It is certain that until we arrive in Paradise we shall not know the full account of the Christian martyrs in Russia, yet we believe that not a drop of shed blood is hidden from the eyes of God. Many stories have been told and appeared in print, much of it reaching readers in the West. Yet only a fraction is known about the suffering of Christ’s disciples during the Soviet era.
Although I had read many books on this subject during my youth, it was not until I was thirty years old that I met anyone who had seen first-hand the evidence of how brutal that persecution really was. In the early 1980’s my wife and children and I lived in a small village in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. Our neighbor was an elderly Polish man named Bronek Katanaksza, who became a close friend of ours. He was a very devout Catholic, and a survivor of concentration camps. A humble, humorous and wise man, he worked as a gardener in order to make a living. Over the years he told us many stories about his experiences before he came to Canada, including the years of his imprisonment in Russia. The following is one of these experiences. Although he spoke simple English, and I spoke no Polish, he was able to communicate the essence of what had occurred with clarity. He repeated it over and over until I understood it correctly. Now, twenty years later I can still remember his face shining with joy at certain moments, growing profoundly sad the next as he related the good and the bad. Bronek died ten years ago, so it is now impossible to verify certain aspects of his story, but perhaps there are people still living in Russia who can confirm certain of the details.
During the Second World War, he was an ordinary infantry soldier in the Polish army as Hitler’s troops swept through Poland. As Bronek’s division retreated east, they were caught by the Red Army. The officers were separated from the infantry soldiers.
“The GPU took the officers away,” he said. “After the war, word leaked out about the massacres at Katyn Woods, where the Communists killed the officer class of Poland.”
Bronek was not an officer, but was attached to one and somehow he found himself included with those who were taken to Katyn. On a night when his group was to be executed, he escaped into the forest, and was again captured some days later, but this time by Russian soldiers who did not know he had been at Katyn.
Throughout that year, Bronek was shunted from prison to prison, locked into cattle cars with other captured Polish soldiers, the train always traveling “north and east” he said. During one such transport in winter, men began to die from cold and hunger. Sometimes the train would stop at a deserted village or railway siding, and sit without moving for days at a time. More men died. They were fed nothing.
Whenever Bronek repeated this part of his story, he said over and over, “The Russian people are good! Some of them are very, very good! But the Party was like a devil.”
I asked him what he meant. He said that many times when the train stopped in deserted places, old Russian women—”Babas”, he called them—would come close to the train. At first the Red Army guards tried to chase them away. But the women were clever. They shook their fists at the Poles, and insulted them in loud voices. When the guards saw this, they laughed and let the old woman stay. The guards continually walked around and around the train, and when they disappeared around the other side of the train, the women would quickly remove a loaf of bread or potatoes from under their coats, and throw them through the air hole at the top of the wagon-lit. When the guards returned, the resumed their insults and fist-shaking.
Bronek told me that he survived only because of the heroic generosity of these women. Many more men would have died of starvation, if it had not been for the great courage and kindness of “the Babas”.
Eventually, the train arrived at a rail station in a remote region of Russia. He did not know where it was in the country. He never learned its location, and until his dying day, he was unable to guess where it was. We could not find it on any map of the Soviet Union. He knew only that it was a place which he called “Kamyonka”. This was the name he overheard the Russian guards use in their conversation. I am unsure if this is the exact pronunciation of the name. Perhaps Bronek’s Polish pronunciation, and also the alterations that memory makes to some details, are at fault.
It may be that the place was the Monastery of the Savior on the banks of the River Kamenka in the Suzdal region. This is possible, because Bronek was imprisoned in a large Orthodox monastery—a great Lavra—where the Poles remained under armed guard for some time. He could not tell me much about the lavra, only that it was very large and very beautiful, and that it was empty. There were no monks living there.
The Polish soldiers remained at this monastery for several weeks, waiting for transportation to a prison camp farther to the east. During the period when they lived in the monastery, they were fed and their strength revived. Bronek was very young at the time, and he struck up a temporary friendship with one of the Russian guards. They were about the same age, both were farm boys, and both were Christians. The Russian boy (I do not recall his name) once observed Bronek making the Catholic sign of the Cross before eating, and Bronek saw his new friend making the Orthodox sign of the Cross, privately, where no other soldiers of the Red Army could observe him. From that moment onward, they began to speak more freely to each other. The Russian boy knew a little Polish, Bronek knew a little of the Russian tongue. Their communication was aided by the common Slavic roots of their languages.
