Jan 18, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

Commemorating the life of the “happiest prisoner of the GULAG,” a great witness to the 20th Century

If we have any hope to understand the present day and have some sense of where we’re headed, we have to know where we’ve been. If we’re to understand where we’ve been, we have to listen to history’s witnesses. Father Oloffson Placid, Benedictine monk, teacher, GULAG survivor, passed away at age 101 on January 15, 2017. The testimony of his life, however, will remain a cornerstone for our understanding of the turbulent 20th century and an invaluable touchstone for us for the future.

Born in the middle of the First World War, Father Placid witnessed Hitler’s rise to power as a student in Munich, was sentenced to ten years in Soviet labor camps after a communist show trial, and went into hiding as a laundryman before he could take up his avocation to teach. The life of Father Placid tells us much about the 20th Century. His life is a gift to us, that he lived long enough to share his teachings and that a democratic Hungary could honor his work.

“Remember this: God has a good sense of humor! The Soviet Union tried everything to ruin me for ten years. But I’m still here, and where is the Soviet Union?” he said, recalling the times when he was convicted for “terrorism” and “anti-Bolshevik propaganda” and tortured in the Soviet GULAG. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, including men and women of the clergy and other “enemies” of the communist ideology, suffered in these camps along with their kindred spirits from the former eastern bloc. As Solzhenitsyn revealed to the West, this was how the communists got rid of the opposition.

The key to his surviving his sentence – enduring ten years in the GULAG was rare – was the fact that Father Placid laid down rules for survival, for himself and for many of his fellow inmates. The rules they set were simple but effective:

  1. Do not dramatize suffering. When a fellow inmate began to complain about the conditions, they switched the topic to something else.
  2. One must look for the small joys of life. Father Placid recalled these sources of joy, like when the temperature rose to minus 30 °C from minus 40, or when there was an extra potato in the soup. Or when the captives gathered at night to participate in the Olympic Games of “joy storytelling”. Winners of the first rounds had to compete against each other later in joy storytelling in the hope of advancing to the finals. One of the winners won with 17 good stories about joy.
  3. We are better than our captors. This proud attitude of defiance proved a key to survival.
  4. He, who has something to hold onto, overcomes suffering easier.

When speaking about those days, Father Placid would recall a time when a fellow Hungarian inmate told him that when he overheard Father Placid’s singing it gave him strength. “That was when I realized that it doesn’t matter that I was sentenced according to Article 58, point 2, 8 and 11 of the Soviet Penal Code, but that God has sent me here and I have a mission, a calling.”

Inspired by his own teachers at the Benedictine High School in Pannonhalma, Father Placid wanted to become a teacher. He taught for only a few years before being arrested by the communist secret police. He was taken to the cells in the building that today is home to the House of Terror Museum, a commemorative site for the victims of the dictatorships of the 20th Century, and turned over to the Soviet Army Court.

“It was called the court-martial of the invading Soviet Army that gave me ten years [in the GULAG]. By the time I got back, its name had become the Liberating Soviet Army,” he joked. “I don’t know when this change happened, as I was abroad at that time.”

When Father Placid returned, he could not practice as a teacher or a minister. He could only hold services in secret. He took on a laundryman’s job at a hospital. Once it became possible, he returned to his original profession and became a priest at the chapel of the Cistercian High School in Budapest.

“If all of us, my dear brothers and sisters, keep our faith in a world that’s ensnared,” said Father Placid, speaking on the occasion of his 100th birthday. “If I keep my faith until my last breath… I don’t dare to promise that we’ll meet again next year. But with my rock-solid belief, I guarantee that we’ll meet up there [pointing to heaven].”

His faith and persistence, his sense of humor and his sincerity helped many overcome the trials of the 20th Century. Father Placid’s testimony gives us strength and hope for our own struggles.

Requiescat in Pace!