I Learned to Rely on Jehovah
AS TOLD BY JÁN KORPA-ONDO
It was 1942, and I was being guarded by Hungarian soldiers near Kursk, Russia. We were prisoners of the Axis powers that were battling the Russians during World War II. My grave was dug, and I was given ten minutes to decide if I would sign a document that said I was no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Before I relate what happened next, let me tell you how I came to be there.
I WAS born in 1904 in the small village of Zahor, which now lies in eastern Slovakia. Following World War I, Zahor became part of the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. Our village consisted of about 200 homes and two churches, one Greek Catholic and the other Calvinist.
Even though I went to the Calvinist Church, I led a life without any moral restraint. Not far from me lived a man who was quite different. One day he started a conversation with me and lent me a Bible. It was the first time I held that book in my hands. About this time, in 1926, I married Barbora, and we soon had two children, Barbora and Ján.
I started to read the Bible, but there were many things I did not understand. So I went to my pastor and asked him to help me. “The Bible is only for educated people,” he said, “don’t even try to understand it.” Then he invited me for a game of cards.
After that I went to the man who had lent me the Bible. He was a Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. He was happy to help me, and after some time my eyes began to open. I stopped excessive drinking and started to lead a moral life; I even began to talk to others about Jehovah. Bible truth had taken hold in Zahor in the early 1920’s, and soon an active group of Bible Students was established.
Nevertheless, there was strong religious opposition. The local priest turned most of my family against me, claiming that I had gone insane. But my life started to have a purpose, and I resolutely decided to serve the true God, Jehovah. Thus, in 1930, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah and was baptized.
Beginning of Severe Tests
In 1938, our region came under rule by Hungary, which sided with Germany during World War II. By then we had about 50 Witnesses in our village of less than a thousand people. We continued to preach even though doing so put our lives and freedom in jeopardy.
In 1940, I was drafted into the Hungarian army. What would I do? Well, I had read the Bible prophecies about people beating their weapons of war into implements of peace, and I knew that, in time, God would eliminate all wars from the earth. (Psalm 46:9; Isaiah 2:4) Thus, I had come to hate war, and I decided not to join the army, regardless of the consequences.
I was sentenced to 14 months in prison and served my sentence in Pécs, Hungary. Five other Witnesses were in the same prison, and we appreciated being able to associate. For a time, however, I was in solitary confinement with chains on my feet. When we refused to do work connected with the war effort, we were beaten. Also, we were forced to stand at attention all day long, except for two hours at noon. This ordeal went on for months. Yet we were happy because we had a clean conscience before our God.
The Question of Compromise
One day a group of 15 Catholic priests came to try to convince us that it was important that we support the war effort by joining the army. During the discussion we said: “If you can prove from the Bible that the soul is immortal and that we will go to heaven if we die in the war, we will join the army.” Of course, they could not prove that, and they did not want to continue the discussion.
In 1941 my prison sentence ended, and I was looking forward to rejoining my family. Instead, I was taken in chains to an army base in Sárospatak, Hungary. When we arrived, an opportunity was provided for me to be released. “All you need to do,” I was told, “is sign this promise that you will pay 200 pengö when you return home.”
“How is that possible?” I asked. “What do you want the money for?”
“In return for the money,” I was told, “you will receive certification that you did not pass the medical examination for the army.”
This posed a difficult decision for me. For more than a year, I had suffered inhuman treatment; I was getting tired. Now, by agreeing to pay some money, I could be free. “I will think about it,” I murmured.
What decision would I make? I had my wife and children to think about. Well, about that time I received a letter from a fellow Christian in which he provided encouragement. He quoted Hebrews 10:38, where the apostle Paul quotes Jehovah’s words: “‘My righteous one will live by reason of faith,’ and, ‘if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’” Shortly thereafter, two Hungarian officers at the barracks spoke with me, one remarking: “You don’t know how much we respect you for upholding Bible principles so firmly! Do not give up!”
The next day I went to those who offered me my freedom for 200 pengö and said: “Since Jehovah God allowed me to be imprisoned, he will also take care of my release. I will not buy myself out.” So I was sentenced to ten years in prison. But that was not the end of the attempts to get me to compromise. The court offered to pardon me if I would agree to serve in the army for only two months, and I would not even have to carry a weapon! I turned down that offer too, and my prison sentence began.
The Persecution Increases
I was again taken to the prison in Pécs. This time the torture was even more severe. My hands were tied behind my back, and I was hung by them for about two hours. As a result, both my shoulders were dislocated. Such torture was repeated over a period of about six months. I can thank only Jehovah that I did not give up.
In 1942 a group of us—political prisoners, Jews, and 26 of Jehovah’s Witnesses—were taken to the city of Kursk in an area occupied by German troops. We were handed over to the Germans, and they put the prisoners to work carrying food, arms, and clothing to soldiers at the front. We Witnesses refused the work because it violated our Christian neutrality. As a result, we were returned to the Hungarians.
