THE ISLAND OF MOLOKAI (1)
On January 28th, we commemorated the 48th anniversary
of World Leprosy Day, the effort of which was to enlighten the public
to the suffering, pain and misery of those afflicted with Leprosy,
and consequent help to them. According to the World Health Organization,
at the break of the millennia an additional 740 thousand carriers
of the so-called Hansen Disease (Leprosy) appeared. Of these numbers,
73% live in India, with others from Brazil, Nepal, Madagascar, Ethiopia,
as well as from other countries. Leprosy occurs in countries with
the lowest living standard, the equivalent of 25 Slovak crowns a
day (about 0,75 Dollars). The common denominators of the spread
of the infection are extreme poverty, terrible living conditions,
lack of suitable drinking water, minimal hygiene, and almost no
health care. Let us add that developed countries in Western Europe
charitably support manifestation marches and associations for the
benefit of those suffering from Leprosy.
On this unusual topic, we were informed by Peter
Frei alias, Peter Zaloudek, from Vienna, Austria, who is originally
from Czecho-Slovakia ["Peter Frei" is a pseudonym
- a condition of a Catholic newspaper that the former priest who
decided to marry not use his own name.] Peter visited the Hawaiian
Islands, including the island of Molokai, three times. Each time
Peter learned more and befriended those who live in the Leper Colony
there. His friendship and ties to those who live on Molokai have
added yet another dimension to his life.
How did you ever come to Oceania, to the
island of Molokai? What motivation was it, or was it curiosity that
brought you there?
Twenty-five years ago, while in secondary school,
I read a book that impacted my life, the biography of Father Damian
de Veuster, the Belgian missionary. He was active in this colony
from 1873 through 1889 (our readers know Father Damian from the
book of Wilhelm Hünnermann: On the Island of Death).
His life story has filled me with enthusiasm that has never waned.
He has since become one of the saints that I respect and admire.
In 1998 I prepared for a visit to the Hawaiian
Islands. I supposed that I would see the places where Father Damian
once lived and worked. The motivation to travel to Molokai was therefore
nostalgic and geographic. Then it happened. The first visit lasted
a mere several hours. In the leprosarium I could move only with
a guide who treated me and the other tourists with reserve. The
inhabitants of the island did not wish to be observed ... they always
felt rancor because "healthy" society treated them with
cruelty, sending them into exile (it must be added that Dr. Hansen
discovered the bacterium leprae. The first medicine against
leprosy was invented in 1946, a chemical therapy. On the third day
after taking it, the patient no longer is a carrier of the disease.
The therapy then lasts several months, depending on the stage of
This short visit with these wonderful people left
an indelible impression. I took several photographs which I then
made into slides and developed presentations. I held lectures on
the heritage of Father Damien, and all that he had done to bring
an awareness to the rest of the world. The interest that the public
showed was beyond my wildest expectations. I decided to return to
Molokai in 1999, and again in 2000. The purpose of these visits
was to collect as much information as possible about the legendary
Father Damian and the inhabitants of this "death colony".
Today, I am proud and happy to call these inhabitants my friends,
and maintain correspondence with several.
Will you describe the destiny of the people
you met in the leprosarium?
This could be a long narration...first of all,
I am going to tell you a bit of history. Since 1778, when Englishman
Cook landed on the Hawaiian isles, people from Europe, America,
and other parts of the world, started to arrive and settle there.
This not only brought different cultures, habits and technical equipment,
but unfortunately various diseases. The native Hawaiian people did
not know "imported" diseases, and therefore were unable
to protect themselves against them. One of these diseases was leprosy.
Apparently it was carried to Hawaii by someone from Asia, probably
from China. To this day, leprosy is also called "Chinese Disease".
In 1865, the Hawaiian King Kamehameha V founded
a leprosarium on Molokai Island.
