Where I First Heard the Name Jehovah
As told by Pavol Kovár
During the heavy bombing, we barely made our way to a makeshift shelter. As the bombing intensified and our shelter shook, a fellow prisoner prayed aloud: “O Jehovah, save us! For the sake of your holy name, please save us!”
IT WAS January 8, 1945, and I was a prisoner of war in the Austrian city of Linz. Some 250 of us were in that shelter, and we all survived the bombing. After we exited, we saw devastation all around. The heartfelt prayer I had heard was deeply engraved on my mind, even though I never knew who uttered it. Before I relate how I eventually learned who Jehovah is, let me tell a little about my background.
I was born on September 28, 1921, in a house near the village of Krajné, in western Slovakia, then part of Czechoslovakia. My parents were Protestants who took their religion seriously. Father read the family Bible on Sunday mornings, and Mother and we four children listened attentively. Yet, I don’t remember my father ever using the name Jehovah. Life in our region was simple, but we were content with the little we had.
When World War II began in 1939, people were scared. Many well remembered the suffering that World War I had caused some 20 years earlier. In 1942, I was called up for service in the Slovak army. Although officially Slovakia sided with Germany, in August 1944 an attempt was made to restore democracy. When it failed, I was among thousands of captured Slovak soldiers transferred to territories controlled by the Germans. I ended up in Gusen, a subcamp adjoining the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp, near Linz.
Prisoner of War
We were assigned to work at the airplane plant not far from the village of Sankt Georgen an der Gusen. There I worked in a sawmill. We had little to eat, and in January 1945 our rations were reduced further, as the Nazi armies were losing on all fronts. The only warm meal we received was a little soup. Every morning workers from the main camp in Mauthausen arrived. The guards often beat to death the prisoners too weak to work. Later, fellow prisoners would throw the corpses in a wagon and transport them to the crematorium.
Despite the misery, we had hopes that the war would soon be over. On May 5, 1945, four months after the bombing described at the outset, I woke up to great turmoil and ran to the yard. The guards were gone, the guns were piled up, and the gates were wide open. We could see the other camp across a meadow. Freed inmates were running from it like bees from a burning hive. Along with the liberation, there came cruel retribution. The slaughter that took place is still etched in my mind.
Prisoners were taking revenge by beating to death the kapos, inmates who had collaborated with the prison guards. Often the kapos had been even more cruel than the Nazi guards themselves. I watched as a prisoner clubbed a kapo to death, yelling: “He killed my father. We had survived together here, and just two days ago he killed him!” By evening the meadow was filled with the dead bodies of kapos and other inmates—hundreds of them. Later, before leaving, we toured the camp, examining the execution devices—particularly the gas chambers—and the furnaces.
Learning About the True God
I was home by the end of May 1945. In the meantime, not only had my parents learned God’s name, the name I had heard in the bunker, but they had also become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Shortly after returning, I met Oľga, a spiritually-minded girl, and a year later we were married. Her zeal for Bible truth prompted me to continue learning about Jehovah. During one of our last assemblies before the new Communist regime banned our preaching work in 1949, Oľga and I, along with some 50 others, were baptized in the Váh River in Piešťany. In time, we had two daughters, Oľga and Vlasta.
Ján Sebín, a Witness who had helped reorganize the preaching work following World War II, was our frequent guest and my close companion in the ministry. Despite growing persecution from the Communists, we continued our preaching. We would discreetly talk to people about Bible truths, and soon we had many Bible studies. When Ján left our area, my wife and I continued these studies. Later, at our assemblies, we often met such dear ones, along with their children and grandchildren. What joy that brought us!
By 1953 many Witnesses who had taken a lead in the preaching work were imprisoned. So I was asked to help with the ministry in an area about 100 miles [150 km] from our home. Every second week, after finishing my secular work on Saturday afternoon, I took a train from the town of Nové Mesto nad Váhom and traveled to Martin, in north-central Slovakia. There I engaged in Bible teaching till late evening and for the whole day Sunday. On Sunday evening I took a train back to Nové Mesto. I usually arrived about midnight and enjoyed the hospitality of an elderly couple who let me stay with them till morning. Then I went directly to my secular job and returned to my family, in the village of Krajné, on Monday night. During weekends when I was away from home, Oľga cared for our daughters.
Then, in 1956, I was invited to serve as a circuit overseer, a work that involved visiting congregations in our area to strengthen them spiritually. Since many who had served in that capacity had been imprisoned, I saw the need to accept this responsibility. My wife and I were confident that Jehovah would assist our family.
