Whenever I encountered Daniel Szabo, I was struck by his calm courage and his unshakable trust in God’s goodness. On one visit to Hungary, he invited me to have lunch at the Pannonia Hotel, the place where he had been employed for most of his adult life. Over lunch he described a Christmas event he had arranged at the hotel. He had invited a group of children carrying lit candles to quietly encircle the diners, many of whom were local communist officials. Then the children began to sing traditional Christmas carols. Many listened with tears in their eyes, and after the children left, there were no consequences for Daniel or anyone else. There were, however, consequences for Daniel the seminary rebel, and that part of his story continues here.
After I was kicked out of the seminary, I thought I would go back to work in the factory where I had worked as an electrician each summer during the seminary years. The boss who was my friend was always glad to see me among them because it meant that one person could go on holiday if I came to replace him during his absence. But a young friend from the poorest family in the village told me that he was working in a hotel. He asked me to go and apply there, because he was quite sure that I would be accepted and perhaps get the post of the porter there.
This idea came suddenly and so I went to the hotel and talked with the communist party secretary there, a kind woman. She interviewed me and asked whether I was ordained. I told her no, I was not. She was happy about that because it meant that I was not a political suspect. I recognized that by her questions she was looking for any excuse to hire me, and that would cover her if later there were any questions. My friend told her that my father was thinking socially and caring for the poor and that we had a big family. This all made her think positively about me.
Much later it turned out why I really was given the job – also an interesting matter of God’s hand in my life. When this secretary was dying from a serious disease, I visited her shortly before her death. She confessed to me that she was praying prayers that she had been taught by nuns in the cloister. Then she asked whether I knew why she had hired me. She told me that her son, at age 18, had died tragically, perhaps in a car accident, and she said that when she first saw me, I reminded her of her son. She thought that in a sense she would be able to see her son every day in the hotel if I was hired. Who could work out such a thing in life? The party secretary was in his hands; the president is in his hands; the police are in his hands; the whole system is in his hands altogether.
That Troublesome Thesis
Unfortunately, the police were interested in me and my writings; I was arrested and interrogated in Debrecen for about a year. When I disappeared from the seminary, some things happened that I did not know about. First, the police learned very quickly about my thesis; a spy inside the seminary must have informed them. Second, my thesis disappeared as soon as I left the theological academy. Because the police didn’t have a copy, they arrested me and demanded my copy. I really had no idea where it was and said, ‘You may kill me, but I can’t give it to you. I don’t have another copy. Go to the academy – please, it should be there.’ So they interrogated the professors in their homes and searched for my thesis, but they never found it.
For the next fifteen or twenty years I did not know what had happened to it either, but then my sister came back from Holland. When she visited the beloved old dean, who had been at the seminary during my time there, he told my sister that he had something to give her, something that he had kept secret for a long time. ‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘that I hid your brother’s thesis in a special drawer and the police never looked there. They searched my home but found nothing.’ So when I was interrogated, it was good for me that I didn’t have any idea where my thesis could be and could honestly say, ‘You may kill me and beat me, but I don’t know.’
To Spy or Not
They went on and on about the thesis, and then, finally, I realized that they wanted something more. They were using fear and intimidation to make me become an informer. It became clear that this was the greatest danger. It did not lie in losing my position or of ending my seminary study, or never receiving my diploma. What they were doing with me now – that was the real danger. Five people were usually present when the interrogation would begin at seven or eight o’clock in the morning. It went on until 12:00 midnight. When one interrogator became tired, another took over.
Their tactics were always changing. Sometimes they politely asked me to sign the paper so that we would go to a famous Debrecen hotel for a wonderful supper. They told me that if just I signed the paper, from that time on I would be a free man and could do anything and write anything, even things critical of the church leadership, even publicly and in their papers. ‘The more you can do,’ they said, ‘the more we will love you.’ I realized that this was a dangerous trap. When this ploy didn’t succeed, they changed and became harsh and threatening again – on and on. Then I prayed in my heart, ‘O Lord, I am ready to lose everything, but please save me from this terrible pressure and help me keep my freedom and good conscience.’ At last I did come to the point where I was ready to relinquish everything-my diploma, my future as a pastor, even my position at the hotel.
So I went home and, of course, by that time my father had been defrocked and pushed out of the manse and the church. My parents were staying in a little room – eight people together – so when I came home in the night, my mother told me that the whole floor was covered with children so I must be careful not to step on them. The furniture, my father’s bookshelves, the wardrobes and everything, were all in the courtyard outside the room and covered to protect them from the rain. It was a catastrophe. Yet I was free; I wasn’t a spy for the police. It was by the Lord’s grace I was free, and it was a great joy. So it happened that we lived together in this destitute condition. I began to care for the animals and like the Jewish people in Egypt, began to make clay bricks with my sister Marta who carried the water. She later became a pastor in Holland. With the bricks I built some stables for the animals – for the rabbits too, and that was my work.
At the same time I also started to teach German to the children in the neighborhood, and sometimes I walked to Miskolc. I didn’t have the three forints to buy a ticket to take the train because I didn’t want to trouble my students to pay in advance. Though it was a hard time, we were at peace, knowing in our souls that we were engaged in a Christian conflict that was not a result of incorrectness but from the Lord. So together with my mother and father, we encouraged and strengthened each other.
My dear mother was weak during those times, so she often stayed inside and read the Bible and prayed. Once I was working outside, covered with dirt, and she called me to the window. She said, ‘My son, I have found a verse from the Bible which I am sure is actually for you. I want to tell you.’ It was from the fifth book of Moses. I have tried you with hunger and with difficulties to know what is in your heart. ‘My dear son, suffering and famine are not out of God’s control, but a plan of the Lord - to look into your heart. Do you want to be a pastor only because you have studied theology? Do you want to serve the Lord because it is a good job? Now the Lord visits your heart.’ What a real great gift it was from my dear mother, just lying there in weakness but such a great message to me.
This situation continued for two years, but then, as the political situation changed, pending cases received attention, and my case came up for review. I told them that I was satisfied with my life and willing to stay caring for the animals. I didn’t want to be interrogated on and on and on again just for the hotel job. They said that they knew me now and would not do it again. I thanked them, and then it really happened; I returned to the hotel. Then step by step the Lord gave me courage again and I understood that I had been able to oppose the police by his grace. I had the victory, and it was worth it. After two years of clay bricks I was a free man.
For Daniel, freedom meant free to serve. In 2016 he was still serving Hungary's Roma community.