JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
A tale by Johny Noer
’LET MY PEOPLE GO’!
"… behind that bluff facade some distinctly ominous things were going on!" When I came back to the church and entered a room with praying men, they all looked at me in a kind of strange way; I didn’t feel much like explaining.
Outside it was as if secret winds began blowing. Clouds gathered over Lenin Boulevard 17. Rain clouds from all four corners. But still no rain! Not a drop! The weather was mounting but held its breath… and the environment of the little church never got its share of the impending storm; we never saw the lightning flashing up along the Black Sea coast; nor heard the sound of thunder, echoing behind the distant hills… where all things blazed at last, both land and sea!
I looked out of the window; everything was ready for the open air meeting, and I looked at the men around me – and they looked at me.
It was a miracle that some of these men were still alive! Others had just got back from the grave; they were considered ‘enemies of the system’. They had never really understood the value of Lenin’s collected works or the re-editions of Marx and Engels. And now they were back from the wastes of Siberia… these ‘sickening traitors’, these ‘unspeakable, religious fools’…
Most of the men were country people, sitting with their open bibles, singing and praying. They looked up towards the roof with innocent, frank expectancy, and it occurred to me that they wanted me to climb and preach.
In retrospect, it is odd that I did. "You are not allowed to preach without a specified permission", the judge had said. "Never say: ‘Let my people go’!" the red boss had added, and now I was on my way up on the roof… to preach!
When I arrived up there, I was met by waves of songs and praise. Heavenly light switched on! The dark clouds disappeared! I was overwhelmed; I just stood there – staring dreamingly into the crowd of worshipping men, women and children.
To the casual observer, I suppose, everything seemed peaceful and open: Just a few uniforms in the back; nothing to be afraid of! Around the crowd an appearance of amiable impassive stability – but somehow behind that bluff façade some distinctly ominous things were going on, things of which I was already dimly aware (after my meeting with the judge and the boss) but which would now make themselves more evident as the meeting went on.
For a couple of hours the program went smoothly. Now and then I caught a glimpse of the red boss. He seemed to be in a good mood, quietly in the background, in all appearance, his usual mafia-self: smiling, greeting…
I believe the other men on the roof, my interpreter and the singers were troubled by him as little as or less than I was; like playing backgammon: as simple as that! If I didn’t provoke him by saying these forbidden words, nothing would happen.
But if I did…
Now and then more police turned up, and I felt an anxious little ‘frisson’ – but still everything seemed relatively innocuous compared to the serious menace a few hours before.
I suppose the others sensed the same. If we only went on with the continuation of the given revival rituals of songs, testimonies and I now and then addressing the crowd with small messages, then all would be alright. That would soothe the boss – but I didn’t know, nor did I have any idea how disturbed he would be, until the following event took place…
When I first shouted from the roof: ‘Let my people go!' (Click here to see it!), not only a new sound of voices (like rushing waters) could be heard, but also the weather suddenly changed. The songs ascending to the top of the church grew more and more powerful and, within seconds, the darkened April day changed and became unseasonably, insistently lovely. All of a sudden the sky was blue, the air warm and windless, and the sun beamed happily on the hallelujah-crowd. Towards the fringe of the wood the young trees ‘clapped their hands’, the wood peckers laughed and drummed; God smiled on us!
But the red boss didn’t…
The following eruptions of political hysteria were surprising! I knew that – when I shouted the old declaration of Moses form the rooftop, something would happen, but the actual response made it plain just how upset the regime was on hearing this specific Bible quotation: ‘Let my people go!' – and how disagreeable it might prove to be when provoked by such a statement.
I was arrested, and the rest of the convoy quickly surrounded by police. No one was allowed to enter and no one to leave.
"Any resistance?" the red boss gloomingly approached me.
I looked at the two large ‘gorilla’-guards and shook my head: "No sir! No resistance!"
The following morning the detained Pilgrim families found in front of their wagons, milk, bread and tyres for the trucks in exactly the quantity, which had exploded the day before. During the night Bulgarian Christians had crawled through the lines of the closely guarded ‘detention camp’. A note was attached to the provision: ‘God bless you’!
I was detained in a small room in a building near the border. My two ‘gorillas’ were stationed outside. Now and then they gazed into the room to see if I was still there – and as there was no way whatsoever by which I could disappear, I was still there. But only for a short time! Then something happened, which had been planned for months…
I was not jailed!
