Faith Under Trial in Slovakia
AS TOLD BY JÁN BALI
I WAS born December 24, 1910, in Záhor, a village now in eastern Slovakia. At that time our village was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1913, Mother took me to the United States to join my father, who had left Záhor earlier. Two years after Mother and I arrived in Gary, Indiana, my sister, Anna, was born. Then Father became ill and died in 1917.
I became an ardent student, especially taking an interest in religion. At the Calvinist Church where I attended Sunday school, the teacher noticed my interest in spiritual things. To satisfy my hunger, he gave me a Holman Edition of the Bible, which contained some 4,000 questions and answers. That provided a lot of thinking material for my 11-year-old mind.
‘This Is the Truth’
During those early years, some of the Slovak immigrants in the area where we lived became Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. One of them was my uncle Michal Bali, who shared Bible truths with us. In 1922, however, Mother returned to Záhor with my sister and me, which by then had become part of eastern Czechoslovakia.
Shortly afterward, Uncle Michal sent me the complete set of Studies in the Scriptures, by Charles Taze Russell, as well as reprints of Watchtower magazines back to the very first issue of July 1, 1879. I read them through, some portions several times, and became convinced that I had found the Bible truth for which I was searching.
About that time some Bible Students of Slovak origin returned from the United States to their homeland. They formed the first Slovak-speaking groups of Bible Students in Czechoslovakia. My mother and I attended these early meetings in our village of Záhor as well as in other nearby places.
Those meetings resembled Christian meetings held in the first century. We usually met in a home of one of the Bible Students, where we sat around a table with a petroleum lamp in the middle. As the youngest, I would sit a bit behind, listening in the dark. Sometimes, however, I was invited to participate. When others were somewhat uncertain about a reading in the Slovak language, they would say: “Well, Ján, what does the English say on that?” I was eager to come near the lamp and interpret into Slovak what the English publication said.
Among those who became Bible Students in the United States and returned to what had become Czechoslovakia was Michal Šalata. He returned to the nearby village of Sečovce, where he once lived, and he helped organize the preaching work in Czechoslovakia. Brother Šalata took me with him on preaching tours. Then, in 1924, at the age of 13, I asked him to baptize me. Although Mother considered me rather young for such a serious step, I convinced her that it was my firm decision. So, that July during a one-day convention held near the Ondava River, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by baptism in the waters of that river.
Cherished Privileges of Service
When I was 17, I heard that a funeral was to be held a few miles away from the village where I was preaching. It was the first to be conducted by the Bible Students in that area. On arriving, I made my way through the curious villagers to the speaker. When I reached him, he turned to me and said: “I am going to speak first, and then you will continue.”
I built my talk on the scripture found at 1 Peter 4:7, which reads: “The end of all things has drawn close.” I showed from the Scriptures that even the end of suffering and death is near, and I explained the resurrection hope. (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15) Despite the fact that I looked even younger than I was—or perhaps thanks to it—all in the audience listened attentively.
Thrilling news was found in The Watchtower of September 15, 1931, which explained that we no longer wanted to be known as Bible Students or by any other such name but that we wanted to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. After reading this information, Bible Students in our area made arrangements for a special meeting. Some 100 Bible Students met at the village of Pozdišovce. There I was privileged to give a talk entitled “The New Name,” based on the above-mentioned Watchtower article.
With great rejoicing all in attendance raised their hands when they were asked to accept the same resolution that had been adopted by fellow believers in other parts of the world. Then we sent a telegram to the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, which read: “We, Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered together on this day in Pozdišovce, agree with the explanation in The Watchtower concerning the new name, and we are accepting this new name, Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The vast region of Slovakia and Transcarpathia, which before World War II was part of Czechoslovakia, provided a fertile field for our Christian ministry. We covered this large territory on foot and also by train, bus, and bicycle. At that time the “Photo-Drama of Creation,” a motion picture and slide presentation that included synchronized sound, was presented in many cities. After each presentation, addresses of interested people were collected. I was given a lot of these addresses and was asked to organize Witnesses to visit interested ones. In some cities, we rented an auditorium where I gave a special follow-up talk.
