It would seem that Christianity has come full circle. For the first three centuries following the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, Christians were frequently persecuted – either blatantly and openly or through more subtle forms – and sometimes tortured or even executed, simply because they were followers of Christ or because they would not violate their faith by expressing “devotion” to another religion or to the State. St. Constantine, in his Edict of Milan, changed that situation so that for the next 1600 years, Christians were increasingly free to worship the Triune God openly. Christianity even became the official religion of the Roman Empire and for a while, becoming Christian was the expedient thing to do. Through the centuries, revolutions and wars made some forms of Christianity unacceptable to others, but it was not until the twentieth century that Christians began to face the same trials and dangers that their ancestors in the faith had known.
Today, being a Christian can simply bring about ridicule or incredulity from some circles, it can mean having to make difficult choices in the workplace – or it can mean being sentenced to death for “apostasy.” Our Lord warned about these things and once again, we must heed his warnings and pray for courage and perseverance. Those who hold fast will receive eternal life and many of those will be considered saints by the Church.
World War II was the crucible for a number of saints, among them Mother Maria (Skobtsova), her son Yuri (George), Fr.Dimitri (Kelpnin), and Elie (Fondaminsky), all of whom followed Christ’s command to help those in need and met their deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
Many Russians who were able to escape at the time of the Revolution went to France, where a large Russian Orthodox community grew. Parishes were established and Orthodox life was resumed in this new setting. Paris became the center of Orthodox activity, including theological education for priests. When Germany entered France during World War II, those Orthodox Christians who became aware of what was happening to their Jewish neighbors had to act to help them as Christ commanded.
Mother Maria had begun life as Elizaveta, a privileged member of a wealthy family. As an adolescent, she became an atheist, and at the time of her marriage to a Bolshevik, she was writing poetry and had published her first book. When her marriage ended in divorce, she began to study Christianity and, through an emphasis on the humanity of Christ, was able to accept the faith. After the Bolshevik Revolution, she became the deputy mayor, and later the mayor, of her town. When the White Army came into control there, she was put on trial for being a Bolshevik but was acquitted by the judge. She eventually married the judge and because of the changing political situation, the family left Russia, first going to Georgia, where a son was born, and then to Yugoslavia where Maria gave birth to a daughter. They finally settled in Paris in 1923.
After the death of their youngest daughter, the parents divorced and Elizaveta began devoting her time to working with the poor and needy of the city. Her bishop suggested that she take vows as a nun and this was done – with the permission of her ex-husband and with the assurance that she would not be confined in a monastery away from the world. Now called Mother Maria, she rented a house which became a refuge for anyone in need and also a center for theological discussions.
Fr. Dimitri Kelpinin was assigned by the bishop to be the chaplain of Mother Maria’s house of charity and he was soon involved in the work of providing food and shelter as well as spiritual guidance. His family had also left Russia at the time of the Revolution and traveled through several countries before settling in Paris. Although the family had been Orthodox, it was only after his mother’s death that Dimitri became fully committed to Christ and His Church. He received his theological education at the St. Sergius Institute in Paris and after his marriage and ordination to the priesthood, he was assigned to serve the Protection of the Mother of God Church, the parish church for Mother Maria’s shelter.
With the Nazi occupation, a new challenge was presented to those working with Mother Maria. Jews began to appear, asking for help, primarily in the form of false baptismal certificates. Was it wrong for a priest to lie about the faith of another person? Was it a sin to declare that someone was a Christian when he definitely was not? Was it wrong if this simple act would save the person from certain death at the hands of those who were making a mockery of the name “Christian”? The attempted extermination of the Jewish race by the Nazis presented theological quandaries that Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitri had not considered before.
Fr. Dimitri did provide baptismal certificates and Mother Maria did hide Jews, especially children, and for this, they were sent to camps like many of the Jews they tried to help. On Holy Saturday in 1945, Mother Maria was sent to the gas chamber in Camp Ravensbruck, Germany and entered eternal life. Some say that she took the place of a Jewish woman who had been selected for death that day. When a letter in Yuri’s pocket revealed to a Nazi policeman the requests for baptismal certificates, both he and Fr. Dimitri were sent to a camp called Compiegne. There, they created a chapel adorned with whatever they could find among the furnishings of the camp and which Fr. Dimitri’s wife could manage to send. Here, the Liturgy was celebrated daily, confessions were heard and study of the faith took place. Fr. Dimitri began to prepare Yuri for ordination and a Jewish prisoner, Elie, was baptized. Roman Catholics were also given use of the chapel for their services.
Less than a year later, the prisoners were sent to the infamous Dora work camp where conditions were considerably worse. It was not long before their health had so deteriorated that death was inevitable. Fr. Dimitri died of pneumonia and his body was burned in the crematorium at Buchenwald. Yuri contracted an illness which caused his body to be covered with boils and he and Elie were also killed by the Nazis.
In 2004, these Christians, who followed the commandments of Christ in the most difficult circumstances, were glorified as saints of the Church. Their feast day is July 20. May they intercede for those who now face persecution and death because of their faith and may we follow their examples of courage and perseverance.
Editor’s note: There are two books in our parish lending library about these new saints of the church. Silent as a Stone, by Jim Forest, is the true story of a dramatic way in which Mother Maria and her companions were able to save Jewish children. Dimitri’s Cross by Helen Klepinin Arjokovsky is a review of Fr. Dimitri’s life as his daughter (who was a young child when her father was taken away) was able to view it through letters and eye-witness accounts.