I Learned to Trust in God
AS TOLD BY ELLA TOOM
OUR family lived near the small town of Otepää, in southern Estonia, about 40 miles [60 km] from the Russian border. In October 1944, a few months after my high school graduation, World War II was nearing its end. As the Russian army drove the Germans back through Estonia, we and our neighbors—about 20 of us—hid in the forests together with our farm animals.
For two months while bombs fell all around, we were caught in the middle of the battlefield. We would sit together, and I would read portions of the Bible, especially from Lamentations. This was the first time that I had ever read the Bible. One day I climbed a high hill, knelt, and prayed, “When the war ends, I promise to go to church every Sunday.”
Soon the battlefront moved westward. Finally, with Germany’s surrender in May 1945, World War II ended in Europe. In the meantime I fulfilled my promise to God and went to church every week. But only a few older women were in attendance. I was embarrassed to be there. When someone dropped by our home for a visit, I hid the Bible under the table.
Soon I got a job as a teacher at the local school. By this time, the Communist regime had taken over and atheism prevailed. Yet, I refused to join the Communist Party. I kept busy with many social functions, such as organizing folk dancing for children.
Introduced to the Witnesses
Stage costumes were needed for the children, so in April 1945, I went to see Emilie Sannamees, a skilled seamstress. Unknown to me, she was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She asked, “What do you think about the world situation?” Since a peace conference was being held in San Francisco, U.S.A., I said, “Soon this government will end, and I’m sure that this peace conference is being held in order to see that it does.”
Emilie said that the peace conference wouldn’t produce any lasting benefit, and she offered to show me from the Bible why it wouldn’t. I wasn’t ready to listen to this mild-mannered, middle-aged woman, so she left me with the question “Do you know where God intended for Adam and Eve to live?” Since I couldn’t answer, she simply said, “Ask your father.”
I did so when I got home. He couldn’t answer and said we didn’t have to concern ourselves with Bible study; we just had to believe. When I returned to pick up the costumes, I mentioned that Father didn’t know the answer to her question. She and her sister brought out their Bibles and read to me God’s instructions to Adam and Eve—about caring for their garden home and living there in happiness forever. They showed me from the Bible that it was God’s purpose that Adam and Eve have children and extend their Paradise home earth wide. I was fascinated by the Scriptural evidence!—Genesis 1:28; 2:8, 9, 15; Psalm 37:29; Isaiah 45:18; Revelation 21:3, 4.
My First Christian Meeting
Since I had a three-month teachers’ course to attend that summer in Tartu, Emilie gave me the address of a Witness in that city. She also gave me the book Creation, which impressed me with its clear presentation of basic Bible truths. So on August 4, 1945, I went to the address that had been given me.
When no one answered, I knocked again so loud that a neighbor opened his door and gave me a forwarding address—56 Salme Street. There I inquired of a woman who was peeling potatoes in a workshop, “Is a religious meeting being held here?” Angrily she told me to go away, saying that I was unwelcome. Since I insisted, I was invited upstairs to join a Bible study group. Soon there was a break for lunch, and I prepared to leave. But others urged me to stay.
As I looked around during the noon break, I saw two young men, unusually pale and thin, sitting close to the window. I later learned that during the war they had spent over a year in various hideouts to avoid capture.* During the afternoon session, Friedrich Altpere used the word “Armageddon” in a talk. Since the term was unfamiliar to me, I asked him about it afterward, and he showed it to me in the Bible. (Revelation 16:16) When he saw my surprise, he seemed just as surprised that this was new to me.
I began to understand that this meeting had been arranged for only the known, trusted Witnesses. Later I learned that it was their first meeting after the war! From that time on, I was very aware of the need to trust in God. (Proverbs 3:5, 6) A year later, in August 1946, at age 20, I was baptized in symbol of my dedication to the true God, Jehovah.
Dealing With Family Opposition
The government insisted that atheism be taught in school, so that challenged my Bible-trained conscience. I wanted to change my profession. When I mentioned this to Mother, she attacked me in a rage, pulling out some of my hair. I decided to leave home. But Father encouraged me to be yielding, saying that he would help me.
