Martyr of the Dora Concentration Camp
By Helene Arjakovsky-Klepinin
On February 11, 2004, Father Dimitry Klepinin was glorified by the Orthodox Church. On this day the Diocesan Council of the Russian Exarchate of Western Europe, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, announced that Fr. Dimitry, along with his friend Mother Maria Skobtsova and three other contemporaries, had been added to the Synaxarion of saints.
Few people today are familiar with the efforts of a small group of Orthodox who, during the Second World War, protected and saved numerous Jews in France at the risk of their own lives, by hosting them and acquiring forged papers for them. One of those who attempted in this way to witness their faithfulness to Christ and the life of the Gospel was Fr. Dimitry, a young Russian-born parish priest with a wife and two children. He was the associate of Mother Maria Skobtsova in the shelter that she had created at 77 rue Lourmel in Paris.
In France, Fr. Dimitry and his wife Tamara had been among the most active members of the Russian Student Christian Movement (RSCM). Tamara Klepinina later worked for many years at the publishing house YMCA-Press (famous for the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago), where she published a bibliography of the works of Nicholas Berdyaev. Fr. Dimitry’s daughter Helene Arjakovsky-Klepinin is currently completing work on a book about her father, to be published in French. She has offered the following article in tribute to her father’s canonization.
Father Dimitry Klepinin was born in 1904 in Piatigorsk, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. He was the third child of an architect, Andrey Nikolaevich, who had constructed one of the city’s churches and built the famous baths of Kislovodsk, and of his wife Sophia Alexandrovna. While Dimitry was still a young child, the family moved to Odessa, where Andrey oversaw the construction of houses for the port authority.
The Klepinin family was very cultivated, musically gifted, and devout. Sophia’s cousin Zenaida Hippius and her husband, the philosopher Dimitry Merezhkovsky, were little Dimitry’s godparents. Sophia herself composed prayers and longed for a renewal of Orthodox life. In Odessa, she established an Orthodox school and engaged in social work in the city’s poor neighborhoods. Arrested in 1919 by the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB), she was released from prison by a young female Cheka officer who knew about her work with the poor.
Dimitry left Odessa amidst the Bolshevik terror and was hired as apprentice on a ship. He briefly joined his family in Constantinople, where they had found a first refuge. Dimitry began studying at the American College in Constantinople. There the Zernov family, with whom the Klepinins were close, proposed the idea of a religious fellowship that would focus on action. This idea laid the foundation for the subsequent establishment of the Russian Student Christian Movement, in which Dimitry would play a key role. The Klepinins moved on to Yugoslavia, where Andrey successfully continued his career as an architect.
Two episodes from this period define Dimitry’s difficult spiritual journey. The first took place in Odessa when he was fifteen years old. Overwhelmed by the arrest of his mother, Dimitry went to a church to pray. He stood still, hands behind his back. A nun came up to him and admonished him, saying it was not fitting to stand in church like this. Dimitry left mortified, and vowed never again to set foot in a church.
The second episode took place in Yugoslavia. This fortunate event was also connected with his mother, who had passed away in 1923. Fr. Dimitry described this experience in a letter to a friend: “For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of suffering, when I realized that everything I had hoped for in life had evaporated. . . . I recalled the words of the Lord, ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ I went to my mother’s grave with a heavy load of worldly sorrows, everything seeming so muddled up and forlorn, and suddenly I found the ‘light yoke’ of Christ. After this revelation, I changed the direction of my life.”
Dimitry began to participate in the Orthodox student circles established in Belgrade by the Zernovs. As Nicholas Zernov remembers, “We gathered around the Church; for us, the Church was the column and the foundation of truth, a force allowing everyone to be born again and capable of transfiguring our homeland. The members of our circle later became active members of the Orthodox Church in the West, of the Ecumenical Movement, of the Russian Student Christian Movement, and of different brotherhoods.” Dimitry absorbed the hopes of the student circle. One of the most prominent and influential Russian hierarchs and theologians in exile, Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky, showed great affection to Dimitry, as did Father Alexis Neliubov, the spiritual father of many members of the circle.
