(Translated by Malcolm Gilbert. Germans from Russia Cultural Preservation Foundation and Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, 2003. 219 pages, paperback. Illustrated.)
Has the era of the martyrs ever really ended? More Catholics were slaughtered in the 20th century than were killed by pagan Rome. Drawing on secret sources, a new book tells us how it happened and makes us question our own moral courage.
A Spiritual Holocaust
In 1917 there were approximately two million Catholics in Russia. By 1939 the Catholic Church in Russia had “for all practical purposes been annihilated.” This spiritual holocaust is described in Irina Osipova’s new book, Hide Me Within Thy Wounds.
Drawn from transcripts of interrogations, from letters, and even from informers’ reports, Hide Me Within Thy Wounds is an uncensored witness to martyrdom. We travel into the cells and torture chambers of an all-powerful regime that was bent on crushing Catholicism. Faith and endurance were the only weapons of the martyrs.
Yet we can read this prophetic dialogue between a KGB captain and an Italian priest in a Soviet labor camp:
“God? But if your God really existed he would not permit you to be stuck here.”
“Why would He not permit it? Look, I have been found worthy to suffer for Him and I am sure if I endure everything to the end He will grant me an eternal reward.”
“A vain hope, since God does not exist.”
“ God existed, exists now and will always exist. Soviet power on the other hand…”
“‘Soviet power,’ he interrupted me, ‘existed, exists now, and….’”
“…Will not exist in the future,” I completed the sentence, interrupting him in my turn.
This stubborn argument cost Fr. Pietro Leoni two months in the Severe Regime Barracks. He survived. Other Catholics, including thousands of priests, did not. Many were condemned and shot.
Who were these priests? Some were members of the Russian Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite. Others were priests of the Volga German community, which had settled in Russia generations before. Still others were illegals, priests who crossed the Soviet frontier at the risk of their lives to evangelize and re-evangelize the Russian people. All of them were informed-upon, spied-upon, and hunted men.
The Russian Catholic Church originated in the secret conversion of two Russian Orthodox priests to Catholicism. Pope Pius X made this Church an official entity in 1908. It was dedicated to a “fusion” between the two churches. From the beginning Russian Orthodoxy was hostile, but after 1917 the GPU (secret police) began watching this Church, especially after the Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon expressed support for reconciliation in 1920. Surveillance became active hostility, which in turn led to arrests.
In 1922, anticipating his own arrest, Fr. Leonid Fyodorov, Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church, wrote to his ecclesiastical superior:
“If this case goes as far as execution, then I will perhaps be a victim, and this I confess I greatly desire. I am convinced that if our blood is to flow…this will be the best outcome….Otherwise we shall not live but rather freeze in our dark and hopeless ‘Soviet’ existence.”
A Soviet official commented:
“Fyodorov is a dangerous man…Millions will go to his infamous Fyodorovite church, and thus enter the international Catholic organization….The matter is decided. The church will be liquidated.”
Anna Abrikosova, the wife of an exiled priest (Russian Catholic priests were permitted marriage) “prepared for the inevitable”:
“Christ desires now in Russia the individual sacrifice of those who…go as lambs to the slaughter….Obedience until our death upon the cross, together with humility these are the two virtues I preach to the sisters.”
Abrikosova died as a result of her hardships in the prisons and camps, much loved as an angel of charity and faith.
By 1956, “…not a single Russian Catholic priest remained alive.”
How Strong Is Our Faith?
Many priests those of the Russian Catholic rite, of the Latin rite from western Ukraine and the German Volga region were imprisoned on islands in the White Sea known as “Solovki.”
A letter by Fr. Roman Dzevonlowski described conditions in the camp:
“We, Catholic priests, and almost all elderly or sick, are often forced to undertake the heaviest labor…excavating trenches for building foundations, hauling great rocks, digging in frozen ground in winter…sometimes…for 16 hours a day in winter, without a break and with no shelter.”
Yet, in their replies to interrogators, they could say:
“In this place I have become an even more committed Catholic and nothing can shake me.”
There were group trials, which ended in executions. For instance, in October and November of 1937, 32 priests were shot.
For this reviewer, the most striking passage in the book is from a memoir by a young man who was sent to Solovki at the age of 15. He wanted to continue his education and inquired among the priests if there was anyone who would teach him languages. His mentor became Fr. Peter Weigel, a priest serving the Volga Germans. In 1933 a secret police court sentenced a large number of priests to death. Weigel’s student watched as the condemned were being taken to prison transport:
“And the ranks passed by one by one. I waited for my Teacher. Several Polish priests had already passed by. ‘Where is my teacher?’ I cried….I caught sight of the pale, emaciated and melancholy face of my Teacher. He smiled and said very distinctly: Auf, bade, Schüler, unverdrossen die irdische Brust im Morgenrot [Goethe: ‘Rise, pupil…bathe your earthly breast boldly in morning light’]…And one by one the ranks passed by. More than a thousand prisoners were taken from Solovki on that gloomy October evening.”
These melancholy and defiant faces still live in the remarkable police mug shots reproduced at the end of the book.
By the end of the 1950s there were only two Catholic churches and two Catholic priests in the whole of the Soviet Union. Both priests were foreigners, and their contacts with Russians were strictly controlled.
Ultimately, Fr. Leoni was right, and Soviet power was conquered. Yet Catholicism is still only grudgingly permitted, and the struggle is by no means over in Russia, or in places like China and Sudan.
The power of this book challenges every believer. How strong is our own faith? Would we break or would we endure in troubled times?
Pavel Chichikov is Poetry Editor of Catholic Exchange. For further information about Hide Me Within Thy Wounds, click here.