The majority of Catholic and Orthodox priests and many lay people were sent to concentration camps in Solovky. This island was located among the other islands in the White Sea, forming the system SLON, a system of specific camps. According to the research of Professor Roman Dzvonkovskyy, in the 30s about 360 Roman Catholic priests were imprisoned or exiled. They were arriving to Solovki without having any idea where they are, not knowing that these are called the island of tears. Only coming up big stone stairs did they understand that they had arrived at the great Cathedral of Transfiguration, as the half ruined label at the entrance indicated. Inside, however, there was nothing left, not even a single icon. There were 70 people in the small room; they were lying in bed quietly. This deadly silence was instilling fear. People were shocked with the trip here, when they were kicked and screamed at, so the impression was that it was the depths of hell. Maybe everyone was thinking about the end that awaited him, and had to strength to endure this inhumane torture. Tour of duty worked through the entire night, cleaning out the former Solovky monastery-kremlin: They moved iron beams and stones; swept and washed the stone floor inside the fortress, and the next day they had to move stones to the previous place. It was the most shocking: there was no work, but the condemned could not to remain idle; so they were encouraged to break the ice on the lake with their hands in order for “rest not to make them lazy”. Only in the morning, two hours before the time to get up, prisoners could lay down on their tiered bunk beds.
Priests, sent in 1932 to the island Anzer, defended their religious beliefs with courage and dignity and completely rejected any accusations of a political nature, as it is evident from the results of interrogations recorded in the court protocols:
- “Here I became more hardy and nothing can destroy my faith” – Potap Emelianov.
– “I am ready to die for my religious beliefs”, – Fr. Vikentiy Deynis.
– “God chose me and helps me to live through everything in order to revive the faith of others. I will not compromise on religion with the authorities”- Fr. Pavlo Khomych.
– “I will not change my views on Catholisism. I will stay faithful and hardy, as well as before arrest and during exile to the camp. I have no hatred for the Soviet regime, but could not and cannot live without God; I cannot go against my conscience”, – Fr. James Rosenbach.[i]
Inscriptions on the walls of Sokyrkyna Mountain, carved by prisoners before death or before leaving the camp, confirm the cruelty of the regime and prison: “Wisdom – is a way to freedom! Goodbye, Anzer island! I cannot remember anything good about you – it was not life, but something worse than death. God help us not to see this anymore. Good-bye, people who live here, no good memories are left in your hearts. Goodbye!”[i]
In July and October of 1937, shootings were carried out in Solovky concentration camp (1850 prisoners executed, among which many Catholics).[i] Witnesses recall another method of torture that was used in the camp in 1938 in the workplace Kaporska. On a frosty February day, naked or half-naked people were sent down to the barrack № 4. Others prisoners who were nicknamed “polar wolves”, were forced to go outside completely naked to fulfill their biological needs. Often “wolves” were punished, by being cast outside in the cold and biting wind, naked despite the fact that the victims were crying, screaming or asking to return to the barrack. According to the hospital data over the period of eight months 979 people in this barrack died.
- Kitskas recalls that in 1938, in Solovky Prison there were two-tiered bunk beds, close passage, air saturated with sweat and stench. In order to have a corridor, prisoners had to always keep their feet tucked under them, with bags and suitcases under their heads. It was terrible tightness, and there was never enough space for everyone. Then the guards ordered everyone to turn to the side and pushing with their knee five people together, put among them the newcomers: “” Grandpa, Grandpa, what happened? Are you crying? Do you feel bad? Are you afraid? “. Grandpa: “I am ashamed, Sergiy, ashamed because I was born a human. Nobody acts like that with anyone, and we are humans, you know, my darling, humans! “”
Immediately upon arrival to the camp, the abuse began. J. Mushynskyy relates: “We were forced to undress; we were only in shirts and underwear. I asked if I could wear socks because the floor was cold as ice, and the guard shouted to me, “Take them off! It is prohibited!'”[iii] “… It was not just the fear of death, but the fear of this kind of death: from the hand of a drunkard, a killer, fear of the unknown death, the death of a dog. The feeling of horror never left us even for a moment, because deeply in our consciousness there was this fear.”[iv]
Officer Nohtyev shot one or two newcomers of his choice, and he did that not because he was the cruelest officer because even drunk, he was a kind soul. With these shootings he wanted to frighten newcomers: make them realize their complete helplessness against his authority, and to bring to their attention that they have no way out of this situation. Nohtyev wanted to radically destroy every opportunity to protest and make them entirely subordinate to the law of Solovetsky concentration camp. Usually he killed officers and priests. In the archives we find memories of a Catholic: “Our destiny is terrible. We have to become bandits or martyrs… GPU used various methods of torture: prison full of water, a shirt made of barbed wire, metal stick for beating, and more, but the most favorite method was to clamp fingers between the doors. Due to despair, youths threw themselves into the river or under a train. Warm Christian blood was shed in our time like in those of Nero and others. But earlier they made miracles happen, and now they do not. God allows us the great trials, as those of early Christians – we are not only handling the physical torture, but also the mental one.”[v]
This is how the living in Solovky concentration camp was described by I. Zaikina: “Prisoners were sitting in silence side by side on bare wooden beds in two rows along the wall on the left and right sides: the ones in the front with the bent legs and the ones in the back with their legs under them. The order: “Sit in your places. Don’t say anything”. Everyone naked, barefoot, some looked like skeletons. They were looking at us with sad and tired eyes, in which we noticed a deep compassion for us newbies: they know that we will have something that they’ve had (…). All that I can remember – is our stay in some ruined temple. Murals whitened with white lime. The side altars used for a cooler, where prisoners were tortured. In place of the altar was a large toilet; the hole was cut out in the middle of altar. In the morning and in the evening a traditional greeting like dogs, “Zdra!” If we were answered very quietly, we were forced to repeat this greeting for half an hour (…). At 12 o’clock – food once a day. Very little food, only at noon … and so for weeks, months.”[vi]
Life in the camp was a constant fight for survival: the convicted, naked and under watch, had to walk kilometers along the four walls of the prison, to the point that they were feeling dizzy. On the first day after entering the chamber it was absolutely forbidden to wear shoes, as the sound of creaking floors could become an opportunity to send signals to prisoners from a nearby cell. In the camps with a heavy labor regime, the prison was built without a piece of wood, beds were attached to the wall, chairs were made out of metal – attached to the floor.
