Despite Trials, My Hope Has Remained Bright
AS TOLD BY ANDREJ HANÁK
The year was 1943, and World War II was raging. Because I took a neutral stand, I was in prison in Budapest, Hungary. There, a bearded Orthodox priest offered me his Bible in exchange for three days’ rations of my bread. Although I was starving, I am convinced that I made a good exchange.
IT WAS a challenge to maintain a clear Christian conscience when the Nazis took control of our land during World War II. Later, during more than 40 years of Communist rule, it was also a struggle to serve our Creator, Jehovah God, without compromising Bible principles.
Before I describe what it was like to keep godly integrity back then, let me provide a little background about myself. You will no doubt find it interesting to learn what Jehovah’s Witnesses endured in those early years. First, let me tell about a religious situation that made me wonder about the prominent religions in our area.
A Puzzling Religious Question
I was born on December 3, 1922, at Pácin, a Hungarian village near the Slovak border. Slovakia then made up the eastern part of Czechoslovakia. When a large section of Czechoslovakia was absorbed by the Soviet Union after World War II, the border with Ukraine was moved to within 20 miles [30 km] of Pácin.
I was the second of five children born to devoted Roman Catholic parents. When I was 13, something took place that caused me to think more seriously about religion. I accompanied Mother on a 50-mile [80 km] religious pilgrimage to the village of Máriapócs in Hungary. We walked there because we believed that doing so would ensure us a greater measure of blessing. Both Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics made the pilgrimage. I previously supposed that these two churches were part of a somewhat united Catholic religion. But I soon learned differently.
It happened that the Greek Catholic Mass was celebrated first. So I decided to attend that one. Later, when Mother learned that I had gone to it, she was very upset. Somewhat bewildered, I asked: “What difference does it make what Mass we attend? Is it not the one body of Christ that we all partake of?”
Unable to provide an answer, Mother simply said: “My son, it is a sin to ask such questions.” Nevertheless, my questions lingered.
My Questions Answered
When I was 17—shortly after World War II started in 1939—I moved a few miles away to Streda nad Bodrogom, a small town now located in eastern Slovakia. I went there to serve as an apprentice to a local blacksmith. However, at his home I learned something more valuable than how to prepare shoes for horses and shape other items from molten metal.
Mária Pankovics, the blacksmith’s wife, was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thus, I learned the blacksmith trade from her husband during the day, but at night I studied the Bible and attended the meetings with the local Witnesses. As a blacksmith apprentice, I came to have a fuller appreciation for the words of Psalm 12:6: “The sayings of Jehovah are pure sayings. As silver refined in a smelting furnace of earth, clarified seven times.” How pleasant were those evenings of examining the sayings of Jehovah and of having my Bible questions answered!
Little did I realize that very soon, as World War II intensified, my newfound faith would be put to the test.
Imprisoned for My Faith
It was not long after I began my blacksmith apprenticeship that young men in Hungary were required to participate in military training. But I decided to follow the Bible principle found at Isaiah 2:4, ‘not to learn war anymore.’ For my resolve, I was sentenced to ten days in prison. After my release, I continued to study the Bible. Then, on July 15, 1941, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism.
By that time, Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, and eastern Europe was engulfed in war. War propaganda grew intense and nationalistic feelings ran high. But in harmony with their Bible-based convictions, Jehovah’s Witnesses remained neutral.
In August 1942 a vicious attack was mounted against us. The authorities prepared ten collection points where the Witnesses, young and old alike, were brought together. Even those who were not yet baptized but were known to have contact with us were taken to these collection points. I was among those taken to a prison in Sárospatak, a city about 15 miles [20 km] from my village of Pácin.
The youngest inmate in prison was only three months old. He had been incarcerated along with his Witness mother. When we asked for some food at least for the child, the guard retorted: “Let him cry. It will help him to grow into a strong Witness.” We felt sorry for the little one, but it also saddened us that the young guard’s heart could be so hardened by nationalistic propaganda.
At my trial, I was given a two-year sentence. I was then transferred to the prison at 85 Margit Körút in Budapest. The cells, measuring about 15 [4 m] by 20 feet [6 m], were crammed with some 50 to 60 people. For eight months we lived there without any bathroom or toilet facilities. So we couldn’t shower or bathe, not to mention wash our clothes. All of us were covered with lice, and at night, bugs marched over our dirty bodies.
