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Kazakhstan – the place of deportations, suffering, joy and hope…

The road from Europe to Kazakhstan – today the journey could be done by train, in heated carriages, in four days. For those who were deported in 1936, and also in 1941 and 1942, it was a journey into the unknown, in unheated goods wagons, often during severe winter months, lasting three or more months – according to those who endured this hardship. Their misfortune was that they belonged to the “enemies of the people”. Some recall that they could take with them a limited amount of belongings, whilst others were not allowed to take any of their possessions. Some recall being promised a land of plenty on their arrival. Most deportees knew that they were being deported to Siberia of Kazakhstan. The journey itself was a test of pure endurance. Unmarked graves of those who did not make the journey, are spread along the railway tracks.

In Kazakhstan, there were several locations to which the deportees were taken. In northern Kazakhstan, the last station was Tajynsza. From there the deportees were taken either to already existing camps, or, as some recall, to anywhere within the steppe. Typically, the only point of reference was a post stuck in the ground on which there was a number. That was the marker around which the deportees had to settle.

Often, if it was summer, they would start from digging wells, then they would erect tents in each of which several families would be housed. At the same time, it was necessary to consider how they would survive the coming winter, which in Kazakhstan can be very severe. Winter temperatures could fall to -45 / -50 C, with blistering snow storms which would obliterate any path along the steppe, with severe difficulties in finding heating materials, food, or clothing – shelters like freezers, illnesses and many more difficulties all of which the deportees had to endure.

It is in this way that the Kazakhstan territory became the receiving station for mass deportations, the place of immense pain and suffering for the thousands of people who were deported into the area. These people were deprived of everything – friends, belongings, personal possessions; they were deprived of hope for a better future. There were work camps not just for those that were deemed to be “people of undesirable political beliefs”, but also for wives whose husbands were seen as “traitors of the Nation”. It is important to add that there was also a camp for children whose parents were considered as “socially potentially dangerous”. Such children were brought up in an environment that encouraged hatred of your own parents. If a child was strong enough to withstand this pressure, and had the rare opportunity to write to its mother, then invariably the letter began with the words “Mummy, I am alive….”. On the steppes of Kazakhstan, are buried people who never had the opportunity to return to their homeland and to again see what had been so brutally taken away from them.

Many people who were deported to Kazakhstan, remember those very difficult times. Some recall those times and events with great reluctance, with immense pain in their heart, and with tears in their eyes; others are willing to share the difficulties of their lives emphasising that they survived only because of their belief in God, their belief in who they are, and their strong personal values all served to see them through these so very difficult times. I remember when my grandmother, who was herself deported in 1936, told me of her experiences, doing so with great emotion and obvious pain in her heart, she always included in her memories, the priests who, with total disregard for their own health and lives, served the community.

That, in a very shortened version, was the life of those who were taken in the dead of the night from their family homes, and were deported either to Siberia or to Kazakhstan, as alleged opponents of the communist system. When todays elders, (who were deported as children), relay their experiences, their stories are remarkably similar: goods trains, the endless steppe, either unbearable heat or unbearable cold, a daily fight to survive each day in turn, and often the death of members of the family. These events are documented in books, but each person has his or her own profound experience. Taken form their country and home, into a soul-destroying environment, they all sought to protect their Christianity and their belief in God which was all that gave then hope and strength. Today, in this area, lives the fourth generation of deportees.

Today, the population of Kazakhstan is made up of a great many nationalities. Currently, it is estimated that there are about 120 different nationalities in Kazakhstan. Today, and on account of marriages across nationalities, some people have difficulty in knowing what precise nationality they are. But even in such circumstances, people’s nationalities remain very important to them.

More often than not, the religion practised is linked to the nationality. It is quite normal that a Pole is a Roman Catholic, a Russian is Orthodox, and a Kazak a Muslim. For many these are associations that people are unable to change. What faith are you? … it is not important, as God is One – that is most often the response during a conversation with a person when the topic of religious belief arises. In reality this approach carries with it very many difficulties. It is not too difficult to find marriages that are torn apart as, for example, when one of the parents does not agree to a child being christened, or does not even want the sacrament of marriage.

