Serving With the Most Progressive Organization
AS TOLD BY ROBERT HATZFELD
Today a great many people turn on the television by remote control to watch the evening news in living color, hardly considering it anything extraordinary. Yet, it seems only yesterday that I was a wide-eyed 12-year-old boy watching on a movie screen a bigger-than-life image of a man, and he was talking!
NOT exactly big news, you might think. But it certainly seemed like a modern-day miracle to me back in 1915, in the early days of silent black-and-white film. A stately bearded man appeared on screen and said: “The Photo-Drama of Creation is presented by the I.B.S.A., the International Bible Students Association.” For the next two hours, the Bible’s story unfolded before our eyes. Its Scriptural message was clear and refreshing. Yet, it was the motion-picture film, interspersed with color slides, and the synchronized speech that really caught my attention.
I did not realize it then, but my youthful enthusiasm for that landmark technology was a prelude to a lifelong career with the most progressive organization on earth.
In 1891 my father came from Dillenburg, Germany, to the German community in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Later he met a girl in a German family there, and they married. I was born on July 7, 1903, and was raised speaking both German and English. Just before World War I started in 1914, a tuberculosis epidemic snatched away both my parents and left me an orphan. My grandfather died of a stroke about the same time.
My aunt, Minna Boemer, kindly took me into her family. “I have five kids,” she said. “Might as well have one more.” Though I missed my parents, Aunt Minna gave me a good home.
My aunt was a longtime member of the Allegheny Congregation of Bible Students (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were called in those days). Prior to 1909, Brother C. T. Russell, then president of the Watch Tower Society, also attended that congregation. Aunt Minna took me to the meetings. Although our family did not make a concerted effort to study or preach back then, whatever we heard at the meetings, we shared informally with people we knew.
It was during this period that the “Photo-Drama” filled me with wonder. Since I was mechanically inclined, the new photographic techniques and sound/picture synchronization fascinated me, as did the time-lapse photography. Observing the opening of the flowers was thrilling!
In 1916 we were saddened by the death of Brother Russell. Since we lived right in Allegheny, we attended his funeral at Carnegie Hall. This was the hall where Brother Russell had debated E. L. Eaton in 1903. I had heard stories about this Methodist Episcopalian minister who challenged C. T. Russell to a six-day debate, hoping to discredit Brother Russell’s Bible scholarship. Instead, it was said, Russell ‘turned the hose on hell.’ Sara Kaelin, a well-known colporteur in Pittsburgh, knew the Russells personally. At the funeral she saw Maria Russell place some flowers in the casket with the note, “To My Beloved Husband.” Though she had separated from him some years earlier, Maria still recognized him as her husband.
As the years went by, I had many opportunities to acquire technical abilities useful to my future career. The uncle who was my guardian was a building contractor. During my school vacations, he put me to work with his electricians, converting old mansions from gas to electricity. In 1918 the students in our school built amateur radio-telegraph equipment. We met in the evenings to study and perform field experiments with electricity and magnetism. In 1926 a friend and I decided to pursue a boyhood dream—to work on ships and travel the world. We enrolled in the Radio Corporation of America school for radio-telegraph operators.
A New Life at Bethel
The radio school we attended was in New York City, so I traveled across the river to Brooklyn for meetings of the Bible Students, which were held in the rented auditorium of the old Masonic Temple. Back then, there was only one congregation for the whole New York metropolitan area. When brothers from Bethel (the home of the headquarters family of the Bible Students) learned that I was studying for a commercial radio license, they said: “Why go to sea? We have a radio station right here and need an operator.” They invited me to come down to the office for an interview. I knew nothing about Bethel except that it was the headquarters of the Bible Students.
The brothers interviewed me and recommended that I finish my schooling, obtain a license, and then come to Bethel. Upon being graduated, instead of boarding a ship bound for the high seas, I packed up my few clothes and hopped on a subway bound for Bethel. Though I was dedicated to Jehovah and had shared in the preaching work for years, I was not baptized until December 1926, two weeks after arriving at Bethel. That was not uncommon at that time.
With 150 members, Bethel was overcrowded in those days. We had four men in each room. I soon got acquainted with most of them, since all of us ate, worked, and slept in one complex, and of course, all of us attended the only congregation in New York City. The new Bethel Home was completed at 124 Columbia Heights in 1927, and we were able to live two to a room.
