GERMANY is a hub of international activity. About 15,000,000 people from abroad come as tourists in an average year. Many of them spend vacations in the Bavarian Alps, the Black Forest, along the scenic Rhine River, or visiting cultural centers in the cities. Others whose travel takes them to Germany may be there for business reasons. Germany is one of the major trading nations of the world, with business connections around the globe. For a number of years, the country’s thriving economy attracted so many workers from other lands that this had a noticeable effect on the makeup of the population in the larger cities. This has also affected the ministry of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany.
Their ministry has been affected further by events that took place during and at the end of World War II. Under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, the Witnesses were the object of savage and sustained attack. With the blessing of both Catholic and Protestant clergy, Hitler vowed to exterminate the Ernste Bibelforscher (the Earnest Bible Students), as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known in Germany. But Jehovah’s Witnesses did not compromise their faith. They stood firm in the face of merciless assault.
Twelve years after the Witnesses were banned in Germany, Hitler and his political party were gone. In contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses were busy telling people about God’s Kingdom and what it means for mankind. The record of what they experienced during the Nazi era and how they dealt with it continues to provide the basis for a witness—now to the whole world.
What had made it possible for the Witnesses to emerge victorious? It was not some cleverness on their part. Surely, it was not their numbers. There were fewer than 20,000 of them in all of Germany at the start of World War II, in contrast with the colossal Nazi regime. The explanation lies in what Gamaliel, a wise teacher, said long ago, as recorded in the Bible: “If this scheme or this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” (Acts 5:34-39) Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany proved loyal to God, even under threat of death, and Jehovah proved true to the promise that he would “not leave his loyal ones.”—Ps. 37:28.
Using Well Their Postwar Opportunities
Those who had survived the experiences of the war years could see that there was work to do. They had just lived through events that were part of an unmistakable fulfillment of what Jesus Christ had foretold would mark the sign of his presence and of the conclusion of the system of things. They had been in the midst of a war that was on a scale unprecedented in history. They had experienced what it means to be delivered up to tribulation, to be betrayed, to be objects of hatred by the nations, and to be killed. They were in the midst of the foretold food shortages. People needed to be told the meaning of these events. Even in the concentration camps, Jehovah’s Witnesses had never quit preaching. But they knew that Jesus had foretold: “This good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations.” (Matt. 24:3-14) There was still more to be done, and they were eager to get on with the work.
Quickly after the war, the Witnesses in Germany reorganized the work of Kingdom proclamation. Erich Frost, released after nine years, promptly arranged for mature brothers to visit, reorganize, and strengthen the congregations. Some of the Witnesses were so weak from hunger that they fainted during the meetings, but they were determined to be present to benefit from the spiritual food. On the first day after her release, Gertrud Poetzinger walked all day toward Munich, hoping to find her husband there. But in the evening when kindly people provided her food and lodging, she stayed up till past midnight, witnessing to them about Jehovah’s purposes. Konrad Franke, on being set free, started out right away in the pioneer service, although at first he had only his striped prison garb to wear.
In 1947 there were 15,856 Witnesses in Germany who were again sharing publicly in the field ministry, boldly making known that God’s Kingdom is the only hope for lasting peace and security. Jehovah blessed their zealous ministry, and by May 1975, thirty years after the war had ended, there were 100,351 Kingdom proclaimers busy in West Germany.
During those years, it was not only the German field that was receiving a witness. Zealous Witnesses in Germany found that their ministry was affecting people of many nations. How was that?
A Missionary Field at Their Doorstep
To meet the needs of its prospering economy, Germany began to recruit Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers” from other countries, in the mid-1950’s. Large numbers came into the country from Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and what was then Yugoslavia. By 1972 the foreign labor force had swelled to well over 2.1 million.
After the tide of guest workers from the 1950’s into the 1970’s, Germany was swept by a wave of refugees from Africa and Asia in the 1980’s. In the 1990’s, they were joined by refugees from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. As a result of what were then liberal laws offering political asylum, Germany came to have the highest number of foreign-born residents of any nation in Europe.
Jehovah’s Witnesses saw this as excellent missionary territory that had come right to their doorstep. Since “God is not partial” and since people uprooted from their homeland certainly need the comfort that only God’s Word can give, Jehovah’s Witnesses felt keenly obligated to preach the good news to these people. (Acts 10:34, 35; 2 Cor. 1:3, 4) But reaching the 7,500,000 foreigners in Germany in their own language has been no small task.
In order to share Bible truth more effectively with these people from abroad, many German Witnesses learned a new language. What fine evidence that they truly love their neighbor, in harmony with what Jesus taught his followers! (Matt. 22:39) Although most of these Witnesses were unable to be missionaries abroad, they were eager to take full advantage of opportunities within their own country. Thus, by August 1998, more than 23,600 publishers were preaching the good news in 371 foreign-language congregations and 219 publisher groups. Of course, foreign-language congregations are formed not to segregate but, rather, to make it easier for people without sufficient knowledge of German to learn the truth in their mother tongue. Many publishers have come to recognize that a second language may reach the mind but it often takes the mother tongue to reach the heart.
Though foreigners are resented and mistreated by some groups in Germany, among Jehovah’s people they are welcomed with genuine Christian love. Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Hungarian, Japanese, Persian, Romanian, Tamil, Tigrinya, and Vietnamese are among the 24 languages in addition to German in which Jehovah’s Witnesses here currently hold meetings. At the 1993 “Divine Teaching” District Conventions in Germany, roughly 10 percent of the 194,751 persons in attendance were at the foreign-language conventions. And the number baptized at these was almost 14 percent of the total.
Among those who have responded appreciatively to the Kingdom message is a Hindu family who left Sri Lanka in 1983 because of the war there and who hoped to get medical treatment for their six-year-old son. Sadly, the boy died. But the family has come to know Jehovah, who will raise the dead and grant them the opportunity to live forever. (Acts 24:15) There is also a Nigerian who as a teenage girl had fought in the Biafran war. After she moved to Germany, her life changed when she learned what Jehovah is teaching people about living together in peace.—Isa. 2:3, 4.
Among the Italians who have become Jehovah’s Witnesses while in Germany, it is not unusual to hear the proverb, “Non tutti i mali vengono per nuocere” (“Not every misfortune turns out to be a disadvantage”). How appropriate! Many of those Italians, as well as people from other countries, came to Germany to escape economic problems, only to find something of greater value than material goods—the truth about God and his purpose.
The Witnesses’ zealous activity among these people has been noticed by others. The Halberstadt Congregation received this letter: “We are the central camp for asylum seekers and, at any one time, we care for people from over 40 nations. . . . These people, who stem from a variety of different cultures, have had to leave behind family members, homeland, language, and tradition. They have oftentimes had traumatic experiences, and they face an unsure future. . . . That is why many of them look to religion for support and hope. We are grateful for your generous gift [of Bibles in various languages] enabling these people to find comfort and confidence by reading the Bible in their own language.”
A Few of the Foreign-Language Groups
ENGLISH: Refugees from Nigeria, Ghana, Sri Lanka, India, and elsewhere benefit from the work of the English congregations. Steven Kwakye, from Ghana, is one who benefited. In Germany when a young man from Bangladesh told Steven that he was trying to avoid the Witnesses, Steven suggested that he send them to him instead. When Steven was a young man, a Witness in Ghana talked to him. Now, away from the pressure of his relatives, Steven wanted to learn more. Today he is a Christian elder, and his family shares with him in serving Jehovah.
TURKISH: Rasim’s wife and sons had been Jehovah’s Witnesses for over ten years, though Rasim himself continued in the Islamic faith. He became aware, however, that interpretation of the Koran differed so much from one mosque to the next that some Muslims would not go to any mosque other than their own. On a visit to Turkey, he went to both a mosque and the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the mosque, he heard interpretations of Islam that were different from those taught in Germany. Unity was lacking. But upon returning to Germany, he said: “The same love and the same program can be found in the Kingdom Hall here as in the Kingdom Hall in Turkey. This is the truth.”
HINDI: In 1985 two Witnesses called at the door of Sharda Aggarwal just after she had prayed to find a god to whom she could pour out her heart. Her husband had lung cancer. She was despondent, feeling that the Hindu gods were ignoring her prayers. She asked the Witnesses if Jesus was God. Their explanation convinced her that her prayer had been answered. Jehovah sounded like the kind of god she wanted to learn about. Although initially hesitant about turning her back on the gods of Hinduism for fear of displeasing them, she soon threw away their pictures and accepted Jehovah as the true God. She was baptized in 1987. Today she is a regular pioneer, grateful to be serving a personal God in whom she can confide. Her husband and her son are both ministerial servants.—Ps. 62:8.
POLISH: In 1992 a Polish congregation was formed in Berlin, and during the same year, a special assembly day was held in Polish. Even though it took place in a section of Germany where there are many people of Polish background, no one expected to see the Assembly Hall, the neighboring Kingdom Hall, and the cafeteria packed out. An almost unbelievable total of 2,523 persons came! Some of these were Polish Witnesses who were associating with German congregations, but they were delighted to see the work of Kingdom preaching opening up in the Polish field, and they themselves were grateful to be able to hear Bible truths spoken in their mother tongue.
Even Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Chinese!
RUSSIAN: After the end of the Cold War, many people who had grown up in Russia and who spoke Russian but whose ancestors were German returned to the land of their forefathers. There were also members of the Soviet armed forces serving in what was then East Germany, along with their dependents. All humans are born with a spiritual need, and theirs had not been satisfied.
The Schlegel family are ethnic Germans who in 1992 moved from the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine to the land of their forefathers. There they were contacted by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who originally came from Uzbekistan and who had become a Witness in Germany. After studying the Bible, the entire family got baptized.
Sergej and his wife, Zhenya, were atheists. But when shown the Bible’s answers to their questions, especially regarding the future, they were astonished. Humbly, they developed faith in Jehovah and made adjustments in their lives, even though that meant Sergej’s changing his employment and forgoing entitlement to a pension that would soon have been his.
Marina, a nurse in a military hospital, had been searching for the meaning of life. When she received the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, she read it immediately and soon realized that she had found what she was searching for. After she returned to Russia, she visited others who had studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, to encourage them. Soon she began pursuing her purpose in life as a pioneer.
As of August 1998, there were 31 Russian congregations and 63 smaller groups, with a total of 2,119 publishers—a 27-percent increase over the previous year.
SERBO-CROATIAN: Johann Strecker, traveling overseer in the Serbo-Croatian field, states that at least 16 different nationalities used to live in the former Yugoslavia. He says: “It is marvelous to see how the truth now unites them.” When Munib, a Muslim who had served in the Yugoslavian army for eight years, was invited to a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, he found Croats, Serbians, and people with Muslim background peacefully gathering together. To him, this was almost unimaginable! For one month he simply observed. When he became convinced that the peace and unity among the Witnesses is real, he agreed to start studying the Bible. In 1994 he got baptized.
Rosanda, a Roman Catholic from Croatia who had spent several years in a convent, came to visit relatives who had become Witnesses in Germany. After attending the Theocratic Ministry School and the Service Meeting with them, she admitted: “You have the truth. I always wondered how the first Christians preached the gospel. When I saw the two sisters on the platform, the way the one was preaching to the other, the thought flashed through my mind: ‘That must be exactly the way the first Christians did it.’” Today she is a pioneer, following the example of the early Christians.
Some of the German Witnesses who learned the languages of these groups in order to witness to them later actually moved to those countries to serve when that became possible.
