Telling the Story of a Brutal Time: Priest Films Documentary about Christians in Communist Czechoslovakia. (World)

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

Telling the Story of a Brutal Time: Priest Films Documentary about Christians in Communist Czechoslovakia. (World)


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


The work that has occupied filmmaker Ken Gumbert for the past nine months and which he hopes will occupy him for years in the future began with a casual conversation at Providence College, where Gumbert, a Dominican priest, teaches film. Gumbert was chatting with a Dominican from Slovakia, who mentioned he had become a priest secretly in the 1980s.

"It hadn't occurred to me that it was illegal in Europe to become a priest, and I thought that was fascinating and a story I wanted to explore on film," said Gumbert, who came to Europe in the fall of 2000 with an equipment grant from Providence College, another grant from the Western Dominican Province, and a zeal to pursue what seemed to him a story still little known to many Americans.

Thirty hours of filmed interviews later, Gumbert said he is 95 percent done with his examination of how religion in Czechoslovakia fared under communism. The documentary is, he hopes, one part of what will be a five-part study of religion during the communist period in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The proposal is currently under consideration at PBS, which aired two earlier films Gumbert made on Native American spirituality. As Gumbert envisions the project, the first part would focus on Russia and the Ukraine, the second part would look at the Baltic states and Poland, the third at Czechoslovakia, the fourth at the Balkans and Hungary, and the fifth would look at relations between the Vatican, Moscow and Washington.

But right now it's part three that is on his mind -- the discoveries he's made while researching 40 years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 became the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"In the West, we think the Cold War is over, that it's dead. But it really isn't. There's still a lot of uncertainty here," Gumbert said, speaking of both the ambivalence about democracy that he's found among some Czechs and Slovaks as well as the entrenched rule of former communists, who still control major sectors of the media, run the universities and occupy prominent positions in business and politics.

People are reluctant to talk

A still bigger surprise to the filmmaker is the reluctance he's found among persons who suffered under communism to talk about the past. "People who experienced 12 years in concentration camps, who were tortured, who were humiliated, just don't want to talk about it."

That reticence, so different from Americans' eagerness to publicly discuss even the most private issues, still mystifies him.

"It's the opposite of the Oprah phenomenon. There's a hushed silence about what happened and there's a real hesitancy to criticize the communists and to criticize what they did," said Gumbert, who speculates that it may take another generation before people begin to address the injustices committed by the communists. "People have explained to me that it's just too painful," he added. "This priest said to me that if he really thought about what had happened to him and his family, he would be a wreck. He wouldn't be able to live."

At the core of Gumbert's documentary is what he says was Stalin's plan to liquidate the Catholic church in Czechoslovakia and to create a totally atheistic society, a plan agreed to and supported by the communist leader in Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald. To that end, in 1950 the communist government confiscated church property and arrested more than 13,000 priests and religious and put them in concentration camps. Many of the younger priests and religious were sent to military labor units; others were sent to work in the uranium mines in Jachymov in northern Czechoslovakia.

With the exception of the Hussite church, which was native to Czechoslovakia and which the communists attempted to manipulate more than suppress, other Christians fared no better. Many Lutheran ministers and bishops went to prison. After World War II, Jews were seen as too small a population to pose any threat, though Jewish members of the Communist Party became prime targets in the political show trials of selected communists in the early 1950s. …

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