Jehovah Is Guarding Us
As related by Erich Kattner
WHACK! Down came the book on my head. This was my first contact with the Bible, and it was at the hand of a Catholic priest. Why? Because of a question I had asked.
The priest was teaching catechism and religion and was trying to encourage us boys to take up the priesthood. In his effort to do this, he used the scripture at 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where it speaks of those ‘being caught away in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.’
I was always full of questions, so I asked: “Why do you say priests go straight to heaven, when, as the Creed says, Jesus had to go to hell?” (Acts 2:31) That was when the Bible came down on my head.
A Desire to Know
But I sincerely wanted answers. I was very much inclined to worship God, even as a young boy. I used to enter to pray in almost every church I passed. Yet I wasn’t satisfied. Somehow I always got angry at things I saw, such as the gross idolatry of some of the people or the behavior of some priests.
When I was only about eight years old, I read my first book. It was entitled The Christianization of Brazil. I was shocked. To me it seemed like a murder story, the murder of Indians in the name of religion. Learning about such things was enough to change my mind about a lot of things.
This all happened back in the 1920’s. I was born in Vienna, Austria, August 19, 1919, the only child of my parents. When I was about six, my father, an electrical engineer, accepted a job in northern Czechoslovakia, in the German-speaking section of Sudetenland. So my family moved there, and finally to a small town called Warnsdorf.
I became very disillusioned with the Catholic Church. One day, quite bitter because of the punishment I had again received from the priest, I cried on the way home from school. While walking through some fields, I thought that it was not possible that there was a God, in view of the many crooked things I had seen and had been taught.
Then the song of birds came through, and I noticed the flowers, the butterflies, and all the beauty of creation. And it dawned on me that there must be a loving God but that the so-called men of God maybe were not such at all. And perhaps God had given up on humanity. That was when I said my first real, conscious prayer, asking God to help me to get to know him if he ever again would become interested in man. That was in 1928.
About a month later my mother traveled to a family reunion in Vienna; it was her mother’s 60th birthday. There my mother saw her brother, Richard Tautz, who at the time lived in Maribor, Yugoslavia. He had recently become one of the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. Mother returned home all excited with the new Bible truths she had learned. What she related made sense to me. It seemed that Jehovah’s hand was at work.—Psalm 121:5.
Practicing What I Had Learned
Later, Bible Students came over from Germany, and the preaching got under way in our area. Some months later, regular meetings began to be held in a neighboring town in Germany, and we walked the few miles across the border to attend them. It was at this time that I met Otto Estelmann, with whom I worked closely in later years.
In 1932 our family moved to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, about 45 miles (72 km) from Vienna. There were no other Witnesses there at that time. I decided I had to get active in the preaching work. So I chose what I thought was the toughest territory, an apartment-house project occupied mostly by families of government officials. Four languages were then spoken in Bratislava: Slovak, Czech, German, and Hungarian.
Carrying cards that had a little sermon printed on them in four languages, I went alone ringing bells on the apartment doors. Sometimes my father, who had not as yet become a Witness, would stand on the other side of the street, watching me and shaking his head. Shortly afterward he also took a firm stand for Jehovah.
On February 15, 1935, at a special meeting with a traveling overseer in our home, I, along with others, was baptized in a bathtub. I graduated from business school that year and was given an attractive job offer, but at the same time I was invited to work at the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Prague, Czechoslovakia. After a serious talk with my parents, we took the matter to Jehovah in prayer. So, shortly before turning 16, I entered the full-time service on June 1, 1935.
Serving in Difficult Times
At the Society’s office in Prague, I learned to operate the typesetting machines and to compose type into pages. We produced tracts for our brothers in Germany, who were under ban by Hitler, and also produced The Watchtower in several languages. However, these were difficult times for our work in Europe, and finally the authorities closed our branch in December 1938.
I returned home to Bratislava, where the government had passed into the hands of Nazi sympathizers, and I worked unobtrusively for two months doing house-to-house preaching. About this time the Central European Office of the Watch Tower Society in Bern, Switzerland, wrote me that if I was willing to serve as a pioneer anywhere in the world, I should come to Bern.
I accepted the invitation and left home. It was the last time I saw my father, and it would be 30 years before I would see my mother again. But Jehovah guarded all three of us through the many difficulties that followed. For example, I learned later that the infamous Hlinka Guarda (a kind of Slovakian SS) was after me the day I left Bratislava. And on the trip, when Nazi agents learned that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they tried to get me arrested at the borders of Yugoslavia and Italy. But Jehovah kept guarding me.—Psalm 48:14; 61:3.
In Bern I learned that I would be sent to Shanghai, China, but later this assignment was changed to Brazil. I worked at the branch in Bern until I received my visa for Brazil. By this time troubles in Europe were increasing. Borders were being closed, so in August 1939 the Society urged me to get into France. The Brazilian merchant ship Siqueira Campos was leaving from Le Havre, France, August 31, and I was to be on it. Just four hours before World War II broke out, the ship sailed.
The dozen or so passengers I traveled with in the second-class cabin section, I later learned, were all Nazi agents. They did not like my preaching at all. Several times they tried to get me off the ship. In Vigo, Spain, the friendly captain warned me not to go ashore while there. In Lisbon, Portugal, the Nazi agents falsified the departure time of the ship on the notice board so that I would be stranded there. But again Jehovah was guarding me. (Psalm 121:3) I arrived in Santos, Brazil, on the evening of September 24, 1939. The next day I traveled up to São Paulo, where the Society’s office was located.
Serving in Brazil
In September 1939 there were only 127 Witnesses in Brazil, which then had a population of about 41 million people. After about a week in São Paulo, I left for my pioneer assignment in the southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. I was to stay with some German-speaking Witnesses of Polish descent who lived in a remote jungle area.
