Study Guide

INTERRUPTED LIVES – CATHOLIC SISTERS UNDER EUROPEAN COMMUNISM

The study guide accompanies the documentary Interrupted Lives – Catholic Sisters Under European Communism and is designed to provide teachers and students with information about the communist period and the communist government assault on Catholic sisters in Central and Eastern Europe.  Information helps students to understand the culture and outcomes of atheistic communism and is an entrée to encouraging further study of this period.  It also provides a basis for making connections between the injustices of the communist era and the inequalities or moral choices related to current situations.

Program Goals

  1. To identify the economic, political and social environment that allowed the communist party to assume control of countries in Central & Eastern Europe
  2. To examine discrimination against Christians
  3. To analyze the consequences of communist domination on the lives of Catholic Sisters
  4. To teach the dangers of intolerance and prejudice

Definitions

USSR – The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics consisting of Russia and surrounding countries. .

Bolshevik Revolution – Russia, 1917, initiated by millions of people to overthrow the czar. .

Marxism – an economic and social system based upon the political and economic themes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  A Marxist has a certain kind of practice, a way of living and working, that we call being a communist.

Josef Stalin – absolute ruler of the Soviet Union between 1928 and his death March 5, 1953.  Stalin was responsible for transforming the Soviet Union from an agricultural nation into a global superpower and in the process, eliminated millions of people.  Intellectuals, dissidents, and even allies were put to death under Stalin.

Yalta Conference – (Crimea Conference) was the wartime meeting in the Crimea, among the heads of government of the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin respectively.  The three met to discuss the reorganization of postwar Europe; i.e. the re-establishment of the nations of wartorn Europe.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Dec. 10, 1948 – adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations.  It is the foundation of international human rights law and the first universal statement on the basic principles of inalienable human rights; a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.

Gulag – (acronym for the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies) established in 1919, the Gulag was the Soviet system of forced labor camps, located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North, where millions of people worked.

Religious congregations – communities of Catholic men or women who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Underground Churchmembers of the Roman and Greek Catholic churches who continued to hold services and practice their faith clandestinely

Secret Sisters – women who entered religious life in secret during communism

Concentration Convents – large residences where sisters from multiple congregations, uprooted from their convents, were taken.

Greek Catholic or Uniate Church – refers to the Eastern rite Catholic churches, in union with Rome, that follow the Byzantine liturgical tradition.

Berlin Wall – symbol of the Cold War – built August 13, 1961 and torn down by the end of 1990.  The Communist East Germany wanted to isolate citizens of East Berlin from the West, and did so with 27 miles of concrete and barbed wire.  The wall was intended to stem the flood of refugees seeking freedom in the West.

Questions you may want to ask yourself before beginning: Why is it important to study the communist era and its effect on Catholic religious congregations of women?  Are there lessons to be learned from the faith and courage of these sisters, many of whom were sent to labor camps and some imprisoned for their commitment?  Did the Declaration of Human Rights have any effect on the Russian government, one of the original signers?

The history of the over forty year oppression of Catholic Sisters under communism is an effective subject for examination of basic human rights issues.  Through this study, students can learn that commitment to faith demands sacrifice and can lead to painful and dire consequences.  Students can gain insights into the value of a government that respects the freedom of individuals to worship as they choose and recognize the results of an ideology whose aim is to annihilate religion.  They will gain a perspective on how the power of a few individuals can impact the majority and result in the disintegration of civilized values.

Timeline

1945

  • Yalta conference in the Crimea (Ukraine) attended by President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin
  • Roosevelt dies and is succeeded by Harry S. Truman as president of US
  • Immediately after WWII, schools in Czechoslovakia nationalized

1946

  • Churchill gives famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College, Fulton, MO
  • Truman officially proclaims end of World War II
  • Communist victory in general elections in Romania

1946 – 1953

  • ruthless persecutions of men and women religious in Ukraine – many arrested and sent to Siberia

1947

  • President Truman issues Truman Doctrine to fight communism

1948

  • General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • New “Popular Republic” of dictatorial rule under Nicolae Ceausescu imposes communist economic system

