Tag Archives: Soviet captivity

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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Fiction as Therapy

This is our translation of an excerpt of Radu Mărculescu’s Suffering and Enlightenment in Soviet Captivity.

After dinner, while everybody was silently digesting their ratio of salted fish and bread, I asked for permission to speak. I proposed that those of us who were able to remember a good novel or a beautiful movie, or even a life story, should try to share it, in an attempt to chase away ugliness and ignore hunger. Even a concocted story, like the one told by our comrade that morning, had the power to reach our hearts. My proposal was readily accepted and I offered to be the first, for fear that it could all fizzle out. I chose The Uprising by Liviu Rebreanu. Five or six months ago I had presented it to my students, in a farewell lesson, before my leaving for the front. I started clumsily, in a faint voice. Very soon I got hoarse and I panicked: would I ever get to finish my story? I swallowed a bit of water and luckily my voice cleared. Little by little, as I felt the interest of my audience, I recovered self-confidence.

I closed my eyes and the railcar disappeared. I was in the classroom, in front of the eighth grade students: white walls, uncleaned blackboard and up on the wall His Majesty’s and Antonescu’s portraits. Here I was – the teacher I had once been. When the lesson ended, I awoke from my dream in the sound of applause. Reality was now more bearable. I looked around and saw kinder faces, showing sympathy. The experiment had been successful. For a few moments we had all managed to escape. I fell asleep feeling happy. I thought: God, man’s soul thirsts for fiction!

That night, nobody died.