Our time in Ukraine was nearly over, but we had one last invitation to honor before leaving. The Gulacsy’s, Emma and Lajos, had invited us to their home for an informal evening. In my memory, Golacsy was a man in perpetual motion, and I imagine that he only achieved tranquility when he reached heaven at age 92 in 2016. It was interesting to me that while her husband focused on the positive, Emma, though not a pessimist, was acutely conscious of those struggling to stay alive in the post-communist world.
I was reminded of the time we saw an elderly woman standing by the side of the road and holding her apron holding nuts she had just gathered. We were traveling with Eszter Dani, a Reformed pastor with a deeply compassionate heart. Having lived and worked in this part of Ukraine, Eszter was known and trusted. We stopped and she climbed out of the van to greet the woman. After a few minutes, the old one confessed to Eszter that she hoped to die before winter came. Having no one and no means of support, she was terrified of the impending hunger and cold. Eszter gave her a note to bring to the church for help; we left with a haunting memory.
The evening began when Emma welcomed us with an invitation to sit at their table and have a coffee. She sat quietly while Gulacsy jumped in with a story. “When I came to Transcarpathia in 1946, Emma was the cantor in the church because the previous one had fled to Hungary. This is how we met. She made a miracle with her singing; she was a professional. I don’t know how it works in America, but here the women catch the men. I think it’s the same in America.” Then he explained the story of their marriage. In 1949 they heard that unmarried girls would be taken away to work, so on Feb 29 he and Emma quickly went to the mayor’s office to record their marriage to keep her safe. In March Lajos was taken away before they could be married in the church. She waited for him, he said, and then with a smile suggested that we should ask her whether it was worth it.
Because Lajos had not talked much about the psalms during his formal interview, he took this opportunity to tell more. He explained that when he was in the gulag and in trouble, he repeated the psalms in his mind and was thankful that he had been forced to learn them by heart when he was a child. Memory provided their Bibles. Even the communists knew there was power in the psalms and forbade the singing of the ones they considered incendiary. His face was sober when he told us that the women left behind also sang the psalms, especially the grief-filled ones.
It was our cue to turn to Emma. She began by telling a bit more about the time when Lajos was taken. The Communists tried to change her decision to wait for him. They told her that it would be wise to divorce him because it was rumored that wives and families of those already in prison might also be taken away. She did not heed that advice, but was subject to the judgment passed on Lajos. Because the court had power over its victims, everything he had belonged to the state. The house her father had built was appropriated and they lost everything Lajos owned, even his clothing. The authorities took and sold everything. Her father was also taken away to a camp and died there at age 47. Emma and her mother were left behind without any means of support.
But Emma and her mother were resourceful. They had access to a few grapevines and sold some grapes. They even made a little wine that they tried to sell. She didn’t comment on its quality or their sales. Later Emma worked as a bookkeeper in a hospital but always took time to go to church to worship during the week. Another of her stories revealed an adroit strategy for dealing with government restrictions. Official decrees banned church choirs, but the singers were not willing to kill a choir founded in 1707. When they were told that they could not have a choir, the members said, “All right, we don’t have a choir. We just happen to like singing together.”
Emma lived with the assurance that God was her protection - even though she walked in the shadow of death. She explained that the times were awful and their hearts were so heavy during those times that it was almost impossible to sing psalms of praise. It was crushing not to know what had happened to their men. Even though the enduring and grinding poverty created a cloud of sadness that touched Emma’s heart, it did not crush her spirit. “Those who have deep faith can remain hopeful,” she said, “and are not easily frightened or discouraged by small things.” She knew that even if death was facing them, they were in God’s hands.
When we asked whether Lajos thought it might comfort and encourage his fearful congregation to hear his story of life in the camps, he demurred. He said that he talks about the ways that God helped him survive and doesn’t talk about the pain and suffering. He did concede that the last ten years had been difficult and with a grin said, “But we are not starving. Though we are sometimes cold, we survive. From the point of the church and faith, there has never been so good a time in Transcarpathia.” His last pronouncement on the subject was that we should not cry over the things we don’t have, but should be thankful for the things we have.
Listening politely as he spoke, Emma then reiterated her thoughts on suffering. Not timid a bit, she stated quite matter-of-factly that life was still grueling for everyone in Transcarpathia and that nearly everyone she knew had debts they found impossible to repay. She didn’t quite say it, but implied that she understood the difficulty of praise in such a situation and seemed reluctant to demand thankfulness.
Hoping to hear a bit more about camp life, we asked once more how the years in the camp had changed Lajos. Like other times, this question elicited an answer that avoided painful details of those years. He replied that now butter was repulsive to him. When we looked surprised and puzzled, he explained that because he was a hard worker, he had been able to purchase butter, the only food available for purchase. And it was butter that kept him alive. It did not, however, keep him in the bloom of health. He admitted that after his release, when he was walking home from the train station, he was so weak that he could not step over railroad tracks, but had to lift up his legs one at a time to make it over.
The Heart of the Psalms
Emma nodded the truth of that statement and then called us back to the Psalms. We asked her to tell the Psalms most sung by those left behind. She answered by singing these words from Psalm 77.
Hear my cry, O God and save me! Troubles and distress enslave me. Day and night I seek your face, yearning for your light and grace. But these eyes – they cannot see you; outstretched arms – they cannot feel you. My heart breaks in deep despair; my soul longs to hold you here.
We were quiet for a moment and then Emma said that when the congregation sings these words, it brings tears to her eyes. Then, as we were ready to leave, Emma and Lajos sang these words from Psalm 134.
Come all you servants of the Lord, who work and pray by night, by day. Come, bless the Lord within this place; with lifted hands your homage pay.
The Lord now bless from heaven above and shine on you with radiant face; the Lord who heaven and earth has made illumine you with peace and grace.
It was a peaceful end of an unforgettable day.