Loyal and Steadfast—Then and Now
In the southern part of Poland, near its border with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, there is a small town called Wisła. Though you may never have heard of Wisła, it has a history that true Christians will likely find fascinating. It is a history marked by integrity and by zeal for Jehovah’s worship. How so?
WISŁA is situated in a beautiful mountainous region, where nature puts on a spectacular display. Swift-flowing creeks and two streams merge with the Vistula River, which winds through forested mountains and valleys. The friendly local people and a unique local climate make Wisła a popular medical center, a summer holiday spot, and a winter resort.
It seems that the first settlement with this name was established in the 1590’s. A sawmill was erected, and soon the mountain glades had settlers, who raised sheep and cattle and cultivated the land. But these humble people were caught in a whirlwind of religious change. The region was deeply affected by the religious reforms initiated by Martin Luther, Lutheranism becoming “the State religion in 1545,” according to researcher Andrzej Otczyk. Yet, the Thirty Years’ War and the Counter-Reformation that followed dramatically changed the situation. “In 1654 all churches were taken away from the Protestants, their services were banned, and Bibles and other religious books were confiscated,” Otczyk continues. Yet, the majority of the local population remained Lutheran.
First Seeds of Bible Truth
Happily, a more important religious reformation was in store. In 1928 the very first seeds of Bible truth were sown by two zealous Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. The next year, Jan Gomola arrived in Wisła with a phonograph, on which he played recorded Scriptural talks. Then he moved on to a nearby valley where he found an attentive listener—Andrzej Raszka, a short, stocky highlander with a receptive heart. Raszka immediately took out his Bible to verify what was stated in the phonograph discourses. Then he exclaimed: “My brother, at last I have found the truth! I have been looking for answers since I was in the trenches during World War I!”
Overflowing with enthusiasm, Raszka took Gomola to meet his friends Jerzy and Andrzej Pilch, who eagerly responded to the Kingdom message. Andrzej Tyrna, who had learned Bible truth in France, helped these men to deepen their knowledge of God’s message. Soon they were baptized. To assist the little group of Bible Students in Wisła, brothers from neighboring towns visited during the mid-1930’s. The results were amazing.
There was an impressive influx of newly interested ones. Local Lutheran families were in the habit of reading the Bible in their homes. So once they saw convincing Scriptural arguments regarding the hellfire doctrine and the Trinity, many could distinguish truth from falsehood. Many families chose to break free from false religious teachings. Thus, the congregation in Wisła grew, and by 1939 it numbered some 140. Surprisingly, though, most of the adults in that congregation were not baptized. “This did not mean that these unbaptized publishers were not able to take their stand for Jehovah,” says Helena, one of those early Witnesses. She adds: “In the tests of faith that they soon encountered, they proved their integrity.”
What about the children? They saw that their parents had found the truth. Franciszek Branc relates: “When my dad realized that he had found the truth, he began to inculcate it in me and my brother. We were eight and ten years old respectively. Dad would ask us simple questions, such as: ‘Who is God, and what is his name? What do you know about Jesus Christ?’ We had to write our answers down and support them with Bible verses.” Another Witness says: “Because my parents willingly responded to the Kingdom message and left the Lutheran Church in 1940, I suffered opposition and beatings at school. I am grateful to my parents for implanting Bible principles in me. That was critical in helping me survive those hard times.”
Faith Under Test
When World War II broke out and the Nazis occupied the area, they were determined to exterminate Jehovah’s Witnesses. At first, adults—especially fathers—were encouraged to sign a German nationality list to get certain privileges. The Witnesses refused to align themselves with the Nazis. Many brothers and interested ones of military age faced a dilemma: They could join the army, or they could maintain strict neutrality but be severely punished. “To refuse military service meant being sent to a concentration camp, typically Auschwitz,” explains Andrzej Szalbot, whom the Gestapo arrested in 1943. “I had not yet been baptized, but I knew of the reassurance given by Jesus, at Matthew 10:28, 29. I knew that if I died because of my faith in Jehovah, he would be able to bring me back to life.”