CHINESE: Work in the Chinese field in Germany has opened up more recently. “The majority of people from China have never heard of us, much less ever read the Bible,” explains Egidius Rühle, a former missionary in Taiwan. He adds: “Since most Chinese are eager to learn, they soak up knowledge like a dry sponge soaks up water.”
When the 12th class of the Ministerial Training School was introduced to the Selters Bethel family in October 1996, how gratifying it was to meet the first Chinese student to attend the school in Germany. He had learned the truth in Germany. He, in turn, had witnessed to a Chinese professor of geology and had given her the book Life—How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? She read the entire book within a week. Now, instead of teaching evolution, she conducts home Bible studies—16 of them at the end of 1996.
Eager to Share What They Learned
Literally hundreds of foreign residents have learned the truth in Germany over the years and then returned to their native lands to carry on the preaching of the good news. Many now serve as elders or ministerial servants or in other responsible positions. Petros Karakaris is a member of the Bethel family in Greece; Mamadou Keita serves as a missionary in Mali; and Paulin Kangala—known by many as Pepe—is a missionary in the Central African Republic, along with his wife, Anke.
Since the beginning of the 1990’s, over 1,500 Greek-speaking publishers have returned to Greece, some of them as qualified elders. Others have moved to Sweden, Belgium, England, and Canada to further the preaching work among the Greek-speaking populace there. And yet probably in no other country in the world, with the exception of Greece itself, are there as many Greek-speaking publishers as there are in Germany.
What Was Happening in East Germany?
At the end of World War II, Germany was occupied by the armies of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The defeated nation was divided into four occupation zones; each of the four conquering powers received jurisdiction over one zone. (Berlin, the capital, was also divided into four occupation sectors.) Since the Soviet occupation zone was the eastern part of the country, it soon became known as the East Zone. In 1949, sovereignty was restored to this part of Germany, and it became the German Democratic Republic. But in reality, the term “East Zone” simply gave way to the name East Germany. When the three remaining occupation zones became the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955, then, consistent with popular usage, it became known as West Germany.
After the fall of the Nazi state, Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the East Zone promptly availed themselves of the opportunity to hold meetings publicly and to share zealously in the field ministry. By mid-1949, upwards of 17,000 were reporting field service in East Germany. But the relief that they felt after the fall of the Nazi regime was short-lived. Congregation meetings were again broken up by the police. Literature was confiscated. Roads were blockaded to prevent the Witnesses from attending a convention. Brothers were arrested. On August 31, 1950, an official ban was imposed. The Witnesses in East Germany were again forced underground, this time by a Communist regime, not to emerge until almost 40 years later.
Persecution in East Germany was most severe at the beginning of the ban. In 1990 the German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost reported: “Between 1950 and 1961 [when the Wall was constructed], East German officials arrested 2,891 of Jehovah’s Witnesses; 2,202 of them, including 674 women, were brought to trial and sentenced to a total of 12,013 years imprisonment. During incarceration, 37 men and 13 women died either of mistreatment, sickness, malnutrition, or old age. The courts sentenced 12 men to life imprisonment but later reduced their sentences to 15 years.”
Of course, that was only the beginning. The ban lasted for four decades. There were periods of apparent letup in pressure on the Witnesses. Then homes would be invaded and more would be arrested. Although there is some uncertainty as to exact numbers, the Society’s own historical records show that during the years of the ban, 4,940 Witnesses in East Germany were imprisoned in 231 different places.
Even under such difficult conditions, Jehovah’s Witnesses generally found a way to obtain Bible literature for study. Hundreds of courageous brothers and sisters risked their freedom and at times even their lives to care for spiritual needs. Sisters often played a key role. Before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, they would travel into the Western sector of Berlin, obtain literature from the Society’s office there, and take it back with them. When East German spies began to watch the office to see who got literature, some of the couriers were arrested. So other tactics were used. The sisters acting as couriers would pick up the literature at the homes of other Witnesses in Berlin and make their way home. Despite the fact that some were arrested, dragged into court, and given prison sentences, the flow of spiritual supplies never completely dried up.
Was it possible for them to hold Christian meetings under such circumstances? Understandably, some felt a bit of anxiety at first. But they realized that assembling with fellow Christians was important if they were to stay spiritually strong. (Heb. 10:23-25) They arranged to do it discreetly, in small groups. For security reasons, they called one another only by first names. The meetings were generally held after dark, at different places, and on different days. During the summer the meetings could not begin before 10:00 p.m. Nevertheless, the brothers took it all in stride.
Though Kingdom Halls could not be used, a friendly farmer in Saxony offered the use of his barn. It had a back door that opened onto a path that was concealed by bushes. For an entire winter, that barn accommodated a group of about 20, who met by candlelight. Soon, the farmer too became a Witness.
Above all, they arranged to celebrate the Lord’s Evening Meal. Manfred Tamme recalls an occasion when he supplied some of the incarcerated brothers with Memorial emblems: “I filled a hair-tonic bottle with wine and asked to have it passed on to an imprisoned brother. The official opened the bottle, smelled its contents, and said: ‘This is supposed to keep your hair from falling out?’ ‘Well, at least that’s what it says,’ I replied. He screwed the lid back on and handed the bottle to the brother for whom it was intended!”
Learning to Witness Under Ban
The work of preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom did not stop in East Germany. The Bible was not banned, so the brothers often started conversations simply by referring to the Bible. Since they had little or no literature to offer, they developed Bible discussions on the basis of a chain of scriptures worked out on various subjects. Of course, preaching was dangerous. Each day in the service could be the last in freedom. The Witnesses made prayer their “permanent companion,” as one of them expressed it, adding: “It put us at ease and gave us composure. We never felt alone. Constant vigilance, however, was mandatory.”
In spite of efforts to be cautious, there were times when they came face-to-face with the police. On one occasion when Hermann and Margit Laube were calling at homes recommended by people they already knew, they saw a police uniform on the coatrack behind the man who answered the door. Margit’s face paled; Hermann’s heart pounded. They said a silent prayer. Surely this would mean imprisonment! “Who are you?” asked the man tersely. Margit was the one who replied: “I am sure I know you from somewhere, but I just cannot think where. Yes, you are a policeman. I must have seen you on duty.” In a somewhat more friendly tone, he responded: “Are you Jehovah’s?” “Yes,” Hermann answered, “we are, and you must admit it takes courage for us to knock on your door. We are interested in you personally.” They were invited into the house. After a number of calls, a Bible study was started. In time, he became a Christian brother.
Some of the witnessing was done right in the prisons. Wolfgang Meise was in the prison in Waldheim. One day he received a letter from his wife saying that she had been “in Berlin and had enjoyed some Knorr soup.” (Knorr is the brand name for a popular soup in Germany.) Wolfgang used the opportunity to explain to a fellow prisoner that this meant that there had been a convention in Berlin and that N. H. Knorr, the president of the Watch Tower Society, had spoken there. The man never forgot the sparkle in Wolfgang’s eyes, reflecting the joy he felt, as he explained his wife’s letter. About 14 years later, after having moved to West Germany, that man began studying the Bible, and two years later he got baptized in Würzburg.
Hildegard Seliger, who had already spent many years in Nazi concentration camps, was sentenced by a Communist court in Leipzig to ten more years. Later, a woman guard in the prison at Halle told Hildegard that she was viewed as being especially dangerous because she ‘spoke about the Bible all day long.’
Despite the Ban, Constant Increase
The zeal shown by the brothers bore good fruitage. Horst Schramm reports that at the beginning of the 1950’s, there were 25 publishers in the Königs Wusterhausen Congregation, but when the Berlin Wall fell, there were 161. Yet, 43 publishers had moved to the West, and several had died. For a fact, in some congregations more than 70 percent of the Witnesses now active learned the truth under ban.
Take, for example, the Chemnitz family. Bernd and Waltraud learned the truth and were baptized while still quite young, during the early days of the ban. After they married and started raising a family, they did not allow the ban to prevent them from rearing their children to become servants of Jehovah. In the 1980’s, while the work was still banned, Andrea, Gabriela, Ruben, and Esther, following the lead of their parents, dedicated themselves to Jehovah and were baptized. Only Matthias, the youngest, was baptized after the ban was lifted. Jehovah richly blessed this couple’s determination in the face of opposition. What a reward for them to know that today all five of their children are members of the Selters Bethel family!
An elder who helped compile the monthly field service reports for the Society says: “In all the 40 years of ban, not a single month went by in which no one was reported as having been baptized.” He then elaborates: “Baptisms were generally small-scale and carried out in private homes. After a talk, the baptism candidates were immersed in a bathtub. Getting them totally submerged was often the problem. Despite such minor difficulties, every one of them still recalls with joy the day he was baptized.”
When it was once again possible to publish field service reports for East Germany, what a joy to learn that during the 1980’s there had been as many as 20,704 active publishers in that area! Now, of course, separate reports are no longer necessary. During 1990, the number of publishers for reunited Germany swelled to 154,108.
Reorganization to Strengthen the Brotherhood
During the period when the Communist rulers were endeavoring to keep Witnesses in that part of the world cut off from their Christian brothers in other lands, significant changes were being made worldwide in the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses itself. These changes, made in an effort to conform more closely to what the Bible says about the first-century Christian congregation, served to strengthen the international brotherhood and prepare the organization for rapid growth during the years to come.—Compare Acts 20:17, 28.
Thus, starting in October 1972, congregations were no longer supervised by just one individual, known as the congregation servant, who cared for necessary work with the help of assistants. Instead, a body of elders was appointed to supervise each congregation. By 1975, fine results from this change were already becoming apparent.
However, a longtime traveling overseer, Erwin Herzig, remembers that the change was not welcomed by all. It served to reveal “the heart condition of some of the congregation servants,” he says. Although the vast majority had loyal hearts, the change cleaned out the few who were ambitious and more desirous of “being number one” than of serving their brothers.
More changes were in the offing. During the 1970’s, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses was enlarged and then reorganized, its work being divided among six committees that began functioning on January 1, 1976. A month later, as of February 1, 1976, oversight of the branch offices worldwide was adjusted. No longer did a branch operate under the jurisdiction of an individual branch servant. Rather, each branch was supervised by a Branch Committee appointed by the Governing Body.
Brothers Frost, Franke, and Kelsey had each previously served for various periods as branch servant in Germany. Brother Frost had found it necessary to leave Bethel for health reasons. (He died in 1987 at 86 years of age. His life story is in The Watchtower of April 15, 1961.) When a five-member Branch Committee was established in Germany in 1976, it included both Konrad Franke (who had been repeatedly imprisoned during the Nazi era) and Richard Kelsey (a Gilead graduate who had by this time been serving in Germany for 25 years). Also included were Willi Pohl (a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and one who had attended the 15th class of Gilead), Günter Künz (a graduate of Gilead’s 37th class), and Werner Rudtke (a former traveling overseer).
These original members, with the exception of Brother Franke, who died in 1983, are still serving on the Branch Committee. (Konrad Franke’s life story appears in The Watchtower of March 15, 1963.) Two other brothers served for a time before their deaths: Egon Peter, from 1978 to 1989, and Wolfgang Krolop, from 1989 to 1992.
At present the Branch Committee has eight members. In addition to those already mentioned, there are Edmund Anstadt (since 1978), Peter Mitrega (since 1989), also Eberhard Fabian and Ramon Templeton (since 1992).
When the adjusted arrangement for branch oversight was inaugurated in 1976, there were only 187 in the Bethel family in Wiesbaden, West Germany. Since then the staff has expanded to 1,134, including individuals from 30 nations. This mirrors to some extent the international aspects of the work in which the branch is privileged to share.
