I Found God in Soviet Russia
Chapter 13:Loyal Lutherans
By John Noble
For background information go to the Introduction
Faithful in Life and Death
ON A BLEAK winter night, the furtive shivering figure of a prisoner could be seen outside the barracks building next to ours. While the eerie light of the search-lamps illuminating the barbed-wire barriers of the compound was reflected on the snow, and the wind blew in frigid gusts, this fellow would walk back and forth, back and forth, trying to keep warm despite the sub-zero wind.
At any sign of a Russian guard coming toward the area, he would quickly return inside and, by the time the guard arrived and entered the building, he would find nothing but a group of laborers sitting on their bunks or on the benches in the center of the room, chipping mud off their boots, sewing on buttons... In the drying room at the rear, a number of men would be hanging up work clothes which they had just washed.
As soon as the guard had left, the self-appointed sentry could be seen again taking up his post near the door.... And if the guard had slipped in now he would have found that the men so busy hanging up their wash a few minutes ago were kneeling with bowed heads, while one of their number led them in prayer. For meeting here this night in Vorkuta was the Church behind Barbed Wire. This is the real church in Russia, the branch of the Christian Church which no delegation of visiting foreign clergymen is going to be permitted to see.
Wrenched from their homes and condemned to a life of slavery in the barren wastes of the Arctic, the dedicated clergymen and laymen who make up this Church have sown new seeds of faith that have taken root and grown. Its denominations are as diverse as the religious backgrounds of the slave workers in the mines, Russian and Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Mormon, Adventist—denominational lines do not mean much. Sometimes, literally only “two or three” men would gather in His name....
In this great body of faith that continues to exist and conduct services underground in Soviet slave-labor camps are many of the outstanding religious leaders of Russia and of the Soviet satellite states as well as many of the most dedicated laymen and women of the churches that once flourished in areas flow under Communist rule.
The first service of this Church behind Barbed \Vire which I attended was one conducted by a Lutheran pastor who had been deported from his native Latvia. The Lutheran services were among those customarily held in the drying room where the men could disperse quickly if guards came. Most of the Lutherans came from Latvia or Estonia, the little Baltic republics which had been invaded and annexed by Russia in 1940 despite treaties of friendship guaranteeing their independence....
We would meet on any evening except Sunday, as the guards would then be especially on the lookout. Services were held at a different time and place in each instance to avoid falling into an easily detectable pattern. Whenever one of the Latvians would come by and casually say, “Why don’t you drop over in about half an hour?” I would know that a service was to be held that evening and, picking up some things, I would go over to do a little “laundry.”...
The service would open with prayer, then a Bible lesson. Since at this time we had no Bible in camp, the pastor would have to quote the text from memory. How well some of those ministers knew their Bible! They could quote whole chapters of the New Testament without hesitation even though in the Russian language which was not too clear to all of us. Following the Scripture lesson, we would pray, imploring God to give strength to His people until the time should come when we would be released.
Then would come a sermon, usually an exhortation directed toward those among us who might be wavering in faith, asking themselves how God could let us all suffer so, or having difficulty in justifying their personal beliefs wearied as they were by the incessant drumming atheist propaganda. Such sermons reminded us that our sufferings were not in vain.... After the sermon, we would have a hymn. We dare not sing hymns aloud, but would all humthe tune together quietly while the pastor recited the words.
During those precious minutes when we met together in prayer, a great burden was lifted from my shoulders. While we were there with our Heavenly Father, we were with the Church Eternal and the walls of our prison camp faded away until they were as nothing. We were with Christ, and though our bodies were in bondage our souls were free.
We all risked severe punishment by attending these services yet men who had never been regular in church attendance before would give up anything they were doing and come to join us, regardless of the danger.
What a wonderful life it gave our souls as we frequently hummed Martin Luther’s great hymn and heard the words so appropriate to our own position:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amidst the floods of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the Right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask Who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He!
Lord Sabaoth Hs Name; from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
Unyielding to threats of punishment or blandishments of atheist propaganda, the loyal Lutherans of Vorkuta showed a devotion to the Christian faith that was an inspiration and a challenge to us all.
There had been no organized worship services or religious activity at Vorkuta until prisoners from the Baltic countries began to arrive in considerable numbers: it was their example which emboldened the Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians so that soon there was a great revival of religion among all prisoners.
