My Parents’ Example Strengthened Me
AS TOLD BY JANEZ REKELJ
The year was 1958. My wife, Stanka, and I were high in the Karawanken Alps on the Yugoslav-Austrian border, attempting to flee to Austria. This was dangerous, as armed Yugoslav border patrols were determined to prevent anyone from crossing. As we moved on, we were confronted by a sheer cliff dropping away beneath us. Stanka and I had never seen the Austrian side of the mountains before. We headed east until we came to a rough slope of rock and gravel. Tying ourselves to a tarpaulin we were carrying, we slid down the mountainside to an uncertain future.
LET me relate how we came to be in this situation and how my parents’ faithful example motivated me to remain loyal to Jehovah in times of difficulty.
I grew up in Slovenia, which today is a small Central European country. It is nestled in the European Alps, with Austria to the north, Italy to the west, Croatia to the south, and Hungary to the east. However, when my parents, Franc and Rozalija Rekelj, were born, Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, Slovenia became part of a new state called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1929 the name of the country was changed to Yugoslavia, literally “South Slavia.” I was born on January 9 of that same year, on the outskirts of the village of Podhom, near picturesque Lake Bled.
Mother had a strict Catholic upbringing. One of her uncles was a priest, and three of her aunts were nuns. She had a burning desire to own a Bible, to read it, and to understand it. Father, however, took a dim view of religion. He was disgusted by religion’s role in the Great War of 1914-18.
Learning the Truth
Sometime after the war, my mother’s cousin, Janez Brajec, and his wife, Ančka, became Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. At the time, they lived in Austria. From about 1936 onward, Ančka came to visit Mother on a number of occasions. She provided a Bible, which Mother quickly read, along with copies of The Watchtower and other Bible publications in Slovenian. Finally, because of Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Janez and Ančka moved back to Slovenia. I recall that they were an educated, discerning couple with a real love for Jehovah. They often discussed Bible truths with Mother, which moved her to dedicate her life to Jehovah. She was baptized in 1938.
Mother caused a stir in the area when she stopped observing unscriptural customs, such as the celebrating of Christmas; when she would no longer eat blood sausage; and particularly when she took all the images in our possession and burned them. Opposition was not slow in coming. Mother’s aunts, the nuns, made it a point to write to her, trying to convince her to return to Mary and the church. However, when Mother wrote and asked them for answers to specific Bible questions, she received no reply. My grandfather also strongly opposed her. He was not a bad man, but he was put under a great deal of pressure by our relatives and the community. As a result, he destroyed Mother’s Bible literature on a number of occasions, but he never touched her Bible. He begged her on his knees to return to the church. He even went so far as to threaten her with a knife. My father, though, let him know in no uncertain terms that such behavior would not be tolerated.
Father continued to support Mother’s right to read the Bible and to make her own choices as to her beliefs. In 1946 he too was baptized. Seeing how Jehovah strengthened my mother to stand up fearlessly for the truth despite opposition and how Jehovah rewarded her for her faith motivated me to develop my own relationship with God. I also benefited greatly from Mother’s habit of reading aloud to me from the Bible and from Bible-based publications.
Mother also had long discussions with her sister, Marija Repe, and eventually Aunt Marija and I were baptized on the same day in the middle of July 1942. A brother came to give a short talk, and we were baptized at our home in a large wooden tub.
Forced Labor During World War II
In 1942, in the midst of World War II, Germany and Italy invaded Slovenia and divided it among themselves and Hungary. My parents refused to join the Volksbund, the Nazi people’s organization. I refused to say “Heil Hitler” in school. Apparently, my teacher informed the authorities of the situation.
We were put on a train bound for a castle near the village of Hüttenbach, Bavaria, that was used as a forced labor camp. Father arranged for me to work and live with the local baker and his family. During this time, I learned to be a baker, which later proved very useful. In time, all the rest of my family (including Aunt Marija and her family) were transferred to the camp in Gunzenhausen.
At the end of the war, I was going to join a group to travel to where my parents were. On the evening before I was to leave, Father turned up. I do not know where I would have ended up if I had gone with the group, as it was of questionable character. Once more, I felt Jehovah’s loving care as he used my parents to protect and train me. Father and I walked for three days to meet up with the family. By June 1945 we all arrived back home.
After the war, the Communists under the leadership of President Josip Broz Tito came to power in Yugoslavia. Consequently, conditions for Jehovah’s Witnesses remained difficult.
In 1948 a brother came from Austria and accepted a meal from us. Everywhere he went, the police followed him and arrested the brothers he visited. Father too was arrested for offering him hospitality and not reporting him to the police, and Father spent two years in prison as a result. This was a very difficult time for Mother not only because Father was absent but also because she knew that my younger brother and I would soon face the test of neutrality.
Prison Term in Macedonia
In November 1949, I received my call for military service. I went to report and to explain my conscientious refusal to serve. The authorities would not listen to me and put me on a train with the recruits headed for Macedonia, at the other end of Yugoslavia.
For three years I was cut off from my family and the brotherhood and was left without any literature or even a Bible. It was very difficult. I was sustained by meditating on Jehovah and the example of his Son, Jesus Christ. My parents’ example also strengthened me. In addition, constant prayer for strength enabled me to avoid despair.
