I am thankful for the many who helped make the interviews possible, especially Calvin College’s Institute of Christian Worship and the Ars Longa Foundation. Through Ars Longa connections we were able to meet Maria Punyko, an ethnographer whose love for her village of Beregujfalu and its children kept her living and working in Sub-Carpathia Ukraine. She was a writer, a dedicated teacher, a collector of songs and poems, and for many years, the chief editor of a newspaper for children. We had learned that though Maria Punyko was not a believer, she had written a book containing faith testimonies of men who had survived the Soviet gulag.
It was during my initial visit to Ukraine in 1998 that I first heard about gulag workers. A woman wearing widow's black explained that after World War II, Soviet troops occupied Ukraine and enforced the mass conscription of working age males. The men joined other slave laborers in Soviet camps, and like the widow’s husband, many never returned.
From Punyko we learned that most families in her village of 1755 souls lost a family member or friend to the gulag. She became interested in lager (gulag) survivor stories because her father was one of them.
As a child she had witnessed the scars of bitterness and anger her father carried within. She told us what had happened to him. “After three weeks, my father was finished with prison life and decided to escape. After roll call one day he ran away and found a place to sleep in the forest. One morning my father was walking along the road, but when he heard a horse and wagon coming near, he jumped into a ditch near the road and hid under a bridge. When it sounded as if the wagon was past, he poked up his head to take a look. At the very same moment my mother looked directly at him. She and my grandfather were on their way to the prison to visit him. They stopped and my grandfather quickly cut long grass with a scythe and covered my father as he lay flat in the back of the wagon.”
Her father’s prison stay was relatively brief, yet his bitterness far exceeded that of the returnees she had interviewed. As an adult she wondered how the gulag had affected others in her village. By the time that Maria became interested in survivor stories, there were 27 left in her village. She was expecting to discover a well of bitterness in 19 survivors she was able to interview but was totally surprised by what she found.
The first man she interviewed was Balasz Csete (Che te), known as a gulag poet. Recognizing that she needed a bit of tact to reach the poetic treasures she was after, she first asked him to describe his gulag life. As Csete spoke, his demeanor was calm and peaceful. There was no sign of the bitterness that had consumed Maria’s father. She asked whether he was angry with God because of the lost and terrible years. Csete responded that he never doubted God’s goodness and care and had encouraged others to remain faithful. Many, he said, gave up out of despair, but he told them, ‘We suffer now because so far we have had only good times. Now the bad comes, but God will help us return home.’ For those who did not believe, the camps meant the end of everything good and hopeful.
Although Punyko’s front room was not brightly lit, I remember her face when she said, “I was shattered by this deep belief in God and such perseverance. First I thought that Csete’s case was exceptional. However, later I found that out of my 19 interviews, only one seemed to accuse God of abandoning him, but even he did not say it directly; he expressed it only with his facial expressions.” The men she interviewed amazed her. “Reading the letters sent from the camps and the poems given birth there, one is astonished. Hungarian men suffered innocently, but even in their hopeless situation, most steadfastly confessed, ‘God is our refuge and strength.’ It was this faith that gave strength to bear the afflictions, to survive, and to live a life worthy of humans, void of psychological distortions or a thirst for revenge even after the gulag.”
She told us that the unconditional faith of the men she had interviewed was also expressed in a collection of gulag poems. When she read them she was amazed that they did not accuse God, nor did the blame anyone else. These men did not rail against their fate but put their trust in God. As a parting gift, she shared some of the poetry she had collected.
Everything will work for our good
If God is with us
He takes us by the hand
and leads us as long as we live.
Everything will work for our good
Just let us trust in him
What other refuge than Him
could we have?
Sándor Balog Sr.
I pray to you my dear God,
Help me get home from here.
I glorify God,
In all times and all places
Now here below and then above.