Yesterday's Magazette

4 – A Memorable Church Visit

By Valdis Kibens

It is the weekend before Christmas, 1944, and I have just turned eight. The Bavarian farmhouse where we have found housing in southern Germany is modestly decorated for the coming holiday. There is a Christmas tree decorated with tinsel that originates as anti-radar chaff dropped by American and British airplanes in order to protect themselves from German anti-aircraft gunfire. Every now and then the packages of chaff do not break open, and we get entire bundles of tinsel that look like what you would buy in a five and dime store in the United States for decorating your Christmas tree. It is the children’s job to go out and collect enough tinsel to decorate the tree.


We are from Latvia, living in southern Germany under the auspices of the German War Department, which is providing free transportation and jobs in German industry and agriculture to Latvian volunteers who would like to leave the country ahead of the oncoming Communist armies that are predicted to take over the country in the near future. The decision for my family to leave was predetermined because my father’s name had been on the list for deportation by the Russians the first time Russia took over Latvia in World War II. His fate, and that of our family, was certain deportation to Siberia.

The Sunday before Christmas, Herbert, my new eight-year-old German friend, and I go to church in the nearby town. We walk several miles across the snow-covered countryside on the sunny morning, with the Alps visible on the horizon as a white jagged strip. This is postcard country. My previous experience with church consists of accompanying my parents to the local Lutheran church that served our parish in Latvia. I am in Herbert’s care, and am sure that I will do well by following his example in church.

Many young people our age are at the service. It is a modest country church, with a very tall spire, Catholic by denomination. Herbert and I are sitting in a pew. I watch the goings-on with great interest. There is much color, many candles burn on the altar, and the priest is swinging a chain with a little basket attached, from which fragrant  smoke emanates. He talks in a singsong manner, people sing, and I understand nothing.

Suddenly, Herbert stands up next to me, along with other children, and starts slowly moving out of the pew. I stand, also, intending to go with him. He motions to me, with some urgency, to sit down, but I don’t understand what he is whispering to me. My plan is to stick close to him and do whatever he does.

So the two of us, with me close on Herbert’s heels, slowly walk up the aisle toward the altar, along with other young people. Herbert kneels by the railing in front of the altar, and so do I. I can’t imagine what’s going to happen next, but here we are, some 15 youngsters, all kneeling, facing the priest, who proceeds to talk some more, and the young people all answer him in unison several times. Finally, he takes a small gold dish from the altar, goes to the end of the row of kneeling figures, slowly takes something from the dish and moves it toward the mouth of the first person, who opens his mouth, whereupon the priest puts something in it, the recipient closes his mouth, and proceeds to chew slowly. The priest goes to the next one, and the next one, and repeats the procedure until he gets to Herbert, who is kneeling next to me. I know I will finally find out what is on the little dish. This, however, is not to be, because, having finished with Herbert, the priest walks past me without giving me anything, and goes to the next youngster on my other side. Once he is done with the whole group, he puts the dish back on the altar and picks up a gold cup, from which he proceeds to give something to drink to everyone.

By now I know what to expect, and, sure enough, he skips me again and goes to the next person until once again he’s finished with the last one. A little more talk, a little more singing, and we all get up and walk back to our pews again. I feel hurt and puzzled, understanding that I have just received the message that I don’t belong, although I don’t understand what it is that I don’t belong to. While the priest delivered the message with no particular unkindness or intensity, he did so with undeniable clarity. Herbert and I walk home and resume our German lessons.

I have often thought about the priest’s reaction upon unexpectedly finding a strange child in the middle of his group of little communicants. I used to think that he would have said that, being a good soldier in God’s Army, he was just obeying orders, the same answer as that given by soldiers in Hitler’s army, though I would have thought that God might have given different orders. With time, however, I have come to think more kindly of him. For me, however, this early personal encounter with organized religion, while not repelling me entirely from the institution, indicated even then that my chances of turning into a standard churchgoer were not very promising.

*Valdis Kibens was born in Latvia in 1936. He spent his early childhood living in a castle that had been built in 1300 and where his father was the director of an agricultural college housed in the renovated and modernized structure. His childhood included a stay of five years in Germany after WWII, in a United Nations displaced persons camp. After emigrating to the United States in 1949, he received a scholarship to Yale University in 1952 and earned a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University in 1968. After teaching aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, Valdis went to work for the McDonnell Douglas research laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri, and recently retired as an aerospace scientist from the Boeing Company. He is currently practicing the art of freelance writing.

Vol. 37 No. 4 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter- 2010/11


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