In 1925 Dimitry enrolled at the Saint Sergius Theological Institute, which had recently opened in Paris. While at the Institute, he was especially moved by the lectures of his favorite teacher, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov. After graduating in 1929, he received a scholarship to study for one year at the New York Protestant Theological Seminary. His studies focused on Saint Paul, who became for him, as he would say himself, “both dear and near.”
Back in Europe, Dimitry made a living working in the copper mines of Yugoslavia, where his father was architect. During this time he encountered Father Sergei Tchetverikoff, who became his spiritual father; Dimitry became a chanter at his church.
Restless and searching, Dimitry soon returned to Paris. He knew hard times, and became a window-cleaner and parquet-waxer. Dimitry continued taking part in the life of the RSCM, singing in the church at 10 Boulevard Montparnasse and directing the choir at the RSCM summer camp. However, he found himself facing a grave dilemma. He did not feel a monastic vocation, but desired with his whole being to become a priest. Metropolitan Eulogius describes in his memoirs how the Orthodox community of Paris undertook to marry Dimitry. At one of the RSCM conferences, he was introduced to Tamara Feodorovna Baimakova, an RSCM member and correspondent of the Messenger of the RSCM in Riga.
Dimitry and Tamara married in 1937. That same year Dimitry was ordained to the priesthood by Metropolitan Eulogius at Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Paris. Initially he served at the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin at 91 rue Olivier de Serres, a parish dear to his heart. In 1939 he was named dean of the parish of the Protection of the Mother of God, at the shelter established by Mother Maria Skobtsova. Mother Maria welcomed the family and their little daughter Helene with joy. A boy, Paul, was born in 1942.
Thus began the years of the war and the German occupation. Fr. Dimitry actively joined the resistance efforts of Orthodox Action, the organization founded by Mother Maria. The small group of people at the rue Lourmel center collected parcels for prisoners and found hideouts for those suffering persecution. An entire Jewish family was given shelter in Fr. Dimitry’s bedroom. His ministry during this time of trouble led him to support many people in need, including mental patients. A former patient remembers how Fr. Dimitry saved her from depression: “He taught me to see other people’s misery, he took me to hospitals and entrusted children to me whose parents were in hiding. Thanks to him I stopped thinking about myself and found my balance in life again.”
Many former parishioners remember vividly the night of Pascha 1942 at the rue Lourmel. As one of those present described, “Outside there were restrictions, fear, war. In the church, illuminated by the light of candles, our priest, dressed in white, seemed to be carried by the wings of the wind, proclaiming with a radiant face: ‘Christ is risen!’ Our reply ‘He is risen indeed!’ tore apart the darkness.”
Many Russians and converted Jews came to the shelter seeking certificates of baptism, as a shield against arrest by the Nazis. Father Dimitry would pass long hours with each to prepare for baptism. But as events accelerated, others with no interest in becoming Christian came seeking certificates of baptism as well. While this troubled Fr. Dimitry, he still felt called to act. He told Mother Maria, “I think the good Christ would give me that paper if I were in their place. So I must do it.” While Fr. Dimitry never baptized anyone who did not truly want to be Christian, he gave out several dozen certificates, primarily to Jews. “These unfortunate ones are my spiritual children,” he used to say. “In all times, the Church has been a refuge for those who fall victims to barbarism.”
The concluding chapter of Fr. Dimitry’s life has been recounted powerfully by the Russian writer Sophie Koulomzin. What follows is a description of this time of trial and glory, as told by Sophie in an article published in 1970 by Young Life magazine.
Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitry were warned that they were likely to be arrested in the near future. They had been denounced for helping Jews and their case was being investigated. Gestapo officers arrived at Lourmel while Mother Maria was away. They arrested her son Yuri, searched the building, and ordered Fr. Dimitry to present himself at their headquarters the following day. Fr. Dimitry went willingly, accompanied by a woman from the Lourmel shelter.
A German officer named Hoffman had collected a large amount of evidence on how Jews had been helped by Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitry. He was prepared to question the priest for a long time, and was astonished when Fr. Dimitry told him frankly about everything he had done.
