Chapter 5: The Martyrdom of Marie Skobtsova (1891 — 1945), by Chanda Sahi
Marie Skobtsova was married twice. She had three children. She became an orthodox religious at the age of forty one. She was a victim of Ravensbruck concentration camp. Gassed on Easter eve 1945, mother Marie Skobtsova had a strange career. She was an intellectual, a poet and a politician.
Born in Russia, she emigrated to France with her second husband. It was a time when the émigrés had to face hardship and poverty. She was a witness to the world war II. She risked her life to help the Jews when they were threatened.
The martyrs of the first part of the 20th century witnessed to the freedom of heart and spirit, and they were and defenders of human dignity. In the affirmation of their faith, they are no longer just defenders of authentic faith but defenders of life. This is portrayed beautifully in the life of Marie Skobtsova.
Life and Work of Marie Skobtsova
The maiden name of mother Marie Skobtsova was Elizabeth (Lisa) Vurienne Pilenko. She was born in the south of Russia, not far from the Black sea. Her family were landowners. She lost her father during her adolescence and this affected her deeply, so much so, that in her rebellion she rejected all religious faith.
Lisa was a brilliant student. She participated actively in the political discussion which filled the evenings of the University and wanted to dedicate herself to the service of the poor and the needy. At the age of eighteen, she married the student president, Dimitri Kuzmin-Karavayev, it is said, more out of pity than out of love. At that time she was involved in avant-garde literary circles in St. Petersburg. She joined the Revolutionary socialist party after being separated from her husband, who ‘converted’ to Catholicism and became a Jesuit. She did not because of her strong conviction but more so because she really wanted to be at the service of the poor. But the Bolshevik victory in 1917 eliminated the Moderate socialists.
In Feb. 1917, Lisa became the first woman Mayor of her birthplace in Anapa at the age of 26 years. But sharing power with the local Soviets was not easy, and she found herself joining tribunal of the White Army. She defended herself so well that a few weeks later she married the President of the tribunal, Daniel Skobtsova. By him, she had a son Yuri, and a second, daughter Anastasia.
In 1922, the family decided to leave Russia and settle in France. At that time Russian émigrés lived in utmost poverty. Lisa did embroidery and Daniel worked as a taxi driver. But the second marriage was happier than the first. The couple separated when Anastasia, Lisa’s younger daughter, died in March 1926.
That was the turning point in Lisa’s life. The long agony of little Anastasis was, by her own confession ‘a visitation from the Lord.’ She rediscovered faith in God, that faith and mutual love which alone allows the understanding and acceptance of death. She then decided to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. From then on Lisa had found her vocation. She began to devote herself to the Christian movement of orthodox Russian students. In fact the movement was concerned not only with students but also with Russian émigrés working in the factories of the suburbs of Paris, and in the mines and steel works in the North and East of France. Many were sunk in alcohol and drugs. It was to their service that Lisa felt herself called. The drunk, the desperate, the wretched brought out her motherly affection. And she said, "They have no need of sermons, they need the most basic thing of all -- compassion."
She composed poems which illuminate the meaning which gave to her life:
What is the use of clever brain
What is the use of words in books
When everywhere I see the dead face
of despair, nostalgia and suicide?
O God, why is there no refuge anywhere?
Why are so many orphaned and alone?
Why do your people wander bitterly
in the vast endless desert of the world?
The joy of giving is all I seek
With all my being to console the sorrow of the world
O may the fire, the cry of blood dams
be drowned in the tears of compassion.
In March 1932, when she obtained the marital separation authorized by the Church, Lisa made her monastic profession in the Church of the Institution of St. Sergius in Paris. Metropolitan Eulogius gave her a new name, Marie, "In memory of St. Mary of Egypt. Like this Mary, who lived a life of penitence in the desert, go and sit and speak in the desert of human hearts".
Mother Marie’s monastery, she decided would be in the outside world, close to human sufferings. It was by these wounds of the world that she would go to God. She expressed it in an article which she wrote on ‘the commandment of the Gospel’ on the eve of the second world war.
"So let us bear witness of the love of these poor -- for in reality, in this form they are none other than the heavenly king who does not squander our gifts but returns them to us a hundredfold. No, the poor, the unfortunate are truly him in ‘the reality of his poverty and wretchedness, and equally truly, Christ is present in them and suffers in them. We welcome the poor in the very name of the love of Christ, not because this will bring us a reward but because the sacrificial love of Christ embraces us, because we are united with Christ in this love, with Christ in his suffering on the cross, and we do not suffer for our purification and our salvation, but truly for the other, for the poor, the unfortunate so that our suffering may alleviate theirs. It is not in one’s own name that one can love sacrificially but only in the name of Christ, in the name of the image of God which reveals itself to us in human beings."
