From Political Activist to Neutral Christian
AS TOLD BY LADISLAV ŠMEJKAL
After I was sentenced, I was led back to my cell. Immediately, I began tapping a message in Morse code on the wall to a friend two floors above. He was waiting to hear what sentence I had received.
“Fourteen years,” I tapped.
He couldn’t believe it. So he asked: “Fourteen months?”
“No,” I answered. “Fourteen years.”
THE year was 1953. The place—Liberec, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic). I was then a 19-year-old activist who sought political change. We activists propagated our views by distributing leaflets that were critical of the Communist Party, then in power. Our activity was judged to be high treason—hence, my long prison sentence.
I had already spent almost a year in custody before my sentence was delivered. Prior to sentencing, prisoners were kept two in a cell, and periodically they were taken blindfolded to be interrogated. We weren’t permitted to speak while in our cells, so we whispered or communicated with each other by tapping Morse code.
I soon learned that many of those in prison were Jehovah’s Witnesses. In our prison it was the custom to change the inmates in the cells every month or two. Since the Bible interested me, I was happy when I was eventually placed in a cell with a Witness. In time, I started to study the Bible with the Witnesses.
I suppose you could describe our discussions as Bible studies, even though we had no Bible or Bible literature. In fact, I had never in my life actually seen a Bible. But we would talk—the Witness explained from memory Bible subjects—and I took notes on what he said. All of this was done as we sat close to each other whispering.
The only supplies available were toilet paper and a comb. I used the comb to make notations on the toilet paper. Many of the scriptures we discussed I learned by heart. Witnesses who studied with me also taught me Kingdom songs. One Witness told me: “Now you are in prison as a political criminal, but in the future you could be imprisoned for being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Finally, after endless interrogations, I was sentenced and taken to a labor camp near the town of Jáchymov. By then, I was convinced that one day I would become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Many Years of Confinement
When I arrived at the camp where uranium was mined, I immediately began looking for the Witnesses. But I soon learned that they had been taken away somewhere else. One Witness, however, remained because he was a cook. He lent me a very worn Bible that had gone through many hiding places. So I was able to read scriptures that I already knew from memory. I kept saying to myself as I read, ‘Yes, it is exactly as the brothers taught me.’
About a month later, I was transferred to a camp named Bytiz, near the town of Příbram. There I met other Witnesses. In Bytiz we regularly received Bible literature that was smuggled in. Although the camp administration tried to find out how it reached us, they never did. We had as many as 14 prisoners actively sharing in witnessing to others. Half of these were baptized Witnesses, and the other half were like me, people who while they were in prison had come to believe as the Witnesses did.
Many of us wanted to symbolize our dedication to God by water baptism. But because of a lack of water—or, to be more exact, the unavailability of a large enough container of water—immersion was not a simple procedure. Therefore, many in those days had to wait until after their release to be baptized. In the Bytiz camp, however, there were large cooling towers for the mine compressors. In the mid-1950’s, several of us were baptized in the collecting tank of one of those towers.
A few years later, in March 1960, I was summoned by a police officer who had charge of political prisoners. He said that if I would inform him about the activity of other prisoners, he would arrange for reduction of my prison term. When I refused to do that, he began shouting profanities at me. “You forsook a chance for a good life,” he yelled. “I’ll see that you never return home! You’ll die here.” Two months later, however, an amnesty that applied to me was issued, and after a total of eight years of imprisonment, I returned home.
A Brief Period of Freedom
The work of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been banned in Czechoslovakia since April 1949, so I soon learned that serving God in so-called freedom was not entirely unlike doing so while in confinement. Now, after my release, I faced another problem. It was then compulsory for every man in the country to serve in the army for two years.
Some men who worked with certain State enterprises were given exemption from military service. Those who worked in coal mines, for example, received such exemption. Since I had done mining, I obtained work in one of the mines. There I received a warm welcome. “Don’t worry about the army,” I was told. “It’s no problem for us to keep you out of there.”
Two months later, when I received a draft notification, those working in administration reassured me: “Don’t worry, it must be some mistake. We’ll just write the military, and it will be all right.” But it was not all right. In time, an official came to me and apologized: “This is the first time it has happened, but you will have to report to the army.” When, in keeping with my conscientious objection to war, I refused to join the army, I was arrested and taken to the nearest military unit.—Isaiah 2:4.
Facing a Tribunal
After I was imprisoned in the town of Kladno in January 1961, attempts were made to convince me to become a soldier. A military officer in charge organized a meeting. I was taken to a conference room that had a large, round table surrounded by deep, leather armchairs. Soon the officers started to arrive and sit around the table. The one in charge introduced them to me one by one. Then he sat down and said: “Now, tell us about this faith of yours.”
After a quick, silent prayer, I began speaking to an attentive audience. The conversation soon turned to evolution, and the claim was made that evolution is a scientific fact. In a labor camp that I had been in earlier, I had studied the booklet Evolution Versus the New World.a So to the surprise of those military officers, I was able to provide evidence that evolution was an unproved theory.
Then, a major, who clearly had some background in the Catholic religion, spoke up. “How do you view the Virgin Mary?” he asked. “And what is your attitude toward the holy Mass?” I answered his questions, and then I said: “Sir, I see that you must be a believer, for your questions are different from those of the others.”
