By MAIKE HICKSON
(Editor’s Note: In this three-part article, Dr. Hickson details the life of the late Erwin Jöris, a prisoner of totalitarian regimes, and explains how his life offers lessons for us today. In this concluding article, she comments on how his experiences show the need to resist gradual violations of our privacy and freedom of thought and speech, before they are further eroded or effectively destroyed.
(Maike Hickson holds a doctorate in French literature from the University of Hannover.
(Throughout this series, Dr. Hickson has cited quotations from the following work: Andreas Petersen, Deine Schnauze wird Dir in Sibirien einfrieren. Ein Jahrhundertdiktat. Erwin Jöris, Wiesbaden: Matrixverlag, 2012.)
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From August 1951 until the end of 1954, Erwin Jöris was cramped and chilled in Vorkuta, the famous Gulag camp in the Soviet Union situated just north of the Arctic Circle, in the freezing cold of the tundra, where in the wintertime the sun never rises, with temperatures more than 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. After a stay for another year in another, less severe, camp, he was finally released from prison, after the death of Stalin in March of 1953, on December 13, 1955.
It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn who called Vorkuta the “center of hell.” Stalin had opened it in 1943 with the main purpose of killing opponents and other suspects. Within these more than two decades, this camp had seen one million prisoners, of which number every fourth had died while exposed in Vorkuta, as Petersen himself carefully shows (457).
In the 1950s when Jöris was there, the death rate had decreased because the Soviet Union was trying to make more and better use of the workforce of the prisoners by having them work mainly for the coal production. Jöris lived there in the barracks with several dozens of other prisoners and had to work all day long with very little food and sanitation.
Because he was a strong man, moreover, he was sent into the mines and had to work deep under the ground, and under very dangerous conditions, where many accidents occurred, often fatal. But it also brought him some better nutrition and living conditions.
Jöris strikingly never felt hatred against his oppressors or enemies. When he once was forced by the Communists to work closely with a former SS soldier, he had to help himself by imagining how he would have acted if he had been earlier propagandized by the Hitler Party. He imagined: “He was duped by them [the National Socialists], just as I was [by the Communists]. Who knows if I had been raised that way. . . .” (469). That helped him to live with the situation.
Also, in relationship to the Russian people, he never held them responsible for his suffering under the Communist regime in their country. On the contrary, he had lived among them long enough to hold them in high esteem. During his time in the Gulag he also, in his courage, reached out to some young German students who had been imprisoned for their criticism of the Communist state, most of them being very vulnerable due to their youth and fragile condition.
For example, Jöris worked extra hours secretly in the kitchen at night, washing dishes and thereby earning extra food for himself which he then shared with these poor young men who had just come out of high school.
One of these students, Werner Gumpel, who was later to become a professor of economics of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, never forgot in his great gratitude the generosity and also the encouraging example and spirited manner with which Erwin Jöris dealt with them. Jöris tried to counsel them not to overdo it in their work, and to be careful to spare their strength. “I tried to give them courage,” he later modestly and simply explained (475).
Jöris also tried to foster a sense of camaraderie with the prisoners from other nations. As Professor Gumpel later writes: He “kept his ‘Berlin mouth’ (or ‘snout’) [meaning a certain directness in his speech] with which he gave many comrades, in the midst of all this hopelessness, courage, hope, and a will to endure. He was a good comrade in the purest sense” (Werner Gumpel, On the Death of Erwin Jöris, Zeit-Fragen: 2013).
When Jöris finally was sent away from Vorkuta in late 1954 and into another camp for another year, he said goodbye to many men with whom he had grown close and come to call friends, and they were of many different nationalities.
After he was finally reunited with his wife in 1955 in Berlin, they fled within the next two days to Western Germany. He had had enough of the Communists and did not want to take any more chances, only to be imprisoned again, or worse. He now belatedly considered his earlier lack of decisiveness — to move away before his last imprisonment — to have been a great mistake.
Jöris, now at the age of 43, after more than 20 years of cruelty and fear in the prisons, had to start anew. He and his wife moved to Cologne, where he worked for two more decades as a laborer in an icehouse at the haven on the River Rhine, before he finally was permitted to retire in 1976. After a year in a home for displaced persons (1955-1956), he had moved with his wife Gerda into a two-room apartment where both of them were also to die, Gerda in 2005, and Erwin in 2013. They had no children of their own.
His obituary of December 7, 2013 was piercingly short: “The family and friends take leave.” Thankfully, several former camp companions and political friends had an additional published obituary, in which they honored him.
One of Jöris’ main messages, after his many interviews with Andreas Petersen, was that the two revolutionary-totalitarian systems, Communist and National Socialist, were very similar in their disdain for human life and for free reflection and free speech. The methods might have differed at times, but the outcome was the same: torture and death for those who disagreed, or who were somehow considered to be an obstacle on the way to the totalitarians’ Utopia.
For those of us who are professed Catholics, this very tragic and painful and seemingly purposeless story of the long life of Erwin Jöris — who expressed no deeper sacred beliefs whatsoever, except for those political beliefs which had imparted to him in his youth the militant precepts and slogans of the Communist Party — can be an occasion to learn many lessons.