In time, I was sent to a prison in Idrizovo, near Skopje. In this prison, inmates worked at various tasks and trades. Initially, I worked as a cleaner and as a courier between offices. Although often bullied by one prisoner who was formerly a member of the secret police, I had a good working relationship with everyone else—guards, prisoners, even the manager of the prison factory.
Later, I learned that a baker was needed in the prison bakery. A few days thereafter, the manager came to the roll call. He walked up the line, stopped in front of me, and asked, “Are you a baker?” “Yes, sir,” I said. “Tomorrow morning report to the bakery,” was his reply. The prisoner who had mistreated me passed by the bakery often but could do nothing about it. I worked there from February to July in 1950.
I was then transferred to the barracks called Volkoderi, in the south of Macedonia, near Lake Prespa. From nearby Otešovo I was able to write letters home. I worked on a road gang, but most of the time, I worked in a bakery, which made things easier for me. I was released in November of 1952.
During the time I was absent from Podhom, a congregation was formed in the area. At first, the congregation met in a guesthouse in Spodnje Gorje. Later, Father made a room available in our house for the congregation to meet in. I was happy to join them when I returned from Macedonia. I also renewed my acquaintance with Stanka, whom I met before I went to prison. On April 24, 1954, we were married. My respite, however, was coming to a close.
Prison Term in Maribor
In September 1954, I received another call-up. This time, I was sentenced to more than three and a half years in a prison in Maribor, which is located at the eastern end of Slovenia. As soon as I was able to, I purchased some paper and pencils. I started to write down everything I could remember—scriptures, quotes from The Watchtower, and thoughts from other Christian publications. I read my notes and added more to my book as I remembered more. In the end, the book was full, and this enabled me to stay focused on the truth and remain spiritually strong. Prayer and meditation were also invaluable aids to my spiritual strength, enabling me to be more courageous in sharing the truth with others.
At that time, I was allowed to receive one letter a month and one 15-minute visit a month. Stanka traveled all night on the train in order to be at the prison early to visit me, and then she could travel back the same day. I found these visits to be very encouraging. Then I put into action a plan to get a Bible. Stanka and I were seated opposite each other at a table, with a guard assigned to watch us. When the guard was not looking, I slipped a letter into her handbag, asking her to put a Bible in her bag the next time she visited.
Stanka and my parents thought that this was too dangerous, so they took apart a copy of the Christian Greek Scriptures and put pages of it inside some buns. In this way I received the Bible I needed. In the same manner, I also received copies of The Watchtower, handwritten by Stanka. I would immediately make another copy in my own handwriting and destroy the original so that no one finding the articles would be able to discover where I had obtained them.
Because of my persistent witnessing, fellow prisoners commented that I would surely get in trouble. On one occasion, I was engaged in quite an animated Bible discussion with a fellow prisoner. We heard the key being inserted in the lock, and in walked a guard. I immediately thought that I would receive solitary confinement. But that was not the guard’s intention. He had heard the discussion and wanted to join in. Satisfied with the answers to his questions, he left and locked the cell door behind him.
During the last month of my sentence, the commissioner in charge of reforming the prisoners commended me for my determined stand for the truth. I felt that this was a fine reward for my efforts to make known Jehovah’s name. In May 1958, I was again released from jail.
Escape to Austria, Then Australia
In August 1958 my mother died. She had been ill for some time. Then in September of 1958, I received my third call-up. That evening Stanka and I made the momentous decision that led us to the dramatic border crossing mentioned earlier. Without telling anyone, we packed a couple of backpacks and a tarpaulin and left through the window, bound for the Austrian border just west of Mount Stol. It seemed that Jehovah made the way out for us when he knew that we needed some relief.
The Austrian authorities sent us to a refugee camp near Salzburg. During our six months there, we were always with the local Witnesses, so we spent very little time in the camp. Others in the camp were amazed at how quickly we had made friends. It was during this time that we attended our first assembly. Another first was being able to preach freely from house to house. It was very difficult for us to leave these dear friends when it was time to depart.
The Austrian authorities offered us the chance to immigrate to Australia. Never did we even dream that we would go so far. We traveled by train to Genoa, Italy, and then boarded a ship bound for Australia. We finally settled in the city of Wollongong, New South Wales. Here our son, Philip, was born on March 30, 1965.
Living in Australia has opened up many avenues of service, including the opportunity to preach to others who have migrated from the areas formerly known as Yugoslavia. We are thankful for Jehovah’s blessings, including our being able to serve him as a united family. Philip and his wife, Susie, have the privilege of serving in the Australia branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they even had the opportunity to spend two years at the branch office in Slovenia.
Despite the challenges brought on by advancing years and health problems, my wife and I continue to enjoy our service to Jehovah. I am so grateful for my parents’ fine example! It continues to strengthen me, helping me to do what the apostle Paul said: “Rejoice in the hope. Endure under tribulation. Persevere in prayer.”—Romans 12:12.
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My parents in the late 1920’s
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My mother, far right, with Ančka, who taught her the truth
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With my wife, Stanka, shortly after we were married
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The congregation that met in our family home in 1955
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With my wife, our son, Philip, and his wife, Susie