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November 23, 2009

The Tragedy of Oranki Monastery as Recounted by Father Dimitrie Bejan

Christ behind prison bars, depicted on the Cross which was erected at Oranki Monastery/Prison.

In Russia there are millions of martyrs, victims of Bolshevism. For instance, as narrated by Father Dimitrie Bejan, there is a very special account of many thousands of Orthodox who had been killed in such significant circumstances. This Romanian father witnessed with his own eyes the uncovering of thousands of holy relics in a prison camp on the site of an old monastery named Oranki (not knowing such details at that time), and then, in the late 1940’s, he met a Russian monk, Teodot, the only survivor and witness to that massacre of 11,000 monks and priests, a terrible event that happened at that Oranki monastery, not far away from the Volga river. In 1918, these monks had been given by the Communist's in power, 24 hours to choose between Communism and our Lord Jesus Christ. They decided in ten minutes. After that decision, for one long month, these martyrs dug their own graves while they were executed one by one, that is 300 to 500 every day. Their bishop had told these monks and priests: "Brothers, it is time to wear the wreath of martyrdom. Are you with Satan or with Christ?" How strong was their faith! Not even one deserted! But God wanted that one alone to escape by running away, and later on to meet Father Dimitrie Bejan to tell this extraordinary story. This is His Divine will!

I want to thank Vlad Protopopescu for making the translation of this very important account to be made available in the English language.

From the book: Bucuriile suferinţei: Evocări din trecut, I, (The Joys of Suffering: Memories from the Past), by Preot Dimitrie Bejan, FEP (Tipografia centrală) Cartea Moldovei, Chişinău, 1995.

The book was put together from a series of audio taped conversations with Fr. Bejan.

Fr. Dimitrie Bejan

Fr. Bejan talking to a group of intellectuals:

Q: Tell us something about the camp at the Oranki Monastery and about the monks who were martyred there by the Communists.

A: Oranki was the monastery of Russian nobility, in the centre of Russia, near the Volga. In the year 1918 the communists abolished it and transformed it into a camp for monks, where they interned 11,000 monks from all the monasteries in Russia. There were there hieromonks and parish priests and a bishop.

In 1918 a Communist military delegation arrived from Moscow and asked them:

“Are you with us or not? You have 24 hours to answer!”

And the Bishop told them:

“It’s too long a time till tomorrow. You will have the answer in 10 minutes!” And turning to the monks he asked them: “Brothers, you have the opportunity to become martyrs for Christ! Do you want to unite with the Communists? Or do you want to give your life for Christ and be counted in the host of holy martyrs? Don’t be afraid! Christ is with us! Christ calls us to Him!”

And all shouted with one voice: “We want to die for Christ!”

And so all were shot with the machine gun in the head, for a month, 300-500 a day, and then dumped in a ravine on the Monastery’s grounds. Some of them were digging the trench, then they were shot; others covered them with earth and continued digging and then it was their turn to be shot; they did this until they buried them all. At the very end they shot the Bishop and buried him sitting on a small stool among the killed monks.

It was a mass massacre, unique in the history of the contemporary Church, of which nobody said or wrote anything yet. I am the only Orthodox priest alive, eye witness of the discovery of the relics of those holy martyrs of Oranki, where I was a military priest/prisoner of war between 1942-1948. I have written a book called Oranki about this phenomenon, which is now ready for print in Bucharest. [Note: The book was published in Bucharest in 1998. Not a single word about the monks! It was published after the death of Fr. Bejan by Uniates!]

In the Oranki camp were 14,000 prisoners from Stalingrad, Romania, Germany and other European nations, and we needed latrines. The commander summoned some soldiers to dig a big trench behind the church, above a ravine. Digging there they came upon the bones of those monks. The soldiers came to me and said: “Father Bejan, we found a trench full of bodies of monks shot in the head piled one upon the other, all in monastic garb. What should we do?” I told them to continue digging and see what else they could find. After a while they came back to me.

“Father Bejan, we found an old priest and he is not decayed, sitting on a small stool among the other monks. You can see well how he was shot in the head. He has on the neck a chain with a Cross and a metal icon with the Mother of God!”

“Brothers”, I told them, “go to the commander and report this. This is a great miracle! All those monks with their incorrupt bishop are saints, mucenici [in Romanian mucenic = martyr] killed by the Communists in 1918-20. We must stop making a latrine here!”

