Faith Under Test in Poland
AS TOLD BY JAN FERENC
I WAS just a youngster when World War II was raging. I well remember an uncle who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He used to visit our home and read to us from the Bible. My parents were not interested, but my brother Józef, my sister Janina, and I really were. Soon we each symbolized our dedication to Jehovah by baptism. At the time of my baptism, I was just 14 years old.
Observing the fine effect that Bible study had on our lives, our parents began to listen. When my father realized that the Bible condemns idolatry, he said: “If this is what the Word of God says, the priests have kept us in ignorance. Son, take all the images off the walls and throw them away!” About two years later, my parents were baptized. They served Jehovah faithfully until their deaths.
Troubles We Faced
Jehovah’s Witnesses faced hard times after the war ended. For example, there was a raid on the office in Lodz by the Office of Security, and those working there were arrested. In eastern Poland guerrillas of the National Armed Forces, under the influence of the Catholic clergy, brutally attacked Jehovah’s Witnesses.*
Also about this time, the Communist authorities withdrew the permission that they had previously granted us to hold our assemblies, and they tried to interrupt the assemblies that were already in progress. Yet, the growing opposition only increased our determination to carry on with the preaching of God’s Kingdom. In 1949 we reported well over 14,000 Witnesses in Poland.
Before long, I became a pioneer, a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My first assignment was some 300 miles [500 km] from home. In time, though, I was appointed to serve as a traveling overseer in an area east of Lublin, not far from where my parents lived.
Arrested and Persecuted
In June 1950, I was arrested and accused by the Communist authorities of spying for the United States. I was thrown into a damp cellar. At night I was taken out for questioning by an investigating officer. “The religious association you belong to is a sect and an enemy of our State,” he said to me. “Your office works for American intelligence. We can prove it! Your brothers have already admitted that they traveled across the country and collected data on military facilities and factories.”
Of course, these accusations were entirely false. Nevertheless, the officer advised me to sign a statement renouncing what he called “your disgraceful organization.” Time and again, he tried to get me to sign. He even tried to get me to write down the names and addresses of all the Witnesses I knew and the places from which our publications were being distributed. His efforts were futile.
After that, the officers beat me with a club until I lost consciousness. Then, they drenched me with water to revive me, after which the interrogation resumed. The following night, I was viciously beaten on my heels. I begged God aloud to give me strength to endure. I feel that he did. Those nighttime interrogations occurred regularly for almost a year.
I was released from prison in April 1951, but many Witnesses were still imprisoned. I went to a responsible Witness and asked for a new assignment. “Aren’t you afraid of being arrested again?” he asked me. “I am even more determined to work where the need is greater,” I replied. I resumed my work as a traveling overseer, and later I was invited to organize the printing and distribution of our publications in Poland.
Back then, we used primitive mimeograph machines and wax stencils to duplicate The Watchtower. The quality of our printing was poor, and we had to pay exorbitant prices for paper, which at the time was in short supply. The duplicating had to be done in secluded places, such as barns, basements, and attics. For those who were discovered, the penalty was imprisonment.
I remember a dry well we made use of. In its wall, some 35 feet below ground, was a hatch leading to a small room where we mimeographed the magazines. To get there, we had to be lowered by rope. One day, I was being lowered into the well in a huge wooden bucket when suddenly the rope broke. I fell to the bottom and broke my leg. After a stay in the hospital, I went back to operating the mimeograph machine.
About this time I met Danuta, a zealous pioneer minister. In 1956 we were married, and for the next four years, we worked together in the ministry in central Poland. By 1960 we had two children, and we decided that Danuta would discontinue the full-time ministry to take care of them. Before long, I was arrested again, and this time I was put in a rat-infested cell. Seven months later, I was sentenced to two years in prison.
In and out of Prison
There were more than 300 prisoners in the Bydgoszcz prison, and I prayed to Jehovah that I might share the Kingdom message with honesthearted ones. I talked to the head of the prison, suggesting that I could serve as a barber. To my surprise, he agreed. Soon I was shaving the prisoners, cutting their hair, and giving a witness to those who seemed favorably inclined.
The prisoner who worked as a barber with me soon responded to our conversations. He even began to share with others the things he learned from the Bible. Soon, the head of the prison ordered us to stop spreading what he labeled as “subversive propaganda.” My fellow barber held firm. He explained: “I used to steal, but now I don’t. I was once addicted to nicotine, but I have quit smoking. I have found purpose in my life, and I want to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
When I was released from prison, I was sent to Poznan to oversee a “bakery,” as we called our secret printeries. By the end of the 1950’s, our printing had greatly improved. We learned how to reduce the size of pages photographically—a milestone in our technology—and to operate Rotaprint offset presses. In 1960 we also began to print and bind books.
Shortly afterward, a neighbor reported our operation, and I was once again arrested. After I was released in 1962, I received an assignment to serve in Szczecin along with several others. But before we were to leave, we received what we believed was direction from loyal Christian brothers to go instead to Kielce. There, however, we were arrested, and I was sentenced to another year and a half in prison. We had been betrayed by impostors from within. In time, they were found out and removed from our ranks.
When I was eventually released from prison, I was appointed to oversee our printing operations in all of Poland. In 1974, after ten years of avoiding detection, I was tracked down and arrested in Opole. Shortly after that I was sent to prison in Zabrze. “Your bishop’s duties are over,” I was told by the head of the prison. “If you continue to share your propaganda, you will go to solitary.”
Preaching in Prison
Of course, my work as a minister was anything but over. In fact, I started a Bible study with two of my fellow prisoners. Eventually, they made progress to the point that I baptized them in a big bathtub in the prison.
Other prisoners also responded to our preaching, and in April 1977, we met together to observe the Memorial of Christ’s death. (Luke 22:19) Two months later, in June 1977, I was released, and I was not arrested again.
The authorities had by then become more tolerant of our work. No doubt the visits of members of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses helped greatly. In 1977, three of these spoke with overseers, pioneers, and longtime Witnesses in various cities. The following year, two of them made a courtesy call at the Office for Religious Affairs. It was not until 1989, though, that the ban on our work was lifted. Presently, some 124,000 Witnesses are active in Poland.
Because of poor health, Danuta has not been able to accompany me in recent years, but she encourages me and wants me to continue to visit congregations. I will forever be grateful for her strengthening aid during my many imprisonments.
The decision I made 50 years ago to serve Jehovah God surely was the right one. I have found great joy in serving him wholeheartedly. My wife and I have experienced the reality of the words recorded at Isaiah 40:29: “He [Jehovah] is giving to the tired one power; and to the one without dynamic energy he makes full might abound.”
[Pictures on page 20]
We used a mimeograph machine and later a Rotaprint offset press to print the publications
[Pictures on page 21]
My wife, Danuta, and me