The ties of international brotherhood took on added meaning for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Czech Republic in 1998. International conventions featuring the theme “God’s Way of Life” were being held around the globe.
There were 345 from the Czech Republic among the 42,763 delegates who gathered for the convention in Pontiac, Michigan, U.S.A. They had assembled from at least 44 lands—of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Another 700 from the Czech Republic, along with 700 from Slovakia, were at the convention in Nuremberg, Germany, which was one of five simultaneous German conventions having a combined international audience of 217,472.
When the Czech delegates were warmly welcomed on arrival at the convention cities, when they were lovingly accommodated in the homes of Christian brothers whom they had never met before, and then when they heard the enthusiastic applause of welcome to the international delegates on the opening day of the convention, they were deeply moved. In Nuremberg, Witnesses from the Czech Republic and from Slovakia greeted one another with great feeling, embracing and often weeping for joy at the opportunity to be together again. These were occasions never to be forgotten.
That same year, thousands more attended similar conventions right in the Czech Republic. There, in addition to the program that was presented at the larger conventions, the delegates were delighted to receive the newly completed Czech translation of the two-volume Bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures.
These were indeed happy events in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Czech Republic. But the road leading to them has been long and difficult. It all began over 100 years ago, and these recent events could not have taken place without the loving help of Jehovah God.
In 1891, C. T. Russell, who was then president of the Watch Tower Society, visited Prague, though very briefly, on a trip through Europe. During the years since then, Jehovah’s Witnesses have experienced periods of much growth, as well as times of hardship, persecution, and sifting. Their work was completely banned for 46 years. Even when not under ban, the Witnesses were not always favored with legal recognition.
The experience of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Czech lands has been like that of the prophet Jeremiah, to whom Jehovah said: “They will be certain to fight against you, but they will not prevail against you, for ‘I am with you,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘to deliver you.’”—Jer. 1:19.
Known as Czechia
In October 1918, following political negotiations in the world’s diplomatic centers, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed in Central Europe. It had been temporarily dissolved during World War II but then had reemerged after more than six years of Nazi oppression. It had also endured more than four decades of Communist rule. Then, after 74 years, this political entity ceased to exist. In 1993, what had been the eastern part of the country became the Slovak Republic. The western portion, including Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Silesia, became the Czech Republic—in short, Czechia.
The Czech Republic measures about 300 miles [500 km] from east to west and approximately 150 miles [250 km] from north to south. In the north and west are beautiful forested mountains; there is also much fertile farmland interlaced with rivers. But as is true in much of Central Europe, environmental pollution presents a serious problem. Most of the people live in cities or towns.
A concise report of the development of the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in all of the former Czechoslovakia between 1912 and 1970 was published in the 1972 Yearbook. Further details are provided here, but this report focuses principal attention on what is now the Czech Republic.
Prague, the capital, is sometimes called the city of a hundred spires. But even the numerous church spires were not able to prevent the Czech Republic from becoming what it is today—a land that is basically atheistic. It was not always this way, however.
At the request of Prince Rastislav, a Moravian ruler, Byzantine Emperor Michael III dispatched a religious mission to Moravia in 863 C.E. Constantine (later known as Cyril) and Methodius, the two men making up the mission, were clergymen from Thessalonica, Greece. In addition to their conducting religious services in the local language, Constantine devised an alphabet suitable for the Slavonic language, which was spoken by the Moravians. Then, making use of that alphabet, he proceeded to translate parts of the Bible. However, the gaining of a clear understanding of God’s Word came much later.
Declaring an Urgent Message
In 1907, about 16 years after C. T. Russell’s brief visit to Prague, an elderly Bible Student (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known) began to visit northern Bohemia once a month to distribute Bible literature. This was Brother Erler, who came from Dresden, Germany. He zealously witnessed in Liberec and other towns for two or three days at a time. He distributed C. T. Russell’s book The Battle of Armageddon and proclaimed with conviction that world catastrophe would occur in 1914.
By 1912 a number of enthusiastic individuals were sowing seeds of Bible truth, forming small groups, and baptizing. When the world war broke out in 1914, that came as no surprise to the Bible Students, though not all their expectations were realized in that year.
During the early years, the literature distributed here by the Bible Students was in German. Some of the German-speaking population received it appreciatively. Charlotta Jankovcová, from Plzeň, recalls that her mother obtained some of Brother Russell’s books from a Bible Student who came from Dresden and who called at their home in 1925. Soon they began to attend meetings. She says: “There was much personal study and preparation for meetings. Every week, we spent the entire Sunday in field service. We were Bible Students, we studied The Watch Tower, we read books, and we also had the Bulletin [now called Our Kingdom Ministry].”
Gradually, literature was translated into Czech. In 1922 the exciting publication Millions Now Living Will Never Die was made available, and three people engaged in full-time service as colporteurs to distribute it among the Czech population. At least by 1923, a 16-page edition of The Watch Tower was made available here each month in the Czech language.
To further the preaching of the good news in the Czech lands, in 1923, Antonín Gleissner, together with his wife, was sent to Bohemia from the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Magdeburg, Germany. Under the supervision of Brother Gleissner, who had already conducted meetings in the town of Most in 1916, the Society opened a literature depot there.
In 1928 the branch office in Magdeburg began to give closer supervision to the work in Czechoslovakia. This resulted in improved organization of groups, greater effectiveness in the field ministry, and better coordination of the work of the colporteurs. In connection with this, each group, as well as the colporteurs (forerunners of those now known as pioneers), was assigned definite territory in which to preach. The report from Czechoslovakia that year shows 25 small groups consisting of 106 proclaimers, also 6 colporteurs. Altogether, they placed 64,484 books and booklets and about 25,000 magazines, thus directing interested ones to God’s Kingdom as the solution to mankind’s problems.
The following year, Otto Estelmann arrived from Germany with the Watch Tower Society’s thrilling “Photo-Drama of Creation.” It was shown to audiences from one end of the country to the other. The high point in this activity was reached in the latter part of 1933 when the brothers rented the Kapitol, the largest cinema in Prague, for four consecutive showings of the “Photo-Drama.” So many people came that the cinema was booked for two more evenings. Names and addresses were turned in by many who wanted to be invited to further Biblical talks. Of course, as the growth of the organization became manifest, there was also opposition. That is what Jesus had told his followers to expect.—John 15:18-20.
Some Who Embraced the Good News
During this period, the good news reached a man who later played an important role in the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this country. His name was Bohumil Müller. At the end of his earthly course in 1987, he could look back on more than 55 years of faithful service, including about 14 years spent in concentration camps and prisons because he would not compromise his faith.
In 1931, at 16 years of age, Bohumil was learning to be a typesetter. His brother, Karel, was learning bookbinding. Their father, Tomáš Müller, was a leading member of the Unity of Brethren, which took great pride in its old tradition and history. Karel’s boss gave him tickets to see the “Photo-Drama of Creation.” After the first showing, Karel came home excited. He described everything he had seen and heard, and he gave his father two books in German that he had obtained. The following evening he returned home even more excited and brought with him the book Creation in Czech. As he described his impressions, he mentioned that he had turned in his address at the end of the program in order to be invited to further Bible discourses.
About a month later, when the family had just finished their Sunday lunch, the doorbell rang. Bohumil Müller later wrote: “Father went to answer. For a while he conversed with the visitor in the hallway but then returned to the kitchen with a look of surprise on his face. His first words were: ‘Never have I experienced anything like this. Just imagine, a man takes the trouble to visit us on Sunday to invite us to a talk! It is a talk of the Bible Students. We from the Brethren would never do that. We’re too lazy!’” Later the Müllers began to meet regularly with the small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In time, Bohumil dedicated himself to Jehovah, but he did not get baptized until about two years after that. By that time he was already serving as an assistant to the congregation overseer (then called the service director), conducting meetings, and working in the Bethel Home at the Society’s Prague office. The seriousness of Christian baptism was not fully appreciated by all the Witnesses at that time.
At about this time, Libuše Štecherová, Bohumil’s cousin, learned the truth. She got baptized more quickly. Sister Štecherová later said: “My uncle, Tomáš Müller, was a very religious man. One summer afternoon in 1932, he told me of God’s name, Jehovah, about the future of the world, and about the remarkable Bible meetings of a group called Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the end, he left me the book Deliverance by J. F. Rutherford. I began to comprehend that there was something my Creator wanted me to understand. At my very first service meeting, I heard about a baptism that was to take place in Prague for the second time ever. I sat there and listened but had no idea of what was soon to take place. On the way home, Uncle Müller asked me, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be baptized too?’ ‘But I still don’t know anything,’ I objected. ‘You are like a proselyte,’ Uncle continued. ‘You know the Bible. You just need to realize the times we’re living in and what God’s will is for you.’ So I asked him to sign me up for baptism, and on April 6, 1933, I was baptized.” She did learn what Jehovah’s will was for her, and she served him faithfully until her death in 1995.
In those days home Bible studies were not conducted with newly interested persons. Training for the field service frequently consisted simply of going to one door with another Witness to observe and then being sent off on one’s own.
Many women learned the truth during those years. The ministry became the most important thing in the lives of a considerable number of these, and they accomplished much. They often took their children with them, and as a result, the children experienced Jehovah’s blessing firsthand. Blanka Pýchová began to go in the field service with her mother when she was ten years old. Regarding one incident she recalls: “My mother and I were assigned to work a village. Mother told me to work around the village square while she worked the surrounding houses. As I reached the square, I realized with horror that it was full of geese. I wasn’t afraid of any animals except geese. They hissed at me, and when they tried to bite me, I used my book bag as a shield. But it wasn’t easy, so in desperation, I prayed: ‘Lord Jehovah, please help!’ All of a sudden, the geese fled, and next to me stood a huge Saint Bernard. I petted the dog, and he followed me from house to house. The geese dared not approach me again.” Her mother later made sure that Blanka discerned Jehovah’s loving care in what had happened.
Reaching People in Many Ways
In 1932 another tool became available for use in the ministry in this part of Europe. The Golden Age magazine (now known as Awake!) made its appearance in Czech. That year 71,200 copies were placed in the hands of the people. After reading The Golden Age, many people were willing to accept other literature that discussed the Bible more extensively.
In order to give everyone possible the opportunity to benefit from the good news about God’s Kingdom, pioneers were sent in from Germany. They lived modestly so that they could devote themselves to this work. Of the 84 pioneers who reported during 1932, there were 34 from Germany. For many of these, this meant learning a new language. Until they mastered it, what could they accomplish? Oskar Hoffmann, a German brother who served in Prague, said: “Though I did not know the language of the country, I daily called on people in their homes. To help them understand why I was calling, I asked them to read a testimony card, which contained a short printed sermon in their language. By this means thousands of Bible publications were placed in the hands of the Czech people.”
