I Lived in Exile in Siberia
IN November, 1955, being a German citizen, I was able to return to my native land after four and a half years in exile in Siberia. However, many of Jehovah’s witnesses from Memel territory, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia and the Ukraine, as well as other parts of Russia, who do not possess a German citizenship, still find themselves in that cold land. I was asked by many of them to make a report to Jehovah’s witnesses in other parts of the world.
While Russian forces occupied different parts of Germany I was living in East Prussia, Memel. For being one of Jehovah’s witnesses I had already spent over six years in different prisons and institutions under the Hitler regime. When Hitler ordered the evacuation of Memel [now Klaipeda] almost all of the inhabitants of this territory fled into Germany. I did not take part in this flight. I could not become reconciled to the idea of seeking refuge under the Hitler regime that had brought such indescribable sorrow to Jehovah’s witnesses. I had also thought that the Communists would show a little leniency to Jehovah’s witnesses who had suffered so much under Hitler’s regime. How wrong I was! I am more convinced than ever that this world is directed and led by its invisible ruler Satan.
As for the persecution of Jehovah’s witnesses the communistic form of government has revealed itself to be a true imitator of Hitler and his nationalist party. With the oncoming of the Russians the clergy and preachers fled and deserted their sheep behind them. At this time many of Jehovah’s witnesses, seeing these people in distress, had the opportunity of preaching to them concerning God’s kingdom. Often Jehovah’s witnesses were asked to preach to them. The result was that a number of new congregations came into existence in this part of the land. Many persons dedicated themselves to Jehovah and were baptized in water. The few copies of The Watchtower that we had were studied at the regularly held meetings. There they were not only studied, but reprinted and distributed among the populace. All of this was not hidden from the eyes of the Russian security police. Many times we were taken into custody and released after long hearings dealing with the teachings and the organization of Jehovah’s witnesses. We knew that the secret police sent spies into the congregation in order to find out what we were discussing. We had nothing to hide. We were preaching God’s Word and looking to God’s kingdom as the only hope of the world. As late as 1949 I was able to speak to nearly 300 persons in attendance at one meeting. Isaiah 25:6-8* was my scripture text. I pointed out from these texts how Jehovah would richly bless those who served him and that death would be swallowed up in victory and that Jehovah would wipe away tears from off the faces and the reproach of his people would be taken away from off the earth, for Jehovah had spoken it.
The next day I was arrested while walking down the street. I spent two days in police custody and was then set free again after many long hours of questioning. Several days later I had to reappear before the security police. There I was told to write up an accurate report of Jehovah’s witnesses’ organization. A report was made about the already established kingdom of Jehovah God, together with many other timely truths. It was also pointed out that Jehovah’s witnesses had been horribly persecuted under the Hitler regime and that on October 7, 1934, telegrams from congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses in many lands were sent to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, all of which read the same, “Your ill-treatment of Jehovah’s witnesses shocks all good people of earth and dishonors God’s name. Refrain from further persecuting Jehovah’s witnesses; otherwise God will destroy you and your national party.”
There is no question in my mind that this report was sent to the headquarters of the security police in Moscow. The first severe blow came against Jehovah’s witnesses in this part of Russia in September, 1950. One night all able-bodied brothers and several sisters were picked up by the security police and taken to the security ministry prisons in Vilna. Here they were held in custody for half a year, when sentences finally came through from Moscow for almost all of them to be imprisoned in the penitentiary for ten years. After six months of nerve-racking questioning and persecution the nerves of many were shocked. Many had suffered severely because of the harassment they underwent during investigation. Some of these were then taken from the penitentiary and placed in work camps. Many had to work underground in coal mines. Some were sent as far north as the infamous camp known as Vorkuta. There are still some of our brothers working in this place.
It is very cold there. There is no vegetation of any kind in this location, and the winters are long, the summers short. Many of the brothers became disabled invalids because of the superhuman requirements of the cruel communistic regime. Some of these were then sent to their families in Siberia.
At the end of March, 1951, the second wave of persecution came. The ones who had not heretofore been arrested, such as the old men, women, children and infants and others not gathered up, were taken into Russian custody. None were spared, but all were taken in trucks to freight trains headed for Siberia. Only a very few personal belongings could be taken with them, a little flour, a few clothes, and some were able to take their beds. Everything else fell into the hands of the police authorities. At this time all the baggage was carefully searched by the Communists, to see if there were any Bibles or Watch Tower literature in their midst.
From Vilna we saw two large freight trains, each of them being made up of about fifty cattle cars. It was in these that Jehovah’s witnesses, out of all the territories, were taken away to a land to die, or to try to live. The cars were overcrowded. There was no place to sit. Food was strange and very inferior. Jehovah’s witnesses gave thanks and praise to their heavenly Father during all of these difficult times. Encouragement from one to the other was given. By the discussion of Jehovah’s Word all were given comfort and courage to press on regardless of what happened. The words that they had brought to people to comfort them at the end of this world were now a great comfort to these Jehovah’s witnesses packed in cattle cars. Loud was their singing of Kingdom songs, but later even this was forbidden by the Soviet soldiers.