We had to get up at four in the morning. Our breakfast consisted of only a small cup of coffee. At noontime we received a similar amount of soup and about a third of a pound [150 g] of bread along with a little mash. Nothing was provided in the evening. Although I was 20 and had been in good health, I eventually became so weak that I was unable to walk. Prisoners started to die from starvation and infections.
During that time a new prisoner came to our cell. He was the bearded Orthodox priest I mentioned at the outset. He had been allowed to keep his Bible. Oh, how I desired to read it! But when I asked him to let me do so, he refused. Later, though, he approached me. “Hey, lad,” he said. “You can have the Bible. I will sell it to you.”
“Sell it? For what?” I asked. “I have no money with me.”
That is when he offered me his Bible in exchange for my ration of bread for three days. How rewarding that exchange proved to be! Despite my physical hunger, I received the spiritual food that helped sustain me as well as others in our trials during those troublous times. I have kept that Bible to this day.—Matthew 4:4.
Our Neutrality Tested
In June 1943, young male Witnesses from throughout Hungary—about 160 of us—were taken to Jászberény, a town near Budapest. When we refused to put on military caps and to have a tricolor band placed on our arms, we were put into freight cars and taken to the Budapest-Kőbánya train station. There military officers called us out of the freight cars by name, one at a time, and ordered us to report as soldiers.
We were commanded to say: “Heil Hitler,” which means “Hail to Hitler.” When each Witness refused to do so, he was severely beaten. Eventually, the tormentors got tired, so one of them said: “Well, we’ll beat one more, but he is not going to survive it.”
Tibor Haffner, an older, longtime Witness, had obtained a copy of the list of Witnesses on board. He whispered to me: “Brother, you’re next. Be courageous! Trust in Jehovah.” At that I was called. As I stood at the door of the freight car, I was told to come down. “There is nothing left on him to beat,” one of the soldiers said. Then he told me: “If you report as you’ve been asked, we’ll see that you are assigned to the kitchen to prepare food. Otherwise, you’ll die.”
“I won’t report for military duty,” I replied. “I want to go back to the freight cars where my brothers are.”
Taking pity on me, a soldier grabbed me and threw me back into the freight car. Since I weighed less than 90 pounds, that was not difficult for him to do. Brother Haffner came and placed his arm around my shoulders, caressed my face, and quoted Psalm 20:1 to me: “May Jehovah answer you in the day of distress. May the name of the God of Jacob protect you.”
In a Labor Camp
After that we were put on a boat and taken on the Danube River to Yugoslavia. In July 1943 we arrived at the labor camp near the city of Bor, which had one of the largest copper mines in Europe. In time, the population of the camp reached some 60,000 people of many nationalities, including some 6,000 Jews and about 160 of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Witnesses were put in one large barrack. In the middle of it were tables and benches, and we had our meetings twice a week there. We studied Watchtower magazines that were smuggled into the camp, and we read the Bible that I had exchanged for my bread allotment. We also sang songs and prayed together.
We tried to maintain good relations with other inmates, and this proved beneficial. One of our brothers had severe intestinal pains, and the guards were unwilling to arrange for help. As his condition worsened, one of the Jewish inmates, a doctor, agreed to operate. He gave the brother some primitive anesthetics and performed the operation with a sharpened spoon handle. The brother recovered and returned home after the war.
The work in the mines was exhausting, and food was scarce. Two brothers died in work accidents, and another from disease. In September 1944, as the Russian army was approaching, it was decided to empty the camp. What happened afterward would be hard to believe if I had not seen it with my own eyes.
A March Filled With Horror
After a tiring week-long march, we arrived in Belgrade along with many Jewish prisoners. Then we continued several more days and found ourselves in the village of Cservenka.
When we arrived at Cservenka, Jehovah’s Witnesses were ordered to make a formation, with five to each row. Then one Witness was taken from every second row. With tears in our eyes, we looked at those being taken away, thinking that they were going to be executed. But after a while they were back. What happened? The German soldiers had wanted them to dig graves, but a Hungarian commander explained that they had not eaten for a week and were too feeble to work.
That evening all of us Witnesses were taken to a loft in a building used for drying bricks. A German officer told us: “Be quiet and stay here. This is going to be a dog’s night.” He then locked the door. In a few minutes, we heard the yelling of the soldiers: “Come on! Come on!” Then there was the sound of machine guns, followed by frightening silence. Again we heard, “Come on! Come on!” and more gunfire.
