I Feared Death—Now I Await ‘Life in Abundance’
As told by Piero Gatti
A LOW rumbling noise gradually became louder and louder. It was followed by the wail of sirens warning people to take cover. Then came the howl of bombs and destruction and a roar that burst the eardrums of the terror-struck.
That was Milan, Italy, in 1943/1944. As a young soldier stationed there, I was often ordered to collect human remains buried in bombed-out air-raid shelters where people had been trapped, their bodies torn to pieces and unrecognizable. And it was not only the death of others that I saw up close. Sometimes I myself narrowly escaped death. On those occasions I prayed, promising God that if I survived the massacres, I would do his will.
Dispelling My Fear of Death
I grew up in a village about six miles (10 km) from Como, Italy, near the Swiss border. At an early age, I came face-to-face with grief and the fear of death. The Spanish flu took two of my sisters. Then in 1930, when I was only six years old, my mother, Luigia, died. Growing up as a Catholic, I observed religious rules and attended weekly Mass. But it was years later in a barbershop, not in a church, that my fear was dispelled.
In 1944, World War II was reaping a deadly harvest. I was one of tens of thousands of Italian soldiers who had fled the war zone to neutral Switzerland. Upon arrival we were taken to a number of refugee camps. I was sent to one near Steinach, in the northeast of the country. There we were granted a certain amount of freedom. The barber in Steinach needed temporary help in his shop. I lived and worked with him for just a month, but that was enough for me to make an acquaintance that changed my life.
One of the barber’s customers was Adolfo Tellini, an Italian living in Switzerland. He was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had never heard of this group, which was hardly surprising considering that at the time there were no more than 150 Witnesses in all of Italy. Adolfo told me about wonderful Bible truths, promises of peace and of ‘life in abundance.’ (John 10:10; Rev. 21:3, 4) I was enthralled by the message of a future without war and death. Back at the refugee camp, I shared this hope with another young Italian, Giuseppe Tubini, and he too was impressed. Adolfo and other Witnesses would visit us in the camp every now and again.
Adolfo took me to Arbon, about six miles (10 km) from Steinach, where a small group of Witnesses held meetings in Italian. I was so enthusiastic about what I heard that the next week I walked there. Later, I attended an assembly of the Witnesses at a convention hall in Zurich. I was particularly struck by a slide presentation of extermination camps, showing piles of bodies. I learned that many German Witnesses had been martyred for their faith. At that assembly, I met Maria Pizzato. Because of her activities as a Witness, she had been given an 11-year sentence by the Italian Fascist authorities.
When the war was over, I returned to Italy and joined the small congregation in Como. I had not had a systematic Bible study, but I had the fundamental truths clearly in mind. Maria Pizzato also belonged to that congregation. She spoke to me about the need for Christian baptism and invited me to visit Marcello Martinelli, who lived in Castione Andevenno, in the province of Sondrio. Marcello was a faithful anointed brother who had been sentenced to 11 years by the dictatorial regime. I had to cycle 50 miles (80 km) to visit him.
Marcello used the Bible to explain the requirements for baptism, after which we prayed and went to the river Adda, where I was baptized. It was September 1946. That was such a special day! I was so excited about my decision to serve Jehovah and now to have a solid hope for the future that when evening came, I hardly realized I had pedaled 100 miles (160 km) that day!
In May 1947, the first postwar assembly in Italy was held in Milan. About 700 attended, including many of those who had lived through the Fascist persecution. Something rather unusual took place at this assembly. Giuseppe Tubini, to whom I had witnessed in the refugee camp, gave the baptism talk—after which he himself got baptized!
At that assembly, I had the privilege of meeting Brother Nathan Knorr, from Brooklyn Bethel. He encouraged Giuseppe and me to use our lives in service to God. I decided that I would begin full-time service within a month. On arriving home, I told my family of my decision, and they all tried to dissuade me. Yet, I was determined. So a month later, I started my service at Bethel in Milan. Four missionaries served there: Giuseppe (Joseph) Romano and his wife, Angelina; Carlo Benanti and his wife, Costanza. The fifth member of the family was Giuseppe Tubini, who had just joined them, and I was the sixth.