What extraordinary people I have met there! I have traveled extensively
around the world, but I have never met anyone like them. Because
inhabitants have been living there from birth (today they are 65-90
years old), they are branded by isolation to life. That's why they
appear aloof to tourists. When you get to know them better, you'll
discover that they are grateful for the time that is being devoted
to them, for listening to them. I was impressed by their faith…their
faith in life after death, this unimaginably lovelier life, when
God will hold them close in his arms. All in Moloka'i are believers,
even though they are all not in the sense of the teachings of the
Catholic Church. Each of them trusts fully in God and cherishes
the hope of eternal life. In my opinion, their extreme daily suffering
and their hard life in the colony shifted their focus to beyond
the horizon. It shaped them, helped them to find different values,
and made them spiritual beings, directing them to God. After speaking
with them for just a little while, you come to feel this firm faith
strongly and convincingly.
I wish to mention Mrs. Olivia. She is 86 years
old, and has lived in the colony since 1934. She was brought to
this island from Honolulu where she was treated in a hospital specializing
in leprosy. The patients were strictly prohibited from leaving the
hospital, but Olivia, like other young patients, sometimes secretly
went to the city in the evening. She longed for entertainment, the
company of other young people. In the hospital, there were strict
rules, and those who broke them were punished by exile to Molokai.
This is what happened to Olivia.
Several years ago she wrote an autobiographical
book, My Life of Exile in
Kalaupapa (which is the name of the place where the
leprosarium is situated). She describes not only her own life, and
the experiences from involuntary exile, but the destinies of others
sharing her affliction. In reading these terrible facts, you surely
will be seized not only by horror, sorrow and pity, but also with
anger at those who sent these people to the colony. I wish to at
least mention this fact: the couples living in the colonies (even
when married) were forbidden to conceive children so as not to spread
the infection. And so it happened that these poor, sick people never
saw children. Olivia saw a little child for the first time when
she was 60 years old, and was shocked by the sight. She exclaimed
"They are such wonderful and sincere beings! Oh God, what they
have done to us here, forbidding the presence of children is surely
a most flagrant sin."
I have seen and spoken with Mrs. Olivia several
times. It has been a great experience for me. She is now sitting,
an invalid, in a chair with no fingers on her hands, no toes on
her feet, and she no longer has lips. In spite of this, she is constantly
smiling, she has an excellent memory, is a very good speaker, and
she sings wonderfully. I have experienced this several times during
ON THE ISLAND OF MOLOKAI (2)
We continue the story of Peter Frei/ alias Peter Zaloudek,
of Vienna. He is originally from Czechoslovakia, and speaks of those
suffering from Leprosy from the island of Molokai.
Our readers know the book on Father Damian,
who totally devoted his life to those with leprosy, as a missionary.
Does his "spirit" still overlay the conscience of the
Definitely. Father Damian died in the year 1889,
and those people who are living there today could not have known
him more if he walked among them now. When you speak to those suffering
from leprosy, they will remind you now and again: "Father Damian
was one of the few who came to understand all we are going through."
This witness makes a deep impression on me every time. He surely
had to have had an extremely deep faith in God, and at the same
time an enormous love for those sick because his name and deeds
have been preserved in the oral tradition of the inhabitants of
Let me tell you about another interesting observation
of mine. The colony of those suffering from leprosy is a lovely
arranged little village with nicely cut grass and flower beds. I
realized that all this exists thanks to Father Damian. He taught
these people how to live. He reminded them that this colony is their
world, which has to be as good as possible, so they would feel well
in it. This effort remains in the minds of those who live there
to this day.
On your return to Europe, you have put your
knowledge and experiences into a kind of a message. You have already
been addressed by the media of the central European states, and
you pass your ideas on to them. Why?
My own message? I do not know to what extent it
is my own, and to what extent it is a gift of God. I have already
spoken about one observation touching those suffering from leprosy.