The majority died within two days because of lung disease or mental illness, or they were killed when, crazed, they tried to protest. Prisoners worked continuously, because there were no weekends, no holidays, and people were often forced to do quite humiliating work: “We were made to move large stones from one place to another. There were 20 people in the cell. In the morning the supervisor came and stated that if we want to have breakfast, we must move stones … and he took us to the work place. Before supper he again ordered us to move them to the same place where they were in the morning. We could only use our arms and shoulders as tools.”[vii]
One of the witnesses recalls how prisoners were tied to a beam by their shoulders, with their hands tied behind and thrown down the stairs – 310 steps down Sekerna Mountain. G. Ovsyany tells how the head of the cultural and scientific section of SLON washed his boots, covered with blood from beating the faithful during interrogations. D. Lykhachov recalls torture, which authorities of the camp used on prisoners over the summer: those who hadn’t finished their job on time, were stripped down and tied with chains to a tree. It was called “To the chains.” Mosquitos and flies beat the body so much that the poor prisoners died: “He had no single piece of clear skin.” Some were pulled by their beard from one corner to another during interrogation. Sometimes officers picked prisoners up from the ground with tongs by their mustache, holding them that way for a few minutes.
At the bottom of Mount Calvary in Solovky camp was a chapel full of beds up to the ceiling, so for some time there were up to 200 people. Bevol, Calvary commander laughed and called it “a barrel of blood.” He had fun, pulling the prisoners from the third tier of the bed by their hair, dropping them down and smashing their heads on the floor. In addition to this torture there was another one called “to refresh”: prisoners were tied up and locked in the campanile, where snow was falling and the wind was blowing from all sides. On May 10, 1930, in the chapel, upon Bevol’s order persecutions of two types were introduced: first, the gentler one, allowed a prisoner’s feet to touch; the second method did not allow this and caused bad blood circulation. The convicted had to sit without moving for eighteen hours a day, and only once in three days could eat something. [i]
Even the representatives of the weaker sex experienced the horror of life in a concentration camp. They were kept in cells and interrogated in the same prison the way men were. One of the witnesses recalls: “Investigators during interrogations raped girls as animals, the poor victim cried and screamed.”[ii] The head of the camp Burepolom Greenberg demanded that every young woman who arrived at the camp would be brought to him. It was continuous violence, and there were no moral brakes, which would have stopped him. A. Slozbek recalls: “One girl entered our cell in Solovky. She was pale and could barely stand on her feet. “I came from a chamber of torture – she said – my name is Ania Bublyk”. A minimum stay in that chamber lasted 4-5 days, maximum – 20 days. Poor Ania must have strongly resisted the director of the prison, based on the fact that he put her in there for 20 days… Even 5 days in there was enough for a person to get sick … Ania was in that chamber for a month. She was getting worse, one night her temperature was very high, she was transferred to the medical unit, where she died the next day. She was only 21”[iii].
[i]Мартірологія українських Церков, vol. 4, Торонто-Балтімаре 1983, c. 62.
[ii]I. ZAIKINA, «Usłyszeliśmy ich głosy…»…, с. 245.
[iii]И. А. РЕЗНИКОВА, «ПолякинаСоловках», вAA.VV., ПолякивРосии: историяссылкиидепортации. Тезисы докладов конференций, Санкт-Петербург 1995, с. 32.
[iv]A. SOSZYNA, PolakinaSolowkach. Wyciąg z archiwum sołowieckiego, 1994, ms.
[v]J. BRODSКIJ, Solovki le isole del martirio, da monastero a primo lager sovietico, Milano 1998, c. 52.
[vi]H. OWSIANY, «Paradoksy łagrów sołowieckich», in Skazani jako „szpiedzy watykanu”. Z historii Koscioła katolickiego w ZSRR 1918-1956, Red. R. Dzwonkowski SAC, Ząbki 1998,с. 271.
[vii]I protocolli, La Chiesa romanocattolica, 822 в Archivio Centrale delle Associazioni Sociali dell’Ucraina, 8-1-102, сс. 23-24.
[viii]I. ZAIKINA, «Usłyszeliśmy ich głosy…»…, с.246.
[ix]Z. LENIEWSKI, «Ciernistym szlakiem. W drugą rocznicę śmierci ks. Prał. Józefa Kuczyńskiego», вGazeta Niedzielna 24.04. (1984) 16.
[x]J. BRODSКIJ, Solovki le isole del martirio…, c. 193.
[xi]M. LENARDOWICZ, Na wyspach tortur i śmierci. Pamiętnik z Sołówek, Warszawa 1930, c. 163.
[xii]J. BRODSКIJ, Solovki le isole del martirio…, c. 281.