We Lived by Jehovah’s Strength
AS TOLD BY ERZSÉBET HAFFNER
“I will not allow them to deport you,” said Tibor Haffner when he learned that I had been ordered to leave Czechoslovakia. Then he added: “If you agree, I will marry you, and you will stay with me forever.”
ON January 29, 1938, only a few weeks after that unexpected proposal, I married Tibor, the Christian brother who first witnessed to my family. It was not an easy decision. I had just turned 18, and as a full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I wanted to dedicate my young years exclusively to God’s service. I cried. I prayed. Only after I calmed down did I realize that what Tibor offered me was more than a kind gesture, and I felt that I wanted to live with this man who genuinely loved me.
But why was I in danger of deportation? After all, I lived in a country that took pride in its democratic system and religious freedom. Well, I think that at this point I need to tell you more about my background.
I was born on December 26, 1919, to Greek-Catholic parents in the village of Sajószentpéter, Hungary, some 100 miles [160 km] east of Budapest. Sadly, my father died before I knew him. Soon my mother married a widower with four children, and we moved to Lučenec, a lovely city in what was then Czechoslovakia. In those years, living in a stepfamily was not easy. As the youngest of five children, I felt like a fifth wheel on a cart. The economic situation was difficult, and I was deprived not only of material things but also of a normal amount of parental attention and love.
Does Anyone Know the Answer?
When I was 16, I was beset with serious questions. I read with great interest the history of World War I, and I was astonished by all the killings that took place between civilized nations claiming to be Christian. Besides, I could see a growing militarism all around. Nothing about it harmonized with what I learned in the church about neighbor love.
Thus, I went to a Roman Catholic priest and asked him: “What command should be binding on us as Christians—to go to war and kill our neighbors or to love them?” Irritated by my question, he answered that he taught what he got from higher authorities. A similar thing took place when I visited a Calvinist minister and then a Jewish rabbi. I did not get any answer, just their astonishment over my unusual question. Finally, I went to see a Lutheran minister. He got upset, but before I left, he said: “If you really want to know something about it, ask Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
I tried to find the Witnesses but without success. A few days later as I was coming home from work, I saw the door open halfway. A good-looking young man was reading to my mother from the Bible. A thought flashed through my mind, ‘That must be it, a Witness of Jehovah!’ We invited this man, Tibor Haffner, in, and I repeated my questions. Instead of answering in his own words, he showed me what the Bible says about the mark of true Christians, as well as about the times in which we were living.—John 13:34, 35; 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
Within a few months, before I turned 17, I was baptized. I felt that everyone had to hear these precious truths that I had found with so much difficulty. I started to preach full-time, which was quite challenging in Czechoslovakia during the late 1930’s. Although our work was officially registered, we faced strong, clergy-instigated opposition.
First Taste of Persecution
One day in the latter part of 1937, I was preaching with another Christian sister in a village close to Lučenec. Before long we were arrested and taken to prison. “You are going to die here,” said the guard, slamming shut the door of our cell.
By evening, we had four more cell mates. We started to comfort them and to give them a witness. They calmed down, and we were busy all night long sharing Bible truth with them.
At six in the morning, the guard called me out of the cell. I said to my companion: “We’ll meet again in God’s Kingdom.” I asked her to tell my family what had happened if she survived. I offered a silent prayer and went with the guard. He took me to his apartment in the prison area. “I have some questions for you, girl,” he said. “Last night you said that God’s name is Jehovah. Can you show that to me in the Bible?” What a surprise and relief! He brought his Bible, and I showed him and his wife the name Jehovah. He had many other questions on the subjects that we had discussed with the four women during the night. Satisfied with the answers, he asked his wife to prepare breakfast for me and my partner.
A couple of days later, we were released, but a judge decided that since I was a Hungarian citizen, I had to leave Czechoslovakia. It was after this incident that Tibor Haffner asked me to become his wife. We got married, and I moved into the house of his parents.
We continued in the preaching work as a couple, though Tibor also had organizational work to do. Just a few days before Hungarian soldiers marched into our city in November 1938, our son, Tibor, Jr., was born. In Europe, World War II was on the horizon. A large part of Czechoslovakia was taken over by Hungary, bringing increased persecution on those of Jehovah’s Witnesses who lived in the annexed areas.
On October 10, 1942, Tibor left for Debrecen to meet some brothers. This time, however, he did not come back. Later he told me what happened. Instead of the brothers, some policemen in workers’ clothing were on the bridge where the meeting was to be. They were waiting for my husband and Pál Nagypál, who were the last ones to come. The police took them to the police station and beat their bare feet with clubs until they fainted from pain.
Then they were ordered to put on their boots and stand up. Despite the pain, they were forced to go to the railway station. The police brought another man with his head so bandaged that he could barely see. This was Brother András Pilling, who had also come to the meeting. My husband was taken by train to detention in Alag, close to Budapest. One of the guards who saw Tibor’s battered feet said sarcastically: “How cruel some people can be! Don’t worry, we will heal you.” Two other guards started to beat Tibor on his feet, splattering blood all around. After a few minutes, he lost consciousness.
The following month, Tibor and more than 60 other brothers and sisters were put on trial. Brothers András Bartha, Dénes Faluvégi, and János Konrád were sentenced to death by hanging. Brother András Pilling received a life sentence, and my husband was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Their crime? The prosecutor accused them of high treason, refusal of military service, espionage, and slander of the most holy church. The death sentences were later changed to life imprisonment.
Following My Husband
Two days after Tibor left for the meeting in Debrecen, I was up before six, ironing our clothes. Suddenly there was a banging on the door. ‘They are here,’ I thought. Six policemen marched in and informed me that they had permission to make a search. All in the house were arrested and taken to the police station, including our three-year-old son. That very day we were transferred to a facility in Pétervására, Hungary.
