Three regimes behind: the history of a man on the background of the era

15.02.2022, 18:12
Events & people
Photo: 99-year-old Yurii Dolhosh at home in the village of Kholmets’, Transcarpathia 2021. - фото 1
Photo: 99-year-old Yurii Dolhosh at home in the village of Kholmets’, Transcarpathia 2021.
Photo source: Artur Abramiv
January 27 is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day, Jehovah's Witnesses around the world honor those of their fellow believers who have also fallen victim to the Nazi and other regimes. Jehovah's Witnesses, then called Bible Students, were "the only group persecuted by the Third Reich solely on religious grounds," as Professor Robert Herwart points out. We bring to your attention the story of a man who survived all this and has lived to this day.

Yulia Melnychuk

"Two huge gendarmes purposefully hit me on the head and shoulders. I tried to escape, but I was caught, doused with cold water which also washed away the blood from my bloodied face, and I was beaten even harder. At that time, I was only 18 years old,” says Yurii Dolhosh, a 99-year-old native of Transcarpathia. The man went through several concentration camps and was repeatedly on the verge of death having spent about 3 years in prison.

Today, Yurii Dolhosh is one of the last Jehovah's Witnesses in the world who suffered for their religious beliefs during World War II. From 1941 onwards, he had to oppose the Horthy regime (Miklos Horthy, regent of Hungary (1920-1944) which combined authoritarianism, dictatorship, and elements of parliamentary democracy, the Nazi, and communist regimes.

Yurii Dolhosh was born in 1922 to a Rusyn-Ukrainian family in Velyki Lazy near Uzhhorod and was the youngest of five children. His native village then belonged to the Czechoslovak lands and the family was free to practice their faith. But in 1939, Transcarpathian Ukraine was annexed by Hungarian dictator Miklos Horthy. In December 1939, the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses in Hungary were banned as Hitler had already done in Nazi Germany. The Royal Gendarmerie of the time of the Hungarian regent could do anything with anyone from beating to execution. People were afraid of gendarmes.

Yurii Dolhosh first encountered the brutality of the regime in September, 1941. Two gendarmes unexpectedly entered his house in the village of Kholmets’. They came from Budapest to enroll the boys into the ranks of “Levente”, a paramilitary youth organization. The gendarmes took the boy and two other teenagers, Jehovah's Witnesses, to the village council. Yurii quickly realized that joining “Levente” contradicted his religious beliefs and explained this to a senior officer of the Royal Gendarmerie: “I do not want to be involved in things that teach me anything that is against the teachings of the Bible. I will not learn to fight and kill."

The reaction of the gendarmes to his words was horrible: “Those two were about a meter and ninety tall. One, who had an arm three times bigger than mine, took me to the room and started beating me. They abused me very cruelly by kicking me and dragging me across the floor by my hair. Two huge gendarmes purposely hit me on the head and shoulders. They beat me so hard that my skull cracked. I tried to run away, but I was quickly overtaken. As the door was closed, I was doused with cold water, causing the blood from injuries to be washed away, and I was beaten even harder. Then, I was 18 years old. I was 1.60 meters tall and weighed 50 kilograms.”

Yurii's wounds were healed at home with help from his mother: "My mother took a wet towel and compressed my head with it because my skull had been cracked, and blood was coming from that wound." Despite his serious condition, the young man survived.

The trial in Debrecen. Imprisonment in solitary confinement

1941, in the photo Yurii is 19 years old - фото 87207
1941, in the photo Yurii is 19 years old
Photo source: Artur Abramiv

In the winter of 1941, the young man and two of his friends were taken to court in the Hungarian city of Debrecen. During the investigation, the boys were imprisoned in solitary confinement where the water in the bucket in their cell froze from the cold. Although the circumstances were depressing, Yurii was able to read his Bible and was very happy about it. This annoyed some of the guards so one of them even wanted to take the Bible away. Yurii recalls: “But the other overseer was a good man; he didn't say anything, and the Bible wasn't taken away. And I still have that Bible.”

For three months, the boys, in cold cells, waited for a trial that turned into a mockery of justice. Hired witnesses testified falsely against the three young men. The judges noticed this and decided to release Yurii and his two friends. The prosecutor did not like that so he appealed the Dolhosh case to the Supreme Court in Budapest.

New trial. Internment until the end of the war.

