December 8, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Father Walter Ciszek survived Soviet slave-labor camps

John F. FinkToday, Dec. 8, is the 33rd anniversary of the death of Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek. But his Jesuit community had declared him officially dead in 1947, 70 years ago, because it hadn’t heard from him since 1941.

Ciszek, born in 1904, was a tough kid growing up in Shenandoah, Penn. He later said that he was “tough, stubborn, a bully, the leader of a gang, a street fighter.” So his father was amazed when Walter announced, after he completed eighth grade, that he wanted to be a priest.

In seminaries, he kept in top physical condition. He said that he always wanted to do “the hardest thing.” For that reason, too, he decided to be a Jesuit. He entered the society and was ordained in Rome in 1937.

Well before his ordination, he became enthusiastic about going to the Soviet Union as a missionary. After Pope Pius XI sent a letter “to all seminarians, especially our Jesuit sons,” in which he sought volunteers to serve the communist-persecuted Church in the Soviet Union, Walter volunteered. After his ordination, his Jesuit superior assigned him to a parish in Albertyn, Poland, where he waited for a chance to minister in Russia.

After Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September of 1939, Walter and a friend got false permits that allowed them to work in the Ural Mountains. Then they hopped a railroad boxcar headed for Russia.

Using the alias Vladimir Lypinski, Father Ciszek got a job hauling logs from a river and piling them on shore. He and his friend celebrated Mass secretly on a tree stump. Gradually, believers learned of the priests’ presence and Father Ciszek and his friend gave them instructions at night.

In 1941, Soviet secret police officers arrested Father Ciszek. He was surprised to learn that they knew his real name, his national origin, and the fact that he was a priest.

He was sent to the infamous Lubjanka Prison in Moscow. For four years, he was held in solitary confinement in a cell measuring 6 feet by 10 feet, with nothing in it except a bed and a bucket that served as a toilet. He was allowed out of the cell for 20 minutes daily for exercise. He spent his time praying.

After being given drug-laced tea, he confessed under duress to being a Vatican spy. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, including 11 years in Siberian slave-labor camps. He was forced to work in severe conditions as a coal miner, log retriever and construction worker. In those camps, though, he was also able to minister secretly as a priest among his fellow prisoners.

Then in 1963, he and another American were exchanged for a Russian couple who had been convicted of spying in the United States. He was then 59 years old.

The Jesuits assigned him to the John XXIII Center for Eastern Studies at Fordham University, where he taught and gave retreats. He also co-wrote two books: With God in Russia, a re-telling of his life in the Soviet Union published in 1964, and He Leadeth Me, a spiritual reflection on his experiences there published in 1973. In 2016, Loyola Press published With God in America: The Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit, a collection of his writings after his return from the Soviet Union.

Father Ciszek died in 1984 at age 80. The cause for his canonization continues. †

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