On June 14, 2007, the Estonian National Post Office issued a commemorative postage stamp, shown at right. The release was accompanied by an announcement: “This souvenir sheet was issued to commemorate victims of the Stalinist genocide of the Estonians.” Between 1941 and 1951, tens of thousands of Estonians were forcibly deported.
“HISTORY does not lie.” That is a well-known saying in Estonia, and there are similar sayings in other lands. Yes, we cannot change the past, but we can certainly learn from it. Wise King Solomon of ancient Israel said: “I saw all this when I thought about the things that are done in this world, a world where some men have power and others have to suffer under them.”—Ecclesiastes 8:9, Today’s English Version.
A powerful testimony to the truth of this Biblical statement was seen some decades ago in Estonia, as well as in many other parts of Eastern Europe. Human rule brought suffering to countless innocent people who were forcibly deported to faraway places to be resettled or imprisoned in labor camps.
According to local historians, more than 46,000 civilians were deported from this small country between 1941 and 1951. Most were targeted for their political affiliation, others for their nationality or social status. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, were singled out for their religious beliefs.
Attack on God-Fearing People
In a study published by Tartu University Press in 2004, historian Aigi Rahi-Tamm stated: “From 1948 to 1951, 72 of Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested, including people associated with them. However, a deportation on a far wider scale was planned and carried out on the night of April 1, 1951, not just in the Baltic States but also in Moldova, western Ukraine, and Belorussia.”
Before 1951, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Estonia were subjected to arrest, psychological pressure, interrogation, and imprisonment. This new campaign of deportation was apparently an all-out effort to wipe Jehovah’s Witnesses out of Estonia altogether.
The date April 1, 1951, appears on the stamp mentioned above. The number 382 on the stamp refers to the number of Witnesses and their children who were deported on that day. This number includes some relatives and neighbors who were not Witnesses. During the day, arrests were made throughout the country. That night, those arrested—young and old—were herded into animal boxcars on trains headed for Siberia.
Ella Toom,* 25 years old at the time, was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recalling a typical interrogation, she says: “An officer tried to frighten me and demanded that I stop preaching. Once he asked: ‘Do you want to live? Or do you want to die with your God on the fields of Siberia?’” Ella, however, fearlessly continued to preach the good news. She was sent to Siberia and was transferred from one labor camp to another over a period of almost six years.
Among the hundreds of individuals who were deported without a court hearing was another young Witness woman, Hiisi Lember. Recalling the events of April 1, 1951, she related: “They came totally unexpectedly at night, ordering us: ‘You have half an hour. Pack your things!’” Under the cover of darkness, Hiisi and her six-year-old daughter were then taken to the train station. The creaky train traveled from station to station and picked up more Witnesses. “We were thrown into an animal boxcar. Thankfully, the animal dung was frozen; otherwise, it would have been difficult to stand in it. We were like animals stuffed into a container.”
The grueling two-week train trip was traumatic. The boxcars were overcrowded and unsanitary. Young and old were humiliated and disgraced in every possible way. Some of them wept and refused to eat. However, the Witnesses encouraged and helped one another by singing songs of worship, and they shared what food they had. They were sent to a “permanent settlement” and were told that this was a “one-way trip.”
Hiisi recalled the heartwarming support that she received from fellow believers during this ordeal: “At one station, our train stopped next to a train from Moldova. Through the wall of the boxcar, we heard a man ask who we were and where we were going. We explained that we didn’t know where we were going and that we were Jehovah’s Witnesses from Estonia. Fellow Witnesses in the train from Moldova overheard the conversation. Through an opening in the boxcar, they threw us a big loaf of bread and some prunes.” She added: “Then we began to understand the extent of the roundup of Jehovah’s Witnesses—that it was from all the republics of the Soviet Union!”
Two teenage Witness girls—Corinna and her sister, Ene—were separated from their mother for more than six years. Their mother, also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, had been arrested earlier and sent to a labor camp. Then, on that infamous April night, the two young girls were snatched from their home and herded into a boxcar. Corinna reflects with thankfulness, “On the train, a Witness with two children offered to care for us and assured us that we could live together as a family with her and her children.”
What happened at the final destination? The day after reaching the cold Siberian wilderness, a humiliating “slave market” began. Men from nearby collective farms came to choose workers for their farms. Corinna recalls: “We overheard them bickering among themselves, saying: ‘You already have a driver for your tractor. This one is mine,’ or, ‘I already took two old ones. You have to take some old ones too.’”
Corinna and Ene were brave girls. They said later: “We missed our mother very much, and oh, how we yearned just to be in her warm embrace again!” Even so, they maintained their spiritual strength and sense of humor. Corinna added: “In a way, it was good that mother did not see us because sometimes we had to work outside in the bitter cold without proper clothing.”
To be sure, innocent people in Estonia and elsewhere have suffered gross injustice, and Jehovah’s Witnesses as a group have been among them. (See the box “Unimaginable ‘Scale of Terror.’”) Despite such mistreatment and suffering in the past, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Estonia are still an active and happy group of people.
A Bright Future Ahead
The Bible assures us that Jehovah God hates injustice. It says: “Everyone doing these things, every doer of injustice, is something detestable to Jehovah your God.” (Deuteronomy 25:16) Though God has tolerated wickedness in the past, the time will soon come when he will bring injustice and wickedness to an end. “Just a little while longer,” says the psalmist, “and the wicked one will be no more; and you will certainly give attention to his place, and he will not be. But the meek ones themselves will possess the earth, and they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace.”—Psalm 37:10, 11.
Yes, a bright future awaits us! Though we cannot change the past, we can take steps to assure our future. Draw close to God and see how you can be part of the wonderful future when true righteousness will prevail.—Isaiah 11:9.
The life story of Ella Toom appears in the Awake! magazine of April 2006, pages 20-24.