Half a Century Under Totalitarian Tyranny
As told by Lembit Toom
In 1951, I was sentenced to ten years of slave labor in Siberia. We were transported thousands of miles to a camp far above the Arctic Circle. The work was exhausting, the weather brutal, and the living conditions terrible. Let me explain how I came to be there and why our suffering was not in vain.
MY FATHER was considered an intellectual in Estonia, the Baltic country where I was born on March 10, 1924. In his later years, though, he managed the family farm in Järvamaa in central Estonia. Ours was a large Lutheran family of nine children, of whom I was the youngest. When I was 13, Father died.
The following year I graduated from elementary school. In September 1939, when World War II broke out, my brother Erich was called up for military service, and I was unable to continue my education. Then, in 1940, Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union, and a year later the Germans occupied Estonia. Erich was imprisoned by them but was released and returned to Estonia in August 1941. In 1942, I was able to attend agricultural school.
It was while I was on a visit home from school for Christmas in 1943 that my sister Leida mentioned to me that our family doctor had spoken to her about the Bible. He had given her some booklets published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. I read them and immediately searched out Dr. Artur Indus, who then studied the Bible with me.
Forced to Decide
Meanwhile, the fighting between Germany and the Soviet Union escalated. By February 1944, the Russians had advanced to near the Estonian border. Erich was drafted into the German army, and I also received my papers to enlist. I believed that God’s law forbids the killing of our fellowmen, and Dr. Indus said that he would help me find a place to hide until the war was over.
One day a constable and the leader of the local civil defense arrived at our farm. They had been given orders to arrest me on the suspicion that I was trying to avoid military service. I knew then that I would have to flee my home or face a German concentration camp.
I found refuge at the farm of one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. To strengthen my faith, while in hiding I read as much of the Bible and of the Watch Tower Society’s literature as I could. One night I slipped back home to pick up some food. The house was full of German soldiers, since my brother Erich had returned with some of his friends for a few days’ vacation. I was able to speak with Erich secretly on the threshing floor that night. It was the last time I ever saw him.
A Narrow Escape
That same night, after I returned to the farm where I was hiding, it was raided. The local constable and men from the civil defense were acting on a report that someone was hiding at the farm. I slipped into the crawl space under the floor, and shortly I heard the sound of cleated boots above my head. Threatening the farmer with a rifle, the officer shouted: “There is a man hiding in this house! How can we get to the crawl space under the floor?” I could see the searching beam of light from their flashlight. I inched back a little more and lay there and waited. After they left, I stayed in the crawl space for a while to be sure that the danger had passed.
Before morning I abandoned the house, grateful to Jehovah that I had not been discovered. Christian brothers helped me to find another hiding place, where I stayed until the end of the German occupation. Later I heard that the constable and the local civil defense leader had been killed, evidently by Russian partisans. On June 19, 1944, I symbolized my dedication to God by water baptism, and my sister Leida also became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Soviet reoccupation of Estonia began in June 1944, and a couple of months later, I was free to return home to help out with the farm work. But in November, not long after my return, I was ordered to report to the Russian army. Full of courage, I witnessed boldly to the recruiting committee. They informed me that the Soviet system was not interested in my beliefs and that everyone must serve in the army. However, for the rest of the war, I managed to remain free, and I devoted myself to helping provide Bible literature to fellow Witnesses.
When the war ended in May 1945 and amnesty was granted to conscientious objectors, I returned to school. By the early part of 1946, I concluded that there was no future for me in farming in Estonia, since the Soviet system of collectivization had taken over the private sector. So I quit school and began sharing more fully in the Kingdom-preaching work.
Under Soviet rule, our ministry could no longer be carried on openly. Actually, contact with the Watch Tower Society had been cut off during World War II. Therefore, with an old mimeograph machine, I helped to duplicate the literature that we had preserved. We also did our best to hold congregation meetings.
Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the KGB (the Soviet State Security Committee) began in August 1948. Five of those who were taking the lead in the work were arrested and imprisoned, and soon it was apparent that the KGB wanted to arrest everyone. A committee of four of us was formed to organize the preaching work, encourage our Christian brothers, and assist those in prison. Since I still had relative freedom to move about, I was used to make contact with fellow Witnesses.
A formal written protest dated September 22, 1948, was sent to Soviet officials in Estonia. It described our organization and the purpose of our work, and it demanded the release of our imprisoned fellow believers. The response? Further arrests. On December 16, 1948, we sent another declaration of protest to the Estonian SSR Supreme Court Council demanding the acquittal and release of our brothers. Copies of this and other petitions are still on file in the Tallinn city archives.
It was dangerous to travel, since we could not obtain proper documents. Yet, we visited the congregations in Aravete, Otepää, Tallinn, Tartu, and Võru on a powerful four-cylinder block-engine motorcycle with a sidecar that had been purchased from a Russian officer. We affectionately called it the Chariot.
Our Protest to Stalin
On June 1, 1949, another petition was mailed to the highest office of the Estonian Socialist Republic as well as to Nikolay Shvernik, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. This document, a copy of which we retrieved from the Tallinn archives, bears the stamp of Nikolay Shvernik, indicating that he received it and sent a copy to Joseph Stalin, head of government of the Soviet Union. The last part of the petition reads:
“We demand that Jehovah’s Witnesses be released from prison and that the persecution against them be stopped. Jehovah God’s organization, by means of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, should be permitted to preach, unhindered, the good news of Jehovah’s Kingdom to all the inhabitants of the Soviet Union; otherwise, Jehovah will utterly destroy the Soviet Union and the Communist Party.
“This we demand in the name of Jehovah God and the King of his Kingdom, Jesus Christ, and also in the name of all imprisoned fellow believers.
“Signed: Jehovah’s Witnesses in Estonia (June 1, 1949).”
Early in 1950, we received three issues of The Watchtower from someone returning from Germany. So that all of our Christian brothers could benefit from this spiritual food, it was decided that we would organize an assembly on July 24, 1950, in a Bible student’s hay barn near the village of Otepää. Somehow, however, the KGB learned of our plans, and they prepared to make a massive arrest.
Two truckloads of soldiers were positioned at the railway station in Palupera, where the brothers were to disembark. In addition, a soldier with a radio transmitter lay in wait along the Otepää/Palupera road, a short distance from the assembly site. When certain brothers we were expecting to arrive early failed to show up on schedule, we suspected that our plans had been discovered.
I took along fellow Witness Ella Kikas and raced by motorcycle to the railway station two stops before Palupera. The train had just pulled in, so Ella and I boarded it at opposite ends and ran through the cars shouting for all to get off. When the Witnesses got off, we made arrangements to hold our assembly in another barn the following day. Thus the KGB plan for a massive arrest of Witnesses was foiled.
Two months following the assembly, however, arrests began on a large scale. I was taken in for questioning on September 22, 1950, and so were the other three on the committee that was overseeing the preaching work in Estonia. We were kept for eight months in the KGB prison in Tallinn on Pagari Street. Afterward, we were transferred to the general prison on Kalda Street, which was called the Battery. There we were held for three months. Compared with the KGB prison where we had been kept in a cellar, this one on the Baltic Sea was like a holiday resort.
Difficult Life in Siberia
Soon after, I was sentenced to ten years in a camp in far-off Noril’sk, Siberia, along with Harri Ennika, Aleksander Härm, Albert Kose, and Leonhard Kriibi. There the sun does not set for two months during the summer, and in the winter it does not rise above the horizon for two months.
In August 1951, we began the first leg of our trip from Tallinn to Noril’sk by train. We traveled some 3,500 miles [6,000 km], by way of Pskov, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Perm’, Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk, on the Yenisey River. Finally, in early October, we boarded a scow at Krasnoyarsk and were towed north more than 1,000 miles. Two weeks later we reached the town of Dudinka, far above the Arctic Circle. At Dudinka we transferred to a train again for the next 75-mile [120 km] leg of the trip to Noril’sk. From the Noril’sk station, we walked the final ten miles [15 km] to the work camp outside town in heavy snow.