In the spring of 1942, Yurii visited his friends in the village of Rakoshyno. There, he was again detained by gendarmes, and they were going to massacre the boy. The head of the village intervened, but Yurii and his two friends were arrested again. They were taken to the Uzhhorod district court where they were kept in the basement for two weeks.

Judge Karoy Kiesieryu sentenced Yurii to internment until the end of the war as an enemy of the state and a dangerous element. After the verdict was announced, the boys were sent to a stage prison in Budapest. On the way to the train station, the gendarmes tied Yurii's hands tightly with a chain and hung a belt of a backpack over his throat. One of the gendarmes began to laugh: "You are a follower of Christ; he suffered, and you will suffer too." There were provisions, clothes and a Bible in the backpack, and the belt was so tight on his throat that the boy was suffocating. A good man dared, risking his safety, to ask the gendarmes: "Where is your heart? Do you want to strangle a child?" After these words, the strap of the backpack was lowered from the boy's throat to his chest.

The next stop for the boys was the Kistarcsa concentration camp (In German "RSHA Transport Lager Kistarcsa"), 15 km from Budapest. The camp was designed for about 2,000 prisoners and was surrounded by brick walls with live barbed wire. According to Yurii, it was the easiest for him there, mostly because of the humane treatment of prisoners by the camp police. In addition, almost 40 Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned there for religious reasons.

Witnesses were not separated so almost all of them could sit together. Yurii said: “I was sitting with 29 fellow believers in one cell measuring 4 by 8 meters. There, we secretly held Christian meetings at night. The unity that was among us and the gathering became a source of strength and joy for me.”

Subsequently, a well-known prisoner and politician, Laslo Raik, found refuge among a group of Witnesses. "He liked to sit with the Witnesses in the same cell because he was so sure of his safety, said Yurii Dolhosh. Often there were 29 of us, and the 30th was Laslo Raik, a communist. He respected Jehovah's Witnesses. We were on good terms with him."

"Death Camp" and hope for survival

The Debrecen prosecutor who had previously appealed to the Supreme Court, won a harsher sentence. So, Dolhosh was once again imprisoned in a horrible stage prison in Budapest on Moshoni Street. Yurii recalls:

"It was like a death camp. Here is a cold body, and there, under a tree, someone died. There were people who were given food, but there were also those who were not given food. Those who were given nothing died of starvation. It was good that I was frail. Although there was little food, I did not die of hunger. There were people bigger than me, and it was harder for them. Under such circumstances, prayer and meditation about God helped me to keep my inner peace.” Yurii lost up to 35 kilograms and was very exhausted.

In 1942, Dolhosh was again transferred to the Kistarcsa concentration camp. Before being sent, he underwent a follow-up medical examination which determined his chances of survival. Yurii already had pleurisy and tuberculosis of the bones. One paramedic noticed the poor condition of the boy. He advised Yurii not to admit that he was very ill because he would not be able to get out of prison alive. Yurii listened to this advice. So, he came to Kistarcsa again, hoping to survive. And the hope came true. Compared to the prison in Budapest, there was no famine in the concentration camp, and prisoners received 150 grams of bread, water and black tea a day.

Transit concentration camp Hraň

In the spring of 1944, Dolhosh was transferred to a concentration camp for internees in the village of Hraň, 80 kilometers from his home. The camp was established on the farm of the castle of Count Almashi and accommodated more than seven hundred people. It was surrounded by a live fence around the perimeter. After the German occupation, it was used as a transit camp for Jews.

"The Count’s farm was turned into a concentration camp for slaves. Partitions were erected on the premises, making small cells for prisoners which could accommodate only two people. What we wore, that’s what warmed us up. “There was nothing in the cell except the bunks”, said Yurii Dolhosh. I could say that it was one of the worst camps I've been to. It was difficult in every way, both mentally and physically. This camp was full of Jews who were prepared for the gas chambers. At night, the guards spread the cover, and the Jews forcibly took off their rings, watches, clothes, and everything down to nakedness. Then they were given used stuff, regardless of size. They were taken to Auschwitz. So, we never saw those Jews again ...

In the camp, sick people were separated from the rest into one large cell. It is clear why I did not want to go there. There were patients with tuberculosis and other deadly diseases. It was supervised by a young police officer. This policeman took care of me. He allowed me to stay in my cell and brought me milk personally because milk was given to those who were sick. And he used to bring me twice as much as a regular portion. "

"We are all here doomed to die"

One day, in line for food at the camp, Dolhosh was bullied by a gendarme. The gendarme kicked him, and the blow could easily have been fatal due to the fragility of the bones from tuberculosis. So, despite his caution and previous experience, Yurii decided to go to a camp doctor who turned out to be a Jewish prisoner.

