St Ilya Fondaminsky, Martyr of the Auschwitz
Sts Dimitry Klepinin & Yuri Scobtsov, Martyrs of the Dora Concentration CampSt Maria Skobtsova, Martyr of the Ravensbrück
ΓΙΑ ΤΟΥΣ ΑΓΙΟΥΣ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΑ
The Four Martyrs of Paris (from here)
Who is St Ilya Fondaminsky?
Jim Forest, 25 May 2004 (In Communion)
I’m curious about Ilya Fondaminsky and how he came to be included in the canonization. Just by his date of death, it would appear he passed away before St. Mother Maria Skobtsova and company were arrested. What do you know about him?On the web site of Amherst University, in a section devoted to the papers of Vladimir Zenzinov, there is this biographical summary:
In his biography of Mother Maria Skobtsova, Pearl of Great Price, Fr Serge Hackel writes that Fondaminsky was one of the distinguished people who gave occasional lectures at the Sunday afternoon gatherings at the house on rue de Lourmel (along with Berdyaev, Bulgakov, etc.).
Ilya Isidorovich Fondaminsky (pseudonym Bukanov), political figure and publisher, was born in Moscow in 1881 and died at Auschwitz on November 19, 1942). From 1900 he studied philosophy at Berlin and Heidelberg Universities and in the spring of 1902 was arrested at the Russian border for transporting illegal literature into Russia. In 1905 he became a member of the Moscow Committee of the S.R. (Socialist-Revolutionary Party). In 1906 he fled to Paris, where he became good friends with Z. Gippius, D. Merezhkovsky, and B. Savinkov. He returned to Moscow in April 1917 and as a Commissar of the Provisional Government opposed the Bolsheviks. In 1919 he emigrated to France, and in Paris published a variety of religious and philosophical journals. Although he converted to Christianity in 1941, he was deported to Germany and died in a concentration camp in 1942.
Photo from here
In 1940, in a discussion at Fondaminsky’s apartment in Paris, Mother Maria spoke of her awareness that these were eschatological times. “Do you not feel that the end is already near, that it is at hand?” [Hackel, p 99]
For many years he was haunted by Christ and drawn to the Orthodox Church. He regularly attended the French-language liturgies celebrated by Fr Lev Gillet at the chapel adjacent to Mother Maria’s house of hospitality on rue de Lourmel. He explained his hesitancy to be baptized on the grounds that he was unworthy, though Hackel also mentions the factor of loyalty to his wife, an unbaptized Christian who had died in 1935.
Their mutual friend Fedor Pianov remarked, “It is difficult to say who had the greater influence on whom, Mother Maria on him or him on Mother Maria.” [Hackel 105]
Already an Orthodox Christian in his faith, he played a major role in the founding of Orthodox Action in 1935.
In 1941 he was in the first wave of Russians arrested by the German invaders.
Though a catechumen for years, Fondaminsky was finally baptized and chrismated at the makeshift Orthodox chapel at the camp at Compiegne. Afterward he wrote to a friend that he was “ready for anything, whether life or death.”
Following treatment of a gastric ulcer, he had the possibility to escape to the zone of France not under German occupation and from there could have escaped to the USA, but he decided it was better to share the fate of those who had no such opportunity, especially his “kinsmen according to the flesh.”The theologian Georgi Fedotov writes: “In his last days he wished to live with the Christians and die with the Jews.”
“It is out of dough like this that saints are made,” commented Mother Maria, weeping as she read his last letter.
He was sent to Auschwitz where he died on the 19th of November 1942.
Father Dimitry Klepinin
Martyr of the Dora Concentration Camp
By Helene Arjakovsky-Klepinin (In Communion)
Father Dimitry Klepinin was born in 1904 in Piatigorsk, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. He was the third child of an architect, Andrey Nikolaevich, who had constructed one of the city’s churches and built the famous baths of Kislovodsk, and of his wife Sophia Alexandrovna. While Dimitry was still a young child, the family moved to Odessa, where Andrey oversaw the construction of houses for the port authority.
The Klepinin family was very cultivated, musically gifted, and devout. Sophia’s cousin Zenaida Hippius and her husband, the philosopher Dimitry Merezhkovsky, were little Dimitry’s godparents. Sophia herself composed prayers and longed for a renewal of Orthodox life. In Odessa, she established an Orthodox school and engaged in social work in the city’s poor neighborhoods. Arrested in 1919 by the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB), she was released from prison by a young female Cheka officer who knew about her work with the poor.
