Czech Bishop Recalls His Escape From Communist Oppression of Catholics
“I have experienced the reality of communism,” says Bishop Peter Esterka. “All are said to be equal, so in theory it sounds good, but in reality … only a communist can succeed.”
When he was a child, the Czechoslovakian homeland of retired Bishop Peter Esterka, 85 — ordained auxiliary bishop of Brno, Czech Republic, in 1999, and today living in retirement in Southern California — knew neither peace nor liberty.
First, his nation was occupied by German troops during World War II. Some Czechs were sent to concentration camps, never to return. Others were executed for alleged participation in anti-Nazi activities. All suffered under the dictates of a ruthless military domination.
In April 1945, the people of young Peter’s hometown of Dolni Bojanovice were excited when they heard the rumblings of artillery in the distance. The Russians, brother Slavs to the Czechs, were coming to liberate enslaved Czechoslovakia (which dissolved in 1992 and became two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia).
The Germans, however, intended to make the Russians pay dearly for each mile of ground they captured. An intricate network of machine guns, artillery and explosives was set up to harass the advancing Russian armies. Nine-year-old Peter crammed into a wine cellar outside of town with 60 other relatives and friends in anticipation of the fierce battle. Surprisingly, though, the village was surrendered with little opposition. The Germans made scant use of their prepared defenses and, in some crucial instances, the townspeople aided the Russians. For example, a German observer had been set up in a church tower to relay information about the approaching enemy, but was neutralized by a parish priest who clipped his wires of communication.
The enthusiasm for Russian liberation, however, quickly turned to disillusionment. The Russian soldiers were coarse and menacing; looting and rape were commonplace. When Peter and his father returned to their home they discovered it a shambles, occupied by intoxicated Russian soldiers. One drunken officer seized Peter at gunpoint and told his father, “In 30 minutes you will bring me 15 quarts of wine. If you don’t, I will find you and put a bullet in your head. To make sure that you do return, I will keep your son here.”
Peter was held hostage in the pantry as his father went out in search of the wine. When he returned with it, the officer poured a cup and ordered Peter to drink it. He resisted. His father whispered to the boy, “He is afraid there is poison in the wine. Try to drink it.” After gulping it down, the officer removed two bullets from his pistol, dropped them to the floor, and declared, “Here, I will give these to you now. These were intended for you and your son.”
Decades later, Bishop Esterka wrote of the event, “Father slowly picked them up. Never will I forget the expression on his face! What souvenirs to keep of our ‘liberators!’”
The Russians eventually left Czechoslovakia, and a coalition government, including many communists, seized total control of the government under Klement Gottwald. As Bishop Esterka explained, “Czechoslovakia was again occupied by tyrants.”
Born in 1935, Peter Esterka is the son of a factory worker and carpenter, and the oldest of three children. In his family and village, Catholicism was thoroughly integrated into daily life. Peter’s parents, as best as they could with their modest education, diligently tutored him in the tenets of the Catholic faith; public processions of the Blessed Sacrament could frequently be seen making their way through town.
In the aftermath of World War II, the local bishop established a Jesuit-run Catholic high school in Brno, which also served as a minor seminary to begin the training of the diocese’s future priests. Peter entered the school at age 13, and in time, excelled at both his studies and in sports (soccer and track were his favorites).
On April 13, 1950, an order went out from the government that clerics and religious be arrested and sent to concentration camps. At 2 a.m., the communist secret police seized control of Peter’s school, and the next morning communist agents replaced the Jesuits. When classes resumed, communist ideology replaced Catholic teaching. The red star and hammer and sickle emblems replaced the cross. Bishop Esterka recalled one particularly offensive episode when a communist agent entered the school chapel and desecrated the Blessed Sacrament, scattering consecrated Hosts across the floor.
Peter’s parents removed him from the high school and enrolled him in his hometown school, also steeped in communist propaganda. Peter’s Jesuit training enabled him to excel, and he graduated at the top of his class. He intended to go on in school, but his application was rejected because he and his family were Catholic.
