Modern galley slaves at the ‘Eastern academy’. Stories of high priests in Central-Eastern Europe

22.02.2019. (Gergely Czókos)

  • Share
  • 2019. February 22.

A couple of days after the Red Army occupied Transcarpathia at the end of October 1944, there was a celebration in the cinema in Uzhhorod to commemorate the Great October Socialist Revolution and to honour the winners. The Soviets approach Tódor Romzsa, bishop of Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo and instructed him to give a speech at the event. Despite the expectations Romzsa greeted the occupiers with rather moderate words, but in the local paper, Zakarpattia Pravda it was reported  falsely  that the bishop declared “the century-long wish” of the people of Transcarpathia to unite with Ukraine. When the bishop expressed protestation he got the answer: “You did not say that, but that is what you should have said”. However, Romzsa did not speak in even later in a way that the establishment would have expected, and he paid a serious price for that, like many other church leaders in Central-Eastern Europe. The conference “The Mindszenty-trial 70 years later. Stories of high priests in Central-Eastern Europe” organised by Directorate of Cultural Affairs of the Office of the National Assembly, the Committee of National Remembrance (NEB) and the Research Centre for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on 13-14 February focused on these priests. The talks of the conference received great interest and the rooms were filled with audience, which seems to prove Pál Fodor, Director General’s words: “What happened to Mindszenty was not a Hungarian story, but a Central Eastern European one”.

The special issue of Life and protest in Paris

The church policies of Central Eastern European countries that were in Soviet zone of interest after WWII show significant differences due to local peculiarities as well as a lot of parallels. From the end of 1940s show trials against high priests were important in the strategy to break the churches, and the arrest and show trial of József Mindszenty, Prince Primate, Archbishop of Esztergom at Christmas 1948 was a good example of that.

The figure of Mindszenty -as Réka Kiss Földváryné, chairperson of NEB pointed out in her introductory speech- became a symbol in many senses of the word. On the one hand the communist establishment tried to make the Church appear as an anti-progress feudalist remnant using Mindszenty, on the other hand he became a symbol of the resistance against communism, to whom Life magazine devoted a special issue, and for whose release there was a protest in Paris.

At the conference the speakers shared details about various other aspects of church persecution in Hungary as well as a lot of fascinating, lesser-known facts. Everybody was taken aback when on the first day of the conference Mihály Habsburg-Lotharingiai, president of the Hungarian Mindszenty Foundation asked for the floor and announced that Pope Francis declared József Mindszenty venerable for practising Christian values heroically. This act is the gateway to beatification.

The ‘Slovakian Mindszenty-trial’

The greatest novelty of conference which was streamed online with a lot of followers was that it demonstrated the common core of communist anti-clerical policies in the Eastern block and presented them in terms of the history of Hungarians outside the borders. The Mindszenty-trial had a direct impact in Slovakia, as the local communist leadership used it to eliminate The Hungarian Democratic People’s Association in Czechoslovakia, an organization that represented the interests of the Hungarian minority. The start of the show trial was preceded by a close cooperation between the State Protection Authority and the Slovakian secret service (STB)  as László Bukovszky (Forum Minority Research Institute, Šamorín) explained. Two members of the organization, István Varró and Zoltán Krausz, who were claimed to be Mindszenty’s agents in Slovakia were arrested by the State Security based on documents found at the archbishop and they were handed over to the Slovakian authorities. The think tank of the Slovakian state security that was responsible for producing show trials came to the conclusion that László A. Arany, head of the association was leading the conspiracy, and he was arrested on 2 March 1949. He supposedly organized a secret anti-state organization in order to overthrow the people’s democracy in Czechoslovakia as well as ordered his associates to gather intelligence and tried to channel that information through Mindszenty, an undercover Western agent to hostile powers to take South-Slovakia from Czechoslovakia. 32 suspects were trialled, and finally ten of them were sentenced to imprisonment. The most serious sentence was given to Arany  eight years of imprisonment.

The main aim of the establishment with the trial was to create grounds to take actions against the Church. Ján Vojtaššák, bishop of Spiš was one victim of this. In 1950 the Czechoslovakian communist leadership put three high-ranking clergymen on trial: Vojtaššák, Roman Catholic bishop Michal Buzalka as well as Greek Catholic bishop Pavol Gojdič. This was the only case in the modern history of the Catholic Church when three bishops were trialled at the same time -as Emília Hrabovec, professor of Comenius University in Bratislava, member of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences pointed out. Ján Vojtaššák, who was known for his persistent anti-communism like Mindszenty, was forced with brutal means (again, similarly to Mindszenty) to confess absurd crimes which he obviously did not commit. The clergyman was held in a small cell without light, a tap or toilet, he was tortured with hot metal objects, his teeth were broken out and he was given hallucinogenic drugs. The 73-year-old bishop was finally sentenced to 24 years of imprisonment in the beginning of 1950, and after his release in 1963 he was never let back to Slovakian territory.