After arrival, I developed a fever and was separated from other inmates. When I recovered, two soldiers were in my cell, quarreling over me. “We must shoot her! I will shoot her!” said one. But the other wanted to check the condition of my health before they took action. I pleaded with them to let me live. They finally left my cell, and I thanked Jehovah for helping me.
The guards had a special method of interrogation. They ordered me to lie on the floor facedown, put socks in my mouth, bound my hands and feet, and whipped me till I was bleeding. They stopped only when one of the soldiers said that he was exhausted. They asked me who my husband was to meet the day he was arrested. I did not tell them, so the beating continued for three days. On the fourth day, I was allowed to bring my son to my mother. In freezing weather, I carried my little child on my wounded back and walked some eight miles [13 km] to the railway station. From there, I continued home by train, but I had to be back in the camp that very day.
I was sentenced to six years in a prison in Budapest. Upon my arrival, I learned that Tibor also was there. How happy we were when we got permission to speak with each other, although just for a few minutes through an iron fence! We both felt Jehovah’s love and were strengthened by these precious moments. Before we met again, both of us were to go through horrendous trials, repeatedly escaping death just by a hairbreadth.
From Prison to Prison
There were some 80 of us sisters crammed into one cell. We longed for some spiritual food, but getting anything into prison seemed impossible. Could we get something from inside the prison? Let me tell you what we did. I volunteered to repair socks for the prison clerks. In one of the socks, I put a piece of paper with a request for the catalog number of the Bible in the prison library. To avoid any suspicion, I added two more titles.
The next day, I received another pile of socks from the clerks. In one of them was the answer. Then I gave a guard these numbers and asked for the books. What a joy when we got the books, including the Bible! The rest of the books we changed every week, but we kept the Bible. When the guard asked about it, we always said: “It is a big book, and everyone wants to read it.” Thus we were able to read the Bible.
One day, an officer invited me to his office. He seemed unusually polite.
“Mrs. Haffner, I have good news for you,” he said. “You can go home. Maybe tomorrow. If there is a train, even today.”
“That would be great,” I replied.
“Of course, it would,” he said. “You have a child, and I believe you want to raise him.” Then he added, “Just sign this letter.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” he insisted. “Just sign, and you can go.” Then he told me: “As soon as you are home, do whatever you want. But now you must sign that you cease being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
I stepped back and firmly refused.
“Then you’ll die here!” he shouted angrily and sent me away.
In May 1943, I was transferred to another prison in Budapest and later to the village of Márianosztra, where we lived in a monastery with some 70 nuns. Despite hunger and other hardships, we were eager to share our hope with them. One of the nuns showed real interest in our message and said: “These are beautiful things. I have never heard anything like that. Please, tell me more.” We told her about the new world and the wonderful life there. As we were talking, the mother superior arrived. The interested nun was immediately taken away, stripped of her clothes, and severely beaten with a whip. When we met her again, she pleaded: “Please, pray to Jehovah so that he will save me and take me away from here. I want to be one of you.”
Our next destination was an old prison in Komárom, a city on the Danube River, about 50 miles [80 km] west of Budapest. The living conditions were terrible. As did a number of other sisters, I got very sick with typhus, vomiting blood and becoming very weak. We had no medicine, and I thought my end had come. But then the officers were looking for someone who could do office work. The sisters mentioned my name. Thus, I was given some medicine, and I recuperated.
Reunited With My Family
As the Soviet army approached from the east, we were forced to move to the west. To describe all the horrors we went through would be a long story. I was close to death several times, but thanks to Jehovah’s protective hand, I survived. When the war ended, we were in the Czech city of Tábor, some 50 miles [80 km] from Prague. It took three more weeks before my sister-in-law Magdalena and I reached our home in Lučenec, on May 30, 1945.
From a distance I could see my mother-in-law and my dear son, Tibor, in the yard. My eyes filled with tears, and I called out, “Tibike!” He ran and jumped into my arms. “You won’t go away again, Mom, will you?” Those were his first words to me, and I will never forget them.
Jehovah was merciful also to my husband, Tibor. From prison in Budapest, he was sent to the labor camp at Bor, with some 160 other brothers. Many times they were at death’s door, but as a group, they were preserved alive. Tibor came back home on April 8, 1945, about a month before me.
After the war, we still needed Jehovah’s strength to survive all the trials of the next 40 years under the Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Tibor was again sentenced to a long term in prison, and I had to care for our son without him. After his release, Tibor served as a traveling overseer. During the 40 years of Communism, we used every opportunity to share our faith. We were able to help many to learn the truth. They thus became our spiritual children.
What a joy it was when we gained religious freedom in 1989! The next year, we attended the first convention in our country after such a long time. When we saw thousands of our brothers and sisters who for decades had maintained their integrity, we knew that Jehovah was a mighty source of strength for all of them.
My dear husband, Tibor, died faithful to God on October 14, 1993, and I am now living close to my son in Žilina, Slovakia. There is not much strength left in me physically, but my spirit is strong by Jehovah’s power. I believe without any doubt that by his strength I can endure any trials in this old system. Moreover, I look forward to the time when, by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, I will be able to live forever.
[Picture on page 20]
My son Tibor, Jr., (at age 4) whom I had to leave behind
[Picture on page 21]
Tibor, Sr., with other brothers in Bor
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With Tibor and Magdalena, my sister-in-law, in 1947, in Brno
[Pictures on page 23]
I was close to death several times, but thanks to Jehovah’s protective hand, I survived