My name is Olga Seniva. I was born on November 6, 1936, in the village of Tumyr, Ivano-Frankivsk region, and there I grew up.
My parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses and stopped going to the Greek-Catholic Church in 1941. There were only a few witnesses in our village during that time, so we did not go out preaching. We read the Bible and Bible literature. At times, two other families would come to visit my parents and conduct the meetings with us. These meetings were held early in the morning.
I was seven years old when I started the first grade in school. Kids used to call me “badachka” because it was common to call Bible Students this way as “badach” means “to study” in Polish. But, I must say, no one ever beat me up. And I used to think that it does not matter what they call me; I am happy that my parents taught me God’s Word.
My parent’s faced oppression in our village after they stopped visiting the Greek-Catholic Church. One of Jehovah’s Witnesses was killed by a blow to the head as he was walking by because the priests said, “Parishioners, beat those badaches.” They despised us, treated us with cruelty. My grandfather, my mother’s father, abandoned us. He said, “My foot will not step into this house. Your house looks like a barn; you took down all the images and icons. You will never see me here.” Grandpa was very angry. He would always go to church.
When my mother’s youngest sister, Katrusya, also began to study the Bible, grandfather kicked her out of the house. She lived with us for some time. Then, at the age of 18, she got sick with typhus and passed away. The villagers said that “badaches” have to be buried separately from the rest, so the Witnesses were assigned a separate cemetery. Before Katrusya passed away, she asked mom to bury her at this cemetery, where other Jehovah’s Witnesses were buried.
One time, grandfather reported my father to the authorities. But my father had deformed fingers that he could not fully unbend, so they let him go. Grandfather was calling the police at this time to have them release my father because he only wanted to scare him about being sent to the labor camp, just so my father would renounce his faith.
I was eight years old when men from the military came and told my father, “Get your things, you are going to war.” So, my father left the house with a Bible in his hand, and my mother and I followed him. Once he was in the yard of our house, the soldiers asked him, “Will you go to war?”. My father showed them the Bible and said, “I cannot go against God’s Law, because the fifth commandment says, “Do not kill.” One of the soldiers got angry, grabbed the Bible, threw it to the ground, and said, “I’m going to shoot you like a dog.” He grabbed the rifle, began to load it, but another soldier grabbed his arm and began to beg him not to shoot in front of my mother and me. I ran up to daddy, hugged him, and would not let go. The soldier that was going to shoot him walked to the side and said, “Here, you deal with them.” As we later found out, this soldier had just learned that his whole family died, so he was agitated. And the other one, that begged not to shoot my father, said to daddy, “Friend, when you are questioned in the enlistment office, you can tell them if you want to serve or not, but here, don’t say that because you would be shot just like a dog, and no one would care.” He took my father into custody, and sent him to the enlistment office. My father received a 10-year sentence because he refused military service. Five years was served in the Gorkivska region, and although he was supposed to do five more years, he received amnesty and was free to go. He returned home in 1948.
On April 2nd, 1951, someone knocked on our door at 3 am and said, “Owners, open up.” Daddy opened the door, they entered and said, “Will you give up believing in your God or not? If you give up, you can sign this, and we will leave you alone. If not, you will go to Siberia to the white bears.” My daddy answered, “I will never leave my Father, Jehovah God.” “Then get your things together.” They gave us two hours. At that time, I was thirteen years old. My mother had just given birth; the baby was only three months old. The soldiers said that we could take some grain with us, flour or something else. We had a bag of grains and half a bag of flour. This was our food at that time. We didn’t even have any baked bread. People ran after the horse-drawn carriage we were in and threw us bread. First, we were brought to the village council, where we waited for a car. Once the vehicle arrived, we were placed in it with three other Witness families and driven to Hryplin. A big train with boxcars was waiting in Hryplin. They took us from the car into the boxcar. It was a very long train. They just loaded us and closed the doors, that’s it. Other boxcars were also loaded with Jehovah’s Witnesses until the whole train was packed. And then they sent us on our way. Inside the boxcar, they had built bunk beds—four families on one side and four on the other. We were able to bring bedding with us and settled next to each other on those bunk beds. In the middle, we had a potbelly stove. There was a toilet with a wood gutter that we separated with a bedsheet to make it more private. The gutter or drain was a hole in the floor, so when someone went to the toilet, it all went outside. And that is how we traveled for a month. On the way, we made a sign that said “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Other trains that stopped at the station also had these signs, and we waved through the tiny window to our fellow believers that were also going to Siberia. Every morning the security guard would enter the boxcar and count us by name. We were fed daily. During lunch, they would choose two or three people with buckets, and when we stopped at a big train stations, they filled the buckets with borshch and bread. Everyone shared whatever food they brought: bread, pork fat, lard, and other things. And by then, we made it to Kuybyshev. In Kuybyshev, they took us to the sauna, where we could wash ourselves, and have our clothes disinfected. Then, they loaded us back onto to the boxcar, and we traveled for a month.
