TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR 16TH MAY 2000, EASTER V(B)
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
Already we are one month into Eastertide. The Byzantine rite and Orthodox Easter this year fell one week later, on 30th April. On their Easter Monday (called Bright Monday) I had the joy of attending and concelebrating the Ukrainian Mass in Bolton. Bright Monday and bright Tuesday both count as holidays of obligation in the Ukrainian calendar: Easter is too great a feast to be dispensed with in one day.
After the Mass, we followed Fr Andrii to Heaton cemetery, to bless the Ukrainian graves. About forty of the elderly Ukrainian community in Bolton had gathered, to sing and pray for their fellow exiles who had now fallen asleep in the Lord. It was a hot sunny day, rare enough in cloudy Lancashire. We sang parts of the Funeral rite - the Parastas and Panakhida.
Then the faithful repeated over and over again the Easter chant: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death He conquered death, and on those in the graves bestowing life.” Meanwhile Fr Andrii and I went up and down the rows of black gravestones inscribed with Cyrillic script, sprinkling each grave individually and blessing it with the words: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
This simple ritual brought home to me in a deeper way the meaning of the resurrection. The sense of pathos was tangible. Those who sleep in the earth will rise, for Christ has conquered death. To each of these dead, he will give new and eternal life. Technology and medicine may cure some health problems, they may delay aging. But they cannot conquer death. Only the Lord of Life can do that. As the Easter Sequence sings: “Death with life contended, combat strangely ended. Life’s own Champion slain, yet lives to reign.”
We tend to visit the cemetery on All Soul’s Day or Good Friday. How much more appropriate to visit at the Feast of the Resurrection. How much more expressive of our Christian hope in sharing Christ’s eternal and glorious rising.
Many of the gravestones in Heaton cemetery mentioned the deceased person’s date and place of birth, as well as their date and place of death. Villages all over western Ukraine are recorded. These people are just a handful of the millions who fled their homeland at the end of World War II, as Stalin’s Red Army and Bolshevik secret police tightened their grip upon that area of eastern Poland / west Ukraine.
Some of them arrived in England via Nazi slave labour camps or forced work on German farms. Others had fought on the losing side, vainly hoping that Hitler might save them from that still crueller demon, Stalin. Affable Uncle Joe had already murdered up to ten million of their compatriots by engineered starvation in 1931-33, and deported millions more to the Siberian gulags. The Ukrainian holocaust under the communists was numerically a lot greater than the Jewish holocaust, but it is fortunate if it receives 1% of the attention.
Finally in England the exiles managed to make their homes and build new lives, starting from scratch with absolutely nothing. Most of them were young men and women from village backgrounds, flung into the grim factory culture of the North. For forty-five years they centred upon their Ukrainian clubs and parishes, trying to preserve the culture and language they had brought with them from their homeland – a culture which the communists were working to eradicate and suppress back in the USSR.
At long last, many of them have been gathered to their rest. That day in Heaton cemetery, the living seemed to know most of the dead. One of the ladies led us to several outlying graves, mixed in with the English, Irish and Italian surnames, separate from the main Ukrainian rows, so that nobody might be forgotten. I found my godmother’s grave during this lengthy trek amongst the gravestones, so we blessed her and her parents’ grave as well.
The Ukrainians have this sense of a tight-knit ethnic community who had suffered so much and shared so much together. A community in our midst – I speak as one of the English – which is largely unseen and unknown. If their skin was a different colour, they might have had a lot more help off the social services and race relations agencies. But they are white and blend in, so official help and grants have been hard to get.
I remember one day last summer, chatting to an elderly parishioner in Oldham. Back in 1939, he was 16 years old when the Soviet police arrested him. They heard him using the colloquial (if unflattering) Ukrainian word for a Jew: “zhid”, instead of the communist approved Russian word “yevrei.” For this he was sentenced to five years’ hard labour, and ended up on a work camp near Dnipropetrovsk. The communists needed cheap labour, and long prison sentences for trivial offences was one way of obtaining it.
Labouring on a prison collective farm on a hot summer’s day in 1941, he fell asleep in a hole in the ground where he had gone to take a nap. Several hours later he woke up. It was evening. Everyone had disappeared. If he went back he would be beaten mercilessly. So he started walking west. He knew that the penalty for escape was death.
The first night a family in a cottage helped him and fed him. He was told to keep away from the roads since the NKVD often patrolled them. The German invasion had already started and security was at fever pitch. So for weeks he walked, mostly by night, by forest and field, 600 miles back to his native Galicia. Some farmers gave him food, others told him to be on his way. He had some close scrapes, but God protected him. When he reached the German lines – the panzer divisions were driving through to the Caucasus oilfields – he asked to join up.
The Germans never really trusted us, even though we were on their side, he told me. They gave us the poor quality second-hand weapons. We were sent down to Yugoslavia and ended up in Austria at the end of the war. Fortunately he was not one of the 70,000 Cossacks sent back by the British and Americans to Uncle Joe, to be shot at the Soviet frontier. British society was generous back in 1946, allowing those who had fought on the wrong side to settle here as immigrants.
The war against Hitler seems black and white from a west European standpoint. For the subject peoples of the Soviet empire the moral issues were not so clear cut. Many of them mistakenly hoped that the Third Reich would liberate them from the devils of communism. At first Hitler opened the churches and the Easter bells rang out. Soon, however, Rosenberg’s mass shootings and forced deportations started, and the Ukrainian Slavs realised that they too were considered a slave people by their new Aryan overlords.
God alone can judge what men do in peace and in war. Many of that generation of exiles who arrived here after the war – Ukrainians, Poles. Lithuanians, Latvians - are now passing one by one to the Lord. One ninety-three year old man I first met three years ago in a Lancashire town was even then still suspicious that the KGB might search him out and harm him. They have had a hard life. They sleep in hope of a better resurrection.