A Rich and Happy Life of Willing Sacrifice
AS TOLD BY MARIAN AND ROSA SZUMIGA
“In willingness I will sacrifice to you,” declares Psalm 54:6. This statement has been the theme in the lives of Marian Szumiga and his wife, Rosa, who live in France. They recently sat down to relate some of the highlights of their long, rich life in Jehovah’s service.
MARIAN: My parents were Roman Catholic immigrants from Poland. Father was a humble man. He never had the chance to go to school. However, during the first world war, he learned to read and write while spending time in the trenches. Father was a God-fearing man, but the church often disappointed him.
One incident in particular stuck in his memory. One day during the war, a chaplain visited Father’s unit. When a shell exploded nearby, the chaplain fled in panic, striking his horse with a crucifix to urge it on. Father was shocked that a “representative” of God used a “holy” object to hasten his flight. Despite such experiences and the horrors of war that he witnessed, Father’s faith in God did not weaken. He often credited God with his safe return from war.
In 1911, my father married a girl from a neighboring village. Her name was Anna Cisowski. Shortly after the war, in 1919, Father and Mother emigrated from Poland to France, where Father found work as a coal miner. I was born in March 1926 in Cagnac-les-Mines, southwest France. Thereafter, my parents settled in a Polish community in Loos-en-Gohelle, near Lens in northern France. The baker was Polish, the butcher was Polish, and the parish priest was Polish. Not surprisingly, this area was called Little Poland. My parents were involved in community activities. Father often organized shows, which would include a play, music, and singing. He also had regular discussions with the priest, but he was not satisfied when the priest usually answered, “There are many mysteries.”
One day in 1930, two women knocked on our door. They were Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. My father obtained a Bible from them, a book he for years had wanted to read. He and Mother also eagerly read the Bible-based publications that the women left. My parents were deeply touched by what they read in these publications. Despite their busy life, my parents began attending meetings arranged by the Bible Students. Discussions with the priest became ever stormier until he one day threatened that if my parents continued to associate with the Bible Students, my sister Stéphanie would be expelled from catechism. “Don’t trouble yourself,” replied Father. “From now on, my daughter and the other children will come with us to the Bible Students’ meetings.” Father withdrew from the church, and early in 1932, my parents were baptized. At the time, there were only some 800 Kingdom publishers in France.
Rosa: My parents were from Hungary and, like Marian’s family, had settled in the north of France to work in the coal mines. I was born in 1925. In 1937, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Auguste Beugin, or Papa Auguste as we called him, began to bring my parents The Watchtower in Hungarian. They found the magazines interesting, but neither of them became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Although I was young, my heart was touched by what I read in The Watchtower, and Papa Auguste’s daughter-in-law, Suzanne Beugin, took me under her wing. My parents allowed her to take me to meetings. Later, when I started working, my meeting attendance on Sundays annoyed my father. Although he was generally good-natured, he complained, “You’re not here during the week, and on Sundays you go to your meetings!” However, I kept going. So one day my father said, “Pack your bag and go!” It was late in the evening. I was just 17 years of age, and I had no idea where to go. I ended up at Suzanne’s house, crying my eyes out. I stayed with Suzanne for about a week before Father sent my sister to bring me home. I was shy by nature, but the thought expressed at 1 John 4:18 helped me to stand firm. That scripture states that “perfect love throws fear outside.” In 1942, I was baptized.
A Precious Spiritual Heritage
Marian: I was baptized in 1942, along with my sisters Stéphanie and Mélanie and my brother Stéphane. At home, family life centered on the Word of God. As we all sat around the table, Father would read the Bible to us in Polish. Our evenings were often spent listening to our parents as they related their experiences in the Kingdom-preaching work. These spiritually rich moments taught us to love Jehovah and trust in him more and more. Ill health forced my father to stop working, but he continued looking after us spiritually and materially.
Since Father now had spare time, once a week he conducted a Bible study in Polish with the youths of the congregation. There I learned to read Polish. Father also encouraged the youngsters in other ways. Once when Brother Gustave Zopfer, who at the time supervised the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France, visited our congregation, Father organized a choir and a costumed Bible drama based on King Belshazzar’s feast and the handwriting on the wall. (Daniel 5:1-31) The role of Daniel was played by Louis Piéchota, who later took a firm stand against the Nazis.* This was the kind of atmosphere in which we children were raised. We observed that our parents were always busy with spiritual matters. Today, I realize what a precious heritage my parents left us.
