Maintaining Faith Under Totalitarian Oppression
AS TOLD BY MICHAEL DASEVICH
“Back in Germany we shoot Jehovah’s Witnesses. Do you see that gun?” the Gestapo official asked as he pointed to a rifle in the corner. “I could run you through with the bayonet and not feel any guilt.”
I was only 15 when I faced this threat during the Nazi occupation of my homeland in 1942.
I WAS born in November 1926 in a small village near Stanislav (now called Ivano-Frankivs’k), in what was then part of Poland. During World War II, from September 1939 to May 1945, our area was occupied first by the Soviet Union, then for a time by Germany, and finally by the Soviets again. After the war it became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and when the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, it became part of Ukraine.
My Polish father and Belorussian mother were members of the Greek Catholic Church. But then, in 1939, two women who belonged to a congregation of 30 Witnesses of Jehovah in the nearby village of Horyhliady placed with us the booklet Universal War Near. It described events that I could see happening. Hence, when the booklet asked, “What is the real reason why the nations are hurrying to war?” I took careful note of the Bible-based explanation it gave.
War was not our only problem in Ukraine. There was a severe famine. The policies of the Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin led to forced deportations to Russia. The suffering I witnessed made me examine the Bible closely. I asked a Witness in Horyhliady to study the Bible with me.
Our village of Odajiv is across the Dniester River from Horyhliady, and several times a week, I would take a small boat across that stretch of water for my Bible studies. In August 1941, my sister Anna and I were baptized in that river along with two others.
Grilled by the Gestapo
The German occupation began in 1941, and despite the continued threat of punishment, we did not stop our Christian activity. The following year I started to pioneer, getting around on a bicycle. It was not long afterward that I had the brush with the German Gestapo referred to in the introduction. This is what occurred.
On my way home from the ministry one day, I made a visit on two fellow Christians, a mother and daughter. The daughter’s husband opposed our faith and was eager to find out where she obtained her Bible literature. That day I was carrying not only some literature but also reports regarding the ministry of fellow Christians. The husband saw me leaving the house.
“Stop!” he bellowed. I grabbed my bag and ran.
“Stop! Thief!” he yelled. Workers in the field thought that I must have stolen something, so they forced me to halt. The man took me to the police station, where a Gestapo official was present.
At seeing the literature in my bag, the official screamed in German: “Rutherford! Rutherford!” I did not need a translator to figure out what was upsetting him. The name of Joseph F. Rutherford, who had been the president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, appeared on the title page of the books published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The husband then accused me of being his wife’s lover. The police and the Gestapo official could see that this was absurd, since his wife was old enough to be my mother. Then they started questioning me.
They wanted to know who I was and where I came from and, in particular, where I had obtained the books. But I would not tell them. They hit me a few times and made fun of me, after which they locked me in a cellar. I was questioned for the next three days. Then I was taken into the Gestapo official’s office, where he threatened to run me through with his bayonet. For a moment I didn’t know whether he was going to carry out his threat. I bowed my head, and what seemed like a very long silence followed. Then he said abruptly: “You can go.”
As you can see, preaching at that time was a real challenge for us, but so was holding our meetings. We celebrated the annual Memorial of Christ’s death on April 19, 1943, using two rooms of a house in Horyhliady. (Luke 22:19) When we were about to start our meeting, a cry went out that the police were approaching the house. Some of us hid in the garden, but my sister Anna and three other women went into the basement. The police found them there and dragged them out one by one for questioning. They went through hours of rough treatment, and one of them was seriously injured.
The World Scene Changes
In the summer of 1944, the Germans retreated and the Soviets returned to our area. As servants of Jehovah, we stuck to the same Biblical principles that we had lived by while under Nazi occupation. We refused to have any part in military or political activity. Our loyalty to such Bible principles was soon put to the test.—Isaiah 2:4; Matthew 26:52; John 17:14.
Within a few days, the Soviets began drafting all young men for military service. To make matters more difficult, the Soviets were not the only ones seeking recruits. Ukrainian partisans combed the area for young men, whom they took into the forest to train as fighters. We Witnesses were thus put in the difficult position of having to prove our neutrality to two opposing factions—the Soviets and the partisans.
These two groups clashed right in our village, leaving a couple of partisans slain on the street outside our house. The Soviet authorities came to our home to find out if we knew the dead ones. The officials who came decided to take me along with them and to draft me into their army, which was forming a regiment of Polish soldiers. Because I was of Polish extraction, I was to be enlisted in it.
I, along with four other Witnesses, refused to be drafted into the army, so we were taken by rail to Dnipropetrovs’k, a city about 440 miles [700 km] to the east. There, after explaining that we could not serve in the military because of our Bible-based convictions, we were taken into custody while charges against us were prepared. When we appeared in court, we learned that the civilian investigator was Jewish. In our defense, to which the investigator listened attentively, we explained our beliefs. We mentioned things that we knew would interest him, including the oppression of the Israelites and their deliverance from Egypt by Moses.
During the months that it took for the court to pass sentence upon us, we were placed in a cell with about 25 other inmates. When they learned that we had refused to join the army, they exclaimed: “You are our brothers!” Shortly, however, we discovered that they were not Witnesses but Baptists. They had been willing to join the army, but they were arrested when they refused to bear arms.
In May 1945, while still in detention in Dnipropetrovs’k, we were awakened in the middle of the night by gunshots and shouting coming from the barracks and the streets outside. We wondered whether it was a riot, a battle, or a celebration. The next morning at breakfast, we heard the news from the barbershop: The war had ended! Shortly thereafter, the court announced our sentences. The same sentence was given to the Baptists and us—ten years in prison camps.
