Interview with Alexander Neufeld. July 28, 2015. Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, PA.
"E" denotes interviewer Elizabeth Miller. "A" denotes Alexander Neufeld.
E: Today is July 28, 2015. And we are at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. And could you please begin with your name and where you are from?
A: I'm Alexander, now living in East Germany in the city of Dresden.
E: And you were sharing a little bit earlier with John a story from your younger years. Could you share that story with us?
A: Yeah. Maybe I should start with a small preface. I came quite late to share this story, because I consider the stories of my grandparents, of course, much more worth to be shared. And my own experiences are not as profound or not as far-reaching as they were. Only just to mention it that the family of my grandmother, they were six brothers and two sisters, and all of her brothers and her husband and the husband of her sister all were in work camps, labor camps of the Stalin era. Only just this one family had spent in total 74 in labor camps and some three have not survived it. So these are the stories I have grown up with, so mine are much, much smaller, my stories. [00:02:09.20]
Yeah, I was a student back then in the 70s in Estonia. And....I have grown up with the heritage from my grandparents, parents. If the KGB tries to get you to work as a spy, don't give them a single finger, otherwise they get your whole...
E: Could you explain what the KGB is?
A: KGB is the secret police of the Soviet Union of that time.
So in my second year of my studies--I was studying in engineering, university for computer engineering--then they one day asked me to come into their office, one of their offices at the university. There was this KGB officer. He was very polite. He was just chatting a little bit, nothing saying really. Uh, but he asked me whether I would be ready not to tell to anybody about this, you know, this meeting. [00:03:33.12]
And I was, you know, I was 17. No, 18 by then, 18. I just said ok, I don't have to talk about this. And then oh he said, you know, he didn't ask just to work with them. It was just maybe we can sometimes meet and so. It was a nice talk, but then in the second, maybe a month later, I was then asked to come by. And then I sensed he wants to get me to work, kind of. I was active involved in youth work. We had some contacts to the underground church, though I was in an official registered church participating in worship.
And then we met a third time, just walking in the park. And there I was already decided--I decided in advance I will say no and I will not work and I will not meet with him and not collaborate and so on. And he, you know, was upset and said why I don't want to collaborate and I should think about my future because if I refuse to collaborate, you know, there are some consequences for me, for my parents, for my sisters. Why I should think about them and so. But I said I will not do it. And I will not keep any more my promise not to talk to somebody. This was very upsetting for him as well. [00:05:22.07]
But I was firm and so he said, Ok, then I have to deal the consequences. And so we departed. And then for about a year, I heard nothing about. It was just gone. Though I sometimes sensed they're somehow, they're observing. There was small signs of this. I was involved a little bit in Bible smuggling and it was kind of...interesting what happened.
And then in the fourth year of my studies--and it was unusual or actually a wonder that I was quite actively involved in church. That I was not part of the Communist Youth League and could still study at the university. They was probably possible only in Estonia, not in other parts of the Soviet Union. And, uh, in the fourth year, I was participating in November at a youth camp, a youth meeting on the long weekend. Ee had this October celebration of the revolution date on the long weekend. We had a secret youth meeting in the southern part of Estonia. [00:06:53.19]
I just attended it, I think I prayed in the beginning of this meeting, read just a passage and prayed. Otherwise I didn't...do something in the program in this meeting. But two weeks later--also about the 20th of November or so it was--I was, because I was studying at the engineering school I was exempt from the draft to the military for the time. But we had to attend, that fourth year, one day in the week at the military base for kind of a military training as a student. And, uh, we arrived in the morning there and, uh, it was like military do, everybody stand in a row. And there the officer said, called my name. I stepped forth. And I should go to the colonel's office, to the dean of this military...faculty or...department. [00:08:16.16]
And it was kind of why I should, just in the morning. 8:00. And I went and there there were two KGB officers sitting--the one that was approaching me in the past and another one. He was older; he was an Estonian. Later I heard his name and got to know that he was responsible for churches and so, some people had that contact with him. And so they were just asking just a way about this meeting in southern Estonia.