Dimitry left Odessa amidst the Bolshevik terror and was hired as apprentice on a ship. He briefly joined his family in Constantinople, where they had found a first refuge. Dimitry began studying at the American College in Constantinople. There the Zernov family, with whom the Klepinins were close, proposed the idea of a religious fellowship that would focus on action. This idea laid the foundation for the subsequent establishment of the Russian Student Christian Movement, in which Dimitry would play a key role. The Klepinins moved on to Yugoslavia, where Andrey successfully continued his career as an architect.
Two episodes from this period define Dimitry’s difficult spiritual journey. The first took place in Odessa when he was fifteen years old. Overwhelmed by the arrest of his mother, Dimitry went to a church to pray. He stood still, hands behind his back. A nun came up to him and admonished him, saying it was not fitting to stand in church like this. Dimitry left mortified, and vowed never again to set foot in a church.
The second episode took place in Yugoslavia. This fortunate event was also connected with his mother, who had passed away in 1923. Fr. Dimitry described this experience in a letter to a friend:
“For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of suffering, when I realized that everything I had hoped for in life had evaporated. . . . I recalled the words of the Lord, ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I went to my mother’s grave with a heavy load of worldly sorrows, everything seeming so muddled up and forlorn, and suddenly I found the ‘light yoke’ of Christ. After this revelation, I changed the direction of my life.”
Dimitry began to participate in the Orthodox student circles established in Belgrade by the Zernovs. As Nicholas Zernov remembers,
“We gathered around the Church; for us, the Church was the column and the foundation of truth, a force allowing everyone to be born again and capable of transfiguring our homeland. The members of our circle later became active members of the Orthodox Church in the West, of the Ecumenical Movement, of the Russian Student Christian Movement, and of different brotherhoods.”
Dimitry absorbed the hopes of the student circle. One of the most prominent and influential Russian hierarchs and theologians in exile, Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, showed great affection to Dimitry, as did Father Alexis Neliubov, the spiritual father of many members of the circle.
In 1925 Dimitry enrolled at the Saint Sergius Theological Institute, which had recently opened in Paris. While at the Institute, he was especially moved by the lectures of his favorite teacher, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov. After graduating in 1929, he received a scholarship to study for one year at the New York Protestant Theological Seminary. His studies focused on Saint Paul, who became for him, as he would say himself, “both dear and near.”
Back in Europe, Dimitry made a living working in the copper mines of Yugoslavia, where his father was architect. During this time he encountered Father Sergei Tchetverikoff, who became his spiritual father; Dimitry became a chanter at his church.
|Saints Maria Skobtsova & Dimitry Klepinin (icom from here)|
Restless and searching, Dimitry soon returned to Paris. He knew hard times, and became a window-cleaner and parquet-waxer. Dimitry continued taking part in the life of the RSCM, singing in the church at 10 Boulevard Montparnasse and directing the choir at the RSCM summer camp. However, he found himself facing a grave dilemma. He did not feel a monastic vocation, but desired with his whole being to become a priest. Metropolitan Eulogius describes in his memoirs how the Orthodox community of Paris undertook to marry Dimitry. At one of the RSCM conferences, he was introduced to Tamara Feodorovna Baimakova, an RSCM member and correspondent of the Messenger of the RSCM in Riga.
Dimitry and Tamara married in 1937. That same year Dimitry was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Eulogius at Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Paris. Initially he served at the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin at 91 rue Olivier de Serres, a parish dear to his heart. In 1939 he was named dean of the parish of the Protection of the Mother of God, at the shelter established by Mother Maria Skobtsova. Mother Maria welcomed the family and their little daughter Helene with joy. A boy, Paul, was born in 1942.
Thus began the years of the war and the German occupation. Fr. Dimitry actively joined the resistance efforts of Orthodox Action, the organization founded by Mother Maria. The small group of people at the rue Lourmel center collected parcels for prisoners and found hideouts for those suffering persecution. An entire Jewish family was given shelter in Fr. Dimitry’s bedroom. His ministry during this time of trouble led him to support many people in need, including mental patients. A former patient remembers how Fr. Dimitry saved her from depression:
“He taught me to see other people’s misery, he took me to hospitals and entrusted children to me whose parents were in hiding. Thanks to him I stopped thinking about myself and found my balance in life again.”
