A Privileged Share in Postwar Expansion
AS TOLD BY FILIP S. HOFFMANN
World War II had just ended in May 1945. That December, Nathan H. Knorr, who had oversight of the worldwide preaching activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, visited Denmark with his 25-year-old secretary, Milton G. Henschel. A large hall was rented for that eagerly anticipated visit. For us young ones, Brother Henschel’s talk was especially exciting, since he was our age and had chosen as his theme: “Remember also thy Creator in the days of thy youth.”—Ecclesiastes 12:1, American Standard Version.
DURING that visit, we learned that exciting things were taking place to advance the worldwide preaching work and that we could be involved in them. (Matthew 24:14) For example, a new school to train young men and women for missionary work had been opened in the United States. Brother Knorr stressed that if we were invited, we would get “only a one-way ticket” and that we would not know where we would end up. Even so, some of us applied.
Before I describe my post-World War II experiences, let me go back to my birth in 1919. There were a number of events prior to and during the war that greatly influenced my life.
Bible Truth From a Black Sheep
When Mother was pregnant with me—her first child—she prayed that if I was a boy, I might become a missionary. Her brother was a Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called, but her family members considered him a black sheep. Our home was near Copenhagen, and when the Bible Students had annual conventions there, Mother would invite Uncle Thomas, who lived some distance away, to stay with us. By 1930 his amazing Bible knowledge and logical reasoning had convinced Mother to become a Bible Student.
Mother loved the Bible. Following the command at Deuteronomy 6:7, she taught my sister and me ‘when she was sitting in her house, walking on the road, lying down, or getting up.’ In time, I began to share in house-to-house preaching. I loved discussing such subjects as the immortal soul and hellfire, which the churches were teaching. I could effectively show from the Bible that such teachings were in error.—Psalm 146:3, 4; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Ezekiel 18:4.
Our Family Became United
Following the convention in Copenhagen in 1937, there was a need for temporary help at the literature depot of the Denmark branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had just finished my studies at a commercial college and was free of obligations, so I offered to help out at the depot. When the service at the depot was finished, I was asked to assist at the branch office. Soon afterward, I left home and moved into the branch in Copenhagen, although I was yet unbaptized. Daily association with mature Christians helped me progress spiritually. The following year, on January 1, 1938, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism.
In September 1939, World War II began. Then, on April 9, 1940, German troops occupied Denmark. Since Danes were allowed considerable personal freedom, we were able to continue our preaching activities.
Something wonderful then happened. Father became an active, loyal Witness, completing our family happiness. Therefore, when I, along with four other Danes, was invited to attend the eighth class of Gilead School, my whole family supported me. The five-month school course, which began in September 1946, was held at the beautiful campus just outside South Lansing in upstate New York.
Gilead and Post-Gilead Training
Gilead provided opportunities to make wonderful new friends. One evening while strolling around the campus with Harold King from England, we talked about where we might be sent when our training was finished. “I don’t believe I have seen the white cliffs of Dover for the last time,” Harold said. He was right, but it took 17 years before he saw those cliffs again, and four and a half of those years were spent in solitary confinement in a Chinese prison!*
After our graduation, I was sent to Texas, U.S.A., to serve as a traveling overseer, visiting congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to help them spiritually. I was received with open arms. For the brothers in Texas, it was interesting to have a young European fellow who had just been through Gilead School. But after only seven months in Texas, I was called to the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York. There Brother Knorr assigned me to the office, with instructions to learn the work flow in all departments. Then, when I returned to Denmark, I was to apply what I had learned, making sure that everything was done the same way as it was in Brooklyn. The idea was to unify operations in the branches worldwide for more efficiency. Later, Brother Knorr transferred me to Germany.
Applying Instructions to Branches
When I arrived in Wiesbaden, Germany, in July 1949, many German cities were still in ruins. Those taking the lead in the preaching work were men who had been persecuted from the time Hitler took power in 1933. Some had been in prisons and concentration camps for eight to ten years or more! I worked with such servants of Jehovah for three and a half years. Their unique example reminds me of a comment by the German historian Gabriele Yonan, who wrote: “Without the example of this steadfast Christian group under the National Socialist dictatorship, we would—after Auschwitz and the Holocaust—have to doubt whether it was possible at all to fulfill the Christian teachings of Jesus.”
My job in the branch was the same as it had been in Denmark: to introduce a new, uniform way of handling organizational matters. As soon as the German brothers understood that the adjustments were in no way a criticism of their work—but that the time had come for closer cooperation between the various branches and headquarters—they were enthused and filled with a fine spirit of cooperation.
In 1952 a letter arrived from Brother Knorr’s office, directing me to move to the branch in Bern, Switzerland. I was assigned to serve as branch overseer there, beginning January 1, 1953.
