I Found God in Soviet Russia
Chapter 12:A Miracle
By John Noble
For background information go to the Introduction
“V kovo ti verisch?”
Several Ukrainians who shared the bunks at my end of the barracks clustered around and asked me this question. I had no idea what they were saying, for I knew neither Ukrainian nor Russian. One of them then took a scrap of paper and drew two symbols on it, a cross and a Buddha. I pointed to the cross and they murmured and nodded, obviously pleased, and one of the men made the sign of the Cross. This was my first communication with my fellow prisoners, and their very first question had brought us the common bond that transcends race or nationality, the Cross of Christ.
Alone as I was there in Vorkuta [the arctic slave camp described by Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago], utterly forlorn, I had been kneeling beside my space on the bunk shelf each night to offer up a prayer to God. The other men, observing this, had wanted to know to Whom I prayed. Now they knew that it was to the same One in Whom they believed.
The words of our Lord (Matt. 19-20), “Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” came to have a new meaning to me here in Vorkuta as I realized deeply the need for a church, for some visible unit of belief and fellowship no matter how small....
It was the practice of the MVD to break up ethnic and national groups among the incoming prisoners; that was why I had been billeted with a number of Ukrainians and Lithuanians. From the first, I was impressed by their spirit of friendliness and helpfulness toward a newcomer. They did their best to explain things to me by sign language.
The first man with whom I was really able to talk was an outstanding rabbi, one of the many clergymen. Rabbi Simon Dickmann’s name I want to record for all because it is high time the Soviet authorities be forced to admit that they have been holding him prisoner since his “disappearance” in Moscow more than a decade ago. After enduring terrible persecution at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, the rabbi managed to make his escape to Palestine, There, because of his knowledge of Polish and Russian, a Jewish relief agency sent him to Moscow to help the Jewish refugees who had fled eastward from Nazism, and to guide them on their way to their new homeland, Israel.
A few months after Rabbi Dickrnann’s arrival in Moscow, the Soviet government embarked on a ruthless persecution of its Jewish minority.... This persecution was apparently based on the conviction that anyone who wanted to leave the "workers' paradise"... must be a capitalist sympathizer or a subversive agent. Rabbi Dickmann, as well as many of those who had worked with him to bring relief to the homeless refugees, suddenly “disappeared” one day and found himself on the way to the mines with a long sentence at hard labor. The fact that the rabbi was not a citizen of Russia made no difference, any more than did the fact that I was a citizen of the United States.
Rabbi Dickrnann heard that there was an American among the group of prisoners that had just arrived, and as soon as I had had a chance to wash up (in cold water as usual and out of a rusty pan with a cake of so-called “mud soap”), he came over to greet me. He spoke a few words of English but we soon found that we could converse more fluently in German. He asked me my religious faith and was soon asking me all that I knew about religious life in America. I told him of my personal experience with prayer during the years of my imprisonment in the Soviet Zone of Germany and he nodded his understanding....
Because of his administrative ability, Rabbi Dickmann had been given the task of parceling out work in Camp Department 3, to which I was sent. Observing that I was in poor physical condition from my long ordeal in the Stolopinski, he placed me on Team 139 at Mine i6. This was a surface team, which meant that I would escape, at least for the time being, having to go down into the damp, dark mine shafts.
It was our job, when coal and shale came up from the mine, to push the cars off the elevator and take them out and dump them. These little cars were loaded with about two tons of rock, and two of us had to push a car by hand for half a mile down a narrow track over which a crude wooden frame had been built as protection from the weather. At the end of the run, we pushed the car up a ramp and, with a back-wrenching shove, dumped its load into another car waiting below. This second car was then lowered down an incline by cable into a deep depression in the tundra where the shale, which had very low fuel value, was gradually burned, casting a dismal pall of smoke over the frozen moors.
Snow drifted in through the roof over our track and the wheels often froze, derailing the cars. It was slow, tortuous work in the bitter cold of the Arctic winter.... But the Russian mine superintendents were not disturbed by questions of efficiency. The MVD was always ready to supply a fresh requisition of political prisoners for slave labor in the mines....
Death was our constant companion. Many of the prisoners were middle-aged men, some of whom, former college professors, doctors, lawyers, clergymen, had never done hard manual labor before in their lives. Heart attacks and exhaustion took a dreadful toll among them. Those who died suddenly, dropping in their tracks while at work, were considered fortunate. Others... contracted tuberculosis and we would listen at night to their wracking spells of coughing....
One night I was awakened by a loud cry. “Russkiye cherti!” a prisoner shouted (which means “Russian devils!”). He was a strapping Kalmuk, a member of a proud people of Soviet Asia. He was going to take the hard way out. There was only one way to escape the slavery of the mines and that was to become so crippled or ill that the camp authorities could get no more work out of you. ... Slowly, deliberately he placed his right hand on a stool, palm down. Then, with his left hand, he swung a hatchet down with all his force striking the hand just above the knuckles and severing all four fingers. As the blood spurted out, he wrapped two filthy rags over the purpling stumps and, laughing with sick pride at what he had had the courage to do, lie crawled back into his place on the bunk shelf....
In a little while, the guards came by and took the delirious Kalmuk to the camp infirmary where the stumps were trimmed and sewed up, without benefit of anesthetic and threw him in the dungeon for sixty days for “sabotage.”
Meanwhile, as I fell into fitful sleep, the words of our Lord echoed through my mind (Matt. 5:30), “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell." Was my hand, too, offending me by doing the Communists’ work?
One day, I found a prisoner who could teach me Russian. A former student at the University of Moscow, this young man had been arrested and condemned to Vorkuta for alleged failure to follow the party line. He had a book knowledge of German and could speak a little English, and soon we could converse easily. Under his tutelage, I rapidly acquired a working knowledge of Russian with its difficult vocabulary and idioms.