Printing Facilities to Meet Expanding Needs
In the mid-1970’s, the branch facilities in Germany were located in a part of Wiesbaden known as Kohlheck, once a sleepy suburb at the edge of a forest but now a rapidly growing section of the city. Already the Society had increased its property holdings in this area 13 times. But the number of Kingdom proclaimers in West Germany had grown to some 100,000. A larger office was needed to supervise the field. A more extensive printery was required in order to provide Bible literature. Obtaining additional property for expansion was becoming very difficult. How was the problem going to be solved? The Branch Committee prayed for Jehovah’s direction.
Late in 1977 the members of the newly appointed Branch Committee began considering the possibility of constructing a new Bethel home at a different location. But was this really necessary? The general feeling was that the end of the old system must be very near. However, another factor also needed to be considered. Printing methods were changing, and the Society was under pressure to adopt these if printing on a large scale was to continue during whatever time might be left for the old system. Interestingly, experience gained in dealing with the situation in East Germany during the ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses there made it easier for the brothers in Wiesbaden to make changes, once these became necessary. How was that so?
The Decision to Do Offset Printing
Providing Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Germany with literature became increasingly difficult after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. To make this easier, a special edition of The Watchtower in a smaller format was prepared for them. It contained only the study articles. Producing this edition entailed typesetting the articles a second time. Printing on extra-thin paper was difficult, and folding the printed sheets was also a challenge. When the brothers found an automatic folding machine capable of doing the job, they discovered that it had been constructed in Leipzig, East Germany—paradoxically, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned and the very country for which this less-conspicuous edition of The Watchtower was designed.
To simplify the work, a brother who had learned to do offset printing before coming to Bethel suggested reproducing the magazines by that means. Study articles could be photographed, reduced in size, and then exposed onto an offset plate. A small sheetfed offset press was made available to the branch as a gift. In time, it became possible to publish not just the study articles but the entire magazine, first in black and white and eventually in full color. In the same manner, even small-size books were produced.
When Nathan Knorr, then president of the Watch Tower Society, visited Wiesbaden in 1975, he watched the operation with interest. “Not bad,” he said after examining the printed material. When it was explained that this was a special edition for East Germany and that we were pleased with the new method of producing it, Brother Knorr replied: “Brothers undergoing so much deserve the best we can give them.” He at once granted permission to purchase additional machines to perform the work.
Thus, when Grant Suiter, a member of the Governing Body, visited Germany in 1977 and mentioned that the Society had long given serious consideration to going over to offset printing and had now decided to do so on a large scale, the brothers in Wiesbaden already had some experience with it. Indirectly, the East German ban had prepared them for this change.
More was involved, however, than just accepting the idea that a change in printing methods was necessary. Brother Suiter explained that larger and heavier printing presses would be needed. But where could they be put? It was one thing to dream of web offset presses printing in full color and quite another thing to make this dream a reality. Several possibilities for further expansion in Kohlheck were investigated, but all were found to be problematic. What should be done?
A New Branch Complex
The search for property in another location began. On July 30, 1978, some 50,000 Witnesses gathered at a convention in Düsseldorf and a crowd of almost 60,000 in Munich were informed, to their surprise, that plans were being made to purchase property upon which an entirely new branch complex could be built.
During the course of nearly a year, 123 sites were investigated. Finally, selection was made of property located on a hill overlooking the village of Selters. With the approval of the Governing Body, the purchase was made on March 9, 1979. Further negotiations with 18 property owners made it possible to obtain another 65 parcels of adjoining property, thus providing 74 acres [30 ha] for development. Located about 25 miles [40 km] north of Wiesbaden, Selters offered easy access for trucking. Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main International Airport was less than 40 miles [65 km] away.
The biggest construction project in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany was about to get under way. Were we really up to the job? Rolf Neufert, a member of the Building Committee, recalls: “No one, except for the brother who was our architect, had ever worked on such a large project. The difficulty of the task is hard to imagine. Normally, such a big and complicated project would be tackled only by an office with years of experience and all the necessary experts.” The brothers reasoned, however, that if Jehovah wanted them to build, he would also bless the outcome.
Forty different building permits had to be obtained, but local officials cooperated nicely and this was greatly appreciated. Oh, there was some opposition at first, but it came mainly from the clergy, who arranged meetings to stir up opposition but to no avail.
Witnesses throughout the country volunteered to help with the work. The spirit that they showed was outstanding. There were 400 regular workers, on an average, at the construction site daily, along with approximately 200 “vacation” workers at any one time. During the four years of building, no less than 15,000 different Witnesses volunteered their services.
One brother recalls: “Regardless of weather, regardless of difficulties, whether it was warm or cool or even freezing cold, things moved ahead. At times when others would have closed down operations, we were just getting started.”
Some help also came from other lands. Even traveling thousands of miles to help out was not too far for Jack and Nora Smith, along with their 15-year-old daughter, Becky, from Oregon, in the United States. They were at the international convention in Munich when it was announced that the Society was planning to build new branch facilities in Germany. “What a privilege it would be to work on a new Bethel construction!” they said. They let it be known that they were available. Jack recalls: “While doing preconvention work in 1979, we received an application and an invitation to come as soon as possible. We were so excited that we could hardly concentrate on our work or on the assembly.”
To accommodate construction workers, buildings already on the property had to be remodeled. By the winter of 1979/80, the first house had been completed. In September 1980 the foundation was laid for a new Bethel home. Work also started on the printing plant, and none too soon. The 89-foot-long [27-meter-long] web offset press ordered in January 1978 was due to be delivered early in 1982. By then, the printery, at least in part, had to be finished.
It was possible to do most of the work ourselves. A brother still says in amazement: “None of us had had any experience working on such a large project with a constantly changing work crew. We often thought that in one area or another we had reached a standstill, because for certain jobs the needed specialists were unavailable. But many times just at the last minute, an application from a qualified brother would suddenly turn up. As brothers were needed, they appeared.” They thanked Jehovah for his direction and blessing.
The Move to Selters
A lot of work was involved in moving the furniture and personal belongings of some 200 Bethel members, not to mention all the machines and equipment needed for their work. It was a job much too big to be done at one time. Gradually, department by department and as construction work proceeded, the Bethel family made its way to Selters.
Among the first to move were those working in the printery, since it was the first part of the complex completed. Little by little the machines in Wiesbaden were dismantled and moved to Selters. Meanwhile, on February 19, 1982, printing in full color on the new rotary offset press in Selters began. What a cause for celebration! By May, the Wiesbaden printery became silent. After 34 years, our printing in Wiesbaden had come to an end.
The first big job for the new offset press was printing the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. This new publication was planned for release at the 1982 district conventions, and Germany was asked to produce it in seven languages. The problem was that the bookbindery was still in Wiesbaden. In fact, it was not moved to Selters until over a year later. So after the book signatures rolled off the press in Selters, they were rushed by the Society truck to Wiesbaden for binding. Despite the extra work this involved, the brothers succeeded in finishing 485,365 copies out of the 1,348,582 in the first printing, enabling international crowds at conventions in several countries to rejoice over the new release.
Understandably, there were mixed emotions about moving. For some members of the Bethel family, Wiesbaden had been their home for nearly 35 years. But before long the Bethel complex in Wiesbaden was divided and sold to various individuals. Only one small section of the former bookbindery was retained and remodeled into a Kingdom Hall. Typical of the international unity of Jehovah’s people, this hall today houses four congregations—two German, one English, and one Russian.
After the finishing touches had been put on the Selters Bethel complex, a dedication program was held on April 21, 1984. All who had shared in the project strongly felt that Jehovah’s hand had been with them. They had looked to him for direction and had thanked him as seemingly insurmountable obstacles had been cleared out of the way. They now saw tangible evidence of his blessing in these completed facilities, which were already being used to promote true worship. (Ps. 127:1) Indeed, this was a time of special rejoicing.
Earlier in the week, the complex opened its doors to visitors. Various officials with whom the Society had dealt were invited to tour the premises. Neighbors were also welcomed. One visitor let it be known that he had come, thanks to his pastor. He explained that the pastor had grumbled about the Witnesses so often in recent years that the entire congregation was tired of hearing him. On the preceding Sunday, he had once again lashed out against the Witnesses, warning his flock not to accept the Witnesses’ invitation to the open house. “I was aware of your invitation,” the visitor explained, “but I had forgotten the date. Had the pastor not mentioned it last Sunday, I certainly would have overlooked it.”
After the preliminary tours, the day for the dedication program finally arrived. When the program began with music at 9:20 a.m., what a joy to know that of the then 14 members of the Governing Body, 13 had been able to accept the invitation to be present! Since it was impossible for everyone who had in one way or another contributed to the success of the project to be personally present, arrangements were made to tie in 11 other locations throughout the country by telephone. In this way a crowd of 97,562 persons was able to enjoy the fine program.
Among those present at Selters on that memorable day were many who had proved their faith while incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, along with a few who more recently had been released after imprisonment in East Germany. Included among them were Ernst and Hildegard Seliger. Brother Seliger had begun his career in the full-time ministry just 60 years earlier, and between him and his wife, they had spent more than 40 years in prisons and concentration camps under Nazi and Communist regimes. After attending the dedication program, they wrote: “Can you imagine how we felt being allowed to attend this wonderful spiritual banquet in our spiritual paradise? From start to finish, listening to the marvelous program was like hearing a divine symphony of theocratic unity and harmony.” (For details of tests of faith that they underwent, see The Watchtower of July 15, 1975.)
‘Houses to the Name of Jehovah’
People are often amazed to see Jehovah’s Witnesses build Kingdom Halls within a few weeks—or possibly just days—construct large Assembly Halls with volunteer labor, and finance million-dollar Bethel complexes with voluntary donations. Residents of Germany have had many opportunities to view all these activities firsthand.
The first Assembly Hall in West Germany was dedicated in West Berlin in the early 1970’s. Others followed, so that by 1986 all West German circuit assemblies were being held in halls owned by the Witnesses.
Jehovah’s blessing has been evident as the brothers have worked on these projects. In Munich, as a result of the cooperation of city officials, property for an Assembly Hall was obtained at a most reasonable price across the highway from the giant Olympic Stadium, at the edge of the beautifully landscaped Olympic Park.
Diligent efforts were made to hold equipment and construction expenditures to a minimum. Because a power plant was being relocated and had electrical switch cabinets and a telephone switchboard for sale, the brothers were able to purchase these for less than 5 percent of their original price. Demolition of a building complex at just the right time made it possible to obtain needed washbowls, lavatories, doors, windows, and hundreds of yards of water, gas, and ventilation pipes at a modest price. There were further savings as a result of making their own chairs and tables. In keeping with the city’s landscaping policy, the brothers had to plant 27 linden trees on the Assembly Hall property. A nursery going out of business had just the required number, each of exactly the required height, and these were purchased at one tenth of the regular price. After Munich finished paving most of its cobblestone streets, tons of cobblestones were available at a cost of next to nothing, and these were used to pave the walkways around the hall and its adjoining parking lot.
Similar stories could be told about the other Assembly Halls in Germany, each individually designed and beautiful in its own way. Every one of them is truly, as King Solomon described the temple in Jerusalem over 3,000 years ago, “a house to the name of Jehovah.”—1 Ki. 5:5.
Additionally, construction of Kingdom Halls proceeds apace to care for the needs of the 2,083 congregations in Germany. There are now 17 Regional Building Committees. Before the first of these was formed in 1984, the Witnesses owned only 230 Kingdom Halls in all of Germany. Since then, up to August 1998, an average of 58 new halls have been built annually—more than one a week for the past 12 years!
