While out on Friday night, a Hungarian friend mentioned that the Monk of the Gulag had died earlier this week (January 15th), aged 100. As I’d never heard of him, I asked her to tell me some more.
He was born Károly (Charles) Olofsson on 23 December 1916 in Rákosszentmihály in Budapest’s XVIth district. When he was 16, he entered the Benedictine Order and when ordained, took the name Placid. He studied in Pannonhalma and later in Munich. During WWII, he served his time as a military chaplain and spent some time at Komárom, in the military hospital there. During his 11-month term there, he was demoted for speaking out from the pulpit against officers’ mistreatment of enlisted men. After the army, he went back to school, this time to head one in Budapest. His post-war activism drew some media (and other, unwanted) attention and to remove him from the public eye, the outspoken priest was called back to the Abbey in Pannonhalma, where he was arrested in June of 1946 by the ÁVH, Hungary’s then Secret Police.
Despite their best efforts, they failed to extract a confession from him but this didn’t stop them. [1946/2016 – have we come any further at all?] Fr Placid was sentenced to 10 years in a Gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges. He served his time in a camp about 900 km outside Moscow, not allowed contact with friends or family outside until his final year when he could legally send a postcard.
In 1955, Fr Placid was allowed to return to Hungary but forbidden to teach or work as a priest. What ministering he did was done in secret. He spent his time variously as a factory worker making boxes in Pesterzsebet, as an ambulance driver at the at the Országos Reumatológiai és Fizioterápiás Intézetben (National Institute of Rheumatology and Physiotherapy), and later as a laundry worker. Finally, in 1977, he went back to being a priest as auxiliary chaplain of the Cistercian parish of St Emeric. [An aside: In Cleveland, OH, USA, a church by the same name offers mass in Hungarian – it was founded in 1904 to minister to the many Hungarians in the city – who’d have thought eh?]
My friend told me of the four rules that Fr Placid had shared, his secret to surviving the Gulag. He once apparently joked that for ten years, the Soviet Union had tried to destroy him, but that he had the last laugh as he survived and it didn’t, thus proving that God has a sense of humour. In the Gulag, he said he found his true vocation – not to teach but to keep the souls of the prisoners alive. The Soviet Union taught him how to live, he said. And these are his rules for living: (in translation)
- Don’t dramatise suffering because it makes you weaker.
- Recognize and consciously look for the little joys of life.
- Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are.
- Hang on to God. With His help, you can survive every hell on Earth.
When he turned 100 last year, Fr Placid described himself as a ‘simple man of average abilities’. And this simple man has been lauded with just about every award the country has to offer from the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary to being one of four people to hold the Hungarian Order of Honor. He survived against the odds, with spirit and in faith.
And today, when the future is looking bleak and tantrums are being thrown, it is the likes of Fr Placid to whom I’ll turn when I need an example of humility, strength, justice, courage, and empowerment… all the qualities great men need to inspire and to lead. RIP, Fr Placid. RIP.
Thank you, my friend, for sharing. I’m truly grateful.
Placid Olofsson, the Benedictine monk who was imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag from 1946 to 1955, passed away yesterday evening.
In a book published on his 100th birthday, Father Placid described his life in the following terms:
4 rules of surviving GULAG: 1. Don’t dramatise suffer because it makes you weaker. 2. Recognize little joys of life. 3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are. 4. Hang on to God. With his help you can survive every hell on earth.