Facing Trials in the Strength of God
AS TOLD BY STEPAN KOZHEMBA
One night early in April 1951, trucks loaded with Soviet troops drove into our Ukrainian village of Stenyatyn. Armed soldiers surrounded preselected homes and took away whole families of Jehovah’s Witnesses and transported them to Siberia. As an impressionable 12-year-old, I wondered why they were treated in such a way and how they could put up with such suffering.
I WAS born in the village of Stenyatyn in October 1938. Mother died two weeks after my birth, and Father was killed in 1944 while fighting in the Soviet army against Germany. My father’s sisters, Olena and Anna, took me in and raised me.
As a boy, I knew several of Jehovah’s Witnesses in our town. They talked to me and to others about the Messianic Kingdom whenever the opportunity arose. In time, I became friends with some of the young Witnesses. When they were taken by Soviet troops and deported to Siberia, I was completely surprised.
But not all Witnesses were exiled. Stepan, a Witness who lived near my home, was allowed to stay, since his family were not Witnesses. He was six years older than I was, and when I left school, I worked with him as a carpenter. He studied the Bible with me, using any copies of The Watchtower that were available. Stepan, who now serves the true God, Jehovah, in Estonia, was thrilled when I got baptized in July 1956.
Opposition was part of life for any servant of Jehovah in Ukraine. The authorities conducted house searches to look for Bible literature, so I had a number of hiding places. My aunts Olena and Anna, who were Greek Catholics, did not approve of my contact with the Witnesses. They even tried to influence me to stop associating with them. Similar to the apostle Paul, at times I felt that I was ‘under extreme pressure beyond my strength.’ But my relationship with Jehovah God strengthened me to endure every trial.—2 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 4:13.
My Struggle to Remain Neutral
Service in the Soviet military was compulsory for young men 18 years of age. Because of my knowledge of the Bible, I was determined to remain neutral with respect to the affairs of the world, which meant that I refused to join the Soviet army. (Isaiah 2:4; John 17:14-16) Olena and Anna encouraged me to become a soldier, even though their own brother, my father, had been killed in the war.
After I received draft papers, I went to the military headquarters in our area and explained my position. I was promptly arrested and then kept in custody while charges were prepared against me. The trial was closed to the public; not even my aunts were informed of the date. I gave a thorough witness to the judge, the prosecutor, and the two-man jury. After 20 minutes, it was all over. My sentence—five years’ detention plus a further five years during which I would lose some rights as a citizen.
Serving My Sentence
After the trial I was put in prison in Lviv. For the three months from my arrest until my transfer to a labor camp, I had no Christian fellowship, no Bible, and no Bible literature. I remained spiritually active, however, by witnessing to fellow inmates, who found my refusal to serve in the military difficult to understand. During those months, I relied on the personal study I had done before being put in detention. The experience taught me a valuable lesson: Personal Bible study helps us to build up a spiritual reserve that sustains us when trials arise.—John 14:26.
In April 1958, I was transferred to labor camp 21, near Dnepropetrovsk, over 450 miles [700 km] from home, to serve the remainder of my sentence. There we got up at 6:00 a.m., and after breakfast we were loaded onto trucks and taken about 30 miles [50 km] to our workplace outside camp. We worked eight hours on a construction site, and then we were returned to camp for the night.
Our sleeping quarters were barracks that accommodated about a hundred inmates each. Food was poor, and living conditions Spartan; but at least I had the companionship of two fellow Witnesses in my barracks. Each of us made a conscious effort to encourage the other two. This is a further way that Jehovah provides strength to his servants in distress—through the companionship of fellow believers.—2 Corinthians 7:6.
In all, there were 12 Witnesses in the camp. Some of these had relatives on the outside who smuggled pages of The Watchtower to us hidden in food parcels. Most parcels were opened by the guards, who checked the contents before passing them on to us. But to avoid detection, pages of The Watchtower were wrapped in plastic and placed in tins of jam, which the guards did not bother to open. Once we received the articles, we copied them by hand and shared them among ourselves.