In matters of construction too, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany look beyond national borders. They are part of a global family. Upwards of 40 from Germany have served as international servants, willing to share in construction work wherever the Society would send them and for as long as needed. Another 242 have served for varying lengths of time on such projects in other lands.
Traveling Overseers Shepherd the Flock
An important factor in the spiritual condition of the organization has been the work done by traveling overseers. Such men are truly shepherds of the flock of God. (1 Pet. 5:1-3) They are, as the apostle Paul described them, “gifts in men.”—Eph. 4:8.
After World War II, traveling overseers visited the congregations, built them up, and worked with them in the field ministry. Included were such brothers as Gerhard Oltmanns, Josef Scharner, and Paul Wrobel, all of whom had been baptized in 1925. There were also Otto Wulle and Max Sandner, both of whom had been baptized during the 1930’s.
As the need arose, other brothers were added to the list of traveling overseers. From the end of the world war down to the present, upwards of 290 brothers have shared in the traveling work in West Germany and more than 40 others in East Germany. They have truly given of themselves to advance Kingdom interests. For some, this meant that they did not see their grown children or their grandchildren often. Others, while caring for their assignments, also arranged to spend time regularly with aging or ill parents.
Some of these traveling ministers have served in this strenuous and yet rewarding work for decades. For example, Horst and Gertrud Kretschmer have been in traveling work throughout Germany since the mid-1950’s. Brother Kretschmer still recalls that when he was at Wiesbaden Bethel for a short stay in 1950, Erich Frost lovingly laid his hand on his shoulder and said: “Horst, never worry. If you stay faithful to Jehovah, he will look after you. I have experienced this; you will experience it too. Just stay faithful.”
As of 1998, there are 125 brothers in Germany who are serving as circuit or district overseers. These are mature men, with an average of 30 years of full-time service to Jehovah. Their wives too are zealous in the ministry and are a special encouragement to the sisters in the congregations that they visit.
Traveling Overseer Goes to Brooklyn
Martin and Gertrud Poetzinger were well-known among Jehovah’s people in Germany. Both had faithfully served Jehovah before, during, and after Hitler’s Third Reich. After their release from Nazi confinement, they had immediately resumed full-time activity. For over 30 years, they had been in traveling work, serving circuits all over Germany. Thousands of Witnesses had learned to love and respect them.
In 1959, Brother Poetzinger attended the 32nd class of Gilead. Gertrud, who did not know English, had not accompanied him but nevertheless rejoiced with him in his privilege. Being separated from her husband was nothing new. Nazi persecution had forcibly separated them for nine years and this after only a few months of marriage. Now, when Jehovah’s organization was asking them to separate voluntarily for the sake of theocratic activity, they did not hesitate, much less complain.
Neither had ever served Jehovah for personal benefit. They had always willingly accepted theocratic assignments. Nonetheless, it came as a surprise when, in 1977, they were invited to become members of the Bethel family at the world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. Brother Poetzinger was to become a member of the Governing Body!
They were instructed to stay at the Bethel in Wiesbaden until they could obtain U.S. residence papers. Their wait turned out to be longer than they had expected, stretching into several months. While Martin brushed up on his English, his energetic wife, Gertrud, also studied it. Learning a new language is no small task for a woman in her mid-60’s. But anything for the sake of Jehovah’s service!
Several English-speaking members of the Wiesbaden Bethel family found great joy in helping Martin and Gertrud with the language. Each time Gertrud became too upset while studying English, her husband kindly admonished: “Take it easy, Gertrud, take it easy.” But Gertrud had never been good at ‘taking it easy.’ Her whole life in Jehovah’s service had been characterized by whole-souled involvement and determination. With this same spirit, she applied herself to learn the language, and in November 1978, as soon as the permanent entry visas had been received, she accompanied her husband to Brooklyn.
Although there were mixed emotions when they departed, the brothers in Germany rejoiced with them in their new privileges of service. They were also deeply moved when, about a decade later, they heard that on June 16, 1988, at the age of 83, Martin had finished his earthly course.
After her husband’s death, Gertrud returned to Germany, where she serves as a member of the Bethel family. She still does not “take it easy.” And it appears she never will. In addition to caring for her Bethel assignment, Gertrud often spends her vacations auxiliary pioneering. (For more information about the Poetzingers, see The Watchtower, issues of December 1, 1969; August 1, 1984; and September 15, 1988.)
Special Schools Help Fill International Needs
Since 1978, not long before the Poetzingers left for Brooklyn, the Pioneer Service School, a ten-day course of practical training, has served to fortify the pioneers in Germany. Every year, the school convenes in circuits throughout the country. All pioneers who have been on the list for at least a year and have not previously attended are invited. By early in 1998, there were 16,812 who had attended the school. In addition to German, class sessions have been held in English, French, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Turkish.
Some who attended the Pioneer Service School did so despite very difficult circumstances. A little over a week before Christine Amos was to attend the school, her son was killed in an auto accident on his way home from a meeting. Under these circumstances, would she benefit from the school? How would her husband fare if left home alone during this period? They decided that she should go to school; having her mind engrossed in spiritual matters would be a blessing. Her husband was invited to work at Bethel during that time. Shortly after that, both of them were invited to Selters to share in construction work. When that was completed, they enjoyed sharing in construction projects in Greece, Spain, and Zimbabwe. And now they are again pioneering in Germany.
Among those who have attended the Pioneer Service School are some who have been able to make pioneer service a career—one that they find constantly challenging and deeply satisfying. Inge Korth, a pioneer since 1958, says: “The full-time service offers a special opportunity to show my deep love and gratitude toward Jehovah on a daily basis.” Waldtraut Gann, who began to pioneer in 1959, adds: “Pioneer service is a protection in this wicked system. To sense Jehovah’s helping hand brings genuine happiness and inner contentment. Material values cannot be compared to it.” Martina Schaks, who pioneers with her husband, adds: “Pioneer service is a ‘school for life,’ since it helps me develop certain qualities, such as self-control and patience. As a pioneer I feel very close to Jehovah and his organization.” For others, pioneer service proved to be a stepping-stone to Bethel service, missionary work, or circuit work.
In order to help fill the pressing need for more missionaries, a Gilead Extension School was established in Germany in 1981, to make this fine course available to German-speaking pioneers. Since the new Bethel complex in Selters was not yet finished, the first two classes were conducted in Wiesbaden. After the move to Selters, three classes were held there. German-speaking students from Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, besides 100 students from Germany, attended these five classes. After graduation, the students were dispersed to a total of 24 other lands, including places in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific.
By the mid-1970’s, there were 183 full-time servants from Germany who had attended the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. By the end of 1996, thanks in part to the Gilead Extension School, this number had risen to 368. How gratifying to know that as of January 1997, about half of these students were still serving as missionaries in foreign assignments! Among these are Paul Engler, who has been in Thailand since 1954; Günter Buschbeck, who served in Spain from 1962 until he was assigned to Austria in 1980; Karl Sömisch, who served in Indonesia and the Middle East before being transferred to Kenya; Manfred Tonak, who after serving in Kenya was asked to fill a need at the branch in Ethiopia; and Margarita Königer, whose missionary service during the past 32 years has taken her to Madagascar, Kenya, Benin, and Burkina Faso.
Yet another school, the Ministerial Training School, provides instruction for unmarried elders and ministerial servants and has been a regular feature in Germany since 1991. German-speaking brothers from Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have joined those from Germany to enjoy the superb training the school offers. And after graduation some of the students have taken on additional responsibilities, being sent to Africa, Eastern Europe, and other areas of special need.
The Bethel Home and the printery at Selters have themselves, in effect, also proved to be a “school,” where brothers have become equipped to fill needs as the way was opened in Eastern Europe. Bethel life taught them to work with all sorts of people and to realize that Jehovah can use people of all sorts, despite human imperfection, to get his work done. Brothers who had worked in the Service Department had come to appreciate that problems can be solved by consistently applying Bible principles and carefully following directions of the Governing Body. They had been taught by brothers who, even under great pressure, continued to manifest the fruitage of the spirit, to show a balanced attitude, and to put absolute trust in Jehovah. What valuable lessons to share with their brothers in other branches!
Overcoming a Barrier With Education and Love
During the past decade, a worldwide program of education has been carried out to fortify the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses in their determination to obey the Biblical prohibition on the use of blood. (Acts 15:28, 29) This has involved overcoming a wall of prejudice and misinformation. In connection with this program, Hospital Information Services was introduced to Germany in 1990. In November of that year, a seminar in Germany was attended by 427 brothers, many from Germany but the rest from nine other countries. This strengthened international ties. The elders were highly appreciative of the help they received. An elder from Mannheim noted: “We were equipped to make our viewpoint clear with firmness and due respect but without being shackled by fear.” An elder who was present from Austria said: “I have never attended a seminar at which such a broad field of information was dealt with in such a simple and easy manner.”
Since then several other seminars have been held to instruct the 55 Hospital Liaison Committees that have in the meantime been formed in Germany to serve Witness needs as regards nonblood medical treatment. The work these committees have done has borne good fruitage. By August 1998, over 3,560 doctors throughout Germany had expressed their willingness to cooperate in treating Witnesses without blood. Included in this number are one fourth of the doctors that the magazine Focus several years ago designated “the 1,000 best doctors in Germany.”
In January 1996, Hospital Liaison Committees began distributing the specially designed handbook Family Care and Medical Management for Jehovah’s Witnesses. (This handsome handbook, which is designed for exclusive use by medical personnel and officials, contains information about available nonblood medical alternatives. A concerted effort has been made to put it into the hands of judges, social workers, neonatologists, and pediatricians.) Most judges expressed appreciation, frequently commenting about the handbook’s high quality and its practicality. Many were surprised to learn of the numerous nonblood alternative treatments available for people unwilling to accept blood transfusions. Said a judge at Nördlingen: “This is exactly what I need.” A professor at the University of Saarland used material in the handbook as the basis for discussion and a written examination for a group taking an advanced course in civil law.
Since Hospital Liaison Committees now operate throughout the world, international cooperation in emergency situations is possible. In situations where certain medications were prescribed by a doctor but were not available in the country where the patient was, our international network facilitated the obtaining of these and the mailing of them from Germany. Additionally, arrangements have been made for brothers and sisters from over a dozen countries to be put in touch with cooperative doctors in Germany, with a view to working out arrangements for such treatment as they could afford.
Of course, brothers living in Germany also benefit from this international cooperation. In 1995, on a trip to Norway, a sister had an accident and was admitted to the hospital. Upon being notified, her son in Germany immediately asked Hospital Information Services for help. They notified the Norway branch office. The following day the sister was visited by a Norwegian Witness who, in order to be of greater assistance, had driven 80 miles [130 km] to pick up an interested person who spoke German. Later the son expressed his appreciation, writing: “What an organization! What love! . . . Words often fail to express what one feels. Something like this is truly unique.”
Thus by education and love, great progress has been made in overcoming a formerly formidable barrier. Just prior to this, another barrier was also removed.
Suddenly—The Berlin Wall Falls!
The suddenness of the event amazed the world! People around the world watched on television. In Berlin thousands celebrated noisily. The barrier between East and West had been removed. It was November 9, 1989.
Over 25 years previously, in the morning hours of August 13, 1961, Berlin citizens had been stunned to discover East Berlin officials constructing a wall separating the Communist-controlled sector from the rest of the city. Berlin was being physically divided into east and west, thus mirroring the nations of East and West Germany. Perhaps more dramatically than anything else, the Berlin Wall came to symbolize the struggle between two superpowers during the Cold War.
