Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pascha in Prison Camp: Four Accounts


What follows are four extraordinary accounts of the celebration of Pascha in prison camps. The first comes from the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, the second from the Butyrka prison in Moscow in 1928, and the third and fourth from the Solovki prison camp in the 1920s.

The first
account, by the late Gleb Rahr (+2006), tells the story of the celebration of Pascha at Dachau shortly after its liberation in 1945. It is among the most extraordinarily moving things I've ever read. It's been posted on a good number of websites and blogs, but I can't help but reproduce it once again. The photograph below depicts the interior of the Russian Orthodox chapel in Dachau, which the author mentions. Notice in particular the large icon behind the Holy Table.

This is my father's account of how he celebrated the feast in 1945.

The last transport of prisoners arrives from Buchenwald. Of the 5,000 originally destined for Dachau, I was among the 1,300 who had survived the trip. Many were shot, some starved to death, while others died of typhus...

April 28th: I and my fellow prisoners can hear the bombardment of Munich taking place some 30 km from our concentration camp. As the sound of artillery approaches ever nearer from the west and the north, orders are given proscribing prisoners from leaving their barracks under any circumstances. SS-soldiers patrol the camp on motorcycles as machine guns are directed at us from the watch-towers, which surround the camp.

April 29th: The booming sound of artillery has been joined by the staccato bursts of machine gun fire. Shells whistle over the camp from all directions. Suddenly white flags appear on the towers - a sign of hope that the SS would surrender rather than shoot all prisoners and fight to the last man. Then, at about 6:00 p.m., a strange sound can be detected emanating from somewhere near the camp gate which swiftly increases in volume...

Finally all 32,600 prisoners join in the cry as the first American soldiers appear just behind the wire fence of the camp. After a short while electric power is turned off, the gates open and the American GIs make their entrance. As they stare wide-eyed at our lot, half-starved as we are and suffering from typhus and dysentery, they appear more like fifteen-year-old boys than battle-weary soldiers...

An international committee of prisoners is formed to take over the administration of the camp. Food from SS-stores is put at the disposal of the camp kitchen. A US military unit also contributes some provision, thereby providing me with my first opportunity to taste American corn. By order of an American officer radio-receivers are confiscated from "prominent Nazis" in the town of Dachau and distributed to the various national groups of prisoners. The news come in: Hitler has committed suicide, the Russians have taken Berlin, and German troops have surrendered in the South and in the North. But the fighting still rages in Austria and Czechoslovakia...

Naturally, I was ever cognizant of the fact that these momentous events were unfolding during Holy Week. But how could we mark it, other than through our silent, individual prayers? A fellow-prisoner and chief interpreter of the International prisoner's committee, Boris F., paid a visit to my typhus-infested barrack "Block 27" to inform me that efforts were underway in conjunction with the Yugoslav and Greek National Prisoner's Committees to arrange an Orthodox service for Easter day, May 6th.

There were Orthodox priests, deacons and a group of monks from Mount Athos among the prisoners. But there were no vestments, no books whatsoever, no icons, no candles, no prosphoras, no wine...

Efforts to acquire all these items from the Russian parish in Munich failed, as the Americans just could not locate anyone from that parish in the devastated city. Nevertheless, some of the problems could be solved: The approximately 400 Catholic priests detained in Dachau had been allowed to remain together in one barrack and recite mass every morning before going to work. They offered us Orthodox the use of their prayer room in "Block 26", which was just across the road from my own "block". The chapel was bare, save for a wooden table and a Czenstochowa icon of the Theotokos hanging on the wall above the table - an icon which had originated in Constantinople and was later brought to Belz in Galicia, where it was subsequently taken from the Orthodox by a Polish king. When the Russian Army drove Napoleon's troops from Czenstochowa, however, the abbot of the Czenstochowa Monastery gave a copy of the icon to czar Alexander I, who placed it in the Kazan Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg where it was venerated until the Bolshevik seizure of power. A creative solution to the problem of the vestments was also found. New linen towels were taken from the hospital of our former SS-guards. When sewn together lengthwise, two towels formed an epitrachilion and when sewn together at the ends they became an orarion. Red crosses, originally intended to be worn by the medical personnel of the SS-guards, were put on the towel-vestments.