Hoffman said curtly, “And if we release you, will you promise never again to aid Jews?”
Dimitry answered, “I can say no such thing. I am a Christian, and must act as I must.”
Hoffman stared at him in disbelief for a moment, and then struck Dimitry across his face. “Jew lover!” he screamed. “How dare you talk of those pigs as being a Christian duty!”
The frail Dimitry recovered his balance. Staying calm, he raised the Cross from his cassock and faced Hoffman with it.
“Do you know this Jew?” he said quietly.
The blow he received knocked him to the floor.
Dimitry’s interrogation lasted another six hours. Finally, Hoffman took Fr. Dimitry back to the Lourmel, to pick up Mother Maria and finish the search. One of Hoffman’s assistants told her, “Your priest has sentenced himself!”
Fr. Dimitry took leave of his wife and children. Almost his last words were to remind her of an elderly woman who lived on the sixth floor of a walk-up apartment building nearby. Only then did Tamara learn why this visit had always taken so long. Fr. Dimitry would chop wood for the old woman, make fires for her, bring her food, and prepare it.
Two months later, Fr. Dimitry, together with Mother Maria’s son Yuri, was being transferred from their prison to a prison camp in Compiegne, France. His cassock torn and dirty, Fr. Dimitry was ridiculed. To amuse a watching group of office girls, a German began pushing and hitting him, crying out “Jew! Jew!” Fr. Dimitry remained calm, but beside him Yuri began to cry. Fr. Dimitry said gently, “Don’t cry — remember that Jesus Christ had to bear much greater humiliations.”
In the camp at Compiegne, Fr. Dimitry continued to act as a priest. Tamara managed to send him his books and vestments. Out of tables and beds a makeshift chapel was arranged in one of the barrack rooms, complete with altar table and iconostasis. Divine Liturgy was served every day. Catholics and Orthodox worked side by side. Artists in the camp painted icons, craftsmen hand-made a crucifix, the chalice, and the diskos. Orthodox services alternated with those of the Catholics. Fr. Dimitry drew a sketch of the church in a letter he smuggled out to Tamara.
For almost a year Fr. Dimitry remained in the French camp. He was then transferred briefly to the camp at Buchenwald in Germany, and then to the camp at Dora. While Fr. Dimitry had always been frail, his health had remained strong throughout his ordeal. Not long after his arrival at Dora, though, he began to deteriorate. He could not carry out the work that was assigned to him. Some of his friends told the German foreman, “The priest is an old man, he cannot do this work.” And indeed Fr. Dimitry looked old and unwell. But when the foreman asked him his age, he told the truth. “I am 39 years old,” he said. The foreman, angry because the prisoners had tried to deceive him, struck Fr. Dimitry.
Fr. Dimitry’s forces continued to fail. He began to feel abandoned, like Jesus Christ on the cross. He was dismissed from the work gang. In the bitterness of the mountain winter, wearing only cotton work clothes and wooden shoes, he became sick and ran a high fever. Doctors among the prisoners saw that he had pneumonia, but they could do nothing for him. He was sent to the camp death house. One of his friends was able to visit him there. He brought him the monthly letter-card on which he could write something to Tamara and his children. Fr. Dimitry stared at the card but wrote nothing. He was too weak, and he knew he was dying. He just looked at his old friend, who survived to tell the story. That night, Fr. Dimitry died.
A Grandson’s Reflections
Helene’s son, and Fr. Dimitry’s grandson, Anton Arjakovsky spoke about his grandfather at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves in 2001. During his address, Antoine gave the following tribute:
Since childhood, I remember hearing stories about the tragic life of my grandfather. Still it seems that I really heard them when I was twelve. One morning my mother, displeased with my behavior, spoke about her father, with all her heart, about a hero. I went to school crying. I still consider this day as the beginning of my moral memory. It also meant the beginning of a dialogue with my grandfather, following the gradual and startling discovery of his discreet presence and protection…..
After the war, there were the first anniversaries of Father Dimitri’s death celebrated at the church of the Russian Student Christian Movement, the first parcels with clothing and food sent to my grandmother by grateful Jewish families in the United States. There was solidarity. There was the witness of former victims of the deportation, such as Geneviève Anthonioz de Gaulle, the niece of the General who had been incarcerated in Ravensbrück together with Mother Maria.