Then, on June 12, 1987, just over two years before the astonishing events of 1989, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, speaking within sight of the Brandenburg Gate and with the Berlin Wall at his back, demanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.” But was there any indication that his request would be granted? Was it anything more than Cold War rhetoric? Not really. As late as early 1989, Erich Honecker, head of the East German regime, said, as if in answer, that the Wall “will continue to exist in 50 and also in 100 years.”
Yet, with unexpected suddenness the Brandenburg Gate was opened and the Berlin Wall crumbled. A member of the Selters Bethel family recalls attending a congregation meeting on the evening of Thursday, November 9, and upon returning home turning on his TV set to watch the late evening news. In disbelief, he followed reports that the border between East and West Berlin had been opened. Citizens of East Berlin were freely entering West Berlin for the first time in 27 years! He could scarcely believe what he saw: cars crossing the border, their horns honking in celebration as more and more West Berliners—some roused from their beds—headed for the border to line the route and reach out to embrace their unexpected visitors. Tears flowed freely. The wall had fallen—literally overnight!
During the next 24 hours, people all over the world found it difficult to tear themselves away from their television sets. Here was history in the making. What would it mean for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany? What would it mean for Witnesses throughout the world?
A Trabi Comes to Call
On the following Saturday morning shortly before eight o’clock, as a Bethel brother headed for work in Selters, he met a fellow member of the Bethel family, Karlheinz Hartkopf, who now serves in Hungary. Excitedly, the brother said: “I’m sure it won’t be long before the first brothers from East Germany will show up here in Selters!” Brother Hartkopf, in his usual calm and matter-of-fact manner, responded: “They are already here.” In fact, in the early morning hours, two brothers had arrived in their East German two-stroke Trabi car and were parked outside the Bethel gate, waiting for the workday to begin.
The news spread rapidly through Bethel. Before everyone had a chance even to see and greet these unexpected but welcome visitors, however, they were already on their way back to East Germany, their car packed full of literature. Though the literature was still officially banned there, as was the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the excitement of the moment gave the brothers renewed courage. “We have to be back for the meeting tomorrow morning,” they explained. Imagine the joy of the congregation when these brothers showed up with cartons of literature that had been in such short supply for so very long!
During the next few weeks, thousands of East Germans poured across the border into West Germany, many of them for the first time in their lives. They were clearly enjoying a freedom of movement they had long gone without. At the border they were met by waving West Germans. Jehovah’s Witnesses were also there, greeting the visitors—however, with something more substantial than just an outward show of emotion. They freely distributed Bible literature to these visitors from the East.
In some border cities, the congregations put forth special efforts to reach the visiting East Germans. Since the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been banned for decades, many knew little or nothing about it. Instead of door-to-door activity, “Trabi to Trabi” service came into vogue. People were eager to investigate anything new, including religion. In some instances publishers simply said: “You have probably never read these two magazines, because they were banned in your country for almost 40 years.” The often-heard reply was: “Well, if they were banned, they must be good. Let me have them.” Two publishers in the border city of Hof each placed up to 1,000 magazines a month. Needless to say, local and neighboring congregations soon cleared out their surplus magazine stock.
Meanwhile, the East German brothers were enjoying their newly found freedom, although initially somewhat cautiously. Wilfried Schröter, who learned the truth under ban in 1972, recalls: “During the first few days after the wall fell, we were naturally a bit afraid that everything might suddenly be reversed.” Less than two months later, he attended an assembly in the Berlin Assembly Hall. Regarding that assembly he later reported: “I was simply overwhelmed by being able to associate with so many brothers. I had tears in my eyes when we sang our Kingdom songs, as did many others. The joy of experiencing a ‘live assembly’ was tremendous.”
A similar expression of appreciation comes from Manfred Tamme. During the ban, meetings had been small, and no sound equipment had been needed. But now he says: “Although I had been a special pioneer for over 30 years, for the first time in my life, I now was speaking through a microphone. I still remember how terrified I was when I heard my voice coming from the loudspeakers.” Nevertheless, he says, “it was wonderful suddenly to be sitting with the entire congregation in a rented hall.”
And it was rewarding to hear other voices, like the one Manfred heard a few months later. He reports: “In January 1990, I was in a sauna for medical treatment. There I met the former authorized agent of the National Police Force. During a friendly discussion, he said: ‘Manfred, I now realize that we were fighting the wrong people.’”
Spiritual Food in Abundance!
“Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth.” Jehovah’s Witnesses everywhere are well acquainted with that fundamental truth quoted by Jesus Christ from the inspired Hebrew Scriptures. (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3) With the loving help of the international brotherhood, even during the years of ban, Witnesses in East Germany received spiritual food, but in limited supplies. How they longed to have access to the spiritual abundance being enjoyed by their brothers in other lands!
As soon as the Berlin Wall fell, individual Witnesses began taking supplies of literature with them to the East. About four months later, on March 14, 1990, official recognition was given to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the German Democratic Republic. Now the Society could make direct shipments. On March 30 a truck containing 25 tons of spiritual food pulled out of the Selters complex and headed east. The 1991 Britannica Book of the Year subsequently noted: “During just two months, the West German branch office of the Watchtower Society shipped 275 tons of Bible-based literature, including 115,000 Bibles, to East Germany alone.”
At about that time, a brother from Leipzig wrote to a fellow Witness in West Germany: “One week ago we were still secretly importing food in small amounts; soon we will be unloading a truck with four tons of it!”
“The first literature shipment came so soon,” recalls Heinz Görlach from Chemnitz, “that we were hardly prepared. After the first shipment arrived, I could reach my bed only with difficulty—my entire bedroom was full of cartons. I felt as though I was sleeping in a treasure vault.”
The brothers in Selters were also experiencing in a small way what the new situation meant for those who had been cut off for so long from the things Witnesses in freedom often take for granted. An overseer in the printery reports: “An elderly, modestly dressed brother stood watching one of our printing presses. His tour group had already gone ahead, but he lingered, still deep in thought, watching the magazines flooding out of the machine at top speed. With tears in his eyes, he approached one of the brothers; it was apparent that he was deeply moved. Attempting to say something in broken German, his voice faltered. But we understood his smile as he pulled a few sheets of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket, handed them to us, and hurried on. What had he given us? An almost illegible Watchtower in Russian that had been copied on the sheets of a school exercise book. How long had it taken to make this copy of the magazine? We have no way of knowing but, for sure, hundreds of times longer than the split second we need to produce a magazine on the press.”
No more did the Witnesses in each study group have to make do with a few small-print or handwritten magazines that they could keep for only a few days. Now everyone had his own copy—with illustrations in full color—plus additional copies to use in field service.
Adjustment to Worshiping Openly
Having greater freedom presented challenges of its own. Preaching under government ban required courage. It also taught those who did it to rely fully on Jehovah. However, after the ban was lifted, Ralf Schwarz, a Christian elder in Limbach-Oberfrohna, said: “We have to be more careful not to be sidetracked by materialism and the anxieties of life.” In some cases, after East Germany was integrated into the Federal Republic, in October 1990, Witness families in the East moved into more humble quarters so that they could pay the rent without having to work extra time and miss meetings when the rents went up.—Matt. 6:22, 24.
Even during the difficult years under Communist rule, the brothers had continued to share in the field ministry. They even went from house to house—but discreetly, perhaps calling at one house on one block and then going to another block to work another house. Some did it even when danger of imprisonment was greatest. Martin Jahn, who was only 11 years old when the ban was imposed, explained some of the changes that they now faced: “The territories all had to be redone so that publishers could now work entire sections of houses. We were accustomed to the old system of working only certain house numbers or certain floors. This had been the normal way to do it for so long that we had to be patient with those who found adjusting difficult. No longer lending literature but, rather, placing it was new for both publishers and interested ones. Since we were used to doing it the other way, publishers sometimes ended up with more literature in their bags after field service than they had to begin with.”
There were also changes in the attitudes of the people. During the years of ban, many people had viewed Jehovah’s Witnesses as heroes because the Witnesses had the courage to stand up for their convictions. This brought them respect. With greater freedom, many welcomed the Witnesses with a measure of enthusiasm. Within several years, however, things changed. People became engrossed with the way of life that goes with a market economy. Some of them began to view visits of the Witnesses as disturbing to their peace and quiet, even as annoying.
Witnessing under ban had taken courage. Adjusting to the new situation required no less determination. In fact, many Witnesses agree with what was stated by an overseer in a Western European country where the work had long been banned, namely: “Working under ban is easier than doing so in freedom.”
Opposition Fails to Slow Down the Work
Although the preaching of the good news in East Germany took off with renewed vigor, Christendom’s clergy showed little concern at first. However, when it became evident that people were really listening to Jehovah’s Witnesses, clergy discomfort grew. According to the Deutsches Allgemeines Sonntagsblatt, a minister from Dresden who viewed himself as an expert on religions claimed that “Jehovah’s Witnesses are like the Communist Party.” So now instead of claiming that the Witnesses were American spies opposed to Communism, as the clergy had done during the 1950’s, the clergy were trying to connect the Witnesses with the Communists. Of course, people who knew that the Witnesses had been banned by the Communist government for 40 years realized that this was a gross misrepresentation.
What was the objective? The clergy hoped that Jehovah’s Witnesses would again be banned, just as they had been during the Nazi era and again under Communist rule. Though religious elements, supported by apostate forces, strove to prevent Jehovah’s Witnesses from enjoying constitutionally protected freedoms, the Witnesses were making full use of opportunities to give a witness, as Jesus Christ had commanded.—Mark 13:10.
Some Who Embraced the Truth
Among those who responded to the Kingdom message were some who had been deeply engrossed in the old system. For 38 years Egon had been an East German policeman. He was none too pleased when his wife began studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was impressed, however, by their friendly, loving, and disciplined behavior, as well as by the timely Awake! articles they often brought to his house. Attending a special assembly day with his wife, he was shocked to come face-to-face with a brother he had once arrested. It is not hard to imagine that he felt ill at ease, yes, even guilty. But in spite of the past, a friendship developed between the two. Now both Egon and his wife are baptized Witnesses.
For 19 years Günter had been a member of the State Security Service, and he had risen to the rank of major. Embittered and disillusioned after the collapse of the system for which he had worked so long, he met the Witnesses for the first time in 1991. He was impressed by their conduct and by the understanding they showed for him and his problems. A Bible study was started and, although he was an atheist, he eventually became convinced that God does exist. By 1993 he was ready for baptism. Today he is happy working in support of God’s Kingdom.
Another man, lacking faith in God and wholly convinced that Communism was mankind’s only hope, had no qualms about infiltrating himself into Jehovah’s organization in order to pass on information about their activities to the State Security Service. After being “baptized” in 1978, he lived a lie for ten years. But he now admits: “The behavior of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I experienced firsthand, and a study of the Creation and Revelation Climax books convinced me that much of what enemies say about the Witnesses is untrue. The proofs of the existence of a Creator are overwhelming.” Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, he was faced with a hard decision: either find an excuse to withdraw from Jehovah’s people and keep on supporting a system in which he no longer believed or admit to being a traitor and then strive to become a genuine servant of Jehovah. He chose the latter. His sincere repentance led to a Bible study and to a second baptism, this time one based on accurate knowledge and true dedication.
Now They Could Tell About It
After the ban was lifted, Witnesses from the East could speak more freely about their experiences under Communist rule. During dedication ceremonies of an administrative building of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Berlin on December 7, 1996, several elders who had played a vital part in keeping the flock in East Germany spiritually strong reminisced about the past.
