An Unexpected Day
Updated: Sep 26, 2020
One evening we learned that we had been invited to join a gathering of Reformed pastors for coffee the next day. So the next morning, after a quick breakfast, we set out for the Balazser Retreat Center roughly a half hour away. I can say that the rash of potholes didn’t shock me much because I had survived Michigan’s winter-scarred roads.
The pastors did their best to make us welcome, and we did our best to navigate conversations helped by occasional translations, but it was a bit of a relief when Pastor Lajos Horkay indicated that he had a few minutes to talk with us before coffee time was over. We set up outside in a bright spot. A musician himself, Horkay told us a bit of the history of Psalm singing. He confirmed the explanation we had heard that unskilled organists may have contributed to the slow rhythm-less singing we had heard in many small congregations.
It wasn’t long before he had to return to his meeting, but Pastor Horkay mentioned that it might be worthwhile for us to visit Gustav Fodor, a pastor and researcher. He hurried back to his meeting, and we spent an hour listening to a dozen teenaged women sing Genevan Psalms for us. They had been Eszter’s confirmation students, and part of their preparation was to learn some Psalms. We were amazed as they sang not one or two but eight Psalm settings all by heart. And then we all set off back to Munkacs, and Eszter agreed to arrange a meeting with Gustav Fodor for that evening.
Stories From Gustav Fodor
We were relieved when Eszter Dani agreed to accompany us and translate our upcoming conversation with Gustav Fodor. At that time Fodor was serving as a Reformed pastor and he was the Director of Dorcas Aid. In addition, he was a PhD candidate researching the stories of Reformed pastors who were imprisoned and exiled during the communist era. He was generous with his time and willingly agreed to share resources as well as his own research. He began.
“I am writing about Reformed pastors and their families who suffered during this time. Some were arrested already in 1945. Some died in Siberia, but most of them came home. As I read about the time in Siberia, I thought that I am very small in relation to the size of this enormous story. The suffering of the pastors and the hatred which surrounded them is much bigger than we think. And it moved me deeply when I read that they were separated from their families for many years.
It is great that these pastors went to the camps as believers and kept their faith – and came home and kept their faith. The camps and gulags didn’t change them, and they came out stronger than before. There were two ways the prisoners were controlled, official and unofficial. State apparatchiks and guards were the official bosses, but within the camps themselves, there were mafia-type groups that battled for control. These inmate bullies killed for the smallest and most insignificant reason. If, for example, they found cigarettes they wanted, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill for them. Most prisoners were forced to choose between these groups for protection.
But the pastors that I have interviewed – none of them belonged to any of the gangs. They simply gave their testimony that they did not trust in humans, but in God. People knew that they were believers and said that they were mad. But pastors were also respected and people feared to hurt or harm them. Genuine ecumenism also flourished in the camps. Many pastors said that before prison they didn’t have any connection with, for example, Roman Catholics, but through the common suffering they grew together in such a way that they all worshiped together and celebrated communion together.
It’s also interesting how they got Bibles. Often the wives of the pastors sent precious pages of the Bible to them. More durable was the Bible in their hearts. They told how they had memorized many parts of the Bible. What they had learned by heart, was something that could not be taken from them. Sometimes the pages were taken to be used for cigarette papers. So if the paper pages were vulnerable, it was impossible to lose the words in their hearts.
It was an evil plan that descended on Transcarpathia. When the Russians came in 1944, they took some months to just watch the people to learn the names and habits of pastors and religious leaders. Then when they knew enough, they set out to destroy the opposition. First they removed about 40,000 men by calling them to work for a few days – that stretched into years. When most of the men were gone, the KGB then attempted to remove the intellectuals, and pastors were chief targets. Between 1945 –1950 many spies were also recruited in every church, village, and community. People spied on each other everywhere. It was an atmosphere where you could not trust anyone. Pastors had to be careful with all their work because if they said just the wrong word, they could be taken away the next day.”
Eszter said that even in 1986 when she first came to Transcarpathia and had conversations with Rev. Gulacsy, they closed the windows, afraid to speak in front of an open window. Fodor then began to tell us what he had learned about the arrests and interrogations.
“When pastors were arrested, they were taken to the Ungvar prison and were interrogated for five to six months. Often they were beaten. Many who returned were reluctant to talk about the bad things that happened to them. Though Gulacsy and Horkay weren’t beaten, two other pastors were beaten so badly that they died on the train before they arrived at the gulag. Sometimes the prisoners were struck with bottles filled with water – on their backs, their kidneys. Their hands were tied and they were kicked and beaten. If they refused to sign a twisted and distorted confession, their hands were forced into an iron glove and the interrogators pushed needles under their fingernails.”
Who Were the Victims?
“There was a KGB woman in Ungvar whose task it was to kill prisoners who withstood interrogation. She was awful. Gulacsy told the story that later on that this woman went mad and wandered through the cemetery kissing the gravestones of those people that she had killed. It has been said that women were the worst torturers. But who were the real victims? It wasn’t the pastors who kept their faith and humanity even during the hardest times. The real victims were the spies and those who tortured. They are the ones who lost their souls.
This evil persecution of pastors was perpetuated by the Reformed bishop too. His name was Bela Gencsi. He was the pastor in Szurta, the place where I am the pastor now. During the communist time he was the bishop of the church – put in power by the communists, not by the church. His signature was on all the pastors’ deportation orders; he pointed them out to the authorities. Above his bed was a picture of Lenin. In a letter he once said that while the renewal pastors are alive, communism would not succeed in this Transcarpathian region. In other words, he was saying that these pastors should be killed. So this very dark time showed both the depth of human experience and the height. But the suffering revealed who were the real Christians.”
He ended with words of hope. “From this faithful church,” Fodor said, “Must flow springs of hope giving life to the community.” He noted works in progress: the establishment of youth centers, the restoration of the Christian high schools, and the growing Roma ministries. Though Fodor ended on a positive note, hearing his stories had created a quiet mood and we didn’t say much as in the gathering shadows of evening we made our way back to our lodging in Munkacs.