On a small stool was seated an archbishop, abbot of a monastery, or a bishop. I knew that immediately because he wore an engolpion and a Cross like the bishops.

The Cross was stolen by the diggers. They cut it and shared it among themselves. I managed to save the engolpion, but it was eventually taken by the commander of the camp. I called him to the site. He said: “Why is he sitting on a chair? Take him out and bury him somewhere like all people!” And he gave me the task to do it.

I went to the camp workshop and they made a solid oak chair. I sat him on the chair and fastened him. I sprinkled him with holy water from head to toe, sprinkling all the skeletons that were around as well. Then I buried him after the custom for bishops, near a fountain in the yard of the Monastery.

He was a saint by all accounts!

This fountain is an izbuc [Romanian for a source that throws water up intermittently]. Water comes up according to the virtues of the people who take water. In the summer, on the day of the Transfiguration (6 August), many old priests, former prisoners in Siberia, many of them disabled, come and serve the Holy Liturgy there. We participated also.

At the commanders request we made a strong case of oak to protect the body. And I saw a miracle. He had been shot in the head, but when we took him out from among the other corpses, his incorrupt body relaxed at once as if he died just then.

I told this story to two young Russian intellectuals, one of them of Romanian background, and they were deeply impressed. They went to Oranki to check for themselves. But they could not approach the place because in the place where the prisoner camp was it is now a women’s prison and they were not permitted to go anywhere close. They tried to get permission for the exhumation of the bodies, but this is a very big thing! To exhume 11,000 skeletons and to bury them like Christians! It is the work of an entire village, what am I saying, more than that. Think of it, 11,000 bodies of monks make a whole army! This is the army of the Heavenly King! Saints of the Christ!

When we found them, we put them back. Of course, we made the latrines somewhere else. And things remained like that in God’s mercy and knowledge. The two students went there and did some digging and they found exactly what I told them. They found the bones but not the bishop, because they did not dig exactly according to my indications. They had the permission to dig only to two meters depth. They covered all the bones. They came back to me and confirmed my sayings. They still don’t have much religious freedom. The communist spirit is still strong.

Q: When did you find the relics?

A: I found them in the year 1942, in autumn. But they had been executed in 1918. Then all the priests and monks in Russia had been asked by the Communists: “Are you with us or not?” All had answered: “No we stay with Christ!” Then they were shot on the spot , as I told you already.

Q: It means then that these bones are the relics of saints!

A: Of course! True martyrs, like in the time of the Roman persecutions. Eleven thousands martyrs in all! Only monks and priests were there with this saintly bishop at their head. Not a single politician. Not since the Roman persecutions have so many martyrs been killed as under the Communists.

There was the custom at Oranki that every year on the 6th of August, the Feast of the Transfiguration, veteran priests, old and disabled , former political prisoners in Siberia, would perform the Divine Liturgy at the fountain, with all of us present. They were all priests with saintly lives. Near that fountain I buried the relics of that saintly bishop. I regret that I forgot his name.

Q: Have the authorities permitted the two youths to take any of the bones of the martyrs from Oranki?

A: No, nothing! Only to ascertain that here they were. Authorities pretended to know nothing. Why would they be concerned?

I sent them to an eyewitness from there, I don’t know whether he is still alive. In 1918 a rassofor monk managed to escape and he was making a living being a miller in the woods. He had a mill and people were going to his mill to grind their oats, because there was no maize, nor millet. His name was Teodot. I got in touch with him in 1944-45 and he gave me all the information about the mass murder, after we had found the bones. He was the only survivor. How did he manage to escape, I don’t know. He was a local. He might have known where to hide.

Q: How did you meet this monk Teodot?

A: It was a cold winter and we had been taken into a big forest to the north of the camp to cut firewood. As I was walking through the forest I came about a small house on the bank of a small river. I knocked at the door and an old bearded Russian opened the door asking me who I was and what I wanted.

I told him that I was a Romanian prisoner of war and an Orthodox priest. He had not seen a priest in thirty years. It was in the middle of the forest. He was living Christianity very well there at the mill. I was a stranger to him but soon he trusted me. He was a simple monk. He could not do anything as a priest, but he knew all the Order of Services. He had a book from which he did his Canon, in the evening after work.