On Easter Sunday, May 6th (April 23rd according to the Church calendar), - which ominously fell that year on Saint George the Victory-Bearer's Day, Serbs, Greeks and Russians gathered at the Catholic Priests barrack. Although Russians comprised about 40 percent of the Dachau inmates, only a few managed to attend the service. By that time "repatriation officers" of the special "Smersh" units had arrived in Dachau by American military planes, and begun the process of erecting new lines of barbed wire for the purpose of isolating Soviet citizens from the rest of the prisoners, which was the first step in preparing them for their eventual forced repatriation. In the entire history of the Orthodox Church there has probably never been an Easter service like the one at Dachau in 1945. Greek and Serbian priests together with a Serbian deacon adorned the make-shift "vestments" over their blue and gray-striped prisoners uniforms. Then they began to chant, changing from Greek to Slavonic, and then back again to Greek. The Easter Canon, the Easter Sticheras - everything was recited from memory. The Gospel - "In the beginning was the Word" - also from memory.

And finally, the Homily of Saint John Chrysostom - also from memory. A young Greek monk from the Holy Mountain stood up in front of us and recited it with such infectious enthusiasm that we shall never forget him as long as we live. Saint John Chrysostomos himself seemed to speak through him to us and to the rest of the world as well! Eighteen Orthodox priests and one deacon - most of whom were Serbs, participated in this unforgettable service. Like the sick man who had been lowered through the roof of a house and placed in front of the feet of Christ the Saviour, the Greek Archimandrite Meletios was carried on a stretcher into the chapel, where he remained prostrate for the duration of the service.

The priests who participated in the 1945 Dachau Easter service are commemorated at every Divine Service held in the Dachau Russian Orthodox Memorial Chapel, along with all Orthodox Christians, who lost their lives "at this place, or at another place of torture" ("na meste sem i v inykh mestakh mucheniya umuchennykh i ubiennykh"). The Dachau Resurrection-Chapel, which was constructed by a unit of the Russian Army's Western Group of Forces just before their departure from Germany in August, 1994, is an exact replica of a North-Russian "tent-domed" (Shatrovyie) church or chapel. Behind the altar-table of the chapel is a large icon depicting angels opening the gates of the Dachau concentration camp and Christ Himself leading the prisoners to freedom. Today I would like to take the opportunity to ask you, Orthodox Christians all over the world, to pass on the names of fellow Orthodox who were imprisoned and died here in Dachau or in other Nazi concentration camps so that we can include them in our prayers. Should you ever come to Germany, be sure to visit our Russian Chapel on the site of the former concentration camp in Dachau and pray for all those who died "at this place, or at another place of torture".

Khristos voskrese! Christos anesti! Christ has risen! El Messieh Qahm!
The second account is a letter from the Butyrka prison in Moscow (pictured below) written on Pascha, 1928. It appeared in English translation in Serge Schmemann's book Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village, and was recently posted by Fr Steven Freeman on his wonderful blog:

30 March/ 12 April 1928

Dear Uncle Grishanchik, I greet you and Aunt Masha with the impending Holy Day, and I wish you all the very best. For a long, long time I have wanted to write to you, dear Uncle Grishanchik; you always showed such concern for me, you helped me so generously in a difficult moment of my life, and, mainly, your entire image is so inseparably linked for each of us, your nephews, with such wonderful memories; you always are, were, and will be our dearest, most beloved uncle.

I am approaching the fourth Easter that I will spend behind these walls, separated from my family, but the feelings for these holy days which were infused in me from earliest childhood do not fail me now; from the beginning of Holy Week I have felt the approach of the Feast, I follow the life of the Church, I repeat to myself the hymns of the Holy Week services, and in my soul there arise those feelings of tender reverence that I used to feel as a child going to confession or communion. At 35 those feelings are as strong and as deep as in those childhood years.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, going over past Easters in my memory, I remember our last Easter at Sergiyevskoye, which we spent with you and Aunt Masha, and I felt the immediate need to write you. If you have not forgotten, Easter in 1918 was rather late, and spring was early and very warm, so when in the last weeks of Lent I had to take Aunt Masha to Ferzikovo, the roads were impassable. I remember that trip as now; it was a warm, heavy, and humid day, which consumed the last snow in the forests and gullies faster than the hottest sun; wherever you looked, water, water, and more water, and all the sounds seemed to rise from it, from the burbling and rushing of the streams on all sides to the ceaseless ring of countless larks. We had to go by sleigh - not on the road, which wound through the half-naked fields in a single muddy ridge, but alongside, carefully choosing the route. Each hoofprint, each track left by the runners, immediately turned into a small muddy stream, busily rushing off somewhere. We drove forever, exhausting the poor horse, and, finally, after successfully eluding the Polivanovo field, one of the most difficult places, I became too bold and got Aunt Masha so mired that I nearly drowned the horse and the sleigh; we had to unharness to pull it out and got wet to the eyebrows; in a word, total “local color.”

