Twice Sentenced to 25 Years of Slave Labor
AS TOLD BY EFREM PLATON
Late in 1951, I was sentenced for the second time to 25 years in a slave-labor camp. This time I was sent to the infamous Soviet camp in Vorkuta, above the Arctic Circle. Let me explain how I got there and narrowly escaped a violent end.
I WAS born on July 16, 1920, into a poor family in Bessarabia, in an area that is now the Republic of Moldova. My father died a short time before my birth, and Mother died when I was four. That left the six surviving children orphans. I am thankful to my older brothers, who played the role of parents to us younger ones.
As a youth, I was very interested in religious matters and was involved with the activities of our local Orthodox Church. In time, however, I grew disappointed with the church, especially with its priests, who blessed the efforts of nations during World War II, which began in September 1939.
Hostilities erupted in the early 1940’s between Romania and the Soviet Union, and Bessarabia was caught in the middle. General Ion Antonescu, who then ruled Romania, reconquered Bessarabia. The authorities introduced a form of premilitary training for men 20 years and older. I was among those drafted. Our training took place at Boroşeni, not far from the village where my wife, Olga, and I lived.
Learning Bible Truth
During training, at our lunch break one day, I observed a group of men engrossed in a lively discussion; I soon learned they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. My short conversation with them led to many more. In time, I realized with great joy that I had found Bible truth, which I passed along to Olga and her parents.
The discussion that attracted my interest that day was on the matter of neutrality. The Witnesses concluded then that they needed to take a stand on the issue. Their decision was to participate in the instruction but refuse to take the oath of allegiance, which was a requirement to be drafted into the army.
I told Olga and her parents that I also intended to refuse to take such an oath, and they supported me in my decision. When it was time to be drafted—January 24, 1943—the moment came to give the oath of allegiance. Eight of us stepped forward toward the priests who were inducting the men. Instead of saying the oath, we said that we could not take part in war because we were neutral.
We were arrested and taken to the police station in Boroşeni. There we were so cruelly beaten that my wife hardly recognized me afterward. We were then transferred to Chişinău (formerly Kishinev), the country’s principal city, to appear before a military court.
We had to walk some 90 miles [140 km], which took us 21 days because of the bitter cold. The eight of us were chained together and marched by armed soldiers, who provided us neither food nor drink. Each time we arrived at a new police station, we were beaten, and we stopped at 13 along the way! We survived because local citizens shared food and drink with us at the stations where we spent the night. In their acts of kindness, we recognized God’s care for us.
Sustained Despite Discouragement
While in custody in Chişinău awaiting court-martial, the eight of us were again mistreated terribly. In an attempt to weaken our faith, the authorities told us that Witnesses from Zăicani, a village in northern Moldova, had denied their faith and had been allowed to return to their homes. Later we learned that they had only been sent home to await their respective court hearings. Also, a police officer, quoting a newspaper article, said that a military court in Ukraine had sentenced 80 Witnesses to death.
Some among the eight of us were getting discouraged, thinking they would never again see their children. We were promised that if we denied our faith, we would be released. To think about our future, we all were sent home for a week to be with our families. Afterward, only three of us kept our resolve to remain neutral.
On February 20, 1943, I was taken to the same police station in Boroşeni where I had previously been beaten so severely. There I met my two fellow Witnesses who had also maintained their resolve. Our joy at meeting each other again was great indeed! Later, we were taken to Bălţi by a horse-drawn cart. During the trip, I became very sick, which turned out to be a blessing because we traveled the rest of the way to Chişinău by bus.
When we arrived, the guards recognized us as the three who had maintained their resolve. As an introduction we were once again beaten. A month later we were sentenced to 25 years in a slave-labor camp in Romania.
Baptized in a Bomb Crater
Eventually we were sent to Cugir, in Romania, where we worked in the forest cutting lumber. If we fulfilled a certain requirement, we received a little more food. Our group of ten Witnesses was industrious, so we ate better than we had in the prisons where we had been.
In 1944 the U.S. forces started bombarding the area near our camp. One day a bomb caused a huge crater near a little creek. The crater started filling with water, and before long there was a large pool. There, in September 1944, I was immersed in symbol of the dedication that I had made to Jehovah God more than a year and a half earlier.
Free at Last!
A few weeks later, the Russian army freed hundreds of Witnesses throughout the area, and we were able to return home. For the first time, I saw my son Vasile, who had been born in 1943 while I was in the labor camp.
By the time World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, Bessarabia had been annexed by the Soviet Union and had become the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The authorities did not immediately take action against our Christian activities. However, they noted that we did not vote, and the Soviet State interpreted this as a very serious offense.
In 1946 we had our second son, Pavel, and in 1947, our daughter, Maria, was born. How we enjoyed our family life together! But about two years later, tragedy struck. Our little Maria got sick and died suddenly. She was buried on July 5, 1949. But that was only the beginning of our sorrows.