He was very pious. I don’t think that he is still alive. Every time I was going there he was kneeling and enjoining me to do the same. We would pray together. He was saying what he could remember. We managed to get a Tchaslov [Romanian for tchasoslov] from a Russian.

The first time we met, he asked me:

“Are you an Orthodox priest?” And he started crying.

“Yes”, I answered.

“Then let me tell you a secret: I am a monk from the Oranki Monastery. My name is Teodot and in 1918, when I was young, I ran away not to be killed. I built this house and a water mill in this woods. I haven’t seen an Orthodox priest since I escaped from Oranki.”

I told him how I discovered the trench with the shot monks and I asked him:

“What happened there, because I found a big trench full on dead monks?”
He told me crying:

“When the atheist Communists came to power they rounded 11,000 monks and priests from all the monasteries and gathered them at Oranki; I was there. One day a group of cavalry men came to the Monastery and asked us: ‘You come with us?’ But the bishop and all the monks answered: ‘We don’t want to go with you, because you are atheists! We want to die for Christ!’

“I managed to escape. The soldiers put the monks to dig a trench along of hundreds of meters and during the next month they shot them all, the last being the bishop. They were digging the trench and covering the bodies with earth. But they were full of faith in Christ and were fasting and praying until they were all shot.”

Fr. Bejan answers the questions of a group of parents:

Q: What special memories do you have from the big military prison of the Monastery Oranki?

A: It was not a military prison but an international camp for prisoners of war. In this camp situated in the forests of the Volga region, not far from Gorki, today Nijni Novgorod, were interned in three camps 10-15,000 officers from all European nations, even from Japan...In Oranki was a male monastery, all monks from noble families - intellectuals. The monastery had a large library and topography and was coenobitic. They were printing there very precious books for the services of the Church.

The Soviets shut down the monastery. The monks and priests were gathered from many monasteries and sketes, about 11,000, and were all shot during the years 1919-1920 and the corpses thrown into a ravine on the monastery’s grounds and covered with earth.

When we Romanians came to Oranki we were put to dig trenches [for latrines]. We found corpses, a long trench full of corpses. All were shot in the head because, at their bishops admonition, they refused to collaborate with the atheists. In the middle [of the corpses] sitting on a chair, incorrupt, a Bishop was in full attire, with the engolpion and the icon of the Mother of God on his chest. With the approval of the camp commander we covered them back with earth, after sprinkling them with holy water, blessed by me. Then we took out the relics of the sainted Bishop from the among the thousands of the martyr monks , put them into a coffin made by us Romanians, and buried them near a fountain in the monastery’s yard. I witnessed then a great miracle. The body of the saint relaxed as if he just died.

Q: Can those monks martyred for Christ be considered saints? And all the other Christians killed by the atheists during Communism, can they be counted as saints and martyrs?

A: Yes! All in mass! There are holy martyrs, priests and monks from Oranki. This is because they preferred death to abjuration. And in our country, in the woods and mountains, priests have been shot. They can be counted as national and Christian martyrs.

Recently two Muscovite researchers, guided by me, undertook research and confirmed the truth of my sayings. But the present authorities (1995) have not allowed them to continue because the monastery is now a prison for women [Note: since 2004 it is again a male monastery].

I have all this information from a former monk, called Teodot, who survived the massacre and hid in the woods, being a miller when I met him. The two researchers found him still alive and confirmed my testimony....

Q: What more beautiful memories do you have of the Russian people and how would you characterize this great Christian Orthodox people, always tortured by extremes?

A: Russians, in their vast majority – despite all the persecutions and left without priests and churches – have remained faithful to the “pravoslavnic” Church, and women carried on the tradition of this great Church. Presently, Orthodoxy is reborn in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Siberia and the Caucuses. There are more priests, churches reopen, and many more are built...There is still a long way until this Church who gave so many martyrs, will be totally reborn, and we will be able to say firmly: “The Pravoslavnic Church is totally reborn like the Phoenix from its ashes”.... In our country, the monasteries and faithful women have saved the Orthodox faith. To them belongs all the merit.

Fr. Bejan talking about the Cross from Oranki:

The Monastery Oranki was built in the 18th century on the Volga and it was destined for Russian nobility. It functioned until 1918 when it was closed and transformed into a prison.