First of all, it is in my view so important to study the systems of surveillance, mistrust, spying, and imprisonment that existed in the 20th century, so as to make us aware, ahead of time, of similar dangers today. Then, there were the fascist and Communist subverters and enemies. Do we not now have a plausible Muslim threat that speciously justifies, already, even a better system of spying on the population than the totalitarian states of Hitler and Stalin had?
It should also make us more vigilant, that we may resist these gradual violations of our privacy and open freedom of thought and speech, before they are further eroded or constricted and further deteriorated and effectively destroyed.
The history shows how many false arguments, relying on the incited and manipulated fear of the people, can be sophistically used to justify many atrocities and injustices. (While reading about the camps in Germany and Russia, I also felt reminded of some of the credible stories about torture and humiliation that came into public view awhile ago, concerning the Guantanamo camp, even though on a much smaller scale.)
Jöris is also a model for us, insofar as he refused to collaborate and to be invertebrate and silent, so as to save by his cravenness his own career or even his own life. Apparently without the graces and support of the Catholic faith with its truths and sacraments, he was nonetheless able to come out from under inhuman conditions with his head held high.
As he once put it: “I had to be brave. And I was.” He witnessed how so many people entirely lost their honor and dignity and humanity by betraying their fellowmen, even as civilians or even by more actively participating in this cruel penal system itself. Some people told him later that he could have made a career as did these people, if he had only kept silent.
His answer: “But then I would have had to gulp everything down: the whole treason, the imprisonments, the terror, the camps. Where would I then be now? One of these criminals” (496).
Sometimes, even though with some bitterness, but still with pain, he wondered how much pain he would have been spared of if the SA had killed him before his first imprisonment.
From 1933 until 1955 he had essentially found himself either constantly in danger of prison or in actual imprisonment — for 22 years. During all these years, he also thought of others, and it gave himself courage, because he wanted to give others courage. “Often I did not believe any more [in the survival], but I fought, with guards, interrogators, the traitors. I tried to prove courage, also for the others who could not do so. Not any more” (501).
With this quotation ends the documentation of Andreas Petersen, who went through this life with Erwin Jöris during his many hours of interviews and travels and research in archives.
May we live our lives now in such a way that we shall have formed our characters so well, and in such a way that we would also later be able to hold our heads high and also to preserve our charity, even under those conditions which Erwin Jöris had to endure, and for so long.
Yet, in our context now of believing Catholics, the question that the biographer Petersen does not raise in his whole book about Jöris is: What is (what was) the purpose of this all? What is the meaning of all this suffering, and for what end? Was it just a tragedy of wasted pain? We of the Catholic faith know and trust that no good deed is ever lost, that no suffering, if united with the intentions — often unknown to us — of our Creator and Redeemer, is finally in vain. True sacrifice is the consecration of such suffering.
While reading this story of continuous suffering, hunger, humiliation, and fear, my thoughts again and again returned to those lines of the Dies Irae, our prayers for the dead in the Traditional Requiem Mass: “May so much labor not be in vain” (“Tantus labor non sit cassus”). Or, in a slight variation: “May so much suffering not be in vain.”
As I was able to find out, Erwin Jöris died in Cologne in his bed, in his sleep. The obituary merely noted that an interment would take place in a cemetery in Cologne. As Andreas Petersen later and recently told me, Jöris insisted that no pastor be present at his funeral. He had apparently kept his lifelong disdain of the sacred even from his Communist youth — though he had been once baptized in the Protestant church — and he always looked down upon Christians as “idiots,” to sum it up in Petersen’s own emphatic words to me.
I hope that, in this hardened attitude, Jöris did not in the end forget that one faithful Catholic woman who put her own life at risk for him, in the 1950s in Communist Berlin, when she reached out to his wife to help her find him.
May I, therefore, toward the end of my essay, ask our dear readers to offer a prayer for the repose of the soul of a man who endured so much suffering and who, in natural terms, showed so much of a good heart?
After the close reading of this book, my husband and I also remembered a vivid historical novel, The Red Horse, written by the recently deceased Italian author, Eugenio Corti (d. February 4, 2014), who describes, in part, his own similar experiences during World War II, especially on the Eastern Front (he had been an Italian officer in World War II).
Both of us marked how different the life of suffering is, even under the worst conditions, when the loving touch of Christ and His Mother is present. (We may here remember also Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ, and his 1964 book With God in Russia, as well as his 1973 sequel He Leadeth Me.)
Corti describes in the most piercing scenes how priests — their military chaplains — always present among the soldiers, would reach out to the dying (even to the Russian wounded or dying enemy), even while they as Italians were dying. I still remember the one scene where a dozen Italian soldiers were dying of starvation in a Soviet prison camp, and how one priest, near death himself, crept over to their room to be able to give them all a general, sacramental absolution.
The human warmth that comes through in Corti’s fictional and nonfiction descriptions, in very similar conditions, shows how a deeply rooted Christian people tried to help and reach out to others, even while acutely suffering themselves.
May they, too, encourage us in our own lives to foster selflessness and charity in the midst of our own trials and may we be ever grateful for the intellectual freedom and living conditions we still are able to enjoy, as we try to reach Vita Aeterna and the promised Beatitude.