Many former parishioners remember vividly the night of Pascha 1942 at the rue Lourmel. As one of those present described,
“Outside there were restrictions, fear, war. In the church, illuminated by the light of candles, our priest, dressed in white, seemed to be carried by the wings of the wind, proclaiming with a radiant face: ‘Christ is risen!’ Our reply ‘He is risen indeed!’ tore apart the darkness.”
Many Russians and converted Jews came to the shelter seeking certificates of baptism, as a shield against arrest by the Nazis. Father Dimitry would pass long hours with each to prepare for baptism. But as events accelerated, others with no interest in becoming Christian came seeking certificates of baptism as well. While this troubled Fr. Dimitry, he still felt called to act. He told Mother Maria, “I think the good Christ would give me that paper if I were in their place. So I must do it.” While Fr. Dimitry never baptized anyone who did not truly want to be Christian, he gave out several dozen certificates, primarily to Jews. “These unfortunate ones are my spiritual children,” he used to say. “In all times, the Church has been a refuge for those who fall victims to barbarism.”
The concluding chapter of Fr. Dimitry’s life has been recounted powerfully by the Russian writer Sophie Koulomzin. What follows is a description of this time of trial and glory, as told by Sophie in an article published in 1970 by Young Life magazine.
Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitry were warned that they were likely to be arrested in the near future. They had been denounced for helping Jews and their case was being investigated. Gestapo officers arrived at Lourmel while Mother Maria was away. They arrested her son Yuri, searched the building, and ordered Fr. Dimitry to present himself at their headquarters the following day. Fr. Dimitry went willingly, accompanied by a woman from the Lourmel shelter.
A German officer named Hoffman had collected a large amount of evidence on how Jews had been helped by Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitry. He was prepared to question the priest for a long time, and was astonished when Fr. Dimitry told him frankly about everything he had done.
Hoffman said curtly, “And if we release you, will you promise never again to aid Jews?”
Dimitry answered, “I can say no such thing. I am a Christian, and must act as I must.”
Hoffman stared at him in disbelief for a moment, and then struck Dimitry across his face. “Jew lover!” he screamed. “How dare you talk of those pigs as being a Christian duty!”
The frail Dimitry recovered his balance. Staying calm, he raised the Cross from his cassock and faced Hoffman with it.
“Do you know this Jew?” he said quietly.
The blow he received knocked him to the floor.
Dimitry’s interrogation lasted another six hours. Finally, Hoffman took Fr. Dimitry back to the Lourmel, to pick up Mother Maria and finish the search. One of Hoffman’s assistants told her, “Your priest has sentenced himself!”
Fr. Dimitry took leave of his wife and children. Almost his last words were to remind her of an elderly woman who lived on the sixth floor of a walk-up apartment building nearby. Only then did Tamara learn why this visit had always taken so long. Fr. Dimitry would chop wood for the old woman, make fires for her, bring her food, and prepare it.
Two months later, Fr. Dimitry, together with Mother Maria’s son Yuri, was being transferred from their prison to a prison camp in Compiegne, France. His cassock torn and dirty, Fr. Dimitry was ridiculed. To amuse a watching group of office girls, a German began pushing and hitting him, crying out “Jew! Jew!” Fr. Dimitry remained calm, but beside him Yuri began to cry. Fr. Dimitry said gently, “Don’t cry — remember that Jesus Christ had to bear much greater humiliations.”
In the camp at Compiegne, Fr. Dimitry continued to act as a priest. Tamara managed to send him his books and vestments. Out of tables and beds a makeshift chapel was arranged in one of the barrack rooms, complete with altar table and iconostasis. Divine Liturgy was served every day. Catholics and Orthodox worked side by side. Artists in the camp painted icons, craftsmen hand-made a crucifix, the chalice, and the diskos. Orthodox services alternated with those of the Catholics. Fr. Dimitry drew a sketch of the church in a letter he smuggled out to Tamara.