My brother Ants joined Mother in opposing me. Then one day he asked me for some literature, which he read and liked very much. Mother became hysterical. Ants even began speaking about God in school, but when some persecution arose, he stopped associating with the Witnesses. Shortly afterward, he suffered a head injury in a diving accident. He lay on a stretcher, paralyzed, yet his mind was still clear. “Will Jehovah forgive me?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. Ants died a few days later. He was only 17.
In September 1947, I left my job at the school. Mother remained very hostile toward me. When she threw all my clothes out of the house, I left home and was taken in by the Sannamees sisters. Their reminders that Jehovah never abandons his servants were an encouragement to me.
Trials in Postwar Estonia
The Sannamees sisters let me work with them doing sewing for farm families. We were often able to share Bible truths with them. That was a happy time, for not only did I learn to sew but I became more experienced in the Christian ministry. In addition to sewing, I also obtained work as a mathematics tutor. In 1948, however, the authorities began arresting Witnesses.
The following year, in October, I happened to be working at a farm when I was told that the authorities had gone to the Sannamees’ home to arrest me. When I sought refuge at Brother Hugo Susi’s farm, I learned that he had just been arrested. A woman for whom I had done sewing invited me to stay with her. Later I moved from farm to farm, working at my sewing and continuing in the preaching activity.
As winter set in, the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) caught up with me in Tartu at the home of Linda Mettig, a zealous young Witness a few years older than I. They arrested me and took me in for questioning. Forced to remove all my clothing and gawked at by young police officers, I felt humiliated. Yet, after I prayed to Jehovah, peace and calmness of heart came over me.
Next, I was put in a tiny cell, where I could not even lie down. I was taken out only for interrogations. The officers would say: “We aren’t asking you to deny the existence of God. Just stop your stupid preaching! You can have a promising future.” And they would threaten: “Do you want to live? Or do you want to die with your God on the fields of Siberia?”
For three days, I was prevented from falling asleep between the repeated interrogations. Meditation on Bible principles helped me to endure. Finally, an interrogator invited me to sign a document stating that I would discontinue preaching. “I have given this matter much thought,” I said, “and I would rather live in prison with my relationship with God intact than be free and lose his approval.” At that the interrogator shouted: “You fool! All of you will be arrested and sent to Siberia!”
Unexpectedly Set Free
Surprisingly, just before midnight, the interrogators told me to take my things and go. Since I knew I would be followed, I did not go to the homes of fellow Christians because that would result in their betrayal. As I made my way through the streets, three men did follow me. Praying to Jehovah for direction, I turned onto a dark street and ran quickly into a garden. Lying down on the ground, I scraped leaves over me. I could hear the rustling sound of the men walking, and I could see beams of light from their flashlights.
Several hours passed, and my bones became numb with the cold. Finally I made my way along the cobblestone streets carrying my shoes so as not to make noise. Leaving the city, I walked in the ditch along the highway. When cars approached, I lay down. At five o’clock in the morning, I reached the home of Jüri and Meeta Toomel, not far from Tartu.
Meeta immediately heated the sauna for me so that I could warm up. The next day she went to Tartu and contacted Linda Mettig. Linda urged me, “Let’s start preaching now and cover all of Estonia with the good news.” After changing my appearance with a new hairstyle, a little makeup, and some glasses, we got started with our preaching. During the following months, we covered long distances by bicycle. Along the way we encouraged fellow believers living on farms.
The Witnesses organized a convention for July 24, 1950, in the large hay barn of a Bible student near Otepää. When we learned that plans for the gathering had been discovered by the KGB, we were able to warn most of the Witnesses who were en route. Another location was arranged for the following day, and about 115 were in attendance. Each one went home filled with joy and more determined than ever to maintain loyalty in the face of tests.*
Afterward, Linda and I carried on with preaching and encouraging fellow Christians. Later that year we took part in the potato harvest and shared the Kingdom message with fellow workers. The owner of one farm even stopped and listened to us for an hour, remarking, “You don’t hear news like this every day!”
Linda and I returned to Tartu, where we learned that more Witnesses had been arrested, including Linda’s mother. Most of our friends had now been arrested, including the Sannamees sisters. Since we knew the KGB was looking for us, we obtained a couple of bicycles and continued preaching outside Tartu. One night the KGB found me at the home of Alma Vardja, a recently baptized Witness. Checking my passport, one of them exclaimed: “Ella! We have been searching everywhere for you!” That was December 27, 1950.