There, they drove us to the Irkutsk region Alzamay district, Zamzor station. They unloaded us from the boxcars, and other families joined us from the other cars. We waited together three days until they prepared sleighs. They were made out of two pine trees connected by a rack. We were all loaded with our things onto the sleighs. And they took us to the taiga, 12 kilometers from the Zamzor station. When we were traveling in the sleigh to the settlement, the roads were muddy. The car had a hard time making it through the area, so they had to use a tractor to pull us.
The settlement was made up of twelve barracks; each one had four families. The bigger barracks had even more families. In the middle of the barracks, we had potbelly stoves, and our mothers used them to cook food. Everyone had their turn to cook, and no one argued or said that they needed to go ahead of someone else. We were under the commandant’s office watch. They visited us every month, counted us, wrote down everyone, just in case someone escaped. No one ran away; everyone behaved. altogether
Right away they sent us to work in the forest. Together our fathers felled the trees. And us children received axes to chop the small branches off those trees. We would chop them off and burn them. My employment history book still states “branch chopper.” We rode in horse-drawn wagons to go to work in the forest. It was not far from our settlement, but some rode and some walked. Later, they also built a store. In the summer the mud dried up, and a car could get to the settlement. They would bring produce to the store, and we could buy it. We were beginning to receive wages. We didn’t receive much. At one point, we, the younger generation, began to lose their sight due to a lack of vitamins. We could see during the day, but not at night. But we later got our vision back. In the beginning, we did not have anything, no potatoes, nothing. Some families that had more food had been able to bring it from home because the soldiers who captured them let them do so. Some allowed people to have more, and some none at all. But everyone shared. No one died of hunger. And maybe we did not have much food, but we all survived during that difficult time. In the summer, our mothers would walk twelve kilometers to Zamzor and help other people plant potatoes. As payment, they received potatoes. Then they carried the produce twelve miles back home to make food for us. Later, those who could, planted potatoes themselves. Some even got a cow. Even though we were in Siberia, in the summer we were able to pick cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, and currant in the forest. Nature was so beautiful, with lots of flowers during the springtime. But we would constantly get bitten by mosquitos. It was terrible, to the point where our hands and face were swelling. To get to work by foot, we would make head coverings out of nets, cover ourselves with tar so the smell would repel the insects, and they would not bite us so much when we walked. But we were never sad, no one cried, everyone was thankful, singing songs of praise to our God. At around the age of 13 or 14, when us children would walk home, we sang songs as we walked to the settlement. When we would get close, our mothers would say, “Our children are coming home.”
In 1954, I got baptized in the Alan river as one of Jehovah’s Witness. On October 8, 1956, I got married. My son, Bogdan, was born in 1958, and then two daughters, Svitlana and Iryna. Sadly, my son died tragically at the age of 36.
We would always conduct meeting in our barracks with our four families. We had hand copied literature, which we used to study the Bible. No one interfered. At times we were able to study with two to three barracks together. Memorial was held at home, in our barracks. This is how we lived in Siberia from 1951 to 1965.
In 1965, we were free to go, and all Witnesses moved to different towns. We moved to Tulun, Irkutsk region. We were constantly under watch and persecuted. People would call the police on us and we would get questioned. The Memorial we would conduct in the woods, only sometimes at home. When we lived in the settlement, we actually had more freedom.
One time, when we were in Roman Kostetskiy’s house, gathered for the Memorial, the government officials from the KGB broke in. They began to question us about why we are together. We said that we wanted to hold the Memorial. So, they put together an act, gave it to Roman to read and sign. While he was reading it, they photographed everyone present. Later, they published in a newspaper that Roman was reading American literature, the Watchtower, that teaches Witnesses about their religion. They did not let us celebrate, but told us all to leave, and fined us. We went home but gathered later at night in the woods where we did hold the Memorial.
If anything ever happened, people always blamed it on Witnesses. A nearby forestry plant caught fire. People said that Witnesses did it. They blamed all sorts of things on us. A lot of people believed these rumors. But many saw how we behaved and how we lived and said, “This cannot be true. These are God-fearing people; they would never do something like this.” So, we had many on our side and some against us.
In the 70s, we returned to Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, in Ukraine. First, our relatives settled, and then we joined them. At present we live in Voznesenka.
I am now 85. And despite the fact that my health is not getting any better, only worse with each year, I am thankful to God for every minute of my life. Grateful for being able to withstand all trials and now with my big family, children, seven grandchildren, and three great grandchildren, I am able to worship our Creator freely.