By James Gilbert
Where do we find joy?
In the quiet moments of peace and tranquility, sitting untouched by the world? Lounging on the beach of an exotic island, drink in hand and body relaxed? Or in the AIDS stricken ghettos of Africa? Or the labor camps of Poland during World War II?
Her name in Vicky Shdanov and she waltzed into my bookstore with a twinkle in her eye that made me a little apprehensive.
“Can I help you find anything?” I asked her, ready for all sorts of strange answers.
“No, I have found my Jesus and he is my Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas!” she smiled at me and looked at my nametag, “My precious James, I have been through the labor camps of the Nazis and my Lord has brought me through it all. I am blessed so much by Him!”
Her accent was very heavy and I smiled at her, unsure how to react to that much joy in one person. But I was very interested in her story, so I asked her to share with me about her experiences. She laughed out loud and grabbed me and gave me a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek. And with that, she began.
All throughout her story, she kept grabbing my hand and squeezing it, as if I needed reassurance to believe what she was saying. At first, it made me uncomfortable because I felt like others would stare, like I would get in trouble for it in some regard, but as she continued I wanted more and more to hold her hand and squeeze it back. I wanted to experience the joy that was emanating from the older woman and felt like the woman suffering from the bleeding in the Bible, who just wanted to reach out and touch Jesus. There was something in this woman that I wished I could just touch, something that I wished I could just catch.
And so I hung on.
She had grown up in Ukraine, under the regime of Stalin, where Communism was taught in the schools and in the streets. As a child, she remembered the teachers telling the students that there was no God–that the priests merely brainwashed the people they were supposed to help. They were taken to an abandoned church, where the communist leaders shouted out to God to prove himself. The students were told to pray to God for candy, and then after a short while, the leaders brought in the candy and told them that Stalin gave them candy–not God. So in her home, there was no mention of God. In school, there was no mention of God except to mock and ridicule. The world was devoid of God, and it was shallow and cold.
In 1941, the Germans marched into Ukraine, where the residents were held in relaxed captivity. Vicky remembers the public gallows that were set up in the town squares–gallows where her next-door neighbor was hung for his crimes. And in the midst of it all, she questioned the idea of God. If he was real, how could he allow it all to happen? And her heart was hard and her situation even harder.
For in 1943, the Gestapo shipped her and her family to the labor camps in Warsaw. It was in this prison that she and her “Russian pig” family were treated with miserable contempt. But soon, another Russian family came, and Vicky saw something different in this family. They were not bitter and angry at the world and their captives. Instead, there was a joy that seemed to be supernatural, for why would joy be hiding among the captives of Nazis? So, Vicky asked them about why they were different. She asked about the little black book that they brought out every night and found out that they were Christians.
When she heard the news, she screamed at them in Russian, cussing at them and laughing at them, asking, “Where is your God in here? Why does he allow you to be here?” But the family was not angry nor deterred. The mother, Maria, began to share with Vicky at different times and finally asked Vicky to attend a worship service. Apparently, a Russian preacher had been transferred to the camp and was willing to share with all those in the camp. His fingers were all broken from his constant refusal to stop preaching, but he did not care. So Vicky went to hear what this man had to say, and she says that her first church was “between two barracks, on the floor, and behind an electric fence.”
It was there that her life was changed as she heard and understood. She found Jesus and joy unspeakable. She did not know anything about the gospel except that she needed it. “When you are drowning, nobody has to teach you to call for help,” she laughed as she recalled, several times stopping to wipe the tears from her cheeks. After she was liberated from the camp, she came to America and has been living there ever since.
I was awestruck and unable to say anything; my throat choked with emotion. She looked at me and smiled brightly, “My precious James, I love you, I love you, I love you. And Jesus has given me such joy because of all this.” As she turned to go, she gave several hugs to the other employees and kissed them on the cheek.
Another customer was checking out, and I was amazed at the contrast between Vicky and this other customer. The other woman was extremely somber, sullen and annoyed at the world. Vicky will forever change my outlook on life. I expect someone who has been in a Nazi labor camp to have the right to be bitter, but I have been taught something else. Joy is something that cannot be stolen like a gold watch, or something that can be beaten out of you–though some might try. It is not reliant on outside circumstances or inside feelings. It is only reliant on our God and the truth of who He is.
I think that grief and joy are part of the same circle, similar to a rubber band. When you stretch it one way, the whole thing is stretched. Great grief allows for great joy. Our capacity to feel tremendous pain also allows us to feel extreme happiness. And so, I will try to be happy in all my circumstances. I pray you might, as well.