"I was rather smart than strong"

Many church leaders applied a moderate strategy, open to compromise with the establishment as opposed to the high priests choosing open confrontation. László Ravasz, who could finally avoid a show trial that was prepared against him said the words: “I was rather smart than strong” which reveal a sensible attitude open to compromise also characterize the church politics of Áron Márton, bishop of Gyulafehérvár as well as that of Stefan Wyszyński, Polish cardinal and archbishop.

Although the Romanian state security kept an eye on the former till the end of his life -let us just think of the record 80 thousand pages of 236 volumes of surveillance files- after his release in 1955 he was the only Catholic high priest in Romania, whose episcopal authority was acknowledged by the Romanian state and the Holy See while he was not imprisoned -emphasized Zoltán Mihály Nagy in his talk. Wyszyński  whose respect is unquestionable in Polish society, ‘the primate of the century’ learned from Mindszenty’s example and achieved that while he was held in home arrest for years, he was finally not trialled, and his Church survived the Stalin-era with much fewer losses than the Hungarian or the Czechoslovakian Church -said Łukasz Kamiński, lecturer at the University of Wrocławi in his talk about Wyszyński. (Although it needs to be noted that the smaller losses are also due to the church’s participation in the resistance against the Germans.)

Lethal injection and ‘suspicious circumstances’

The efforts to reach a compromise often did not lead to favourable results; especially in case of Greek Catholics in Ukraine (Galicia). Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj from Lviv (Lemberg) for example, tried to reach a modus vivendi with the Soviet establishment, but he was arrested with the completely unfounded charge of Nazi collaboration along with other Ukranian bishops and  as he refused to convert to the Orthodox faith  he was only released in 1963 owing to the intercession of the Vatican. After in March 1946 at the Lviv Synod the Greek Catholic Church in Galicia united with the Russian Orthodox Church there could be no doubt for the Greek Catholic community what the intentions of the establishment were. As Oleh Turiy, associate of the Institute of Church History at the Ukrainian Catholic University pointed out, out of the 227 clergymen who participated at the council, 155 were Soviet agents. The main target of the establishment was Tódor Romzse, Greek Catholic bishop in Mukachevo who was a significant figure in the anti-violent resistance against church persecution in Transcarpathia. After Nikita Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Ukrainian communist party received permission from Stalin to eliminate Romzsa, there was a murder attempt disguised as an accident against him, but after he survived the attack, a Soviet secret service agent disguised as a nurse killed him in the Mukachevo hospital with a lethal injection.

Romzsa was hardly the only one who suffered a violent death from the Greek Catholic clergy in Transcarpathia. Many were shot to death in the prison in Uzhhorod, Father Péter Legeza was found with rope marks around his neck and others passed away under “suspicious circumstances”. Bishop Péter Orosz was shot in the back of his head on 27 August 1958 out in the street by a militiaman. On 4 December 1958 Bazil Zavagyák was run over by a truck, and then three henchmen jumped out of the car and beat him to death. Many were taken to “the Eastern Academy” (as István Bendász, Greek Catholic priest called the Gulag) and 74-year-old Tivadar Kohutics dropped dead when he was told in September 1955 that he was going to be released from the prison of Abez in Siberia. Beside the thirty martyrs in the Greek Catholic Church in Transcarpathia and 127 confessors sentenced to 10-25 years’ imprisonment and forced labour, there are fifty ‘hidden’ confessors. They are the ones who did not yield either, but were not arrested. As Konstantin Szabó, Greek Catholic priest form Transcarpathia highlighted in his talk, it might have been harder for them, than for those priests who were convicted as they were constantly expecting to be the next one. What it was like for friends and relatives of Central and Eastern European priests during the peak of the Stalin era can be described best with a sentence by Stefan Wyszyński that he wrote down in captivity: “My imminent arrest seemed so sure that even my driver looked for another job.”

Konstantin Szabó mentioned his own family’s experiences in his moving talk. After his father, a Greek Catholic priest was arrested on 25 April 1950, his mother  being ‘the enemy of the state’  could not get a job for a long time. One time “a former seminarist snitch” offered her that if she became his lover, he would take measures not to have her fired from her workplace. Another time the KGB persuaded her to become an informant, which could have helped her problems with finding a job. In the end and ex-student of theology gave work to the woman, who was raising a fmily.

The Soviet anti-church policy hit hard the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia which was without a leader. Besides the fact the all the properties of the church were distributed, from 1946 the pastors of the reformed church were taken away. The arrests started in 1949. Altogether more than twenty pastors were taken to the Gulag. As Gusztáv Fodor (Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church) said, they were all modern galley slaves. Three of them  Imre Narancsik from Nagymuzsaly, Sándor Balogh from Eszeny and Jenő Szuto from Beregszász  never returned from the labour camp.