In the 1930’s, I was privileged to be a delegate to larger conventions in the capital city, Prague. In 1932 the first international convention in Czechoslovakia was arranged. We met at the Varieté Theatre. The theme of the public lecture, “Europe Before Destruction,” caught the attention of the people, and about 1,500 attended. Another international convention was held in Prague in 1937, and I had the privilege of giving one of the talks. Delegates from many European countries were present, and all of us received the needed encouragement to carry us through the trials that soon followed during World War II.
Marriage, and Severe Tests
After we returned to Czechoslovakia, Mother and I closely cooperated in the preaching work with fellow Bible Students in nearby Pozdišovce. There I came to notice an attractive girl named Anna Rohálová. When we had grown a bit older, we realized that our feelings were more than simply Christian brotherly and sisterly affection. In 1937 we married. From that time on, Anna supported me, even during the ‘troublesome seasons’ that were about to come.—2 Timothy 4:2.
Shortly after our wedding, it became clear that Europe was preparing for World War II. By November 1938, southern parts of Transcarpathia and Slovakia were annexed by Hungary, which was collaborating with Nazi Germany. Our meetings were forbidden by the Hungarian police, and regularly we had to report to the police station.
After World War II began in September 1939, a number of us from Záhor, both men and women, were taken into custody and moved to an old castle near Mukacheve, now in Ukraine. There we found many fellow Witnesses from Transcarpathian congregations. After being interrogated for three or four months and beaten often, we were tried by a special army court. We were all asked just one question: “Are you willing to fight for Hungary against the U.S.S.R.?” Since we refused, we received sentences and were eventually sent to a prison in Budapest, Hungary, at 85 Margit Boulevard.
All of the prisoners were on a starvation diet. Soon diseases spread and prisoners started to die. How heartwarming it was when my wife traveled all the way from Záhor to see me! Although we could speak for only about five minutes through the iron bars, I was thankful to Jehovah for such a faithful companion.*
From Prison to a Labor Camp
From prison I was taken directly to Jászberény, Hungary, where some 160 Witnesses had been taken. While we were there, a Hungarian officer gave us the last offer from the Hungarian government: “If you are willing to serve in the army, step out.” No one did. The officer said: “Although I do not agree with what you are doing, I admire your resolve to keep your faith.”
A few days later, we boarded a ship on the Danube River and started on our way to a labor camp near the Yugoslav city of Bor. While we were on the ship, the soldiers and their commander repeatedly tried to make us compromise our faith. The commander had the soldiers beat us with their rifles, kick us with their boots, and use other methods of torture.
When we were handed over to Lieutenant Colonel András Balogh, the commander of the labor camp at Bor, he told us: “If what I was told about you is true, you will soon die.” But after reading the sealed message from government officials, he treated us with respect. Balogh granted us relative freedom of movement and even allowed us to build a barrack for ourselves. Although food was scarce, we had our own kitchen, so food was distributed fairly.
In March 1944, Germany started to occupy Hungary. At that time a pro-Nazi commander named Ede Marányi replaced Balogh. He imposed strict discipline, much like that in concentration camps. Soon, though, Russian armies approached, and the camp at Bor was evacuated. Later, during our march, we were eyewitnesses of the massacre of Jews at Cservenka. It seemed a miracle that we were spared.
When reaching the border between Hungary and Austria, we received an order to dig nests for machine guns. We explained that the very reason we were prisoners was because we had refused to become involved in military activities. Since I was at the front of the group, a Hungarian officer grabbed me and started to beat me. “I’ll kill you!” he screamed. “If you don’t work, the others will follow your bad example!” Only the courageous intervention of András Bartha, an older Witness who had taken the lead in our preaching work, saved my life.*
A few weeks later, the war ended and we started on our way home. Other inmates, who had been released earlier from Bor, had reported that all of us who were taken on to Cservenka had been killed. So for about six months, my wife considered herself a widow. How surprised she was one day to see me on the doorstep! Tears of joy ran from our eyes as we embraced after years of separation.