Prison Camp in Russia
We five Witnesses were sent to a prison camp in Russia. After a two-week rail journey, we finally disembarked at Sukhobezvodnoje, some 280 miles [400 km] east of Moscow. Sukhobezvodnoje was the administrative center of 32 labor camps that stretched alongside the railway line. Each camp housed thousands of inmates. After six months in Sukhobezvodnoje, I was sent to Camp No. 18. Most inmates there were criminals or political offenders.
The authorities put us to work felling trees, which was a very difficult task. At times we had to wade through waist-high snow, cut down trees with a handsaw, and then drag the trunks through the snow. Once a week, on Sunday after breakfast, I had the chance to discuss something Biblical with the other four Witnesses in the camp. These were our meetings. We also celebrated the Memorial, doing so in the bathhouse one year. We used blackberry juice because we had no wine to use as an emblem of Jesus’ blood.
The feeling of isolation was overwhelming. I poured out my heart to Jehovah, who strengthened me as he had strengthened Elijah when the prophet was burdened by similar feelings. (1 Kings 19:14, 18) God helped me to see that we were not alone. He was indeed a stable, firm pillar in my life, even under those difficult circumstances.
The other camps near Sukhobezvodnoje each housed a handful of Witnesses, and we were able to maintain contact with them from time to time through a Witness whose job allowed him to visit all the camps. He acted as a go-between, smuggling literature in and out of the camps. This enabled us to share what little literature we had. What an encouragement that proved to be!
Back to Ukraine
Through an amnesty announced by the State, my sentence was reduced from ten years to five. Hence, in April 1950, I returned to my home congregation in Horyhliady. Our work in Ukraine was still under ban, and the risks of sharing in the ministry were great. But so were the rewards.
Soon after my return, I spoke with a man named Kozak, who lived in Zhabokruky, a village some 15 miles [20 km] from my home. I asked how life was treating him and his family. I knew that workers on the collective farms were anxious about how to make ends meet, so I knew that such a question was a good way to get a conversation started. I explained that the Bible foretold food shortages and wars for our time. (Matthew 24:3-14) He wanted to know more. So I visited him again. Week after week I walked the 30 miles [40 km] or so to and from Zhabokruky to study the Bible with the Kozak family. The risks, not to mention the great amount of time involved, were forgotten when the Kozaks were baptized in August 1950.
No sooner were the Kozaks baptized than they were taken into exile along with thousands of other Witnesses. These were rounded up suddenly by armed soldiers early in April 1951 and—without trial or hearing—deported to Siberia. Here the Kozaks and many of my other friends were forced to make their new home.*
Of the 15 families of Witnesses in Horyhliady, only 4 were deported. In other congregations, however, the proportion of Witnesses deported was much higher. How were these mass deportations arranged? Well, the authorities had lists of Witnesses and were thus able to round up large numbers of them at will. It seems that the lists had been compiled in 1950, when I was still in prison in Russia, so my name was missing. One month earlier, in March 1951, I had married Fenia, a loyal servant of Jehovah. Fenia’s family were all exiled, but she escaped the same fate because she had married me and now bore my name, which was not on the list.
Difficult Tests of Faith
Following the deportations, those of us still at home had to reorganize the work. I was asked to look after the congregations in the nearby region of Ivano-Frankivs’k, where, even after the deportations, there were still about 30 Witnesses left in each of the 15 congregations. As a self-employed carpenter, I had a flexible schedule, so I would meet secretly with the brothers from each congregation once a month.
Often we met at night in a cemetery where we were sure to be alone. A principal matter for discussion was how to see to it that all the congregations had some Bible literature. Occasionally we would receive a current Watchtower magazine in Polish or Romanian and translate it into Ukrainian. However, the authorities were constantly at our heels, trying to locate and destroy our primitive duplicating machines.
But our biggest problem was that we were isolated from our Christian brothers in other lands, including those in Brooklyn, New York, who were taking the lead in our Christian activity. The consequence was that our congregations were often vexed by disunity, rumors, and intrigue. Some Witnesses left the organization and formed opposition groups. False and negative stories even circulated concerning those taking the lead in Brooklyn.
Thus, many of us found that our most difficult trials of faith were the result not of persecution by opposers but of conflicts within the congregations. Even though some chose no longer to worship with us, we learned that it was vital to hold on to the organization and wait for Jehovah to sort things out. Happily, the majority of the Witnesses in our area did just that. I am also happy to say that many of those who left the organization recognized their error and later returned to serve Jehovah with us.
Even during those difficult times of isolation, we kept busy in the public ministry and were richly blessed. And what rewards we have seen! Each time I now attend our Congregation Book Study, I am reminded of the blessings of Jehovah. Every one of the 20 or more in our study group was helped to learn the truth by members of my family.
My parents and sister Anna have all died, having remained faithful to Jehovah. Fenia and I are still as active as possible in serving Jehovah. The time has indeed flown. During the past 30 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine have experienced stirring events that are impossible to relate in this short account. But I am content to look back on my many years of service to Jehovah, confident that he will remain my firm pillar and support, for he says of himself: “I am Jehovah; I have not changed.”—Malachi 3:6.
See the articles “Over 40 Years Under Communist Ban,” in the March 1, 1999, issue of The Watchtower, pages 24-9, and “Exiled in Siberia!,” in the April 22, 1999, issue of Awake!, pages 20-5.
[Blurb on page 21]
They wanted to know who I was and where I came from and, in particular, where I had obtained the books. But I would not tell them
[Blurb on page 22]
The feeling of isolation was overwhelming. I poured out my heart to Jehovah, who strengthened me
[Picture on page 20]
Fenia and me in 1952
[Picture on page 23]
With Fenia today