Father Jan PRZYBYSZ
"My Holy Mass in Siberia"
The fact that I am alive and able to talk about my experiences is one of the gifts of Divine Mercy that I continually thank the Lord for. Of all these sad and unpleasant experiences the most beautiful that I recall is my first Mass in Siberia.
As a young priest the communists arrested me in 1941. Together with many other captured people from Mariampol we were transported in cattle wagons to a heavy labour camp, close to the Mongolian /Russian border near Lake Baykal.
For what reason? In the Soviet system every foreigner, especially a priest was an enemy. In my specific case the fact that I was a priest, and was unwilling to become a Soviet/Lithuanian citizen and that I had a pre-paid ticket to the U.S.A.
The journey in these cattle trucks packed tight with people utilizing both the upper and lower shelf spaces was nothing short of nightmarish. The hunger and thirst. In the corner of the section there was an opening with a long pipe which was to serve as our toilet, somewhat screened by a tatty old blanket. The smell reminded one of a pigsty. During the journey a close shave! In Mariampol an elderly lady known to me was allowed to approach our wagon and hand me two thermos flasks and a bottle full of what I assumed was red wine. I thought that this good lady had given me this bottle so that I would be able to offer Mass along the route. I had no chance to exchange even a thank you with her before the Soviet guards stepped in. After a week of journeying I felt very hungry and thirsty due to the intense heat. I remembered that I had the bottle of wine. Hidden away from prying eyes, as the dusk was also to my advantage I swallowed a little of the fluid. What's up? I felt a severe burning in my throat and stomach. I thought to myself, what sort of wine is this? I moved closer to the window and read the Lithuanian label: " Flea Poison ". I wondered what to do next? Fr Mazonas MIC was on the lower bunk maybe I should go to confession? At that same moment the train stopped and a number of persons were allowed to get off and bring some water from a nearby lake. I too was able to drink and immediately felt better.
The danger had passed. Only then did I announce that I had some wonderful medicine for fleas, and with a rush everyone smeared themselves to kill the insufferable little beasts.
There was another incident. Our tram was left in a siding at one station. Next to us a train with chemical wagons was disinfected with a sulphurous gas. The guards went off to the station buildings for some food. Our wagon and others were enveloped with the acrid smoke. Panic set in. Everyone was choking. I laid down on the floor to take in some clean air, I struggled for breath. On hearing our cries and banging on the wagon walls the guards ran up and took our wagon away. Russian nurses at the station walked along the train and gave out medicine to the severely ill.
After two weeks of travelling we arrived at our camp, behind barbed wire, assigned to forestry work. There was a tight search of personal belongings. The Cross from my Holy Vows and my rosary were taken and thrown over the fence. After much bartering I managed to keep my stole and cassock. It was here that a pleasant moment arrived as Fr. Mazonasz and I were united with two Marian clerics, Stanislaw Bogucki and Boleslaw Jakimowicz.
Together we found an appropriate barrack to stay in. These two had been arrested a few days before us in Kownie and had been shipped out earlier. It is suffice to stay that we lived a life of hunger, cold, illness and heavy manual labour in the forest. Dysentery took its toll in lives. There was a lack of religious comfort. We had to pray covertly as we were not allowed to gather in groups to pray. We were left with our own quiet personal prayers to the Lord.
Armed guards in four towers looked down upon us to ensure that we were safe from the dangers of group meetings. Even so at times I was able to sit on a mound of earth next to the barrack and listen to confession pretending to be in conversation. Needless to say Holy Communion was only taken in spiritual form, as we had neither the wine nor wheat bread. Confessions/conversations could only take place after a full day's work in the fields. Once with the help of a fellow labourer and doctor I feigned illness to enable me to enter the hospital and give spiritual aid to the dying, at least a last confession and some spiritual help. This was fairly swift.
The camp Commandant decided that all the doctors were to be assigned to heavy labour in the forest as they were allowing too many people sick leave. The reality was that the inmates were all weak and sick. Most were unable to see due to swelling around the eyes caused by local mosquitoes. These little creatures were able to crawl through even the tinniest of openings in our nets. Their bites caused the whole face to swell. They became the second plague in the summer months next to dysentery.
One day we heard of the death in hospital of a famous Lithuanian teacher. We held a procession from the hospital to the grave, about 100m across the camp. An elderly Lithuanian priest led the procession. Even though we walked in silence and reflection, the camp commandant was unhappy. He began to round up the "guilty" . He sent many to solitary confinement with a piece of bread and water for days on end. The elderly priest who until then used to pump the water at the well, was now sent to heavy labour in the forest. From then on the burials of our dead were held in an inhuman way. The dead were thrown into a box coffin and taken beyond the perimeter fence. They were thrown into a deep hole and the coffin used for the next body. Nowadays we bury our dogs better!