When World War II broke out in 1939, the preaching activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned in France. On one occasion, our village was subjected to a search. All the houses were surrounded by German soldiers. Father had made a false floor in the bottom of a wardrobe, and we hid various Bible publications under that floor. However, several copies of the booklet Fascism or Freedom were in a buffet drawer. Father quickly hid them in the pocket of a jacket hanging in the corridor. Two soldiers and a French policeman searched our house. We held our breath. One of the soldiers began searching the clothes hanging in the corridor, and soon thereafter he entered the kitchen, where we were, with the booklets in his hand. He stared at us, placed the booklets on the table, and continued his search elsewhere. I quickly picked up the booklets and put them in a drawer that the soldiers had already searched. The soldier never asked for the booklets—it was as if he had completely forgotten about them!
Entering Full-Time Service
In 1948, I decided to make myself available to serve Jehovah full-time in the pioneer service. A few days later, I received a letter from the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France. The letter contained an assignment for me to serve as a pioneer in the congregation of Sedan, near Belgium. My parents were delighted to see me embrace Jehovah’s service in that way. Father, nevertheless, pointed out that pioneering was no vacation. It would be hard work. However, he said that his house would always be open to me and that I could count on him if I had problems. Although my parents did not have much money, they bought me a new bicycle. I still have the receipt for that bike, and when I look at it, tears well up in my eyes. Father and Mother died in 1961, but Father’s wise words still ring in my ears; they have encouraged and comforted me throughout my years of service.
Another source of encouragement was a 75-year-old Christian sister in the congregation of Sedan by the name of Elise Motte. During the summer, I rode my bike to the outlying villages to preach, and Elise joined me by train. However, one day the train engineers were on strike, and Elise could not get home. The only solution I could think of was to put her on the luggage rack of my bicycle and take her home—not a comfortable way to ride. The next morning, I brought along a cushion and picked Elise up at her home. She stopped taking the train, and with the fare money saved, she was able to buy us a hot drink at lunchtime. Who would have thought that my bicycle would serve as public transport?
In 1950, I was asked to serve as a circuit overseer for the whole of northern France. Since I was only 23 years of age, my first reaction was one of fear. I thought that the branch office had made a mistake! Questions ran through my head: ‘Am I up to the job both spiritually and physically? How can I cope with different accommodations every week?’ What is more, since the age of six, I have suffered from an eye ailment called divergent strabismus. This condition causes one of my eyes to be turned outward. I have always been very self-conscious because of this, worrying about how others would react. Thankfully, on that occasion I received much help from Stefan Behunick, a graduate of the missionary school of Gilead. Brother Behunick had been expelled from Poland because of his preaching activity and was reassigned to France. His courage really impressed me. He had deep respect for Jehovah and the truth. Some thought that he was hard on me, but I learned so much from him. His boldness helped me to grow in confidence.
Circuit work allowed me to enjoy some wonderful field service experiences. In 1953, I was asked to call on a certain Mr. Paoli, who lived south of Paris and subscribed to The Watchtower. We met, and I learned that he had retired from the army and that he found The Watchtower fascinating. He told me that after he read an article about the Memorial of Christ’s death in a recent issue, he commemorated the Memorial on his own and spent the rest of the evening reading the Psalms. Our discussion lasted a good part of the afternoon. Before I left, we also spoke briefly about baptism. I later sent him an invitation to attend our circuit assembly, to be held early in 1954. He came, and among the 26 persons who were baptized at that assembly was Brother Paoli. Experiences like that are still a source of joy to me.
Rosa: In October 1948, I began to serve as a pioneer. After serving in Anor, near Belgium, I was assigned to Paris, along with another pioneer, Irène Kolanski (now Leroy). We lived in a tiny room in Saint-Germain-des-Près in the heart of the city. Being a country girl, I was overawed by the Parisians. I imagined that all of them were sophisticated and very intelligent. But I soon learned from preaching to them that they were no different from other people. Often we were chased away by the concierge, and starting Bible studies was difficult. Even so, some people accepted our message.
During a circuit assembly in 1951, Irène and I were interviewed about our pioneer service. Guess who was the interviewer? A young circuit overseer by the name of Marian Szumiga. We had met once before, but after that assembly, we started corresponding. Marian and I had much in common, including the fact that we were baptized the same year and became pioneers the same year. Most important, though, we both wanted to stay in the full-time service. So after prayerful consideration, we were married on July 31, 1956. With that step, a totally new way of life began for me. I had to get used not only to being a wife but also to accompanying Marian in the circuit work, which meant a different bed every week. At first, it was far from easy, but great joys were in store.
