Over 40 Years Under Communist Ban
AS TOLD BY JARMILA HÁLOVÁ
The time: after midnight, February 4, 1952. The place: our apartment in Prague, Czechoslovakia. We were awakened by the insistent ringing of the doorbell. Then the police burst in.
THE police put Mother, Father, my brother Pavel, and me in different rooms, stationed a guard with each of us, and started searching everything. They were still at it almost 12 hours later. After making a list of all the literature they found, they packed it in boxes.
Afterward, I was ordered to get into a car, and black glasses were put on me. That seemed odd, but I managed to move the glasses a bit to see where they were taking me. The streets were familiar. Our destination was the infamous headquarters of State Security.
They shoved me out of the car. Later when the glasses were stripped off, I found myself in a small, dirty room. A woman in a uniform ordered me to take off my clothes and to put on a pair of thick work trousers and a man’s shirt. A rag was tied around my head to cover my eyes, and I was led, blindfolded, out of the room and marched along seemingly endless corridors.
Finally, the guard stopped and unlocked an iron door, and I was pushed through. The rag was torn off my head, and the door locked behind me. I was in a prison cell. A woman in her 40’s was there gazing at me, dressed in an outfit like mine. I felt a sort of amusement and—strange as it might seem—could not help laughing. As a young girl of 19, with no experience in things like imprisonment, I remained in good cheer. Soon, much to my delight, I realized that no one else of our family was being held.
It was dangerous in those years to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in what was then Czechoslovakia. The country was under Communist rule, and the Witnesses were banned. How did our family become so deeply involved with a banned organization?
How We Became Witnesses
Father, a native of Prague, was of Protestant background and very sincere in his religious convictions. He met Mother in the 1920’s when she came to Prague for medical studies. She was from the area called Bessarabia, which in her childhood was part of Russia. After they married, she joined her husband’s church even though she was Jewish. Yet, she was not satisfied with it.
During World War II, Father was put in a work camp, and Mother narrowly escaped the holocaust. Those were hard years for us, but all of us survived. In mid-1947, two years after the war ended, one of Father’s sisters, who had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, subscribed to The Watchtower for our family. It was Mother who started reading it, and she immediately embraced the message as the truth for which she had been searching.
At first, she said little to the rest of us, but she learned where meetings were held in Prague and started attending them. Within a few months, in the spring of 1948, she got baptized at a circuit assembly of the Witnesses. Then she invited us to join her in attending meetings. Reluctantly, Father agreed.
Meetings were held in a small hall in the center of Prague, where we began to attend as a family. Father and I had mixed emotions, both of curiosity and mistrust. We were surprised that Mother already had new friends to introduce to us. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and their reasonableness, by how much they appeared to appreciate their brotherhood.
Seeing our positive response, Mother suggested that Witnesses be invited to our home for detailed discussions. What a shock it was for my father and me when they showed us from our own Bible that there are no immortal soul and no Trinity! Yes, it was eye-opening to learn what it really means to pray for God’s name to be sanctified and for his Kingdom to come.
A few weeks later, Father invited several clergymen of his church to our home. He said: “Brethren, I want to discuss some Scriptural points with you.” At that he presented, step-by-step, basic doctrines of the church and noted how these contradict the Bible. The clergymen admitted that what he said was true. Father then concluded: “I have decided, and I speak on behalf of my family, to leave the church.”
The Preaching Work Banned
In February 1948, shortly before Father and I began attending meetings, the Communist party took control of the country. I watched fellow students denounce their professors and saw teachers become fearful of their pupils’ parents. Everyone started to become alienated from one another. At first, however, the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses remained practically undisturbed.
For us a highlight of 1948 was the convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Prague. More than 2,800 persons were present September 10 to 12. A few weeks later, on November 29, 1948, the secret police invaded the branch office, and it was sealed. The following April an official ban was placed on our work.
None of these actions intimidated our family, and in September 1949 we attended a special program in the woods outside Prague. A week later, Father and I were baptized. Despite trying to be cautious in the preaching work, I was arrested in February 1952, as noted in the beginning.
After being questioned a few times, I concluded that I would be in prison a long time. The interrogators seemed to think that the longer a person was confined with nothing to occupy his time, the more willing he would be to cooperate. But my parents’ instruction kept coming to mind, and it helped to sustain me. They had often quoted Psalm 90:12, encouraging me ‘to count my days,’ that is, appraise, or evaluate, them ‘so as to bring in a heart of wisdom.’
Therefore, in my mind I reviewed entire psalms and other Bible passages that I had earlier committed to memory. I also meditated on the Watchtower articles I had studied before being imprisoned, and I sang Kingdom songs to myself. Then, in my first months in confinement, there were fellow inmates to talk to. In addition, there were items to review that I had learned in classes at school, for I had passed my final exams only a few months before.