The bishop explained, “I have experienced the reality of communism. All are said to be equal, so in theory it sounds good, but in reality the communist state is a class society. Only a communist can succeed.”
Peter was finally admitted to a trade school — although not his preference — and for the next two years communist agents (each referred to as “comrade,” a title he came to despise) attempted to indoctrinate him in communist ideology. Many an afternoon Peter would face off with a communist agent who would try to convince him there was no God. The brainwashing sessions had a reverse effect, however, as Peter was forced to carefully study his faith to answer various challenges. A natural leader, he persuaded many of his classmates to join him for morning Mass before school.
Constant pressure was applied on Peter to compromise his faith and join a communist youth group; efforts were even made to persuade him to stop wearing a cross on his jacket lapel. Some years he was the only member of his class who would not join the communists. He always had to be on guard as to what he said, even in private, as informants and electronic listening devices were everywhere. He reflected, “It is very difficult for anyone who has not lived under tyranny to be able to realize and understand what life can be like when every word and opinion must be carefully weighed.”
Bishop Esterka shared in the persecution that was the common lot of Czech Catholics. Many were sent to prison, others executed. Oftentimes those who disappeared were officially declared by the government to have committed suicide. He fondly recalled the pastor of his home parish, Father Jaromír Porizek, who was a vocal opponent of the communists’ efforts to suppress religion. The priest was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released 11 years later due to his failing health. He later died in a hospital under mysterious circumstances.
He also recalled the example of Bishop Karel Otčenášek (1920-2011) of the Hradec Kráové Diocese, also imprisoned by the regime. When he was finally released he was sent to work at a dairy farm as a common laborer. Some years later, a group of tourists from the Netherlands sought out the bishop and found him, haggard and worn without any symbols of his high office, yet undaunted by the years of persecution. The bishop startled co-workers who looked on as the tourists knelt before him to receive his blessing.
Such persecution had different effects on the Catholic population. Some who were previously remiss in the practice of their faith became fervent and resisted. Others, who formerly could be found in the first pew on Sunday mornings, betrayed their faith and became government informants.
Eventually, Peter’s fidelity to his faith caused him to be dismissed from school and sent to work in a factory. Hours were long and wages low, and survival was difficult amidst constant shortages and rationing. Once again, preference in the factory was given to those who cooperated with the communists. But Peter would not compromise: “Believe me, so many, many times I had wrestled within myself with the problem of whether there could ever be a reconciliation between my belief in God and membership in the communist party. But every single time, I came up with the same answer: the two are incompatible. I could not yield.”
In 1957, at age 20, Peter resolved to escape. He had been interrogated by the secret police on suspicion of having spoken against the government, and feared that his arrest was imminent.
Along with two companions, Peter made his way to the Czech-Austrian border. Sprinkling pepper behind them so police dogs would not be able to pick up their trail, the trio crawled through wheat and sugar-beet fields toward a row of three fences, one of which was electrified. Mines were a constant threat. They repeatedly offered prayers to the Blessed Mother and St. Jude for their safety.
They tripped a signal rocket and ran into a machine gun tower, but miraculously evaded the border guards. Using wire cutters, they clipped through the fences and reached the safety of Austria.
After six months of discernment, Peter entered a seminary for Czechs in 1963. Unable to return to Czechoslovakia because he was officially a criminal and traitor, he looked elsewhere to begin his ministry. At the invitation of a bishop in Texas, he came to minister to the growing Czech population in his diocese (despite not knowing English). In 1966, he returned for studies in Rome, and then joined the faculty of St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, Minnesota. For 23 years, he taught classes in moral theology, marriage and ecumenism.
In 1993, he received an invitation to come to the Diocese of Orange, California, to coordinate the Catholic Mission for Catholic Czechs in the United States, Canada and Australia. (With his ordination as bishop in 1999, the mission included Europe as well).
Since the fall of communism in 1989, the bishop has been able to travel freely in the Czech Republic. He laments the devastating effect that 40 years of communism have had on the Church; few attend the Church or know their faith, vocations are scarce. He retired as bishop in 2013.