Also in 1927 the new factory at 117 Adams Street opened up. I helped move equipment from the old factory at 55 Concord Street. In addition to the radio equipment, at the factory there were elevators, printing presses, laundry equipment, oil burners—if it had a wire, I worked on it.
Bethel was more than a factory, though. Behind every book, every tract, every magazine, was a crowd of humble, hardworking servants. They were not out to make their mark on the world. Rather, they wanted just to get the Lord’s work done—and there was plenty to do!
Association With Brother Rutherford
I greatly benefited from the privilege of working with Joseph F. Rutherford, the Society’s second president. He was a big man, over six feet [183 cm] tall, not fat, but well built. Many of the younger brothers at Bethel were somewhat intimidated by him until they got to know him. He was constantly studying, preparing written material.
Brother Rutherford had a good sense of humor. There were a couple of older sisters in the Bethel family who had been around since Brother Russell’s time. They were quite straight-faced and believed that it was not proper to laugh out loud even if something was funny. Sometimes at the dinner table Brother Rutherford would tell a story that would make everyone laugh, which irritated these two sisters. However, he also often led serious mealtime Bible discussions.
Brother Rutherford was a good cook and enjoyed preparing meals for friends. One time the Bethel cooks splintered some chicken bones when cutting up chickens. He strode into the kitchen and showed them the right way to cut up a chicken. He had no use for splinters in his food!
I was often around Brother Rutherford in informal settings, such as at our radio station, WBBR, or in his study on Staten Island. He was such a kindly man and practiced what he preached. He did not expect anything of others that he would not do himself. Unlike responsible individuals in many other religious organizations, Brother Rutherford was of the highest spiritual and moral character. He clearly lived for Jehovah’s Kingdom.
Difficult Financial Times
A few years after I arrived at Bethel, the world entered the Great Depression. Financial markets collapsed, as did the prices of commodities. Jobs were scarce, and funds limited. Bethel operated on contributed funds, and Jehovah always made sure there was enough to care for the work. We were never without food, though it might not be just what each one wanted. We lived as frugally as possible, and brothers outside Bethel helped us out as they were able.
In 1932, Brother Robert Martin, the faithful overseer of our factory, died. Twenty-seven-year-old Nathan Knorr was appointed in his place. He was a very capable young man. I do not recall anyone having difficulty accepting him as factory overseer. Other faithful brothers, among them John Kurzen, George Kelly, Doug Galbraith, Ralph Leffler, and Ed Becker—all my dear coworkers—willingly devoted their craftsmanship and ingenuity to Kingdom service.—Compare Exodus 35:34, 35.
Working With the Radio
To the very core, our organization was dedicated to spreading the good news by whatever means available. The whole world needed to know about the Kingdom, but we were just a few thousand. Radio technology was in its infancy following World War I. However, discerning brothers felt that this method of communication was what Jehovah had provided at that time. So in 1923 they set about building the radio station WBBR on Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City.
At times I was the only operator of our station. I lived there on Staten Island but would make the three-hour ferry and train ride to the factory in Brooklyn to do electrical or mechanical work. To make our radio station essentially self-contained, we installed a diesel generating plant. On Staten Island we also had our own water wells and a garden that supplied food for the small staff there, as well as for the Bethel family in Brooklyn.
Until more help came along later, the responsibilities of the radio work greatly limited my meeting attendance and field service. There was no time at all for social functions or weekend trips other than our annual vacation. Someone once asked me: “With such a demanding schedule, didn’t you ever consider leaving Bethel?” Honestly, I had to say: “No.” It has been a privilege and joy to live and work alongside so many devoted brothers and sisters. And there was always work needing to be done, some new project to do.
We produced and broadcast stirring radio dramas. With no special-effects records available, we had to devise our own methods. We made a machine that could recreate the sound of a nice breeze or a raging storm. The sound of halves of coconut shells striking padded planks became pounding horsehoofs on stone streets. Each drama was a spectacular undertaking. And people listened. In those days of few distractions, many people sat and paid attention.
In the 1920’s and early 1930’s, the Society made radio history, repeatedly tying together the largest number of stations for a single program. Thus the Kingdom news reached millions worldwide.
In the mid-1930’s and early 1940’s, we designed and built transcription machines, phonographs, and other sound equipment. With a special lathe, we cut master records out of mirror-smooth discs of beeswax. Then we examined each master record very carefully under a microscope to make sure it was flawless. If there were any defects, the recording session had to be repeated and another lathe cut made. We then sent the beeswax master to a record company, who produced the phonograph and transcription records.
