Magazine article The Christian Century

Memories of Persecution

Magazine article The Christian Century

Memories of Persecution

Article excerpt

Traveling across Europe elicits constant double-takes for someone of the baby-boom generation. Just as you are relishing the sights in a lovely city like Prague, Dresden or Budapest, you are startled to see an object or a historical marker that reminds you how very recently these places belonged to a sinister political and cultural order.

Is it really just a quarter century ago that nations like Czechoslovakia and East Germany were part of a Soviet empire that threatened to engulf Western Europe? Once upon a time--and not long ago--there was another Europe.

Equally consigned to oblivion, at least for most Americans, is the religious story of communist Europe, in which Christians suffered horrific persecutions. Wandering in Hungary today, you will casually see signs with names like Recsk and Kistarcsa, with no warning that in the 1950s these were the sites of lethal concentration camps in which Christian clergy and laity were murdered in the thousands.

It was at Kistarcsa, for instance, that Bishop Zoltan Meszlenyi was martyred in 1951. In the Czech Republic, you might see the old uranium mining complexes of Pribram and Jachymov without realizing how many religious enemies of the state died here in the 1950s undergoing forced labor that amounted to torture.

Through the 1960s, American Christians, especially Catholics, remained highly attuned to this situation as they followed the career of a heroic resister like Hungarian cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty. Today, though, the persecutions seem to belong to ancient history, as remote as the time of Diocletian.

That amnesia reflects the totally changed political situation and the restoration of religious freedom: who could imagine such horrible deeds happening in such benevolently European and democratic settings? The new Hungarian constitution even vaunts the nation's Christian heritage. Yet it would be tragic if such a dreadful part of Christian history were lost to collective memory, if only because later generations have so much to learn from the various strategies that oppressed churches adopted in the face of crisis.

The need to keep these memories alive drove a heroic scholarly enterprise, one that makes it possible to reexamine those persecutions in astonishing detail. The project began when Anglican canon Michael Bourdeaux visited Moscow in the 1950s. He encountered the city's surviving Orthodox churches and thereafter made it his life's work to tell the West about the Orthodox and about other religious denominations living under communist rule. …

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