Since my winter clothing had been stolen when we were on the scow, I had only a summer coat, a cap, and light footwear. We had been weakened by the many weeks of travel from Tallinn, and we hadn’t been given our meager daily ration of food. So some prisoners fainted. We helped them along until horses were fetched, and then we put them on horse-drawn sledges.
Upon arrival at the camp, we were registered, taken to a sauna, and given our food ration for the day. The barracks were warm, and I soon fell into a deep sleep. However, in the middle of the night, I awoke with acute pain caused by inflammation in my ears. The next morning I was given medical attention and was excused from work. But prison officials were angry that I couldn’t work and gave me a beating. I was thrown into solitary confinement for a month, as they said I was “disrupting the peace in the camp.” Thankfully, medication from the infirmary was provided, and the time in solitary gave me opportunity to regain my health.
The first winter in the camp was the hardest. The work, mostly in the open-pit nickel mine, was exhausting, and the little food we received was inferior. When many showed symptoms of scurvy, we were given vitamin C injections to alleviate the disease. Happily, though, we met many fellow Witnesses in the camp, who were from Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine.
Changes in Prison Life
In the spring of 1952, prisoners started to receive a small salary, which allowed us to buy food to augment our diet. Also, some Witnesses began to receive food in boxes with false bottoms in which Bible literature was concealed. A Witness from Moldova once received a tin of lard. As the lard was consumed, the stomach lining of a pig appeared. Inside it were three issues of The Watchtower!
When Stalin died, on March 5, 1953, prison life changed dramatically. Initially, strikes and uprisings broke out as prisoners demanded liberation. Army troops were sent in to suppress these. In Noril’sk, 120 prisoners were killed in an uprising; but the Witnesses did not become involved, and none of them were killed or wounded. In the summer of 1953, work in the nickel mine came to a standstill for two weeks. Afterward, prison life got easier. Some prisoners were freed, and others had their prison terms shortened.
A Faithful Witness
Following this time of camp turmoil, I was transferred to a camp to the south near the city of Tayshet, in the province of Irkutsk. There I met up with Artur Indus, who had first studied the Bible with me. He had refused to work in the camp as a doctor, choosing instead to accept more physically demanding work. He explained: “My conscience did not allow me to authorize sick leave for healthy prisoners who had been given positions of responsibility, while truly sick prisoners were forced to work.”
Brother Indus was by then emaciated and sick, since he had not done much physically demanding work before. Yet he told me he felt that his suffering had refined his heart in a spiritual way. We were together for about three weeks. Then he was taken to the camp hospital, where he died in January 1954. Somewhere in the endless subarctic forest lies his nameless grave. He died a faithful Christian and awaits the resurrection.
Release and Journey Home
In 1956 a Commission of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was sent to our camp to review the prisoners’ files. When I appeared before the commission, the general in charge asked: “What will you do after you are released?”
“We will see when the time comes,” I replied.
I was excused from the room, and when I was invited back, the general said: “You are the Soviet Union’s worst enemy—you are an ideological enemy.” Yet he added: “We are going to set you free, but we are going to follow you.” I was freed on July 26, 1956.
For two days I visited with Ukrainian Witnesses in Suyetikha, a village near Tayshet, to which they had been exiled in 1951. Next I stopped for four days in the district of Tomsk, near where Mother had been exiled. From the train station, I walked 15 miles [20 km] to the village of Grigoryevka. There I found conditions that were even worse than those many of us had experienced in the camps! My sister Leida had been released from a prison camp in Kazakhstan and had come to the area some months earlier to be with Mother. But since her passport had been confiscated, she had not as yet been able to return to Estonia.
