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First Martyr in Communist World Commemorated

Photo of Marie Zivna, the first martyr

Marie Živná, the first martyr in a communist state, honoured on 50th anniversary of her death in a prison cell

Palace of Justice, Bratislava
The place Marie Živná died in a detention cell 11th April 1974 – the Palace of Justice in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photo: Laurenc Klas

Part 1 of a series commemorating Marie Živná. See part 2, part 3

No one knows exactly how Marie Živná (1949-1974) died 11th April 1974, but all agree that it was under mysterious circumstances while being held in detention by the communist authorities in Bratislava.

She had been arrested by the secret police of Czechoslovakia in the Autumn of 1973 along with 18 others as part of a crackdown on religious groups.

Emilie Sterbel
Emilie Steberl (1932-1981), the first underground missionary for the Unification Church to communist countries behind the Iron Curtain. Photo: FFWPU

Altogether 200 persons connected to the thriving Unification Church were interrogated. Many of them had joined the new religious movement that had come to the country with an underground missionary, Emilie Steberl, from neighbouring Austria in October 1968.  This was 12 years before underground missionaries were sent to other East European nations as part of a legendary project behind the Iron Curtain that came to be called “Mission Butterfly”.

All those arrested survived the ill treatment behind the prison walls, except Marie Živná. 50 years after her untimely death, a program to honour her was held 13th April 2024 in her small hometown of Svojanov, 60 km north of the large Czech city of Brno. Another commemorative meeting was held in Bratislava, Slovakia on 7th April.

Novinky, the most visited Czech online newspaper, reported on the event in Svojanov and wrote about Marie,“The political and social relaxation of the late 1960s was followed by normalization. In the atmosphere of tightening screws, Marie found hope in a faith. In 1972, she became one of the first Czechoslovak members of the Unification Church. The newly formed movement, standing outside official structures, immediately provoked a reaction from the regime.

A group of believers was arrested in Bratislava, and a trial ensued, in which 18 young people were sentenced to unconditional imprisonment for subverting the republic. The nineteenth, Marie Živná, did not survive to see the end of the trial. But what exactly happened behind the walls of the detention cell in the Bratislava Palace of Justice on April 11, 1974, is unknown.” (Novinky 15th April 2024, translated from Czech. Original article)

Barbara Grabner, a journalist in Bratislava, tells News and Insights,

Marie Zivna. the first martyr, in Summer 1973
Marie Živná, the first martyr in the East Bloc, here in Summer of 1973, months before she got arrested. Photo: FFWPU
Marie Zivna, the first martyr
A photo of Marie Živná (1949-1974) at the age of 18, displayed at the commemorative meeting in Svojanov on 13th April 2024. The picture had been taken for her high school graduation. Photo: FFWPU

“In September 1973 the persecution started; Marie was arrested end of autumn 1973. Like other members she waited in the prison for the trial to take place in Bratislava. The police released Marie for a while because they thought that she would lead them to other suspects. During that period, Margita Vrábelová, the mother of an imprisoned member of the Unification Church, met Marie for the last time,

‘I met her at the main station. I was walking upstairs, and she was walking downstairs. We stopped and she asked me for small change for a bus ticket. I wanted to give her more money, but she said that she didn’t want to carry any extra money. So, I gave her the amount she asked for. I think that she asked for the change from me just to have a reason to stop and talk to me and tell me a little bit about her situation.’

Ladislav Šimek too met Marie,

‘When I crossed the main square, Marie was walking toward me from the opposite direction. I knew it would be better not to talk to her because of the secret police observing us. We greeted each other just with our eyes in very careful manner. It was the last time that I saw Marie alive.’”

Novinky writes,

Marie Zivna declared martyr
The official declaration where Father Moon declares Marie Zivna martyr on 1st May 1994. Photo: FFWPU

“However, Jiří P. Kříž [a friend of Marie from her student days in Brno] does not believe that she committed suicide, as the official version claimed.

‘It was not technically possible. And it contradicts her state of mind. She managed to contact another inmate, so we know she was joyful. What those StB [State Security, the secret police] agents did to her then exceeded the imagination of any of us,’ Kříž added, according to his findings, there are no written documents in the archives about what happened.”

From the grave of the Zivna family in Svojanov, Czech Republic.
From the grave of the Zivna family in Svojanov, Czech Republic. Photo: FFWPU

Friends of Marie tried to find out how she had died. They found that Marie’s parents had been shocked upon seeing their daughter’s body in the coffin. Her hair had turned grey while in prison. How could the hair of a 24-year old suddenly lose its colour? The parents must have suspected that Marie had been seriously mistreated, maybe even tortured while imprisoned.

In his autobiography As a Peace-loving Global Citizen, Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, mentions how Marie Živná

“lost her life while in prison at the young age of twenty-four. She was the first martyr who died while conducting missionary work in a communist country.” (p164)

Father Moon's autobiography
Front cover of Father Moon’s autobiography.

Father Moon describes his reaction when he heard the news of her death,

“I could not speak. I fell into a sorrow that seemed to have no end, as if I had been thrown into deep water.” (p164)

One of the first members of the Unification Church in Czechoslovakia was Milos Klas. He joined in 1970 and was also arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. He recalls,

“I used to witness [evangelize] mainly to those students and young people who attended some church. I didn’t witness to my colleagues even though some of them knew about my ‘forbidden’ activities. My own particular lifestyle and the way in which I treated people left a positive impact on them. So, in difficult circumstances my colleagues would always help me, even if it meant a risk for them.

One day in October of 1973, the secret police visited my workplace. They wanted to arrest me but because I wasn’t present, they told my boss that he should order me to be there on the following day at a certain time when they would come again. My boss managed to warn me that the secret police were going to come for me and suggested that I should take all precautions necessary.

Milos Klas
Milos Klas in the early seventies. Photo: FFWPU

It gave me just enough time to hide our literature in a heap of coal in my landlady’s cellar and to deeply bury the rest in the forest, with the help of a young member. My boss was excellent. He even cared for me some years later when I was released from prison. He re-employed me even though the management protested strongly. […]Altogether I spent twelve months in prison. The authorities released me four months early because, without my knowledge, my mother had written a petition for clemency to President Husak, who had granted it.” (Mission Butterfly – Pioneers Behind the Iron Curtain, 2006, p30-31)

Part 1 of a series commemorating Marie Živná. See part 2, part 3

Featured image above: A photo of Marie Živná (1949-1974), the first martyr in the communist world, displayed by Mária Uhnáková, who was also imprisoned, at the commemorative meeting in Svojanov on 13th April 2024. Photo: FFWPU

“First Martyr in Communist World Commemorated” – text by Knut Holdhus, collected from reports from Czech Republic and Slovakia. Posted 17th April 2024 at 5:06 pm. Updated 18th April at 9:34 am.

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