Special government legislation against the influx of foreigners required that most of the pioneers from abroad leave in 1934. But much good work had been done. During that year the pioneers had witnessed in most areas that were not assigned to a regular group.
The same year that the foreign pioneers had to leave the country, the Society provided the local Witnesses with Bible talks recorded on phonograph disks. The local brothers showed commendable initiative. The Prague Congregation bought a motorcycle, an Indian 750, with a sidecar on which they mounted an amplifier. Upon arriving at a town square or any other open area in a village, they placed the amplifier on a tall tripod and played a musical recording while they made calls from house to house. When a number of people were attracted by the music, the brothers would play a record with a short Bible sermon. In this way they were able to witness to hundreds of people in several villages during a single Sunday morning.
Measures had been taken in 1930 to provide a legal foundation for the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia. This involved the forming of corporations that could hold title to property, obtain literature, and perform other necessary services.
A special meeting was held in Prague at which the participants welcomed a plan to form two corporations and approved their charters. The first corporation was named Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (Czechoslovak Branch). It handled the task of obtaining publications, caring for meetings, and distributing literature. The second corporation was called Mezinárodní sdružení badatelů Bible, československá větev (International Bible Students Association, Czechoslovak Branch), with its seat in Prague. It provided a legal agency to supervise the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia. Three offices of the Czechoslovak Branch of the International Bible Students Association were set up, each to handle matters in a different part of the republic. The work in the Czech lands was supervised by an office in the city of Brno with Antonín Gleissner as its chairman. These corporations helped to facilitate the evangelizing work in Czechoslovakia.
Three years later, in 1933, the Watch Tower Society opened a branch office in Prague, where it carried on printing operations. This was needed because of the difficult situation in Germany following Hitler’s rise to power. Bans had been imposed there, and the Society’s branch in Magdeburg had been confiscated. Edgar Merk, from Magdeburg, was appointed branch servant in Prague. Karel Kopetzky, from Prague, was assigned to oversee the Bethel Home and the office.
However, not everything went smoothly in Prague. As a result of personal pride and other factors, there were conflicts between these two brothers. In 1936 the branch in Prague was put under the supervision of the Society’s Central European Office, which was located in Switzerland. Shortly after this, Karel Kopetzky and Josef Güttler, both of whom held positions of responsibility in the Society’s legal corporations in Czechoslovakia, resigned. They were replaced by Josef Bahner and Bohumil Müller. The new branch servant was Heinrich Dwenger, a mild-tempered and loyal servant of Jehovah who had already cared for a variety of theocratic assignments. With loving supervision, the congregations continued to share joyfully in publishing the good news of God’s Kingdom—news that was greatly needed by people in an increasingly unstable world.
Strengthened by International Gatherings
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia well knew that the Witnesses in other countries were holding conventions, and they strongly desired to hold a convention in Czechoslovakia.
A large international meeting, as it was then called, was arranged for Prague, to be held from May 14 to 16, 1932, in Varieté-Theater. This was the first of such international conventions in this country. The public discourse was timely, featuring the theme “Europe Before Destruction.” The program was interpreted into Czech, German, Hungarian, Russian, and Slovak. The attendance was 1,500. A powerful witness was given. During the days of the convention, more than 21,000 pieces of Bible literature were placed with the people as delegates shared in the house-to-house ministry.
In 1937 another international gathering was held in Prague. Hundreds of visitors came from such places as Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Germany. “It was a wonderful convention!” Brother Müller later recalled.
The preaching of the good news continued to progress throughout Czechoslovakia. During 1937 the Witnesses were making good use of 7 amplifiers and 50 phonographs to play recorded Bible discourses. That year they used this equipment in 2,946 public presentations for audiences totaling 31,279. A report on the work in Czechoslovakia for that year stated: “Throughout the country the work of preaching the good news was moving forward. It had been heard by people in large towns as well as in villages, even reaching palaces and mountain homesteads.”
The Looming Nazi Threat
World War II was drawing near. Tensions were increasing in Europe. How would Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with the situation? Conscientious objection to military service was not yet widely known in Czechoslovakia. No major traditional religion upheld Bible standards to the point of maintaining Christian neutrality. The first person imprisoned as a Christian neutral in this country was Bohumil Müller. He wrote: “I was to take up military service on October 1, 1937. My conscience, however, told me that God does not want his servants to ‘learn war.’ (Isa. 2:4) I relied on Jehovah to give me enough strength and endurance for the trials ahead. Because of my stand, by the end of March 1939, I had been summoned before a military court four times and each time sentenced to several months in prison. Looking back at those days, I can now say that I am grateful for those trials because they prepared me for much worse times to come.”
As the threat of Nazism increased, pressures upon Jehovah’s servants multiplied. On the frontier near the border with Germany, opposition intensified. In August 1938 the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses were prohibited, so they began to assemble in small groups. Libuše Štecherová wrote: “During 1938 political tension mounted, and we had to train ourselves to witness under new circumstances. Later, during the war, we would acquaint ourselves well with a person before speaking to him about our faith.”
During 1938, Germany moved to take over the Sudetenland, which was then within the borders of Czechoslovakia. In an effort to avert war, Britain and France acquiesced to Hitler’s demand that the Sudetenland be part of Germany, and the people living there found themselves under Nazi domination.
German Occupation Begins
On March 15, 1939, German forces occupied all of Bohemia and Moravia. Hitler designed a new political state called the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which had its own president and puppet government.
Quickly the Gestapo took action against Jehovah’s Witnesses. They came to the Watch Tower Society’s Prague office on March 30. On April 1, Bohumil Müller was released after serving a prison term for being a Christian neutral. On his way from prison to the train station, he phoned the branch office. He later said: “I told them I would come the next day to do whatever I could. Three of us were at Bethel that day. There was much work to do. Some of the printing equipment was already prepared at a port for shipment to the Netherlands. The rest needed to be packed immediately. Brother Matejka and I took care of this task while Brother Kapinus was clearing the offices and Bethel premises. In the meantime we were also translating magazines—The Watchtower and Consolation (now Awake!). We also managed to move out a large quantity of Czech books and booklets that the Gestapo had not been interested in during a raid in March. Nevertheless, the Gestapo visited the branch several times during the liquidation.”
After the occupation began, it was evident that conditions for preaching would be very difficult. Many brothers left Czechoslovakia. Brother Dwenger left for Switzerland just the evening before the Gestapo came to arrest him. Brother Müller was also preparing to leave. He had received the necessary permission from State authorities to do so when a letter arrived from the branch in Bern indicating that it would be beneficial if he could continue in his assignment, providing needed oversight and encouragement to the brothers in Czechoslovakia. Brother Müller immediately agreed, and in order to keep from changing his mind, he destroyed his passport.
Forty-eight years later, he said: “If someone would ask me now if I ever regretted not leaving Prague in the spring of 1939, I would definitely answer, ‘No!’ I never regretted staying. In time, I realized that this was where I belonged. Here is where Jehovah and his organization put me. Why, all the cruel suffering and beatings that I often endured were far outweighed by the joy I felt as I observed the growth of the work from year to year and the increase in the crowd of joyful worshipers of the Almighty around me!”
From 1939 on, arrests took place at the hands of the Gestapo. Otto Buchta, a spiritual pillar in the Brno Congregation, was among those arrested, and he later died in Mauthausen concentration camp. In the autumn of 1940, Brother Kapinus, who had earlier served in the branch office in Prague, along with other brothers and sisters in Moravia, was arrested. Nevertheless, faithful witnesses of Jehovah continued to preach the Word wherever they could.
Some who had served Jehovah in more favorable times forsook his worship and joined forces with the enemies of his people. Karel Kopetzky had been a very capable, zealous brother. But when Brother Müller, formerly his coworker, met him in 1940, Kopetzky was a different man. It happened this way: The brothers had mimeographed a Bible publication and put it into envelopes for mailing. Brother Müller put them in a bag and rode his bicycle from one post office to another in Prague. He dropped a few envelopes into each mailbox. He said: “When I entered one of the post offices, I saw a man waiting at the counter, dressed in the uniform of a member of the SS. I stopped, but before I decided what to do, the man turned around and we stood face-to-face. For a moment we stared at each other. Much to my surprise, I was looking into the face of a former brother, Karel Kopetzky! I quickly regained my composure, walked to one of the counters and grabbed a form, exited the post office, and sped away on my bike.”
The following year Brother Müller, who was then providing oversight for the work in this country, was arrested and taken to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Preaching in the ‘Fiery Furnace’
Over the years, much has been written about the concentration camps and the suffering of our brothers there. Among those who were in the camps were Jehovah’s Witnesses from Czechia. We will not dwell on the details of their suffering but, rather, on how they were spiritually upbuilt and how they upbuilt others even in that ‘fiery furnace.’—Compare Daniel 3:20, 21.
In those days people around the world knew the name of the Czech village Lidice. On June 9/10, 1942, at Hitler’s direct command, the whole village was razed to the ground in retribution for the death of a German officer. Its name was to be blotted off the map of Europe. Božena Vodrážková, who survived that horror, later recalled: “The Gestapo rounded up our whole village. All the men were shot, the children taken to unknown destinations, and the women transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. There I met Witnesses of our Lord Jehovah . . . Once a friend told me, ‘Božena, I have spoken with the Bible Students. They speak remarkable things. It sounds like a fairy tale, but they claim that what the Bible says is true, that God’s Kingdom will come and do away with evil.’ Later I met them personally. They witnessed to me about God’s Kingdom, and I felt very much attracted to their message.” Yes, she became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Many prisoners were deeply impressed by the conduct of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the camps. Alois Miczek recalls: “During the war I was imprisoned for my Communist activities and placed in the Mauthausen concentration camp. The Witnesses there were somehow able to obtain The Watchtower and other literature, which they used in teaching some fellow prisoners, and the SS were incapable of preventing this. So as a warning, the SS decided to shoot every tenth Witness in the camp. They lined up all the Witnesses, and every tenth one was taken aside under armed guard. But all of a sudden, as if it had been prearranged, the remaining 90 percent of the brothers turned and started walking toward the group selected for execution. ‘If you want to shoot every tenth one, shoot us all!’ The entire camp was awestruck by this gesture, and the SS were so impressed that the command was reversed. I was an eyewitness to this event.” (John 15:13) And how did it affect his life?
His daughter, Marie Gogolková, explains: “Observing Jehovah’s Witnesses at Mauthausen led my father to embrace the truth. He was baptized immediately after the war, and he zealously preached about God’s Kingdom and helped many people to learn the truth.”
