I was among four little girls chosen to present Adolf Hitler with flowers after he gave a speech one time. Why was I picked? My father was very involved in Nazi activities and was the chauffeur for the leader of a local branch of that party. My mother was a devout Catholic and wanted me to be a nun. Despite these two strong influences, I became neither a Nazi nor a nun. Let me tell you why.
I WAS raised in Graz, Austria. At age seven, I was sent to a school for religious training. However, I witnessed shocking sexual immorality between priests and nuns. So my mother allowed me to leave the school within a year.
Later, I went to boarding school. One night, Father came there to take me to safety because Graz was being heavily bombed. We took refuge in the town of Schladming. Just after we arrived and crossed a bridge, it was blown up. Another time, low-flying airplanes shot at my grandmother and me in our yard. By war’s end, it seemed that both the church and the government had failed us.
LEARNING OF UNFAILING SUPPORT
In 1950, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses began sharing the Bible’s message with my mother. I would listen to their conversations and even accompany Mother to some congregation meetings. Becoming convinced that Jehovah’s Witnesses had the truth, she got baptized in 1952.
At the time, the local congregation seemed to me like an old-ladies’ club. Later, however, we visited a congregation where there were many young people—not an old-ladies’ club at all! When back in Graz, I started attending all the meetings, and soon I too was convinced that what I was learning was the truth. I also came to know Jehovah as a God who gives his servants unfailing support. He does so even when we feel that we are facing impossible circumstances alone.—Ps. 3:5, 6.
I wanted to share the truth with others. I started with my siblings. My four older sisters had already left home to work as schoolteachers. But I visited them in different villages and encouraged them to study the Bible. Eventually, all my siblings did so and became Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During my second week in the door-to-door ministry, I met a woman in her 30’s with whom I began to study the Bible. She progressed to baptism, and later, so did her husband and two sons. That study had a profound spiritual effect on me. Why? Well, no one had ever had a formal Bible study with me. I had to prepare well for each lesson. In a sense, I did so first to teach myself and then so that I could teach my student! That really deepened my appreciation for the truth. In April 1954, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism.
“PERSECUTED, BUT NOT ABANDONED”
In 1955, I attended international conventions in Germany, France, and England. While in London, I met Albert Schroeder. He was an instructor at the Bible School of Gilead, and later he served as a member of the Governing Body. During a tour of the British Museum, Brother Schroeder pointed out to us some Bible manuscripts. They contained God’s name in Hebrew letters, and he explained their importance. This touched me emotionally and spiritually, making me more determined than ever to promote the truth from God’s Word.
I began serving as a full-time pioneer on January 1, 1956. Four months later, I was invited to serve as a special pioneer in Austria. At the time, there were no Witnesses in Mistelbach, the town where I was to serve. But I faced a particular challenge. My pioneer partner and I were quite different. I was almost 19 and from the city; she was 25 and a country girl. I liked to sleep late each morning; she liked to get up early. Come evening, I was inclined to stay up; she wanted to go to bed early. Still, applying the Bible’s advice, we worked out our differences and enjoyed success as pioneer partners.
Actually, we faced other significant challenges. There was even some persecution, but we were “not abandoned.” (2 Cor. 4:7-9) Once, while we were preaching in a rural village, the people turned their dogs loose. My partner and I were soon surrounded by large dogs barking and baring their teeth. We held hands, and I even prayed, “Jehovah, please, when they get us, may we die quickly!” When the dogs came within an arm’s length of us, they stopped, wagged their tails, and walked away. We felt that Jehovah had protected us. After that, we preached throughout that village, and to our delight, the people were very receptive. Perhaps they were surprised that the dogs had not harmed us or that we had persevered after such a frightening experience. Some of them eventually became Witnesses.
We had another frightening experience. One day our landlord came home drunk, threatening to kill us and claiming that we were disturbing the neighborhood. His wife tried to calm him but without success. We heard all of that from our room upstairs. We quickly put chairs in front of our door and started packing our suitcases. When we opened the door, our landlord was standing at the top of the stairs, holding a huge knife. So we fled through the back door and down the long garden path with all our belongings, never to return.
