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Telling the story of a brutal time

Prague, Czech Republic

The work that has occupied filmmaker Ken Gumbert for the past nine months and which he hopes will occupy him for years in the future began with a casual conversation at Providence College, where Gumbert, a Dominican priest, teaches film. Gumbert was chatting with a Dominican from Slovakia, who mentioned he had become a priest secretly in the 1980s.

“It hadn’t occurred to me that it was illegal in Europe to become a priest, and I thought that was fascinating and a story I wanted to explore on film,” said Gumbert, who came to Europe in the fall of 2000 with an equipment grant from Providence College, another grant from the Western Dominican Province, and a zeal to pursue what seemed to him a story still little known to many Americans.

Thirty hours of filmed interviews later, Gumbert said he is 95 percent done with his examination of how religion in Czechoslovakia fared under communism. The documentary is, he hopes, one part of what will be a five-part study of religion during the communist period in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The proposal is currently under consideration at PBS, which aired two earlier films Gumbert made on Native American spirituality. As Gumbert envisions the project, the first part would focus on Russia and the Ukraine, the second part would look at the Baltic states and Poland, the third at Czechoslovakia, the fourth at the Balkans and Hungary, and the fifth would look at relations between the Vatican, Moscow and Washington.

But right now it’s part three that is on his mind -- the discoveries he’s made while researching 40 years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 became the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“In the West, we think the Cold War is over, that it’s dead. But it really isn’t. There’s still a lot of uncertainty here,” Gumbert said, speaking of both the ambivalence about democracy that he’s found among some Czechs and Slovaks as well as the entrenched rule of former communists, who still control major sectors of the media, run the universities and occupy prominent positions in business and politics.

People are reluctant to talk

A still bigger surprise to the filmmaker is the reluctance he’s found among persons who suffered under communism to talk about the past. “People who experienced 12 years in concentration camps, who were tortured, who were humiliated, just don’t want to talk about it.”

That reticence, so different from Americans’ eagerness to publicly discuss even the most private issues, still mystifies him.

“It’s the opposite of the Oprah phenomenon. There’s a hushed silence about what happened and there’s a real hesitancy to criticize the communists and to criticize what they did,” said Gumbert, who speculates that it may take another generation before people begin to address the injustices committed by the communists. “People have explained to me that it’s just too painful,” he added. “This priest said to me that if he really thought about what had happened to him and his family, he would be a wreck. He wouldn’t be able to live.”

At the core of Gumbert’s documentary is what he says was Stalin’s plan to liquidate the Catholic church in Czechoslovakia and to create a totally atheistic society, a plan agreed to and supported by the communist leader in Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald. To that end, in 1950 the communist government confiscated church property and arrested more than 13,000 priests and religious and put them in concentration camps. Many of the younger priests and religious were sent to military labor units; others were sent to work in the uranium mines in Jáchymov in northern Czechoslovakia.

With the exception of the Hussite church, which was native to Czechoslovakia and which the communists attempted to manipulate more than suppress, other Christians fared no better. Many Lutheran ministers and bishops went to prison. After World War II, Jews were seen as too small a population to pose any threat, though Jewish members of the Communist Party became prime targets in the political show trials of selected communists in the early 1950s.

Some of the uglier chapters of the communist past have been obliterated with the passage of time. “They bulldozed their concentration camps. If you go to Jáchymov, you won’t find any,” said Gumbert, who toured what remains of the Jáchymov concentration camp last spring. “It’s like Auschwitz,” he said. “It has a barbed wire fence around it and a guard tower. Next to it is a brick building where the workers directly handled raw uranium.”

During the early years of communism, the communists used physical torture, but their methods became less brutal after Stalin’s death in 1953. By 1960, they’d become more sophisticated and were using primarily psychological intimidation, said Gumbert. Eventually, when the communists realized they couldn’t destroy the church, they settled on making Christians second-class citizens, discriminated against in education and employment and always subject to interrogation.

If the documentary necessarily highlights the brutality visited on Christians, the filmmaker also found inspirational material to draw on. “I’ve met some incredibly saintly people. They were able to draw from Christianity this incredible power -- the power to love and forgive one’s enemies and to create circumstances that actually changed society.”

‘A perfecting process’

Communism was, in many ways, both a trial by fire and a good school for life, Gumbert said, with Christians simultaneously challenged and inspired by the church in ways that Christians in the West have not been. “A perfecting process went on amidst Christians, and the focus was on love of neighbor and loyalty to other Christians to not give them away,” he said.

An important component of the documentary on Czechoslovakia is the Christian resistance to repression via the organization of a clandestine church. Film footage includes a view of Cardinal Ján Korec’s apartment where he secretly ordained priests. The apartment was bugged, as Korec knew. Gumbert said candidates would be brought there, blindfolded in many cases, by people they had never met. Korec would put on music and serve them tea. Then, speaking through a long plastic tube, he would whisper the words of ordination to candidates with a Dvorak symphony turned up loud.

The creation of a parallel society in Czechoslovakia is one that some Christians in the Czech Republic and Slovakia look back upon with appreciation if not nostalgia. “Some people have said it was better under communism,” Gumbert said. “It was exciting to be a Christian. They were translating books; they were having secret meetings. Christians created this wonderful alternate society. In the center of it was the Eucharist. It was very much like the early church.”

Talking in the cloister of the Augustinian monastery in Prague, which he made his home base while in Europe, Gumbert communicated an unjaded enthusiasm for his material, which has left him pondering why Christianity is so much more successful in inhumane times and circumstances than in the prosperous conditions that exist in the West. “I’ve had some wonderful interviews,” he said, mentioning an interview he had come from just that day with dissident Kamila Bendová, who smuggled the Eucharist to her husband in jail, and another, the day before, with Augustin Navrátil, a farmer who petitioned the government for greater freedom for Christians during the 1970s and 1980s. Many Catholic intellectuals scorned Navrátil as a country bumpkin, but then-Cardinal Frantisek Tomásek supported him under orders from Pope John Paul II. Tomásek’s support for Navrátil was the Catholic church’s first public display of opposition to communism since 1950, when Archbishop Josef Beran ordered a pastoral letter opposing communist policies to be read at all Masses. Beran was first imprisoned and then placed under house arrest for 12 years.

Filmmaking as ministry

Casual, open, very approachable, Gumbert appeared the consummate American, if perhaps an atypical priest. On the face of it, a filmmaker-priest is an unlikely combination, but Gumbert described the two roles as compatible. “Filmmaking defines my ministry,” said the 46-year-old priest who has a master’s in film from the University of Utah and an undergraduate degree in philosophy.

Something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades, the priest recently completed a screenplay for a horror film. He describes himself as “very much a visual arts kind of person,” and came to filmmaking after earlier working with photography, sculpture and painting. The latter was an interest he first developed while in the novitiate where he played bass in a blue grass band called the Pilgrim Fathers. “I decided I was going to leave the bass and learn to paint. I hated practicing and I wasn’t any good. But I needed some form of artistic expression.”

After joining a group of en plein air painters in California, Gumbert moved to Utah on an assignment to the Newman Center at the University of Utah. It was in Utah that he began painting more seriously and also started making sculptures inspired by Japanese screens. A show of these was held at a gallery in Soho in New York, and three of Gumbert’s sculptures are on display in the Boston Design Center. Looking back at how he came to filmmaking, Gumbert said, “Filmmaking kind of ties it altogether, especially as a Dominican. Preaching is our main charism. Filmmaking is a form of preaching for me.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002