Nevertheless, he always looked at this with a smile and thanked the Soviets for sending him away from Lithuania because, according to him, this was the place he was most needed – where thousands of Lithuanians suffered. What follows is the last interview with Alfonsas Svarinskas.
Need for powerful loudspeakers
“Compared with others, I spent very little time in the labour camp – only 22 years. But everything that is good ends quickly. I do not complain – it was not difficult,” said 88-years-old Svarinskas with sarcasm. He tried almost all possible means of those times to fight the invaders: he was a signalman of guerillas (partisans), cooperated with others on publishing the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania, an underground Christian publication, together with other clergymen–dissidents established the Catholic Committee to protect the congregation and educated young people on patriotism.
All these activities were aimed at destroying the foundations of the Soviet occupation regime. That was why Svarinskas was always under the radar of the KGB. And when it turned out that the priest had made too much, he was sent to the lager of Siberia. In total, he was sent to the Siberia’s lager for 3 times and spent 22 years there.
Priesthood marked with pain and terror
However, today Svarinskas, who is living in the historic flat of Mykolas Krupavičius in the centre of Vilnius, regrets nothing and says that he will do everything in the same way, if Lithuania is in danger.
Nevertheless, the clergyman who encouraged celebrating the religious celebrations and who was organizing marches revealed that his heart was hurt the most by the lack of the powerful loudspeakers. “The loudspeakers of those times… All loudspeakers were poor – only one watt. Now it would be much easier,” smiled Svarinskas.
Grateful to Reagan
However, it was the promotion of patriotism and faith that the clergyman was falling in the Soviets’ disgrace for. Asked to remember the years spent in the camp, Svarinskas bursts into tears. The years spent in the foreign country are the most difficult years of the clergyman’s life. This is why he is grateful to Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, who asked Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the USSR at the time, to release Svarinskas in 1988.
The leader of the USSR listened and released the clergyman in 1988. Svarinskas returned to Viduklė where he had served as a priest before Siberia. However, soon afterwards, he was exiled to Germany without right of return.
“The uniform I was wearing in the labour camp is in the US museum dedicated to Reagan. I went to thank him. Some time later, I learned that a photo of me was placed on his desk. I do not know how he got it,” said Svarinskas in an excited voice.
Feeling of loss of freedom
Svarinskas and his anti-Soviet sermons were attracting hundreds of thousands believers from all over the country to the Church of the Holy Cross in Viduklė. The elderly residents of Viduklė still remember the strong statements of Svarinskas.
The clergyman says that he was on good terms with the people of Viduklė and that he felt their support; however, he always knew that sooner or later he was to get his retribution.
Svarinskas believes that people felt his love for Lithuania and this was the reason for their willingness to listen to him.
“We, the clergymen of those times, had no skills of oratory; nevertheless, we were strong in faith. There were no special announcements but we managed to inspire and to rally people together. I tried to work well; therefore, I felt that I was to suffer. But I was not afraid of suffering. I warned clergymen that I was to be in prison soon. However, for those who remained, I said that they had to go on. Moreover, I constantly prayed to God and asked to let me play as much tricks as possible on the Soviets before I went to prison. I loved Lithuania and this was the reason for my provocations against the Soviets. It seems that I did not lack courage. I was saying what I wanted,” recalls Svarinskas.
Fight with teachers for faith
Svarinskas did not limit himself to sermons. He organized marches and religious celebrations during which young girls wore national costumes. The priest said that the celebrations were very beautiful and most importantly – attracted a lot of young people.
“There were a lot of young people coming. And I am really happy about that. It is a pity that the situation is completely different now,” said Svarinskas.
It is true that, in some cases, he had to fight with teachers who tried to steer children away from the church. The priest says that the teachers looked suspiciously at children who wanted to attend the Mass during funeral services of their classmates’ parents.
“There were a lot of students coming to the church and willing to attend the funerals of the parents of their classmates. And teachers wanted them to leave. I said for teachers that the churchyard was my territory and they had no right to poke their noses in my business. Stay away, if you do not want to pray. Go to the tavern and spend time there. It will be very bad, if I drop you. And children were warned that all people who came to the church had to stay until the end,” said Svarinskas.
Confessions through a toilet hole
Interestingly, the priest who spent many years in labour camps for anti-Soviet activities is not ready to speak about the difficulties he faced there. Moreover, he said that he was more needed in Siberia that in Lithuania. “It was not difficult for me. If you know why you are here, it is not difficult at all. Thank God that I was serving as a priest in Siberia where I was needed. I was always saying to the communists that they did one good thing – imprisoned the clergy”, said Svarinskas.
Svarinskas, who experienced brutal interrogations, says that he tried to help people in camps. He worked as a paramedic for many years. Moreover, he listened to confessions.
Finally, the man whom everyone called the doctor of political prisoners at one point, acknowledges that the paramedic’s work is not easy. A lot of trouble was caused by camp leaders who would come to the medical station to ask for alcohol. The clergyman’s direct work was difficult as well – he had to listen to confessions sometimes through a hole in the toilet.
“Lithuanians were confessing over Easter and Christmas. There was a time when I had to sit in the probationary ward during one holiday. The good thing was that there was a toilet near every room. And I heard confession from the toilet. The sound spread through the joined pipes,” said the clergyman.
Bread rosary for Pope
Svarinskas, who regained the freedom in 1988, started communicating with people who were not indifferent to Lithuania and who were living abroad. He met Pope John Paul II 11 times. What did they discuss? Svarinskas says that the Pope asked him about the life in the camp and thanked for his fight against the restriction of the rights of the faithful.
The priest is never to forget some moments of the meetings. “When I was not a monsignor, high-ranking clergymen in Vatican already called me a monsignor. I and the Pope had always had very long talks. He knew that I had suffered a lot. Once, the Pope hugged and kissed me in full view of everybody. When I was talking with the Pope, I felt that I was a representative of Lithuania.
“But I think that one meeting was the most memorable. Once, during some special occasion, everyone was presenting their gifts for the Pope. Everyone brought gold and it would have not been appropriate for me, as a man from a labour camp, to bring gold. As a result, I brought a bread rosary and a wooden cross. This meant that, as long as there was some bread left in Siberia, there would be strong faith,” Svarinskas explains.
Emigration as nation’s betrayal
However, even though Lithuania has regained independence, the clergyman’s heart is torn by the fact that a lot of people loyal to the Soviet regime stayed on in leading positions of the free country. Moreover, Svarinskas says he cannot forget the documentary film “Who Are You, Father Svarinskas?” which was released in 1987. He is most hurt that the film’s director Ferdinandas Kauzonas easily found access to the free press. “I do not know how journalists who were executing the commands of the communists can work in the Lithuanian press. They have demonstrated that they are very easily affected. But I do not feel anger and I do not want to judge them,” said the clergyman.
In fact, he sees even more problems in the country now. Among the most important ones is massive emigration. According to Svarinskas, the youth’s desire for higher wages they can make in more economically advanced countries is nothing short of a betrayal of the nation. Moreover, the clergyman believes that the church should be more active in solving this problem.
Svarinskas regrets the decreasing sincerity in the society and the rise of materialist values. “Nevertheless, the Soviet regime killed the spirit of Lithuanians. I do not know if we manage to regain it. There are no spiritual values – only materialism,” said Svarinskas.
Translated by Audra Šeputytė