Tag Archives: extermination camps

Resistance through Faith

This is our translation of a fragment of Radu Mărculescu’s book, Suffering and Enlightenment in Soviet Captivity, entitled Great Friday. In April 1947, a group of Romanian officers who were imprisoned in a punishment camp for war prisoners in the former Soviet Union decided to celebrate Great Friday.

That year, winter was reluctantly saying goodbye to the Hell Hole in the taiga surrounded by frozen marshes. It was mid-April, during the Holy Week, but judging by the snow-rich landscape, one would have rather thought it was Christmas, not Easter time. There was no priest amongst us to perform the proper religious service, but we had a very rich choir, with baritones such as Rădoi, and deep bass singers such as Vasile Cotea, whose voice made the hut walls tremble. Part of our group was a young theologian, Ion Popescu, who knew how to conduct the Holy Liturgy, except for the eucharistic moment, which was reserved for a priest. It was the evening of Great Friday. We decided to chant the Lamentations at the entrance of the hut, where our food was distributed. Aligned along the wall, the members of the choir, conducted by Popescu – the theologian, started unfolding the harrowing burial chant: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” They went on and on until the grave, obsessive chant filled the darkness of the hut with catacomb reverberations. The rest of us kneeled down in front of the choir, and in a state of self-forgetfulness, we were spiritually following the Holy Body being laid in the grave.

All of a sudden, the door opened and a rush of cold air burst inside the hut, accompanied by savage yells, curses and dog barking. The choir continued chanting in strong crescendo. As if we had an understanding, none of us looked to the door to find out what was happening.

After all, there was no need to look, as we all knew what was all about. In his primitive way, the Major, a Soviet version of Caliban pulled out of the marshes of the wild taiga, was attempting to stop us from celebrating the Holy Easter.

“Stop it,” he yelled in Russian, accompanied by dog barking and automatic gun loading executed by three or four slanted-eyed chasovoys[1].

“Stop it, STOP IT,” he yelled again, using the dirtiest words to curse the holy matters. “Stop or you’ll end up in solitary confinement… Can’t you hear me? Are you crazy? Do you want me to shoot you down? Can’t you hear me? Answer right away!”

But the choir went on chanting and the rest of us completely ignored his presence, together with all his dogs and chasovoys. They simply did not exist to us, and no physical act, no violence could have convinced or compelled us to accept their existence. We continued undistracted even when, on Caliban’s order, two chasovoys grabbed two of the choir members and took them into solitary confinement. Those arrested did not try to resist, but continued the chant as they were being pushed into cells. As soon as our two comrades were taken away, Romică Vasilescu stood up, made the sign of the cross and started chanting, replacing the missing bass singer. His neighbour followed through, and this went on after each arrest. When the conductor himself was taken away, he barely had time to hand me the baton. I promptly took his place and the choir went on…and on… and no force in the world could have stopped it now, as everybody joined in, those in the hut and those in the cells, and the whole courtyard vibrated with the angelic chant “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” as if the whole camp had become sacred.

The dogs had stopped barking and were seated. They looked at us in curiosity, and so did the chasovoys.  Weary and resigned, the Major made a last attempt at finding support in the small group of political activists amongst us, who had not joined our action, and were seated silently on their beds.

“Hey,” yelled the Major, trying to cover the choir, “They are crazy, ain’t it?”

But to my surprise, the activists chose to remain silent, pretending not to hear him because of the choir. Infuriated, the Major tossed his hat on his head, cursed copiously and with a dismissive gesture towards us, as if we were a bunch of unresponsive mentally retarded, he got out of the hut which in that Great Friday evening had become a holy church. He left in the company of his dogs and chasovoys, overwhelmed by the grave and obsessive chant he had not been able to stifle.

Several minutes after that, the choir members who had been arrested returned to the hut, together with the conductor. This was the only way for them to continue the chant they had started in the cells. And as soon as they came back, we stopped this angelic chant and went on with the rest of the Lamentations. This is how in that hell hole we celebrated to the best of our powers the Holy Burial whereby resurrection and hope were granted to us.

[1] In the original “ceasovoi” – transliteration of the Russian word for standing guard

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They’ve brought the fascists!

This post is a fragment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Part III, Chapter 6, translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney. A parallel between the Western world and the part of the world going through the communist experiment. The similarity with what happened in Romania during 1947 – 1964 is staggering.

Borya was coughing. There was still a fragment of German tank shell in his lungs. He was thin and yellow, and his nose, ears, and the bones of his face had grown deathly pointed. I looked at him closely, and I was not sure: would he make it through a winter in camp?

We still tried to divert our minds and conquer our situation with thought. But by then neither philosophy nor literature was there. Even our hands became heavy, like spades, and hung down.

Boris suggested: “No, to talk … takes much strength. Let’s be silent and think to some purpose. For example, compose verses. In our heads.”

I shuddered. He could write verses here and now? The canopy of death hung over him; but the canopy of such a stubborn talent hung over his yellow forehead too.[1]

And so we kept silent and scooped up the clay with our hands. The rain kept coming. Yet they not only didn’t take us out of the clay pit, but Matronina, brandishing the fiery sword of her gaze (her “red” head was covered with a dark shawl), pointed out to the brigadier from the edge the different ends of the clay pit. And we understood: they were not going to pull out the brigade at the end of its shift at 2 P.M., but would keep it in the clay pit until it fulfilled its norm. Only then would we get both lunch and dinner.

In Moscow the construction project was halted for lack of bricks.

But Matronina departed and the rain thickened. Light red puddles formed everywhere in the clay and in our car too. The tops of our boots turned red, and our coats were covered with red spots. Our hands had grown numb from the cold clay, and by this time they couldn’t even throw anything into the car. And then we left this futile occupation, climbed up higher to the grass, sat down there, bent our heads, and pulled the collars of our coats up over the backs of our necks.

From the side we looked like two reddish stones in the field.

Somewhere young men of our age were studying at the Sorbonne or at Oxford, playing tennis during their ample hours of relaxation, arguing about the problems of the world in student cafés: They were already being published and were exhibiting their paintings. They were twisting and turning to find ways of distorting the insufficiently original world around them in some new way. They railed against the classics for exhausting all the subjects and themes. They railed at their own governments and their own reactionaries who did not want to comprehend and adopt the advanced experience of the Soviet Union. They recorded interviews through the microphones of radio reporters, listening all the time to their own voices and coquettishly elucidating what they wished to say in their last or their first book. They judged everything in the world with self-assurance, but particularly the prosperity and higher justice of our country. Only at some point in their old age, in the course of compiling encyclopedias, would they notice with astonishment that they could not find any worthy Russian names for our letters-for all the letters of our alphabet.

The rain drummed on the back of our heads, and the chill crept up our wet backs.

[1] That winter Boris Gammerov died in a hospital from exhaustion and tuberculosis. I revere in him a poet who was never even allowed to peep.  His spiritual image was lofty, and his verses themselves seemed to me very powerful at the time. But I did not memorize even one of them, and I can find them nowhere now, so as to be able at least to make him a gravestone from those little stones.