“No one is asking for you,” an officer of the prison said with a laugh. “You can stay here.” How did we, a hardworking, peaceful Russian family, end up as prisoners in North Korea in 1950, some five years after the end of World War II?
ACCORDING to my documents, I was born in 1924. My birthplace was evidently the village of Shmakovka, in the Far East of Russia, near the Chinese border.
One day my father and my older brothers were taken away by bandits, and Mother never saw them again. She was left with a houseful of younger children, whom she could barely feed. A neighbor offered to take us young ones to the Russian Orthodox orphanage and say that Mother had abandoned us.
Mother agreed with this plan because her young ones, including me, would probably have starved to death if she hadn’t. Now that I am in my mid-80’s, I am grateful that Mother sent us to the orphanage. It probably saved our lives. Still, her decision continues to haunt me.
In 1941, I moved to Korea, where I married a kind Russian man named Ivan. Our daughter, Olya, was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1942. Our son Kolya was born there in 1945, and his brother Zhora in 1948. My husband cared for our family store, and I took in sewing. Because Seoul had been occupied by the Japanese, our children grew up speaking Japanese, although we spoke Russian at home. Until 1950, there seemed to be peace among the Soviets, Americans, and Koreans in Seoul. All of them were customers at our store.
Captured by the North Koreans
Like a thunderclap, everything changed in 1950. North Korean troops took control of Seoul. Unable to flee, we were arrested along with other foreign civilians. For three and a half years, we were marched with British, Russian, American, and French prisoners of war to various locations all over North Korea. We were housed wherever there was shelter, and we tried to avoid the bombs.
On occasion, we lived in houses with heat and were given enough food. Usually, however, we had only millet to eat and slept in cold, abandoned buildings. Many of our group died of malnutrition and neglect. I was frantic when my children suffered. Winter came early in North Korea. I remember sitting by the fire all night, heating stones to place under the children.
When it got warmer, some Korean villagers taught us which wild plants were edible, and we foraged for greens, raspberries, grapes, and mushrooms. Clearly, the villagers felt no hatred toward us, only pity for our plight. I learned how to catch frogs to supplement our meager diet. It broke my heart to hear my children constantly begging for frogs.
One October, we were ordered to march to Manp’o. We were told that oxcarts would be provided for the sick and the small children. Olya and her father were marched off with the group on foot. Her little brothers and I waited anxiously for days for the carts to arrive. Eventually they did.
Sick prisoners were piled on the carts like stacks of grain. It was a horrible sight! With little Zhora on my back, I tried to place Kolya on a corner of a cart, but he burst out crying: “Mama, Mama, I want to walk with you! Please don’t leave me!”
Kolya trailed behind, one little fist clutching at my skirt while he trotted to keep up. Many prisoners were shot during this infamous march, which lasted for days. Flocks of crows followed, picking at the corpses that were left behind. Finally, we were reunited with my husband and Olya. We wept and embraced. That night, I stayed awake and warmed stones by the fire. Since I was now putting them under all my children, I was at peace.
In 1953, near the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea, our lives became somewhat easier. We received clean uniforms, shoes, bread, and even candy. Soon, the British were released, and then the French. But we were citizens of no country. When the last prisoners were gone, we were alone. We wept in despair and could not eat. It was then that the Korean officer said the hurtful words quoted in the introduction.
A New Life in the United States
Surprisingly, not long afterward we were taken across the demilitarized zone into South Korea. Following interrogation by American military personnel, we were allowed to immigrate to the United States. We made our way by ship to San Francisco, California, where we were assisted by a charitable organization. Later, we moved to Virginia, and acquaintances there kindly helped us to get on our feet. Eventually, we moved to Maryland to begin a new life.
We were overwhelmed by simple things, such as a vacuum cleaner. As immigrants in a new country, we worked long and hard. But I was saddened to see ones who were doing well in their new environment taking advantage of new arrivals. Soon after we arrived, we met a Russian Orthodox priest who said: “You are on blessed land now. If you want to progress, don’t be with your own kind.” I was shocked and puzzled. Shouldn’t we help one another?
In 1970 a man named Bernie Battleman, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, called at our door to discuss something from the Bible. He was a strong, outspoken person, just like one of us. We talked for hours. Because I had grown up in an Orthodox orphanage, I knew the church liturgy by heart. But never did I think of owning a Bible! Bernie brought us one and said: “This Bible is for you because I love you.” He also introduced us to Ben, a Russian-speaking Witness from Belarus.
Ben and his wife kindly answered my questions from the Bible. I was sure, though, that the Witnesses had distorted the holy text. I was especially incensed that their publications said that Mary had children other than Jesus, when the church taught otherwise.
I called up a Polish friend and asked her to look at her Polish Bible to see what it said at Matthew 13:55, 56. When she read me the verse, I was shocked to learn that Jesus did indeed have younger brothers! My friend also called up an acquaintance who worked at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to check this verse in all the available Bible translations there. She reported that they all said the same thing: Jesus had brothers and sisters!
I had so many other questions. Why do children die? Why are nations fighting? Why do people not understand one another, even when they speak the same language? The answers I received from the Bible thrilled me. I learned that suffering is not God’s will for humans. I was overjoyed to learn that I would again see dear ones who had perished during various conflicts. Gradually, Jehovah became real to me.
One day, I was standing before my icons, begging God for help with my son, who had just returned from combat in Vietnam and was suffering deep emotional distress. Suddenly, I realized that my prayers should be directed, not to the icons, but to the living God, Jehovah. I pulled the icons apart and saw that they were nothing more than colorful tinfoil. I had bought them at the church, but that night I got rid of them.
It was not easy to break from the church I had grown up with. But I had come to value what the Bible teaches above everything else. A year later, I took my daughter and my husband with me to visit the Russian Orthodox priest. I had a notepad with pages of Bible questions with scriptures jotted under them. As I read the Bible verses out loud, the priest shook his head and said, “You’re lost.” He told us never to darken his door again.
This episode impressed my strong-minded, inquisitive daughter, Olya. She too began examining the Bible closely and was soon attending meetings of the Witnesses with me. I was baptized in 1972, and Olya was baptized the following year.
Our Family Motto
Our motto has been, Focus on the present, let go of the past. So we were never hesitant to do something new if we were convinced that it was right. When my daughter and I began developing a relationship with God, we had a strong desire to go to people’s homes and tell them what we were learning. I must admit, my outspoken, unsentimental personality meant that others would sometimes have to step in and smooth things over. But in time, I learned to talk to people of many nationalities and backgrounds who, like me, were searching for a better life.
During the years that followed, my daughter and I often said that if the Iron Curtain ever fell, we would go to Russia to help people like us learn about God. When it did fall in the early 1990’s, Olya fulfilled that dream for both of us. She moved to Russia and for 14 years served as a full-time minister there. She studied the Bible with many and was able to assist in translating Bible literature from English into Russian at the Russia branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Now I am bedridden, and my children do all that they can to make my life as comfortable as possible. I thank God that after my early years of suffering, I truly found a better life. I have come to a realization of the Bible psalm of the shepherd David: “By well-watered resting-places [God] conducts me. My soul he refreshes. He leads me in the tracks of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
^ par. 29 Maria Kilin fell asleep in death on March 1, 2010, while this first-person account was being prepared for publication.