Adversities of War
On April 6, 1941, the German army invaded Yugoslavia. The branch office was damaged by the massive air raids that struck Belgrade. Yugoslavia was divided by the German troops. For a while, fighting disrupted communication between the brothers at Bethel in Serbia and brothers in Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia. It was even worse for the brothers in the far south of Macedonia, who were not able to resume contact until after the war. Suddenly, the brothers were confronted with new and challenging circumstances. A world plunged into international conflict imposed upon our dear brothers and sisters a time of severe testing and sifting. Their faith in and love for Jehovah and his organization were to be put to the test.
The office in Belgrade was closed down, and the distribution of spiritual food to the brothers was organized at Zabgreb, Croatia. Because fines and imprisonments were replaced with concentration camps and death sentences, discretion and secrecy became ever more vital.
When German forces both occupied and divided Yugoslavia, concentration camps were established. In Croatia these camps were used to isolate and murder several ethnic and non-Catholic minorities as well as any religious opponents of the regime. In Serbia, Nazi forces set up labor and concentration camps. Because of their neutral stand, more than 150 of our brothers from Hungary were imprisoned in the camp located in Bor, Serbia. In Yugoslavia too, Jehovah's Witnesses became targets of the Nazi regime. Consequently, the preaching work was carried on mainly through informal witnessing. The publishers were advised to carry only their Bibles and one piece of literature, and they were told what to say if arrested. They held their meetings in small groups and did not know where other meeting locations were.
Because literature could not be brought into the country safely, it was reproduced underground. Brothers labored throughout the night at various locations to print and assemble magazines and booklets. They also worked hard to earn money to fund the printing operations. Through various business connnections, the brothers always managed to obtain the items they needed for printing. While national and religious prejudice raged within the borders of Yugoslavia, our brothers were united, and they combined their private funds to provide lifesaving spiritual food. How would they transport it to isolated groups of publishers within their territory?
Stevan Stanković, a railroad worker of Serbian descent, proved ready to help his brothers regardless of their backround. Despite the danger, Stevan took on the task of secretly taking literature in a suitcase he was carrying. They demanded to know where the literature came from. Loyal to his brothers, though, Stevan refused to divulge information. The police took him to a prison for questioning and then transferred him to the nearby concentration camp at Jasenovac. Known for its brutality, this camp claimed the life of our faithful brother.
Mihovil Balković, a discreet and resourceful brother, worked as a plumber in Croatia during those troublesome times. In addition to his secular work, he visited the brothers to encourage them and to deliver literature. "On one occasion," relates his grandson, "he learned that the train on which he was traveling was to be searched at the next town. So he exited the train one stop earlier than he had planned. Although most of the town was surrounded by barbed wire, he found an opening through a vineyard. He carried the literature in his backpack, and put two bottles of rakija (homemade brandy) in the upper compartment along with some groceries. While cautiously walking through the vineyard, he passed a bunker and suddenly a soldier yelled: 'Stop! Who are you?' When he moved closer, one of the soldiers asked, 'What are you carrying?'
" 'A little bit of flour, some beans, and some potatoes,' he replied.
"When asked what he had in the bottles, he said, 'Smell it and take a taste.'
"When the soldier tasted it, Mihovil said, 'This bottle is for you, my son, and the other one is for me.'
"Satisfied with his answer and the rakija, the soldiers responded, 'Old man, you can go!'
"So," concludes Mihovil's grandson, "the literature was delivered safely."
Milhovil was certainly courageous. His travels took him through areas controlled by opposing sides of the war. At times, Mihovil was face-to-face with the Communist Partisan soldiers; and on other occasions, he faced the Facist Ustaše* or the Četnik soldiers.
*the Ustaše were the Facist revolutionary movement that fought, with the backing of the Catholic Church, for the independence of Croatia. They were notorious for their brutality*
Instead of shrinking back, he used these opportunities to give a witness and explain the hope for the future that the Bible holds out. This took great courage because the life of a Witness was always in danger. Several times he was arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned.