Oldřich Nesrovnal, from Brno, was also in a concentration camp. Why? He had an aversion to war, so he tried to escape across the border to Switzerland. He was caught in the process, accused of espionage, and deported to Dachau. He recalls: “In the prisoner train that carried us to the camp, I spotted a quiet 13-year-old boy sitting near the window reading something. It seemed he was trying to hide what he was reading. I asked him what it was, and he replied: ‘The Bible.’ He told me he wouldn’t give up his faith in God. I didn’t understand, but I stuck with the boy. His name was Gregor Wicinsky; he was from Poland. The next day I learned that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He had refused to sign a list of items that he had to turn in. The list was in German, and he was afraid he would be signing a compromising statement. He was beaten, but even that did not break him . . .
“I wrote Mother, asking her for a Bible, and remarkably enough, it arrived. I began reading it regularly. A certain man from Ostrava [in Moravia] observed me. He asked if I understood what I was reading, and I told him I understood about half. ‘And would you like to understand more?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘So meet me tomorrow after 6:00 p.m. at such-and-such place.’ This was the first time I was at a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The meetings were held daily after 6:00 p.m., and three times on Sunday. Both the conductor and the topic were preassigned. My ‘teacher’ was the literature servant. He was the camp’s cobbler, and all the hand-copied literature was hidden under the seat of his work stool. I didn’t hear of Gregor again, however, for a year and a half. Then at the end of 1944, I watched a crowd of prisoners returning from various side camps, and I spotted my Gregor. He appeared to be almost half a meter [1.5 feet] taller but terribly thin. After quarantine he joined us at the meeting. We warmly welcomed each other, and then he said, ‘I prayed to the Lord Jehovah not to leave you here alone.’ Jehovah had answered his prayer.”
Memorial in a Concentration Camp
Was it possible under such circumstances to commemorate the Memorial of Christ’s death? Yes, indeed! But at times, individuals wondered how it could be done. Božena Nováková explained: “The Memorial was approaching. I felt horrible because I believed that I wouldn’t be able to partake of the emblems. But Jehovah took care of things. He knew my desire, so on the day of the Memorial, I was called to one of the barracks. Several sisters of various nationalities were already there. The Memorial, including the partaking of emblems, took place without disturbance. Thanks, glory, and honor be to our God, Jehovah, and to his Lamb!”
But how had the unleavened bread and the wine been obtained? She added: “It happened that nearby, in the town of Fürstenberg, there were some Witnesses of Jehovah working at a State farmstead who managed to supply us with the emblems.”
After this blessing Sister Nováková had another experience—difficult, yet faith strengthening. She recalled: “One day I was called to the washroom. It was a washroom with showers, but when the showers were turned on, there was gas instead of water. Poisoned women, sometimes still alive, were thrown into ovens. I wasn’t aware of it until a female guard told me: ‘So you, Bibelforscher [as Jehovah’s Witnesses were called], you’re going into the gas! Now let’s see if your Jehovah will save you!’” As Sister Nováková turned away, tears filled her eyes, and she prayed: “Father Jehovah, please, if I am to die, may your will take place. But I pray in behalf of my children. I fully entrust them into your care.” Relating what happened then, she said: “As I was praying, the door opened and the head doctor entered, saw my purple triangle, and said: ‘Bibelforscher, what are you doing here? Who sent you here?’ I answered that I had been sent by the guard. He said: ‘Get out of here! Your place is there!’ and he pointed toward the door. As I was leaving, I heard the guard remark: ‘Now I believe that their Jehovah is protecting them.’”
Witnessing During Nazi Occupation
Although no field service reports were compiled during this time, the preaching of the good news continued in Czechoslovakia. Rǔžena Lívancová, from the town of Kladno, wrote: “Mother taught us to have faith in God, not the way the priests taught, but so that we would respect people. In 1940 a sister from Prague witnessed to us. So I started learning about our wonderful God and loving Father, Jehovah. In 1943 my mother, my sister, and I were all baptized.”
Even at that time and under wartime conditions, Jehovah was drawing “those who were rightly disposed for everlasting life.” (Acts 13:48) František Šnajdr, from Prague, said: “We were a Catholic family but never went to church. I was a machinist, leading an ordinary life. I frequented pubs, where I played cards. A certain man would come, have a glass of beer, and witness to those present. They would make fun of him. But as I played cards, I would listen to him with one ear. He spoke about the 24th chapter of Matthew. I liked it and told him so. So he invited me to his home. When I arrived, a meeting was under way. There were already seven at his home. I asked, ‘Tell me please, when is the priest coming?’” But no priest was coming. Josef Valenta, who was sitting right there next to František, was presiding.
František continued studying the Bible, and in August 1942 he got baptized. The following year he was arrested by the Gestapo. But Jehovah continued to provide needed help so that he could grow spiritually. František explained: “In Mauthausen I met Brother Martin Poetzinger. He was a courageous and discreet brother. He made me a pair of slippers, and always provided me with literature. We held regular meetings—in secret, of course—every Sunday, right on the ‘Platz’”—evidently the area used for the roll call of prisoners.
Jan Matuszný also came to realize that he needed spiritual help. He later wrote: “During the war I worked in a mine. With my two brothers, I played in a miners’ band. I smoked and drank. I was in such a deplorable state that my hands would shake like the hands of an old man. One day when I was drunk and feeling miserable, I started praying to God loudly, asking him to help me somehow find my way out of my problems.”
Soon after this, a Witness who was calling on this man’s fleshly sister spoke at length with him and gave him a Bible as well as three booklets. As he read them, he became convinced that what he was learning was the truth. He quit smoking, abusing alcohol, and playing in the band, and he began attending meetings. He was baptized in 1943 in a fish pond. He added: “We held meetings all through the war. We were taught the meaning of the word ‘compromise’ and that it is better to die than to betray a brother. This served as a good foundation for the persecution that lay ahead”—yes, persecution that came even after the war ended.
Using Well a Period of Relative Peace
After the war ended, there was a period of relative freedom and a measure of peace for Jehovah’s people from 1945 to 1949. It was a time of rebuilding and a time when our brothers engaged in their God-given work of preaching with renewed zeal.—Matt. 24:14.
The first thing that needed to be done was to locate all the congregations and individual publishers. Some had died, others had moved, and thousands who were of German nationality and who had lived near the borders were in the process of being deported. Brother Müller, who was perhaps one of the first brothers to arrive home, worked hard to reestablish communication between congregations. He also tried to contact the Society’s branch offices in other countries, but without success at first. Then early in June a telegraph message got through to Bern, Switzerland. Letters from Bern began to arrive, each containing several pages of The Watchtower in German. Translation quickly got under way. In August 1945 the brothers in Prague released the first postwar issue of The Watchtower in Czech, printed on a mimeograph.
Many people remembered what the Witnesses had preached before the war, and some of them were now willing to listen. Public Bible talks—not recorded speeches, but ones delivered by qualified speakers—began to be featured. Hundreds attended. The first talk, on the theme “Freedom in the New World,” was given on November 11, 1945, in the hall of Prague’s Agricultural Stock Market. The audience of some 600 showed much enthusiasm. In the course of three years, 1,885 of such public talks were given in Czechoslovakia. Many who are now Jehovah’s Witnesses say that they were drawn to the truth as a result of those talks.
One such person is Tibor Tomašovský, who now resides in Bohemia. A Witness who was engaging in his secular work met Tibor and, in the course of conversation, mentioned the Bible. Tibor was impressed by his modesty and invited the Witness to his home. This led to an invitation to a meeting. Tibor later said: “What my wife and I experienced at that meeting was indescribable. Never had I heard such an outstanding talk. Three different speakers took turns giving the talk. ‘These must be highly educated people,’ I told the person sitting next to me. ‘No, they’re just farmers.’ What we heard was so wonderful that we didn’t want to return home. The following week in the office, I couldn’t concentrate on my work and I couldn’t wait for Sunday. We never missed a meeting.”
Among the places where the Witnesses carried on their ministry were labor camps where, after the war, prisoners of war and Germans awaiting deportation were held. A report concerning the activity at that time says: “With much success the brothers have been calling on Germans, mostly Nazis, in labor camps.” Would their changed circumstances make them more receptive to Bible truth? Jehovah’s Witnesses wanted to give them that opportunity.
In November 1945 an official appointment of Brother Müller to be branch overseer arrived. The following summer the brothers managed to buy a practically new four-story building in Suchdol, near Prague. This provided a quiet workplace and good accommodations for the Bethel family. The country was divided into circuits, each made up of about 20 congregations, and circuit assemblies began to be held regularly. This proved to be a rich blessing. Such assemblies were always associated with the house-to-house ministry, and a fine witness was given by means of the public lecture on Sunday afternoon. As the Theocratic Ministry School began to function in the congregations, more brothers, with the help of Jehovah’s spirit, became qualified to give public talks and publishers became better teachers.
Conventions were also arranged. The discourses “Be Glad” and “The Prince of Peace” were featured at a convention attended by 1,700 in Besední du̇m, a club facility in Brno, in 1946. Franz Zürcher from Bern, Switzerland, was present for the occasion. The following year, when another convention was held in Brno, three members of the world headquarters staff—N. H. Knorr, M. G. Henschel, and H. C. Covington—served on the program. The public talk, “The Joy of All the People,” was advertised throughout the city with posters and leaflets, and 2,300 came to hear it. Many turned in their addresses and expressed a desire to be invited to future meetings.
Early in 1948 there was a crisis in the government. The Communists came to power. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued zealously preaching the good news. They experienced a 25-percent increase in the number of Kingdom proclaimers during that year. In September another convention was held—this one in Prague. The public talk featured the timely theme “Kingdom of God—Hope for All Mankind.” And in view of what lay ahead, the talk “Keeping Integrity Under Trial” also proved to be most appropriate. Even while the convention was under way, enemies of Jehovah’s people were preparing to attack.
Dark Clouds Gather Again
Less than four years had passed since the brothers were released from prison, but the climate abruptly changed. At a circuit assembly in Karlovy Vary, in western Bohemia, in November 1948, storm clouds appeared. The assembly itself was not interrupted. However, as Brother Müller delivered the public talk on Sunday afternoon, November 28, some of the back seats in the hall were occupied by State Security agents in civilian clothes. That same day when Brother Müller was eating his evening meal, Oldřich Skupina, the overseer of the Karlovy Vary Congregation, found him and excitedly told him that the State Security had searched the homes of several brothers and confiscated their literature.
