European Memories

of the Gulag

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Placid  KAROLY OLOFSSON

Father Placid Károly Olofsson was born in Rákosszentmihály, Hungary, in December 1916 to a father who taught at secondary school and painted in his spare time and a mother of German origin. He grew up in an intellectual, very Christian environment and in 1933, after Benedictine secondary school, he studied theology and German language and civilisation. He gained a doctorate and was ordained a priest.
During the war, he was a padre in a military hospital, then taught in a Catholic secondary school in the provinces and then in Budapest. In January 1946, the Hungarian political police arrested him. He was sentenced to 10 years’ forced labour because his participation during the free elections in 1945 in the electoral campaign for the Smallholders Party was considered an offence. He was first held in a Budapest prison guarded by Soviet soldiers. As he worked cleaning the corridors, he administered Extreme Unction to those condemned to death by singing it in Hungarian so the guards could not understand. Throughout his imprisonment he set himself the task of “awakening the minds” of his fellow prisoners, comforting them, so that they might “feel the presence of God” and feel human. In his view, it was not the Red Army that sent him to the Gulag but the will of God to submit him to that trial. “God has a great deal of humour and a sense of irony”, he said later. During all the years in the Gulag, using every trick in the book, he always did his “duty”: celebrating Mass at night in the huts with grape juice and unleavened bread, and running “competitions for treats” so that “his companions could escape their surroundings”. He worked sawing timber and then in the furniture workshop. One day, he became the camp painter and did portraits of guards and common law prisoners. He was released in 1955 and returned to Budapest, where he was not allowed to practise as a priest. He found work at a locksmith’s, where he lost a finger. After being accused of sabotage, he ended up as a labourer in a hospital laundry, finally becoming its director, while still leading underground prayer groups. After his retirement in 1977, he gradually took up with the Church again and now practices still as a priest.
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Extreme Unction

It was the sixth or eighth day, I was sweeping. I knew that at the end of one of the corridors there were six cells for those condemned to death. At that point, there were 32 condemned waiting there for their execution. Once again, the Holy Spirit and God gave me a wink; they inspired me to sing in Hungarian these words, “There’s a Catholic priest sweeping up here. If anyone wants to make his Holy Confession, let him repent of his sins and I’ll give him absolution from here”. You’ve surely heard that this is the sort of thing that Catholics do. Well… in those days, absolution was still given in Latin, “ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis”: I absolve thee of thy sins. To go with it, I took a Hungarian folk song. These days, no one knows it any more, but back then it was well known, even the Roma played it: “I’ve no clay-tiled home, no cloth coat, no sheepskin” – “ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis” and so I sang the absolution. That’s when I realised that it wasn’t the military court that had sentenced me under Paragraph 58.2.8.11, no! It was God who had sent me there… because I am a shepherd of souls, but I couldn’t say that. I should have said “I am a specialised worker, trade: souls…”, anyway. My duty would be to comfort my fellow prisoners. Because, after all, that was easier for me: I had a spiritual training and no wife or children. But these young men had had to leave their young wives and little children behind. And the Soviet Union had succeeded, expertly, in giving us the feeling that our lives hung only by a thread. We never knew when they would shoot us in the back of the neck. You know… it’s no so simple, and I had a task and… I’m not puffing myself up! But, really, it was God’s intention. The proof is that that I didn’t get out in 1953 but only in 1955… I was the last.

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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!

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The Soviet economy

Once I asked the supplies officer, “Bring me an egg in your pocket. I haven’t eaten one for eight years.” He said, “Where do you expect me to find one for you? We have no poultry at home.” The Soviet economy was stupid! In the centuries-old birch forests the soil was so rich that poultry could have fed on the vegetation alone. Yes. But the requisition quota was 57 eggs per hen. It was so much extra that they preferred to stop keeping poultry. I’m ignorant about these things because I come from Budapest, but in our camp, on top of the 1,400 prisoners there were at least 1,000 other people, guards, staff and families. It was a whole village. There were only six pigs. Those of us who came from the countryside were amazed, “How do the manage to have only six pigs?” Six hundred pigs makes a good village. Sixty pigs makes a poor village. But six pigs… Here again, the requisition quota was such that they simply did not want to be accused of not fulfilling the norm: so they did nothing… an unspeakable stupidity… The Soviet Union, the richest country in the world! But the stupidity of the system was even greater…

