The little-known story behind Father Walter Ciszek's 'With God in Russia'

I was assigned to serve as the book editor of America magazine in June 1962, the year I finished my tertianship, the final stage of Jesuit training. Four months later, Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., returned to the United States after some 23 years in the Soviet Union—18 of which he spent as a prisoner, 15 of them in the labor camps of Siberia. Father Ciszek had been presumed dead, since no one (neither his family nor the Jesuits) had heard from him since 1945.

The story of his return was a sensation, picked up by the press. When his flight arrived at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) in October, television cameras were on hand along with Father Ciszek’s sisters and Thurston N. Davis, S.J., and Eugene Culhane, S.J., representing the Jesuit superiors of the New York and Maryland provinces.

No one knew for certain whether it would actually be Father Ciszek getting off the plane or some Soviet imposter.

No one knew for certain whether it would actually be Father Ciszek getting off the plane or some Soviet imposter. Fathers Davis and Culhane had been Jesuit classmates of Walter’s in the 1930s before he went to Rome to study, was ordained there and was then assigned to the Jesuit mission in Albertyn, Poland, to minister to Byzantine-rite Catholics. Russian troops overran Albertyn in 1939, and that was the last anyone heard from Father Ciszek until his sisters received a letter in 1961, purportedly from him, mailed from Siberia.

Other letters followed, but his sisters could not believe it was actually Walter until he began writing about family incidents as a boy and asking about other family members. Then, with the help of friends, they got in touch with the State Department to plan a trip to visit him in Russia. Instead, the State Department arranged for Father Ciszek to be “exchanged” for a minor Soviet “operative” who had been arrested in Washington. No one, however, knew for sure if it would actually be Walter Ciszek who got off the plane.

But it was. Following the media circus at Idlewild, he returned with Fathers Davis and Culhane and his sisters to America House, in Midtown Manhattan, where I first met him. That very same afternoon he went to the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa., where he would be close to his family in Shenandoah and away from the media frenzy. Everyone wanted to know his story, and Father Davis arranged with the New York and Maryland provincial superiors to have America magazine tell the story. To this day I have no idea why he asked me, the youngest and newest member of the staff, to write the story that was ultimately published as With God in Russia.

To this day I have no idea why he asked me, the youngest and newest member of the staff, to write the story that was ultimately published as With God in Russia.

The very next week, on Thursday afternoon, I went to Newark for an afternoon flight to Wernersville, where I was met at the airport and taken to the novitiate to meet Father Ciszek. “Hi,” I said, “I’m here to help you write your book.” He looked at me with a blank stare. So I introduced myself and asked if he remembered meeting me at America House. He did not. Nor did he know anything about a book to be written; no one had said anything to him about it. We went for a short stroll about the grounds while I explained that I had been appointed by the editor of America to help him write his story because everyone wanted to know about his years in Russia and the labor camps. He was polite but hardly forthcoming. He said very little himself and answered most questions with one or two words. I finally just gave up and flew back to New York on Friday morning. I told Father Davis what happened and said if there was a story to be told it was not going to be told by me; I might just as well have been one of Father Ciszek’s N.K.V.D. interrogators.

Father Davis telephoned the Maryland provincial. No doubt he in turn telephoned Walter. At any rate, Father Davis told me to go back to Wernersville the following Thursday and meet with Father Ciszek again. It was an entirely different situation when I arrived at Wernersville that afternoon. Walter was waiting for me at the door with a big smile and an apology and then said, “When do we start?”

Sometimes I asked simple questions to better understand what he was telling me, but mostly I just listened and wrote furiously.

Walter began by telling me about his childhood in Shenandoah “because,” he said, “you’ll never understand the things I did unless you understand why I did them.” Fair enough. So he talked and I took notes. Sometimes I asked simple questions to better understand what he was telling me, but mostly I just listened and wrote furiously. We met again Friday morning and Friday afternoon and Friday evening. And again on Saturday morning—until I said, “Enough, Walter, I can’t do any more this week.”

I flew back to New York on Sunday. Of course, we had our usual weekly editorial meeting on Monday morning, and I had my usual editorial jobs to do as book editor during the week. But I was determined to finish dictating my Father Ciszek notes before I returned to Wernersville on Thursday afternoon, so I worked well into the night on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday recording the Ciszek story.

That was the schedule we kept, with some exceptions, for the next six months. By Easter 1964 we had pretty much completed the story that ultimately became With God in Russia.

It was not a hard story to write. Walter had a fantastic memory, and my only job was to get it down on paper. I would occasionally ask some specific questions: “What did he look like?” or “How long did that take?” or “Why did you do that?” or “What did he/you do next?” and things like that to keep the story on track and the chronology straight. But my main problem was to take good notes and then dictate the text while it was still fresh in my mind.

Walter had a fantastic memory, and my only job was to get it down on paper.

One of the secretaries at America Press typed up every week the material I dictated, but I didn’t bother to read the typescript myself or discuss it with Walter until we had “finished” the story. After the Easter holidays, we began to review the “chapters” serially on my weekly visits to Wernersville. At the time, Walter became concerned about using other people’s real names in the story for fear the N.K.V.D. would track down those who were still alive for questioning (or something worse). So I kept a list, to help me keep things straight, of the names we assigned to people. Walter had many corrections and additions—as the narration triggered associated memories—until the “finished” manuscript was over 1,500 pages.

William Holub, America’s business manager, had chosen McGraw-Hill to be the publisher of the Ciszek story after receiving proposals from a number of publishers. When I told Harold McGraw the size of the manuscript, he gasped and said we’d have to cut it to something more like 500 pages.

So Walter and I went through the manuscript again with a hatchet. We had a lot of laughs (and a few serious arguments) over what to cut and what to leave, but we finally did get the manuscript down to something close to 500 pages. The original 1,500-page manuscript, however, is preserved—as far as I know—in the Maryland Province archives.

Finally, as spring turned to summer in 1964, Walter came with me to America House in New York to meet with Harold McGraw and put the finishing touches on the manuscript. By July 31, the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, the book was sent to press.

John Walton
2 months 1 week ago

Thanks for writing this. I naively assume that it is in Fr. Ciszek's memory that the residence hall for Jesuit scholastics is named.

More: Books / Jesuits / Russia

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