And it was very hard....They were sitting just one across, one on the side. And one was talking and the other was talking. They were, you know, experienced officer and I was 21 or so. Quite young. And I was just trying to sit on my hands, so they were not, so that they could not recognize that I am trembling or so. And so this meeting went just for eight hours, through the whole day. Started at 8:00 and short before 4:00 then they said ok. [00:09:49.28]
Particularly this older officer was acquainted with the Bible. He was, you know, quoting the Bible verses. Trying to convince me that I should comply and tell about something. They were asking about different people, about a printing press in the underground church. And so I didn't really know much about this. But this was one of our tactics. You never ask if brought to you Bibles. And you never tell and never ask where they are going, so you don't know it. But they were questioning all kinds of, asking all kinds of things and actually trying to persuade me to, to work with them. And I basically, for eight hours, repeat, repeating to say "I will not tell," "I will not say," "I will not work" and so forth and so forth. Maybe sometimes they threatened, sometimes they said, you know, made some promises that after I complete the study, I will get a good job. And so as the time went by and I refused, they said, ok I have to be the consequence of my stubbornness. Yeah. Not willing to work with them. [00:11:28.02]
And so I left and a few weeks, maybe a month later, the dean of our university, of our department, approached me, called me in his office, and said: Yeah, he is not supposed to tell me this, but he got an order to, to expel me from the university. I asked where does the order come from, but he said, don't ask much questions. And actually I knew who was behind this. And he asked me whether I would like to take, um, to apply for, uh...how you say it. It is not excommunicate, but exmatriculate myself from the university. How you say?
A: Then I would have the chance maybe to apply to some other university and somehow continue in my study. But if they expel me, then the chance would be gone. And I was ready, you know, I was in my seventh semester and so. And there were a lot of issues involved if I would withdraw or just discontinue to be a student. They would just, uh...draft me into the military and then I would have to decide what I would do. Whether...some of my friends refused to take the oath, or refused to take arms. And had very different experiences. Very different stories. Some went very well. Others had very, very hard time. The additional point was where we at that time. It was mid-67, 1967. They were already applying to immigrate to Germany. And if I would go to the military, then all this would automatically mean that you have to stay there some more years. Or maybe only the parents could move without me. And so I said to the dean, I am glad, I am thankful that he is talking to me, but I will not go voluntarily. And I had good grades. And usually it went that you just didn't pass the exams. And so it was nothing special about this, but you didn't pass the exams and you have to go. [00:14:25.27]
He tried to persuade me a little bit, but he didn't really pressure, just give some arguments. But then he said, ok, he will see what he can do. I asked him whether I could, you know, go to the, to the department of higher education and, uh, talk there or to the president of the university. But he said, ok, keep quiet, don't do anything. So I went then--ok, he said, he'll see what he can do, I should come a week later to his office. In the meantime I went home, my hometown, my family lived about 160 km away. On this weekend we prayed, we were fasting with the family of my uncle, the brother of my father and our family. We were just asking that God leads, not necessarily praying that I should continue to, but somehow that God leads through this situation. [00:15:44.23]
And, yeah, the next Thursday I went in the afternoon to this dean. And he just said, ok, forget what we were talking about, everything is ok. I was unbelievable. I asked him, now should I just continue and prepare for the, for the exams that are coming up. "Yeah, just...nothing happened. Just continue." And so I was continuing my studies. And it was quite, yeah, actually an exemption in the Soviet Union. I know, even from people in my family, that some relatives they went only once to a service and they were, you know, thrown out from studies. And I was now studying four years already. And, uh, and so it was then quiet. Nothing happened. Next year we got the permission to immigrate to Germany. [00:17:02.25]
E: Did you ever find out that weekend you were praying with your family?
A: No. I do not know who made the decisions, to whom he was talking, who is really behind of this. Somehow is God behind. So they are not really sufferings, but the story of God's help.
E: And why--could you say a little bit about why you refused to collaborate with the KGB? What was your thinking there?
A: It meant to be a traitor, you know, to work with those who destroy the church, they're responsible for all the sufferings of the Christians in the past and even in those days for some. And so...I'm really thankful that God protected me in the first place to, you know, not to--how you say it? to slither into it? just to drift? You just start with a small talk and then second and then one day you are working for them and you don't recognize it. And I sensed how, those people they're experienced to find their people to...
E: And could you also say a little bit more about...You mentioned that you participated some in the underground church and you were helping move Bibles. Could you say some about what that means, for people who weren't there, what did it mean to be part of the underground church?
