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Helping the Order of Saint Benedict Church in the 1950s

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

Among the papers in my grandfather’s collection is a short “thank you” note written by Rev. John Cherf, O.S.B.

A thank you letter from the Order of Saint Benedict.  Source: Zalman Collection
Zalman's Order of Saint Benedict Thank You Letter

In Zalman’s Haganah scrapbook, he summarizes this letter of gratitude from the Secretariat of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome for his assistance in 1951 after the persecution of priests and nuns in Eastern Europe. The Vatican Archive confirmed that the letter itself was not sent, nor was it related directly to the Vatican State. Notwithstanding, it presents another interesting piece of Zalman's history, as his good deeds were not limited to the Jews.

In Judaism, all human life is essential, also called in Hebrew ‘pikuach nefesh’. It’s the obligation to save a life in jeopardy, that’s either an immediate threat or a potential risk of becoming serious. It’s considered a major value to uphold. What are historical stories, besides the one shared, where Jews risk their life to save non-Jews arranging safe haven in modern time?

The note reads:

“amice! confrater meus, post longa itinera, reversus est ad terram suam, et secum apportavit optatas res. gratias ergo toto tibi pectore ago. addictissime” -- Rev. John Cherf, O.S.B

When translated from latin it says: “friend! My company, after a long journey back to his own country, and brought with him many things. Thank you with all your heart ago.”

After getting little direction from the Vatican Archive, I reached out to the Rev. James Flint, O.S.B., who serves as its historian, librarian, procurator, archivist and vocation director of the Benedictines, officially the Order of Saint Benedict in Chicago. The Benedictines, officially the Order of Saint Benedict (Latin: Ordo Sancti Benedicti, abbreviated as OSB), are a monastic Catholic religious order of monks and nuns that follow the rule of Saint Benedict. They are also sometimes called the “Black Monks”, in reference to the color of the members' religious habits.

During this period in Czechoslovakia, many oppressed members of the parish were unnecessarily attacked by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), who had differently ideologies under Stalin and his communist party and wanted to revive the Russian Orthodox Church. That's when several Benedictine monks escaped and came to the United States, settling at first in Pennsylvania and then making their home at the St. Procopius in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. There, they founded a monastic community that served eastern European immigrants, especially of Czech and Slovak descent.

The Rev. James Flint OSB, shared the following:

Rev. John Cherf, O.S.B., was a monk of my monastery, St. Procopius Abbey (Cherf's necrology kindly shared by Fr. Becket Franks [1] [2]). In 1945 and for several years thereafter, the ethnic German population of the Sudentenland was expelled by the restored Czechoslovak government. Among those expelled were the monks of the monastery of Broumov. Since the ethnic Czech monasteries in Bohemia and Moravia (Emaus and Brevnov) had been largely shut down by the National Socialist regime and were only slowly recovering, the Holy See asked St. Procopius, ethnically Czech in background and with many members at that time who still spoke Czech, if we could send monks to keep alive the monastery of Broumov.

Friar John made an exploratory trip in 1945, and in mid-1946, a presence of St. Procopius monks began at Broumov, eventually rising to seven in total, with Friar John serving as Prior (local superior). I believe the gymnasium was briefly reopened. However, after the 1948 Communist coup, the monks were made to feel unwelcome, and by February 1950, these American monks had all been expelled.

Stalin communist targeted many religious faiths, including Christians and even Jews because they refused to swear loyalty. This persecution intensified and Father Cherf and others were jailed by the communist government. In 1950, Father Cherf was the last American priest forced out of the country.

Okay, those are all facts. The following is more speculation. I believe the monks were expelled in a hurry and not allowed to bring much along. It could be that either some or their possessions or records, or as you suggest other religious articles, were smuggled out of the country with the assistance of your grandfather, who as a diplomat would have been more free to help than would most other travelers.

The word "confrater," that you translate as "company," has a technical meaning as regards Benedictines. Almost certainly Friar John meant a fellow member of his own community, St. Procopius (Benedictines from other houses would not generally be called confreres). So in some manner it would seem that another St. Procopius monk in Europe at the time was the intermediary between your grandfather and Friar John. Who this might have been I cannot for sure say; Friar John and the others who were at Broumov, once they left Czechoslovakia, went to Rome and saw Pope Pius XII, but then came straight home. We sometimes had monks studying at the Benedictine school in Rome, Saint Anselmo, and we could have had visitors in Europe for any number of other reasons.

Strictly speaking, Friar John was not a member of any Roman secretariat, as your grandfather's note suggests. But it's possible that in this work of mercy, he and your grandfather were using one or another Roman body. Or Friar John might have been exaggerating his position a bit. I knew him the last fifteen years before he died in 1990, and he definitely had a tendency to maximize, rather than minimize, his role!

Throughout history and including the late 1940s and into the early 1950s there were periods where the Soviet authorities suppressed and persecuted various forms of Christianity to different extents. Stalin and his communist party wanted to revive the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support over other Christian groups and attempted to destroy churches and kills various clerics. Joseph Stalin was a Soviet revolutionary and politician. He ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. The resumption of the anti-religious campaign continued into the late 1950s with instructions to deteriorate the position of monasteries, by placing them under high taxation, cutting their land and working to shut them down in order to weaken the church.

While Zalman was involved in various underground work, it’s unclear even in this case the extent of his kindness. Maybe he helped rescue and return religious artifacts, or perhaps found remains of priests or rescued people connected with this church, but at least he was acknowledged for his unrecognized good deeds.

In one more note by Zalman in German, he said this letter confirms, how the Vatican Pontific or also known in some countries as Missio, which is the name of a group of Catholic missionary societies that are under the jurisdiction of the Pope, was expelled from the communist Czechoslovakia. He took something important perhaps for Father Cherf to Italy, without any reward.

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