Sunday, 20 December 2020

Mother Maria of Paris : Anti Fascist Martyr

Maria Skobtsova , known as Mother Maria of Paris, who saved numerous Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris,  was born Elisabeth Pilenko on 20th December 1891 to a well-to-do Russian family in the Latvian city of Riga. Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians and in this atmosphere of piety Elisabeth was raised to love and serve God. All this changed at the age of fourteen when her father died, which seemed meaningless and unjust to her. She decided that she no longer believed in God and declared herself an atheist. "If there is no justice, there is no God!" she said.
During her teenage years, Russia was in the throes of the approaching end of Tsarist rule, the subsequent revolution and Communist rise to power. Elisabeth became enamored of this revolutionary movement and at the age of 18 married a member of the Bolshevik party. While at the university in St. Petersburg, she was involved with an avant-garde literary circle and later published two volumes of poetry that were highly acclaimed.  Though she still regarded herself as an atheist she began to question her revolutionary sympathies as she saw the violence, poverty and suffering that the revolution plunged Russia into. Little by little, her earlier attraction to Christ and His Church came back to life and grew deeper in her soul. She began to read the Gospels and lives of the Saints. She applied for entrance to the Theological Seminary at St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, an unprecedented request. Up to this date only male students preparing for the priesthood were admitted to the seminary and yet, surprisingly, she was admitted to the renowned school.
By 1913 Elisabeth's marriage had collapsed and ended in divorce while she was expecting their first child, Gaiana. Returning home to her family's country estate in Russia's south, she joined the Social Revolutionary party  after the February Revolution. She apparently wished to assassinate Leon Trotsky for closing the SR Party Congress, but friends persuaded her to instead move back to the Black Sea to work for the SR there. She was very active as a community organizer in Anapa, and in 1918 was elected mayor of the city when it fell under White Army control. 
She led underground resistance against the Bolsheviks, while trying to protect the population from the terror of the new regime. She was arrested and put on trial, but managed to escape capital punishment due to a skilled defence and help by the judge, D. Skobtsov, whom she ended up falling in love with and marrying. Before long Elizabeth was again pregnant and her son, Yuri, was born and later another daughter, Anastasia. With the Bolsheviks beginning to gain the upper hand in the civil war, Daniel and Elizabeth decided s too dangerous to remain in Russia and after a long journey found themselves in Paris, France in 1923.
Tragedy struck the family in 1926 when five year old Anastasia died of influenza. After keeping vigil by her daughter's bedside for a month and watching her beloved child die, Elizabeth penned these mournful words:
"When someone you love has died, the gates have suddenly opened onto eternity, all natural life has trembled and collapsed, yesterday's laws have been abolished, desires have faded, meaning has become meaningless, and another incomprehensible meaning has grown wings on their backs..... Everything flies into the black maw of the fresh grave: hopes, plans, calculations, above all, meaning, the meaning of a whole life. If this is so, then everything has to be reconsidered, everything rejected, seen in its corruptibility and falseness. " 
In Paris, more and more moved by religious impulse after the deaths of her daughters, she completed a course of study at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute by correspondence, and in 1932 became a lay nun, taking the name Maria. She became aware that God was calling her to become a mother to all people who would cross her path. She felt that she was to share the love she had for her daughter with all people, especially "for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection," as she said. While her husband supported the family by driving a taxi, Elizabeth devoted herself more and more to social work and theological writing. Perhaps a result of their daughter's death, Elizabeth's second marriage to Daniel Skobstov was dying and they soon separated.
Elizabeth acquired a position with an agency that assisted Russian refugees living in France and saw first-hand the poverty and dire circumstances in which they lived. With two failed marriage behind her, Elizabeth searched for what her true vocation in life was to be. With the support of her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, she began to consider the monastic life. But she felt herself drawn to a new form of monastic life, one that combined prayer and contemplation with service to those in need around her. She was tonsured a nun in 1932 and given the name Maria. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to devote herself to a new kind of monastic life, what she called "monasticism in the world." She opened a house of hospitality in Paris to serve the poor, the homeless, the desperate. She was not content to simply wait for the needy to ring her doorbell but traveled the back alleys and bars of Paris seeking out those in need of her maternal care. She entered those places where other people were simply afraid to go; she found beggars and drunkards, took them to her home, washed, clothed, and fed them.
The last phase of Mother Maria's life began when the German Nazis conquered and occupied France during World War II. While it would have been possible for her to flee France as the Germans were advancing toward Paris, she refused to leave. "If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?"
Mother Maria joined some colleagues in preparing and dispatching food parcels and funds to families of more than 1,000 Russian émigrés who were imprisoned by the Nazis.Early in 1942 the Nazis began their registration of Jews. Jews began to knock on the door of the house of hospitality asking if the chaplain, Father Dimitri Klepinine, would issue fake baptismal certificates to save their lives. With the support of Mother Maria, Father Dmitri issued the fake documents, convinced that Christ would do the same. When the order came from Berlin that the yellow star must be worn by all Jews, many French Christians felt that this was not their concern since it was not a Christian problem. Mother Maria replied, "There is no such thing as a Christian problem. Don't you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived."  She also hid Jews at Lourmel and forged documents for them.
In July, 1942, mass arrests of Jews began to take place--12,884 were arrested of whom 6,900 were children. They were held prisoner in the Velodrome d’Hiver, Paris’ sports stadium, just a kilometer from Mother Maria's house, before they were sent to Auschwitz. With her monastic robe gaining her entrance, she spent three days at the sports stadium distributing food and clothing and even managing to smuggle out some children by bribing garbage collectors to hide them in trash cans. Her house of hospitality was literally bursting at the seams with people, many of them Jews. Mother Maria remarked, "It is amazing that the Germans haven't pounced on us yet." She also said that if anyone came looking for Jews she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.
On February 8, 1943 the Nazis did pounce and arrested Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Father Dmitri, and their helper, Elia Fondaminski. In the pocket of Yuri was found a letter from a Jewish family asking for a false baptismal certificate.
Father Dmitri was interrogated by Hans Hoffinan, a Gestapo officer. A portion of the interrogation has been preserved:

Hoffman: If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?

Father Dimitri: I can do no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must.

 (Hoffinan struck the priest across the face.)

Hoffman: Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty!

Father Dimitri: (holding up the cross from his cassock): Do you know this Jew?

For this Father Dimitri was knocked to the floor.

Mother Maria and those arrested with her were all sent to concentration camps--the men to Buchenwald and Dora and Mother Maria to Ravensbruck. There, as prisoner Number 19263, she continued her ministry among her companions, with the strength of her faith giving them encouragement and love in the midst of hopelessness and despair. Finally, Maria, her health broken, could no longer pass the roll call on Good Friday 1945. She stepped into the line with those women condemned to die, hoping to inspire them to meet their fate with faith in God. As one witness wrote, “She offered herself consciously to the holocaust . . . thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross. . . . She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.” Mother Maria Skobtsova was  killed in the gas chamber at Ravensbruck concentration camp on March 31, 1945, Holy Saturday, only a week before the camp was liberated. 
In 1985, Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations for her work saving Jews from the Holocaust, and in 2004, with some controversy, she was a former socialist revolutionary who was twice-married for starters, and she remained an intellectual of leftist bent throughout her life, the fact that she smoked, and her somewhat heterodox preaching,  the Russian Orthodox Church canonized her as a martyred saint.

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