These Lutheran pastors were stalwart men. I would like to pay particular tribute to one who was a fellow prisoner in my compound nearly all the time I was there and who frequently led us in worship. He was the Reverend Paul Rosenbergs, dean of the church district of Riga of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, a brilliant young theologian and preacher who now, unfortunately, has joined the ranks of Christian martyrs who died at the hands of the Communists....
Born in 1906, he... followed his father into the ministry. He was ordained in 1931 and thereafter wrote several books on theology.... [A]t the early age of thirty-five, he was made Dean of Riga District and member of the Supreme Board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.... [He] was a brilliant, respected clergyman, happily married and the father of four fine children when, in 1944, tragedy struck. He had proved himself a fearless defender of Christianity and justice during the short Russian occupation of Latvia in 1940-41 and the German occupation which followed, 1941-44.
First he was arrested by the Nazis because of his public protest against the persecution of the Jews. But the German authorities feared to send him to concentration camp because of his high standing in the Lutheran church, and eventually released him to return to his pulpit. When the war turned against Germany and the advancing Russian armies again neared Latvia, Peter Rosenbergs was urged to join the thousands of other Latvians who were fleeing the country having had a taste of Russian persecution in the previous occupation of 1940.
The young pastor knew how bitterly the rulers of the Soviet Union detested organized Christianity. His own father had been imprisoned by the Red Army during its brief occupation of Riga after World War I and sent to prison, where he died of typhoid fever in 1919. However, Paul had just been called to serve St. Martin’s, the church of which his father had been pastor, and although his brother-in-law, the Reverend Richard Zarins... and other members of his family were fleeing, he decided to remain with those of his parishioners who had to stay.
He had served as pastor of St. Martin’s for only eight weeks when, in September-October, 1944, the Russian secret police suddenly arrested him, charging him with anti-state activity; a year later he received a sentence of ten years at hard labor. Meanwhile, his wife and four children were brutally evicted from the parsonage and exiled, along with thousands of other patriotic Latvians, to the “new lands” of the Soviet Union, i.e. Siberia.
Some time prior to my arrival in 1950, Pastor Rosenbergs had been sent to Vorkuta to serve out his sentence at hard labor as a coal miner. Though he was thin and bone-weary from the heavy toil, he always seemed to have time for personal counseling and prayer with the men. The National Lutheran Council of America in a recent tribute to him has quoted some of the East German prisoners who were with us at Vorkuta as calling him “the ideal clergyman who never lost his faith,” and “the saviour of many from despair.” To these words, I can only offer a loud “Amen.”
His faith was, indeed, an inspiration to every one of us who knew him. These men who have recently been released have reported that Pastor Rosenbergs was murdered on the eve of his own departure from Vorkuta. He was apparently a victim of the blatnoi, or criminal prisoners, whose constant harassment of the political prisoners was one of the worst evils of the camp.
The Pastor was killed about Christmas time in 1955, nearly a year after I was released. He had served all of his ten-year sentence. The camp administrators had given him a few hundred rubles, representing the balance of the “wages” due him and he was planning to go to Siberia to join his wife and children from whom he had received a letter. He went the rounds of all the barracks that night, saying good-bye to the members of his congregation, pausing here and there for a word of encouragement and a moment of prayer.
He even stopped to say good-bye to some of the young criminals and thereby, perhaps, sealed his death warrant, for they would know that on the eve of departure he might have some money in his pocket. He left his own barracks, saying that he was going to say farewell to a friend, a former German schoolteacher, billeted about half a mile away.
Paul Rosenbergs never reached his friend. His body was found next morning where he had been murdered, a few hundred feet inside the camp gate. And robbery did seem to have been the motive: the rubles for his train fare to Siberia were gone. Sorrowfully, the men whom he had loved and served watched as his body was picked up by a Russian truck and taken off for burial among the other nameless dead who lie out in the frozen tundra. His family, who had waited all those years, were never to see him again.
In respect and gratitude, we may well recognize that the most brilliant part of Paul Rosenbergs’ ministry must be reckoned not as the years of writing, preaching and teaching in pre-war Latvia but as those when he was a preacher and living example of Christian ethics as he led his Church behind Barbed Wire.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake." Matthew 24:9
"...in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:37-39
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