Early in 1942, the Nazis arrested 17 brothers from Wisła. Within three months, 15 of them died in Auschwitz. What effect did this have on the Witnesses remaining in Wisła? Rather than causing them to abandon their faith, this encouraged them to stick to Jehovah uncompromisingly! During the next six months, the number of publishers in Wisła doubled. Soon more arrests followed. Altogether, 83 brothers, interested ones, and children were affected by Hitler’s crushing force. Fifty-three of them were sent to concentration camps (mainly Auschwitz) or to forced labor camps at mines and quarries in Poland, Germany, and Bohemia.
Loyal and Steadfast
In Auschwitz, the Nazis tried to entice the Witnesses with the prospect of immediate freedom. An SS guard told one brother: “If you will just sign a paper renouncing the Bible Students, we will set you free, and you can go home.” That offer was repeated many times, yet the brother did not compromise his allegiance to Jehovah. As a result, he suffered beatings, mockings, and slave labor, both in Auschwitz and in Mittelbau-Dora, in Germany. Just before liberation, this brother narrowly escaped death during the bombardment of the camp where he was being held.
Paweł Szalbot, a Witness who died recently, once recalled: “During interrogations the Gestapo would ask me over and over again why I refused to join the German army and to heil Hitler.” After explaining the Biblical basis for his Christian neutrality, he was sentenced to work in an armaments factory. “Obviously, I could not conscientiously accept this kind of work, so they sent me to work in a mine.” Still, he remained faithful.
Those who were not imprisoned—women and children—sent food packages to those in Auschwitz. “In the summer we picked cranberries in the woods and then exchanged them for wheat,” says a brother who was a youth then. “The sisters baked rolls and soaked them in fat. Then we sent the rolls in small amounts to imprisoned fellow believers.”
In all, 53 adult Witnesses from Wisła were sent to concentration camps and to do forced labor. Thirty-eight of them died.
A Younger Generation Arises
Children of Jehovah’s Witnesses were also affected by the repressive measures of the Nazis. Some were sent with their mothers to temporary camps in Bohemia. Others were taken from their parents and sent to the infamous children’s camp in Lodz.
“In the first transport to Lodz,” recall three of them, “the Germans took ten of us, aged five to nine. We encouraged one another by praying and by discussing Bible topics. It was not easy to endure.” In 1945 all of those children returned home. They were alive but emaciated and traumatized. Still, nothing was able to break their integrity.
What Came Then?
As World War II drew to a close, the Witnesses from Wisła were still strong in faith and ready to resume their preaching activity with zeal and determination. Groups of brothers visited people living as far as 25 miles [40 km] from Wisła, preaching and distributing Bible literature. “Soon there were three active congregations in our town,” says Jan Krzok. However, religious freedom did not last long.
The Communist government, which replaced the Nazis, banned the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poland in 1950. So the local brothers had to be resourceful in their ministry. Sometimes they visited people in their homes on the pretext of buying livestock or grain. Christian meetings were usually held at night in small groups. Nevertheless, security agents managed to arrest many of Jehovah’s worshipers, accusing them of working for a foreign intelligence service—a completely baseless charge. Certain officers sarcastically threatened Paweł Pilch: “Hitler did not break you, but we will.” Yet, he remained loyal to Jehovah, being imprisoned for five years. When a few younger Witnesses refused to sign a socialist political document, they were expelled from school or fired from their jobs.
Jehovah Continued With Them
The year 1989 brought a changed political climate, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were legally recognized in Poland. Steadfast worshipers of Jehovah in Wisła sped up their activity, as reflected in the number of pioneers, or full-time ministers. Some 100 brothers and sisters from this area have taken up the pioneer service. It is little wonder, then, that the town has been nicknamed the Pioneer Factory.
The Bible says about God’s support of his servants in the past: “Had it not been that Jehovah proved to be for us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up even alive.” (Psalm 124:2, 3) In our time, despite widespread apathy and immoral worldly trends among the general population, Jehovah’s worshipers in Wisła strive to maintain their integrity and are richly rewarded. Successive generations of Witnesses in that area can testify to the truth of the apostle Paul’s statement: “If God is for us, who will be against us?”—Romans 8:31.
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Emilia Krzok was sent with her children Helena, Emilia, and Jan to a temporary camp in Bohemia
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When he refused military service, Paweł Szalbot was sent to work in a mine
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When brothers were sent to and perished in Auschwitz, the work did not stop growing in Wisła
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Paweł Pilch and Jan Polok were taken to a youth camp in Lodz
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Berries and flowers: © R.M. Kosinscy/www.kosinscy.pl