November 6, 2017

Saint Elias Fondaminsky of Paris (+ 1942)

St. Elias Fondaminsky (Feast Day - November 6)

Elias (Ilya) Isidorovich Fondaminsky was born in Moscow on February 17, 1880. He was a Jewish Russian author (writing under the pseudonym Bunakov) and political activist. From 1900 he studied philosophy at Berlin and Heidelberg Universities and in the spring of 1902 was arrested for two months at the Russian border for transporting illegal literature into Russia. Elias wed his childhood friend, Emily Gavronskiy (1882-1935), in 1903, whose inclinations toward Orthodox Christianity almost certainly influenced him later in his life. In 1905 he became a member of the Moscow Committee of the S.R. (Socialist-Revolutionary Party). In 1906 he fled to Paris, where he became good friends with Z. Gippius, D. Merezhkovsky, and B. Savinkov. In the 1910s Elias was one of the leaders of the ultra left Esers party, and in 1917 a senior member of the Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government.

He returned to Moscow in April 1917 and as a Commissar of the Provisional Government opposed the Bolsheviks. In 1918 Fondaminsky took part in the Jassy Conference to overcome the Bolsheviks. In France where he was living since immigration in 1919, Fondaminsky veered off from the left and became an influential newspaper editor (Sovremennye Zapisky, or Contemporary Annals, among others), author of philosophical essays, and in the later years a much admired philanthropist, supporting Christian magazines and charity funds. Vladimir Nabokov declared that Fondaminsky "did more for Russian emigre literature than any other." In 1919-1920 he became a member of the Parisian Masonic Lodge Brotherhood, having been initiated on the recommendation of Kandaurov. He was also a member of the Good Samaritan Lodge in 1920-1921.

Maria Skobtsova came to Paris in 1923 with her husband and children and soon immersed herself in charitable work and in the Paris community of Russian émigrés and exiles; she soon befriended Elias Fondaminsky, who shared her politics and religious convictions. Of them their mutual friend Theodore Pianov said: "It is difficult to say who had the greater influence on whom, Mother Maria on him or him on Mother Maria." He played an active role in the founding of Maria Skobtsova’s Orthodox Action, though the declining health of his wife toward the end of the 1920’s, and her death in 1935, prevented him from doing much active social work. After her death, he published a book in which the memories of her friends were collected.

For many years he was haunted by Christ and drawn to the Orthodox Church. He regularly attended the French-language liturgies celebrated by Fr. Lev Gillet at the chapel adjacent to Mother Maria Skobtsova’s house of hospitality on rue de Lourmel. He explained his hesitancy to be baptized on the grounds that he was unworthy, though another factor was of loyalty to his wife, an unbaptized Christian who had died in 1935.

Fondaminsky was one of the distinguished people who gave occasional lectures at the Sunday afternoon gatherings at the house on rue de Lourmel (along with Berdyaev, Bulgakov, etc.). In 1940, in a discussion at Fondaminsky’s apartment in Paris, Mother Maria Skobtsova spoke of her awareness that these were eschatological times. “Do you not feel that the end is already near, that it is at hand?”

Facing the Nazi occupation, Fondaminsky refused to leave Paris, saying he was willing to accept his destiny whatever it may be. On June 22, 1941 he was arrested by the German occupation authorities among a large group of about 120 Russian Freemasons. Contained in the Royallieu-Compiègne camp, on September 20, 1941 he was finally baptized into Orthodoxy at the makeshift Orthodox chapel at the camp. Afterward he wrote to a friend that he was “ready for anything, whether life or death.”

St. Elias in his baptismal robe

Following treatment of a gastric ulcer, he had the possibility to escape to the zone of France not under German occupation and from there could have escaped to the USA, but he decided it was better to share the fate of those who had no such opportunity, especially his “kinsmen according to the flesh.” While most of those arrested, Russians by nationality, were freed, Fondaminsky was left as a Jew in the camp. In 1942 he was sent to a camp in Drancy, and then to Auschwitz, where he was killed on November 19, 1942.

The theologian George Fedotov writes: “In his last days he wished to live with the Christians and die with the Jews.”

“It is out of dough like this that saints are made,” commented Mother Maria, weeping as she read his last letter. In 1945 she would share in his fate and later be canonized with him by the Church.

In 2003 he was officially pronounced a Russian Orthodox Holy Martyr by the Patriarchate of Constantinople at the Russian Cathedral in Paris, France.