The train trip took four days. The end of the line was Giruá, which resembled a wild West town of the early days of North America. From Giruá I still had some 20 miles (32 km) to go into the jungle to get to where the Witnesses lived. A delivery truck gave me a ride, leaving me off on a dirt road. Traveling on by foot for about a mile through virgin forest and wading through a small stream, I finally arrived.
Because of the remoteness of the area, my pioneer service was restricted to times when someone could take me along on a small horsedrawn wagon. Reaching people involved traveling for days, sleeping on dirt roads to avoid snakes or under the wagon when it rained. We also preached in such towns as Cruz Alta.
In 1940 the Society reassigned me to Pôrto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. There I joined my childhood friend Otto Estelmann, who had also been assigned to Brazil. The authorities there seemed to be Nazi sympathizers. We were arrested and given the choice of signing a paper renouncing our faith or leaving on the evening train for confinement at the Uruguayan border. We were on the train that evening.
There on the border we spent close to two years under house arrest. But again Jehovah came to our aid. Some Jewish businessmen offered their help. As a result, instead of being kept in jail, I was permitted to do secular work, but we were kept under close surveillance. We were not able to make contact with the Society’s branch office.
However, one day on the street we met a pioneer brother from Europe who had been assigned to Uruguay. He just happened to be visiting the border. What a reunion! He gave us a German Bible and an English Watchtower. That is when I really started studying English.
Then, on August 22, 1942, Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy, which meant a change in our situation. We were brought back to Pôrto Alegre, and after some questioning, I was released. Afterward, I met some young Witnesses whom I had known earlier in the jungle area where I had first been assigned. So I was able to make contact with the branch office, and I again began pioneering. Four of these youths joined me in the pioneer work, and we found people who accepted the Kingdom message, some of whom are still preaching.
The new authorities were favorable toward us, so in 1943 we arranged for the first small assembly in Pôrto Alegre. The total attendance was 50, almost half of them plainclothes policemen. A year later, in 1944, we arranged for another assembly. After that I was called to serve at the Society’s branch office, which had been moved from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro.
Gilead and Afterward
In 1950 I was invited to attend the 16th class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead at South Lansing, New York. After graduation in February 1951, I received a temporary special pioneer assignment with the South Bronx, New York, Congregation, but later I returned to Brazil.
For about a year and a half I served as a traveling representative of the Society, both as a district overseer and as a circuit overseer. Then, in February 1953, I was called back to the branch office in Rio de Janeiro and assigned to do translation work. Later, from September 1961 to September 1963, I had the privilege of working on a special translation assignment at the Society’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. While there, I contacted a couple whom I had known in Brazil. The husband agreed to study with me in the hotel where they were staying and became convinced of the truth.
A few months later, when we were back in Brazil, I contacted him again. But he was somewhat complacent. So I told him: “Look, Paul, you are a civil engineer. But suppose I were the civil engineer and told you that the roof was ready to fall in on you. What would you do? Well, as a Bible ‘engineer,’ I am telling you that unless you act on what you know, you’re in trouble.”
In a short time he was baptized and has been serving as a Christian elder for some years. He was also very instrumental in the construction of the large new branch facilities in Cesário Lange, São Paulo, where 480 of us now work to serve the spiritual needs of the growing number of Witnesses in Brazil.
In 1945 we had the first visit of the Watch Tower Society’s president, Nathan H. Knorr, and also of the then vice president, Frederick Franz. A convention was arranged in the Pacaembu gymnasium in São Paulo City, and I served as translator for the visiting brothers. Our peak attendance was 765.
I remember Brother Knorr looking at the big adjoining stadium and wondering if we would ever fill it. Well, we did in December 1973, when 94,586 packed out Pacaembu Stadium at the “Divine Victory” Convention. This was topped in August 1985 at the “Integrity Keepers” Convention in the Morumbi Stadium, São Paulo City, where 162,941 were present. And simultaneously, another 86,410 were in attendance at a stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Later, 23 additional gatherings raised the total attendance for the “Integrity Keepers” Conventions in Brazil to 389,387!
Over the years, I have been privileged to translate for visiting speakers from the Brooklyn, New York, headquarters. Recently one of them, while he was walking along with me and noting the many persons with whom I had studied over the years coming up to greet me, jokingly said: “I never saw a single man with so many children.”
Real highlights in my life have also been the international conventions that I have been able to attend in other countries. At the Nuremberg convention in 1969, I saw my mother for the first time in 30 years. She died faithful in 1973. Father was not allowed to travel out of the country for the convention, and I never did see him again after leaving home. In 1978 I had the privilege of giving the public talk at the international convention in Vienna, Austria, the first big convention I attended in the city of my birth.
During these many years in Brazil, I have witnessed that Jehovah is the One “who makes it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:7) In 1948 we passed the 1,000-publisher mark. After that, the number of publishers jumped to 12,992 in 1958 and to 60,139 in 1970. Instead of the 127 Kingdom publishers we had in September 1939, there were 196,948 in August 1986. Certainly, the ‘small one has become a mighty nation’ also in this country.—Isaiah 60:22.
But the population of Brazil has also increased, from 41 million in 1939 to more than 135 million now. So we still have a vast field for activity. It has been my joy personally to have been involved in the marvelous increases Jehovah has given, and how thrilling it has been! So I can recommend to anyone who wants to serve Jehovah full-time: Go ahead! Don’t be afraid of what might come up, for “Jehovah himself will guard your going out and your coming in.”—Psalm 121:7, 8.
[Blurb on page 26]
“I’m telling you that unless you act on what you know, you’re in trouble”
[Picture on page 25]
N. H. Knorr speaking, with Erich Kattner interpreting, in São Paulo, Brazil, 1945