A: No, I was not part of the underground church. But in Estonia we had very good relationships with people from the underground church. And smuggling the Bibles does not mean necessarily to work with the underground church. See Estonia was kind of a Western Baltic state of the Soviet Union. We had some tourists from the Western world. And some people from the, it was in the city, the capital of Estonia, in Tallinn, it was a port. There was a port, so the Marines, the people who worked for the Marines, they discovered to bring Bibles into the Soviet Union was, uh, a very, um, profitable thing to do. Because for one Russian Bible, people on the market, they're paying monthly, an average, monthly, an average monthly income of, for instance, a nurse or so. So they were bringing these Bibles, secular, you know like smuggling drugs. And, uh, we had one Methodist church in the center of the city. Maybe I shouldn't tell too much things, who knows. [00:20:56.29]
But there was one man who was working in that church, old man. And uh, I never asked him where he got the Bibles, but they were from the marines, I knew. And I just went once a week to him and asked whether he has something. And then he went somewhere in the back and brought--they're not many you know--sometimes five, sometimes ten Bibles. Mostly German Bibles, but sometimes Russian. Russian Bibles were very rare. But the German Bibles in German language were needed much as well, particularly in Siberia. There was not really.
And yeah, yeah, so all we said how much money and give him the money and took the Bibles. And next week I came again and so it went. And I brought them one man and never asked--I knew it went basically to central Asia, but where, whom he brought it, I was glad not to know this. We are just to trust. This was one channel. The other channel was, you see the Bibles were needed so badly that we used everything that we could. There was a store with old books, antique books you call it. Yeah because Estonia in the past was very German. There were a lot of German-speaking people. You could in this store really buy old German Bibles, as kind of antique books. Of course there was the problem the older the Bible was, the more expensive it was. But we needed them not because they are old, but rare, but because we need the content, the Bible. But somehow I got to know this old lady that was one of the ladies that was looking there. These Bibles were never, you know, displayed or stand openly in the shelves. I just ask her and she went to the back and brought me one, two, three, four. Not so often there is not so many. The other one was always new Bibles. These were old and sometimes too expensive actually. But this was another thing. [00:24:05.01]
And then we, you know, we were blessed sometimes. Tourists came to the service, attended an Estonian or a Russian service. And after they went, uh, a Russian Bible was lying on the place where they were. [Emotional] We were happy. Yeah.
E: Alexander, would you also like to share how in the more current setting how faith can affect one's ability to choose or accept certain occupations, what you were talking to John about?
A: Well, yeah, I have one short story or example. There was a man in our church in Saxony. He worked in the development of semiconductors. He was a high-ranking engineer. Had a doctorate in physics. Because this company closed about 3,000 people or so went out of jobs. And so he was looking for another job. And so he was in one company nearby to our city and yeah the interview went quite well and they content of the work was very interesting. And he liked it a lot, what they were offer--and in the first interview they said they would take him. And, em, and they just were not negotiating, just whatever he asked for, they were offering him, in terms of salary, arrangements, you know. And he got a little bit suspicious. At the second interview he even realized it seems that the projects are, they are very interesting and so, but money does not really play a role kind of...They have enough! And regardless what the outcome it, the projects are financed. And so he was kind of uneasy about this. And so he asked the now...what are these devices are used for? How much of this is going for the military? [00:27:06.27]
And they didn't really say in the beginning. But then they said 90% of what they do is going for, for the military. And these are devices for kinds of star wars, star weapons, space weapons. And they wanted badly to take him as an employee. But he then refused and said, "No, I will not spend my life producing weapons or developing weapons. I will not invest the talents God has given me just for that." And so he had to then look, maybe two, three months longer, for a job. He had a family with three girls. And yeah, so eventually he had to move from our area and he's teaching now at one of the engineering schools. And for me is an example of somebody who didn't just look for job for, you know, salary, but who had convictions and said, "As a Christian, I will not participate in that." [00:28:31.28]
It's very encouraging for me that this happens.
And in Germany today it is often felt kind of, yeah, if it is your job, then it is kind of so important, part of your life, such an important factory for your security, so...there you can make kind of exceptions. But this man was really faithful to his convictions.
E: And this was a man from your church?
A: Was a man form our church. So he moved away. They are not members anymore in our community, but yeah...
E: Well, Alexander, thank you so much for taking time to share your stories.