If We Do God’s Will, He Will Never Abandon Us
As told by Grete Schmidt
I WAS born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1915. The first world war was in progress, and my father was on the front lines with the Austrian-Hungarian army. When he died a year later, Mother returned with me to Yugoslavia, where her relatives lived.
Since Mother did not remarry, she had to find work, so she entrusted her sister with my upbringing. My aunt owned a farm about three miles [5 km] from the city of Maribor in northern Yugoslavia. There I spent many happy years, always looking forward to Sunday when Mother would come up from Maribor to visit. At the same time, I developed a great longing for a father.
A Relationship With a Father
My relatives were Catholic, and since heaven and hell play an important role in the Catholic religion, a conflict arose in my mind. I did not feel good enough for heaven, but I felt I wasn’t bad enough to be condemned to hell. I talked about this problem with everyone, from my grandmother to the village priest.
Mother was the one I bothered most. So after some months, she handed me a booklet in Slovenian, Where Are the Dead?, that she had obtained in town. Mother had not read it herself, but she thought it might answer my questions.
Never in my whole life had I read any publication as often as that booklet! Not only did it answer my questions about life and death but it also showed me how to develop an intimate relationship with my heavenly Father. I ordered five booklets with the intent of distributing them in front of the church.
In our village the womenfolk attended church services on Sunday, but the men remained outside discussing their favorite subjects, livestock and agriculture. Thus, while the priest preached to the women in the church, I preached to the men outside. I was only 15, and they evidently enjoyed my youthful enthusiasm, for they paid for the booklets, and I used the contributions to get a fresh supply.
The priest soon learned of my activities and came to speak to my aunt. The following Sunday, he warned from the pulpit: “Certainly, no one in our village will be so naive as to believe the stories of a teenager.” As a result, everyone in the village turned against me. Even my aunt was ashamed and informed my mother that she could no longer keep me.
I really felt abandoned, but in prayer to Jehovah, I found comfort and regained strength. I moved in with my mother in Maribor, and we had a very happy time together. Although she did not share my spiritual interests, she allowed me to attend the meetings of the small congregation there. On August 15, 1931, I symbolized my dedication to God by water baptism.
To my great sorrow, Mother suddenly became ill and died a few weeks later. Her last words to me remain engraved in my memory: “Gretel, my dear, stick to your faith. I am sure it is the truth.” After her death, I again felt painfully abandoned, yet my relationship with our heavenly Father sustained me.
A couple with no children of their own took me in, and I served as an apprentice in the tailor shop that the wife managed. Materially I was well off, but my heart’s desire was to serve God full-time. In our small congregation in Maribor, all were convinced that the remaining time for this system of things was short. (1 Corinthians 7:29) Secretly I asked Jehovah in my prayers to postpone his intervention until I had completed my apprenticeship. I finished on June 15, 1933, and the very next day, I left home in order to start pioneering! In view of my youthfulness—I was only 17—even some of the brothers tried to hold me back, but I was determined.
Early Pioneer Days
My first assignment was Zagreb, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants not far from Maribor. The congregation had only six publishers. I learned a great deal by working with Brother Tuc̀ek, the very first pioneer in Yugoslavia. Later, I pioneered by myself for almost a year. Gradually, however, more pioneers arrived from Germany, since the preaching work had recently been banned there by the Nazi government.
I helped several of the pioneer couples by serving as their translator. Working with these mature Christians was a very precious experience for me. I increased in knowledge and understanding, and my appreciation grew constantly for the privilege of preaching the good news of the Kingdom.
In the course of time, we became an impressive group of 20 pioneers serving in the Balkan States. Our common endeavor to make known the Word of God forged us together, each one ready to help the other in case of need. All of us were motivated by a willingness found only among God’s people. This special “bond of union,” love, continues among those of the group who are still alive today.—Colossians 3:14.
A pioneer’s life is rich in experiences and offers as much variety as there are clouds in the sky. We felt enriched through the precious experience of getting to know lands and peoples previously unknown to us, including their customs and their way of life. Besides, we experienced how Jehovah cares for his faithful servants, just as Paul assures us at Ephesians 3:20: ‘According to his power which is operating in us, he is doing more than superabundantly beyond all the things we ask or conceive.’
