Tuesday, April 29, 2014

In the Words of Klara Dobri

A few years ago, one of my Hungarian friends told me that the stories of women were often overlooked, and she asked me to be on the alert. This entry serves as an introduction to Klara Dobri, a courageous and strong woman who cared for six young children while her husband, Janos Dobri, was imprisoned between 1957 and 1963. She managed to support her family by working long hours as a district nurse while additionally caring for ill and aging parents. Due to the terror that crippled social relations in Transylvania, most church members were fearful, and few offered encouragement or support. Here is just a short excerpt from our visit in June, 2003.

Klara Dobri, June 2003

Still in the city of Kolozsvar/Cluj, the dawn of a new day brought the prospect of meeting Klara Dobri, the widow of Janos Dobri known to me by this time for his daring underground exploits. Having met her first in March 2003, I was ready to see her again, though by this time I was aware that it would not be easy for her to retell a painful story.

When we arrived at her door, she welcomed us into her home and waited quietly while the team set up. Her son hovered nearby, concerned, perhaps, that revisiting events of long ago would overtax the stamina of his 85 year old mother. We promised to be aware. Determined to tell the whole story, her voice remained clear and calm and never faltered throughout the interview.

Her first words were, “In our life faith meant a lot. We had a hard life.” With those words, it became clear that we would not hear just her story, but theirs, the story of Klara and Janos Dobri.

*          *          *          *          *

The year 1957 was notable because it marked an intensification of repression in Romania. Though Janos had been interrogated and imprisoned twice after his return in 1948, the evidence presented never established his guilt. In 1957 he was arrested and accused of typing and distributing poems and behaving as a rebel. After the failed 1956 revolution in Hungary, even a semblance of justice disappeared in Romania. Anyone known or suspected of harboring pro-Hungarian sentiments was labeled an enemy of the state. Janos was arrested, sentenced, and sent to a labor camp, part of the Danube Delta system and then later to the Szamosujvar/Gherla prison.

Janos Dobri
With Janos gone, Klara faced the enormous challenge of providing for six children in a nearly impossible situation. They were living in a world where fear ruled. Seminary professors still in their positions didn’t speak to Klara, afraid to be associated with a victim of the system. The seminary provided their lodging; no-one had the heart to throw out a mother and six children, but they provided little else. She fondly recalled the generous encouragement provided by Andras Nagy, by that time retired from the seminary. She also remembered that Istvan Tokes had written a letter on their behalf. However, many of her husband’s former colleagues chose to look the other way when they met her, afraid to risk the attention of the ever-present securitate. During all those years, Klara worked as a district nurse. Because she visited different people at different sites, she had the flexibility to drop in on the children sometime during the day.

Klara described the situation at home. Life was hard for everyone, so we did not have high expectations. There was no time to think. Life must go on. You must give food to the children and you also have to work. Sometimes my brothers and sisters brought food from the countryside. Sometimes a loaf of bread with some fat on it was all we had. 
*          *          *          *          *

When Klara talked about faith she said, “One should trust in the future because, truly, only God can help us in all things. If we trust, he helps us.” When asked whether music and the psalter supported her faith, she smiled and responded, “Even now I have the psalm book beside me. During evening prayers I usually sing a few songs. I have my hymnbook and the Bible beside my bed. Every evening I am engaged with them. Now-a-days I can’t remember all the verses. Sometimes I cannot catch a line and have to look it up. I never used to forget anything, but now, sometimes, I can hardly remember names and . . .. After all, human life ends, and we must acquiesce. But it was without hesitation that she named her favorite, Psalm 25 - Lord to you my soul is lifted. Let me never be ashamed.  I like others too, she added. I used to love singing, but now my voice is gone and I sing only for myself.

As the interview came to an end, Klara asked, “Have you recorded all of this?” When she heard an affirmative reply, she nodded and said, “So this cannot be denied.”

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Introducing the Viskys

Julia and Ferenc Visky, September, 1974
Though there was plenty of suffering and guilt to go around in Romania,  I would like to focus on Grace through excerpts from the story of Julia and Ferenc Visky, especially his reflections on the Psalms. If you would like to learn more than I include here, search for Ferenc Visky on the internet. You will find dozens of articles and references. First, though, a bit of context.

