Orthodox America

The Cry of the New Martyrs – A Song of Life in an Oasis of Death  

A former prisoner remembers…. Nativity, 1936


    Lest the reader think: "That took place way back in 1936. It may be different now." --we add this brief report also from Samizdat.

      The well-known Ukrainian poet Vasyl' Stus, a prisoner in a special-regime labor camp is presently held in solitary confinement because he was the 'ringleader' who instigated the singing of carols at Christmas 1982. 

(Reprinted from "Samizdat," Jan., 1984)

     There were several nuns in our camp. Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. The nuns took advantage of the day of rest and, scattering all over the camp, began to glorify the new born Christ.

     One of these carolers came to our barrack. This was a middle-aged woman With an exhausted face, but on that day it reflected joy and her light-colored eyes sparkled. Standing in the doorway, in a voice filled with enthusiasm and emotion, she began to greet us all with the Birth of the Saviour.

     Not everyone in the barrack immediately grasped what she was saying; some in the back corners even began to crack flat jokes about her. But when, after someone said: "a carol," and she began in a voice full of inspiration to sing the Christmas Troparion and Kontakion, the entire barrack fell silent. All conversation stopped; nothing was heard but the nun's singing and the ticking of the clock. At that moment the very walls of the barrack seemed to disappear, together with the entire N. strict-regime Siberian labor camp. Each and every one of us, swept up on the wings of overpowering emotion, was carried far, far away from this "oasis of death" (as the prisoners called the camps), And since most of the inmates were natives of the Ukraine, each one lowered his head and remembered his distant childhood: caroling outside the village huts, happy evenings within the family circle, as these winter holidays-- Nativity, New Year, Epiphany-- were celebrated with such gladness and joy. The voice of the nun, formerly a young peasant girl, gained strength and glorified Christ: 

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone upon the world with the light of knowledge…

      When next there resounded through the barrack the words of the Kontakion: "Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above all being. · ." my plank-bed partner suddenly grasped his gray head in his hands and began quietly to weep. My other friend, who occupied the next bunk, an elderly ngineer from Poltava, suppressed his emotions with great difficulty so as not to burst out sobbing uncontrollably. The nun's voice continued:

...Angels with shepherds give glory, and magi journey with a star. For unto us is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God.

     The singing gradually died away, the nun gave all the occupants of the barrack another look of exultation, and began to extend Christmas greetings to all: "I greet all of you, God's martyrs, with the great Feast of Nativity!" Dozens of voices, weighed down with grief and fear, answered emotionally and amicably from all corners of the barrack: "Thank you, friend. We, too, wish you a blessed Christmas!"

      It would seem that this Christmas prayer contained no counter-revolutionary phrases, but the stool-pigeons had already reported the incident to the camp authorities. Scarcely had the nun stepped out of the barrack, when the camp guard swooped down on her, seized her and led her to the commandant's office. And within a quarter of an hour all the other nun's were rounded up and taken under convoy to the camp zone where there was an underground isolation cell.

    · Along the way, the nuns fearlessly continued to sing the Christmas verses: "Christ is born, glorify Him!" No force exerted by the Chekists and their hangers-on could break the feeling of Joyous exultation shared by those who professed their faith in Christ. And even in our barrack, after the nun's departure, that feeling persisted for a long time anti everyone was silent. It seemed that the very clock had stopped its ticking so that it, too, could share the silent suffering of the prisoners. Even some of those near death raised themselves on their plank-beds and listened with wonder. And suddenly one of the dying man gathered up all his remaining strength and shouted: "Death to the butchers !"

     That was a cry of a dying man who had been driven to insanity by Suffering, who had' come, as they say, to the end of his rope. Immediately everyone a gain felt himself a prisoner, again the ticking of the clock became noticeable, and again everyone was ready to humbly bear their cross, a cross that was above and beyond their strength. This cry instilled fear in all the occupants of the barrack; everyone knew what awaited them if the one who dared to utter such frightening words was not discovered. But the poor dying man from the former intelligentsia raised himself up once more and added in a voice that had gained some strength: "Fear not, Comrades and' brothers in misfortune! I uttered these words and I will answer for this myself. A curse on ,the, bloody Stalin and his gang!" Two days later the following notice was posted on the bulletin board:

    "For a display of religious feelings and a demonstration of obscurantism in the prison barracks, former nun prisoners [names, articles under which convicted and prison terms]. are to be moved to the camp isolation cell for a period of three months where they must remain in total isolation from other prisoners; they are deprived of the right to correspond with relatives for a period of one year and without fail are to be taken out to work under convoy.

     "Prisoner [name, etc.], for counterrevolutionary cries in Barrack No. 27, as witnessed by all other occupants, also to be moved to an isolation cell; he is not to be taken out to work and his case is to be transferred to Department No. 3."

     A few days later the poor man was dead. His thin body was taken to the mass grave and thrown on top of the other corpses which were dumped there earlier and covered with lime.

     In this way we celebrated Christmas in 1936. 

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