Wolfgang Meise, a Witness for 50 years, recalled what had occurred in June 1951, when he was 20 years of age. In a publicized show trial, he was sentenced to four years of imprisonment. As he and several other convicted brothers were being led off, some 150 Witnesses who were also in attendance at the trial surrounded them, shook their hands, and began singing a Kingdom song. Heads popped out of all the courthouse windows as people tried to see what was happening. That was not the sort of impression that the authorities wanted to leave on the minds of the public. This put an end to such show trials of the Witnesses.
Egon Ringk recalled that during the early days of the ban, individual Watchtower articles were typed out with six to nine carbon copies. “In order to provide the congregations with spiritual food, a West Berlin brother, a truck driver who drove back and forth between West Berlin and East Germany, put himself at our disposal. The ‘food’ was transferred quickly—in just three or four seconds—during which time two large teddy bears of equal size were also transferred from one vehicle to another. After arriving home, their stomachs were ‘emptied’ to reveal important messages and information about new appointments.”—Compare Ezekiel 3:3.
Experiences were related about the courage shown by couriers who had obtained literature in West Berlin before the wall was built and smuggled it into East Germany. There was, of course, the possibility that access to West Berlin might someday be cut off. It was to discuss just such a possibility that a number of East German brothers were invited to a meeting on December 25, 1960. “This was obviously at the direction of Jehovah,” Brother Meise stated, “because on August 13, 1961, when the wall was suddenly built, our organization was prepared.”
Hermann Laube related that he first came in contact with the truth as a prisoner of war in Scotland. Back home in East Germany, once the ban went into effect, he saw the need to supply the brothers with as much spiritual food as possible. So the Witnesses set up their own printing operation, using a makeshift printing press. “But without paper, the best press is of little value,” Brother Laube noted, recalling the day he was told that there was only enough paper left for three more issues. What now?
Brother Laube continued: “A few days later, we heard someone knocking on the eaves of the house. It was a brother from Bautzen who said: ‘You’re a printer. Several rolls of newsprint are lying in the Bautzen dump, leftover rolls from the newspaper printing plant, which they plan on burying. Could you use them?’”
The brothers wasted no time. “That very night we drummed up a group, and off we went to Bautzen. No, it was not just a few rolls but almost two tons of paper! It borders on the incredible that our rickety autos were able to transport the paper, but in a short time, all of it had been moved. We then had enough paper to keep us going until the Society arranged to supply us with the thin-paper, small-print publications.”
Circumstances demanded the greatest care to keep the identity of individual members of the flock secret. Rolf Hintermeyer recalled: “Once, after having met brothers, I was caught and taken to a building for interrogation. I had several slips of paper containing addresses and other information. Upon arrival we had to climb a winding staircase. This gave me the chance to swallow the slips. But since there were so many of them, it took quite some time. At the top of the stairs, the officials realized what I was doing and grabbed me by the throat. I also put my hands to my throat and stammered, ‘There, I’ve finally got them down.’ Upon hearing this they released me, which in turn gave me an opportunity really to finish swallowing them, now that they were smaller and moist.”
Horst Schleussner came into the truth during the mid-1950’s when persecution was at its worst, so he knew whereof he spoke when he said: “For a certainty, Jehovah God lovingly protected his servants during the almost 40 years that they were under ban.”
A Victory Celebration in Berlin
With that era of Communist oppression behind them, the brothers just had to celebrate. Above all, they longed to express to Jehovah in public assembly their gratitude for the opportunity that was now open for them to serve him with greater freedom.
As soon as the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the Governing Body gave directions to begin making plans to hold an international convention in Berlin. A convention organization was quickly set up. On the evening of March 14, 1990, the group was scheduled to meet to discuss convention arrangements. Helmut Martin still remembers when the appointed convention overseer, Dietrich Förster, asked him to announce to the assembled brothers that earlier in the day, official recognition had been granted Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Germany. Yes, the ban was officially over!
Since the convention was being planned at such a comparatively late date, the Olympic Stadium was no longer available on a weekend. So the convention was scheduled for Tuesday through Friday, July 24 to 27. When it came time to move in, the brothers had only one day to prepare the facilities and only a few hours to dismantle everything afterward.
Thus, on Monday, July 23, hundreds of volunteers were already in the stadium at five o’clock in the morning. Gregor Reichart, a member of the Selters Bethel family, recalls that “those from East Germany took to the work with gusto, as if they had been doing it for years.” A stadium official later remarked that he was pleased that “for the first time, the stadium got a thorough cleaning.”
Some 9,500 East Germans traveled to the convention aboard 13 chartered trains. Others came in 200 chartered buses. An elder reports that when making arrangements for one of the chartered trains, he told a railway official that three were being planned from the Dresden area alone. The official’s eyes grew wide in amazement as he asked: “Are there really that many of Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Germany?”
For those who traveled by chartered train, the convention started before they even reached Berlin. “We met at the Chemnitz railway station to board the train reserved for us,” Harald Pässler, an elder from Limbach-Oberfrohna, recalls. “The trip to Berlin was unforgettable. After long years of ban, during which we carried on our activity in small groups underground, it was suddenly possible to see so many brothers at one time. During the entire trip, we mingled in the various train compartments, speaking with brothers we had not seen for years, yes, even for decades. It was the indescribable joy of reunion. Everyone had grown several years older but had faithfully endured. We were greeted at the station in Berlin-Lichtenberg and directed by loudspeakers to different gathering points where our Berlin brothers stood awaiting us with large signs. What a completely new experience—our emerging from anonymity! We personally experienced what we had until then only read or heard about: We truly are a large international brotherhood!”
Indeed, for many Witnesses this was their very first convention. “We were all thrilled when we got the invitation,” recalls Wilfried Schröter. Because he made his dedication in 1972 under ban, we can understand his feelings. “Weeks ahead of time, we were in a fever of expectation. Never had I experienced anything like this, something true of many other brothers also. It was simply inconceivable that we would be seeing an international brotherhood gathered together in a huge stadium.”
How often brothers living in East Berlin had longed to travel the few miles across town to where their brothers were meeting in convention! And now they finally could.
Almost 45,000 from 64 countries were present. Among them were seven members of the Governing Body. They had come to rejoice with their Christian brothers from East Germany on this momentous occasion. It was in this stadium that the Third Reich had endeavored to use the Olympic Games in 1936 to impress the world with their achievements. Now the stadium once again reverberated with thunderous applause, though this time not in praise of athletes or out of national pride. These were members of a truly happy international family of Jehovah’s people, and their applause was in gratitude to Jehovah and in appreciation for the precious truths in his Word. On this occasion, 1,018 presented themselves for water immersion, most of them people who had learned the truth in East Germany under ban.
Perhaps those in attendance who could best understand the feelings of the East German brothers were the some 4,500 enthusiastic delegates from Poland, East Germany’s next-door neighbor. They too had endured many years of ban and had only recently experienced their first large convention in many years. One Polish Witness later wrote: “The brothers from Poland greatly appreciate the sacrificing spirit of their neighbors to the west, who provided them with free accommodations, free food, and free transportation to and from the convention grounds, without which it would have been impossible for many of us to come.”
Brothers from West Germany, for whom enjoying conventions in freedom was commonplace, were nevertheless deeply impressed. “It was heartwarming to see a number of our older faithful brothers—some of whom were persecuted not only during 40 years of Communist rule but also during the Third Reich—sitting in the reserved section where Adolf Hitler and other Nazi bigwigs once sat,” commented Klaus Feige, of the Selters Bethel family. This choice section of the stadium had lovingly been reserved for the elderly and disabled. What a striking symbol of God’s Kingdom, now triumphant over political forces that had conspired to halt its march to final victory!
Providing Places to Assemble
Promptly after the lifting of the ban in East Germany, arrangements were made for the brothers there to benefit from the regular program of assemblies that is enjoyed by Jehovah’s servants worldwide. Even before the circuits were fully reorganized, the congregations were invited to attend special assembly days and circuit assemblies in West Germany. At first, publishers in attendance were divided equally between those from West Germany and those from East Germany. This strengthened the bonds of brotherhood and also gave East German brothers an opportunity to learn convention procedures by working with their West German counterparts.
As circuits took shape, those in the East were invited to make use of Assembly Halls already existing in West Germany. Five—the ones in Berlin, Munich, Büchenbach, Möllbergen, and Trappenkamp—were close enough to the former border to make this feasible. Nevertheless, as soon as possible, work began on an Assembly Hall in East Germany. Located in Glauchau, near Dresden, it was dedicated on August 13, 1994, and is presently the largest Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, seating 4,000 persons.
Attention was also given to the building of Kingdom Halls. These had not been allowed in the German Democratic Republic, but now they were needed in order to care for the more than 20,000 Witnesses in that area. The way that the building work was done made others stare in amazement.
About the construction of a Kingdom Hall in Stavenhagen, a newspaper wrote: “The way and the speed at which the structure is being erected has already left numerous curious onlookers amazed. . . . The building was put up by some 240 trained builders from 35 trades, all of them volunteers and all of them Jehovah’s Witnesses. All on a weekend without pay.”
Another newspaper wrote about a hall built on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen, in Sagard: “Some 50 women and men, as busy as bees, are preparing the building’s foundation. But things are not hectic. The atmosphere is strangely relaxed and friendly. Despite the obvious speed at which they work, no one seems nervous and no one snaps at fellow workers as happens on most construction sites.”
By the end of 1992, seven Kingdom Halls had been constructed and were being used by 16 congregations. Some 30 others were in the planning stage. By 1998, more than 70 percent of the congregations in what was formerly East Germany were already meeting in their own Kingdom Halls.
Stirring International Conventions
As government restrictions were lifted in one country after another in Eastern Europe, the Governing Body arranged for conventions to be held in those countries. These were occasions of spiritual upbuilding, occasions when encouragement was given to keep clearly in focus the work that God has commissioned his servants to do. (Matt. 6:19-24, 31-33; 24:14) Since many of the Witnesses in these lands had for years been able to meet only in small groups, these conventions made it possible for them to get to know fellow Witnesses and to be encouraged by the evidence of Jehovah’s blessing on their faithful endurance. Delegates were also invited from other lands so that the brothers could experience in fuller measure the international brotherhood of which they are a part. Among those delegates were many from Germany. They were well represented at the international conventions held between 1989 and 1993 in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the former Soviet Union.
The day before the 1991 “Lovers of Godly Freedom” International Convention opened in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, the newspaper Lidové noviny reported on the remarkable work done by a team of about 40 Witnesses to install “the sound equipment loaned to them by their ‘brothers from Germany.’” Not only did the German brothers loan sound equipment but they were also part of the team that installed it. They were happy to be able in this way to share with their Czech brothers some of the benefit of decades of convention experience. Whereas the German delegations to international conventions were for the most part limited to several hundred, 30,000 delegates were invited to this convention in Prague. And what a convention it was!
Dieter Kabus, who had served as a district overseer in Czechoslovakia in 1955 and who was at this convention as a delegate from Germany, wrote: “When the New World Translation [now printed on the Society’s presses] was released, everyone stood up from his seat, and the whole stadium broke out in spontaneous applause, which seemed to go on forever. We all embraced one another; thousands unashamedly gave way to tears of joy. We recalled the time in prison camp when we 16 brothers had only one Bible. Many stayed for an hour or longer after the program finished, singing songs and enjoying the wonderful association.”