I remember the feeling I had that spring of growing strength, but that entire happy springtime din, for all the beauty and joy of awakening nature, could not muffle the sense of alarm that squeezed the heart in each of us. Either some hand rose in senseless fury to profane our Sergiyevskoye, or there was the troubling sense that our loving and closely welded family was being broken up: Sonia far off somewhere with a pile of kids, alone, separated from her husband; Seryozha, just married, we don’t know where or how, and you, my dear Uncle Grisha and Auht Masha, separated from your young ones, in constant worry over them. It was a hard and difficult time. But I believe that beyond these specific problems, this spiritual fog had a deeper common source: we all, old and young, stood then at a critical turning point: unaware of it, we were bidding farewell to a past filled with beloved memories, while ahead there loomed some hostile utterly unknown future.

And in the midst of all this came Holy Week. The spring was in that stage when nature, after a big shove to cast off winter’s shackles, suddenly grows quiet, as if resting from the first victory. But below this apparent calm there is always the sense of a complex, hidden process taking place somewhere deep in the earth, which is preparing to open up in all its force, in all the beauty of growth and flowering. Plowing and seeding the earth rasied rich scents, and, following the plow on the sweaty, softly turning furrow, you were enveloped in the marvelous smell of moist earth. I always became intoxicated by that smell, because in it one senses the limitless creative power of nature.

I don’t know how you all felt at the time, because I lived a totally separate life and worked from morning to night in the fields, not seeing, and, yes, not wanting to see, anything else. It was too painful to think, and only total physical exhaustion gave one a chance, if not to forget, then at least to forget oneself. But with Holy Week began the services in church and at home, I had to lead the choir in rehearsal and in church; on Holy Wednesday I finished the sowing of oats and, putting away the plow and harrow, gave myself entirely over to the tuning fork. And here began that which I will never forget!

Dear Uncle Grishanchik! Do you remember the service of the Twelve Gospels in our Sergiyevskoye church? Do you remember that marvelous, inimitable manner of our little parson? This spring will be nine years that he passed away during the midnight Easter service, but even now, when I hear certain litanies or certain Gospel readings, I can hear the exhilarated voice of our kind parson, his intonations piercing to the very soul. I remember that you were taken by this service, that it had a large impact on you. I see now the huge crucifix rising in the midst of the church, with figures of the Mother of God on one side and the Apostle John on the other, framed by multicolored votive lights, the waving flame of many candles, and, among the thoroughly familiar throng of Sergiyevskoye peasants, your figure by the right wall in front of the candle counter, with a contemplative expression on your face. If you only knew what was happening in my soul at that time! It was an entire turnover, some huge, healing revelation!

Don’t be surprised that I’m writing this way; I don’t think I’m exaggerating anything, it’s just that I feel great emotion remembering all these things, because I am continuously breaking off to go to the window and listen. A quiet, starry night hangs over Moscow, and I can hear first one, then another church mark the successive Gospels with slow, measured strikes of the bell. I think of my Lina and our Marinochka, of Papa, Mama, my sisters, brothers, of all of you, feeling the sadness of expatriation in these days, all so dear and close. However painful, especially at this time, the awareness of our separation, I firmly, unshakably believe all the same that the hour will come when we will all gather together, just as you are all gathered now in my thoughts.

1/14 April - They’ve allowed me to finish writing letters, and I deliberately sat down to finish it this night. Any minute now the Easter matins will start; in our cell everything is clean, and on our large common table standkulichi and paskha, a huge “X.B.” [Christos Voskrese "Christ is risen"] from fresh watercress is beautifully arranged on a white table cloth with brightly colored eggs all around. It’s unusually quiet in the cell; in order not to arouse the guards, we all lay down on lowered cots (there are 24 of us) in anticipation of the bells, and I sat down to write to you again.

I remember I walked out of the Sergiyevskoye church at that time overwhelmed by a mass of feelings and sensations, and my earlier spiritual fog seemed a trifle, deserving of no attention. In the great images of the Holy Week services, the horror of man’s sin and the suffering of the Creator leading to the great triumph of the resurrection, I suddenly discovered that eternal, indestructible beginning, which was also in that temporarily quiet spring, hiding in itself the seed of a total renewal of all that lives. The services continued in their stern, rich order; images replaced images, and when, on Holy Saturday, after the singing of “Arise, O Lord,” the deacon, having changed into a white robe, walked into the center of the church to the burial cloth to read the gospel about the resurrection, it seemed to me that we are all equally shaken, that we all feel and pray as one.