Reformed Differences

While the Fulops represent the classically Reformed, Ferenc and Julia Visky would fall within the renewal wing of the Reformed church. Following World War II, the remewal branch, sometimes called Bethania, experienced a powerful revival that touched thousands in Hungary, Romania, and Transcarpathia, Ukraine. By 1950 the movement had been forced underground by Communist persecution. Its leaders were kept under surveillance, and by 1958, many had been arrested and sentenced, some up to 22 years, including Ferenc Visky. Because of her continuing witness, Julia and her seven children were soon after sent to one of the camps of the infamous Danube Delta gulag. Their son, playwright Andras Visky, told her story in the play, Julia.

March 2003

When we first met Julia and spoke with Ferenc Visky, I soon sensed that they lived and breathed in the presence of God. It was also apparent that one needed to be ready for his sharp wit. We had crowded into his small study close to the kitchen, and with a gleam in his eyes Visky began,

“Come, let us get close together like small piggies in this small room. I don’t mean that you are pigs; I don’t want to begin by hurting anyone . . . If the shirt doesn’t fit, don’t wear it!”

I described our mission of recording his understanding of faith and his perception of how the psalms reflected his life under Communism. The gleam had not yet disappeared and Visky inquired sweetly whether my congregation back in Grand Rapids ever sang any of the Genevan Psalms. Sensing a trap, I answered quickly that we sang some, but never Psalm 119 in its entirety.  He smiled and appeared satisfied with my answer. Having thus established that we were not complete nincompoops, the conversation could begin.

Regarding the Genevan Psalms

“From a biblical perspective, singing and choirs or liturgical musical singing is prophetic according to Holy Scripture. Singing itself is not significant; it is significant only when inspired from above, and only when it’s directed from above, not only based on our emotions or other factors. It is most important that I listen attentively and wait for the one from above to touch with his fingers the person, the string. Somehow it is very nice when someone strums me. So this is very crucial that singing also be treated as the preaching of God’s word. Singing of the Psalms in itself is preaching too.”

I’d like to include everything from that first meeting here, but will jump to an excerpt from the June interview.

Singing the Psalms

"After my release, I was appointed to serve a congregation in the Nagyvarad area. In that congregation, every Sunday afternoon, after the worship, we spent ten minutes learning songs. We started to study the psalms, and somehow people began to like them. How does the Hungarian proverb go? “It’s easy to take Kate to the dance if she likes to dance. 

If you teach with love, they learn more willingly, and if you sing with joy, then the songs stick. Maybe depression sticks too, but happiness does as well. If I like the psalms and sing them with love, they stick. We sang the Genevan Psalms from the official psalm book of 1672, according to the music’s prescribed tempos and rhythms.

The meaning of Selah

We were diligent, and in many of the Psalms we read the expression, Selah. When we visited Richard Wurmbrand in Los Angeles, he told me that the meaning of Selah had been unlocked. Some said that this was a musical pause, and some thought that it meant de capo al fine. There were arguments about this, but Selah – even its sound is fine –  means something different. When a song finishes, it leaves an echo in the congregation or in the singer. It leaves a sense of holiness and happiness that lingers. Selah is the moment when you hear at once what has been sung, an impression beyond the melody and beyond the text. This congregation was not especially spiritually sensitive, but when we studied these ninety Psalm melodies, they understood that God was taking care of them.

Friday, April 4, 2014

What Happened in Romania

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, 
so far from the words of my groaning?  
Psalm 22: 1

In recent posts, I introduced Denes Fulop, a well-read thinker, a gifted pastor, and an engaged member of the community. He wasn’t a crackpot; he wasn’t a Hungarian nationalist. He was a deeply committed Reformed Christian. And when he was enduring in a concentration camp, I was entering college, an absorbed member of the free to be generation, concerned with a kind of justice that did not include a critique of Communist societies. In this post, I’d like to describe just a little part of what Denes endured. Though the stories themselves are powerful, I’ve included a few references, and if you wish, a quick internet search reveals dozens of related documents. This is a good one:                                                                                                                                       http://www.thegulag.org/

Here's how the state handled dissent.