Under Pressure in Estonia
In time, I arrived back home in Estonia and went straight to my parents’ farm. I discovered, as had been rumored in Siberia, that the government had destroyed all our buildings! A few days later, I contracted polio. I was in the hospital for a long time and continued therapy afterward. To this day, I walk with a limp.
Soon I got a job with a company for which I had worked during the summer of 1943, the Lehtse Peat Company. Through them I was given an apartment, and when Mother and Leida returned from exile in December 1956, they came to live with me in Lehtse.
In November 1957, I married Ella Kikas, who had also recently returned from a prison camp in Siberia. Two months later we moved to Tartu, where we got a little apartment in a private house. I was finally able to get a job as a driver at the Consumer Cooperative of the District of Tartu.
While in Siberia I had translated ten Watchtower study articles from Russian into Estonian and had brought them home with me. Later, we received the book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, which we also translated into Estonian. We then made typewritten copies of the book. In the meantime, the KGB kept up their surveillance. Since we were familiar with their tracking methods, we were always watchful and careful, like animals who were being hunted.
Targets of the KGB
In the early 1960’s, the KGB initiated a slander campaign against the Witnesses. My wife and I were major targets. Newspapers began to carry slanderous articles, and we were berated on radio and television. Twice the KGB held public meetings at my workplace. Also, a satiric comedy about me was staged by professional actors at the Estonia Theater in Tallinn. The situation reminded me of David’s words: “Those sitting in the gate began concerning themselves about me, and I was the subject of the songs of drinkers of intoxicating liquor.”—Psalm 69:12.
These efforts to disgrace us continued until 1965 when a final meeting took place, at the Worker’s Public Health Building in Tartu. Both Ella and I were there, as were KGB agents and a capacity crowd. Several times when Ella was questioned, the audience responded with applause. It was clear that the audience was on our side. The KGB agents were disappointed and angered by the outcome.
Spiritual Hunger Satisfied
Even though the Communists tried to stop the dissemination of our literature, after about 1965 we were able to provide our Christian brothers with a relatively good supply. However, the clandestine activity of translating and then printing in secret hideaways demanded much time and energy. Referring to my underground activity and method of transporting literature, a KGB agent once said to me: “You, Toom, are like a suitcase with a false bottom.”
Our meetings, of course, had to be held in secret and in small groups. And our preaching was done informally. Our brothers had to be prepared to have their apartments searched at any time. So the Watch Tower Society’s literature had to be hidden away very carefully. Yet, even under these conditions, many who loved Bible truth were found and took their stand on the side of the Kingdom.
When Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev began his reforms in the 1980’s, we realized more freedom to serve God. Eventually, in 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and Jehovah’s Witnesses received legal recognition. Currently we have four congregations in Tartu, and recently the construction of our own Kingdom Hall complex was completed. There are now more than 3,800 Witnesses sharing in the ministry in Estonia, compared with perhaps 40 or 50 when I began preaching well over half a century ago.
A Satisfying Christian Life
Never have I doubted that I made the right decision when I took my stand to serve Jehovah. I look back with a heart full of deep satisfaction, happy to see that Jehovah’s organization continues to move forward vigorously and that there are yet more and more who want to serve Jehovah.
I am very grateful to Jehovah that his love and protection have carried my wife and me through these many years. Keeping in mind that Jehovah’s righteous system is close at hand has given us spiritual strength. Surely, as we consider the marvelous growth in the numbers of those worshiping Jehovah, we are convinced that the suffering we have experienced has not been in vain.—Hebrews 6:10; 2 Peter 3:11, 12.
[Map on page 12, 13]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
A map marking the two-month-long trip from Tallinn to the infamous Noril’sk camp
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture on page 14]
Artur Indus, a stalwart Christian martyr
[Picture on page 14]
Prisoners in Siberia, 1956. I am the fourth from the left in the back row
[Picture on page 15]
With my wife, in front of the former KGB headquarters where we were often interrogated