Eventually, we were put in the local prison in Kursk. For several days we were beaten three times a day with rubber clubs. I received a blow to my temple and was knocked to my knees. As I was being hit, I thought, ‘Dying is not so difficult.’ My whole body became numb, so I could not feel a thing. For three days we were given absolutely nothing to eat. Then we were taken to court, and six were sentenced to death. When the sentence was carried out, 20 of us remained.
The tests of faith experienced during those days in Kursk in October of 1942 were the greatest I have ever faced. Our sentiments were well expressed by King Jehoshaphat of old when his people faced overwhelming odds: “In us there is no power before this large crowd that is coming against us; and we ourselves do not know what we ought to do, but our eyes are toward you.”—2 Chronicles 20:12.
The 20 of us were taken out to dig our common grave, being guarded by 18 Hungarian soldiers. When we finished digging, we were told that we had ten minutes to sign a document, which read in part: “The teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses is wrong. I will no longer believe it or support it. I will fight for the Hungarian homeland . . . I confirm with my signature that I am joining the Roman Catholic Church.”
After the ten minutes came the order: “Right turn! March to the grave!” Then, the command: “First and third prisoners get into the hole!” These two were given another ten minutes to decide to sign the document. One of the soldiers pleaded: “Give up your faith and come out of the grave!” Nobody said a word. Then the officer in charge shot them both.
“What about the rest of them?” a soldier asked the officer in charge.
“Tie them up,” he answered. “We will torture them some more and shoot them at six o’clock in the morning.”
Suddenly I became afraid, not that I would die, but that I would not be able to endure the torture and would compromise. So I stepped forward and said: “Sir, we have transgressed the same as our brothers whom you have just shot. Why don’t you shoot us too?”
But they did not. We were tied up with our hands behind our backs. Then we were hung by our hands. When we lost consciousness, they would throw water over us. The pain was terrible because the weight of the body dislocated our shoulders. This torture continued for about three hours. Then, suddenly, an order came not to shoot any more of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A Move to the East—Then Escape
Three weeks later we were marched in formation for a few days until we reached the banks of the Don River. We were told by those in charge that we were not to be brought back alive. During the day, we were given purposeless work, digging trenches and then filling them up. In the evening, we had a certain amount of freedom to move around.
As I looked at it, there were two possibilities. We could die right there, or we could escape from the Germans and surrender to the Russians. Only three of us decided to try to escape across the frozen Don River. On December 12, 1942, we prayed to Jehovah and took off. We reached the Russian front and were immediately put in a prison camp with about 35,000 prisoners. By spring, only about 2,300 prisoners were still alive. The rest had died of starvation.
Freedom but Further Tragedy
I survived the rest of the war, including several months after it ended, as a Russian prisoner. Finally, in November 1945, I made it home to Zahor. Our farm was in bad shape, so I had to start all over again. My wife and children had worked the farm during the war, but in October 1944, as the Russians approached, they were evacuated to the east. Everything we owned had been looted.
Worst of all, when I returned home, my wife was very sick. In February 1946, she died. She was only 38 years old. We had so little time in which to enjoy our reunion after more than five long, difficult years of separation.
I found comfort among my spiritual brothers, attending the meetings and sharing in the house-to-house ministry. In 1947, I was able to borrow some money to travel to Brno, a trip of about 250 miles [400 km], to attend a convention. There among my Christian brothers, including Nathan H. Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, I received much consolation and encouragement.
We did not enjoy our postwar freedom for long. In 1948 the Communists began to oppress us. Many of the brothers taking the lead in the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia were arrested in 1952, and I was given the responsibility to care for the congregations. In 1954, I too was apprehended, and I was sentenced to four years in prison. My son, Ján, and his son Juraj were also imprisoned for maintaining their Christian neutrality. I spent two years in the Pankrác state penitentiary in Prague. An amnesty was declared in 1956, and I was released.
Freedom at Last!
Finally, in 1989, Communism lost its grip on Czechoslovakia, and the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was legally registered. Thus, we were free to meet together and to preach openly. By that time Zahor had nearly a hundred Witnesses, which meant that about 1 out of every 10 persons in the village was a Witness. A few years ago, we built a beautiful, spacious Kingdom Hall in Zahor, with a seating capacity of about 200.
My health is no longer very good, so the brothers drive me to the Kingdom Hall. I find pleasure in being there and enjoy giving comments at the Watchtower Study. I am especially happy to see representatives of three generations of my family serving Jehovah, including several of the grandchildren. One of these served as a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia until his family responsibilities prevented him from meeting the schedule.
I am thankful to Jehovah for strengthening me during my many times of test. Keeping my attention focused on him—“as seeing the One who is invisible”—is what has sustained me. (Hebrews 11:27) Yes, I have felt his mighty hand of deliverance. That is why, even now, I continue to try to be present at congregation meetings and to share in declaring his name in the public ministry to the extent that I am able.
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The Kingdom Hall in Zahor
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I appreciate the privilege of commenting at the Watchtower Study