Brother Müller endeavored to phone the Prague Bethel, but no one answered. Something serious had obviously occurred there too. He quickly returned to Prague. However, as he neared the Bethel building, he saw two men who were pretending to be workmen but who were watching the Bethel Home. At Bethel he met a brother who reported that several State Security agents had searched the entire premises and sealed the office. Within 45 minutes of his arrival, two officials from the Ministry of Interior appeared at the Bethel Home and announced that the building had been confiscated. Brother Müller protested, pointing out that a confiscation must be preceded by a court order. After they left, he managed to move some of the files that the State Security had not found to his parents’ house. But when he returned to Bethel, a State Security agent was waiting with orders to arrest him and the two sisters who were with him. The other members of the Bethel family had already been arrested.
Had a court order been issued that quickly? No. Months later, while the brothers were under detention, Brother Kapinus, who was among those being detained, received a letter. It contained the decision of the Ministry of Interior, dated April 4, 1949—over four months after the fact—to discontinue the Society’s activity and confiscate its property.
In spite of this, in July the State Court stopped criminal proceedings against the brothers because of lack of evidence. They were released from preliminary confinement. Nevertheless, they did not leave the building of the State Court as free people. Two officials from the Ministry of Interior stopped them and informed them that by a decision of the Communist Political Commission, they were being sent to a labor camp for two years. What could not be accomplished by legal process was simply being done by arbitrary decree. Brother Müller was transported to Kladno, where he worked in a coal mine.
The wave of arrests that swept across the country brought much hardship to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet, what the Communist officials expected did not prove true. They had told Brother Müller when he was in prison: “Cut off the head, and the body will die.” They thought that he and other responsible brothers were “the head,” but they failed to discern that the real Head of the Christian congregation is the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven.—Eph. 4:15, 16.
True Worship Continues
Despite the pressure of those dark days, true worship did not cease. Soon the brothers began to make arrangements to keep the work of bearing witness to Jesus as the Messianic King moving ahead. Josef Skohoutil, of Prague, explains: “A few days after the beginning of the persecution, I was visited by Brother Gros, a local overseer. He gave me the names of ten publishers and told me to take care of them.” For a while they still attempted to witness from house to house, but gradually they learned other methods to do the work.
Though many brothers were in prison, the ones outside kept on meeting together. Public halls could not be used, but assemblies with an abbreviated program were held in large apartments. At times, larger assemblies were held out in the forest. The first of these was in Oldřichov, near the town of Nejdek, in 1949. A slope with protruding rocks provided a seating area to accommodate the 200 who attended. Nearby was an abandoned house, barn, and pond. For the baptism, they put up a partition in the barn to provide changing rooms for men and women. They cleaned the pond and arranged wooden stairs leading into the water. Thirty-seven were immersed on that occasion.
What about obtaining Bible publications for study? An account submitted by Brother Vykouřil, from Teplice, is revealing. It says: “In 1950 only three of us remained in Teplice. We would receive a French Watchtower from a sister in Switzerland, by mail. For a time the contact had been lost, but after some time it was restored. I started receiving letters in symbolic language. In those letters it was requested that I find someone who knew someone else who, in turn, knew still another person, and thus contact would be reestablished. The brothers taking the lead were in prison, so we had to reestablish organizational contacts. We functioned without any official assignments—everyone did what was needed. We never stopped receiving The Watchtower, however.”
This was the beginning of one of the most difficult periods in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this land. It was only due to Jehovah’s hand that the work did not stop. Instead, despite many trials, it continued to increase.
A Brief Reprieve
Unexpectedly, early in 1950 all of Jehovah’s Witnesses, both brothers and sisters, were released from the labor camps. What awaited them? Brother Müller recalled: “I was happily surprised by the good organization that had been built up in our absence.” Jehovah’s spirit had moved younger brothers, including Jan Sebín and Jaroslav Hála, to take a zealous lead. Jaroslav’s father had been arrested in 1948 (and later on, he died in prison), but Jaroslav became an example and great source of encouragement to many brothers and sisters. They found that the number of active Witnesses throughout the country (the former Czechoslovakia) had increased by 52 percent within two years, from 1,581 to 2,403. The following year saw a further 38-percent increase.
When the book “Let God Be True” was published in Czech in six parts, in 1951, this provided the basis for further growth. This publication would serve as a basis for home Bible studies. It contained what students needed in order to get a good start in a life of service to Jehovah.
However, Communist officials were not viewing the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses kindly. The year 1952 opened another extended period of severe persecution for Jehovah’s people.
Into the ‘Fiery Furnace’ Again
On February 4, 1952, in the early morning hours, Brother Müller was again arrested by the State Security. This time he was blindfolded as he was driven to prison. He later wrote: “For the next 14 months, I was not allowed out of my cell of solitary confinement without a blindfold. About every other day, the interrogating officer led me to his office. Here I underwent long interrogations during which they tried to persuade me to admit that I had been involved in espionage and also that I had committed treason. Numerous police reports were written, then destroyed, and new reports were written. The interrogators kept trying new methods in an effort to include in the report at least a subtle innuendo of guilt. I repeatedly refused to sign such reports. Some 16 years later when I was free, an official from the Ministry of Interior told me that I had been on a list of people to be liquidated. On March 27, 1953, I was taken blindfolded to a court hearing at Pankrác. Both of my coworkers and I were put under tremendous psychological pressure. The hearing lasted two days. It was held in absolute secrecy. The seats for the public were occupied solely by interrogators from the Ministry of Interior.”
As it turned out, February 4, 1952, had been a day of numerous arrests throughout Czechoslovakia. On that day the State Security had arrested a total of 109 of Jehovah’s Witnesses (104 brothers and 5 sisters).
Among those taken to prison on that day was Emílie Macíčková. She relates: “On February 4, 1952, when my husband was in the hospital, three men and one woman of the State Security came to our home at 3:30 a.m. I was immediately arrested. They made a thorough house search and confiscated what they found. They took me to the Regional Police Department in Ostrava. There were already plenty of us Witnesses. We were being arrested by the gross. They put us into newly blanched but evil-smelling cold cells, gave us cold water for washing, and then locked the iron doors. Whenever they took us somewhere, they put black glasses on us. They dispatched sneaks to our cells, but we spoke with them about nothing but God’s Kingdom. Those cat’s-paws even sang our Kingdom songs and pretended to pray—to such an extent our enemies went in their efforts to break us, but Jehovah strengthened us!”
A Monstrous Trial in Prague
This was a time when there were many political trials in Czechoslovakia. The sentences resulting from these trials were extremely severe—either many years of imprisonment or death. The trial of Jehovah’s Witnesses on March 27 and 28, 1953, took place during this period. Behind closed doors, there were two mock trials of principal overseers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The second one took place a month after the first. The sentences were as follows: “Müller and Fogel: sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. The accused Sebín, Gros and Hála: 15 years; Nahálka: 12 years; Novák: 8 years; and Porubský: 5 years. All of the accused are liable to confiscation of property and loss of citizenship rights.”
The only information made available to the public regarding these trials was in the newspapers. What did they say? An example is this distorted report that appeared on March 30 in the Communist daily Rudé právo (The Red Law): “American imperialists, in their hatred for the people’s democratic Czechoslovakia, shun no means of leading our working masses away from the road to Socialism . . . The circuit court in Prague dealt with one form of destructive activity by the American imperialists . . . On trial were the leading members of a religious sect whose adherents call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses. This organization, directed in Brooklyn, U.S.A., and which has been banned in our country since 1949 for its destructive tendencies, has smuggled into Czechoslovakia cosmopolitan ideologies which under the veil of pure Christianity are designed to undermine the morale of our working masses, to encourage hatred toward the State and its laws, and which began preparing its adherents for eventual war in which they would play the role of the fifth column.”
This twisting of facts in order to justify the actions of the court set a precedent that was imitated throughout the country.
Finding Sheeplike Ones in the Prisons
Even in prison, however, there were opportunities to witness. Resourcefulness was needed, but our brothers found a way. There were people in prison who responded favorably to Bible truth. One of these was František Janeček, from Čáslav. He recalls: “During the war, I had participated in the Resistance movement. In 1948, I disagreed with the new form of violence, and since I openly opposed injustice, I was sentenced to 11 years in prison. In jail I was allowed to have a Bible, and I even taught it during periods free from work. The brothers, therefore, took me for a priest. We stayed in different barracks, but sometimes we had night watches, called fire watches, outside our barracks. One night when I was on watch, it was very cold and there was a star-filled sky. Another prisoner also starting his watch duty came out of the neighboring barracks. I said to him, ‘So you too are here serving Pharaoh, eh?’ ‘And do you know who Pharaoh was?’ he asked me. ‘Yes, the ruler of Egypt.’ ‘And do you know whom he foreshadowed?’ ‘No!’ ‘So come over here, and I’ll tell you.’ We walked together for two hours, and he gave me a good explanation. I made rapid progress. God loved me and saw my desire for the truth.” František joined with Jehovah’s Witnesses in studying the Bible, and soon he was reporting between 70 and 80 hours in Jehovah’s service each month.
Many who learned the truth in prison were baptized there. How was that done? Ladislav Šmejkal, who learned the truth when he was a political prisoner, explains: “At the mine where we worked, we had access to cooling towers of large mine compressors. In June 1956, along with several others, I was baptized in the reservoir of one of these towers. It wasn’t easy because we had to do it during a short break before the afternoon shift. We took our underwear, went to the tower, were baptized, quickly changed, and then reported for work.” They were grateful that Jehovah had helped his servants to find a way to symbolize their dedication in obedience to the command of Jesus Christ.—Matt. 28:19, 20.
“Saints” in the Coal Mines
The ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses was enforced in various ways and to differing extents. It was not the same at every place or at all times. Under all circumstances, the brothers endeavored conscientiously to maintain their Christian integrity. As a result, many of them were imprisoned.
Then, in 1958, as a result of a government decree, exemption from military service was granted to coal miners who were under 30 years of age. Instead of waiting until they were arrested and sentenced to prison—perhaps to work in the mines—some brothers maintained a measure of freedom by taking up work as employees in the mines. (Prov. 22:3) So it happened that “saints” or “priests,” as people called these Witnesses, came to be on payrolls in many mines. And since there were many of Jehovah’s Witnesses in certain mines, they began to form strong congregations in which brothers grew to spiritual maturity, becoming qualified ministers.
For ten years, Eduard Sobička worked in a mine in the village of Kamenné Žehrovice, near the town of Kladno. He says: “As far as I remember, the largest number of brothers working at one time in the mine where I was employed was about 30. We worked on different shifts, and set a rule for ourselves to avoid sticking so close together that we would separate ourselves from the other miners. Nevertheless, the ‘saints,’ as we were commonly referred to, attracted much attention. We were mocked and insulted but secretly respected at the same time.” There in the mines, they seized opportunities to witness, and when interest was shown, they would also lend precious Bible literature.