Our one joy was to hold our prayers after lights out, in our own clothes and covered in our own coats. We lay down to sleep like sardines in a can. To turn over onto the other side was a severe problem! Usually this was only possible in unison. We got up at four in the morning. Breakfast consisted of "Kipiato" hot water, lightly prepared millet and a portion of bread for the whole day. Because of this it was necessary to split this portion into two so as to have a meal later in the forest. The return from the forest was in two's under armed guard. There were occasions when some prisoners collapsed from weakness. If the second was too weak to help then the prisoner was shot, as the column had to keep moving. As an irony of fate on passing through the camp gates we were forced to sing along to an orchestrated recording " There is no such paradise as a Soviet internment camp" in Russian of course. Supper - Standing by the kitchen window we received the same millet gruel, sometimes a little thicker and the head of a mackerel (who ate the rest is a mystery) and whatever remained of the morning's bread ration.
Later came the news of our freedom. Our faith and prayers were rewarded in God's Divine Mercy. In August 1941 about the time of Our Lady's Assumption an agreement was signed between the Polish Government in exile in London and the Soviet Government. Under pressure from the western allies: England and America, Stalin agreed to release all Polish political prisoners and inmates from the heavy labour camps. These people were to form the new Polish Army to fight against Hitler's forces now nearing Moscow.
Thus on the 29th August 1941 I was released from the labour camp. Instinctively we all moved south away from the cold Siberian frost. We were now able to move freely for we were now free Polish citizens. In the course of one day we had ceased being an enemy and were now apparently allied friends. Before arriving at the Polish Armies recreational centre I managed to join a group of Poles in a state run farm at Uzun-Arik in Uzbekistan, near the Afghan border.
I began a new life in limited freedom, as I was continuously watched by communist agencies, even though I was among Uzbeks. We had to find some sort of work to earn enough for our daily bread. The state farm was run by the communists and we found much varied work. Some worked on the farmland whilst others, myself included worked as carpenters or their helpers. We earned three pounds of wheat daily. Our group numbered 40 in all, including a doctor, lawyer, a family with two young daughters, two young Marian clerics and I the lone priest. We lived in mud huts among the Uzbek Kazaks. Our main sustenance was flour with which we were paid and very occasionally the odd thrown in potato. In spring we would search for remaining potatoes left after the autumnal crop. These made a tasty addition to our wheat soup.
Prior to Christmas 1941 I decided to try and find a way to hold Holy Mass for our group of Poles in the farm. I had no wine, no suitable bread, no chalice, no alb or table that could act as an altar suitable to celebrate the Holy Mass. In eastern Uzbek culture there are no tables. They eat on the ground on clay floors. I mentioned my problem to Fr. Neighmow. This honourable priest answered my problems with his reply: " Father I still have some hosts sent to me by friends from Odessa. I have wine from dried raisins. As to an altar, I can give you the door from a pigsty as long as you can carry it! I required nothing more. I was very happy, but how to solve the lack of a missal? I took out my notebook and copied the text referring to the Holy Trinity from his missal. Thus I had a notebook with the Holy Liturgy.
At dawn after saying goodbye to the pleasant elderly priest I set out on my return journey. Walking down the streets with the heavy door on my back I noticed a beautiful crystal chalice on display in a window. The shop was open and on walking in I found the price was right - I bought the chalice. To the local people the chalice was an item of decoration but to me it was a priceless treasure that was to carry the blood of Christ. The ten mile mud splattered and slush covered route was very difficult to say the least. Not one person along the way asked me why I was carrying a large wooden door on my back. I couldn't help but think that some poor carpenter needs a door to his pigsty so he can lock his piglets up for the night! After many hours I finally reached the commune farm. I couldn't help but think of Our Lord's way of the cross up to Cavalry.
Well now I had the top to my altar but where were the legs to come from? As fate would have it (with God there are no accidents) I was a carpenters mate and in my spare time searched the local woods and found the materials to make up some legs. Now I had the table came the next problem - The Church. Where would I find the chapel or at least a reasonable room to hold the most Holy offering of Mass? Everything needed to be prepared in secret as in the commune we had many Kazak Muslims with communist connections who would not hesitate to inform the NKVD secret police. Fortunately a number of our group lived in a mud hut on the outskirts of the village away from prying eyes.
