A Hard Life in the Kazakh Steppes

Son of Deportees Decided on Priesthood at Age 56

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ASTANA, Kazakhstan, SEPT. 23, 2001 (Zenit.org).- While John Paul II prayed Saturday night at the Monument for the Victims of the Totalitarian Regime, Vazlaw Poplawsky said in a low voice: «Pray also for me, and for my family.»

Poplawsky, 62, spent 22 years in a forced labor camp. He is a living memory of the drama Kazakhstan endured in the 20th century.

The son of Ukrainian deportees, he was born in Kazakhstan´s steppes, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the present capital, Astana.

Poplawsky´s family arrived in 1936, when Joseph Stalin implemented his policy of collectivization, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homeland and settle in the steppes, in collective farms, or kolkhoz, along with the local population, who had to break with their nomad tradition and work in concentration camps.

Kazakhstan was a land of deportation since the time of the czars. The Stalin era kept the bleak tradition going, deporting 800,000 Germans of the Volga, 600,000 Ukrainians, 100,000 Poles, and thousands of political dissidents, among others.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself spent several years in the Jhezgasgan camp, which became the setting for his famous novel «A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.»

Vazlaw Poplawsky, who was born three years after his parents arrived in Kazakhstan, still shudders when he thinks of his childhood.

«I was raised in a mud and dry-grass hut,» he said. «We had to walk for tens of kilometers to find wood. There was nothing to eat, and a piece of brown bread was a luxury that we children hid as a treasure.»

Educated in the faith by his mother, who was of Polish origin, Poplawsky recalls that in their hut there was an icon of the Black Virgin of Czestochowa.

«There were no priests, and religious gatherings were not allowed,» he recalled. «Only funerals could be held, where people gathered to pray the rosary. Given that someone died almost every day, it could be said that we really prayed a lot.»

«I started living in 1961, at 22 years of age, when I went to the city,» Poplawsky recalled, «first to Tselinograd, the new Astana, and later to Karaganda, where I met Father Wladislaw Bukowinski, a Polish priest, who decided to stay in Kazakhstan, after leaving the concentration camps.

«He worked in a mine, and everyone loved him a lot, because he was very generous. We met often, and when he spoke about God, we could listen to him for hours.»

Six years ago, at 56, Poplawsky decided to become a priest. Now he is parish priest of St. Joseph´s Church in Karaganda.

«This is the city of sorrow and memory, the spiritual center of Catholics,» said this son of the steppes.

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