For almost a year Fr. Dimitry remained in the French camp. He was then transferred briefly to the camp at Buchenwald in Germany, and then to the camp at Dora. While Fr. Dimitry had always been frail, his health had remained strong throughout his ordeal. Not long after his arrival at Dora, though, he began to deteriorate. He could not carry out the work that was assigned to him. Some of his friends told the German foreman, “The priest is an old man, he cannot do this work.” And indeed Fr. Dimitry looked old and unwell. But when the foreman asked him his age, he told the truth. “I am 39 years old,” he said. The foreman, angry because the prisoners had tried to deceive him, struck Fr. Dimitry.
Fr. Dimitry’s forces continued to fail. He began to feel abandoned, like Jesus Christ on the cross. He was dismissed from the work gang. In the bitterness of the mountain winter, wearing only cotton work clothes and wooden shoes, he became sick and ran a high fever. Doctors among the prisoners saw that he had pneumonia, but they could do nothing for him. He was sent to the camp death house. One of his friends was able to visit him there. He brought him the monthly letter-card on which he could write something to Tamara and his children. Fr. Dimitry stared at the card but wrote nothing. He was too weak, and he knew he was dying. He just looked at his old friend, who survived to tell the story. That night, Fr. Dimitry died.
A Grandson’s Reflections
Helene’s son, and Fr. Dimitry’s grandson, Anton Arjakovsky spoke about his grandfather at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves in 2001. During his address, Antoine gave the following tribute:
Since childhood, I remember hearing stories about the tragic life of my grandfather. Still it seems that I really heard them when I was twelve. One morning my mother, displeased with my behavior, spoke about her father, with all her heart, about a hero. I went to school crying. I still consider this day as the beginning of my moral memory. It also meant the beginning of a dialogue with my grandfather, following the gradual and startling discovery of his discreet presence and protection…..
After the war, there were the first anniversaries of Father Dimitri’s death celebrated at the church of the Russian Student Christian Movement, the first parcels with clothing and food sent to my grandmother by grateful Jewish families in the United States. There was solidarity. There was the witness of former victims of the deportation, such as Geneviève Anthonioz de Gaulle, the niece of the General who had been incarcerated in Ravensbrück together with Mother Maria.
A poet, George Rayevsky, told the small group of survivors a dream he had had. One night, my mother later told me, he had dreamt of Mother Maria crossing a field full of ears of grain, walking in her usual calm manner. He rushed up to her and said: ‘But Mother Maria, they told me you were dead!’ She answered, looking at him over the rim of her spectacles with kindness and wit: “O, if one should believe everything they say You see, don’t you, that I’m alive!” [Hélène Arjakovsky, "The Joy of Giving," in Mother Maria, The Sacrament of our Neighbor, Pully 1995 p. 69 (in French); included in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings (English language edition, Orbis Press]
Then there was the twentieth anniversary of his death in 1964, followed the next year by the publication of Father Sergi Hackel’s Pearl of Great Price, translated into German in 1967 by Heinrich Böll’s wife, and the book The Rebel Nun by Stratton Smith, translated into French some years later. Again twenty years later, in 1984, the Orthodox Messenger dedicated an issue to their memory, and the Jewish memorial in Yad Vashem granted the title “Just among the Nations” to Father Dimitri and Mother Maria. (Still, the production of a film on Mother Maria in the USSR didn’t help calm the collective memory of the émigré community. It depicted the rue Lourmel parish as a group of pro-Soviet Russian patriots combating the Fascist invaders )
Personally I believe that the end of Communism and the Soviet Union contributed largely to revive the flame of memory, not only with the publication of Fr Sergi Hackel’s book in Russia in 1993, but also among the emigres. When the outer enemy disappears, the inner enemy becomes visible. The 1990s in France were a period when the participation of the French authorities in the anti-Semitic Vichy regime was finally acknowledged. The Russian emigration ceased at last to exhaust itself in combating the “giant on feet of clay” of totalitarianism.
In this context, my mother started speaking little by little about the tragic destiny of the “modernist” group at the ‘Orthodox Action.’ Indeed, those who fell in battle were not just anyone. They were the heirs of the great movement of renewal in the Russian religious thought of the early Twentieth Century, transformed in exile into a movement of non-conformist, and later spiritual, Orthodox thought. They were among the intimate friends of Father Sergi Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdyaev. In 1994, at the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Father Dimitri, my mother published a biography of her father and an introduction to the first collection of articles of Mother Maria in French, The Sacrament of our Neighbor. As introduction to her article she used the saying of Evagrius of Pontus: ‘Sell was you have and give the proceeds to the poor.’ Some time later she allowed the review Khristianos in Riga (Latvia) to publish the correspondence of my grandfather and grandmother during his months in the camps.