One thrilling event that I remember very well was Brother Rutherford’s lecture in 1933 entitled “Effect of Holy Year on Peace and Prosperity.” The pope had declared that year to be a “holy year,” and by radio broadcast and phonograph, we exposed it and showed that nothing holy would come of it. As it turned out, Hitler took power that year with the backing of the Catholic Church, so any hopes for peace vanished.
In the United States, the Catholic Action organization was formed to carry out what the church wanted. They placed their own men on editorial boards of major newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. They dabbled in politics and threatened to boycott any station carrying our Bible lectures. Many Witnesses were mobbed by Catholic Action groups, especially in nearby New Jersey. Those were exciting days!
Joyful Work in the Field
By the mid-1950’s, the growing ranks of Kingdom publishers were reaching more people right at the doors of their homes. This proved to be far more effective than the radio in helping individuals understand Bible truth. So in 1957 it was decided to sell WBBR and direct our resources to the expanding missionary work in other lands.
In 1955, I was assigned to the Bedford Congregation in Brooklyn, where I regularly conducted the Watchtower Study. The Society also sent me out as a traveling speaker to upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey. When assigned to the Bedford Congregation, I said to myself, ‘I’m over 50 years old. I’d better share as much as I can in the field service right now. Later I might have lumbago and not enjoy it so much.’
After working all those years on the technical part of broadcasting Kingdom seed by radio, I found it a real pleasure to plant and water seeds of Bible truth directly with individuals. I really enjoyed working with the congregation. Different ones adopted me, making me feel right at home. Some of those little children, now grown, still call me grandpa. For 30 years we had fine times together in the field ministry, until problems with my legs and feet left me unable to walk the stairs or travel on the subway. In 1985, I transferred to the Brooklyn Heights Congregation, which meets right at Bethel.
As Jehovah’s organization enjoyed great expansion, I was personally privileged to see his blessing in foreign fields as I attended large conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses in distant lands. I was able to travel the world after all! Starting in the 1950’s, some of us Bethelites got to see the sights of London, Paris, Rome, Nuremberg, and Copenhagen. We traveled by converted bombers, boat, and train. The trips were scenic, of course, but the most thrilling sights of all were the throngs of our warm, welcoming brothers. Later decades brought journeys to the Orient, Western Europe again, and most recently Eastern Europe. The wonderful conventions in Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were overwhelming. How our theocratic family has grown since I first became part of it!
What seemed like small steps taken by the organization later turned out to be giant strides. When we were working on innovative projects, just tools to help us do the witness work, who could have foreseen the tremendous growth? We have moved forward in faith, responding to Jehovah’s leading.
This progressive organization has not been afraid to utilize the latest technology available or to create its own to help care for the worldwide field. Among the methods used for advancing the Kingdom proclamation have been the house-to-house preaching, the use of radio networks, phonograph witnessing, and a program of conducting Bible studies in people’s homes. Establishing our own printing operations in the early days and now utilizing computerized phototypesetting and offset printing in many languages is no small accomplishment. The Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, the Theocratic Ministry School, and regular conventions have all played a part in bringing glory to Jehovah God and his Son. It has been my privilege to observe personally and to participate in all these events.
It is clear to me that Jehovah’s spirit-directed organization on earth receives guidance on what is to be done and how. His whole universal organization, visible and invisible, works together.
I have never regretted giving up my plans as a young man to sail the seas. Why, the most exciting, meaningful developments in the world happen right here within Jehovah’s organization! So my journey on the road toward “the upward call” has been marked with many, many joys and blessings and no regrets.—Philippians 3:13, 14.
I always tell young people to remember 1914—that is, Psalm 19:14, which says: “Let the sayings of my mouth and the meditation of my heart become pleasurable before you, O Jehovah my Rock and my Redeemer.” We want to please Jehovah in everything and pray as David did: “Make me know your own ways, O Jehovah; teach me your own paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me, for you are my God of salvation. In you I have hoped all day long.” (Psalm 25:4, 5) There is a lot of meaning in those words. Remembering them can help keep us on the right track, going in the right direction, in step with Jehovah’s progressive organization.
[Picture on page 23]
Brother Rutherford enjoyed preparing meals for friends
[Picture on page 25]
Robert Hatzfeld at the controls of radio station WBBR
[Picture on page 26]
A recent photograph of Brother Hatzfeld