We went to a hotel and asked for a room. As it turned out, we stayed there for almost a year, which ultimately benefited our ministry. How so? The hotel was in the center of town, and some of our Bible students wanted to study there. Soon we were holding the book study and the weekly Watchtower Study in our hotel room, with about 15 attending.
We stayed in Mistelbach for more than a year. Then I was reassigned to Feldbach, southeast of Graz. I had a new pioneer partner, but again there was no congregation. We lived in a tiny room on the second floor of a log cabin. The wind whistled through the gaps between the logs, so we tried to block the holes with newspapers. We also had to collect water from a well. But it was worth it. Within a few months, a group was established. Eventually, some 30 members of a family with whom we studied came into the truth!
Such experiences strengthened my appreciation for Jehovah’s unfailing support of those who pursue Kingdom interests. Even if we are beyond the reach of human help, Jehovah is always there.—Ps. 121:1-3.
SUPPORTED BY GOD’S “RIGHT HAND OF RIGHTEOUSNESS”
In 1958 an international convention was to be held in New York City, at Yankee Stadium and Polo Grounds. I applied to attend, and the Austria branch asked whether I would be interested in attending the 32nd class of Gilead School. How could I refuse such a privilege? I immediately responded, “Yes!”
In class at Gilead, I sat next to Martin Poetzinger. He had endured dreadful experiences in Nazi concentration camps. He too later served as a member of the Governing Body. During class, Martin would sometimes whisper, “Erika, what does that mean in German?”
Halfway through the course, Nathan Knorr announced our assignments. Mine was to Paraguay. Because I was so young, I needed my father’s permission to enter that country. After obtaining that, I arrived in Paraguay in March 1959. I was assigned to a missionary home in Asunción, with a new partner.
Before long, I met Walter Bright, a missionary who had graduated from the 30th class. In time, we married and could face life’s challenges together. Whenever we encountered a trying problem, we read Jehovah’s promise at Isaiah 41:10: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be anxious, for I am your God. I will fortify you.” This reassured us that as long as we strove to remain faithful to God and put his Kingdom first, he would never fail us.
In time, we were assigned to an area close to the Brazil border. There the clergy incited young people to throw rocks at our missionary home, which was already not in the best condition. Then Walter started a Bible study with the chief of police. He made sure that police officers stood near our home for a week, and the persecutors gave us no more trouble. Shortly thereafter, we were moved to more suitable quarters across the Brazilian border. This proved to be advantageous because we could hold meetings both in Paraguay and in Brazil. Before we left that assignment, there were two small congregations.
JEHOVAH CONTINUES TO SUSTAIN ME
My doctors had told me that I could not have children, so we were surprised to learn in 1962 that I was expecting! We eventually settled in Hollywood, Florida, near Walter’s family. For a number of years, Walter and I were not in a position to pioneer. We had to care for a family. Still, we continued to give priority to Kingdom interests.—Matt. 6:33.
When we arrived in Florida in November 1962, we were surprised to find that local sentiments about integration meant that black brothers held their meetings separately from white brothers and that they preached in separate areas. But Jehovah does not make racial distinctions, and before too long the congregations became racially integrated. Jehovah’s hand in this arrangement was apparent, as there are now dozens of congregations in the area.
Sadly, Walter died of brain cancer in 2015. He was a wonderful husband for 55 years, one who loved Jehovah and helped many brothers. I look forward to seeing him again in renewed health when he is resurrected.—Acts 24:15.
I am grateful to have been in the full-time service for over 40 years, experiencing many joys and rewards. For example, Walter and I were able to be present for the baptisms of 136 of our Bible students. Of course, there were some hardships. But we never viewed these as a reason to stop serving our faithful God. Instead, we drew closer to him, trusting him to resolve matters in his own time and in his own way. And he does!—2 Tim. 4:16, 17.
I do miss Walter very much, but pioneering helps me to cope. I find it especially beneficial to teach others, even sharing the resurrection hope with them. Indeed, in more ways than I can recount, Jehovah has never failed me. True to his promise, he has sustained me, fortified me, and taken hold of me with his “right hand of righteousness.”—Isa. 41:10.