Exiled to Siberia
Only hours after we buried Maria, during the darkness of the following morning, three soldiers woke us up. They informed us that we were to be deported because of our “anti-Soviet behavior.” We were allowed to take some food and clothing, and on July 6, 1949, we were transported some 2,500 miles [4,000 km] to Kurgan, in Siberia, just north of Kazakhstan.
The trip took 18 days. We were transported like cattle, in railway cars. Only twice on the way were we given some food. We managed our provisions carefully so that they lasted for the duration of the trip. All in our boxcar were Jehovah’s Witnesses. We kept spiritually active each day by having many Bible discussions. The most precious possession we had was a copy of the Holy Scriptures.
When we finally arrived at Kurgan, we found that although we lived in a labor camp, there was some freedom of movement. I was able to work in a blacksmith shop and could talk to my fellow workers about my Bible-based hope. Two years later, on September 27, 1951, I was arrested and taken to court again. The prosecution presented 18 people who said that I had foretold the destruction of the State. Actually, I had used the prophecy at Daniel 2:44 to show that all human governments are going to be replaced by God’s Kingdom.
In addition, the authorities had searched our living quarters and found a Watchtower magazine that had been sent secretly from Moldova. Generally, the authorities would find either handwritten copies of magazines or locally made reproductions. This one, however, was produced outside the Soviet Union. Thus, I received my second sentence of 25 years at forced labor. This time I was sent to work in the coal mines of Vorkuta, an infamous slave-labor camp at the north end of the Ural Mountains, above the Arctic Circle.
Escaping Death in Vorkuta
Vorkuta was a huge prison complex made up of 60 forced-labor camps. In our camp alone, there were over 6,000 laborers. The combination of subzero temperatures, inhuman living conditions, and underground coal mining wreaked havoc on many lives. Almost every day there were new dead that had to be disposed of. My health became very poor, so that I was unable to do hard physical work. I was assigned so-called lighter work, shoveling coal into waiting wagons.
Conditions were so bad in Vorkuta that the miners organized a strike, but it developed into a full-scale revolt. The miners even set up their own administration and organized a force of some 150 men to resist if troops should arrive. They wanted me and the nearly 30 other Witnesses to be part of their “army.” But we refused.
The revolt lasted two weeks until armed forces arrived and shot the rebels en masse. We were told that the rebels had planned to hang us right there in the workshop! Happily, they did not succeed in their plans. Considering the systematic efforts of the Soviets to break our faith, you may understand why we attributed our survival to our great God, Jehovah!
Using More Freedom to the Full
Stalin’s death in March 1953 brought about a positive change to our situation. In 1955, I was released from Vorkuta and allowed to return to my family, who still lived in the forest camp in Kurgan. There we continued to witness to the local people about our wonderful hope.
By the year 1961, we desired to move to a new preaching territory. So we wrote a letter to the leader of the country, Nikita Khrushchev, requesting that we be allowed to move, since there were no schools for our children—which was true. We were granted permission to move to the small town of Makushino, where there was also a labor camp. What joy we had in helping four large families there to become dedicated servants of Jehovah!
Finally, in 1965, I was released from this camp. Although we were not yet allowed to return to Moldova, we could move elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The following year we left for Qostanay (formerly Kustanai), in Kazakhstan, where there were already two congregations of Witnesses. Since this territory became rather well covered in the witnessing work, three years later we moved to Chirchik, in Uzbekistan. By that time our sons Vasile and Pavel were married. So we concentrated on the spiritual growth of our remaining children—Dumitru, aged 10, and Liuba, aged 7.
We lived in Uzbekistan for ten years, during which time we were also able to help others come to know Jehovah. In 1979 we moved more than a thousand miles west to the city of Krasnodar, near the Black Sea in southern Russia. There Olga and I served for two years in the full-time ministry as pioneers, and we were able to assist others to become Witnesses.
Return to Moldova
Finally, during the summer of 1989—40 years after being sent into exile—we decided to return home to Moldova. Immediately, we again became pioneers, serving as such until 1993. There, we were able to assist over 30 persons to become active Witnesses of Jehovah. My heart swells with joy when I consider how richly Jehovah has blessed us as a family! Sadly, though, my dear wife died in May 2004.
Yet, I am comforted that all 4 of our children, as well as 14 of our grandchildren and 18 of our great-grandchildren, are active servants of Jehovah. True, we had a difficult life, but how wonderful it is to know that Jehovah helped us to remain faithful to him during our trials!
As I have grown older, ill health and advancing age have limited what I can do in the ministry. Still, I do my best. I have learned that no matter what challenges we may face in life, Jehovah is always there to provide the strength and encouragement we need.*
Efrem Platon died on July 28, 2005, as this article was being prepared for publication.
[Picture on page 14, 15]
Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Vorkuta slave-labor camp
[Picture on page 15]
With Olga in 2002