Jehovah’s loving care was demonstrated when Brother Honegger visited us from Switzerland and noted that we had to walk up to 25 miles [40 km] to reach the outlying villages around Zagreb. He observed that we took off our shoes and hung them over our shoulders as soon as we had left the city in order to save the soles. So he bought us 12 bicycles, even though, as he later said, it took all the money he had! Jehovah surely moves the hearts of upright ones. The bikes, like a gift from heaven, served as our faithful companions during 25 years of pioneer service.
Once, Willi and Elisabeth Wilke and I arrived at a sizable Croatian village, where we each worked alone—from the outskirts toward the village center. We were offering the booklet Righteous Ruler, which depicted Jesus Christ on the title page. Just the year before, in 1934, the Yugoslavian king, Alexander, had been murdered, and his son Peter was to succeed him on the throne. However, the villagers preferred autonomy rather than a monarch from Serbia (southern Yugoslavia).
After a couple of hours’ preaching, loud excitement could be heard from the village square. There, Brother Wilke and I found Sister Wilke encircled by a group of about 20 men and women, some armed with sickles, others busy burning our booklets. Sister Wilke could not speak the language well enough to dispel the mistrust of the villagers.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I cried out, “what are you doing?”
“We don’t want King Peter!” they answered almost in one voice.
“Nor do we,” I replied.
Surprised, the people pointed to the picture on the booklet and asked, “Then why are you making propaganda for him?” They had mistaken Jesus Christ for King Peter!
The misunderstanding was cleared up, and a thorough witness concerning the King Jesus Christ was given. Some who had burned their booklets now wanted new ones. We left the village in a happy mood, feeling that Jehovah’s protective hand had been over us.
Later we extended our preaching into Bosnia, the central part of Yugoslavia. There, almost half the population was Muslim, and again we were confronted with new customs and also a lot of superstition. In the villages, the people had never seen a woman on a bicycle, so our arrival was somewhat of a sensation, stirring up curiosity. The religious leaders spread the rumor that a woman on a bicycle brought bad luck to a village. After that we left our bicycles outside the villages and entered on foot.
Since our literature now came under ban, the police often apprehended us. Usually, we were ordered to leave the province. Two policemen would accompany us to the border, a distance of from 30 to 60 miles [50 to 100 km]. They were surprised that we were such good cyclists, able to keep up with them despite the fact that we carried all our clothing and literature and a small kerosene stove. Our escorts were always happy to find an inn along the way, and often they invited us for something to drink or even a meal. We enjoyed these occasions, as our small allowance did not permit such extras. Of course, we seized the opportunity to tell them about our hope, and often they would accept some of the “forbidden” publications. More often than not, we parted on good terms.
Then came the year 1936. We were preaching in Serbia when the news reached us that an international convention was to be held in Lucerne, Switzerland, in September. A special bus was to leave from Maribor, but that was 430 miles [700 km] from where we were—a long bicycle ride! Nonetheless, we started to save our money and, later in the year, made the trip.
We would ask permission from farmers to stay overnight in their hayloft instead of paying for a room at a guesthouse. In the morning, we asked if we could buy some milk from them, but usually they gave it to us free and sometimes added a substantial breakfast. We were shown much human kindness, and this remains a happy part of our pioneer memories.
Before leaving from Maribor for Lucerne, more pioneers arrived from Germany. Among them was Alfred Schmidt, who had served eight years in Bethel at Magdeburg, Germany. A year later I became his wife.
Almost all the pioneers in Yugoslavia were able to attend the convention in Lucerne. It was my first one, and I was overwhelmed by the love and care shown by the Swiss brothers, besides being impressed by the pleasantness of the city of Lucerne. Little did I know that 20 years later, I would be pioneering there!
Working Under Restrictions
Returning from beautiful Switzerland to Yugoslavia, we soon began to experience real persecution. We were arrested and interned in the main prison in Belgrade. The brother who was responsible for the work in Yugoslavia requested permission to visit us, but this was denied. However, he spoke with a prison warden in such a loud voice that we could hear him, and the sound of his voice itself was a great encouragement to us.
After a few days, we were taken handcuffed to the Hungarian border; our literature and our money had been confiscated. Thus, we arrived in Budapest practically penniless, but with plenty of lice clinging to us as a souvenir from prison. Soon we met with other pioneers and shared with them in the preaching work there.
Every Monday we pioneers in Budapest met at the Turkish bath, and while caring for our bodies, the sisters and the brothers separately enjoyed an “interchange of encouragement . . . each one through the other’s faith.” (Romans 1:12) Meeting regularly served also as a check in case someone became sick or was imprisoned.