RomaninanHungarian united front

In Romania Mindszenty aroused interest among local communists even before his trial. They thought that Mindeszenty and the minework of the Catholic Church led by him were behind the defeat of their comrades at the Hungarian elections in autumn 1945. They were afraid that the high priest and the church under his leadership could have an influence on Roman Catholics in Romania as well as on Greek Catholics, who could join forces in order to prevent a Soviet-inspired, atheist establishment -said Cristian Vasile (from the Nicolae Iorga Institute of History at the Romanian Academy).

Romanian Greek Catholic shared the fate of the ones in Galicia. On 1 October 1948 there was a fake synod in Cluj and 38 priests, intimidated by the authorities declared the union of the Greek Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church, so the threat of an interchurch Catholic cooperation was averted. At the end of October all of the Greek Catholic bishops and hundreds of priests were arrested, and those who were not, carried on with their activities. The communist secret police tried to prevent an extensive cooperation between Hungarian Catholics and Romanian Greek Catholics, but their endeavours that were built upon ethnic and religious prejudices were not always successful. Besides Áron Márton objected to the incorporation of the Greek Catholic Church and János Scheffler, Roman Catholic bishop of Satu Mare suggested his priests supporting the Greek Catholic Church that kept on operating illegally after its elimination, so many Romanian Greek Catholics attended Hungarian Catholic services.

Aphrodisiac in the soup

Communists were merciless when it came to church leaders. Alojzije Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb, who was engaged to a Hungarian teacher before he joined the priesthood was sentenced to 16 years’' imprisonment on 11 October 1946 on charges of collaborating with Nazis and Ustashes, after he refused to establish a Croatian Catholic Church independent from Rome. In the 521 day-long period from 8 May 1945 (the Yugoslavian army took Zagreb on that day) till the announcement of the sentence there were more than 1400 smearing articles, mocking drawings and cartoons in the leading Croatian papers about Stepinac and the Croatian Catholic Church. Among many names, he was called a ‘bloodthirsty butcher’ and was portrayed with predator claws.

The persecution during WWII was no guarantee for a church leader that he could keep out of the establishment’s sight. Josef Beran, Archbishop of Prague was in the prison of the Gestapo during WWII as well as the concentration camp of Dachau. He was arrested in June 1949. In the beginning he was held in home custody and then he was interned to highly classified locations. The archbishop himself did not know where he was and he was so isolated that he was not even allowed to read the communist newspapers  as Stanislava Vodičková (The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Czech Republic) explained in her talk.

The Czechoslovakian Communist authorities did everything to discredit Beran. On the second venue of his internment, aphrodisiac was put in his tea and his soup as well as in the nun’s who was running his household and was Beran’s only company. The plan was to make a film exposé about the priest approaching the nun inappropriately. They increased surveillance, put bugs in the flat where he was kept, drilled holes in the walls and recorded every movement. The operation was shut down only after a year  when there was no result. After he was released in 1963, he was kept under continued surveillance by state security and he was finally released in 1965 to Rome after his appointment to be cardinal, on condition he was never to come back.

It is telling that the establishment was afraid of the archbishop even after his death in 1969, as they thought there could be some public disturbance if his earthly remains would be taken home. There was this peculiar form of being terrified of dead church leaders among communists in power in the Eastern block. After Mindszenty’s death his grave in Mariazelli was a targeted spot for surveillance for Hungarian States Security authorities, and Albanian Communists often removed the bones of the executed from graves.

Although Vinçenc Prennushi was not desecrated in his death, due to his opposition to the communist establishment led him on the same path as many clergymen in Central and Eastern Europe. As Mindszenty’s story became “homogenous” with the fate of Hungarians (as Márai put it), Prennushi became one with history of the Albanian nation. The Franciscan father, later archbishop of Durres became known as folklorist, translator and poet, he was a co-founder and member of the Albanian Literary Commission which put down the foundations of a modern standardized Albanian language, and had significant role in the emancipation movement, as it was owing to his efforts that women could appear on stage in performances in Albania  as we learned from Rigels Halili’s talk (Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw). Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator of Albania was hardly moved by all this, who gave green light in 1947 to arrest Prennushi, after he was unsuccessful in trying to convince the archbishop to contribute to the establishment of a “national” Albanian Catholic Church independent from Rome. Due to hard physical work and the tortures, the archbishop’s health was shaken and he died in 1949 in captivity. He was buried by three Muslim men with the total exclusion of the public. However, as Rigels Halili said: as opposed to many fellow-countrymen, at least he has a grave.