Snapshots of History
Established in 1992, the Ars Longa Foundation was concerned with reaching the young with a vision for
the future shaped by a Reformed perspective. They supported efforts to re-establish the Reformed high
schools that had been shuttered during the communist period.
I think that the Ars Longa Foundation had more than one purpose in mind when they organized the
weekend conference. Though they hoped to broaden the educational horizons of the teachers, they also
wanted, I’m quite sure, to broaden ours as well. Some of the encounters were planned and some were serendipitous.
One grey, cloudy morning, according to plan, we visited one of the Reformed high schools. There we
met teachers whose mission to the young was a critical part of the effort to breathe life into a culture
smothered by years of communist domination. The hallways were filled with large, healthy green plants.
and with smiling but pale teenagers. Remembering the words of the teachers, we realized that it would
be a while before fresh vegetables would be on the menu.
Our schedule also included a visit with a Reformed pastor. After lunch at the school we decided to walk
a couple of blocks to his home. We were gingerly picking our way through muddy water puddled
everywhere when Janos, our guide, halted near an elderly man sitting on a bench. Being North
Americans, we may have walked on by, more concerned about the condition of our shoes than the
people around us. Being Hungarian, Janos stopped, warmly greeted the man and asked how he was
doing. He responded by rubbing his aching knees. I flippantly suggested that maybe he had not been on
his knees long enough, but wisely, Janos didn’t translate my thoughtless remark.
The man’s response shocked me. He had spent several years on his knees mining coal in a shaft only a
few feet high - as a guest of the communist regime. Evidently, he had been on his knees too long but it
was not a result of his spirituality. Several years later I found Kolyma Tales. In it Varlam Shalamov
recounted his experiences and those of thousands of other inhabitants of this gulag. Here’s an excerpt
from the story, “Carpenters.”
"Potashnikov felt his strength leaving him every day. A thirty-year-old man, he had difficulty
in climbing on to an upper berth and even in getting down from it. His neighbor had died
yesterday. The man simply didn’t wake up, and no one asked for the cause of death, as if
there were only one cause that everyone knew."
This collection of stories is still available in libraries and online. Some suggest that only a few hundred
thousand people died in the Kolyma camps. Other sources suggest that more than three million slave
workers died there. Our man with aching knees was a survivor.