"I was so weak that when that doctor opened the door, I fell across the threshold right in front of him. Then he took me and put me on the couch and began to examine and sadly said:'What to do with you? We are all doomed to die here.’ He said so because he thought I would be taken to Auschwitz as well. Then he came to my defense in front of the camp guards saying that I urgently needed to be taken to the hospital."

Dolhosh, accompanied by one policeman, was released to the hospital in the city of Satoraljaujhely. The distance to the rescue hospital was 25 kilometers, and the sick boy had to walk there. Fortunately, they barely walked a few kilometers as a cart passed by. The policeman stopped the cart and they, together with Yuriy, got on it.

They arrived at the hospital around 10 pm. There, Dolhosh's body was plastered to prevent fractures and damage to internal organs and blood vessels, and tuberculosis injections were started. Two weeks later, Yurii was already crying because bedbugs had gotten into the plaster form and were literally eating the boy. The form was cut, and the bedbugs were destroyed. In the hospital, fellow believers found out about the boy. They constantly came to him, brought him food and took care of his basic necessities.

Shortly after the plaster was applied, the chief doctor wanted to send Yurii back to the concentration camp, saying that they had already done their job. That would have meant certain death. However, one of Yurii's fellow believers asked the chief doctor's mistress to influence doctors that Dolhosh to be left in the hospital. Yurii was hospitalized in plaster for 5 months.

"You are free"

Yurii's father worked as a coachman for the chief judge. While Dolhosh was in the hospital, his father kept begging Judge Karoy Kiesieryu to overturn his sentence. The war was coming to an end, so in October 1944 the chief judge canceled the boy's internment. On October 22, 1944, at the hospital, the young man received a letter from Demena with the following information: “Dear Dolhosh, your internment has already been terminated. You are free, and you can go home. "

Gaining strength, together with the plaster mold, which became his new bed, Yurii returned home to the village of Kholmets. A few days later, the Red Army entered Uzhhorod. For another eight years after these events, Yurii fell asleep in a plaster cast every night.

Soviet era

Yurii Dolhosh in Soviet times, 1950s - фото 87208
Yurii Dolhosh in Soviet times, 1950s
Photo source: Artur Abramiv

We did not rejoice in freedom for a long time because the communist regime began to persecute Christians. In 1947-1950 alone, 1,048 Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested in the western Soviet republics. In 1951, the most massive religious repression in the history of the USSR took place. At that time, nearly 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were deported from the western territories of the Soviet Union to Siberia. However, for unknown reasons, believers were not deported from Transcarpathia. Yurii Dolhosh remained in his home village, as did 429 other families of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Yurii tells about that time: “After my arrival, the Soviet authorities also began to persecute me.

One day a policeman, a very good acquaintance, said: “Yurii, be careful, because in the evening a KGB officer was watching your house. I know this because I spied with him. When you hear a dog barking at night, don't go outside because they plan to kill you.”

Another time during interrogation, an officer told me, "I will kill you like a dog. And you will not agitate anymore." I was spied upon and often interrogated. The KGB even came in and out of my window."

Fortunately, Dolhosh managed to escape Soviet-era imprisonment because, after going through a brutal school of survival during the war, he "learned to be perceptive in a variety of situations."

Today, comparing totalitarian systems, the almost century-old man says: "The Nazi and Horthy regimes tortured more physically, and the Soviet regime, psychologically and morally."

Although illnesses acquired during his imprisonment have left their mark, Yurii has clearly emerged victorious in his opposition to the regimes. The villagers know him as a friendly and intelligent man, with a good sense of humor, who above all loves to talk about spiritual things. Until the age of 91, Dolhosh took care of the garden on both sides of the forest which he planted and nurtured himself. When he began to lack strength, Yurii moved to distant relatives in the village of Kholmets’.

The spouses Adalbert and Erika Verbiash, where he lives today, speak of Yurii Dolhosh with great warmth and admiration. Erika says that his favorite book is still the Bible, and he reads it every day.

Five years ago, Yurii jokingly agreed with the doctor of the local hospital that he would come for an appointment when he turned 100 years old. Now he is 99.