The interrogations made it evident to me that an informant had attended one of my Bible studies and reported my preaching activities. The authorities concluded that I was also responsible for the typewritten copies of the Bible publications seized in our home. Actually, my brother, who was only 15, had done the typing.
After a while the interrogators could see that I was not going to implicate anyone else, so efforts were made to dissuade me from my beliefs. They even confronted me with a person whom I had known as a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Though being a prisoner himself, he was now cooperating with the Communists in a campaign to get the other incarcerated Witnesses to renounce their faith. What a pathetic creature he was! Years later, after being released, he drank himself to death.
After seven months I was transferred to another prison and put in solitary confinement. Now, completely alone, it was entirely up to me how I used my time. Books were provided on request, but, of course, none of a spiritual kind. So I made up a schedule of activity that included periods of reading as well as time for meditation on spiritual matters.
I must say, never before did I feel as close to Jehovah in my prayers as then. The thought of our worldwide brotherhood had never been so precious. Every day I tried to imagine how the good news might be spreading at that particular moment in various parts of the earth. I would imagine myself sharing in this work, giving Bible presentations to people.
Yet, in this calm atmosphere, I eventually fell into a trap. Having always loved to read and being hungry for impressions from the outside, I sometimes became absorbed in a particular book to the neglect of my schedule for meditation on spiritual matters. After this would happen, I always felt remorseful.
Thus, one morning I was taken to the prosecutor’s office. Nothing in particular was spoken about—only the results of previous interrogations. I felt disappointment, since no trial date was set for my case. In a half hour or so, I was back in my cell. There I lost composure and began crying. Why? Were the long weeks in solitary finally taking their toll?
I started to analyze my problem and quickly identified the cause. The previous day, reading had engrossed me, and again I had not kept up my spiritual activities. So when I was taken unexpectedly for questioning, I was not in a proper prayerful frame of mind. Immediately I poured out my heart to Jehovah and resolved never again to neglect spiritual matters.
After that experience I decided to eliminate reading altogether. Then a better idea occurred to me, namely to force myself to read German. During the German occupation in World War II, we had to learn German at school. But because of the horrible things that the Germans did during their occupation of Prague, after the war I wanted to forget everything German, including the language. So now I determined to be hard on myself by relearning German. However, what was meant as a punishment turned into a blessing. Let me explain.
I was able to obtain both German and Czech editions of some books and began to train myself to translate German into Czech and Czech into German. This activity not only proved to be another antidote to the potentially harmful effects of solitary confinement but also served a good purpose later on.
Release and Continued Preaching
Finally, after eight months in solitary, my case came up for trial. I was indicted for subversive activity and sentenced to two years in prison. Since I had already served 15 months and an amnesty had been declared with the election of the new president, I was released.
In prison I had prayed that my family be free of worries about me, and on returning home, I found that this prayer had been answered. Father was a medical doctor, and he encouraged many of his patients to study the Bible. As a result, Mother was conducting about 15 weekly studies! In addition, Father was conducting a group study of the Watchtower magazine. He also did translating of some of the Watch Tower Society literature from German into Czech, and my brother typed up the manuscripts. So I immediately plunged into spiritual activity and was soon conducting Bible studies.
A New Assignment
On a wet afternoon in November 1954, there was a ring at the door. Standing there, with water running down his dark gray plastic raincoat, was Konstantin Paukert, one of those taking the lead in the preaching work. Usually, he wanted to speak with Father or my brother Pavel, but this time he asked me: “Could you come out for a short walk?”
We walked silently for a while, a few pedestrians passing by. The dim light of the streetlights reflected faintly in the wet surface of the black pavement. Konstantin looked back; the street was lifeless behind us. “Would you help out with some work?” he asked suddenly. Astonished, I nodded in agreement. “We need some translating done,” he continued. “You have to find some place to work but not at home and not with anyone known to the police.”
A few days later, I was sitting at a desk in a small flat belonging to an elderly couple whom I hardly knew. They were Father’s patients, and a Bible study had been started with them not long before. Thus, my study of German in prison proved valuable, as we then translated our literature from German to Czech.
A few weeks later, Christian brothers taking the lead in the work were imprisoned, including Brother Paukert. Yet, our preaching was not stopped. Women, including Mother and me, helped in caring for Bible study groups and our Christian ministry. My brother Pavel, although still a teenager, served as a courier to distribute literature and organizational instructions throughout the Czech-speaking part of the country.
A Beloved Companion
Late in 1957, Jaroslav Hála, a Witness who had been arrested in 1952 and given a 15-year sentence, was temporarily released from prison for medical treatment. Pavel immediately contacted him, and soon Jaroslav was again fully involved in helping the brothers. Knowing the languages well, he began doing most of the translating work.
One evening in mid-1958, Jaroslav invited Pavel and me for a walk. This was usual for discussing organizational affairs, since our apartment was bugged. But after speaking privately with Pavel, he asked him to wait on a park bench while the two of us walked on. After a short discussion concerning my tasks, he asked if, in spite of his impaired health and uncertain future, I would marry him.
