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James T. KeaneFebruary 16, 2024
Walter Ciszek, S.J., arrives at America House on West 56th Street in New York City after his release by the Soviet Union in 1963. (Photo courtesy of America Media)

The death yesterday in a Russian penal colony in the Arctic Circle of Alexei Navalny, the leader of Russia’s political opposition to President Vladimir Putin, might naturally bring to mind the story of Walter Ciszek, S.J., the famed American Jesuit who was accused by the Soviet Union of being a spy and spent 23 years in Soviet captivity.

The writings of Father Ciszek, whose cause for sainthood is open, are also the Lenten focus of the prayer and meditation app “Hallow,” which was prominently featured in Super Bowl ads last weekend.

After spending five years in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison after his arrest in 1941, Father Ciszek was sent to Siberia to work in forced labor camps throughout the region. As he wrote in two memoirs, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, he also clandestinely ministered as a priest. His family in the United States presumed he was dead until they finally heard from him in 1955; in 1947, the Maryland Province Jesuits included his name in their “necrology,” the list of deceased Jesuits of the province.

His ordeal ended on Oct. 12, 1963, when he was released and returned to the United States as part of a prisoner exchange.

The death yesterday in a Russian penal colony of Alexei Navalny might naturally bring to mind the story of Walter Ciszek, S.J., the famed American Jesuit who spent 23 years in Soviet captivity.

Father Ciszek wrote several times for America after his return (his collaborator on both He Leadeth Me and With God in Russia was Daniel Flaherty, S.J., the literary editor at the magazine), and former editor in chief Thurston N. Davis, S.J., also used the magazine’s pages to tell the dramatic story of Father Ciszek’s arrival in the United States and trip to America’s headquarters:

Early in the morning, on October 12, we headed through light pre-dawn traffic for a rendezvous at Idlewild [now John F. Kennedy International Airport] with an old Jesuit friend. Fr. Walter Ciszek had just been released from the Soviet Union after almost 23 years of prison, hard labor and forcible detention. His relatives had a card from the Pennsylvania-born priest in 1940. Then nothing. World War II raged on and passed. No word from him. It was assumed he was dead, and his name was inscribed in the official list of the Society’s departed members. Then, in 1955, came a letter. He had finished a 15-year prison term, had worked as a miner in Norilsk, within the Arctic Circle. Books and an overcoat reached him and were acknowledged. More letters. Appeals multiplied for his release.
On Monday, October 7, in Abakan, where he was working as a garage mechanic while carrying on his priestly work as best he could, he was told to go to Moscow and thence to the United States. So we were on our way, on Columbus Day, 1963, to greet him when he touched down at 6:55 a.m. on this strange voyage of rediscovery of America.
We stood on the airway apron as BOAC Flight 551 from London blocked to discharge its human cargo. Down the steps he came with slim, young Marvin W. Makinen, an American student who had been held for two years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union. In his green raincoat, grey suit, and big-brimmed Russian felt hat, Fr. Ciszek looked like the movie version of a stocky little Soviet member of an agricultural mission. As though by reflex, he and Makinen at once fell into step with ten New York policemen who formed a cordon around them. Off they marched. A reporter yelled “Hi, Father!” Ex-prisoner Ciszek looked up and smiled his first smile. Later we drove him to America for Mass and breakfast. We tried to shake an unknown man in a cab who tailed us. But he followed us to our door and then drove away. Thus began a day in America’s history that we shall not forget.

The story was slightly more complicated, according to Jesuits who remembered Father Ciszek’s return. Both Father Davis and another Jesuit on staff, Eugene Culhane, S.J., had known Walter Ciszek in their early Jesuit formation. The man in the big felt hat didn’t look much like the young priest from Shenandoah, Pa., who had left the United States for Poland in 1938 and was arrested in 1941. Was the change the result of more than two decades of hard labor in the freezing cold? Or were the Soviets playing a complicated game of espionage, sending a fake Father Ciszek to the United States as a spy? The Jesuits figured out one surefire way to tell.