After one month at Bethel, I was appointed a circuit overseer—the first Italian-born in the country. Brother George Fredianelli, the first missionary to come to Italy from the United States in 1946, was already in the traveling work. He trained me for a few weeks, and then I set off for this adventure on my own. I particularly remember the first congregation I visited—Faenza. Just think! Up until then I had never even given a talk to a congregation! Even so, I encouraged those in attendance, including many young ones, to think about taking up the full-time ministry. Later, some of those young ones received assignments of great responsibility in the Italian field.
I had begun an exciting life as a traveling overseer. It was a life of surprises, adjustments, challenges, and joys, and one in which I received great affection from dear brothers and sisters.
The Religious Scene in Postwar Italy
Let me tell you something about the religious situation in Italy back then. The Catholic Church reigned unchallenged. Although a new constitution became operative in 1948, it was not until 1956 that the Fascist laws preventing Witnesses from preaching freely were repealed. As a result of pressure from the clergy, circuit assemblies were often interrupted. But sometimes the clergy’s efforts failed miserably, which is what happened in 1948 at Sulmona, a small town in central Italy.
The assembly was being held in a theater. On Sunday morning, I was the chairman, and Giuseppe Romano gave the public talk. The audience was immense for those days. At a time when there were not even 500 publishers in the whole country, 2,000 people packed the theater. At the end of the discourse, a young man, coached by two priests who were in the audience, jumped onto the stage. Intent on creating confusion, he started yelling at the top of his voice. I immediately told him, “If you have something to say, rent a hall, and you can say whatever you like.” The audience was not impressed with him and drowned out his voice with expressions of disapproval. At this, the young man jumped off the stage and disappeared.
In those days, traveling was quite an adventure. I sometimes walked from one congregation to the next, rode my bicycle, traveled on battered, overcrowded buses, or took the train. On occasion, my accommodations were a stable or a toolshed. The war had only recently ended, and most Italians were poor. There were few brothers, and they were of little means. Life in Jehovah’s service was wonderful just the same.
Training at Gilead
In 1950, Giuseppe Tubini and I were invited to attend the 16th class of the missionary school of Gilead. Right from the start, I realized that it would be difficult for me to learn English. I tried my very best, but it was a real challenge. We had to read the whole Bible in English. To accomplish this, I sometimes skipped lunch to practice reading out loud. Eventually, my turn came to give a talk. I remember the instructor’s comment as if it were yesterday, “Your gestures and your enthusiasm are excellent, but your English is totally incomprehensible!” Despite this, I managed to complete the course successfully. Thereafter, Giuseppe and I were reassigned to Italy. With the extra training, we were both better equipped to serve the brothers.
In 1955, I married Lidia, whose baptism talk I had given seven years earlier. Her father, Domenico, was a dear brother who had managed to help all seven of his children to embrace the truth, despite his being persecuted by the Fascist regime and being sentenced to exile for three years. Lidia too was a real fighter for the truth. She faced three court cases before our legal right to preach from house to house was eventually recognized. When we had been married for six years, Beniamino, our first son, was born. In 1972 we had another son, Marco. I am delighted that both of them as well as their families are serving Jehovah zealously.
Staying Active in Jehovah’s Service
During my happy life serving others, I have had many memorable experiences. For example, in the early 1980’s, my father-in-law wrote to the then president of Italy, Sandro Pertini. During the Fascist dictatorship, both of them had been exiled to the island of Ventotene, where perceived enemies of the regime were held. My father-in-law requested an interview with the intention of giving the president a witness. When his request was granted, I accompanied him, and we were cordially received—something we were not at all used to. The president warmly greeted my father-in-law with a hug. Then we talked about our faith and gave him some literature.
In 1991, after 44 years as a traveling overseer, I left the circuit work, having visited congregations throughout Italy. For the next four years, I served as an Assembly Hall overseer until I had to lighten my activity because of a serious illness. However, thanks to Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, I am still in full-time service. I try to do my best to preach and teach the good news, and I am presently conducting some Bible studies. The brothers still say that when I give talks, I have an “explosive” enthusiasm. I thank Jehovah that my vigor has not diminished with age.
As a youth, I was completely dominated by the fear of death, but gaining accurate Bible knowledge has given me a sure hope of everlasting life—life “in abundance,” as Jesus called it. (John 10:10) That is what I am now looking forward to—a full life in peace, security, and happiness, with copious blessings from Jehovah. May all honor go to our loving Creator, whose name we have the privilege of bearing.—Ps. 83:18.
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On our way to Gilead
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With Giuseppe at Gilead
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On our wedding day
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My dear wife has been by my side for over 55 years