On Vacation With Other Witnesses
Although those were hard times, vacations also had a place in the lives of Jehovah’s people. When carefully planned, such vacations became a time not only for physical refreshment but also for spiritual upbuilding. At a time when meetings were held with a maximum of 10 people in attendance, imagine what it was like for perhaps 30 of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be together for a week or two!
Making wise decisions as to whom to invite was important. Those making the plans endeavored not to give preference to the young over the elderly or to brothers over sisters. An effort was made to include several spiritually mature Christian brothers, who would provide needed oversight.
A main concern was that there be a balanced spiritual program. The daily schedule was something like this: Morning prayer, daily text, and Bible reading. On some afternoons there were hour-long meetings. In the evening there was often a spiritual gathering with a prearranged program. The rest of the day was free. The friends could study, go hiking, go swimming, or the like. The ministry was usually associated with a hiking trip, but again there were unwritten rules to follow. Try to imagine a group of 20 hikers. In villages, in the forest, and in fields, they would find local people. Upon meeting someone, a brother or a sister would leave the group and try to strike up a conversation. The rest of the group continued on their way.
These vacations, enjoyed by a group, resulted in much good. They were faith strengthening, and they served to spread the good news. These group vacations were an integral part of the modern-day history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this country. At no time, however, could Jehovah’s servants afford to let down their guard spiritually.
A Cunning Attack
Satan the Devil, “the father of the lie,” seeks to undermine confidence by distorting facts and by misrepresenting faithful servants of God. (John 8:44) He used that tactic to weaken ancient Israel, to turn first-century Jews against Christ, and to try to disrupt the early Christian congregation. (Num. 13:26–14:4; John 5:10-18; 3 John 9, 10) Some people who serve his ends are seeking prominence for themselves. Others may feel that what they are saying is right, but they express strong opinions when they do not know all the facts. Satan can use both, and he did so in this country.
The situation during the late 1950’s was difficult for the brothers in Czechoslovakia. Many were in prison. Communication with the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been disrupted. Some with initiative gave directions that reflected their own opinion instead of being firmly based on the Scriptures. (Titus 1:9; Jas. 3:1) Reacting to the pressure of the times, some individuals took firm positions on matters without having all the facts. (Compare Proverbs 18:13, 17.) A few began “to draw away the disciples after themselves.”—Acts 20:30.
Regarding the events of that period, Brother Müller later wrote: “One day in January 1956 in Valdice prison, I was taken to an office where two men were waiting for me. They claimed to be from the Ministry of Interior. They tried to persuade me that we should ‘ease down’ on some of our religious teachings. We could not agree on that, and the interview was therefore short. In 1957 two other officials from the Ministry of Interior visited me. That three-hour discussion had a completely different spirit. I was able to explain openly the views and attitudes of the Witnesses regarding various issues. They were interested in our attitude toward military service, blood transfusions, labor unions, and a number of other things. At the end one of them asked me: ‘Mr. Müller, do you think we can be friends?’ I replied: ‘People who are friends are very close and have many common interests. We Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in God. But you Communists are atheists. We cannot have a common ground. But I think that we can live and exist side by side.’ The official said: ‘I am glad for your reply because otherwise we couldn’t trust you.’ I had the impression that this final question was asked in order to determine if there could be any meaningful dialogue between us in the future. And if so, it would bring us one step closer to a solution to our situation.”
That conversation resulted in somewhat more open communication between certain brothers and the government authorities. However, because of the climate that existed then, some Witnesses who learned of those interviews felt that these responsible brothers had compromised. No doubt some who reacted in that way were moved by a strong desire to avoid any compromise of Christian principles. However, a few who were peremptory in their manner freely expressed their distrust of the brothers who had spoken with government officials. But was their distrust well-founded?
Other factors were involved as well. Juraj Kaminský, who has loyally served Jehovah for over 50 years, explains: “After the responsible brothers and many elders were arrested, some of those taking the lead in congregations and circuits began prescribing rules of conduct for the publishers, making lists of dos and don’ts.” How much better it would have been “to promote obedience by faith,” as the apostle Paul did! (Rom. 16:26) Because the law required people to vote, some Witnesses would go to the polling place but, for reasons of conscience, would not cast a ballot for a political candidate. Others felt that these ones were compromising. Some of the brothers, perhaps understandably, had strong feelings against the authorities because of the mistreatment of their Christian brothers. Brother Müller comments: “I was very troubled by this situation, so in the autumn of 1957, I wrote a letter [from prison], which was to help the brothers put things in perspective.” One of its paragraphs read:
“There is another pain in my heart. . . . I call to the minds of the brothers that our meetings are devoted to the study of Scripture and to training Jehovah’s Witnesses to be better, more qualified ministers. It is clearly unacceptable to discuss politics or to voice any anti-State opinions at meetings, regardless of where they are held and regardless of whether merely two are present or there are many. Brothers, keep this in mind, and do not allow any such discussions. Do any of you hold grudges against the regime because I and other brothers are in prison? Then I beseech you in my name, and in the name of the other brothers, to let go of such feelings. Do not give in to wrath and animosity, for we have presented our case to God and you do likewise.”—Rom. 12:17–13:1.
Faithful brothers and sisters were greatly encouraged by this letter. Jan Tesarz said: “We received his letter, written in prison in 1957. No sign of compromise, but Christian reasonableness!” Yet, not all took that view. Brother Müller’s letter became the subject of controversy and much speculation.
Separated From the Congregation
After a large-scale amnesty for political prisoners was announced in May 1960, most of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were in prison were freed. It was a wonderful feeling! Despite threats, they promptly resumed preaching the good news. Many of these had in mind the example set by the apostles of Jesus Christ, who when released from custody prayed for boldness to keep on preaching the word. (Acts 4:23-31) But new trials awaited them.
Doubts and distrust had developed among the brothers. When a letter was sent by Brother Müller to the brothers in order to clarify matters, some who had strong and critical opinions did not allow the letter to be read to the congregations. In 1959 the number of active Witnesses in Czechoslovakia was 2,105, but over 1,000, while still claiming to serve Jehovah, no longer did so in unity with their former Christian associates. Those taking the lead among these separated ones even claimed to have the approval of the headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, and of N. H. Knorr, who was then president of the Watch Tower Society.
Further developments added to the suspicions held by those separated ones regarding their former Christian associates. Government officials in Czechoslovakia had by this time generally come to realize that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not American imperialist spies, as had been charged. They also knew that it had not been possible to stop the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses or to persuade them to compromise their faith. Therefore, the government, a totalitarian Communist regime, took steps to have a dialogue with the Witnesses. It was a forced dialogue. The aim of the State Security was to ensure that religious feelings would not be used against the regime but, if possible, would be used to support it. Sometimes the contacts took the form of a summons of Brother Müller or one of the traveling overseers to the police station for interrogation. On occasion, there was what appeared to be a friendly conversation in a café.
Some observers, not knowing all the facts, thought that the brothers who were involved in these discussions were collaborating with the State Security. The names of some of these brothers were even put on a list of alleged collaborators, and it was charged that they modified articles for publication to suit the desires of the State Security.
Loving Encouragement to “Seek Jehovah”
Brother Knorr was greatly concerned about the Lord’s work and about those who were endeavoring to serve faithfully with Jehovah’s organization. On December 7, 1961, he wrote a letter to the brothers in Czechoslovakia in which he drew attention to such scriptures as Micah 2:12 and Psalm 133:1. He explained the Society’s stand on various matters and expressed his support of particular brothers who had been entrusted with responsibility. This was, in effect, loving encouragement to the brothers to “seek Jehovah”—to discern how Jehovah’s spirit was operating to fulfill his word and then to work in harmony with the agencies that Jehovah was using. (Zech. 8:21) Here is one paragraph from that letter:
“My Dear Brothers: . . . Communications reaching me have indicated that the majority of the brothers in Czechoslovakia are theocratically maintaining their Christian unity, but because of poor communication facilities a few have let rumors and gossip create questions in their minds with the resulting failure of some to cooperate or turn in their service reports. This can only lead the few to unhappiness and troubles, and it has already done so. Therefore I write to let you know that the Society recognizes Brother Adam Januška and Brother Bohumil Müller and the brothers working with them as the responsible Christian overseers in Czechoslovakia and I bid you to bear in mind the words of Paul at Hebrews 13:1, 7, 17. These brothers are interested in you and are trying to help all to be faithful to Jehovah God. So humbly work with them and they will work with you, all to the praise of Jehovah.” Sadly, however, not long after this letter was received, it was necessary to disfellowship Adam Januška for conduct unbecoming a Christian.
Brother Knorr’s letter was appreciated by some, but not everyone allowed himself to be readjusted by its counsel. In fact, in 1962 the problems escalated. A series of articles was published in The Watchtower explaining Christian responsibilities first to God and then to the secular ruling authorities, “the superior authorities” referred to at Romans 13:1. What was published represented a correction in our understanding. Those who had shown themselves to be distrustful and critical spread rumors that the articles were in fact fabricated by Brother Müller under the direction of the Ministry of Interior. What should be done? Instead of using all their time to try to convince those who did not at that time want to be convinced, the brothers directed their attention to preaching the good news to those who were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
In later years some who had abandoned the organization saw the evidence of Jehovah’s blessing on it and asked to return. There were others, however, who remained disassociated until 1989 when the Governing Body sent a kind letter addressed “To Those Who Desire to Worship Jehovah and Serve Him Unitedly.” That letter drew attention to such prophecies as Zechariah 8:20, 21 and Isaiah 60:22, which are now undergoing fulfillment. It emphasized Scriptural counsel and standards found at Matthew 24:45-47, 1 Corinthians 10:21, 22, and Ephesians 4:16. Then the letter said, in part:
“We are sorry to hear that you have found yourselves, up to the present time, not in active association with the theocratic arrangement and procedures followed by God’s people in all other parts of the earth. We are writing to encourage you to give evidence of your desire to work in harmony with Jehovah’s visible organization as it is constituted worldwide and as it exists in your country. You can demonstrate this righteous desire on your part by accepting brothers whom we have selected. They are ready to arrange for and to read this letter to you. You can fully trust the brothers who come to you and identify themselves through this letter as being authorized by us. It is their privilege to invite you to return to the one flock and no longer be separated.—John 10:16.”
This action on the part of the Governing Body did much to repair what remained of the damage done by Satan’s cunning attack on congregations at a time when they were cut off from free communication with the rest of Jehovah’s visible organization.