A Rich Life
Marian: Over the years, we have had the privilege of helping in preparing several conventions. I especially have fond memories of one held in 1966, in Bordeaux. At the time, the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Portugal were banned. So the assembly program was also presented in Portuguese for the benefit of those Witnesses who could make the journey to France. Hundreds of our Christian brothers and sisters from Portugal arrived, but the challenge was where to accommodate them. Since the Witnesses in Bordeaux did not have enough room in their homes, we rented an empty movie theater for use as a dormitory. We removed all seats, and a curtain from the stage was used to turn the hall into two dormitories, one for the brothers and one for the sisters. We also installed showers and washbasins, put hay on the concrete floor, and covered it with canvas sheets. Everybody was satisfied with this arrangement.
After the convention sessions, we visited our brothers and sisters at the dormitory. There was a wonderful atmosphere. How encouraged we were by the experiences they had despite enduring years of opposition! When they left at the end of the assembly, we all had tears in our eyes.
Another privilege had come two years earlier, in 1964, when I was asked to serve as district overseer. Once again I wondered if I was up to the task. But I said to myself that if those with responsibilities asked me to accept the assignment, they obviously thought that I was capable of handling it. It was a fine experience to serve in close contact with other traveling overseers. I learned much from them. Many of them are real examples of patience and perseverance, qualities that are vital in Jehovah’s eyes. I have come to understand that if we learn to wait, Jehovah knows where to find us.
In 1982 the branch office asked us also to take care of a small group of 12 Polish publishers in Boulogne-Billancourt, on the outskirts of Paris. That was a surprise. I knew theocratic terms in Polish, but I had difficulty constructing sentences. Yet, the kindness and willing cooperation of those brothers helped me greatly. Today, there are some 170 publishers in that congregation, including nearly 60 pioneers. Later, Rosa and I also visited Polish groups and congregations in Austria, Denmark, and Germany.
Visiting different congregations was our life, but my failing health required that we stop our traveling ministry in 2001. We found an apartment in the town of Pithiviers, where my sister Ruth lives. The branch office kindly appointed us as special pioneers with an hour requirement adapted to our circumstances.
Rosa: The first year after we stopped the circuit work was very difficult for me. The change was so drastic that I felt useless. Then I reminded myself, ‘You can still use your time and available strength well by serving as a pioneer.’ Today, I am happy to work along with the other pioneers in our congregation.
Jehovah Has Always Cared for Us
Marian: I am very grateful to Jehovah that Rosa has been my companion for the past 48 years. Through all those years in the traveling work, she has been a great support to me. Not once did I hear her say, ‘I wish we could settle down and have our own home.’
Rosa: Sometimes someone would say to me, “It’s not a normal life that you lead. You always live with others.” But what really is a “normal life”? Often we surround ourselves with a host of things that may become obstacles to our pursuing spiritual activities. All we really need is a good bed, a table, and a few other basics. As pioneers we had very little materially, yet we had everything that we needed to do Jehovah’s will. Sometimes I was asked, “What will you do when you are old with no home of your own and no pension.” Then I would quote the words of Psalm 34:10: “As for those seeking Jehovah, they will not lack anything good.” Jehovah has always cared for us.
Marian: Indeed! In fact, Jehovah has given us much more than what is necessary. For instance, in 1958, I was chosen to represent our circuit at the international convention in New York. However, we did not have the funds to buy a ticket for Rosa. One evening a brother handed us an envelope with “New York” written on it. The enclosed gift enabled Rosa to travel with me!
Rosa and I have absolutely no regrets about our years in Jehovah’s service. We lost nothing but gained everything—a rich and happy life in full-time service. Jehovah is such a wonderful God. We have learned to trust in him completely, and our love for him has deepened. Some of our Christian brothers have paid for their faithfulness with their lives. However, I believe that over the years, a person can also sacrifice his life little by little. That is what Rosa and I have striven to do up until now, and that is what we are determined to do in the future.
Louis Piéchota’s life story, “I Survived the ‘Death March,’” was published in The Watchtower of August 15, 1980.
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François and Anna Szumiga and their children, Stéphanie, Stéphane, Mélanie, and Marian about 1930. Marian is standing on the stool
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Above: Presenting Bible publications at a market stall in Armentières, northern France, in 1950
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Left: Stefan Behunick with Marian in 1950
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Rosa (far left) with her pioneer partner Irène (fourth from the left), advertising an assembly in 1951
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Marian and Rosa the day before their wedding
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Transportation during circuit visits was mainly by bicycle