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It was in this period that a growing number of voices could be heard calling for the canonization of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri as well as other associated with them who had died as martyrs. New voices were added to those that had been calling for this for years (Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Father Sergi Hackel, Olivier Clement, Elisabeth Bahr-Siegel): the Russian priest Father Ekonomtzev, dean of one of Moscow’s Orthodox universities, Deacon Maxim Egger, editor and secretary of the Saint Silouan Fellowship, and also Catholic and Protestant Christians inspired by their lives. Internet sites have been dedicated to their memory, icons have been painted in their honor, and so on. Following this appeal Tatiana Emilianova, a young Russian scholar, then compiled the dossier for the canonization of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri, with the help of my mother (to whom this seemed a natural development). .
Allow me to end with a personal memory. One morning, at our dacha in the countryside near Paris, I had breakfast with my grandmother, who was over 80 by then. Both of us had raised late. Suddenly she told me, with a wide smile: “You know, Anton, last night I had a wonderful dream. I walked by a field with Father Dimitri, we held hands. The sun was radiant. We were so happy”.
Fr. Dimitry, pray for us!
The Challenge of a 20th Century Saint, Maria Skobtsova
by Jim Forest (In Communion)
ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΑ ΓΙΑ ΤΗΝ ΑΓΙΑ ΕΔΩ
Mother Maria Skobtsova — now recognized as Saint Maria of Paris — died in a German concentration camp on the 30th of March 1945. Although perishing in a gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Those who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the heroic nun who had spent so many years of her life assisting people in desperate need. Soon after the war ended, essays and books about her began appearing in French, Russian and English. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. Her canonization was celebrated in May 2004 at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris. Among those present at the event was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris and Jewish by birth, who subsequently placed St. Maria on the calendar of the Catholic Church in France. One wonders if there are any other saints of post-Schism Christianity who are on both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars?
We have no time today for a detailed account of her life. I will only point out that she was born in Riga in 1891 and grew up on a family estate along the Black Sea. Her father’s death when she was fourteen was a devastating event that for a time led her to atheism, but gradually she found her way back to the Orthodox faith. As a young woman, she was the first female student at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. In the same period she witnessed the Bolshevik coup and the civil war that followed. Like so many Russians, she fled for her life, finally reaching Paris, where she was among those who devoted themselves to serving fellow refugees, many of whom were now living in a state of destitution even worse than her own. At that time, she worked with the Student Christian Movement.
The tragic death in 1926 of one her daughters, Anastasia, precipitated a decision that brought her to a still deeper level of self-giving love. In 1932, following the collapse of her marriage, her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy (Eulogius), encouraged her to become a nun, but a nun with an exceptional vocation. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to develop a new type of monasticism — a “monasticism in the world” — that centered on diaconal service within the city rather than on quiet withdrawal in a rural context.
In a time of massive social disruption, Mother Maria declared, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opens its gates to desperate people and in so doing to participate in Christ’s self-abasement.
“Everyone is always faced … with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”
It was clear to her that it was not only Russia which was being torn to shreds.
“There are times,” she wrote, “when all that has been said cannot be made obvious and clear since the atmosphere around us is a pagan one and we are tempted by its idolatrous charms. But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us. They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vows of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure, but the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”
She saw that there were two ways to live. The first was on dry land, a legitimate and respectable place to be, where one could measure, weigh and plan ahead. The second was to walk on the waters where “it becomes impossible to measure or plan ahead. The one thing necessary is to believe all the time. If you doubt for an instant, you begin to sink.”
The water she decided to walk upon was a vocation of hospitality. With financial support from Metropolitan Evlogy, in December 1932 she signed a lease for her first house of hospitality, a place of welcome and assistance to people in desperate need, mainly young Russian women. The first night she slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. A small community of co-workers began to form. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel.
The first house having become too small, in 1934 the community relocated to a three-storey house at 77 rue de Lourmel in an area of Paris where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. Now, instead of 25 people, the community could feed a hundred. Stables in back became a small church.
