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A Great Story of God makes small things matter

Boris Nicholayevich Kornfeld was a surgeon who worked in a hospital in a prison in the former Soviet Union. He was not on the staff of the prison; he was one of the prisoners, but his skill was so great that the Soviet authorities decided to put him to work in the prison hospital. We do not know what crime Dr. Kornfeld committed, but he became a political prisoner in the Russian gulag at Ekibastuz deep in Siberia in the early 1950s.

While in the gulag, Dr. Kornfeld met a Christian whose quiet faith and frequent reciting of the Lord’s Prayer attracted the doctor’s attention and interest. One day, while repairing a guard’s artery which had been cut in a knifing incident, Dr. Kornfeld seriously considered suturing the artery in such a way that the guard would slowly bleed to death a little while later. Then, appalled by the hatred and violence he saw in his own heart, he found himself repeating the words of the Christian prisoner, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Previously, Dr. Kornfeld had been a self-righteous Jew, like Saul, but gradually he came to see the sin in his own life, and his life was transformed by the grace of God. The Christian inmate who had witnessed to Dr. Kornfeld was transferred to another gulag shortly thereafter, and Dr. Kornfeld didn’t tell anyone about his new found faith for some time, but his life would never be the same. 

Shortly after he prayed that prayer asking God for His forgiveness, Dr. Kornfeld began to refuse to go along with some of the standard practices of the prison camp, and one day he even turned in an orderly who had stolen food from a dying patient. From that day on, he knew that his life was in danger.

One day, as the doctor was examining a patient who had been operated on for cancer of the intestines, Kornfeld began to describe to the patient what had happened to him. Once the tale began to spill out, Kornfeld could not stop. Well into the night, he told his whole story of coming to faith in Jesus Christ and the difference God made in his life. The young patient awoke early the next morning to the sound of running feet. For, you see, during the night, while the Dr. Kornfeld had slept, someone had crept up beside him and dealt eight blows to his head with a plasterer’s mallet, and Boris Kornfeld was dead. The orderlies carried the still, broken body of the doctor out of the hospital ward.

Dr. Kornfeld’s testimony did not die. The patient pondered the doctor’s last, impassioned words, and as a result, he, too, became a Christian. He survived that concentration camp, and he went on to tell the world what he learned there. The patient’s name was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn went on to write many books that were smuggled out of the gulag and printed in the West, the first being published in 1973. Many scholars believe his writings were some of the first stirrings that marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. Horror upon horror was revealed to a world that was shocked by the inhumanity of the Soviet system, which had murdered sixty-five million of its own people in the gulags. The great Russian author was quick to acknowledge that the problem lay not only in Communism. The problem lay in every human heart. Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “It was only there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between parties either – but right through every human heart – through all human hearts.”

The following is how Alexander Solzhenitsyn actually recorded this same incident in his The Gulag Archipelago (1973) book:

Following an operation, I am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium, and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out, so it will not hurt my eyes. There is no one else in the ward.

Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardor of his words.

We know each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings. He was a gentle and well-mannered person. I could see nothing bad in him, nor did I know anything bad about him. However, I was on guard because Kornfeld had now been living for two months inside the hospital barracks, without going outside. He had shut himself up in here, at his place of work, and avoided moving around camp at all.

This meant that he was afraid of having his throat cut. In our camp it had recently become fashionable to cut the throats of stool pigeons. This has an effect. But who could guarantee that only stoolies were getting their throats cut? One prisoner had had his throat cut in a clear case of settling a sordid grudge. Therefore the self-imprisonment of Kornfeld in the hospital did not necessarily prove that he was a stool pigeon.

It is already late. The whole hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is finishing his story:

“And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”

I cannot see his face. Through the window come only the scattered reflections of the lights of the perimeter outside. The door from the corridor gleams in a yellow electrical glow. But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder.

Those were the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went into one of the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep. Everyone slept. There was no one with whom he could speak. I went off to sleep myself.

I was wakened in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the orderlies were carrying Kornfeld’s body to the operating room. He had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer’s mallet while he slept. He died on the operating table, without regaining consciousness.

One man’s hope which did not seem to outlast the night lasted not only for years but changed the world.  God does this.


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