A poet, George Rayevsky, told the small group of survivors a dream he had had. One night, my mother later told me, he had dreamt of Mother Maria crossing a field full of ears of grain, walking in her usual calm manner. He rushed up to her and said: ‘But Mother Maria, they told me you were dead!’ She answered, looking at him over the rim of her spectacles with kindness and wit: “O, if one should believe everything they say You see, don’t you, that I’m alive!” [Hélène Arjakovsky, "The Joy of Giving," in Mother Maria, The Sacrament of our Neighbor, Pully 1995 p. 69 (in French); included in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings (English language edition, Orbis Press]
Then there was the twentieth anniversary of his death in 1964, followed the next year by the publication of Father Sergi Hackel’s Pearl of Great Price, translated into German in 1967 by Heinrich Böll’s wife, and the book The Rebel Nun by Stratton Smith, translated into French some years later. Again twenty years later, in 1984, the Orthodox Messenger dedicated an issue to their memory, and the Jewish memorial in Yad Vashem granted the title “Just among the Nations” to Father Dimitri and Mother Maria. (Still, the production of a film on Mother Maria in the USSR didn’t help calm the collective memory of the émigré community. It depicted the rue Lourmel parish as a group of pro-Soviet Russian patriots combating the Fascist invaders )
Personally I believe that the end of Communism and the Soviet Union contributed largely to revive the flame of memory, not only with the publication of Fr Sergi Hackel’s book in Russia in 1993, but also among the emigres. When the outer enemy disappears, the inner enemy becomes visible. The 1990s in France were a period when the participation of the French authorities in the anti-Semitic Vichy regime was finally acknowledged. The Russian emigration ceased at last to exhaust itself in combating the “giant on feet of clay” of totalitarianism.
In this context, my mother started speaking little by little about the tragic destiny of the “modernist” group at the ‘Orthodox Action.’ Indeed, those who fell in battle were not just anyone. They were the heirs of the great movement of renewal in the Russian religious thought of the early Twentieth Century, transformed in exile into a movement of non-conformist, and later spiritual, Orthodox thought. They were among the intimate friends of Father Sergi Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdyaev. In 1994, at the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Father Dimitri, my mother published a biography of her father and an introduction to the first collection of articles of Mother Maria in French, The Sacrament of our Neighbor. As introduction to her article she used the saying of Evagrius of Pontus: ‘Sell was you have and give the proceeds to the poor.’ Some time later she allowed the review Khristianos in Riga (Latvia) to publish the correspondence of my grandfather and grandmother during his months in the camps.
It was in this period that a growing number of voices could be heard calling for the canonization of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri as well as other associated with them who had died as martyrs. New voices were added to those that had been calling for this for years (Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Father Sergi Hackel, Olivier Clement, Elisabeth Bahr-Siegel): the Russian priest Father Ekonomtzev, dean of one of Moscow’s Orthodox universities, Deacon Maxim Egger, editor and secretary of the Saint Silouan Fellowship, and also Catholic and Protestant Christians inspired by their lives. Internet sites have been dedicated to their memory, icons have been painted in their honor, and so on. Following this appeal Tatiana Emilianova, a young Russian scholar, then compiled the dossier for the canonization of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri, with the help of my mother (to whom this seemed a natural development). .
Allow me to end with a personal memory. One morning, at our dacha in the countryside near Paris, I had breakfast with my grandmother, who was over 80 by then. Both of us had raised late. Suddenly she told me, with a wide smile: “You know, Anton, last night I had a wonderful dream. I walked by a field with Father Dimitri, we held hands. The sun was radiant. We were so happy ”
Fr. Dimitry, pray for us!
This essay was first published in English in the January-March 2004 issue of Again magazine, published by Conciliar Press, Ben Lomond, California. Translated from the French by Deacon Hildo Bos. Reprinted with permission. The section by Antoine Arjakovsky has been expanded.
Published in the Spring 2004 issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Copyright by the author.