In the meantime, spring went on the offensive. When we walked to the Easter matins, the night was humid, heavy clouds covered the sky, and walking through the dark alleys of the linden park, I imagined a motion in the ground, as if innumerable invisible plants were pushing through the earth toward air and light.

I don’t know if our midnight Easter matins made any impression on you then. For me there never was, and never will be, anything better than Easter at Seriyevskoye. We are all too organically tied to Sergiyevskoye for anything to transcend it, to evoke so much good. This is not blind patriotism, because for all of us Seriyevskoye was that spiritual cradle in which everything by which each of us lives and breathes was born and raised.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, as I’ve been writing to you the scattered ringing around Moscow has become a mighty festive peal. Processions have begun, the sounds of firecrackers reach us, one church after another joins the growing din of bells. The wave of sound swells. There! Somewhere entirely nearby, a small church breaks brightly through the common chord with such a joyous, exultant little voice. Sometimes it seems that the tumult has begun to wane, and suddenly a new wave rushes in with unexpected strength, a grand hymn between heaven and earth.

I cannot write any more! That which I now hear is too overwhelming, too good, to try to convey in words. The incontrovertible sermon of the Resurrection seems to rise from this mighty peal of praise. My dear uncle Grishanchik, it is so good in my soul that the only way I can express my spirit is to say to you once again, Christ is Risen!

The third account comes from an account of the life of the Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky), who was imprisoned in Solovki, along with a vast number of other clergy, monastics, and faithful:

With all this activity Archbishop Hilarion undoubtedly drove the Bolsheviks into a fury, and he was sent to the concentration camp on Solovki.

'One needs to be in these conditions for at least a short time, otherwise they are impossible to describe. This is plainly Satan himself,' wrote the archbishop from the camp. Another prisoner's description was that the place was 'a terrible, yawning pit full of blood, lacerated bodies, crushed hearts.' Could a place for joy be found here?

However, even in the camp Archbishop Hilarion retained his cheerfulness and courage. Together with two bishops and several priests he worked as a fisherman and net-maker. He joked about this, rearranging the words of the stichera for Trinity Sunday: 'The Holy Spirit grants everything: earlier he revealed theologians in fishermen, and now he reveals fishermen in theologians.' His good humour extended even to the Soviet authorities, whom he was able to regard through forgiving eyes. Archbishop Hilarion even saved one of the chief wardens from certain death, risking his own life in the process. In sum, he was much taken by the idea that Solovki had become a school of virtues: non-acquisition, meekness, humility, abstinence, patience, industriousness.

Archbishop Hilarion won great respect in the camp. His attentiveness to each and love for all were simply incredible. He was the most popular person on Solovki. Even ruffians and criminals - whom a highly spiritual person might be expected to find intolerable - became his friends and companions. They loved and respected him for his down-to-earth and open nature. But behind this form of merriment and worldliness there lay a child-like purity, great spiritual experience, kindness and mercy, fearlessness and deep belief, unhypocritical piety and an extraordinary intellect. The disguise of ordinary sinfulness, 'foolishness for Christ' and worldliness concealed from people the archbishop's inner life and saved him from pride and vanity.

The archbishop spent six terrible years on Solovki - the last years of his life. But that Easter joy about which Our Saviour spoke when parting with the apostles, the only joy that can be complete, never left him.

Only once while he was on Solovki was it permitted to celebrate Easter Matins - in 1926. This is how an eyewitness described it:

'Silence, pitch darkness all around, while iridescent pillars sweep the sky - the northern lights play... And then sacred songs are heard from the open doors of the church. Archbishop Hilarion's cry thunders like a harsh command invested with heavenly power:

'May God arise and His enemies scatter!'

Then, glittering with multicoloured lights, the unprecedented procession of the cross started out from the church gate. Surrounded by lamps and torches, the seventeen bishops in their ancient vestments were followed by more than two hundred priests and as many monks, and behind them walked an endless wave of those whose tormented hearts thirsted for one thing - the Light of Resurrection.

Out of the church doors sailed gleaming sacred banners fashioned by master craftsmen of Novgorod the Great, followed by lanterns donated to the northern monastery by Venetian doges. Sacred vestments embroidered by Moscow Grand Duchesses shimmered on the clergy.

'Christ is risen!' proclaimed Archbishop Hilarion.

'He is risen indeed!' was heard in reply, as an echo of a thousand voices beneath the shining dome of the sky...'