Partly in an effort to avoid the hordes of reporters who wanted to interview Father Ciszek, he rode with one of his old classmates later that day to Wernersville, Pa., where the Jesuit novitiate of the Maryland Province was located at the time and where Ciszek had spent four years of his life as a novice and a scholastic. The expansive 250-acre grounds included many specific geographic details that only a former resident would remember. Father Ciszek’s classmate drove him around and periodically asked him questions: What is over the next hill? Where is the Mary Grotto? Where is the well located? The swimming hole? No Soviet spy could possibly know the answers.

Five months after his return, Father Ciszek offered his first reflections on his time in the Soviet Union and his return to the United States in the pages of America:

Somewhat like a Siberian Rip Van Winkle, I can’t help being struck by things in my own country that seem strange and new to me. After all, as Wladimir Martinovich I lived the life of the people in Siberia, conformed to all the regulations, got used to all the customs and came to take for granted all the hardships. Abakan, Krasnoyarsk, Norilsk—the Siberian cities where I was allowed to live as a free man after my release from the camps—are not Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev or Odessa. As a released “political” prisoner who had been accused of “spying for the Vatican,” I was not allowed to live in any of those major, or “regime,” cities. Neither am I a sociologist; so I don’t pretend to judge life in the Soviet Union as compared to life in the United States, or vice versa. I am only recording my surface impressions, the things that struck me when I first returned and continue to startle me from time to time in many little ways.

Among his observations? The average American was spectacularly wealthy in comparison to what he had seen in Siberia and enjoyed food, housing and other material comforts that the average Soviet citizen could only dream of. “In Abakan, I used to cook myself a pot of soup from cabbage, onions and potatoes, with perhaps some beef or lamb bones I had saved—or a piece of meat if I could get it—and that would be my breakfast and my supper for the next three days,” he wrote. “A handful of lard added to the soup, so that it would be covered with a layer of grease as thick as your little finger, was the way I added fats to my diet. A chunk of chewy, dark rye bread completed the meal.” After his return, he noted, “My sisters began to think the years in Siberia had affected my mind, when I went wandering for hours through a supermarket, staring wide-eyed and unbelieving at so much food.”

However, he also saw much waste and casual materialism. “Here in America, I’ve watched mothers in the kitchen after a meal throw away more food, and better food, than I might eat in Russia in half a week,” he wrote. “The dogs here eat more meat in a week than I did in a month. And I simply can’t help staring when people leave their plates half full, as they do so often in restaurants.” Father Ciszek was also critical of the way Americans took their religious freedoms for granted—and the nonchalant way they seemed to treat faith at all. “In Siberia, when I said Mass, people risked arrest to come; here, they risk nothing, neither do they always come,” he wrote. “At first glance religion here seems almost a formality, an obligation that can be dispensed with if you have been out late the night before.”

“I am an American, happy to be home; but in many ways I am almost a stranger, as you can tell by these initial reactions to America,” he concluded. “It may take me a while to feel at home, but I am happy to be back. What sort of picture, though, must others have of us who have no way of finding out the truth?”

Father Flaherty had worked with Father Ciszek on With God in Russia those same months, and recounted the story for America in 2017. “It was not a hard story to write,” he remembered. “Walter had a fantastic memory, and my only job was to get it down on paper.” Unfortunately, when they finally finished the manuscript in March 1964, it was 1,500 pages long. The publisher balked, and they returned to the task. By that summer, they had it down to 500 pages. It went to press on July 31, 1964, the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Father Ciszek worked for many years in ecumenical efforts with Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. In 1973, he published He Leadeth Me, a second memoir. Father Ciszek died in 1984 and is buried at the former novitiate in Wernersville. His cause for sainthood, which was opened in 2012, is slowly progressing—he can now be called “Servant of God,” an early step toward canonization.

More from America on Walter Ciszek, S.J.:

More: Russia / Jesuits

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