Once the language barrier was overcome, I started to make friends around the camp. My fellow prisoners were eager to question me about America. Although the radio, kept permanently tuned to the Moscow station, nightly blared forth its propaganda over the loudspeaker in our barracks, the prisoners did not believe all the lies Moscow broadcast....
There were prisoners among us from Brazil, Mexico, Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Iran, Mongolia, China, and many other countries. I also heard about other American prisoners... although it was not until later that I met other Americans at Vorkuta.
When the conversations turned to religion, as they soon did, I heard of an extraordinary happening, a miracle, which had just occurred in Vorkuta. God indeed was there with us! And the eagerness with which the men told me this story left no doubt as to the fact that the Iron Curtain could not keep God out of a country or out of the minds and hearts of its people.
It was in November of that year, 1950, just after our own arrival, that three nuns [Russian Orthodox or Catholic] reached the camp under sentences of hard labor. The many thousand women prisoners at Vorkuta did not work in the mines but performed other rugged work, and the nuns were assigned to a plant which made bricks for construction work throughout the whole Arctic area of Russia....
At Vorkuta these women were referred to as veroiuschic or believers, the term applied to the Christians in Russia who still carry on personal devotions in secret, not unlike the Christians who met underground in the catacombs and defied the persecutions of Nero.
When the nuns were first taken to the brick factory, they told the foreman that they regarded doing any work for the communist regime as working for the Devil and, since they were the servants of God and not of Satan, they [refused] to bow to the orders.... Stripped of their religious garb, the nuns’ faith was their armor....
They were put on punishment rations, consisting of black bread and rancid soup, day after day. But each morning when they were ordered to go out to the brick factory, into the clay pits, or to any other back-breaking assignment, they refused.... Angered by their obstinacy and fearing the effect upon the other slave laborers, the commandant ordered that they be placed in strait jackets. Their hands were tied in back of them and then the rope with which their wrists were bound was passed down around their ankles and drawn up tight. In this manner, their feet were pulled up behind them and their shoulders wrenched backward and downward into a position of excruciating pain.
The nuns writhed in agony but not a sound of protest escaped them.... Their bonds were then loosed and they were revived; in due course, they were trussed up again, and once more the blessed relief of unconsciousness swept over. They were kept in this state for more than two hours, but the guards did not dare let the torture go on any longer, for their circulation was being cut off and the women were near death.
The Communist regime wanted slaves, not skeletons. They did not transport people all the way to Vorkuta in order to kill them. The Soviet government wanted coal mined. Slave laborers were expendable, of course, but only after years of labor had been dragged out of them. Thus the comandant’s aim was to torture these nuns until they would agree to work.
Finally, however, the commandant decided that ... the nuns were either going to work or he was going to have to kill them in the attempt. He directed that they again be assigned to the outdoor work detail and, if they still refused, that they be taken up to a hummock in the bitter wind of the early Arctic winter, and left to stand there immobile all day long to watch the other women work. ... When the pale light of the short Arctic day at last dawned, they were seen kneeling there and the guards went over expecting to find them freezing, but they seemed relaxed and warm.
At this, the commandant ordered that their gloves and caps be removed so that they would be exposed to the full fury of the wind. All through the eight-hour working day they knelt on that windy hilltop in prayer. Below them, the women who were chipping mud for the brick ovens were suffering intensely from the cold. Many complained that their feet were freezing despite the supposedly warm boots they wore. When in the evening other guards went to the hill to get the nuns and take them back to the barracks, they expected to find them with frostbitten ears, hands and limbs. But they did not appear to have suffered any injury at all.
Again the next day they knelt for eight hours in the wind, wearing neither hats nor gloves in temperatures far below zero. That night they still had not suffered any serious frostbite and were still resolute in their refusal to work. Yet a third day they were taken out and this time their scarves too were taken away from them.
By this time, news of what was happening had spread throughout all the camps in the Vorkiita region. When at the end of the third day, a day far colder than any we had yet experienced that winter season, the bareheaded nuns were brought in still without the slightest trace of frostbite, everyone murmured that indeed God had brought a miracle to pass. There was no other topic of conversation in the whole of Vorkuta. Even hardened MVD men from other compounds found excuses to come by the brick factory and take a furtive look at the three figures on tile hill....
By the fourth day, the guards themselves were afraid of the unearthly power which these women seemed to possess, and they flatly refused to touch them or have anything more to do with them. The commandant himself was afraid to go and order them out into the hill. And so they were not disturbed in their prayers, and were taken off punishment rations. When I left Vorkuta four years later, those nuns were still at the brick factory compound and none of them had done a day’s work productive for the
communist regime. They were regarded with awe and respect. The guards were under instructions not to touch them or disturb them.... No one in the Soviet Union had such freedom of worship as they.
What their example did to instill religious faith in thousands of prisoners and guards there at Vorkuta, I cannot begin to describe. Later on, when I had the opportunity as a locker-room attendant for the MVD men to talk with some of the more hardened Russian Communists about religion, not one failed to mention the Miracle of the Nuns. With a puzzled expression, each would ask my opinion of it. How could such a thing happen, they would say. How could God have saved these women from freezing....
I told them how I was saved from starvation and said that evidently the nuns had found the same strength through prayer. They were visibly moved by this additional demonstration of the fact that God’s power exists.
The rationalist looks in vain for an explanation of such an event. God showed His hand in a miracle on that hill in the Arctic wastes of Russia and by that miracle brought faith to Vorkuta. Thousands of prisoners were buoyed up in their resistance to Communism. Many Communists themselves were touched and an unadmitted hunger in their hearts for religious faith was thereby brought to light.
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?" 2 Corinthians 2:14-16
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
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