Break Point: A True Account of Brainwashing and the Greater Power of the Gospel by Silvester Krèméry, M.D. (The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1998, 315 pages, $19.95)
I came to this book with enthusiasm, prepared to be inspired and instructed by Silvester Krèméry's [pronounced Kirch-mry] story of his 13 years in Soviet-era prisons and labor camps. I came away inspired indeed by the author himself, but more than annoyed that his material did not receive the editorial help necessary to turn it into the cohesive, accessible account it deserves to be.
Break Point begins with Krèméry's July 1951 kidnap-arrest from the Czechoslovakian base where he was fulfilling his compulsory army duty. He was a 26-year-old doctor then, with several published articles on dermatology — up-and-coming in the medical world, though not in the military, where he had already been demoted for frequenting the sacraments and standing up for Catholic bishops falsely accused of treason. Bundled off at midnight by the Czech secret police, Krèméry soon underwent many interrogations designed to ferret out information about his activities in the Catholic Action Movement. Brainwashing was the broader goal — an attempt to destroy personality and replace previously held values and positions with politically correct ones.
Fiendish means of persuasion overseen by “constantly smiling” professionals characterized Krèméry's three years of interrogations. Sleep deprivation, beatings, solitary confinement in cold and damp cells, standing still for up to 50 hours at a stretch — these and other physical sufferings were accompanied by the psychological tortures of propaganda and lies about betrayals by family and friends.
Perhaps because brainwashing necessitates repudiating one's beliefs, the communists attached enormous importance to a prisoner's confession. Like the trial that followed it, however, the confession was a legal fiction, a vehicle for false charges and for implicating others. Realizing this, and realizing, too, that discernment about what to say becomes virtually impossible after sustained interrogation, Krèméry made a courageous decision: He would sign nothing, no matter how harmless-looking, and would keep silence except when his interrogators did not want him to talk (as in the courtroom).
A rotation of 15 to 20 interrogators tried to break Krèméry's resolve, but to no avail. Fortified by prayer and reliance on God, this prisoner had come to terms with death. “From the moment I absolutely repudiated them, I felt that they could not hurt me any more…. The more I depended on my faith, the stronger I became.” In the end, he says, even solitary confinement became bearable (he would eventually endure a total of seven years of it), “since the Lord faithfully accompanied me whenever I was sent there.”
A strong sense of purpose kept Krèméry going when times got especially rough. His medical training and experience, he realized, gave him insights into brainwashing and the prison experience that might one day help others. “I am really God's probe, God's laboratory,” he would tell himself over and over. “I am going through all this so I can help others and the Church.”
Along with a meaning for his sufferings, Krèméry found the practical means by which to bear them and even grow through them: an intense program of spiritual exercises. In a chapter that is the heart of the book, he gives the reader a look at this impressive daily program. It included recitation of the prayers of the Mass from memory; scripturally based meditations with practical application on subjects like death, success and relationships; the rosary, Stations of the Cross, examinations of conscience, hymns and original prayers.
This rich spiritual life grew out of Krèméry's discovery early on that he knew almost all of John's Gospel by heart. Realizing what a valuable treasure this was, he immediately sought to recall as much as he could; over time, he assembled an impressive stockpile of additional verses, gleaning them from smuggled Bibles and the memories of fellow prisoners. This treasure became “the core of my meditations and spiritual life,” Krèméry emphasizes — an unfailing source of strength and “one of the most effective means of defense against brainwashing.”
Unexpected relief from suffering sometimes came as Krèméry meditated on John's Gospel and felt lifted into a higher realm. It was, he reports, “a spiritual state of weightlessness in some ways very similar to the physical weightlessness familiar to astronauts. Sometimes it lasted for several days. When that happened, I was released, not only from contact with time, space, and matter, but also from the underlying but ever present atmosphere of pressure, terror, fear, and uncertainty. The light of supernatural love against which my persecutors vainly struggled radiated and enlightened me. I delighted in astonishment at God's eternal truth and the infinite beauty of the Divine mysteries.”
With so much to admire in Krèméry's story, it is especially unfortunate that Break Point fails to convey its message clearly. The table of contents leaves an impression of raw materials that might go into a book, and its organization is unusual (documents, epilogue, bibliography, and notes occur halfway through the book, after part one).
Throughout, the reader will encounter gaffes unworthy of a major publisher. If, as it seems, this translation is directed primarily toward an American audience, why use Briticisms like “to hospital” (no definite article) and “screws” (prison guards)? Why so many non sequiturs, odd phrasings, and actual mistakes: “ingenuous” instead of “ingenious”; “good-natured from the bone”?
More problematic is the inclusion of material that detracts from the story (gratuitous allusions to unidentified persons or places, for example) and the omission of relevant information. Why exactly has Krèméry been imprisoned? What is the “Catholic apostolate work” in which he was engaged and about which he “knew too much”? What are “the infamous Ruzyn” and “the famous American Ralky handcuffs”?
Krèméry refers to his imprisonment as “the golden years,” a time of special closeness to God for which he is deeply grateful. His is a moving and instructive story. It is still waiting to be adequately told.
Louise Perrotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.