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The first rule for survival

The first rule for survival… You must not dramatise your suffering because that weakens you. To stand up to suffering we need all our energy. In practice, we managed this by not letting any of the others complain. When someone moaned or expressed dissatisfaction or sadness, “Tell us about your job!” Everyone can talk about their job. During those ten years I learnt about so many jobs… turkey farming, bee keeping, mining, bookbinding and the like. We did not let anyone complain. In practice, we tried to arrange things by games… Another thing, in 1953, one of my fellow prisoners was the Director General of the Moscow Statistical Office. I learnt from him that there are three sorts of Soviet citizens: those who have been in prison, those who are in prison, and those who will be in prison. It was the head of the Moscow Statistical Office who told me that. We interpreted it this way, “Good Lord! Out of three and a half million prisoners, there will be hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands who will survive. I’m no worse than them; I’ll survive too.” So that will to survive, we passed it on to each other. We took care of each other. That meant a lot.

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The second rule for survival

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The third rule for survival

The third rule is harder to explain because it concerns the political prisoners. Political prisoners suffer from a professional disease: they always think they’re innocent. I had fellow prisoners, killers from the Arrow Cross Party [Hungarian fascist movement] who worshipped Szálasi [their leader], who massacred Jews, but they did it out of fanaticism and they considered themselves innocent. So the expression, “Me, an innocent man, who those armed bastards want to destroy” made no sense out there. There were four watchtowers with machine guns pointing inwards, we were 2,500 kilometres from our homeland. We couldn’t escape anywhere. We had to forget the division between the innocent and the bastards. And move on; it wasn’t easy. But in ten years, we had the time. Whether we were small and weak or big and strong. When the military court in Budapest sentenced us, we were nobodies, we were the vanquished and they were the victors. I’m not saying that the criterion of truth is the machine gun, but they were the victors and they crushed us. And I said to my fellow, “You guys. All that is settled… If I’m on a path in the forest, I don’t look under my boots to see if I’ve crushed an ant. Why would I? It’s so small. But I don’t agree with being an ant opposite these armed soldiers, so in these circumstances and this situation I must show that I am better, have more value and am nobler than them. That is what mobilises the necessary energy to survive, these small pleasures. So it was terribly important.

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Last day’s work in the camp

I had to sign a paper. It was our repatriation. We hadn’t heard this word before. It wasn’t a rehabilitation or an amnesty, but a repatriation, they were letting us go home. I must admit, we did not jump for joy, because we knew that when the Soviet Union promised something, nothing would happen. But we had to sign – and while we were signing, 88 people can’t sign a paper in one minute, it took quite a time – the door opened and the director of the furniture workshop came in. A very important man. He shouted, he swore, he screamed that they wanted to ruin him because, he said, if these 70 men didn’t come to work tomorrow – we’d been told that we wouldn’t have to go to work the next day – then he wouldn’t be able to fulfil the third quarter plan and the quarterly bonus would be lost and if that was lost there would be no end of year bonus. I don’t know if you realise, but under the Communist regime, in our country too, fulfilling and even exceeding the plan was their God. Out there, we understood that. We looked at each other. I was one of the delegation of three who went up to this influential man, “We understand your distress. They want to ruin you. But listen, we, the Hungarian prisoners, we will guarantee your bonus. We volunteer for the six days so you get it.” He couldn’t believe his ears. In the forty years of the history of the Soviet Union, nothing like it had ever happened. You can imagine, good lord, we were going to show who we were! They had beaten us about, but self-confidence, that sort of thing, was very important. In fact, honestly, after ten years’ forced labour, six days was not so great a sacrifice. But for our self-confidence, our self-esteem, it meant an enormous lot. In short, don’t complain, notice and be aware of small pleasures, don’t say from the outset “I’m better” but show in due course that you’re different. You realise that, don’t you? That is the energy to survive.

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Free!!

We said goodbye to the policemen. They took us to the station. We showed our papers at the window to be stamped. And that is where we asked ourselves, “How are we going to live like that? With no guard-dogs or armed soldiers next to us?” You know, in ten years, you get used to that other sort of life. We felt naked. So the six of us said among ourselves, “Let’s speak Russian, because on the train, people will ask us questions.” We were dressed like Russian prisoners. But then, when we got to Debrecen, it was dark, 25 November, when it’s dark at three or four o’clock. So we said, “We’ll speak Hungarian now, because if someone punches us in the face in the dark, it’ll be because they think we’re Russians.”