We also did our best to preach about God’s Kingdom, and Jehovah blessed our efforts. For instance, I got to know an inmate named Sergei, who had worked as an accountant at a state-owned enterprise in eastern Ukraine. When fraud was discovered at his place of work, he was held responsible and was sentenced to ten years in detention. Several Witnesses in prison studied with him, using whatever magazines were available. Sergei responded and finally told me: “When I am freed from camp, I want to be baptized as a Witness of Jehovah!” True to his word, Sergei was baptized shortly after his release, and he served Jehovah loyally until his death.
Confusion Over Romans Chapter 13
I was released from detention in January 1963 and returned to my home village, Stenyatyn. Almost immediately I sensed that something was wrong in the local congregation in Sokal. The atmosphere among the brothers was tense. What was the problem? What had led to this situation of uncertainty?
For years the Soviet authorities had been trying to sow disunity among Jehovah’s people by picking up brothers for questioning and suggesting to them that the Witnesses were being used to further the interests of the United States of America. The officials recommended that Witnesses within the Soviet Union form their own separate organization, adding that they could then enjoy peaceful relations with the State and be left to practice their religion without persecution. The officials made all of this sound appealing.
Then in The Watchtower of November 15, 1962, which appeared later in the Ukrainian edition of July 1, 1964, a new understanding of Romans chapter 13 was presented. Until that time, we had understood “the superior authorities” mentioned in Ro 13 verse 1 to be Jehovah God and Jesus Christ, but The Watchtower noted that “the superior authorities” actually represent the earthly governments and that these are “placed in their relative positions by God.”—Romans 13:1.
Some of the Witnesses found it hard to believe this adjusted view, since the heads of the earthly government in the Soviet Union had been so cruel in their attempts to wipe out the true worship of God. These Witnesses, therefore, thought that The Watchtower containing the new understanding had not originated with the official organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Instead, they thought that the information had been fabricated by those compromising with the authorities in order to make the Witnesses more obedient to the Soviet State.
So each servant of Jehovah in Ukraine was faced with the question, Which group is right, and which is wrong? I observed the Witnesses supporting each side of the argument and asked myself, ‘What motives do they have?’ Soon I was able to identify a clear difference between the two sides.
The majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses, some of whom may not have fully understood the new explanation of Romans chapter 13, wanted to stick loyally to Jehovah and his organization. Others, however, had begun to doubt that recent publications of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society still came from the official organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Such ones were also inclined to have extreme views on a number of matters. For instance, they felt that it was wrong for a bride to wear a white dress at her wedding and for marriage partners to wear a wedding ring. A number of individuals left the organization. In time, however, quite a few of them recognized their error and returned to serving Jehovah.
Even though our Christian activities were banned, whenever possible we held our weekly meetings in groups of between 10 and 15. From the meetings we derived spiritual strength, from both our Bible study and our association after the study. We would compare our experiences, and this helped us to realize that each of us had the same struggle. We took to heart what the apostle Peter wrote: “The same things in the way of sufferings are being accomplished in the entire association of your brothers in the world.”—1 Peter 5:9.
Articles in The Watchtower formed the basis for our discussions. How did the magazines reach us? Witnesses acting as couriers brought microfilm copies across the frontier into Ukraine. These films were passed along a prearranged route from one Witness to the next. Then each one produced enough copies for his congregation. Sometimes I got involved in making such copies. I worked all day and kept busy in Jehovah’s service at night, producing magazines and doing other things. It was a challenge to keep up with the schedule, but those of us who carried responsibility in the organization learned that Jehovah “is giving to the tired one power.”—Isaiah 40:29.
We created opportunities to talk about the Bible with people we met. Many of us did this while riding on public transportation. One common method of starting a conversation was simply to read the daily newspaper and then casually mention the latest news to a fellow passenger. Once a conversation was started, we then steered it toward a Bible subject. In this way we spread the good news in our area.