The following year, 1992, German delegates were also on hand for the international convention in St. Petersburg, Russia. Some delegates may remember that not everything ran smoothly, at least as regards housing for the German delegation. But even this turned out for a witness. When it became necessary for a group of delegates to move from one hotel to another on short notice, the 50-year-old Russian translator for the group was so impressed by the Witnesses’ conduct that she exclaimed: “You’re not normal; you don’t shout and get upset!” What was of greater interest to these delegates, however, was the spirit shown by their beloved Russian brothers and sisters. After the convention one German delegate wrote: “Words cannot describe how the brothers appreciated the program. Without Bibles, without songbooks [at that time both still in short supply in Russia], they listened expectantly and attentively to what Jehovah had to tell them.”
The next year, over 1,200 German Witnesses attended the international conventions in Moscow, Russia, and in Kiev, Ukraine. What thrilling stories they had to tell when they returned home! Among the delegates was Titus Teubner, a traveling overseer since 1950, who said: “I had promised my wife that should the work ever open up in the East, I would be among those attending the first Moscow convention.” After actually doing so in 1993, he said: “It borders on the miraculous that in Red Square I could distribute magazines about the divine government.” Another delegate wrote: “We attended this convention to encourage our Russian brothers—and we undoubtedly did so. But the reverse was also true. Our Russian brothers encouraged us in a marvelous way through their example of love, gratitude, faithfulness, and appreciation.”
Members of the Selters Bethel family could not help but be grateful for the privilege of serving such faithful brothers and sisters. Appreciation of that privilege was further deepened when they heard reports from the Bethel truck drivers who came back from deliveries to other lands and who told of the eagerness with which they were welcomed, the joy of the brothers at having a part in unloading supplies even late at night, and the united prayers offered by the brothers before they waved good-bye to those who had made the deliveries.
More Building—To Fill Urgent Needs
In one part of Eastern Europe after another, bans were being lifted. Large conventions were being held. The preaching of the good news was being accelerated. The demand for Bible literature to fill the needs of that part of the field was rapidly escalating. How could it be met? The branch in Germany was invited to play a further role.
Already in 1988, before the Berlin Wall crumbled, the Governing Body had authorized a 50-percent enlargement of the branch facilities in Germany. At first the Branch Committee had found it difficult to see why such expansion was needed. A large, completely new complex had been dedicated just four years earlier. However, the brothers made application to the local government officials. Brother Rudtke recalls: “When we presented our plans, the Selters’ building commissioner said to me almost in a whisper: ‘I’d advise you to build as big as possible because the authorities will never give you permission to expand again.’ This caused us to think.” Remarkably, within a few months, permission had been obtained from all the different government offices, and the originally proposed 50-percent expansion had given way to 120 percent!
Actual construction got under way in January 1991. Apparently not all in the brotherhood, however, were convinced of the need, as evidenced by a slow response to announcements about the need for trained workers to share in the project, as well as by limited financial support. What could be done?
Evidently the brothers simply needed to be better informed, so special meetings were held with selected elders at all the Assembly Halls in Germany on October 3, 1991. It was explained that in the preceding decade, book production at the Germany branch had increased almost threefold. Bans had been lifted in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union. Literature was being supplied to lands far beyond the German borders. Publishers in these countries were begging for literature. Selters was being asked to play a major role in providing it. Once the brothers clearly saw the need, their support was generous.
Actually, the initial lack of response turned out to be a blessing. How so? Instead of relying solely on volunteers from Germany, the branch decided to utilize a provision made by the Governing Body in 1985. At that time an international volunteer construction program had been inaugurated. Before work on the Germany branch was completed, 331 volunteers from 19 different countries had served along with the Bethel family.
There were also many Witnesses from Germany who helped with the work; most of these did it during their vacations. They included some 2,000 publishers from former East Germany, most of whom during the ban probably never dreamed that some day they would be able to work at Bethel.
Whether by physical or financial support or by prayers, all of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany had assisted in this building project. Selters was their Bethel, a vastly enlarged building complex that they now wanted to dedicate to Jehovah. Thus, long before construction work drew to an end, arrangements were being made for the entire brotherhood in Germany, as well as many guests from abroad, to meet together in celebration.
The program started on Saturday morning, May 14, 1994, with emphasis on the “large door that leads to activity” opening up in Eastern Europe. (1 Cor. 16:9) It was faith-strengthening to hear brothers from these countries personally report on the fine increases already being enjoyed and the prospects for further growth. The enthusiasm of the day, enjoyed by 3,658 at Selters, carried over to Sunday. All of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany were invited to assemble in six stadiums rented for the occasion—at Bremen, Cologne, Gelsenkirchen, Leipzig, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart.
As tens of thousands hushed in expectation, the program began simultaneously at all six locations. After a brief review of the Saturday dedication program in Selters, there were further heartwarming reports from foreign delegates. The highlight was discourses given in Gelsenkirchen, Leipzig, and Stuttgart, in each case by a member of the Governing Body who was present. For the benefit of listeners in the other three locations, these discourses were transmitted by telephone tie-lines. All 177,902 in attendance were encouraged to stay strong in the faith and to resist any attempt to slow them down. Now was the time for action! Jehovah had unexpectedly opened the door to expansion in Eastern Europe, and nothing must be allowed to hinder this work from being accomplished. Before bowing their heads in thankfulness to Jehovah, they joined in singing: “Myriads on myriads of brothers/ Stand at my side to be/ Each one a faithful witness,/ Keeping integrity.” Rarely had there been a grander manifestation of the unity and determination characteristic of Jehovah’s people.
Although a glorious dedication weekend had drawn to a close, expansion continued. Early the next morning, construction workers were once again busy. A new warehouse arrangement, just recently set up by the Society to avoid needless duplication of work and expense, demanded additional shipping space in Selters.
In 1975 the Germany branch produced 5,838,095 books and 25,289,120 magazines. Two decades later, during the 1998 service year, production had increased to 12,330,998 books, 199,668,630 magazines, and 2,656,184 audiocassettes. This tremendous growth was chiefly due to the demand from countries of Eastern Europe.
As one ban after another was lifted, Selters began shipping literature to additional Eastern European countries. In fact, 68 percent of the literature production at Selters between May 1989 and August 1998, that is to say, 58,793 tons [50,583 MT], was sent to 21 Eastern European and Asian countries. This amounts to the equivalent of a line of 2,529 trucks, each loaded with 23 tons [20 MT] of literature.
Building, But Preaching Too
Since 1975, Jehovah’s Witnesses have done a great deal of construction. And like Noah, who besides being a builder was also “a preacher of righteousness,” the Witnesses endeavor to balance their responsibilities. (2 Pet. 2:5) They recognize that the building activity is an important element of true worship today. At the same time, they keep their eyes clearly focused on the importance and urgency of preaching the good news.
In fact, the Service Department notes that the extra activity in connection with the construction work at Selters actually led to a rise in time spent in field service. And, of course, putting up theocratic structures was in itself a witness. Quickly built Kingdom Halls as well as Assembly Halls have been a constant cause for amazement on the part of observers. Building done by Jehovah’s Witnesses, performed with zeal and devotion, thus helps direct attention to the good news that they preach. Honest people are curious to determine what the power is that motivates Jehovah’s Witnesses in a manner not seen in any other religious group.
Whatever Happened to Magdeburg?
One of the Kingdom Halls dedicated during this period was in Magdeburg. Back in 1923 the Society had moved its German office from Barmen to Magdeburg. In 1927/28 a dignified assembly hall seating about 800 persons was constructed there. Out of appreciation for the Watch Tower Society’s book The Harp of God, the brothers called it the Harp Hall. Its rear wall was embellished with a relief representation of King David playing the harp.
In June 1933 the Nazis confiscated the Society’s property in Magdeburg, closed the factory, and hoisted the swastika over the buildings. After World War II, the property was returned to the Witnesses, but not for long. In August 1950 it was expropriated by Communist officials.
In 1993, after German reunification, a major section of the property was returned to the Society, and reimbursement was made for much of the rest. Included in the section returned was the former Harp Hall. After several months of renovation of the property, Magdeburg had a suitable and needed Kingdom Hall.
“This is the third time these premises have been dedicated—first in the 1920’s, then in 1948, and now again in 1995,” Peter Konschak explained during dedication ceremonies. Willi Pohl, representing the Germany Branch Committee, delivered the dedication talk. As a young man, he had served at the Magdeburg Bethel. In fact, in 1947, when Hayden Covington from the world headquarters visited and spoke to the brothers in this very hall, Brother Pohl served as his interpreter. “You can imagine how I feel delivering this talk,” he confided to the 450 invited guests.
Today, the several Magdeburg congregations that regularly meet in the former Harp Hall are living proof of the truthfulness of Jehovah’s words to his servants, as set down by Isaiah over 2,700 years ago: “Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success.” Or, as King Hezekiah once reminded his men: “With us there is Jehovah our God to help us and to fight our battles.”—Isa. 54:17; 2 Chron. 32:8.
A Translation Office
A significant aspect of the work done at the Germany branch involves translation. The German Translation Department was transferred from Bern, Switzerland, to Wiesbaden in 1956. At that time it was composed of only four persons. Alice Berner and Erika Surber, who were in that group, served there faithfully until death. Anny Surber, one of the original four, still serves in this department. It has grown over the years, so that now, in most cases, not only Watchtower and Awake! magazines but also bound books are received by the German Witnesses in their language at the same time that these are released in English.
Besides German translation, a certain amount of Russian and Polish translation work had also been going on in Germany as far back as the 1960’s. This had been looked after by the Foreign Service Department, which cared for the work in several countries where the work was banned, including East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union.
Once it became possible, some experienced translators from Poland and a number of prospective translators from the Soviet Union were invited to Selters. There they had the necessary equipment as well as comfortable surroundings in which to be further trained for their work. They could also draw upon the experience of the German translators, who offered helpful hints on how to deal with problems common to all translators, regardless of language. Those translators soon came to be dearly loved by the members of the Selters Bethel family.
Of course, the arrangement for training was temporary. In time, the translators were to return to their native countries. So after the new Bethel complex near Warsaw, Poland, was dedicated in 1992 and after the translators had completed a major project, the Polish translators in Germany joined the rest of the Polish translation team in Poland.
Before they left, however, more prospective translators—Russians and Ukrainians—began to arrive for training. The first five made their appearance on September 27, 1991, and others later. All together, more than 30 have come.
In January 1994 the Russian translators left to take up residence in the Bethel then under construction in Solnechnoye, near St. Petersburg. The Ukrainian translators, on the other hand, are at the time of this writing anticipating a move in the near future to a new Bethel home that is planned for Ukraine. From time to time, other translation teams have also worked in Selters and benefited from the help they were given. All of this serves as a constant reminder of Jehovah’s purpose to gather people “out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues” with a view to their making up “a new earth,” the foundation of a human society devoted to serving the only true God, Jehovah.—Rev. 7:9, 10; 2 Pet. 3:13.
A Place for International Seminars
The convenient location of the Germany branch has attracted many visitors. Frankfurt lays claim to having continental Europe’s biggest passenger gateway in the form of the Rhein-Main Airport. Since Selters is less than 40 miles [60 km] from the Frankfurt airport, many Witnesses, even though they are traveling through to another destination, have found it refreshing to make a short visit to tour the facilities and to enjoy for a brief time the hospitality of the branch family.
Selters has also proved to be a good location for international seminars and for meetings at which representatives from various branches can consult with one another. Thus, the Publishing Committee of the Governing Body arranged for representatives from 16 European branches to meet with brothers from Brooklyn for four days in 1992. Their objective was to coordinate their work in order to ensure that there would be an ample supply of spiritual food for all the branches in Europe, including those in lands that were economically disadvantaged.