According to Communist law, all citizens had to be employed. The government viewed those without jobs as parasites and sent them to prison. So I continued my secular work. I spent two weekends of each month at home with my family, sharing in spiritual and other activities; but the other two weekends, I visited one of the six nearby congregations in the circuit.
Literature Production While Under Ban
Circuit overseers had the responsibility to arrange for each congregation in the circuit to have Bible literature. At first, magazines were mainly copied by hand or were typewritten. Later we were able to obtain film negatives of The Watchtower and send them to congregations. Magazines were then duplicated on photographic paper. Since buying large quantities of such paper could give rise to suspicion, those who did the purchasing had to exercise boldness and discretion.
Štefan Hučko developed a passion for this work, and he was very good at it. To illustrate: On one occasion, Štefan returned to a photo shop in a city far from his hometown to buy photographic paper but was about to leave because none was available. However, then he saw the friendly shop assistant who had earlier promised to order paper for him. As Štefan was about to approach her, he caught sight of a policeman entering the shop. At the same moment, the shop assistant saw Štefan and happily exclaimed: “Sir! You are fortunate. We have the shipment of photographic paper you needed.”
Thinking quickly, Štefan replied: “I am sorry, Madam, but you must have mistaken me for someone else. I want a single negative film.”
After returning to his car, Štefan could not bring himself to leave without that valuable shipment of photographic paper that he had come for. So later, after removing his coat and cap and endeavoring to change his appearance, he reentered the shop and went directly to the shop assistant. “I was here a week ago,” he explained, “and you promised to order some photographic paper for me. Do you have it?”
“Oh yes, we do,” she replied. “But you know, Sir, only a few minutes ago a man who looked just like you was here. It’s unbelievable—he was like your twin brother!” Štefan quickly obtained the large supply of paper and left, thanking Jehovah for providing it.
During the 1980’s we started using mimeograph machines and small offset presses to produce Bible literature in basements and other hard-to-find places. In time, the number of copies of each issue of our magazines—as well as the number of books and booklets—approached and even exceeded the number of Witnesses.
One day during the 1960’s, I was instructed to report to the military department of the company I worked for. Three men in civilian clothes questioned me, asking: “How long have you been meeting with Jehovah’s Witnesses? And with whom do you meet?” When I did not give specifics, I was told that I would be contacted later. That was my first encounter with State Security, the secret police.
Soon thereafter, I was taken from my workplace to the police station. A blank sheet of paper was placed in front of me, with the request that I write down the names of other Witnesses. When the man returned after an hour or so, the paper was blank, and I explained that I could not provide any names. The following week, the same thing happened. But then I was beaten, and as I departed, I was kicked all the way down the corridor.
After that, I was left alone for a year. Then the police sent a man to visit me. He had been a fellow prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp. He told me: “We have to change our approach to you people. When we put one Witness into prison, five come out.” What the government wanted to do was to achieve at least a measure of control over our work. However, I was determined not to provide any information that might enable them to do so.
For many years, I was among those periodically involved in such encounters with the secret police. Sometimes they would treat us as friends, but at other times they would send one of us to prison. Thankfully, I was never imprisoned, but those unwanted meetings with the police lasted right up until 1989, the year that Communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia.
A few weeks after the collapse, a high-ranking member of State Security from Bratislava paid me a visit. He apologized: “If it had been up to me, we would never have bothered you.” Then he pulled two bags of canned fruit out of his car as a gift.
Jehovah, a Strong Tower
Although my first 40 years as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses were spent serving under ban, I have enjoyed a happy, rewarding life. The things we experienced during those years drew our faithful fellow believers ever closer together. We grew to treasure our friendships and to depend upon each other’s trustworthiness.
In March 2003, I suffered the grievous loss of my dear wife, Oľga. She was a loyal companion throughout our marriage. We were busy together in the Christian ministry all those years. Now I continue to serve as a Christian elder in our congregation and to look for deserving ones with whom I can share Bible truths. The name Jehovah, which I first heard in a bunker during World War II, has remained a strong tower for me.*—Proverbs 18:10.
Brother Pavol Kovár passed away on July 14, 2007, as this article was being prepared. He was 85.
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In 1942 when I was in the Slovak army
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Later, I was imprisoned at Gusen (shown in the background)
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My father read the Bible to us on Sunday mornings
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Our wedding day in 1946
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With Oľga shortly before her death