Organizing and Training for Further Service
After the release of the Witnesses from prison in 1960, there was yet much to be done in connection with preaching the good news in the Czech lands. To accomplish it, proper organization and good training would be important. Achieving these objectives under the difficult conditions that then existed gave satisfying evidence of Jehovah’s loving protection and blessing.
A great step ahead in theocratic organization was the institution of the Kingdom Ministry School in 1961 to provide specialized training from the Bible for traveling overseers and congregation servants (now known as presiding overseers). Karel Plzák, from Prague, who then served as a circuit overseer, remembers the first class. It was to be held near Karlovy Vary. As it turned out, the State Security also learned about its location. Consequently, a last-minute arrangement was made for the brothers to get together in a private cottage.
Many young brothers back then appreciated the importance of Jehovah’s service. Some matured quickly and were soon invited to benefit from the Kingdom Ministry School. One of these, Jaromír Leneček, served as a congregation book study conductor at the age of 14. At 16 he was appointed to be the assistant to the congregation overseer, and at the age of 20, he was invited to attend the Kingdom Ministry School. Now he is a member of the Branch Committee.
A further program of training instituted in 1961 greatly contributed to improvement in the quality of the field ministry. An experienced publisher would be assigned to train a less experienced one. They would prepare together and work in the field service together. The aim was to help the trainee sufficiently so that he, in turn, could assist others. At that time it was possible to witness only informally, but the training enabled many to become effective praisers of Jehovah.
Under a totalitarian regime, the mails are often carefully monitored by the government. So in Czechoslovakia traveling overseers became an important link in theocratic communication. Each visit of the circuit overseer was a keenly anticipated event. Eduard Sobička recollects: “A traveling overseer had to have a secular job and therefore was able to work with congregations every other weekend from Friday to Sunday evening—a total of about 5 days during a month. This is the same amount of time that the circuit overseers in lands without legal limitations work with a congregation in one week. For this reason a circuit usually consisted of only six congregations.” Through these brothers, communication was maintained with the congregations, and they were kept up-to-date.
When Caution Was Forgotten
At times when the work was prospering, it was easy to forget that Jehovah’s Witnesses were still under ban. The brothers charged with oversight encouraged soundness of mind in all activities. But some were not content with the methods being used. They wanted faster results.
One day in 1963 in a Prague park, two brothers gathered a crowd of people together. One of the brothers stepped up on a bench and began to deliver a sermon. When a man in the crowd voiced objections, the brother called him the Devil’s agent. The police arrived and had the brothers identify themselves, but it did not end there. That incident provoked a large police operation. Within a few days, over 100 brothers and sisters from Prague were taken into custody. This resulted in two things—court trials, and a lesson for the brothers. Six of those arrested were brought to trial and sentenced.
This incident did not slow down the ministry, but it did remind the brothers of the need for practical wisdom. (Prov. 3:21, 22) That was especially important in the late 1960’s when hopes were raised for the lifting of the ban.
Freedom of Worship on the Horizon?
The year 1968 saw unexpected changes. So-called reformist Communists took power and began working toward democratization. These changes were welcomed by the people, and there was talk of “socialism with a human face.”
How did Jehovah’s Witnesses react to these changes? Reservedly. Although they welcomed the liberalization of the system, hoping that perhaps the ban would be lifted, they avoided hasty steps that they might later regret. This proved to be a wise course. (Prov. 2:10, 11; 9:10) Following eight months of relative freedom, the armies of five Warsaw Pact countries entered the territory of Czechoslovakia. Some 750,000 soldiers and 6,000 tanks put an end to “socialism with a human face.” The people were devastated. However, the neutral conduct of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the “Prague spring” greatly helped them in later years because the State authorities had to admit that Jehovah’s Witnesses pose no threat to the government.
Amazingly, after those events Czechoslovak citizens had the opportunity, for a short time, to travel freely to Western Europe. Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses made use of this situation, mainly because of the “Peace on Earth” International Assemblies planned for that year. Some 300 brothers and sisters from all over Czechoslovakia traveled to Nuremberg, West Germany, the nearest convention city. It infused them with added spiritual strength. Very soon, however, the borders were again closed.
The early 1970’s saw the beginning of a period called political normalization. Sympathizers with the 1968 reform movement were systematically removed from political and cultural life. Nearly 30,000 people were affected. Almost one fourth of the officers of the State Security had sympathized with the reform, and these lost their jobs. Some people said that the Dark Ages were back.
Although this period was different from the 1950’s, it was a time when the State Security again kept a close watch on the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In some parts of the country, brothers were imprisoned. The Witnesses did not stop preaching, but they were more cautious.
“Six Thousand Years of Human Existence”
In 1969 the Watchtower magazine in Czech began publishing a series of articles based on the book Life Everlasting—In Freedom of the Sons of God. Chapter 1, under the subheading “Six Thousand Years of Human Existence Closing,” contained an explanation of the Jubilee and of Bible chronology. This material influenced some in a positive way; it also led to many questions and much speculation.
The office in Czechoslovakia sent a letter dated February 22, 1972, to all congregations. It set out a lengthy explanation of reasons why we should not make any definite assertions about the date when Armageddon will strike. It pointed out that no publication of the Society had said that Armageddon will come in a certain year. The letter concluded: “Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world are familiar with these facts, and no one should add any personal claims as to what will happen before or during the year 1975. There are no Scriptural grounds for any claims, and they could have a detrimental effect on the preaching work. Strive, therefore, that you ‘all speak in agreement and that there be no divisions among you but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.’ (1 Cor. 1:10) For concerning that day and hour nobody knows.”—Matt. 24:36.
What Did Occur
In February 1975 several brothers were arrested in a police operation. More arrests followed in the course of the year in various parts of the country. Stanislav Šimek, from Brno, who had previously been imprisoned a number of times, says: “On September 30, 1975, I was arrested and both my apartment and work place were searched. The police confiscated five sacks of literature. I later found out that some 200 State Security agents had taken part in the operation. They searched 40 homes and confiscated half a ton of material. We were sentenced to 13 or 14 months in prison.”
House searches were very unpleasant. Homes of overseers often had congregation reports, and these were difficult to keep well hidden. However, on more than one occasion, Jehovah blinded the eyes of those who wanted to cause harm to his servants. Brother Mařák, from Plzeň, recalls: “I was then serving as a field overseer. And in a cabinet with glass doors, I had a large envelope containing service reports, donations, and a list of the names of all the elders and ministerial servants. When the men conducting the search approached the cabinet, my wife looked at me and began silently begging Jehovah for help. The men peered through the glass right at the large gray envelope, but it was as if their eyes were blinded and they did not see it. We thanked Jehovah from the bottom of our hearts for this protection.”
The dealings of the State authorities with our brothers sometimes had an amusing side. Michal Fazekaš, baptized in 1936 and imprisoned several times, had the following experience: “In 1975, I was sentenced again. This time I was put on probation. It is interesting, however, that in the same year, on the 30th anniversary of the end of World War II, my pension was raised as a reward for ‘working to weaken the armed forces of the German Reich’ because I had been sent to a concentration camp for my Christian neutrality.”
Mapping Out Congregation Territories
On February 1, 1976, a five-member country committee was established to care for the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia. It included Ondřej Kadlec, Michal Moskal, Bohumil Müller (coordinator), Anton Murín, and Eduard Sobička.
Later in that year, Ondřej Kadlec privately visited the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Finland. In the Service Department, he noticed a map of Finland indicating the district, circuit, and congregation territories. Back home at a meeting of the country committee, he suggested doing the same in Czechoslovakia. Brother Müller firmly pointed out that such a map could create suspicion on the part of government officials and thus cause untold harm. Brother Kadlec recalls: “I had absolutely no desire to bring the subject up again. But just two months later, Brother Müller brought it up himself.” The need for such an arrangement had become evident. Soon all congregations were involved in it.
But how should the territory of Czechoslovakia, with 220 congregations in 8 districts and 35 circuits, be divided? The task was assigned to Jaroslav Boudný, from Prague. He relates: “There was a lot of room for personal initiative. And working alongside Brother Müller, who was very thorough in his work, was wonderful. Full of enthusiasm and with much prayer, I threw myself into my assignment. It required recording thousands of border points of the congregation territories and lots of drawing.”
Reaching Out to Other Territories
After the initial assignments of territory to the congregations were made, those congregations that could handle unassigned areas were invited to do so. The willingness of many congregations to accept these extra assignments was touching, especially in the case of congregations around Ostrava, in Moravia. Some had to travel up to 120 miles [200 km] to reach the territory.
How was the work organized? The brothers would go for a full weekend; they left on Saturday morning and returned home Sunday evening. The cars were always full, and the brothers cared for their own expenses. Publishers might make such a trip every other week.
The publishers were encouraged to behave as tourists, to leave their car outside the village, to walk through the village only in one direction, to start a friendly conversation and gradually shift to giving a witness and, in case of opposition, to return to the original theme and conclude in a friendly manner. In a period of ten years, there were only rare cases of difficulty.
To reach other territories, some pioneers who had been recommended by the elders were assigned for limited periods. As had been done in earlier years, they were usually sent for a week or more. Among the first in Prague were two sisters, Marie Bambasová and Karla Pavlíčková, who had been partners for nearly 30 years. Karla recalls: “Marie retired in 1975. On her second day of retirement, we were on our way to pioneer in Moravia. It was a period of persecution, so such service could be dangerous, and especially where we were. We served near the Austrian border. A local sister instructed us: ‘Don’t take any literature with you. And if someone catches you, tell them you’re on a little trip, then leave the area, and don’t return to me. I’ll send your things to you later.’ But Jehovah blessed us. Our first experience with this kind of service was wonderful. We pioneered like that every year and were always sent to different places.”
At times those pioneering trips took them even farther afield. “Brother, there is a need in Bulgaria! You speak Russian and would therefore be good for the job.” That is what a brother from Prague was told in the late 1970’s. He and his wife volunteered to travel to Bulgaria regularly, sometimes even twice a year, and continued doing so for 13 years.
Was there not enough work at home so that Czech publishers had to travel to Bulgaria, into much more difficult conditions? There was plenty to do in Czechoslovakia, but there was also a strong desire to provide assistance wherever it was needed.
The brother from Prague who shared in that activity comments on the Bulgarian field in those days: “Bulgarians are by nature very hospitable. That enabled us to get close to them. In time we came to understand what things were like for them. They would share the truth mainly with family members. The idea never occurred to many of them that they could approach people on the streets. On one occasion, when I was assigned to conduct the Memorial in Sofia, I took advantage of the presence of a number of publishers. Using experiences and demonstrations, we showed the publishers how to witness more ‘safely.’ It was important not to say, ‘I study the Bible,’ but rather to strike up a conversation on a neutral subject and gradually shift to the Bible. We might say, ‘I heard somewhere that the Bible says . . .’ The publishers gladly accepted this new method of service, and the message about God began to spread beyond their circle of close acquaintances.”