Even before this, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany were offering Bible literature free of charge to all people interested in reading it. This certainly refutes the charge made by opposers that the Watch Tower Society sells literature in a money-making operation.
Following the seminar in Selters, this arrangement was extended to all of Europe. This has proved to be of special benefit in Eastern Europe, where large numbers of people display a hunger for spiritual things but are often hard-pressed from an economic standpoint. How, then, are the expenses for the worldwide Kingdom work covered? By unsolicited donations made by Jehovah’s Witnesses and other appreciative people. And why do they make such donations? Some do it because they see the value of giving everyone possible the opportunity to learn how applying Bible principles can improve his life now. (Isa. 48:17; 1 Tim. 4:8) Others are also motivated by the desire to share in this way in making it possible for the good news of God’s Kingdom to reach people in all lands before God brings the present wicked system of things to an end.—Matt. 24:14.
A second seminar held later in 1992 centered on a proposal that the Germany branch ship literature directly to individual congregations within European countries rather than send it to the branch offices for reshipment, as had been the arrangement up till then. At a third seminar, in April 1993, measures were taken to include six Central European countries in this arrangement. In February 1994 a seminar for Eastern European countries was held in Vienna, Austria, and provision was made to benefit congregations in 19 additional countries.
The advantages of this arrangement are obvious. Expenses are reduced because there is no need to store literature in each branch; thus, large individual shipping departments in each country are no longer needed. In some countries this arrangement has eliminated the need to expand existing Bethel facilities. And when new Bethel homes are constructed, they no longer need to be so large, since literature storage, packing, and shipping are taken care of in Germany.
Whereas in 1989 the Germany branch stocked some 2,000 items in 59 languages, in 1998 it had 8,900 items in 226 languages. As of April 1998, the branch at Selters, Germany, was supplying 742,144 publishers in 8,857 congregations in 32 countries with their literature needs.
Hatred of True Christians—Not All in the Past
On the last evening before his death, Jesus Christ told his apostles: “Because you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on this account the world hates you. . . . If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:19, 20) So, it was to be expected that after the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich, persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses would not cease altogether in Germany. Likewise, where bans imposed by Communist regimes were lifted, though there was generally greater personal freedom for people, persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses did not cease. It simply took on other forms.—2 Tim. 3:12.
Now, replacing the former persecutors of Jehovah’s people, apostates took up the cudgel to beat their former Christian associates. (Matt. 24:48-51) During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, these apostates became more vocal, their false accusations more numerous and virulent. Producers of some TV talk shows presented the apostates as being “experts” on Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, some honest people questioned the wisdom of judging the Witnesses on the basis of statements of such disgruntled former members. After one such TV show, a young man phoned the Society’s office in Selters and explained that some years earlier the former Witness who was interviewed had studied the Bible with him. For personal reasons the young man quit his study. But upon seeing the TV program and recognizing his former instructor, the young man became quite upset. He asked: “How can he say such things? He knows what he is saying about the Witnesses is not true.” The result was that the young man resumed his Bible study, this time with an elder in the local congregation.
Of course, there are many people who accept without question what they hear on TV or read in the newspapers. In view of the frequency of the attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses by the media, the Society prepared a 32-page brochure specifically to counteract this flood of misleading propaganda. It is entitled Your Neighbors, Jehovah’s Witnesses—Who Are They?
The brochure contains factual information taken from a 1994 survey in which approximately 146,000 Witnesses in Germany took part. The survey results easily refuted many of the mistaken ideas people had about the Witnesses. A religion of old women? Four of every ten Witnesses in Germany are males and the Witnesses’ average age is 44. A religion made up of people brainwashed from childhood? Fifty-two percent of all Witnesses became Witnesses as adults. A religion that breaks up families? Nineteen percent of the Witnesses are single, 68 percent are married, 9 percent are widowed, and only 4 percent are divorced, a goodly number of whom were divorced before they ever became Witnesses. A religion opposed to having children? Almost four fifths of the married Witnesses are parents. Composed of people of below average mental ability? A third of the Witnesses speak at least one foreign language, and 69 percent regularly keep up with current events. A religion that forbids its members to enjoy life? On a weekly basis, each Witness spends 14.2 hours on various forms of relaxation. At the same time, he gives priority to spiritual pursuits, spending an average of 17.5 hours a week on religious activities.
An issue that received special attention in the brochure dealt with “little Oliver.” Shortly after his birth in 1991, doctors discovered a small hole in his heart. In due time, Oliver’s mother arranged for an operation, and in harmony with her religious beliefs, she found doctors willing to perform it without blood. But opposers twisted the story in an attempt to discredit Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even after the operation had been successfully performed without transfusing any blood, a newspaper made the case headline news, implying that Oliver, despite the opposition of a “fanatic” mother, had now been rescued by being given ‘lifesaving blood.’ That downright falsehood was refuted in the brochure.
Initially, the brochure was intended only for people who raised questions about false charges being made against the Witnesses. However, in 1996 the cover was redesigned, on the back a free home Bible study was offered, and 1,800,000 copies were distributed throughout Germany.
Providing the Media With Factual Information
In that same year, yet another step was taken to deal with the persistent efforts of opposers to use the media to paint a distorted picture of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Walter Köbe was appointed chairman of a committee in charge of Information Services. He explains: “The massive campaign launched by opponents has forced us to give a supervised response by making information more readily available.” Individuals with the potential for doing effective public relations work were located. Seminars were held to train them. The country was divided into 22 suitable regions, and by 1998 there were hundreds of trained information service workers caring for needs in these areas. They give particular attention to personal contact with editors and journalists.
In connection with the work of this department, arrangements were also made for public showings of the video Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault. The world premiere of the German edition of the Stand Firm video was on November 6, 1996, at the concentration camp memorial in Ravensbrück, where many of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been incarcerated. Members of the press and leading historians were in attendance.
By September 1, 1998, crowds totaling over 269,000 persons had gathered for 331 public showings of this video. Those present included not only Witnesses but also representatives of the press, government officials, and the public. Hundreds of newspapers commented on these showings, in articles that were altogether positive in tone. Of these video presentations, 176 included an exhibition dealing with the Nazi persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In ever larger numbers, representatives of the media are sharing the feelings of the journalist who in November 1993 wrote in the Meissner Zeitung: “Those of the opinion that Jehovah’s Witnesses blindly and credulously follow an unrealistic Bible teaching will be surprised to discover how precisely they have identified their Exemplar, Jesus Christ, and how they convert this knowledge into a life of purpose.”
After Half a Century, Still Standing Firm
Over half a century has passed since Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany were released from the concentration camps. But their record of integrity has not faded into forgotten history. By means of it, a powerful witness is still being given to the world. Some who were in the concentration camps because of their uncompromising faith are still alive at the time of this writing, and they are as zealous for Jehovah’s service now as they were then. Their courageous stand testifies that Jehovah can preserve his people. Listen to what some of those concentration camp survivors, speaking for hundreds like them, say, and note their ages (as of early 1998), as shown in parentheses:
Heinrich Dickmann (95): “In Sachsenhausen I was forced to watch as my brother August was executed in front of the entire camp. I had the chance to gain immediate release by renouncing my faith. Because I refused to compromise, the camp commander said: ‘Think it over and see how much longer you’ll be alive.’ Five months later he, not I, was dead. My motto was: ‘Trust in Jehovah with all your heart.’ It still is.”
Änne Dickmann (89): “I consider it [the concentration camp experience] as training to help me maintain integrity to the great Creator and Life-Giver, Jehovah. All my experiences enriched my life and brought me closer to God. Faith and love for God is what has motivated me all these years. I was never pushed.”
Josef Rehwald (86): “I look back with satisfaction on this difficult time of testing because despite pressure and suffering, I maintained Christian faith and neutrality. I am convinced I survived only with the help of Almighty God, Jehovah! My Christian conviction now is even stronger than it was then, and my wish is to continue standing uncompromisingly on God’s side.”
Elfriede Löhr (87): “When I recall the things I experienced during eight years of imprisonment under Hitler, I must say nothing was unexpected. It was clear that, on the one hand, the way of truth means struggle and persecution but, on the other hand, joy and victory. I do not consider the time to have been wasted or without benefit.”
Maria Hombach (97): “I bubble over with joy in knowing I had the unique privilege of proving my love and gratefulness to Jehovah under the cruelest of circumstances. No one forced me to do this! On the contrary, the ones who tried to force us were our enemies who tried by threats to get us to obey Hitler more than God. But without success! Having a good conscience, I was happy even while behind prison walls.”
Gertrud Poetzinger (86): “I was sentenced to three and a half years of solitary confinement. As I was being taken back to my cell after being sentenced, the officer said: ‘Thank you. You have encouraged me to believe in God once again. Stay as courageous as you are, and you will have no problem getting through the three and a half years.’ How true! It was while I was in solitary confinement that I especially experienced Jehovah’s love and the strength he gives.”
Yes, concentration camp survivors continue to stand firm. Now over half a century after their release, the course of integrity of these Witnesses is still speaking out as a witness to the world and a praise to Jehovah. What an encouragement for all of God’s servants!
The preaching of the good news is not yet finished in Germany. Since the end of World War II, upwards of 800,000,000 hours have been devoted to telling people here about God’s Kingdom. At the same time, the ministry of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany has touched the lives of people in many other lands. They view themselves, not as a separate national group, but as part of a global family made up of worshipers of Jehovah.
A striking evidence of this international unity was seen in 1998 when 217,472 persons attended the five “God’s Way of Life” International Conventions held in Germany. Delegates came from many lands; the entire program was presented in 13 languages. The conventions emphasized the need for continued faithfulness and for persistence in preaching the good news. With Jehovah’s help, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany are determined to continue loyally on God’s way of life.
[Map on page 79]
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[Full-page picture on page 66]
[Picture on page 69]
“Triumphant Kingdom” International Assembly, Nuremberg, 1955
[Pictures on page 73]
German Witnesses have helped many immigrants to benefit from Bible truth
[Picture on page 88]
Wiesbaden Bethel complex in 1980
[Picture on page 90]
Branch Committee (left to right). Front row: Günter Künz, Edmund Anstadt, Ramon Templeton, Willi Pohl. Rear: Eberhard Fabian, Richard Kelsey, Werner Rudtke, Peter Mitrega
[Pictures on page 95]
Some of the ten Assembly Halls in use in Germany
[Picture on page 99]
Martin and Gertrud Poetzinger
[Pictures on page 100, 101]
Branch facilities in Selters
[Pictures on page 102]
Some from Germany in foreign missionary service: (1) Manfred Tonak, (2) Margarita Königer, (3) Paul Engler, (4) Karl Sömisch, (5) Günter Buschbeck
[Pictures on page 110]
As bans were lifted, large shipments of literature were dispatched to Eastern Europe
[Pictures on page 118]
Berlin convention, 1990
[Pictures on page 124]
First Kingdom Hall built in former East Germany
[Pictures on page 132, 133]
Dedication program—at Selters (shown above), then at six stadiums throughout Germany
[Picture on page 139]
Tools to counteract a flood of misinformation
[Pictures on page 140, 141]
Though confined in concentration camps (where Jehovah’s Witnesses were identified by a purple triangle), these loyal Christians (here shown at Brandenburg in 1995) remained firm in faith
[Pictures on page 147]
Opposite page, clockwise: Heinrich Dickmann, Änne Dickmann, Gertrud Poetzinger, Maria Hombach, Josef Rehwald, Elfriede Löhr