Christmas Eve 1941 approached. Our clay hut was prepared for its role as a chapel and as the Bethlehem stable for the child Jesus, Redeemer of the world. The straw and hay on which seven of us normally slept was reserved for our primitively built altar, those four legs and their door. The altar was covered with a white bed sheet and two candelabra placed on top. Midnight approached. In the beautiful somewhat frosty moonlight one could make out 40 people making their way along the crispy snow towards our clay clad chapel on the outskirts of the commune farm. In silence and contemplation they approached, the men, two women and the two children dressed as if for a christening. They had all been informed earlier about our evening ceremony. They gave the impression of approaching shepherds - like those on that similar eve all those years ago in Bethlehem who also travelled to participate in the ceremony of Christ's birth. The remaining inhabitants of the village were in deep sleep and had no idea of the wonderful event taking place on Christ's birthday, this Holy Mass in Uzbekistan, Russia.
Silence enveloped us like that night almost two thousand years ago. The angels were singing "Gloria in Excelsis" even though their voices didn't quite reach us. Only the sound of a distant barking dog hinted that something unusual was taking place that night in that village. Many took advantage of the sacrament of penance prior to the service so as to be worthy of receiving Christ into their hearts so many miles from their usual Church back in their homeland and under such strange circumstances. I prepared myself to celebrate my first Eucharist on Siberian soil since my arrest. My liturgical robes consisted of a cassock and a stole, which I had managed to keep hold of despite many searches. Stranger still was the fact that I had the help of two Marian clerics; Stanislaw Bogucki and Boleslaw Jakimowicz, also prisoners in exile and members of the Congregation of Marian Fathers.
Looking around at the faithful in their tatty work clothes gathered there in that makeshift chapel with the straw and hay pushed to one side it was not difficult to imagine them as the first shepherds coming to adore the Birth of Christ. We could visualise the Holy Mother and St Joseph by the makeshift altar. We lacked only some cattle and a donkey.
I approached the altar and began this long awaited ceremony. All our fellow countrymen were plunged into deep prayer and concentration. No words could describe the feelings and impressions felt in this historical moment where on Russian soil among godless atheists we held our Midnight Mass. On prompting " Gloria in Excelsis Deo" the small group exploded into " Praise God in the highest, and on earth peace to all men of good will."
After reading the Gospel, in this unusual setting and with this unusual gathering I began my sermon some of which I can still recall: Although we are far from our homeland, from our dear families, even though we have suffered much in prison and in the forced labour camps, today thanks to God we can feel happy that we are able to celebrate this Midnight Mass together remembering the birth of Jesus Christ our Saviour. The fact that we have been released so quickly from these camps, that we are now free, albeit so far from our homeland is due to God's Divine Mercy and the care of the Holy Virgin. Today we are able to learn from the Child Jesus' example who together with his mother teaches us how to cope with poverty, jail, deportation from one's homeland, persecution by today's "Herod", the enemy of God and Man.
After these few words I felt my throat tighten, the words dried up, tears welled up in my eyes and the sight of so many crying around this simple altar prevented me from going on further. This had been both for myself and the gathered group the happiest Midnight Mass we had participated in. During the Consecration, and lifting of the most blessed body and chalice the moment was announced by the striking of a metal mug with a spoon. Jesus was born and came onto this simple altar in this poor converted chapel to bring the graces and strengths needed to carry the sufferings and adversities of these Polish exiles. I had never even dreamed that I would be saying a mass so far from my homeland, in Uzbekistan, a country ruled by Godless communists, in a country where churches were burned or turned into coal or ammunition bunkers, where priests and nuns are persecuted and tortured and locked up in prisons and labour camps. Where there is a lack of respect and reverence to God then we find hate for your fellow brother, and most specifically those who profess their faith. Without God there is no real freedom.
During the service we sang traditional Polish carols whilst from the village we heard only the crow of the cockerel. During the festive meal we usually broke special bread amongst ourselves but from where were we to get some? One of our groups worked in Kuznia as a blacksmith and on my suggestion made an appropriate metal mold where we could bake our small pieces of host shaped bread. These were from then on used for consecration during mass, made from our hard earned wheat flour working in the commune. From that memorable Holy Mass, the Eucharist was celebrated every Sunday morning prior to work, as we worked seven days a week with only Christmas Day off. Even the Godless communists regarded that day as a specially important day!
Not all the committee members in the commune were hardened communists and a number were quite humane. In the afternoon of Christmas Day we decided to visit our "Congregations" huts to sing a few carols and bring some Christmas cheer. We invited a representative of the communes council to join us and were surprised when not only did he come but also encouraged us to sing commenting on the beauty of the carols. Needless to say he did not understand the words, but from that moment on he was much more civil to us.
This particularly happy time when we were able to hold Mass and partake in Communion lasted only two months. At the end of February 1942 we were called to join up with the Polish army on Russian soil in agreement with the Stalin/Gen. Sikorski pact.
Presently I am in Fawley Court from where I travel regularly to the Polish Parish in Lampeter, Wales.
Fr. John Przybysz MIC