I was not brought into a dirty cell with 75 people lying on canvas mattresses in bunk beds. I didn’t hear the duty warder bellowing through the food-hatch: "Lights out!" I was not shocked by suddenly hearing the sound of the door being unlocked – only to be ordered into the corridor with my belongings – not knowing what fate was awaiting me. I was not in the middle of night marched off by men with keys jangling on their belts… through steel doors, up and down staircases, into the cellar where executions were carried out or to some torture chamber. I was not handed some lice-ridden clothes or given a bowlful of porridge… and I was not (as had happened to these men standing with me on the roof) sent to a camp in Siberia. I was only detained in a small room with a couple of ‘gorillas’ outside. The system was waiting to see what the night would bring. Something had been prepared for months – a precious event, which was not to be jeopardised by some Danish citizen preaching his stupid religious message from a rooftop in Varna.
At dusk on the same day in April in the year 1989 the gates to the Communist Headquarters on September 9th Square in Sofia opened. A long black Zim drove through, accelerated on the asphalt curves inside the yard, swept past a few other black cars parked outside the staff building and drew up sharply in front of the stone steps leading to the illuminated palace.
President Todor Shivkov’s aid jumped out of the front of the car and hurried to open the door at the back for the president. Shivkov, stout in his tight grey overcoat, came out, squared his shoulders and – as uniformed men with white gloves threw open the front door and then the inner one into the hall – went in and in a dignified manner slowly climbed up the stairs. He had a preoccupied look. In a few moments he would meet the Danish Prime Minister Poul Schlüter.
To the Danish Prime Minister this meeting may just have been one of many openings for new ‘treaties’ concerning ‘mutual assistance’ – but to Shivkov it was an important step in diplomatic relations. The internal tensions, which began to relax after Stalin’s death in 1953, had somewhat relented the terror and political persecution, and the political climate after the treason trials (1949) had become milder, when Kostov, the chief victim of the trials, was rehabilitated posthumously in September 1956. After quite a lot of heads were rolling and top men expelled from the Central Committee in November 1962, Shivkov became president. From then on Bulgaria strengthened contacts with several Western European nations – and in 1966 Shivkov made his first official visit to Western Europe, when he was received in Paris by general Charles de Gaulle.
On the first landing the attendants ran out ready to take his general’s coat. He left neither coat nor hat but continued up the broad right hand flight of the marble, curved double flight of steps. The president still moved with dignity, though – in view of the important visit from Denmark – also with haste.
"Go and find the major-general", he said over his shoulder. "Tell him, I’m coming to the dinner hall in half an hour to see the results."
On the second floor, instead of turning right, he turned left. He went into a room and undoing only the top buttons of his grey coat, he sat down.
In front of him were the judge and the red boss from Varna. Cigarettes were put out, voices grew silent. Wiping the sweat off his brow the red boss started to report. He had felt the blows of the last twenty four hours: the president’s wrath and the final break up of the rooftop meeting.
Whether Shivkov realised that these luminous reports were getting them nowhere, or because he wanted to enjoy a change of air, before he should meet Mr. Poul Schlüter, he rose, cutting the red boss off in the middle of a sentence and marched glumly to the door.
The rules of etiquette obliged the red boss to follow the president. They walked down the corridor in silence.
"What’s the judge doing in your show?"
"We tried to have the preacher expelled to Romania."
A duty officer told the president that the Danish Prime Minister was on his way from the airport.
Shivkov grunted and said: "Release the preacher!"
"Release the preacher?" The red boss sounded surprised.
"How can I have a Danish preacher locked up?" Shivkov said dryly, "when his Prime Minister is my guest?"
"Oh, yes!" answered the red boss. He forced his lips into a grin. "Yes, of course!"
The next morning I was released. I was offered a nice meal and some Bulgarian souvenirs and asked: ‘Do you enjoy your stay in Bulgaria?’
I don’t know, of course, what really happened behind the white walls of the Communist Headquarters in Sofia in April 1989. But I can think of no other reason for my sudden release. I was startled when the two ‘gorillas’ suddenly made way for me, and I have heard some rumours of the Danish Foreign Minister, notifying Mr. Poul Schlüter that an arrest and detaining of Danish citizens had taken place.
The Bulgarian president, Mr. Todor Shivkov would be one of the least morally concerned about jailing foreigners. Concerning ‘preachers on rooftops’ he would have a polite but implacable contempt for Judeo-Christian tradition and would abhor the Pharaoh-challenge: ‘Let my people go!' He would deny this if confronted, but as a tough communist leader anything religious would fill him with a pagan alarm.
Whatever one thinks: On that day I was secretly brought out of my detention and hasted back to my family…
In the third week of April I waited anxiously to see if the weather would hold – and if the political climate towards us would change? But hyacinth and daffodils bloomed in the flowerbeds around us, violet and periwinkle in the meadows we passed. White butterflies fluttered drunkenly in the hedgerows, and I put away my winter coat and my worries…
But an inner voice kept saying to me: ‘This won’t last!’