Christmas in Herod’s era

(All rights reserved © Henryk Rozanski, e-mail: agabinet@seznam.cz)

The century was still young but tired by ubiquitous slaughter of innocent infants and senseless butchery all over Europe. Peace, as never before in history, was expected in all families of the old continent. And when it finally came it was at the obvious expense of some countries. In remote villages not many worried of disturbing rumors about cruel revolution far north which menaced future conquests in the name of new deities. Similarly in towns not many worried of new social order and miseries stayed alive in post-bellum uprooted society unaware of new subtle dangers. It was a heartless century, unfavourable for newborns and adults alike.

There is one country in Poland where its mother-river Vistula springs out in the village bearing the same name as the river: Vistula. People there live simple, religious and Christian lives. Mountains prove God’s majesty, the river whispers of ever prevailing human afflictions there. Winters there are hard and harsh; ruthless for negligent and unsocial types. Summers full of heavenly fragrance, buzz of bees and magnificent songs of lasses and lads working on rich slopes.

It was Christmas time of 1917 when in one family of highlanders a son Oscar was born. Millennial firs sang their windy songs, snow and frost reminded of severe lot of man and the silence of valleys announced secrets of coming years. Bethlehem in mountains, parent’s joy, mystery for siblings and revelation for angels. The first Christmas for Oscar like the first touch of destiny was the first contact with powers of earth to fortunate Christian parents, offering their child to Jesus Christ that dark, somber night. They knew the evil age and knew the remedy. Highlanders like seafarers have unusual, remarkable trust in God of the Gospel.

Oscar’s mother became the second wife of Oscar’s father in a miraculous way, at least he thought it this way. After his father’s first wife died all felt sorry for bereaved ten children left on widower’s head. Unexpectedly the pastor came with an idea to help to the orphans. He simply went to one of girl Maria and ordered her to marry Oscar and take care of the children. Pastor’s word was God’s word for his parishioners and she subdued to it. This Christmas Maria was nursing her second son.

Many Christmas passed in the mountains, war had finished but some old problems still remained. It was a time of rest before another terrible war, the time of preparation for the trials awaiting people of this remote country. Life in Oscar’s village ran around religious disputes, the study of the Bible and parish youths meetings. There was not much money nevertheless God provided abundantly. This Christmas a few months before the war Oscar sat at Christmas table and played the mouth harmonica. It was another miracle he often meditated about. Last summer while he took care of cows in the forest he prayed ardently and asked God for the harmonica. He promised to play it only to glorify God and to save despaired souls. Suddenly he saw a golden coin under the fir tree. It was the answer to his prayers. The realization of that terrified his mind much but he bought the harmonica and quickly learned to play it by heart, without any score or expertly advice. This Christmas he made a lot of playing in family and among his church friends.

Memorable Christmas of 1939 was a sad one spent hidden in a hole somewhere in mountains to escape unjust arrest by Nazi occupants. It was a war time when all had to answer either the calling of evil or good. This year at Christmas his mother told him to decide. Oscar could save his mother and eighteen siblings from concentration camp if he volunteered to be a German soldier. That Christmas Oscar knew what sacrifices he had to make. He went to join German army. His family was saved from Auschwitz Golgotha.

The war time had passed unsteady but always with God’s word read at every free moment. German soldiers mocked and ridiculed his dedication to the Bible and hymn singing but Oscar never yielded to unbelief. One Christmas he passed in luxury Denmark hospital after he was wounded in eastern front in Ukraine. Another Christmas he passed lying in bed with weak exhausted heart which couldn’t suffer any more German bullying of him. He couldn’t speak German well, nor he understood some orders. Only God, the Bible and harmonica consoled his solitude. His heart was not with guns, weaponry and godless talk. His heart and soul was with his mum and brothers and he enjoyed the thought that he saved his dears.

The war was waged in Lithuania that year of 1944 when in the heavy ruthless battle near Kowno he was wounded in his head and was left as dead on the battlefield. As he regained his consciousness he realized that he was a Russian’s prisoner of war. First they thought he is German and wanted to kill him on a spot. The watch saved his life. One Russian soldier took the watch from him and asked him who is was, pretending to be friendly. He answered that he was a Pole in German army. It was not anything new for the Russian soldier who probably had met similar cases before. The soldier said to gift him the watch and then he would protect him against bestiality of other soldiers. It saved his life but fated him, after countless investigations by KGB, to gulag in the north town of Sjastroj near Finland. The last war Christmas Oscar spent in vicious and merciless Russian concentration camp. Surprisingly his God still remembered of him. He miraculously saved his pocked Bible and could read it many evenings to his Polish companions. Once when he got seriously ill God sent him a man from his village with tablets which saved his life. He suffered hunger, humiliation and alienation but never lost hope in seeing his native country. At home his mum received an official letter from German headquarters informing her that her son had died heroically on eastern front somewhere in Lithuania and his body was not found. They buried empty coffin and blessed his name. Yet mum always prayed for his return home. Her heart felt that she had to pray for him if he had been imprisoned by Russians. The chances were high it was true.