In 1929 the archbishop's sentence came to an end and he was sent to a new place of exile - Central Asia. But he never made it there...

Archbishop Hilarion died of typhus while in a Petrograd prison hospital during deportation on 28 December 1929. His last words were heard by a doctor: 'How good! Now we are far from...' He had gone to that land where joy springs eternal.
The eyewitness whose words are cited in this account was Boris Shiriaev. Those who can read Russian are encouraged to read excerpts from his memoir The Inextinguishable Lampada, from which the above quotation is taken.

The fourth and final account also comes from Solovki, and also makes mention of Archbishop Hilarion (seen on the very left of the photograph below, taken in Solovki) as related by Professor I. M. Andreyev:

"In spite of the exceptional severity of the Solovki camp regime, which exposed them to the risk of being shot, Vladykas Victor, Hilarion, Nectarius and Maximus not only often served together in secret catacomb services in the woods of the island, but also carried out secret consecrations of new bishops. Only on the eve of my departure from Solovki did I learn from aclose friend, a celibate priest, that he was no longer a priest, but a secret bishop.
"We had several secret catacomb 'churches' on Solovki, but the most 'beloved' were two: the 'diocesan cathedral' of the Holy Trinity and thechurch of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker... Services were more often performed in the church of St. Nicholas. In the 'Trinity diocesan cathedral' services were performed only in summer, on big feasts and, with especial solemnity, onthe day of Pentecost. But sometimes, depending on circumstances, strictly secret services were also performed in other places. Thus, for example, on Great Thursday the service with the reading of the 12 Gospels was performed in our doctors' room in the tenth company. Vladyka Victor and Fr. Nicholas came to us supposedly for disinfection. They served with the door bolted. On Great Friday the order went out in all the companies that for three days prisoners were allowed to leave their companies after eight in the evening only in exceptional circumstances, with special written permission from the camp commandant.
"At seven o'clock on Friday evening, when we doctors had just returned to our rooms after a twelve-hour working day, Fr. Nicholas came to us and announced that a plashchanitsa [burial shourd] the size of a man's palm had been painted bythe artist R., and that the service - the rite of burial - would begin in anhour.

"'Where?' asked Vladyka Maximus.

"'In the big box used for drying fish which is near the wood not farfrom such-and-such a company. The sign is three knocks, followed by two. Better come one by one.'...

"Half an hour later Vladyka Maximus and I left our company and headed for the appointed address. Twice the sentries asked us for our passes. We, as doctors, had them. But what about the others: Vladyka Victor, Vladyka Hilarion, Vladyka Nectarius and Fr. Nicholas... Vladyka Victor worked as an accountant in the rope factory, Vladyka Nectarius was a fisherman, while the others wove nets...

"Here was the edge of the wood. Here was the box, over two metres in length. There were no windows. The door was scarcely visible. It was a radiant twilight. The sky was covered with thick clouds. We knocked three times and then twice. Fr. Nicholas opened. Vladykas Victor and Hilarion were already there... A few minutes later Vladyka Nectarius also came. The insideof the box was converted into a church. The floor and the walls were made of spruce branches. A few candles were burning. There were some small paper icons. The small burial shroud the size of a palm was drowning in green branches. There were about ten worshippers. Four or five came later,including two monks. The service began. In a whisper. It seemed that we had no bodies, only ears. Nothing stopped or hindered us from praying. I don't remember how we returned 'home', that is, to our companies. The Lord protected us.

"The Mattins of Pascha was to be served in our doctors' room. By twelve midnight all those who were intending to come had arrived - without written permission, on one of another urgent excuse connected with the medical section. There were about fifteen people. After the Mattins and Liturgy we sat down to break our fast. On the table were cakes, pascha, coloured eggs,snacks and wine (liquid yeast with cranberry extract and sugar). At about three in the morning everyone dispersed. The camp commandants made his control inspections of our company before and after the service, at eleven in the evening and four in the morning... Finding us, four doctors with Vladyka Maximus at our head, still awake, the commandant said:

"'What, aren't you sleeping, doctors?' And he immediately added: What a night! One doesn't want to sleep.'

"And he left.

"'Lord Jesus Christ, we thank Thee for the miracle of Thy mercy and strength,' said Vladyka Maximus with emphasis, expressing the feelings of all of us."
See also the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God For All Things," written by Fr Gregory Petrov in a prison camp shortly before his death in 1940. Those who can read Russian can find another first-hand account of celebrating Pascha in a Soviet work camp here.