for a moment and then said: ‘Look, I will never be able to pronounce your name, do you mind if we at the office call you ‘Mike’?’ I liked. Six months later, I got a job with a big corporation, C. I. L. (Canadian Industries Limited) and, of course, I introduced myself as Mike Zimmermann. Somehow, the name Mike is accepted easily and friendly. In 1953, I joined C. N. R., my final Canadian job, and here too I was known as Mike or Michael. In 1955, after living five years in the country, I applied for Canadian citizenship and made sure that the name ‘Michael’ appears on my Certificate of Citizenship. Over the years , my two other names that I brought from Europe dropped out and I intend to stay Michael until the end and beyond. Thank you, Arthur Mendel, wherever you are.

ZIMMERMANN - the surname came to me from my father, naturally. it is definitely of Germanic descent, actually the word ‘der Zimmermann’ means ‘carpenter’ in German. How my ancestors came to use that name is not known to me. As I have pointed out before, at the time of my birth, the family lived in Russia, consequently my birth certificate was written in the Russian language and in the Cyrillic alphabet. For those uninformed, the Russian language spells foreign names phonetically, i.e. the way the name is pronounced. The letter ‘Z’ in ZIMMERMANN sounds in German like ‘Ts’, thus, the surname started with an appropriate Cyrillic letter and also dropped the last ‘n’ from the name. Came the year 1919, Poland was resurrected, and when I went to the City Hall for a copy of my birth certificate, it was given to me in the Polish language and my surname looked as follows ‘CYMERMAN’. I was known by this monstrosity all through my most important formative years. In fact, my university diploma carries that name. Then came WWII, catastrophic events and arrest by the Soviet secret police. All my documents were taken away from me, I was given a prisoner’s number and I became one of the 18 million forced labour slaves toiling in the notorious GULAG camps. At the time of liberation, when new documents were issued on request, I made sure that my surname was spelled in its full splendour, the way it appears in my present passport.

OCTOBER 2 - the date of my birth. Another discrepancy. On the day I was born, the calendars in the entire country showed a date: September 21. And here is the explanation. Until it was abolished in 1918 during the Bolshevik Revolution, the Julian calendar was being used all over Tsarist Russia whereas the rest of the world used the Gregorian calendar which is 11 days ahead. When my birth certificate was retranslated from the Russian to Polish the conscientious translator converted also the dates. Thus, September 21 was changed to October 02.

Here, I conclude my comments on my vital statistics which are the results of changes, perambulations and other antics.



Back to Key Words and Abstract

To Chapter I


© Concordia University