First, the place where the Kaminskys lived became a hospital, and then it was turned into a stable. Later, it was used as a collective farm hostel accommodating students for many years. Eventually, the large premises fell into dispair. Six years ago, a married couple bought it and turned the place into a farm stay. “These young people have beautified the abandoned lot. They even dug out a pond. Today they help me support myself,” says Zinaida Pavlovna.
As we approach the gates of the estate, the hostess opens the door. Zinaida Pavlovna asks permission to show us the oak tree and leads us through the premises.
“This is the place where the Kaminskys lived. Nothing is left of what was here before. The Kaminskys' large territory where my mother used to graze cows was later overgrown with brushwood. This area has now been landscaped and beautified. Visitors are always delighted with their visits to this place.
Inside the homestead there is a space with several halls, used for weddings by couples both from nearby and distant places. On the premises there is a pond, many large stones and old trees.
Once, a neighbor wanted to get rid of these trees.He cut down a few of them and was about to continue when I told him, 'You did not plant them, and you have no right to cut them down.' I called the village council; the chairman came and he did not allow it. Yes, I am the head of the village and I will stand for this,” says Zinaida.
I look at her and imagine her grandmother, who once did not allow for the church to be closed. We are walking along the path to the oak tree.
“Look how big and beautiful this oak is! We have always admired it,” she says with affection.
The oak branches have spread out, forming a shed over this land. The trees look naked without their leaves, making you want to stand close to them, touching and examining the old bark, as if trying to read the history of this family in its cracks.
Tatiana approaches the old oak, trying to hug its trunk covered with soft moss. She looks very small against the background of the giant tree as she takes a photo of it and immediately sends it to Larisa, the great-granddaughter of Father Simeon, living in the US. Larisa writes back: “This is incredible. I cannot believe this is happening! Visiting the grave of my great-grandfather and the place where he lived and died is my greatest desire. A deep inner relationship with him has always been part of my mentality. I have been greatly influenced by this invisible connection with him. As a family, we have always prayed for him and his wife.”
Many times Larisa has tried to come to the village of Gorbachi, but due to various circumstances it did not work out. Larisa is a church choir director; her four children also sing on the kliros. She writes that she has always felt it was her duty to continue the work begun by her great-grandfather, preserving the spiritual legacy passed on to his children and grandchildren, forced to flee and build a new life without him.
"I am very proud to be a member of the Kaminsky family," she says, "and a descendant of a new martyr. I am very proud to be Russian Orthodox; not proud in a sinful way, rather I feel very honoured and humbled to have been given this legacy. I have been doing my best not to waste it, trying to preserve it to the best of my ability both in myself and in my family.”
In 1938 Father Simeon was transferred to the parish in Svisloch village. His son Fr. Konstantin was the rector in Levshovo (now Gorbachi), a village eight kilometers from Svisloch. In his sermons, he often criticised Communists. The well-disposed parishioners used to warn him of a danger to his life. Eventually, Fr. Konstantin decided to leave for the West. He tried to convince his father to join him, but Fr. Simeon categorically refused.
On September 20, Fr. Konstantin left for Svisloch and from there, he moved to Vilno. Fr. Simeon remained at his parish. On the tragic day of September 22, he was brutally murdered. How exactly did the murder happen in 1939? The old oak tree is likely the only keeper of that secret. Zinaida leads us to the scene of the tragedy.
“Here, in this place where the firewood is now stacked you can see the foundation of what used to be a barn,” says Zinaida. "It was large enough for keeping cattle. There are different versions. According to some, he was killed inside this barn, while others say that it happened behind it. This barn has been up for a long time. When the hospital was built here, they used it for storing firewood. Apparently, there were witnesses who saw everything. They wanted to take Father Simeon's horse, so they went to the barn..."
Not so long ago, old.orthos.org published the testimony of Tatiana Pavlovna Ostasheva, a resident of the village of Zhilichi. She recalls, "Of course, many years have passed and many things have faded from memory, but the fact that Father Simeon was killed is something that my brother asked me to always remember and to tell others. My older brother Vladimir was then a shepherd at the Kaminskys'. He was 10 years old. On that September morning in 1939, Vladimir suspected nothing as he drove the cows out to pasture and started waiting for someone to bring him breakfast from the priest's house. He clearly remembered seeing two men escort the priest out of his house and lead him to the stable at the sight of a rifle. One of the men was dressed in a military uniform, and the other was a civilian, from the locals. My brother was peeking through a crack in the barn, and the gunmen could not see him. There was a sheaf of freshly threshed straw in the shed, which they ordered Fr. Simeon to untie and spread on the floor. Father started spreading the straw, and at that moment they fired at him from the back. The shot rang out, and the priest slowly began to rise to his full height, and then fell on the straw face up..."
“Everything that has happened is part of God's Providence. The question of forgiving the killer never even arose in our family,” Larisa, once wrote to Tatiana. "Matushka Elena, Fr. Simeon's wife never spoke with anger or bitterness about what had happened to her husband, or their forced move to the USA, although she was very sad and missed her husband. I suppose there was no need to talk about forgiveness. It was self-evident."
"Everything here is covered in obscurity. The 20th century is not a happy one," Fr. Vladimir, priest of the church where the martyred Fr. Simeon Kaminsky once served, tells us. “Our land is soaked in blood; we do not know what we are walking on.
When they built the farm stay here, people began to come to our parish for Baptisms, Weddings, which they can now celebrate at the newly-built place. I think it is a good thing.
At one time, someone wanted to buy this memorable place and found a monastery here, but it did not work out. We have raised the question of canonization, but it is not an easy process. We are missing some important documents. Canonization requires serious work with the archives. It is now being treated very meticulously.
We, Christians, need to know the past, avoid dwelling on the present and move into the future, in spite of anything. The Lord gave us the means, the motivation and the destination."
We follow the road leading from behind the church to the cemetery, surrounded by a field on four sides. The cemetery is very old. The wind blows in our faces, tearing the crumpled dry leaves off the branches. We walk through the graves until finally we find the grave of Father Simeon Kaminsky, surrounded with an old metal fence covered with moss. The grave looks inconspicuous. The inscription on the granite monument says: "Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Rest, Dear Father."
“Every year, on September 19 or after September 21, we celebrate a funeral service for Priest Simeon Kaminsky here, at the grave,” says Father Vladimir. “On this day, people gather to honor his memory. We need to remember... And as long as the locals keep the memory, we will continue to serve.”
"Has anyone ever come to Fr. Simeon's grave, because they knew this story?" we asked Fr. Vladimir.
"As far as I can remember, you are the first."
"Why do you think Father Simeon preferred to stay, instead of leaving together with his family?"
"Every soul is a mystery. Today we can only guess what really happened… According to the locals, he knew that he was going to be killed. He was shot after the Nativity of the Holy Virgin, and on that day his son was supposed to serve. Father Simeon knew that they would come for him, and saved his son by serving in his place. 'You only die once,' he said shortly before his death. It is a true Christian act and a good example to follow, especially in difficult times. For the Kaminskys, Father Simeon has become the cornerstone from which the great construction of Christianity began in their family."
Grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren of Father Simeon, Cincinnati, 2021
There was once a big old tree growing on the grounds of the farmstead and the Kaminskys' former home. All that was left of it was a stump, which eventually rotted away. Before it did, however, a dense canopy of linden trees grew around it. That tree, having died, gave life to new ones. Perhaps it is the same with the life and death of a person who can “nourish” the branches of his kind until they begin to grow together, as if holding hands. Their roots go deep into the earth, where they draw their strength, while with their tops they reach into the sky...
Photos by Sergei Mironovsky