Zealous Activity Upsets Officials
Any increased efforts in the preaching of the good news were quickly observed by our persecutors, even though our brothers endeavored to be discreet. The congregation in Nejdek, near Karlovy Vary, is one that attracted the attention of political officials and the police. Juraj Kaminský, who for many years served as a traveling overseer, says: “At one time they even seriously believed that the work in the entire country was directed from Nejdek. The Communist dignitaries held frequent consultations on how to prevent our activity. Once, experts came all the way from Prague, and a conference was held in a hotel in Karlovy Vary. In attendance were two government officials, representatives of ministries, and the police. Some two hundred were present.
“The speaker had our Truth book at the speaker’s stand. He elaborately described the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pointing out that we are very thorough and capable organizers. As he reached the climax of his praise of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he declared: ‘All the better we must be to prevent them from going beyond our reach!’”
Persecuted for Honoring Jesus Christ
It was impossible to conceal from the Communist police the date of the Memorial of Christ’s death. Božena Pětníková, who was living in Prague, reminds us of such an occasion: “In those times there were few brothers in the congregations, and sisters were, therefore, assigned to conduct meetings in private homes. We used to have ten, at most, at the meeting. Back in 1975 our group was to meet for the Memorial at a place where no meeting had been held so far. After about 40 minutes, we were disturbed by ringing of the bell and by furious kicking at the door. The hullabaloo continued, and the householder opened the door. Three men entered the room, two in police uniforms, one in plain clothes. ‘Look at that! Mrs. Pětníková, we had no idea we would find you here! What are you doing here?,’ asked the civilian. ‘We are celebrating the Memorial of Jesus Christ. Sit down, please, and let us finish the celebration,’ I replied calmly. But they, of course, refused. They asked for our identity cards, and gradually they interrogated everybody regarding the reason why the person was there. Then an older sister was next in line for interrogation. I was a bit afraid of what she would say. But her response was encouraging to all of us: ‘I am a Witness of Jehovah, and I honor Jehovah,’ she said. ‘Be happy you are so old,’ replied the policeman, who was surprised to see her courage. Then they forced us to leave, and at the local police station, I had to sign that I had conducted the Memorial.”
Twelve years later, in 1987, in some places in Bohemia, the State Security arrested many brothers in connection with the Memorial. Their main interest was in knowing where the Memorial had been held and who had conducted it. At one location at the conclusion of the Memorial, all in attendance were identified by the police and one brother was taken into custody and interrogated. At still another place, criminal charges were made against three sisters, and the reason given was that they had been visiting a woman and “studying literature of a banned religious sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Another sister, Miluše Pavlová, was sentenced to imprisonment in Pardubice, not because she had been caught doing anything, but on the basis of suspicion. The official reason for the sentence was the following: “The expertise indicates that the accused had been disseminating and copying banned literature. The court of appeals reaffirms the original decision, adding, ‘She was sentenced to serve as a deterrent to herself as well as to others.’”
Providing Spiritual Food
Providing Bible literature for study was done with great care during the Communist era. The average Witness did not know how it was translated, printed, and then made available for use. The translators and proofreaders, as well as those involved in printing and bookbinding, were not known openly.
A translator would type up a Watchtower article in Czech and hand it over to a proofreader, not to see the material again until it was used at congregation meetings. Everything, including books and brochures, was translated in this way. Nevertheless, the quality of translation was relatively good. The Awake! magazine was not translated during that time.
Even bodies of elders did not know who in their own congregations were involved in translation. At times when as a result of additional translation work, these brothers showed a decrease in their field ministry, the elders would try to assist them, believing that they were perhaps cooling off spiritually. But the translators and proofreaders would not disclose what they were doing.
Under these very difficult circumstances, a most remarkable project was undertaken. The entire New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures was translated into Czech. Between 1982 and 1986, it was also printed and bound in five volumes right there in Czechoslovakia, and a copy was supplied to each Witness family. In a similar way, work was done to produce the New World Translation in Slovak, but it was not completed until later.
How They Got Literature Into Print
In the 1950’s brothers who were not in prison put forth much effort to make sure that their Christian brothers and sisters would be spiritually fed. For a time after the ban was imposed and the responsible brothers were arrested, there was often just one copy of The Watchtower to be shared by several congregations. The situation gradually improved. In time, there was one copy per congregation, and later, one per family. The publishers would make handwritten notes. They had no typewriters.
Juraj Kaminský, from the Nejdek Congregation, describes a typical situation that confronted the brothers. He says: “When the brothers finally were able to obtain a typewriter, it was an old machine. The man who sold it to them dug it out of a hole in the ground right in front of their eyes. Later, they found ways to buy new machines and also equipment for enlarging photographs.”
Various ones were involved in reproducing literature. Many sisters, some over 70 years of age, learned to type. The brothers even managed to smuggle literature into prisons. In 1958, they began to produce photographic miniatures of The Watchtower. As many as three of such photographic copies would be hidden in a bar of soap or in toothpaste and sent to the brothers in prison. They would then make their own handwritten copies and destroy the originals.
In 1972, Herbert Adamy was invited to assist in the reproducing of literature. He was assigned to coordinate literature production for all of Czechoslovakia. He recalls: “In the beginning the literature was produced by hand by hundreds of publishers in the congregations. In the end—just before the fall of the Communist system—we had a complex of modern, well-equipped underground printeries capable of producing many times more literature than was needed at the time.”
Regarding the time when they were using their first mimeograph, Brother Adamy says: “About four times a year, the whole printery had to be moved to a predetermined location that was not easily detectable. During one ‘operation’ the team printed, assembled, bound, and shipped about 12,000 books. An operation lasted about a week. The workers got up at 4:00 a.m. and often went to bed after midnight. When an operation was completed, I would take the parcels of literature to the nearest train station. Here they were handed over to a courier, who transported them sometimes 600 kilometers [400 miles] away.”
In time, at production centers that they built themselves, the brothers began secretly to manufacture their own mimeographs. Altogether, they made 160 of such machines, and some were supplied to the brothers in Romania.
In the 1980’s the brothers in Czechoslovakia began to use offset printing, which greatly improved the quality of their work. To do this, they built their own offset printing machines. Within a year and a half, they had built 11 of these, with electronically controlled rotary paper feeders. A single press was capable of producing 11,000 good quality impressions per hour.
Two Prague Printeries Raided
Toward the end of 1986, the State Security managed to locate and shut down two of our printeries. After a raid on one of these, a report appeared in an internal bulletin of the Ministry of Interior. A copy of it was given to the Witnesses by a friendly policeman. First, there was the customary propaganda that endeavored to link the Witnesses with foreign political movements. Then the report gave details of the police operation and told of the sentences given to the Witnesses. It concluded with this surprising admission: “The Jehovists conduct themselves very nicely toward outsiders. They are willing to help and are hardworking, but that is as far as it goes. They are not willing to expend themselves in Socialist Work Brigades and the like. No case is known of a Jehovist stealing, smoking, abusing alcohol or drugs. . . . Not one of them has ever been prosecuted for any moral delict or property-rights offense. Members of the sect strive to speak the truth. They never give out the names of others, but only refer to them as ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’ They always speak only about themselves, and if they are called upon to give specific information they remain silent, not only when they are accused, but also when called to witness.”
Of course, the closing down of one or two printeries did not stop the work of proclaiming God’s Kingdom. The year 1987 saw further increase. A new peak of 9,870 publishers was reached in the Czech lands. On an average, 699 shared in either auxiliary or regular pioneer service.
Was Legal Registration Possible?
In 1972 when the provision was made worldwide for a body of elders to supervise the activities of each congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the same arrangement went into effect in Czechoslovakia. In 1976 a five-member country committee was appointed to care for the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses within the country.
Yet, neither Jehovah’s Witnesses nor a corporation to care for necessary business affairs for them was legally registered, and they had no office in Czechoslovakia from which to carry on their work. So in March 1979, an unfinished three-story house in Prague was purchased in the name of two individual Witnesses. Groups of 10 to 12 volunteers came for week-long shifts to work on the house. They traveled to Prague from as far as the remote side of Slovakia. Within six months, the residence could be occupied, and a year later, the part that would serve as an office was ready. The building served as a suitable office until the spring of 1994.
In the late 1970’s, it seemed that negotiations could begin with a view to achieving legal registration. So on June 1, 1979, a letter was delivered to the Secretariat for Religious Affairs With the Presidium of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The letter stated: “Kindly allow us to request an interview on behalf of a religious group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. We would like to inform you of the desire of certain individuals who occupy positions of responsibility within the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses to consider with you the rectifying of mutual relationships between this religious group and the current system of laws of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.”
The reply came almost a year later, and discussions took place on April 22, 1980. Following this, an application for the registration of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was submitted to the Ministry of Interior. Apart from the charter, it contained a well-reasoned 13-point statement. Point five stated:
“Should Jehovah’s Witnesses be recognized by the State, entire congregations would hold meetings in places designated for this purpose. Congregations would not have to be divided into little groups. Meetings would be conducted by qualified people, and that would afford the Watch Tower Society better oversight of its congregations. The State authorities would also be better informed of the activities of congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Representatives of the State could at will visit public meetings to be sure that these gatherings are harmless and beneficial.”
No answer was ever received.
Extensive Interrogations by State Security
The atmosphere in 1985 betrayed uneasiness in the political system. It was very sensitive to anything that posed a threat to its stability. As a result, interrogations of our brothers were more frequent. Many of these took place in Prague. Numerous brothers were given a so-called warning by the chief of police. This amounted to being put on permanent probation.
In the course of that year, the congregations received five letters from the Prague office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with kind but firm encouragement to follow the principle in Philippians 4:5: “Let your reasonableness become known to all men.”
Interesting Suggestion by State Security
Then at the beginning of 1988, the State Security suggested that the local responsible brothers arrange for a representative of the Society’s world headquarters to visit for unofficial talks with some officials from the Federal Ministry of Interior. On the agenda would be “some aspects of our relationships . . . , as preparation for possible future discussion with authorized State officials.” This was certainly a change.
Before arrangements for that meeting were finalized, the “Divine Justice” District Convention was held in Vienna, Austria. With the full knowledge of the authorities, a relatively large group of Witnesses from Czechoslovakia attended.