A Capable Wife
In 1965, I married Tamara, who had been brought up as a servant of the true God and knew what it meant to stand up for her faith under trial. Her brother Sergei had been arrested and tried for his activities as a Witness three times. On the last occasion, copies of The Watchtower were found in his possession and he was sentenced to ten years in detention. Tamara herself was taken by the authorities to their headquarters for questioning and threatened with imprisonment.
Finding a place to live after our marriage was difficult, but a family living in Sokal who were friendly toward the Witnesses offered us a small room in their home at a low cost. This family assured us that Tamara could continue to live in the room should I be arrested and put into prison again. My wife and I were grateful to Jehovah for his blessing and to the family for their kindness. Later, when the family suffered a bereavement, Tamara took the opportunity to explain the resurrection hope to the daughter, Galina. The seeds of Bible truth bore fruit, and Galina grew to love our Creator. She was baptized and now serves Jehovah along with her husband.
Most weekends in the 1970’s, I traveled to various parts of Ukraine as well as to Moldavia (Moldova) and the Carpathian Mountains, meeting with and encouraging those who were taking the lead in Jehovah’s organization. Normally I left Friday evening and returned home late on Sunday. Tamara rarely knew where I was going and was sometimes not even sure whether I would return. This situation lasted for years. I can only confirm what the Bible says about a capable wife: “Her value is far more than that of corals.”—Proverbs 31:10.
In those days any activity as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses involved some risk. We were able to carry on only with the strength that Jehovah supplies. Countless times I faced difficult situations and did not know what to do. So I would say a silent prayer and rely on Jehovah for strength. To do that became our way of life.—Acts 4:29.
More Recent Times
With the passing of time, life became easier for servants of Jehovah in Ukraine. Persecution eased, and prison sentences were replaced by fines. In the 1980’s, the authorities came to appreciate that Jehovah’s Witnesses really are an international organization. Thus, by imprisoning the Witnesses in Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the State was damaging its reputation abroad. I recall being questioned by one official who told me: “We now realize that religion does not have to be bad. Our chief concern is that a religious group should not harm the State.”
In Eastern Europe the Iron Curtain began to open at the end of the 1980’s, and since then we have enjoyed increased freedom in Ukraine. In 1991 our preaching work was legalized. Then, in September 1998, the Watch Tower Society established a branch office in Lviv. Early in 1999 construction began on a new branch facility that will accommodate over 170 workers. Now in Ukraine we have over 112,000 sharing in the preaching work, and more than 250,000 attended the Memorial in 2000. What is most striking is the number of young people in our ranks. At a convention in Kiev in 1991, a newspaper reporter asked me:
“Where did all these people come from? I thought that there were no Witnesses in the Soviet Union, and suddenly there are thousands!”
“We did not appear all of a sudden, overnight,” I told her. “We have been serving Jehovah here for many years.”
“How do you attract so many young people to your religion?” she wanted to know.
“The best thing is for you to ask the young ones themselves. Let them tell you why they want to serve Jehovah.”
“I already did,” the reporter said. “They told me that they enjoy it.”
“Then that is the reason,” I added. “If that is what our young people say, then that is the explanation.”
Young people are not the only ones who enjoy serving Jehovah. Tamara and I have been serving him for a combined total of over 80 years and would not wish to change our faith for anything. Though we are Jehovah’s Witnesses, we still have problems. We realize that as long as this old system lasts, everyone will continue to face difficulties. But we are better equipped to face trials than any other group of people on earth. We remain determined to face these trials as we have in the past, in the strength of our almighty God, Jehovah. We feel the same as Moses did when he sang the victory song: “My strength and my might is Jah, since he serves for my salvation.”—Exodus 15:2.
[Picture on page 22]
With fellow Witnesses in labor camp 21
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Microfilm of a Ukrainian “Watchtower” (actual size)
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With my wife, Tamara
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An artist’s rendering of the new branch complex under construction in Lviv
[Pictures on page 25]
Why do so many young people in Ukraine serve Jehovah?