The vocation of hospitality is much more than the provision of food, clothing and a place to sleep. In its depths, it is a contemplative vocation. It is the constant search for the face of Christ in the stranger.
“If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” she reflected, “he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts…. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil…. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.”
By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day. Other buildings were rented, one for families in need, another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.
From a financial point of view, it was a very insecure life, but somehow the work survived and grew. Mother Maria would sometimes recall the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.
|Books about St. Maria of Paris here|
Mother Maria’s day typically began with a journey to Les Halles to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not donated. The cigarette-smoking beggar nun became well known among the stalls. She would later return with a sack of bones, fish and overripe fruit and vegetables.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh provides an impression of what Mother Maria was like in those days:
“She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse. In front of a café, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer, and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.”
Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise.”
Life in community was not easy. Conflicting views about the relative importance of liturgical life were at times a source of tension. Mother Maria was the one most often absent from services or the one who would withdraw early, or arrive late, because of the pressing needs of hospitality. “Piety, piety,” she wrote in her journal, “but where is the love that moves mountains?”
Mother Maria saw blessings where others only saw disaster. “In the past religious freedom was trampled down by forces external to Christianity,” she wrote. “In Russia we can say that any regime whatsoever will build concentration camps as its response to religious freedom.” She considered exile in the west a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met repression within her mother country.
For her, exile was an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic” from layers of decoration and dust in which Christ had become hidden. It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”
Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, all theories had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote, “[but] to link our social thought as closely as possible with life and work. More precisely, we proceed from our work and seek the fullest possible theological interpretation of it.”
While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromising in her hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For many in church circles we are too far to the left,” she noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”
In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy send a priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klépinin, then 35 years old. A man of few words and great modesty, Fr. Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria.
The last phase of Mother Maria’s life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.
Her basic choice was the decision to stay. It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing, or even to leave the country to go to America, but she would not budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?”
She had no illusions about Nazism. It represented a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” The so-called “master race” was “led by a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”
Paris fell on the 14th of June. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue de Lourmel an official food distribution point.
Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the high-priority targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends of Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitri. An aid project for prisoners and their dependents was soon launched by Mother Maria.
Early in 1942, with Jewish registration underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Fr. Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Fr. Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.
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In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that a yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries. The order came into force in France in June. There were, of course, Christians who said that the law being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the star. The age of confessors has arrived.”
In July, Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places. Shopping by Jews was restricted to an hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to a sports stadium just a kilometer from rue de Lourmel. Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant. From there the captives were to be sent to Auschwitz.
Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robe a God-send in aiding her work. Now it opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.
The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.
Fr. Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted, working for a time in the Lourmel kitchen. In turn, a local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria’s community was struggling to feed.
In February 1943 Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri and their collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the camp at Compiegne.
In December, Yuri and Fr. Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and from there to Dora, 40 kilometers away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for being sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His final action was to make the sign of the Cross. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.
Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life.
“She was never downcast, never,” a fellow prisoner recalled. “She never complained…. She was on good terms with everyone. Anyone in the block, no matter who it was, knew her on equal terms. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people [whether they] held extremely progressive political views [or had] religious beliefs radically different than her own. She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people.”
By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, a fellow prisoner Jacqueline Pery recalled, “revealed intense inner suffering. Already it bore the marks of death. Nevertheless Mother Maria made no complaint. She kept her eyes closed and seemed to be in a state of continual prayer. This was, I think, her Garden of Gethsemani.”
She died on Holy Saturday. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance. We are not certain of the details of her last day. According to one account, she was simply among the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew. Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward: “It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the Cross…. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”
We now know Mother Maria as St. Maria of Paris. Her commemoration occurs on July 20.
Every saint poses a challenge, but Mother Maria is perhaps among the most challenging saints. Her life is a passionate objection to any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings. Still more profoundly, she challenges each of us to a life of a deeper, more radical hospitality, a hospitality that includes not only those who share our faith and language but those whom we regard as “the other,” people in whom we resist recognizing the face of Christ.
Mother Maria was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy.
“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”
We can sum up Mother Maria’s credo in just a few words: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.”
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A more detailed account of the life of St. Maria of Pais is posted at:
A collection of links about her, and those who worked with her, is in this section of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:
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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship . He is also the author of numerous books, including “Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue,” and wrote the introduction to “Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings” (Orbis Books, 2003).
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