Born on October 21, 1914, the son of a Polish family in Valga, Estonia, Kazimierz Swiatek had first hand experience of the great sufferings of the 20th Century.
His father died in 1920 in the Polish-Russian war, while defending the city of Vilnius against the Bolsheviks. His mother was deported, along with her children, to Siberia and did not return until 1922.
After entering the seminary aged 18, he was ordained shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. In April 1941, as a young assistant priest, he was arrested by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) and sentenced to death.
For two months, he sat in the death cell in a prison camp in Brest, where some 7000 Poles were imprisoned. As a result of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, however, he was released and so escaped execution.
After working as a parish priest, he was arrested once more, and in July 1945 he was sentenced to 10 years forced labour for his fidelity to the Church. He spent this in the notorious labour camps of Maryinsk and Vorkuta. In 1954, after the death of Stalin, he was released and went to work as a parish priest in Pinsk.
In 1991, after the political changes, Kazimierz Swiatek was appointed by Pope John Paul II as Archbishop of Minsk-Mohilev and Apostolic Administrator of Pinsk. Then in 1994 he was made a cardinal.
In an interview with the charity Aid to the Church in Need, Cardinal Swiatek recalled the years he had spent in the Gulags.
“It was a death sentence,” he said. “They told us a bullet would be wasted on us, since we would die here anyway, and so until then we could carry on working. Exhaustion, hunger and cold brought death to many.”
Cardinal Swiatek played a key role in building up the Catholic Church in Belarus after the fall of communism. His pastoral touch and fortitude of Faith sustained the Church in that part of the Soviet Union and sustained his priests as Belarus emerged from communism, and afterwards.
FULL OBITUARY: Death of Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek in Belarus - Tribute paid to Cardinal who survived the Gulags (Aid to the Church in Need)
Kazimierz Swiatek -- A Polish Cardinal For Belarusians (Radio Free Europe)
Telegram for the Death of Cardinal Swiatek (Vatican Information Service)
Roman Catholic Church in Belarus