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Christmas 1941 in Ukraine

(Sent in by Gertrud Knopp-Rüb)

Dr. Müller, Florian (Pastor), "Christmas 1941 in Ukraine." Mitteilungsblatt, December 2009, 19.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

German troops had barely made their way into the Soviet Union when the Vatican dispatched Catholic priests into Ukraine that they might care for the souls of the Catholics there. The Holy See knew that there were several German Catholic communities in Southern Ukraine whose priests had been arrested by the Communist regime and exiled to Siberia [and many even shot – Tr.].

Representing the Holy See, Prelate Markus Glaser arrived there in the fall along with Father Nikolaus Pieger. Prelate Glaser was part of the Diocese of Tiraspol. He was appointed to Apostolic Visitator for Southern Ukraine and in 1943 ordained as a bishop with his official seat in Odessa. Fr. Pieger became his Vicar General, and Walther Kampe became the bishop’s chancellor (he would later become auxiliary bishop in Limburg). In 1921 the Diocese of Tiraspol had 150 Catholic priests. Of these, only two remained behind as all the other clergy were arrested and deported to Siberia or to the Polar Sea, where none survived the penal camps.

To the credit of the clergy of Ukraine I wish to emphasize that not one of them gave up his priestly status, and that all died for their faith and in loyalty to the church. On Christmas Eve of 1941 I arrived in Straßburg around noon after proceeding on foot from the final train station. I went inside the church. In the choir area there was a table displaying a portrait of Adolf Hitler, and next to it stood a Christmas tree. Women and men were busy decorating the table. I asked them what they were doing. They replied that they were preparing for a German Christmas the SS would be celebrating here in the evening. I introduced myself as a Catholic priest. Old man Anton fell to my feet, crying, and said, “Father, we have been waiting for you with great yearning.” Father Pieger had promised them that he would send them a priest for Christmas. Then I decided, “Good, at seven in the evening you can celebrate your German Christmas with the SS, but at ten we will celebrate our own Christian Christmas in the true style of a midnight Mass.” Then the old man Anton took me to the house of a family across from the church, where I could stay a while.  

As I arrived back at the church around 9 PM, the street around it was filled with horse-drawn wagons and sleighs, and inside the church it was so crowded, difficult for me to make my way toward the altar. Then we began with the Christmas Mass. An inspired choir sang, in five voices, “Born in Bethlehem.” People were singing and crying, purely out of joy of being able to celebrate Christmas Mass again after so many years, and with our beautiful German Christmas songs. We ended with the traditional “Stille Nacht,” but the people did not want to go home before I promised them to come back soon. I was taken to Baden on a pony wagon. And there, the same scene: the church filled to overflowing with the faithful, who sang Christmas songs in their own heart-warming way. They had sent out riders to bring the joyous news to other villages that a midnight Mass would be held. For three weeks I was transported on sleighs from community to community: from Straßburg to Baden, then to Mannheim, Elsaß, and all the way to Yeremeyevka. I celebrated Mass, baptized children and gave the church’s blessing to married couples. I baptized more than 3,000 children and blessed more than 1,600 marriages. The oldest to be baptized was twenty-eight years of age. Everywhere, I was greeted with such enthusiasm that in my priestly eagerness I felt neither the Russian cold of that horrible winter nor my own tiredness. Father Pieger wrote as follows concerning those first days of pastoring in Ukraine: “Our faithful were overcome as if from a renewed Pentecostal storml.” In all communities that had been freed, churches were renovated and services organized, and everywhere the call went out for priests.           

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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