Reorganizing the Work
After World War II, Slovakia was reunited with Czechia to form Czechoslovakia. However, Transcarpathia, a large portion of which had been part of Czechoslovakia before the war, became part of Ukraine in the Soviet Union. In 1945, Michal Moskal and I went to Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia, where we met with responsible ones to reorganize the preaching work. Although exhausted physically and emotionally, we were eager to get on with fulfilling our commission to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom.—Matthew 24:14; 28:18-20.
After the war, conventions were a great impetus to our work. In September 1946 the first one for the whole country was held in the city of Brno. I was privileged to deliver a talk on the theme “The Harvest, the End of the World.”
In 1947 another national convention was held in Brno. There, Nathan H. Knorr, Milton G. Henschel, and Hayden C. Covington, who were visiting from the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, gave encouraging talks. I had the privilege of serving as interpreter for their presentations. Although we had about 1,400 Kingdom proclaimers in Czechoslovakia at the time, some 2,300 attended the public talk.
Persecution Under the Communists
In 1948 the Communists took over the country, and soon a ban that lasted 40 years was imposed on our preaching work. In 1952 many of us who were considered leaders by the authorities were put in prison. Most were accused of subversion, but a few of us were accused of high treason. I was imprisoned and interrogated for 18 months. When I asked in what way I was a traitor, the judge said: “You were speaking about the Kingdom of God. And you say that it will take over the rule of the world. This also includes Czechoslovakia.”
“In that case,” I replied, “you would have to judge as traitors all those who pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask for ‘God’s Kingdom to come.’” Nevertheless, I was sentenced to five and a half years and was sent to the infamous Communist prison in Jáchymov, Czechoslovakia.
After serving most of my prison term, I was released. My wife, Anna, had faithfully supported me through letters and visits as well as her care of our daughter, Mária. Finally, we were reunited as a family, and we resumed our Christian activities, which we carried on underground.
A Rich Life of Serving Jehovah
During the past 70 years and more, Jehovah’s Witnesses in our area have served under various conditions, most of the time under Communist rule. True, I have grown old and physically weak, yet I am still able to serve as a Christian elder in Záhor, along with such faithful ones as Ján Korpa-Ondo, who is still alive at age 98.* My dear wife, a true gift to me from Jehovah, died in 1996.
I still have a vivid mental picture of an imaginary scene described on pages 228 to 231 of the book The Way to Paradise, published in 1924. The reader was asked to imagine himself in Paradise overhearing two people who had been resurrected. They were wondering just where they were. Then a person who had survived Armageddon had the privilege of explaining to the two that they had been resurrected into Paradise. (Luke 23:43) If I survive Armageddon, I would like to explain such things to my wife, my mother, and other loved ones when they are resurrected. But if I die before Armageddon, I am looking forward to the time when someone in the new world will tell me about the events that transpire after my death.
Now I continue to appreciate the unique and absolutely awesome privilege of talking to the Sovereign Lord of the universe and of being able to draw close to him. My resolution is to keep living in harmony with the apostle Paul’s words at Romans 14:8: “Both if we live, we live to Jehovah, and if we die, we die to Jehovah. Therefore both if we live and if we die, we belong to Jehovah.”
See the story of Andrej Hanák in Awake! of April 22, 2002, pages 19-24. There, conditions in this prison are described as well as the events at Cservenka, mentioned later in this article.
See The Watchtower, July 15, 1993, page 11, for more information about András Bartha.
See his life story in the September 1, 1998, issue of The Watchtower, pages 24-8.
[Picture on page 21]
With Anna, one year after our marriage
[Pictures on page 22]
With Nathan H. Knorr at the 1947 convention in Brno