“No! No! No! I’m not a believer!” he protested loudly. In the Communist State, professed Christians received little if any respect or responsibility. So after that exchange, the officer did not participate any further in the discussion. I was very grateful for having the opportunity to explain the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses to those men.
Further Opportunities to Witness
A few days later, I was taken to a military facility in Prague and placed under guard. The first armed soldier assigned to guard me was surprised by the special security measures. “This is the first time we have had personally to guard anyone,” he told me. So I explained why I had been imprisoned. This interested him so much that he sat down—his rifle between his knees—and listened. After two hours another soldier replaced him, and a similar inquiry and Bible discussion followed.
During the ensuing days, I had the opportunity to speak both with those who guarded me and with other inmates when the guards permitted it. The guards even opened cells and allowed prisoners to gather for Bible discussions! In time, I worried that the freedom the guards granted me to speak with other prisoners would become known and that there would be adverse consequences. But the entire matter was kept secret.
Eventually, when I was taken to court for sentencing, I was given encouragement by those to whom I had spoken about my beliefs. I was sentenced to two years, which were added to the six years from my original sentence that I had not served because of the amnesty. This meant that I had about eight years of imprisonment ahead of me.
Conscious of God’s Help
Often, I felt conscious of God’s help as I was moved from camp to camp and from prison to prison in Czechoslovakia. When I arrived at the prison in Valdice, the commander asked why I was there. “I refused military service,” I replied. “It is contrary to my beliefs to engage in warfare.”
“It would be nice if everybody had that attitude,” he responded sympathetically. But after thinking about it for a moment, he said: “However, since most people today don’t think this way, we must punish you—and punish you severely!”
I was placed in the glass-cutting department, which was a penal department. You see, although I was sentenced because I refused military service as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was still labeled a political prisoner and, therefore, was given harsher assignments. Cutting glass for chandeliers and other luxury glass items was particularly difficult work because such products had to be made without a flaw. Commonly, prisoners handed over their finished work, only to find that the next day half of it was returned for repair. So it was very difficult to fulfill the prescribed production requirement.
The day I entered the glass-cutting department, I first had to wait for the department head. When he arrived, he began yelling at prisoners who, according to his judgment, weren’t working hard enough. He passed along and came to me and said: “What about you? Why aren’t you working?”
I explained that I was a newly assigned prisoner. He took me to his office and asked the usual questions as to why I had been imprisoned. After I explained my situation to him, he said: “So, then, you are one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
“Yes,” I answered.
His attitude changed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We have had many of Jehovah’s Witnesses here. We respect them all, for they are hardworking and decent people. I’ll see that you get a work quota that you’ll be able to fulfill.”
The changed behavior of the work overseer totally surprised me. I was grateful to Jehovah and to those unknown fellow believers who were responsible for the fine reputation the Witnesses had in that prison. Actually, I felt Jehovah’s loving help during my entire time in prison.
Regardless of how difficult my situation became, I always felt sure that eventually I would come in contact with my Christian brothers. Then I would see their pleasant smiles and receive their encouragement. Without them, it would have been much more difficult to cope with my imprisonment.
Many prisoners seemed to think about nothing but getting revenge for the ill-treatment they had received. But I never felt that way. I realized that I was suffering for obedience to God’s righteous principles. So I knew that for each day I spent in prison, Jehovah was able to give me countless wonderful days of life in his Paradise new earth.—Psalm 37:29; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:3, 4.
Grateful for Blessings Today
In May 1968, after more than 15 years in confinement, I was finally released. At first, I had inhibitions about speaking with people, which is not uncommon for those who have spent much of their lives around people dressed in prison garb or in the uniforms worn by guards. But my Christian brothers soon helped me get involved in the preaching work, which was, of course, still being carried on under ban.
Within a few weeks after my release, I met Eva. Despite severe family opposition, she, along with her brother, had courageously taken her stand for Bible truth about three years earlier. We soon began sharing in the preaching work together. We also worked in producing our Bible literature. This was done in secret underground printeries. Then in November 1969, we were married.
In 1970 our first child, Jana, was born. In time, on weekends I began serving congregations as a traveling minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, visiting them to offer spiritual encouragement. While doing this work in 1975, I was arrested and was again sent to prison. But this time I spent only a few months there. Then in 1977, our son, Štěpán, was born.
Eventually, on September 1, 1993, the Czech Republic granted Jehovah’s Witnesses official recognition. The following year our daughter, Jana, married Dalibor Dražan, a Christian elder. Then in 1999, our son, Štěpán, a ministerial servant, married Blanka, who shares in the full-time ministry. All of us are now members of congregations in Prague. We all look forward to the time when the new world will be here—but I especially long for the time when there will be no prison walls anywhere.
a Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1950.
[Pictures on page 20]
I used a comb to make note of Bible texts
[Picture on page 21]
The Bytiz camp, where I was incarcerated and later baptized
[Picture on page 23]
Our wedding day
[Picture on page 23]
Eva and I, with Štěpán and Blanka on the left and Jana and Dalibor on the right