Unflinching Stalinism: Communism in Romania  ". . . the Dej leadership unleashed ruthless purges of the Bucharest, Cluj and Timisoara universities.

The repression of 1956 set the stage for another wave of terror from 1958 until 1961. The targets were intellectuals who, in the late 1940s were not arrested, but had been only marginalized. This social cleansing accompanied a new offensive toward completing the process of collectivization."                
In the book, Gulag, Anne Applebaum described the gulag system in Romania as concentration camps, places where "enemies of the state" were worked and starved to death. It used methods perfected and exported by the Soviet secret police. p. 454

Crime and Punishment 

As a seminary student and a Hungarian, Denes was certainly aware of the 1956 events in Hungary. When Russian tanks  helped crush the revolution, like other students, he became the target of the Romanian securitate (secret police). He escaped the purge of dissidents in 1956, and after graduating from the seminary, became the assistant in the castle church in Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures).

He was caught in a later wave of terror and arrested. Following his arrest, Denes was flown to Kolozsvar (Cluj) and lodged in the Gherla prison where for six months he was interrogated and then beaten when he refused to reveal names or events. He soon learned that though he didn't talk, others did.

Gherla Prison
Though Denes had never confessed anything, he was brought to trial because the prosecutor had produced a witness he thought was reliable. Wearing chains and shackles, Feri, the young seminary student who, under torture had talked about Denes, now in court denied it all. The judge was furious and ordered him out of the courtroom. Here’s how Fulop described the scene many years later, "In the deathly silence that fell over us, Feri turned to leave. The only sound to be heard was the clanking of his chains as he made his way down the hall."

The Danube Concentration Camp

At a second trial, Denes was  convicted and sent to one of the labor camps at the delta of the Danube River."For a while, I lived on a wreck of a boat decaying in the middle of a field of bamboo located between the dike and the river. During the winter, we were herded out on to the ice to harvest this bamboo. The rusting boat was home to 400 men crowded into stacks of metal bunkbeds. The whole boat was made of thick metal, If it was warmer inside than out, water condensed and dripped down, black and dirty. The fetid smoke from smoldering wood mixed with the humid air creating filthy conditions."

The cold was terrible, especially because we were very thin, and due to lack of nutrition had little strength. Many times we were so hungry that we collected leaves growing at the edges of the fields where we worked, plants we used to feed the pigs at home.  We also gathered another source of food, the snails attached to our pants."

One of his most terrible memories was of a Sunday morning early in the spring, a day when the milder weather had caused the ice to begin to thaw.  It was not strong enough to hold the weight of the prisoners, the bamboo cutters. Like the days before, the men marched out on to the ice. It caved in under their weight and with a sickening whoosh, they fell through. Those who followed tried to stop, but with guns and dogs the guards forced them to continue into the icy water. The whole group of prisoners reacted as one with an animal shout, frightening the guards. The sergeant was a cruel man and forced the men to stay in the icy water all day long. The cold and suffering was so great that prisoners begged the guards to shoot them.

While researching the camps in Romania, I found a site constructed by high school students in Romania. Given the status of the world today, it was heart wrenching to read of their hope that the genocides of the 20th century would never be repeated. To see how they described Gherla Prison, the Pitesti Prison, and the Danube Delta camps, see their website:                                                                                                                                                          http://library.thinkquest.org/o8aug/1956gherla_en.html

I must confess that the impact of the stories grew on me, especially when we began to translate and transcribe them. At first I was immersed in the organizational and personal details of the project, keeping track of costs, of the schedule, and always aware that I was the foreigner in the group. When we began to translate and transcribe them, I began to realize that I and my generation had been deaf to stories of unspeakable horror. We justified our deafness with a selective definition of justice that did not include our Reformed brothers and sisters behind an iron curtain whose existence we barely acknowledged.

When atrocities happen,
those who remain silent and don't speak or act against evil
become its accomplices.