I was astonished by the sincere, straightforward proposal by one whom I held in great esteem, and I accepted without hesitation. Our engagement brought me into close contact with Jaroslav’s mother, an anointed Christian. She and her husband were among the first Witnesses in Prague in the late 1920’s. Both of them were imprisoned by the Nazis during the second world war, and her husband had died in a Communist prison in 1954.
Before we married, Jára, as we called him, was summoned by the authorities. They told him that either he had to undergo an operation for his chronic pleurisy—which at the time would have meant submitting to a blood transfusion—or he would have to serve out the rest of his sentence. Since he declined the operation, it meant that he had almost ten more years of imprisonment. I decided to wait for him.
A Time of Testing and Courage
Early in 1959, Jára was taken to prison, and soon afterward, we received a letter indicating that he was in good cheer. Then there was a long interval before a letter arrived that came as a blow to us. It expressed regrets, sadness, and fears, as though Jára were suffering a nervous breakdown. “This must have been written by someone else,” his mother said. But it was in his handwriting!
Both his mother and I wrote and expressed our trust in God and encouraged him. After many weeks, another letter came, still more puzzling. “He couldn’t have written this,” his mother again said. Yet, the handwriting definitely was his style, and there were his characteristic expressions. No more letters were received, and no visits were permitted.
Similarly, Jára had received disturbing letters purportedly from us. His mother’s letters blamed him for leaving her alone in her old age, and mine showed annoyance at having to wait for him for such a long time. These also perfectly matched our handwriting and manner of expression. At first he too was disturbed, but then he became convinced that we could not have written the letters.
One day someone appeared at the door, handed me a small packet, and hastened away. In it were dozens of leaves of cigarette paper on which was the tiniest possible handwriting. Jára had copied the letters we were supposed to have written, as well as a number of his own uncensored letters. After receiving this correspondence that had been smuggled out by a non-Witness prisoner who had been set free, how relieved and thankful to Jehovah we were! To this day we have never learned how or by whom this devilish attempt to break our integrity was masterminded.
Later, Jára’s mother was permitted to visit her son. On these occasions, I accompanied her to the prison gate and watched this tiny, frail woman perform acts of great courage. With guards watching, she would take her son’s hand and pass to him the tiniest possible photographed literature. Although discovery would have meant severe punishment, especially for her son, she relied on Jehovah, realizing that maintaining spiritual health is always of first importance.
Later, in 1960, a general amnesty was proclaimed, and most Witnesses were released from prison. Jára came home, and in a few weeks, we were a happy newly married couple.
Changing My Life-Style
Jára was assigned to the traveling work, serving the interests of the brotherhood throughout the country. In 1961 he was assigned to organize the first class of the Kingdom Ministry School in the Czech-speaking part of the country, as well as handling many of the school’s classes thereafter.
Because of political changes in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the following year a number of us were able to attend the “Peace on Earth” International Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nuremberg, Germany. The authorities, however, would not allow Jára to leave the country. Some of us took slide pictures of that grand convention, and throughout the country, Jára was privileged to share in delivering a faith-strengthening program that featured these pictures. Many wished to see the program over and over again.
Little did we realize that this would be Jára’s last time to visit the brothers. Early in 1970, his health deteriorated dramatically. The chronic inflammation, which he had learned to live with, affected his kidneys, and renal failure proved fatal. He died at age 48.
Sustained With Jehovah’s Help
I was bereaved of the one whom I had loved so dearly. But immediate help was provided within God’s organization, for I was allowed to have a share in the translating of Bible literature. As though in a relay race, I felt that my husband had passed the baton to me to carry on part of the work he himself had been doing.
Many of us in Eastern Europe served Jehovah for over 40 years under Communist ban. Then, in 1989, with the removal of the Iron Curtain, life here began to change dramatically. While I had dreamed of Jehovah’s Witnesses holding a convention in Prague’s mammoth Strahov Stadium, never did I believe that this dream would come true. Yet, in August 1991, it did in a marvelous way when over 74,000 assembled in joyful worship!
Czechoslovakia ceased to exist in January 1993 when the country was divided into two countries—the Czech Republic and Slovakia. How happy we were when, on September 1, 1993, the Czech Republic granted Jehovah’s Witnesses official recognition!
From my life experiences, I know that Jehovah always has a blessing in store for us, provided we allow him to teach us how to count our days. (Psalm 90:12) I constantly pray for God to teach me how to count the rest of my days in this system of things so that in the countless days ahead in his new world, I may be among his happy servants.
[Picture on page 19]
My mother and father
[Picture on page 21]
A meeting in the woods in 1949 during the ban: 1. My brother Pavel, 2. Mother, 3. Father, 4. Me, 5. Brother Hála
[Picture on page 22]
With my husband, Jára
[Pictures on page 23]
Jára’s mother and the photographed literature she smuggled to him
[Picture on page 24]
Working today at the branch in Prague