We had barely become accustomed to the new surroundings when, after six months, our Hungarian residence visa expired. In the meantime, Alfred and I had been married. Now we received instructions to get a visa for Bulgaria. The pioneer couple there had been expelled, and ten thousand booklets that they had ordered were ready at a small printery in Sofia. The couple’s literature had been publicly burned, so we knew what kind of treatment to expect.
We finally obtained a three-month Bulgarian visa. We were passing through Yugoslavia at night, and a responsible brother met us at a predetermined station with the money to purchase the booklets. Finally, we arrived safely in Sofia and found a suitable room.
Sofia was a modern city of about 300,000 inhabitants, but there were no Witnesses there. The day after our arrival, we went to the printery. The owner had heard of the ban on our literature and the deportation of the couple who had ordered the booklets, so when he learned that we had come to purchase them, he almost hugged us. We packed the booklets into empty bags and drove past several policemen, who, I am happy to say, could not hear our accelerated heartbeat!
Our next problem was where to store the booklets and how to place such a large quantity in only three months. I was actually afraid of that pile of booklets! Never had I seen so many. But again Jehovah was our Helper. We had tremendous success, placing up to 140 a day, and in a few weeks, Brother and Sister Wilke arrived to help us.
One day, however, things nearly went wrong. I was preaching in a business area where on every door there was a brass plate with the name of a Dr. So-and-So. After about two hours, I met an elderly gentleman who scrutinized me distrustfully. He asked if I knew where I was.
“I do not know exactly what kind of building this is, but I noticed that all good lawyers seem to have combined their offices here,” I answered.
“You are in the Ministry of the Interior,” he replied.
Although my heart almost stood still, I calmly responded: “Oh, that is why all these gentlemen have been so friendly to me!” This remark softened his attitude, and he handed back my passport after checking it thoroughly. I left with a sigh of relief, thankful to Jehovah for his protection.
Finally, all the booklets were placed, and the day arrived for us to leave the “land of roses,” Bulgaria. It was difficult to leave such friendly people, but the memory of them remained deeply anchored in our hearts.
Since we had German passports, we were able to return to Yugoslavia, but we were granted only a short stay. Afterward, in order to escape arrest, we had to sleep in a different place every night. We lived this way for about six months. Then, during the latter half of 1938, we received a letter from the Society’s office in Bern, Switzerland, instructing us to try to come to Switzerland. The Nazi army had already occupied Austria, and political pressure was growing. In fact, the Yugoslavian government had already handed some of the German pioneers over to the Nazis.
So my husband and I traveled separately to Switzerland, Alfred by way of Italy and I through Austria. We were happily reunited and assigned to work at the Society’s farm, Chanélaz, and then later at Bethel in Bern. This was an entirely new experience for me. I now had to learn to keep house the Swiss way, and I came to appreciate Jehovah’s organization as never before.
Jehovah’s Sustaining Power
After serving at Bethel during World War II and afterward, in 1952 Alfred and I again entered the pioneer work, the activity that had shaped our lives. We never had children of our own, but over the course of the years, we have received numerous expressions of love from our spiritual children. For example, in February 1975 we received the following note:
“I remember the day when a wise, gray-haired man visited a stubborn Evangelical Church counselor and offered him a Bible study. Reservedly and critically, my family and I accepted and then examined every point just as the Beroeans, until we had to admit that you brought us the truth. . . . What a kind Father Jehovah God really is! To him be praise and honor and thanks for all his kindness and mercy. But we want to thank you too, dear Alfred and Gretel, from the bottom of our hearts, for the painstaking patience you showed us. May Jehovah richly bless you for that. We sincerely hope that he will also give us the strength to persevere.”
In November 1975 my husband Alfred died suddenly from a heart attack. For 38 years we had served Jehovah together, enduring the ups and downs of pioneering. This made our relationship a very close one. However, with his death that feeling of emptiness and of being abandoned crept over me again. But by taking refuge in Jehovah, I was again comforted.
My relationship with our heavenly Father has sustained me through more than 53 years in his full-time service. And my sentiments continue to be those of Jesus Christ: “I am not alone, because the Father is with me.”—John 16:32.
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Alfred and Frieda Tuc̀ek pioneering in Yugoslavia with full equipment, in 1937
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Alfred and Grete Schmidt pioneering in Mostar, the Islamic section of Yugoslavia, in 1938
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