Toward the end of the war, on the night of November 9, 1944, the Partisans raided Mihovil's house, confiscated literature, and took Mihovil away. Sadly, he never returned. It was later learned that he was beheaded.
Josip Sabo was just a boy when he delivered literature in the Slavonia region of Croatia on his bicycle. For the baggage rack, he made a box to hold literature, which he then covered with fresh pears. At the time, the entrance of almost every village was barricaded and guarded.
"What do you have in the box?" the guards asked Josip at every post.
"Pears for my uncle," he replied, and the soldiers would take one or two pears. As he neared his destination, there were fewer pears to cover the literature. So, Josip took an abandoned path to save his last pears and the precious literature hidden underneath.
Faithful To The Last
Lestan Fabijan, a mason from Zagreb, shared the truth with Ivan Sever, Franjo Dreven, and Filip Huzek-Gumbazir. They were all baptized within six months and began preaching and holding meetings. On the evening of January 15, 1943, a military patrol came to Ivan Sever's house to arrest him as well as Franjo Dreven and another brother, Filip Illić. They searched the house, confiscated all the literature, and took the brothers away.
Lestan heard of the arrests, so he and Filip Huzek-Gumbazir went to comfort Franjo's mother and sister. The Partisans, however, got wind of their visit and arrested both Lestan and Filip. The five brothers explained from the Bible that they served only Jehovah and showed that they were soldiers of Christ. Because they all refused to take up weapons and fight in the war, they were sentenced to death. They were then held captive.
One night the five brothers were awakened from their sleep, stripped of their clothes, and taken into the woods. As they walked, they were given the opportunity to change their minds. The soldiers tried to break the brothers' determination by appealing to their love for their families. They spoke of Filip Huzek-Gumbazir's pregnant wife and his four children. He replied that he was fully confident that Jehovah would care for them. Franjo Dreven had no wife and children, so they asked him who would care for his mother and sister.
Once they arrived at the designated place, the soldiers made the brothers stand in the winter cold. Then the executions began. First, they shot Filip Huzek-Gumbazir. Next the soldiers waited and asked if the others wanted to change their mind. The brothers, however, were resolute. So the soldiers executed Franjo, then Ivan, and then Lestan. Finally Filip Illić, the last one alive, compromised and agreed to join the soldiers. Three months later, though, he returned home because of illness and related what had happened. The life he had tried to save by compromising he lost prematurely as a result of sickness.
Nazi Persecution in Slovenia
In Slovenia many of our brothers and sisters became victims of persecution. For example, Franc Drozg, (in the photo above) a 38-year-old blacksmith, would not take up arms. Because of this, Nazi soldiers executed him in Maribor on June 8, 1942. Some who were there relate that a sign with the inscription "I am not from this world" was hung around his neck before he was shot. (John 17:14) His strong faith is evident in the letter he wrote just minutes before his execution: "Dear Friend! Rupert, today I was sentenced to death. Do not mourn for me. I send my love to you and to everyone in the house. See you in God's Kingdom."
The authorities were relentless in their efforts to stop the preaching work, yet Jehovah proved to be a God of salvation. For example, the police frequently conducted raids and lined up the residents of an area to examine their identification cards. All who looked suspicious were led off to prison. In the meantime, other police would search the houses and apartments. The brothers often saw Jehovah's protective care when police skipped their homes, no doubt thinking they had already been searched. On at least two occasions, the brothers' apartments held much literature, as well as mimeograph machines. Time and again, those who participated in the preaching work in those dangerous times experienced the truth of the Biblical assurance that "Jehovah is very tender in affection and compassionate." (James 5:11, footnote)
*Sometimes people have a hard time understanding why some faithful servants of God seem to have experienced his protection, while others were killed in similar scenarios. Our situation today is no different than what the early Christian apostles and disciples experienced in this regard. Although none of us can expect 'miraculous' intervention in every situation as individuals, Jehovah always protects his servants as a group in order for the preaching work to continue...(just like He has been doing for his servants from the beginning), or else even the Bible itself would have never survived down to our day, with such massive attempts to exterminate it...like no other book in history. Plus, all of those individuals who did die faithful, are assured of a resurrection.