It was a prison for women. During World War 2 [beginning in 1942] it was used as a camp for prisoners of war. Now it is again a prison for women. The crosses from the cupolas have been thrown to the ground. I brought two of these crosses to Romania. I donated one of them to the Monastery Sihastria and the second will be layed on my chest when I die.

We hope that God will help the Russian faithful to rebuild here and in other monasteries the monastic life that shone in Russia until 1918. And for people from everywhere to come to Oranki and venerate, transfigured, the icon of the Resurrection which is above the iconostasis of the summer church. This icon was shot by the Bolsheviks; the bullet is stuck in the forehead of the Lord. It should remain like that, the icon of Christ shot and killed for the second time at Oranki, as a witness to the descent of man into savagery for all that will come.

I brought a copy of this icon to Romania. It was stolen when I was in jail [Fr. Bejan was jailed upon his return from the camp in 1949 for “anti-Soviet activities” until 1964]. It was the icon of the Resurrection with the mark of the bullet. Its loss was a terrible blow to me and a deep sorrow for all those who knew the icon at Oranki. All the Russian Tsars kneeled in front of it, as well also Dimitrie Cantemir, the learned voivode of Moldova, exiled in Russia with all the retinue that followed him in the Russian exile. Here lived also the daughter of the Moldovan Prince, Maria Cantemirovna, the one called “the uncrowned Empress of all Russians”.

Very often the Tsars were coming to Oranki to celebrate Pascha. The house where they were lodging is still standing. In front of it there was a source of water and a fountain. The custom was to kneel in front of the fountain, and if you were a good man the water would rise from the bottom of the fountain. If you were a sinner, the source remained deaf and dumb [still].

I testify to this reality. Here at this fountain I did a prayer service for rain together with an old Russian priest who lost an eye and a hand. There were present thousands of pravoslavnic Russians. The moment we finished the prayer the rain started. It happened in 1946 when the draught was ravaging Russia and Romania. [It is worth mentioning that Fr. Bejan also baptized hundreds of Russians.]

There in a ravine behind the altar I found the incorrupt body of a bishop, shot in the forehead because he refused to follow the atheists. In Romania we know about 20 Orthodox priests shot, but there at Oranki there are the bones of 11,000 priests and monks who answered “NO” to the call of the atheist government.

All these saintly monks, killed for their faith in Christ, are a part of a great number of martyrs offered by the Russian church in this turbulent century.

The undersigned testifies to the truth of all that was said. And now at the end of my earthly life I give written testimony and I sign with my own hand.

The Good God helped me to go to jail and to come out of the jail with my head high and illuminated. Amen!

Priest Dimitrie Bejan- Hârlău

Now for the good news:

In 2006 a group of pilgrims from western Romania (county Bihor) led by Fr. Eftimie Mitra, the abbot of Skete Huta, went on a tour visiting the monasteries of Ukraine and Russia. They visited also the Monastery Oranki and erected o Troiţă (a Cross) of black marble representing Christ behind bars, with the following text in Romanian and Russian: “Aţi suferit, aţi răbdat aţi plîns şi pentru noi, cei care nu am fost închişi...pentru păcatele noastre. Vă mulţumim” (You have suffered, you have endured, you have wept for us who have never been imprisoned...for our sins. We thank you!”). The cross was sculpted in Beiuş and transported by the pilgrims with them. They brought all the materials necessary for the erection and they erected it themselves. During the digging of the foundation they found fragments of a human body - a hand, ribs and the spine all of a yellowish color ”like the holy relics”. They took them with them. Part of them have been deposited at the Skete Huta, others have been distributed to various parishes and monasteries, especially to the Memorial Monument of Aiud [infamous political prison where Fr. Bejan was also an inmate] which contain the bones of former political prisoners, who died in jail and dumped in a ravine behind the jail. Fr. Eftimie Mitra, the abbot of the Skete Huta, called it ”the Antimension of Romania” paraphrasing Patriarch Alexei who said that Solovki is the ”Antimension of Russia”.

The Skete Huta is in the middle of a legal battle with the Uniate Protopopiate of Beius which attempts to have the property deeds of the Skete annulled, in other words to evict the two monks. I firmly believe that the miracle of the weeping icon (it is a lithographic copy, very modern, of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan) is an aknowledgement that the gift of the Cross to the Oranki monastery was well received.

For more information in Greek, see here.