New Martyr Under The Nazis:
St. Dimitri Klepinin
Today, there are more words and books and fewer living examples.
- Elder Paisios of Mount Athos
Today, more than ever, people need less preaching of the Gospel of Jesus and more examples of how it can be lived. More powerful than any sermon is the witness of a person who lived their Faith. This is the reason Orthodox Christians honor their Saints and study their lives. This is the command of Holy Scripture: Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7) These holy men and women are our living sermons, real flesh and blood examples of how the Gospel of Jesus can be lived in different times and circumstances.
Many examples of holy men and women can be found in our own times, especially during the trying times of World War II. That time of war and destruction has brought forth the stories of witnesses of the Faith such as St. Dositheos of Zagreb, St. Alexander Schmorell of Munich, St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris (see our Diocesan website: acrod.org and the section “Orthodox Reading Room” for their stories). Sharing much of the story of St. Maria of Paris, who shared in her work and ultimately her martyrdom was her priest and spiritual father: St. Dimitri Klepinin.
Father Dimitri Klepinin was born in 1904 in Russia to an educated, cultivated, devout Orthodox family. His mother, Sophia, helped establish Orthodox schools in Odessa where they lived and became active in providing help and support to the city’s poor. The Klepinin family fled Russia after the Communist revolution, first living in Constantinople, then Yugoslavia and finally Paris, France. A turning point in Dimitri’s life occurred in 1923 when his beloved mother died. He described this experience in a letter to a friend:
“…the first time I understood the significance of suffering…But joy came back to me when I remembered the Savior’s words: ‘Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’. I had come to my mother’s grave with the heavy burden of worldly worries. Everything seemed confused and unsolvable when suddenly I found the light yoke of Christ. I’ve never known a day more joyful than that day and I thank God for all He’s given me to bear. After that experience, I reoriented my life and it became easier to resolve certain problems."
In 1925, Dimitri enrolled in the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris and after graduating in 1929 he received a scholarship to study in America at the New York Protestant Theological Seminary. Returning to Paris he worked at various jobs while remaining active in the Church, directing the parish choir. Dimitri married Tamara Baimakova in 1937 and was ordained that same year by Metropolitan Evlogy. A daughter Helen was born in 1939 and a son Paul in 1942. Father Dimitri’s life was forever changed in 1939. He was assigned as the priest of the parish at the shelter for the poor operated by an Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova. Significantly for his life and that of Mother Maria, that same year France was invaded and conquered by the German Nazis. Mother Maria (now St. Maria of Paris) had opened a home and shelter to minister to the poor of Paris. As the Nazis began the mass arrests of French Jews in 1942, many of them sought help and refuge at Mother Maria’s shelter. As a shield against deportation to a concentration camp, many Jews sought to obtain baptismal certificates from Father Dimitri. While initially troubled by engaging in such deception, he realized his Christian Faith and priesthood demanded that he act. He placed a small mark on the false certificates in order to remember which were authentic and which were not.
I think the good Christ would give me that paper if I were in their place. So I must do it… …If a man surprised by a storm takes shelter in a church, do I have the right to close the door?
In the midst of war, suffering, mass arrests, one of Father Dimitri’s parishioners wrote of the experience of celebrating Pascha with him in 1942. It was to be his final Pascha at his parish:
Outside there were restrictions, anguish, war. Here in the church lit up by our candles, was our priest, all vested in white, as if borne on the wings of the winds. With his face radiant he proclaimed, “Christ is risen!”. And we responded, “Truly He is risen!” causing the shadows to scatter.
In February, 1943 the Gestapo arrived at Mother Maria’s shelter and arrested Mother Maria, her son Yuri and several others. In Yuri’s pocket they discovered a letter from a Jewish family to Father Dimitri requesting a baptismal certificate. Father Dmitri was absent during the raid but the next morning he calmly celebrated a final Divine Liturgy in the church and went to face the Gestapo. A portion of his interrogation with a German officer named Hoffman has been preserved:
Hoffman: And if we release you, will you promise never again to aid Jews?
Father Dimitri: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian, and must act as I must.
Hoffman: striking the priest across the face screamed: Jew lover! How dare you talk of those pigs as being a Christian duty!
Father Dmitri: raising the Cross from around his neck: Do you know this Jew? For this response Father Dimitri was struck again and knocked to the floor.
Two months later, Father Dimitri was sent to a prison camp along with Mother Maria’s son Yuri. His cassock, torn and dirty, he was abused and ridiculed by the guards who shoved him shouting Jew! Jew! When Yuri began to cry seeing this abuse, Father Dimitri calmed him: Don’t cry – remember that Jesus Christ had to bear much greater humiliations.
In the camp, Father Dimitri continued to function as a priest. The Orthodox prisoners were permitted to set up a chapel in which the Divine Liturgy was served daily. Father Dimitri was able to make a sketch of the chapel which smuggled out to his wife. In letters he wrote to his family he encouraged his wife to remain strong:
Make the morose thoughts go away with the Jesus Prayer, take Communion as often as possible…Don’t let despondency or irritation take root in you, and run quickly and confess to a priest.
Of his own life he wrote:
I am fully aware that the will of God is being carried out and that a new obedience in the Church is beginning for me.
After a year, Father Dimitri was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and then to the camp at Dora. His health broken, suffering from pneumonia, he died on February 9, 1944 and his body was burned in the Buchenwald crematorium. When word reached his family that Father Dmitri had died, Metropolitan Evlogy officiated at a solemn funeral service in the Paris Cathedral. On January 16, 2004, Father Dimtri, Mother Maria, her son Yuri and associate Elia Fondaminski were all glorified as martyr/saints of the Orthodox Church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Their memory is kept each year on their feastday of July 20.
Kondak – Tone 8:
As witnesses of truth and preachers of piety,
let us worthily honor through divinely inspired chants:
Dimitri, Maria, George and Elias,
who have borne the sufferings,
the bonds and unjust judgment,
in which like the martyrs
have received the imperishable crown.
- Father Edward Pehanich