During the years of communist rule, religious practice was forbidden in this land. In schools, the children were taught that there is no God. Clearly, in these circumstances, the family played a huge role in teaching and sustaining the faith. The faith was not killed off as these people turned to prayer. Even in the absence of any priest, they practiced their faith in the way they were taught as children in their own family homes.

In this country, of some 15 million people, there are more than 100,000 Catholics. Most of these are descendants of deportees. The faith was maintained by the elders. Currently, in Kazakhstan, there is freedom of belief; churches are open, in smaller villages there are Chapels which are visited by travelling priests who bring the sacraments. Most of the priests working here are missionaries, although there are now the beginnings of local vocations. Today, young people often say that it is the memory of their grandmothers reciting their prayers that has been instrumental in helping them in their faith and in their search for God. Where the faith was not so strong, the communist system left its mark on successive generations. Sadly, there are a lot of people who say they believe in their heart, but at the same time do not feel the need to actively practice their faith.

Within the whole country, Northern Kazakhstan has the greatest concentration of Catholics. In this region the parish structure works well. Amongst villages scattered within the steppe where religion is growing, there also exist those where the religion in only known to God, as it is hidden in some people’s hearts, living in a basic hut where the ailing grandmother is saying her rosary. Later, when she dies, someone from the family who is often disinterested in matters of religion, will summon the priest and ask him to pray for the deceased as she was a Catholic. The family does not always ask the priest to attend the burial, but they always ask the priest to bless a handful of earth carried in a handkerchief, so that this can be put on the grave. Importantly, even for non-practising people, is the respect for holy days. Regrettably, this respect does not always arise from some deep seated belief.

The reality of work in Kazakhstan is very difficult. This is a country where the dominant religion is Islam. Differences between nationalities also can give rise to huge difficulties. Catholics are regarded as a minority which they really are as there are not that many Catholics here. Here are parishes where weekday Mass is attended by one or two people, if that. Despite this we have to be grateful, as this once inhuman land is, thanks to the work of many missionaries and other helpers, is changing with each day and becoming more tolerant and more Godly.

People here are very open and straightforward. They can show immense gratitude for the simplest good. Deprived for years of the services and support of a priest, they readily show their respect for the priest. Evidence of their religious belief can be seen when the priest, for whatever reason, cannot visit, then the people still go the that Chapel to pray to God, because that is what they want to do. We the missionaries who think we are here to teach these people their faith, can be humbled by the smallness of our belief in comparison to that of the people here.

Today in Kazakhstan, there are priests and missionaries from various orders, amongst which are we the Marian Fathers, as well as Nuns from various Orders. The work of the various Parish Priests, though it appears to be similar across all parishes, does in fact have unique characteristics that are associated with that parish. For the Priest, the essence of his work is to teach the word of God, to offer the sacraments, and to carry out other services for individual people and groups of people. It is possible to see in these people a great desire to be near to God and so they have a great need for the priest. The Nuns often undertake the teaching of children and youth, but sometimes even adults, and they visit the sick and lonely, aside from helping in the parish according to the needs of the moment.

Our Marian Parish in Tajynszy, as described by one past priest, is particularly unique as it has a considerable history of exceptional priests who worked in this parish. They were Priests of immense belief in God and in the people of the parish, and were great patriots. Amongst them were Fr. Kuczynski and Fr. Kaszuba. Their names are deeply etched in the annals of the Church’s history in Kazakhstan, and particularly in the period when faith was a reason for being persecuted. They had no fear of labour camps or other punishments, they were totally dedicated to their parishioners and to their own faith and mission.

Another priest whose name is etched in the history of our parish, is Father Jan Pawel Lenga MIC from the Order of the Marina Fathers. He began praying with the parishioners in a small chapel, but then in 1988, after receiving permission form Moscow, he laid the foundations for the Church of the Holy Family which we use today. People came from all over including other towns to help with the building of the church. As older parishioners remember, crowds came to the church in order to pray, to be baptised and to receive other sacraments. Father Lenga was nominated by the Pope as The Bishop for Kazakhstan and all of central Asia. On the 3 rd September of this year, at the behest of the President of Poland, he was honoured with the Commander Cross for the unique and exceptional work done in saving polish people from being eradicated from Kazakhstan.