Through the roof, we could see what was happening. The soldiers would bring groups of dozens of Jewish inmates, stand them at the edge of a pit, and shoot them. Afterward the soldiers threw hand grenades on the piles of bodies. Before dawn all but eight of the Jewish prisoners were dead, and the German soldiers had run away. We were mentally and physically devastated. János Török and Ján Bali, still living, were among the Witnesses who were present at that execution.
With Hungarian soldiers guarding us, we continued our march westward and northward. We were repeatedly asked to become involved in military activities, yet we were able to maintain our neutrality and still survive.
In April 1945 we found ourselves between the German and the Russian armies at the city of Szombathely, near Hungary’s border with Austria. When an air-raid alert was announced, a Hungarian captain, who was our guard, asked: “May I go with you to find shelter? I can see that God is with you.” After the bombing was over, we left the city, making our way through the dead bodies of animals and humans.
Seeing that the end of the war was imminent, that same captain gathered us together and said: “Thank you for respecting me. Here I have some tea and sugar for each one. At least it is something.” We thanked him for having treated us as humanely as he did.
In a few days, the Russians arrived and we started on our way home in little groups. But our troubles were by no means over. After arriving in Budapest, we were taken into custody by the Russians and subjected to another draft—this time into the Soviet army.
The man in charge of the proceedings was a medical doctor, a high-ranking Russian official. As we entered the room, we did not recognize him, but he recognized us. He had been with us in the labor camp at Bor, and he was one of the few Jews who had survived the Nazi genocide. Seeing us, he ordered the guards: “Let these eight men go home.” We thanked him, but above all, we thanked Jehovah for his protection.
My Hope Still Bright
Finally, on April 30, 1945, I arrived home in Pácin. Shortly afterward I returned to the home of the blacksmith in Streda nad Bodrogom to complete my apprenticeship. The Pankovics had given me a lot—not only a trade by which I could earn a living but more important, the Bible truths that changed my life. Now they gave me something more. On September 23, 1946, their charming daughter, Jolana, became my wife.
Jolana and I continued our regular activity of Bible study and preaching. Then, in 1948, we realized the additional blessing of becoming parents to our son, Andrej. Our joy of religious freedom, however, did not last long. Soon the Communists took over our country, and another wave of persecution started. I was drafted in 1951, this time by the Czechoslovak Communist authorities. The scenario was repeated: a trial, a prison sentence, incarceration, slave labor, and starvation. But with God’s help I again survived. As a result of an amnesty, I was released in 1952 and joined my family in Ladmovce, Slovakia.
Despite the ban on our Christian ministry, which lasted about 40 years, we continued our sacred service. From 1954 to 1988, I was privileged to serve as a traveling overseer. I visited congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses on weekends and encouraged the brothers and sisters to remain steadfast in their integrity. Then, during the week, I was with my family and did secular work to support us materially. All this time we felt Jehovah’s loving direction. I found the words of the Bible psalmist to be true: “Had it not been that Jehovah proved to be for us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up even alive, when their anger was burning against us.”—Psalm 124:2, 3.
In time, Jolana and I were happy to see Andrej get married and eventually become a mature Christian overseer. His wife, Eliška, and their two sons, Radim and Daniel, also became active Christian ministers. Then, in 1998, I suffered a great loss when my beloved Jolana died. Of all the trials I have gone through, this is the hardest to cope with. I miss her every day, but I find comfort in the precious resurrection hope.—John 5:28, 29.
Now, at 79 years of age, I serve as an elder in the village of Slovenské Nové Mesto, Slovakia. Here I find my greatest joy in sharing my precious Bible-based hope with my neighbors. When reflecting on the past, and on more than 60 years in Jehovah’s service, I am convinced that with Jehovah’s help we can endure all obstacles and trials. My desire and my hope are in agreement with the words of Psalm 86:12: “I laud you, O Jehovah my God, with all my heart, and I will glorify your name to time indefinite.”
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The Bible I received in exchange for my ration of bread
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Tibor Haffner encouraged me in my trials
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Witnesses in the Bor labor camp
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A Witness funeral at the Bor labor camp with German soldiers present
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János Török and Ján Bali (inset), who were also present at the massacre
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Jolana became my wife in September 1946
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With my son, his wife, and my grandsons