Sunday, 4 May 2014


This week, I want to begin a group of articles about the courageous group of people martyred by the Nazis for their activities in protecting the Jews of Paris. Those of you who read the extracts from Traveling Companions in April last year may recall the abbreviated story of St. Maria Skobtsova but I make no apologies for beginning with the full version of this remarkable woman's life.

A socialist intellectual and poet and previously twice married, Maria Skobtsova may well be unique among Orthodox saints. She was born Elizaveta Pilenko in 1891 into an aristocratic family in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire. After her father’s death when she was in her teens, she lost her faith and when her mother moved the family to St. Petersburg in 1906 she became involved in a radical intellectual circle. She was also an accomplished poet and her first book of poetry, Scythian Shards, met with some success. She joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party but, although she married a Bolshevik in 1910, she was never comfortable with the extreme left. At the same time, she was beginning to be drawn back to Christianity, largely through contemplation of the humanity and suffering of Jesus: “He also died. He sweated blood. They struck his face.” By 1913 her marriage had ended and, after the October 1917 revolution, she moved with her daughter Gaiana and her mother, Sophia, to Anapa on the Black Sea.

Still involved in politics, Elizaveta was elected deputy mayor of Anapa in 1918 but when the mayor fled from the White Russian Army, she became mayor. The White Army put her on trial as a Bolshevik but the judge was a former teacher of hers, Daniel Skotsov, and she was acquitted. A little later, she and Daniel fell in love and married. In the uncertainty of the Civil War, there was little place for a moderate and, fearing the possibility of assassination either by the Bolsheviks or the White Army, Elizaveta, by now pregnant, fled the country along with her husband, mother and Gaiana. Her son Yuri was born in Georgia and, when they moved to Yugoslavia, a daughter Anastasia was born. In 1923, the family finally arrived in Paris where they were able to settle down.

By 1926, Daniel and Elizaveta’s marriage was on the rocks and the final straw was the death that year of Anastasia from influenza. Gaiana was sent to boarding school in Belgium, while Yuri went to live with his father. As she watched her daughter slipping away, Elizaveta went through a deep spiritual anguish: “Now I am aghast at my own insignificance,” she wrote. “I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.” After the funeral, she became aware of “a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood” and, as she gradually recovered from the trauma of her daughter’s death and the break up of her marriage, she felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

She set about helping the many destitute Russian refugees in Paris because “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” Her bishop wanted her to take monastic vows but, in typical blunt fashion, she made conditions. She would only agree if she could live in the world and not secluded in a monastery, something quite unusual in Orthodox monasticism. She insisted that there be a “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” The bishop agreed, an ecclesiastical divorce was granted with the agreement of Daniel and she took monastic vows in 1932, with the name Maria. Her aim was to build a new kind of “monasticism in the world.”

Maria rented a house, 77 Rue Lourmel, in Paris, which she turned into a shelter for the destitute refugees, complete with a chapel and soup kitchen. Her “cell” was a bed behind the boiler in the basement. Meanwhile, upstairs she organised meetings and lectures by eminent theologians and intellectuals. She was also involved in the formation of the Orthodox Action movement which was committed to putting the social implications of the Gospel message into action. As she said, “The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.” She followed this principle without compromise, leaving church services in the middle if her help was needed. In fact, the house on Rue de Lourmel was accused of being an “ecclesiastical Bohemia,” a description she might well have agreed with. Aware that her activities were not always appreciated, she summed up the position of Orthodox Action: “For church circles we are too far to the left, while for the left we are too church-minded.” I, for one believe that this was not a bad position to be in. Her activities among the poor and her writings, full of practical and compassionate theology, would alone have probably put Maria among the revered and blessed. But then the Germans invaded France and occupied Paris.

In June 1941, Russian refugees were targeted by the Gestapo and 1000 were arrested, including Ilya Fondaminsky (see later article). Maria and her chaplain Fr. Dimitry Klepinin refused to accept the ID cards issued for those of Russian origin, even though those who failed to register would be regarded as USSR citizens and thus “enemy aliens.” Although she continued her normal work, Maria now found a new cause: helping the Jews. Along with Fr. Dimitry and her son Yuri, she organised forged documents and escape routes to the unoccupied south of France and helped hide Jews from the Nazis, while smuggling food into the camps for those already rounded up. In June 1942, an edict requiring all Jews to wear a yellow star prompted her to brush off her poetic skills to write a moving poem called Israel:

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offence.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

When some people argued that the anti-Jewish laws had nothing to do with Christians, Maria replied, “There is no such thing as a Christian problem. 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 the same month, nearly 13,000 Jews, two thirds of them children, were arrested and imprisoned in the Velodrome d’Hiver Sports Stadium for five days before transportation to Auschwitz. As a nun, Maria was allowed access to the stadium where she worked for three days, trying to comfort the children and distribute food. With the help of the local dustmen, she managed to smuggle several children out in dustbins. She was well aware that she was under Gestapo surveillance but had little fear of the future. In her diary she wrote: “There is one moment when you start burning with love and you have the inner desire to throw yourself at the feet of some other human being. This one moment is enough. Immediately you know that instead of losing you life, it is being given back to you twofold.” She told one of her colleagues that if anyone came to the shelter looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

On February 8th 1943, Maria was arrested, together with Yuri and Father Dimitry. Her mother was also interrogated and replied to the accusation that Maria was helping Jews: “My daughter is a genuine Christian, and for her there is neither Greek nor Jew,* only individuals in distress. If you were threatened by some disaster, she would help you too.” All three admitted the charges and were taken to an internment camp at Compiegne. In December, Yuri and Fr. Dimitry were transferred to Buchenwald, while Maria was sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück north of Berlin in a sealed cattle truck. In a letter to the Paris community, Yuri wrote that, before she was taken, his mother had told him “that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day (Fr. Dimitri and I) remember her at the proskomidia (prayers of preparation before the Divine Liturgy).” In Ravensbrück, her ascetic life helped her survive the privations of the camp and she did her best to continue her work of looking after those “less fortunate.” She also maintained her spiritual life by embroidering icons, using needles and thread she exchanged for her meagre ration of bread, reciting passages from the New Testament, commenting on them and even reciting some of the services from memory.

She survived almost to the end of the war but became so ill that she could no longer pass the roll call for work. As the Russian troops were approaching Berlin and gunfire could be heard in the distance, she was sent to the gas chamber on Holy Saturday. According to one witness, she actually took the place of a Jewish fellow prisoner. On Easter Sunday, Ravensbrück was liberated by the International Red Cross. A witness from the camp, Jacqueline Pery, says: “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.” The last word, however, must belong to Mother Maria: “At the Last Judgement 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.”**

In 1984, Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitry were honoured at the Jewish memorial in Yad Vashem with the title “Righteous Among the Nations.” On February 11th 2004, Maria was formally added to the Synaxarion of saints, along with her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitry Klepinin and Ilia Fondaminsky.

* See St. Paul “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

** Quotations are from Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova by Sergei Hackel  and Essential Writings by Mother Maria Skobtsova. See also several articles by Jim Forest on In Communion, the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to give feedback whether positive or negative. It seems that the comment box won't work unless you complete the Comment as... box. I don't understand all the settings but suggest you choose anonymous and put your name in the text (unless you really do want to be anonymous!) Name + URL (email address) should also work. Due to increasing Spam comments, I've had to introduce word recognition (CAPTCHA) but don't let that put you off.