After some weeks had passed, they began to speak together privately whenever no one else was observing. The Russian gave Bronek a little of his own food. He spoke critically of the Soviet system. This was an extremely dangerous act on his part, and both of them knew that it was a sign of the trust that had grown between them.
At one point Bronek asked him where all the monks had gone. Without answering, the Russian took him down the steps into an underground cellar of the lavra. He brought him to a door of a large cell, and told him to look inside. There, Bronek saw a scene that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Chained to the walls were human skeletons dressed in monks robes.
The Russian boy explained to Bronek that many years ago, after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks had chained several of the monks, including the hegumen of the lavra, to the wall and left them there to die of starvation. There were about a dozen or so martyrs in the cell. Then the Russian boy led Bronek to a different part of the lavra, also underground, and showed him a huge room with a dirt floor. Under it, said the Russian boy, were buried hundreds of priests and novices who had once lived in the lavra. They had been shot by the Bolsheviks and buried here.
A few weeks later, when the train arrived, the Poles were loaded into it and taken to a prison camp farther to the east. In later years Bronek could not tell me anything about its location on the map. He never learned where it was. In that camp he saw many terrible things. The Soviet guards inflicted severe punishment on all prisoners, but were especially cruel to priests. Bronek said that most of the priests were Ukrainian Catholic, but there were Orthodox priests as well. He saw several murdered brutally. More than once he saw priests hung from trees, with steel hooks piercing through their jaws. They hung suspended on these hooks above the ground, and sometimes it took days for them to die.
Whenever Bronek retold this part of the story, his eyes would grow dark with grief, and tears would fill them, even forty years after these evil events. He would shake his head, and say over and over, “The Russian people are very good, but the Party turned some of them into devils.”
Later Bronek and the other Polish soldiers were released, when Stalin made an agreement with the Western Allies. Soldiers were needed to enlarge the Allied armies fighting Hitler. The Poles, Bronek among them, walked thousands of miles from Russia, into Persia, then to Palestine, where they regrouped as part of the Polish army that helped to invade Italy. Bronek was involved in the assault upon Monte Cassino, where the German Army had entrenched. He saw the entire monastery, one of the oldest and greatest of the Western world, destroyed entirely. After the war, he applied for refugee status and emigrated to Canada, where he spent the remainder of his life.
Now all these years later, verification of the events at the Lavra in Russia is difficult. The story passed through three different languages, from Russian to Polish to English, and now it is passing back into Russian again. It may be that certain details are distorted, because stories change in the telling, and time also distorts memory. What is certain, however, is the essence of the tale—in a Russian monastery several monks were chained to walls and left to starve, while their brother monks were shot and buried nearby. It may be that the graves of these martyrs has already been discovered, or it may be that their final resting place is not yet known. God sees everything, and perhaps this little fragment of a tale may help it come to light.
One of the most important things my friend said to me was this: He believed that the people of the West have not been put to the test of Faith as have the Christian people of the East, and that we in the West are unprepared for great suffering. He wondered if we understood that the spirit of evil which had acted openly in the East was also at work in the West, and that terrible evils always follow when men turn away from God.
I have thought long and hard upon this simple insight of his, and I have come to believe it is a profound warning to us all. As the Godless materialism of the secularized democracies now seeks to flood into the East, new dangers arise, grave dangers to the soul. It would be a tragedy if Western materialism were mistaken for authentic human freedom. Of course, a decent reasonable level of material well-being is a good thing. But the Western pursuit of pleasure, luxury, and endless entertainments (combined with indifference to God and more and more outright rebellion against God) can create new forms of evil in human societies. Man falls into forgetfulness so easily. East and West, we can be deluded into thinking that the human person is no more than a clever, talking beast. We can lose the whole truth about man. And the end result of this is to degrade man to the level of an object, a thing which can be disposed of by the arbitrary will of political systems. By the same token, if man becomes a consumer without conscience, he degrades himself as well as others to the level of objects.