After thirteen days all the witnesses of Jehovah reached their destination, traveling day and night in cattle cars. Then we were informed: “As enemies of the State you are exiled for life to Siberia. Give up any hope you may have of ever being able to return to your homeland.”
Jehovah’s witnesses were now scattered as work slaves to different collective farms between Tomsk and Irkutsk and some even beyond that location. It was only Jehovah’s protection and help that gave us strength to face this situation. Ahead of us was a life haunted by hunger. Supplies that some of us brought along were soon used up. The collective farms were not exactly in good condition. The leaders of these Soviet agitation centers did not think to provide the undernourished sufferers with bread before the new harvest came in. Institutions for welfare work are not to be found in the “Soviet paradise.”
However, with Jehovah’s witnesses brotherly love takes over. In this way even the poorest were helped with the scanty food we had. During the first two years a number of the banished ones died because of the heavy afflictions laid upon them. Very heavy work was placed especially upon the women. During the wintertime, with snow on the ground, they were sent into the forest to cut wood, because there was no time to do this work during the brief summer. The winters in Siberia last for seven months without letup. Spring and autumn are unknown. Added to that are cold spells, when the temperature sinks to 50 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). Much fuel is necessary in this country, and this is one of the main problems for the exiles in Siberia. There are many large forests in Siberia, but to get the wood from the forest to your home is very difficult work. To gather firewood a person really needs a horse and sleigh, but these poor displaced persons must ask, yes, actually beg the one in charge for any assistance of this kind. To the elderly ones this life is almost unbearable. Their strength does not permit them to do farm work, and when a person is sixty or seventy years old carrying home a load of firewood on his back is not an easy task.
It hurts me to speak about the housing situation in Siberia. During most of my period in exile I lived in one room, together with four families, including children. Besides that we had a small kitchen with a makeshift stove made of tin, on which we had to cook our food. Whenever the snow thawed our house was flooded. Through all of these conditions Jehovah’s witnesses in exile helped one another whenever they could. Some of them started to build their own little huts outside their working hours on the farms. Even though they were able to put up their own homes and to make them a little more livable there was still much to be desired.
While I was in one of these slave camps in Siberia the first two years the day’s wages for a worker, male or female, on a collective farm were one-half to one kilo of grain, that is, one and one-tenth to two and one-fifth pounds. Since the death of Stalin the living standards have improved somewhat. The grain allotment has improved and a small amount of money has been given to the slave laborers so that now they do not have to go hungry or freeze as much as they had to heretofore. Amidst all of these conditions Jehovah’s witnesses still keep on studying the Word of God as they have the opportunity, and they depend greatly on their memories, talking to one another and comforting one another as they have the opportunity. Our plea still is: “If only we had Bibles and new Watchtowers!”
All of Jehovah’s witnesses in these slave camps throughout Russia continually pray to Jehovah God and have full faith that some day they will be freed from these conditions. In these prison camps and outside, through all Russia, the Russian people are accepting the truth in even greater numbers. One sister reports: “I have approximately thirty girl students to look after who eagerly absorb every word I speak about the Kingdom.” There are many people in Russia who today want to know about God’s kingdom and are eager to hear the truth. It is always a joy to read a letter from other Kingdom publishers in Russia and to hear of their experiences in prison camps. By their being sentenced to prison they have been drawn much closer together and to Jehovah. Day by day each one is receiving a better understanding of Jehovah’s theocratic organization, and all are more determined to present to the great Judge the proof of their faithfulness in preaching. By Jehovah’s undeserved kindness they are determined to maintain their integrity and prove worthy of everlasting life.
I know that these displaced ones on collective farms are not hiding their light under a bushel basket. Rather, they are letting their light shine.
In November, 1954, the Moscow Russian newspaper Pravda reported a well-known Communist party leader as saying: “Communism has become so entrenched throughout the world today that the fight against the different religions can be discontinued. In the past after our ascension to power this fight was necessary. Now, however, since the youth particularly have been properly trained, everyone surely must come to the conclusion that Communism alone can bring true peace and prosperity to mankind.” But Jehovah’s witnesses are firmly convinced that true peace and prosperity for all mankind will be realized only through God’s kingdom now at hand under their great Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus.
I will soon be seventy-seven years old. I was reached by the Society through their ministers a few months before the outbreak of the first world war in 1914. I have had the privilege of being one of God’s ministers all of these years, and now that I have returned from Russia my only wish is to spend the rest of my earthly life in the service of Jehovah.
Happy are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them. Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you and lyingly say every kind of wicked thing against you for my sake. Rejoice and leap for joy, since your reward is great in the heavens; for in that way they persecuted the prophets prior to you.—Matt. 5:10-12, NW.
Isaiah 25:6-8 (AS) reads: “And in this mountain will Jehovah of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that covereth all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He hath swallowed up death for ever; and the Lord Jehovah will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Jehovah hath spoken it.”