of the Gulag
A Mass in the camp
The first week, when we were already in the camp out there, I realised that the Soviet nationals received parcels, one parcel every month, and we never got any parcels, no one sent us anything from Hungary, but the others got them. And my Lithuanian and Polish fellow-prisoners who had Soviet nationality, always received a sort of wafer about so big, perhaps a bit bigger, in their parcels. It was a bit green or yellow or pink… and I asked them “What’s that?” “Oh! Back home that’s a folk tradition. It’s an oplatka, a Polish word… it’s a folk custom, a symbol of family unity and love. In front of the Christmas tree, the head of the family gives this wafer to the other members of the family, they each take a piece and keep it. They sent them to the prisoners so they would feel that their families still loved them. I’ll add that you can still get them as Christmas decorations, I got some this year from Poland. On the packaging it said oplatka. So I had the communion host, but not the wine… Listen to this! God sent us an Italian Jesuit, Pater Leone, he now lives in Canada. When I heard that he was a Jesuit, I approached him, not to complain, because, remember, you mustn’t complain, but to tell him, “I have the hosts but no wine, so I can’t celebrate Mass”. To which he replied, “Why not? Didn’t you hear in Hungary about Pius XII’s decree in 1942 authorising in exceptional circumstances the replacement of wine by grape juice?” Good Heavens! My fellow prisoners from the Caucasus, Soviet nationals, Tajiks, Azerbaijainis, Armenians, Georgians, etc. got bunches of grapes in their parcels because for them the grape is the basis of their food and a national symbol: a Caucasian grape is bigger than one of our plums. I crushed them and with the first drops of this grape juice I was able to celebrate Mass. At night, on the upper bunks, face down, unclothed, killing bedbugs… but I could celebrate Mass and in the morning I could give communion to my fellows. And I’ll add that in two separate lagers, Calvinist prisoners said to me, “Sometimes we envy you Papists, because at the end of your confession you hear God’s pardon. We too have repentance liturgies but we can only hope for His pardon”. Well, I gave them absolution and even gave them communion; after all they have the Last Supper, don’t they? But what that meant for us in that hell! I could not express it if I spoke all day. It was such a blessing from God! It was thanks to that we were able to survive. I’ll tell you something else, I had fewer and fewer oplatkas left. I was celebrating Mass with smaller and smaller pieces and there were no more Poles or Lithuanians around me… if my stock of oplatkas ran out, there’d be no more Holy Mass! I didn’t have many Hungarian fellow prisoners with me either, there weren’t a lot of communions to give. But one morning I noticed that one of the other prisoners, a Muscovite, did not take the hunk of bread that came with the cabbage soup; nor the following day. “He’s crazy,” I thought. The day after that he refused too. I could not stand it. I said to him, “Mate, are you trying to kill yourself? The kasha and cabbage soup are not enough for us. Bread means survival!” “No!” he said, “I don’t want to kill myself but I am a practising Jew and for six weeks before Yom Kippur we stop eating ordinary bread. I get unleavened bread from the Jewish community in Moscow and that’s what I eat.” My brain cells started twitching. At the Last Supper, Jesus… Passover celebrates gaining freedom from Egypt. During the Exodus, there was no time for the bread to ferment. So the feast was known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread… it says so in the Bible! If unleavened bread was proper for Our Lord at the Last Supper, I wasn’t go to say no. So I said to him, “Mate, could you write to your community? I need some unleavened bread too.” So I’ll just say one thing: a Hungarian Benedictine teaching monk, a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag, celebrated Mass there with unleavened bread received from the Jewish community in Moscow. I celebrated Mass for six months with the two kilos of unleavened bread I got from Moscow! Could anyone invent that? Only God could invent it and my fellow prisoners realised that and lived that fact right up to the end. So not one of those prisoners came back from the lager an unbeliever… No doubt about it!