Monday, 23 October 2017

The Spirit Blows Where He Wills

Solzhenitsyn and the Jewish Doctor

by Paul Sumner
Hebrew Streams


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was once acclaimed the greatest Russian author since Tolstoy. His novels about life inside the Soviet Union were at first smuggled out to the West. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but declined to accept the award in person, lest he not be allowed to return. Finally, in 1974 he was exiled to Zurich then to the U.S., where he spent 20 years. After the fall of communist control, he returned to Russia after 1989.

Born in 1918, Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics and physics at university. But when WWII began he entered the Soviet army and became a captain in the artillery. In the closing days of the war, he wrote critical remarks about Joseph Stalin and was imprisoned without trial. For eight years he survived the infamous "Gulag," a chain of forced labor camps where millions of criminals, dissidents, and enemies of the State were incarcerated and died.

Solzhenitsyn died in Moscow of heart failure on August 3, 2008, at the age of 89.

In his famous 3-volume The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitzyn tells a brief, life-changing story about a personal experience in a labor camp in 1953.
Solzhenitzyn was suffering from terminal skin cancer and was sent to the camp hospital.  Let him now tell this story . . .
Following an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out so it will not hurt my eyes. He and I — and there is no one else in the ward.

Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. This conversion was accomplished by an educated, cultivated person, one of his cellmates, some good-natured old fellow like Platon Karatayev. I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardor of his words.

We know each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person. I could see nothing bad in him nor did I know anything bad about him. However, I was on guard because Kornfeld had now been living for two months in the hospital barracks without going outside, because he had shut himself up in here, at his place of work, and avoided moving around camp at all.

This meant . . . he was afraid of having his throat cut. In our camp it had recently become fashionable to cut the throats of stool pigeons. This has an effect. But who could guarantee that only stoolies were getting their throats cut? One prisoner had had his throat cut in a clear case of settling a sordid grudge. . .
It is already late. All the hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is ending up his story thus:
"And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow."
I cannot see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections of the lights of the perimeter outside. And the door from the corridor gleams in a yellow electrical glow. But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder.  These were the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went out into the nighttime corridor and into one of the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep.

I was wakened in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the orderlies were carrying Kornfeld's body to the operating room. He had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer's mallet while he still slept. . . . He died on the operating table, without regaining consciousness.

And so it happened that Kornfeld's prophetic words were his last words on earth. And, directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance. You cannot brush off that kind of inheritance by shrugging your shoulders.  I lay there a long time in that recovery room from which Kornfeld had gone forth to his death, and all alone during sleepless nights I pondered with astonishment my own life and the turns it had taken. In accordance with my established camp custom I set down my thoughts in rhymed verses — so as to remember them . . .
. . . passing here between being and nothingness,
Stumbling and clutching at the edge,
I look behind me with a grateful tremor
Upon the life that I have lived.
Not with good judgment nor with desire
Are its twists and turns illumined.
But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning
Which became apparent to me only later on.
And now with measuring cup returned to me,
Scooping up the living water,
God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though I renounced You, You were with me!

All the writers who wrote about prison but who did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse prison. I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation:  "Bless you, prison, for having been my life!"  [The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts III-IV (vol. 2; trans. T. P. Whitney; New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 612-15.]
Solzhenitzyn went on to write thousands of pages about his experiences and his country. He was at first an avowed follower of an atheist Jew named Karl Marx until he met a Jewish Christian doctor one night in a cancer ward who introduced him to Another Jew.

And what about Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld? Only God knows. Scripture says: "He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11). May Dr. Kornfeld's name be remembered, and may he enjoy the fruit of his witness in That Day.

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