Over many years, various Parish priests worked in the Tajynsze parish. In August 2011, the Marian Fathers, in the form of Father Stefan Wysocki and myself, Alexey Mitsinskiy, returned to the parish in order to continue and develop the work already done. My life history began in 1983 when I was born in Kazakhstan (in Karaganda). My grandmother and great grandmother were polish and catholic and so, in consequence, in 1936 they were deported to Kazakhstan. Like my father, I was born in Karaganda. I grew up amongst many people who were deported to Kazakhstan and thanks to them , I learned my respect for life, and my respect for, and gratitude to, people older than myself who had experienced life and the pain it sometimes brings.

In 2000, when I was 17 years old, I was accepted to the Marian Fathers. That same year, I left Kazakhstan for Poland where I was to begin my journey into the priesthood. My first Vows were made in 2002, and perpetual Vows were made in 2008. I was ordained on the 12 th June 2010 in Karaganda. After my ordination, and on my request, I was detailed to work in Karaganda where I realised very quickly how small I was in comparison to the greatness of the people that had suffered so much through being deported.

These wonderful people showed me huge respect as a young priest. I felt small and humbled by the strength of their belief, their hope and their love of the Church and the Priest. I was once summoned to an ailing grandmother who was friends with my grandmother. She was nearing the end of her life. When I entered her room, she was laying on her bed. She took my hand, brought it to her cheek and uttered the words “I have not forgotten your wish that I pray for you. I did pray and I will continue to pray even after my death….”, and then, whilst still holding my hand, she passed away. There have been very many such moments when the heart rejoices in the blessing of being Christ’s Priest. I could write so much more about this, but there is not the time…

For the last four years, I have been working here in Tajynsze alongside Sisters of Mary Mother of God who live in a little house similar to ours except for the fact that it is only six months ago that they had water connected to their house. To this day they do not have a bathroom or a toilet, and the roof leaks. Their toilet is outside. Tolerable in the summer but in the winter, when temperatures can fall to -45 C… I am sorry for these Nuns but at present we are unable to do anything to change their situation so it is very probable that next winter will be the same as the last winter for them. This lack of resources is something we have to continue living with.

I need to add that the parish of Tajynsza embraces four remote locations where there are Chapels where the faithful gather to pray and to receive the sacraments. These are in Podolskoje, Donieckoje, Leonidowce and in Raboczym Pasiolku. We visit these Chapels, sometimes several times a week. The road sometimes takes us across the steppe. Sometimes the road is shown as a road on the map but in reality it is a string of deep pot-holes. Travel is not always like this , but it is often like this.

The work in Kazakhstan, which is not always characterised by large numbers of faithful, does, nonetheless, give great joy even when only one person expresses his desire to be with God, to get to know him better and to live according to His teachings. Happiness is in our hearts and that is why it is important that we are where God wishes us to be, because that is the best place for us. The conditions under which we have to carry out our missionary work, from the difficult living accommodation to the climatic extremes, make the work very hard and difficult. In the very near future, we will have to undertake either significant repairs of the house or a total rebuild of it, but at present we do not have the money for either option. The house is very old, all the walls are cracked and moving, the roof leaks, and the heating is primitive. To survive we have to make critical and urgent repairs and then, if this is God’s wish, the more extensive work will follow on. On this subject, much more could be written…

It is for this reason that I make this heartfelt appeal. Please help us to help our brothers and sisters in whose hearts there still burn the embers of retained faith, so that we can re-ignite the fire of their faith.

Two year ago, when I was working in Lichen in Poland I walked into the Museum which was just about to open and which was dedicated to a Fr. Jozef Jarzebowski, a great Marian Father. I came across many souvenirs of those who were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Thus, for example, a post card made form brown wood bark with Easter greetings form a small child to her mother –“my dearest mother, on the day Jesus rose from the dead, I join with you in prayer asking God to reunite me with you and all those dearest to me. I kiss your beautiful hands, Janka”. I thought to myself, if such wonderful material momentos have survived to today and are so carefully preserved, then there must be people whose hearts that are full of memories and concerns for others, that reach out to those places into which people were deported, their brothers in faith.

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May God Bless you. Please accept our heartfelt gratitude for every donation you can make.
In particular we thank you for your prayers and assure you of our continuing prayers for you.

Fr. Alexey Mitsinskiy MIC

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