In 1935, a group of orthodox concerned about social involvement founded ‘Orthodox Action’ and Marie became the first President. Its aim was always to serve men and women as the image and likeness of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the incorruptible ikon of God. Mother Marie’s house was also an intellectual and spiritual center.
In 1936, Mother Marie learned of the death of her older daughter Gaina, at the age of 23. At that time Marie wrote a meditation entitled ‘Birth through death’. Here is an extract:
I look for the resurrection of the life of the world to come. Yes, I look for the resurrection of my well-beloved who are already born for eternity I look for the birth for eternity of all humanity, of those who are called to eternal life with the death of my earthly body and the agony of my soul, attached to this earth ... my theodicy is smile: I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. In this faith I die to the life of the present world!’
But then came the World War II. Mother Marie had a very harsh opinion of Hitler, whom she called a mad man and a paranoiac. When the Jews were threatened, she did all in her power to protect them. She hid a dozen of them in her house.
However, Mother Marie’s turn soon arrived. On 8th Feb. 1943, the SS broke into the house in the rue de Lourmel. Failing to find Marie, they took away her son Yuri and a priest called Klepinin.
Mother Marie too was arrested soon after and taken to Ronainville, then to Compiegne, and finally to Ravensbruck concentration camp. 16,000 French women were interned in this camp, but only 2000 returned.
Marie continued her Christian mission of service and compassion with the same zeal. Shortly after her arrest she had written ‘I am your message Lord. Throw me the blazing torch into the night, that all may see and understand what it means to be your disciple.’
The strength of her faith gave courage to all her companions. A woman who escaped relates: ‘In the evening, gathered round her wretched bed, we would listen to her. She would tell us of her work in Paris, of her hope of seeing union come about between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Her words gave us courage when we grew weak under the constantly growing insights of terror.’
However, the terrible conditions of detention took toll of her robust constitution. She had increasing difficulty in walking and she was racked by suffering, though she never complained.
Manner of Death
No one has precise knowledge about the last hours of Mother Marie. According to the first version, she could not pass the physical walking tests required and therefore was condemned to death. According to another version, she took the place of a detainee who was going to be gassed. All that is known is that when the Red cross entered Ravensbruck camp on Easter day 1945, it was too late for Mother Marie.
There has been a shift in the 20th century regarding the course of martyrdom. Human beings have become by and large the main concern, respect for human beings, their identity, so often denied, ridiculed and exploited. This can be seen very clearly in the life, work and death of Mother Marie Skobtsova. As she said, "it is not in one’s own name one can love sacrificially, but only in the name of Christ, in the name of the image of God which reveals itself to me in human beings’. Here life was an ongoing service of love. She took the problems of others who were persecuted and were poor and desperate. Her personal fulfillment was not in her individual satisfaction but in the service of others. It was to their service she felt herself called. As she wrote:
go and live amidst vagabonds and the poor. Between them and yourself, between the world and me. Forge a link that nothing can break.
This is the very thing that we talk about in our class and preach in the chapel. But the question that we ought to ask ourselves today is ‘are we ready to put it into practice? or is it just for the sake of others that we are preaching? One thing that spoke volumes to me is her word.
‘They have no need of sermons; they need the most basic thing of all, compassion’: And that is one thing that I find lacking in the world today. When we look into the life of Jesus Christ we find that many times He did things because he was moved by compassion. But most of the time we remain passive and are unmoved even in the face of pain and suffering in others. Therefore, even though we preach and shout at the top of our voice about justice, exploitation, oppression and so on which we are very fond of doing here, if we do not put it into practice it has no meaning. This is put very beautifully by Marie and her poem ‘Consolation’:
What is the use of a clever brain
What is the use of words in books
When everywhere I see the dead face
of despair, nostalgia and suicide?
Another thing that touched me very deeply was her word ‘I am your message Lord ...’ How many of us can say this with confidence. Personally, in this regard I find myself failing in many ways. But it has been a great eye-opener for me and made me realize that as a follower of Christ, our life as a whole should be the message to others.
In conclusion, I would like to quote from the book ‘Blessed are the Persecuted’ by Ivo Lesboupin: ‘Here is a trial, a test, that places the Christian squarely before two options’. Submit and survive or refuse to submit, maintain your freedom, and live a life full of risk and insecurity. To take the first live a life full of risk and insecurity To take the first option is mediocrity enslavement to the whims of an inhuman option means following Christ in his tribulations, holding fast to his mission, resisting the forces of destruction, sharing in the building of a new world, in which all human beings will actually be free.’
These options are placed before us today. It is for us to decide which one to choose. The choice is ours.
Chenu, Bruno, et.al., The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM Press, 1988.
Metz, J.B. & Schillebeeck E. eds. Concilium, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, New York: The Seabury Press, 1983.
Lesbaupin, I., Blessed are the Persecuted, Maryknoll, NewYork: Orbis Books, 1987.