Imprisoned and Then On to Siberia
Alma and I calmly packed a few things, and then we had something to eat. The KGB agents were amazed and said, “You don’t even cry. You just sit there eating.” We replied, “We are going to our new assignment, and we don’t know when our next meal will be.” I took along a blanket from which I later made warm socks and mittens. After months of imprisonment, in August 1951, I was exiled, along with other Witnesses in Estonia.*
From Estonia we were sent by train to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, and from there on to the infamous slave-labor camps in Vorkuta, Komi, above the Arctic Circle. There were three Witnesses in our group. In school I had studied Russian and had been practicing the language since my arrest. So I could speak Russian well by the time we arrived at the camps.
In Vorkuta we met a young Ukrainian woman who had become a Witness while in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. In 1945 she and 14 other Witnesses were put on a ship that the Germans intended to sink in the Baltic Sea. However, the ship made it safely to Denmark. Later, after her return to Russia, she was arrested for preaching and was sent to Vorkuta, where she became a source of encouragement to us.
We also met two women who asked in Ukrainian, “Who here is a Witness of Jehovah?” Right away we recognized that they were our Christian sisters! They encouraged us and cared for us. Other prisoners remarked that it was as though we had a family waiting for us upon arrival.
Transfer to Mordovian Camps
When in December 1951 a medical examination showed that I had a thyroid disorder, I was transferred nearly a thousand miles [1,500 km] southwest to the huge Mordovian prison complex about 250 miles [400 km] southeast of Moscow. During the following years there, I met German, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian Witnesses in the camps for women in which I was incarcerated. I also met Maimu, a political prisoner from Estonia.
While in prison in Estonia, Maimu had given birth, and a kindly guard gave the baby to Maimu’s mother. In the Mordovian prison, we studied the Bible with Maimu, and she accepted what she was learning. She was able to write to her mother, who also accepted Bible truths and taught them to Maimu’s little girl, Karin. Six years later Maimu was released from prison and was reunited with her child. When Karin grew up, she married a fellow Witness. They have served together for the past 11 years in the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tallinn, Estonia.
A prison camp within the huge Mordovian complex had what was called the cage. It was a small, closely guarded barracks within the walled camp. Six other Witnesses and I were put there because of our Christian activity. But even while there, we made miniature handwritten copies of Watchtower articles and smuggled them to others in nearby camps. One of our methods was to hollow out a bar of soap, put the article inside, and reseal the bar.
During my years in the Mordovian camps, I was able to help more than ten persons take their stand to serve God. Finally, on May 4, 1956, I was told, “You are free to go and to believe in your God, Jehovah.” Within the month, I made my way home to Estonia.
Nearly 50 Years Back Home
I had no job, no money, and no home. But within a couple of days after arriving, I met a lady who showed interest in Bible teachings. She let me live for a while with her and her husband in their one-room flat. I bought some wool with borrowed money and knitted sweaters, which I sold at the market. I was later offered work in the Tartu Cancer Hospital, where I had various jobs for the next seven years. In the meantime, Lembit Toom also returned from exile in Siberia, and in November 1957 we were married.
The KGB kept us under surveillance, and we were constantly harassed, since our preaching work was still under ban. Yet, we did what we could to share our faith. Lembit described this portion of our life in the February 22, 1999, issue of Awake! In the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, exiled Witnesses continued to return home. By the late 1980’s, we had more than 700 Witnesses in Estonia. In 1991 our Christian activities were legalized, and since then we have increased to over 4,100 Witnesses in Estonia!
It is now over 60 years since I attended that first secret meeting of the Witnesses in Estonia after World War II. Ever since, my determination has been to heed the Bible admonition: “Trust in Jehovah and do good.” I have learned that doing this leads to receiving “the requests of your heart.”—Psalm 37:3, 4.
One of these men was Lembit Toom, whose first-person story appears in the February 22, 1999, issue of Awake!
See Awake! of February 22, 1999, pages 12-13, for a more detailed description of this convention.
Most Witnesses in Estonia, however, had been exiled in early April 1951. See Awake! of April 22, 2001, pages 6-8, and the video Faithful Under Trials—Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union.
[Blurb on page 23]
“Let’s start preaching now and cover all of Estonia with the good news.”—Linda Mettig
[Picture on page 24]
With nine other Witnesses inside the Mordovian prison
[Picture on page 24]
Today, with my husband, Lembit