Despite their suffering they are so completely filled by an enormously
deep faith in God and hope for eternal life. This is such a strong
phenomenon that it is not possible to overlook it. Further message
lies in the heroic life of Father Damian. He came to the island
in the midst of an unimaginable misery - not only material but spiritual.
Those suffering from leprosy, who were cruelly cast aside by "sound"
of society, embittered and disgusted by their treatment, became
aggressive and brutal to each other. Father Damian brought a completely
new spirit to them - a spirit of faith, sense of sacrifice, and
hope that comes from love. He fully identified with "his"
people, later suffering from leprosy himself. In their memory, even
his style of addressing those with leprosy - we lepers
- has been preserved. When the Church is speaking on enculturation
in connection with the activities of missionaries, Father Damian
grasped the notion perfectly. His suffering, no matter how difficult
(before his death he suffered from heavy depression) has brought
abundant fruit. Up to now, many remember him with astonishment.
He became an excellent model not only for priests of the world,
but for all Christians.
Even before the death of Father Damian lay volunteers
from the whole world started coming to the island of Molokai. The
first of them was Joseph Dutton. He was an American from Boston,
whose occupation was a martial officer. He learned about Molokai
and decided to visit it. He worked on Molokai for three years before
the death of Father Damian, then another forty-one years after that.
Once he arrived, he never left. He is buried there. Many other volunteers
of various professions came to the island as well. Father Damian
was delighted, and befriended all of them. Remember, this was at
a time when no one spoke a word about ecumenism. It's remarkable
that when Father Damian died, the first big monument to him was
not built by Catholics, but rather by English Protestants. In Kalaupapa
a three-meter cross had been built with this inscription written
on it, "Greater love has no one than this, that
he lay down his life for his friends"... [John15:13]
In our world, mainly in third world countries,
there still exists colonies like this today. But no where will you
find one like Molokai. It is like an exclamation mark, not only
because it was established for those with leprosy and a reservation
with no escape, but because it teaches the world a lesson with a
new view on the lives of those suffering and pain. This is the view
of faith...the view of God, a sign of grace. It is just this view
that we need in a time when man tries, at every cost, to escape
suffering and paid, when man is seeking only satisfaction of feelings,
instincts, senses, in a time when voices are raised, calling for
More importantly, we learn to look into our soul,
get to know our own heart and conscience. In what sense? The example
of this exotic disease, a thing I am trying to bring to parallel
with our modern times, is no longer such a distant thing. When we
hear "leper colony" or "concentration camp"
we may say to ourselves "This is something terrible and not
human. Who could ever invent such a thing?" But we don't see
that these "inventions" have their bud in the "smallness
of our heart". Every time we show disdain for those sick from
AIDS, those who have physical diseases, or who are different from
the rest of us, who have a different political opinion, or are of
a different color, or do not fit into our team of colleagues, we
begin to think this way. We sometimes want to "get rid"
of them or evacuate them to a place where we are not exposed to
them. These are the buds of future horrible colonies. Such thinking
is not Christian, is not human.
In early February you are leaving for your
fourth trip to the island of Molokai. What is your mission this
I leave Sunday February 4th, to fly back to Molokai.
When my ideas are published in the Katolické noviny - Catholic
Newspaper, I shall be there among those with leprosy. After three
visits to their colony, I have lively and permanent contacts with
the priest from the same Order as Father Damian. I must confess
that I feel the attachment of those with leprosy deep in my heart,
and I consider it a great honor that they accept me and are writing
to me regularly. Even when it seems as if my stays on Molokai are
somewhat "journalistic", it's not true. I speak of them
with their approval because I wish to communicate wonderful messages
about them and through them. Some time ago, when I got the invitation
to visit, I was deeply moved. I'm going there not as a photographer
and collector of facts, but as a man who truly enjoys their company.
It's from their spirit and devotion, soaked with faith, that I wish
to bring some peace to Europe.
Slovak catholic newspaper
March 4 and March 11 2001
819 01 Bratislava 11