New Joys in Switzerland
Not long after arriving in Switzerland, I met Esther during a convention, and soon we got engaged. In August 1954, Brother Knorr directed me to come to Brooklyn, where the nature of a new, exciting work was revealed to me. Since the number and size of the branch offices around the world had increased so much, a new arrangement was being introduced. The world was divided into zones, with each to be served by a zone overseer. I was given two of these zones to serve: Europe and the Mediterranean area.
Soon after my brief visit to Brooklyn, I returned to Switzerland and prepared for the zone work. Esther and I were married, and she joined me in serving at the branch office in Switzerland. My first trip took me to missionary homes and branches in Italy, Greece, Cyprus, countries of the Middle East and along the coast of North Africa, and Spain and Portugal—13 countries in total. After a stay back in Bern, my travel continued to all other European countries west of the Iron Curtain. During our first year of marriage, I was away from home for six months, serving our Christian brothers.
Changes of Circumstances
In 1957, Esther learned that she was expecting a baby, and since a branch is not set up for parents with children, we decided to move to Denmark, where Father welcomed us to stay with him. Esther cared for both our daughter, Rakel, and my father, while I helped out with work in the newly built branch office. I served as an instructor for the Kingdom Ministry School for congregation overseers and also continued to serve as a zone overseer.
The zone work meant extended periods of travel, which unfortunately resulted in long absences from our daughter. That had its consequences. I once spent some time in Paris, where we established a small printery. Esther and Rakel came by train to see me and arrived at the Gare du Nord. Léopold Jontès from the branch and I went there to meet them. Rakel stood on a step of the railroad car, looked at Léopold, then at me, and back at Léopold again, and then threw her arms around Léopold!
Another dramatic change occurred when, at 45 years of age, I left the full-time ministry to earn a wage to support my family. With my experience as a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was able to obtain employment as an export manager. After I had worked for the same company for about nine years and Rakel had finished school, we decided to respond to the encouragement to move to where the need for Kingdom preachers was greater.
Surveying the opportunities in Norway, I asked at an agency about the possibility of a job. The answer was not encouraging. There was very little hope for a 55-year-old man. Still, I contacted the branch office in Oslo and then rented a house near the town of Drøbak, trusting that an employment opportunity would present itself. One did, and a time of very enjoyable Kingdom service in Norway followed.
The best times were when most in our congregation took trips north to work unassigned territory. We rented cottages at a camping site, and every day we made calls at scattered farms in the glorious mountains. It was sheer pleasure to tell these friendly people about God’s Kingdom. A lot of literature was placed, but return visits had to wait till the following year. Yet, the people did not forget us! Esther and Rakel still remember the time when we returned and were embraced as long-lost family members. After three years in Norway, we returned to Denmark.
The Joys of Family Life
Rakel soon became engaged to Niels Højer, a zealous full-time pioneer minister. After they married, Niels and Rakel continued as pioneers until their children came along. Niels has been both a good husband and a fine father, taking a real interest in his family. Early one morning he took his son on his bicycle down to the beach to watch the sun rise. A neighbor asked the boy what they had done there. He answered: “We prayed to Jehovah.”
A few years later, Esther and I witnessed the baptism of our two oldest grandchildren, Benjamin and Nadja. Among the observers was Niels, who suddenly stood face-to-face with me. He looked at me and said, “Real men don’t cry.” Yet, the next moment we were both crying in each other’s arms. What a joy to have a son-in-law with whom you can both laugh and cry!
Still Adjusting to Circumstances
Another blessing came when Esther and I were asked to return to serve at the Denmark branch office. By then, however, preparations were under way to build a much larger branch facility in Holbæk. I had the privilege of sharing in overseeing the construction work, all of which was done by unpaid volunteer workers. In spite of a severe winter, by the end of 1982, the project was essentially completed, and we were all delighted to move into the enlarged, improved facilities!
I was soon involved in office work, which gave me much satisfaction, while Esther was operating the telephone switchboard. However, in time she had to have hip-replacement surgery, and a year and a half later, she underwent a gallbladder operation. Despite kind consideration shown to us by the branch personnel, we decided that it would be better for all concerned if we left the branch. We moved to the congregation to which our daughter and family belonged.
Today Esther’s health is not good. Yet, I can truly say that through all the years of our service together, with so many changes in circumstances, she has been a marvelous support and companion. In spite of declining health, both of us still have a modest share in the preaching work. When I reflect on my life, gratefully I recall the words of the psalmist: “O God, you have taught me from my youth on.”—Psalm 71:17.
[Picture on page 24]
Unloading a literature shipment at the Germany branch under construction in 1949
[Picture on page 25]
My work companions included Witnesses like these returnees from concentration camps
[Pictures on page 26]
With Esther today and on our wedding day at Bern Bethel, October 1955