1950

  • Prague espionage trial against priests and bishops begins
  • Czech government begins liquidation of church property; schools, orphanages, nursing homes sponsored by religious congregations confiscated
  • US president Truman proclaims emergency crisis caused by communist threat
  • New period of intense repression launched by Nikita Khrushshev government against monasteries

1952

  • Sister Zdenka Schelingova, nurse from Czechoslovakia, arrested for helping priests to escape from hospital

1955

  • Signature of Warsaw Pact by USSR, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, GDR, Romania and Czechoslovakia agreeing to mutual defense and political cooperation
  • Sister Zdenka, after being tortured in various prisons and near death from an incurable disease, was given her freedom

1953

  • General Dwight D. Eisenhower inaugurated president of United States
  • Josef Stalin dies

1956

  • Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of USSR Communist Party, denounces Stalin’s excesses
  • Workers’ uprising against communist rule in Paznan, Poland  crushed
  • Hungarian students stage protest against communism in Budapest; oust Soviet troops who later return to quell rebellion

1957

  • Catholic Sisters drafted into military service as “soldiers” according to military regulations – later removed from this service

1958

  • Sisters in Czechoslovakia taken to Castle Lupca which served as a concentration convent.  A total of 200 sisters from 8 different congregations lived in this 17th century castle.

1975

  • Sr. Nijole Sadunaite, Lithuanian, sentenced to three years in labor camp for helping to distribute Chronicles of the Lithuanian Catholic Church.

1989

  • Nicolae Ceausescu and wife Elena executed on Christmas day
  • Fall of Berlin Wall – border separating East and West Germany opened
  • Vaclav Havel becomes president of Czechoslovakia and democratic political reform begins after forty two years of communism

1993

  • Czechoslovakian Federation dissolved and two separate countries established – Czech Republic and Slovakia

BEFORE VIEWING

THINK

about situations that could suddenly change your life.

SHARE

with a small group an event that has changed a person’s life, especially the life of a person you know; e.g. sickness, a car wreck, or death of a loved one.  What emotional effect does this sudden life alteration have on a person’s life?

BE AWARE OF

the fact that Catholic Religious congregations once flourished in Central and Eastern Europe, but underwent major crises as a result of political and ideological changes imposed by communist rulers on society in general and religious congregations in particular.  The public life of congregations was interrupted for over four decades by these outside forces, depriving Sisters of freedom, confiscating their properties, forcing them into exile and compelling many to manual work in factories, on farms, and in mental institutions. Sisters were not allowed to teach or to engage in any ministries that would allow them to influence others; consequently, the reason why they were sent to factories, into the mines, or other areas that limited access to communication with others.Sisters were imprisoned on trumped up charges; e.g. a Sister could be given six years in prison for giving someone a coat or a longer term for teaching religion.  When arrested, she often stood alone in a courtroom, no one coming to her defense.  Conditions in the prisons were awful; cells that should accommodate ten persons often were crowded with thirty five or forty.  Prisons were cold in the winter and blankets thin and hardly warm enough to overcome pervading chill.

The communist government aimed to annihilate religion and since Catholic Sisters are public witnesses to the faith, they were targeted for suppression. Offers by communist officials of apartments, good jobs, and other amenities did not seem to entice Sisters to leave their congregations and join the communist party.  Sisters were continually harassed and interrogated in an effort to secure information from them about their lives and about the activities of others, particularly about their superiors and priests.

Catholic Sisters were not the only ones caught by the net of communist ideology.  Josef Stalin wanted total control of all aspects of society.  Anyone who thought differently or who stood in the way of his control, was ruthlessly purged.  His secret police and system of labor camps (gulags) and collectivization of farms, disregarded and uprooted the lives of millions of people, many of whom died under the inhuman dictator.

OBSERVE

  • how the lives of these sisters were interrupted, not for a week or month, but for over forty years
  • the particular labor to which they were assigned
  • the situation of Catholic Education under Marxism
  • remarks that Sister Ann made after her escape
  • Sister Clara’s attitude of forgiveness toward those who abused her

RECALL

As you watched the film, what thoughts went through your mind?

What specific scene seemed to be the most powerful for you?

What do the comments by Sister Ann about her escape and leaving her two sisters behind say to you?

How did you feel about Sister Clara’s imprisonment?  Obviously her faith was strong.  How strong is your faith?  How do you know?