While whole Europe celebrated first peaceful Christmas Oscar lay in a Prussian barn in the north of Poland. The war was over and gulag’s prisoners of Polish descent were released to go back to their homes. Oscar travelled happy together with the other Poles from Silesia but unfortunately dressed, like all his comrades, in an old German military outfit. Trains were slow and hazardous, full of displaced people looking for their place on earth. Oscar was in the middle of his journey when near town Olsztyn was seized by Polish general commander and his men. The general wanted these poor ex-prisoners for few months to do harvest in desolated Prussian country being now a part of Poland. Oscar harvested all crops but still the general kept him and the other men with him, maybe for spring farm works or to feel safer among wild Russian gangs that robbed that forsaken piece of land, nobody new. Finally Oscar escaped by himself because he couldn’t endure more his yearning for home country and beloved family.

It was lovely Christmas of 1948 when Oscar sat together with his new-wed wife Helena in nearby village Nydek. Again he was abroad, among strangers but this time it was his choice. After returning home he was welcomed as a spectrum by his mum and his siblings. Not many returned from this war and those who returned wished peaceful, prosperous life without any hatred and conflicts. Soon, Oscar found a job in local steel works that were in near Czechoslovakia. Every day he crossed mountains and walked twenty kilometers to work in order to provide for his mother and sisters. In those post-war days the border control was still lax but occasional patrols were watchful and attentive. Often he had to ran away from casual patrols which hunted for him in the mist and darkness of the night. One day while he walked leisurely to his work he met a girl with cows who mistook him for the far distance cousin. As they talked their souls cling to each other. First of all their faiths were the same – the Lutheran and the evangelical. In May they married and dedicated their lives to God’s providence. They could be happier if communists wouldn’t gain the power the following year. But we never know what the destiny had prepared for us. They never believed that their simple lives would be affected by remote policy of evil power. So for next fifty Christmas of theirs were celebrated under atheistic regime and God protected them miraculously.

Twenty years had gone when one special Christmas Oscar and his family gathered around Christmas table. Blessed evening brought the first star on the heaven noticed by the eldest daughter Angela, so impatient and ready for romantic Christmas. She competed with three senior brothers led by Adam, the firstborn, then pious John and fragile Charles. There were two more girls – reasonable Halina and sensible Eva waiting patiently for the dinner. It was pleasure to look at such a family and Oscar’s heart filled with delight about the life he could experience after those terrible years at war. Every Christmas he retold his war story, his secrete Bible reading, his hopes and sufferings. Christmas time inspired reflections and meditation about past days. Oscar never was tired about telling his war days and about miracles which occurred in his life. There were many who complained about hard times but went quiet when heard about harsh gulag conditions. They learnt that life could be cruel and callous when priorities were put in wrong order. None the less a lot of people disagreed with his profound belief in God; this piece of news seemed to be beyond their apprehension. There was another whim which took minds of otherwise adult and experienced people – the tyranny of communism. There was no place for other way of thinking than the one presented in state mass-medias not was other ideology permissible than the atheistic one. Oscar argued that when he and his German soldiers marched to the east front there were, among his comrades, many clever men who mocked at his Bible readings. Finally on the front line when many around him were killed but not he, the major called all soldiers and, pointing at Oscar, said that God can work miracles even in the hell. Now many people in the church and on Sunday school lessons listened to that and took his words seriously.

Another twenty years have passed away, full of dedication and commitment for the community Oscar has lived in. His religious activities were not liked by party leaders. His children were refused an access to some universities but they did not surrendered and went to study abroad in Poland and Slovakia. Oscar felt this unfair discrimination and often went to officials to ask to stop persecuting his children for father’s faith. They pretended that they did not know what he was talking about. His son became a Lutheran pastor but was made redundant because he followed Christ too much. Another son was refused a recommendation to study at theological faculty by bishop who stuck to communist principles. His head was full of stories like that. But what a joy it was to meet them happy, confident and faithful to father’s ideals. On Sundays to go to church, to go to Christian meetings, choirs and the Bible studies. Because of his health he retired earlier and then could every day sit with his sweetheart wife and read daily portions of Bible commentaries. Then they sang Christian hymns of their youth. And waited for their children to come home for a short talk. Most of his colleagues either fell sick or died unexpectedly but he kept an active life in his church and in the community. If a help was needed they came to Oscar, he never refused.

A new millennium arrived and now Oscar and Helena are about to celebrate sixtieth anniversary of their wedding. It is wonderful Christmas of 2007, a special time to meet their sons and daughters and celebrate the marvelous gift of God. Oscar is ninety years old and with his eighty-two-year wife can meditate on God’s providence for his life. Year in, year out there always has been something useful to do and to prove that life here has special spiritual dimension. Now his singing is weak and his harmonica takes his breath off, nevertheless there is something worthwhile in the air when he sings or plays. Life is explained, destiny admitted, love tested and eternity touched. The Bible readings sound in our ears, kitchen table with sun beams on it awake deep memories inside. His life cannot be measured by common standards, it also escapes vague human analysis and understanding. Although he suffered so much from scoffers and ungodly men he has remained serene and placid as the master he had promised to follow in his childhood.