Meanwhile, arrangements gradually progressed for discussions between members of the Society’s headquarters staff and dignitaries from the Ministry of Interior. A meeting between the two sides was finally held on the morning of December 20, 1988, in a conference room at the Forum Hotel in Prague. The Society was represented by Milton Henschel and Theodore Jaracz from the Governing Body and Willi Pohl from the branch in Germany. The brothers from the Governing Body had no high expectations. They knew that patience and time would be required. In any case, it was a large step forward. No doubt that meeting was a significant factor in what occurred the following year.
Major international conventions had been scheduled for three cities in Poland. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia wanted to attend. The matter was discussed with State Security officials. How excited the brothers were when permission was granted for 10,000 of them to travel to Poland! That number represented more than half of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Czechoslovakia at that time. Some grew fearful when the Ministry of Interior required a list of all who would be going. But those who did make the trip were built up beyond all expectation—by the convention program featuring the theme “Godly Devotion,” by the enthusiastic spirit of the conventioners, and by the marvelous hospitality shown by the Polish Witnesses.
Keeping in Focus Our God-given Work
Later that same year, on November 17, 1989, a student uprising erupted in Prague. The Communist regime reacted with brutal force, sending special police units to disperse the demonstrators at Prague’s Národní třída (National Avenue). This led to a spontaneous peaceful protest movement against the Communist government. It was later referred to as the Velvet Revolution. For Jehovah’s Witnesses this situation required special caution because emotions ran high, and it was not easy to maintain Christian neutrality.
On November 22, 1989, our Prague office sent a letter to all congregations in Czechoslovakia. In part it said: “How fine it is that the brothers are focused on their evangelizing work, not allowing anything to distract them. . . . We greatly appreciate the good work and discretion of our dear brothers and sisters. Their ministry and its results testify to the fact that Jehovah is with his Witnesses in this country also. We cherish that and pray to Jehovah God that we remain in his favor. Be assured of our love and accept our brotherly greetings.” In the service year that had ended shortly before this, the peak number of publishers in the Czech lands was 11,394—another fine increase.
By the end of 1989, Czechoslovakia had a new government. Our country committee immediately sought ways to legalize the status of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some members of the committee visited the Presidium, and the document resulting from this visit was very important at that time. This document, signed by a responsible official, stated:
“On the basis of an announcement made by the preparatory committee of the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses, we take into account that by January 1, 1990, the church will renew its activity which was interrupted by the Fascist regime in 1939 and again banned on April 4, 1949.” That document represented one of the first steps toward legal registration.
The Long Road to Registration
Although the government had acknowledged the renewal of activities of “the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” it took almost another four years of patient effort before the Society was legally registered in the Czech Republic.
On January 12, 1990, an official application for the registration of the Religious Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses was filed with the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. The whole procedure was handled in close cooperation with the Governing Body, the legal department at headquarters, and local lawyers. On March 1 and 2, Brother Henschel visited Prague. Accompanied by Brothers Murín and Sobička, he paid a visit to the prime minister’s office and to the Ministry of Culture. Both visits were meant to add weight to our request for a quick registration. However, nothing tangible resulted because new registration laws were as yet nonexistent. After this we tried many things, including petitions and talking with the prime minister.
On March 19, 1992, a law on the registration of new churches and religious societies was passed. It stated that the registration procedure would begin only if the religious society’s application was accompanied by 10,000 signatures of its adult adherents. (The so-called traditional churches that had functioned legally for decades under the Communist regime were registered automatically.) So Jehovah’s Witnesses were informed that they needed to apply again, supplying all the required data. Then on January 1, 1993, during preparatory proceedings for the registration, a further change occurred when Czechoslovakia was divided into two countries, the Czech and the Slovak republics. But at last, on Wednesday, September 1, 1993, the Czech Press Agency received the following report:
“Today, September 1, 1993, at 10:00 a.m., representatives of the Religious Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses were presented with registration documents at the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses thanked the ministry officials and informed them that they will not require any financial support for personal benefit, nor any direct financial assistance from the State. The registration goes into effect today.”
This important development was reported in the press. In some newspapers, it was merely a short notice. In others the report was highlighted with such headlines as “Jehovists Got What They Waited For” and “Jehovah’s Witnesses a Recognized Religion.” Did that mark the end of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Czech Republic? Not at all!
Within a few days, a campaign of ruthless attacks through the media began. Characteristically, the greatest freedom for attacks against Jehovah’s Witnesses was provided in the religious press. Biased articles contained questions that were asked of the Witnesses during the registration process together with speculation by the writers regarding the answers given. On one hand, the charge was made that spokesmen for the Society had been deceptive when saying that Witnesses were not forced to believe or practice certain things. On the other hand, the answers given were claimed to be a betrayal of the organization’s own principles.
This antagonistic campaign marked the beginning of a new era, not an era of cruel imprisonments, but an era when Jehovah’s Witnesses would be held up to ridicule. This was a time when every Witness of Jehovah would have to stand up to another kind of assault on his faith and his loyalty to Jehovah God and His organization.
Acting in Faith
Jehovah’s Witnesses did not wait until the legal registration was completed before they began to hold public meetings—even large conventions—right in Czechoslovakia. They had notified government officials that they would be renewing their public activity in January 1990. That very month a special program was arranged for all congregations. It featured the timely theme “Benefit by Obedience to Divine Commands.” This was basically a two-hour circuit assembly. The meetings were modest in size, but rented halls were used. One or two congregations convened at each location. This was followed by larger circuit assemblies in the spring.
All went well with those assemblies, so arrangements were made for a district convention—a four-day national convention—in Prague that summer. The Evžen Rošický Stadium in Prague was rented for the occasion, and two members of the Governing Body, Brothers Henschel and Jaracz, served on the program. The peak attendance was 23,876, and 1,824 were baptized. The convention was an absolute triumph of pure worship. The atmosphere strongly resembled that of the Polish conventions held the preceding year, but this was happening at home and it was in Czech and Slovak! The deep emotional impact of the occasion found its expression both in smiles of joy and in tears of heartfelt appreciation.
For 40 years the words “Jehovah’s Witnesses” had been only whispered in public in Czechoslovakia. Incredible rumors had been circulated about this group, which was often referred to as an “illegal sect.” Now everyone, including journalists, could take a closer look at the Witnesses. The press reports on the convention were by and large favorable. They expressed amazement at what the Witnesses had done to the stadium before their convention. For two months they had worked—some 9,500 volunteers, spending 58,000 hours to clean it thoroughly, repair the benches, improve the sewage system, and whitewash the entire stadium. A reporter for the daily Večerní Praha (Prague Evening Newspaper) marveled at the smiling faces, the harmonious mix of people from all parts of Czechoslovakia as well as other lands, and their clean speech.
That year another important event took place. On August 30, 1990, a Kingdom Hall for the Bechyně Congregation was dedicated—the first in the country.
All of this led up to yet another event, a truly stupendous one.
A Never-to-Be-Forgotten Convention
Plans were made to hold an international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Prague from August 9 to 11, 1991! The first step was to rent a stadium. Which one? The Spartakiad Stadium in Prague, one of the largest in the world. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses were not yet legally registered in Czechoslovakia, the entire stadium was rented privately by Anton Murín, who was then coordinator of the country committee. This was a courageous move. It was an act of strong trust in Jehovah, and Jehovah blessed it.
The Rooming Department would have a gigantic task, and oversight for this was assigned to Lubomír Müller. Brothers of the Governing Body well knew the importance of good accommodations. So Brothers Henschel and Jaracz personally undertook an inspection tour of the proposed hotels all over Prague. They entered hotel rooms and even tested out the beds. Hotels with communal bathrooms and toilets in the hallway were out of the question, they said. Why? Brother Henschel explained: “Under normal circumstances, it would be sufficient because the guests come and go at different times. The convention delegates, however, generally leave and return at the same time. Can you imagine the scene at the rest rooms? We can’t do that to our brothers.” The local organizers were receiving practical training when they saw members of the Governing Body show personal interest in the welfare of each delegate.
Peak attendance at this “Lovers of Godly Freedom” International Convention was 74,587. Of these, 29,119 were from Czechoslovakia, 26,716 were from Germany, and 12,895 were from Poland. The remaining 5,857 delegates came from 36 other lands. It was wonderful to see the baptism of 2,337 new ones, including 1,760 from Czechoslovakia, 480 from Germany, and 97 from Poland.
The high point of the entire convention was undoubtedly what happened on Saturday, August 10. Spontaneously, the entire Czechoslovak section rose with thunderous applause—applause that continued without letup for ten whole minutes! Faces were radiant with delight. What was the reason for all of this? At the conclusion of a discourse delivered by Albert Schroeder, a member of the Governing Body, he had first introduced to the audience a new book in English—which was somewhat of a disappointment—but then surprised them by announcing the release of newly printed single-volume editions of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in both the Czech and the Slovak languages! Tears of joy streamed down the faces of many of the conventioners.
The convention left a deep impression on the hearts of the delegates. And what about the press? As always, some reports were biased and some were friendly. On Monday, August 12, under the heading “Strahov Was Crowded,” Venkov, deník českého a moravskoslezského venkova (Countryside, a Daily of the Czech and Moravian-Silesian Countryside) reported:
“From Friday to Sunday, an international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses was held in Prague, attended by 75,000 delegates from all corners of Europe, America, and Japan. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been active in Czechoslovakia since 1912. Delegates of Jehovah’s Witnesses were noted for their considerateness and self-discipline. The convention itself was orderly and very well prepared. Although it started raining during the Saturday baptism, the audience stayed in their places and welcomed the new members with long applause.”
All of this—yet, legal registration was not achieved for another two years.
Time for Expansion
Though the legal process was moving slowly, the needs of the theocratic organization were increasing as its activity picked up pace in this country. Since 1980 the brothers had used a three-story house in Prague as a central office, with limited housing space. When the work began to be carried on more openly in 1990, they refurbished that building. Apartments were eliminated, and the entire building was converted into offices. But what kind of offices? Larger rooms were separated by wooden partitions to form smaller work areas. These served not only as offices but also as bedrooms for the workers, so their bed was right next to their office desk. More space was needed.
In the spring of 1993, a new ten-story building in Prague was donated to the Society to be used in promoting Bible education. Volunteers from all parts of the country shared in refurbishing it. On May 28 and 29, 1994, a dedication program was held. Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses who for many years had maintained their loyalty to Jehovah under the Communist regime were invited. Albert Schroeder, of the Governing Body, served on the program, and there were others present from Austria, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United States.
When Czechoslovakia was divided into two separate countries in 1993, both of the countries were still served by one country committee, under the supervision of the Austria branch. However, conditions in both lands were changing. The following year a country committee was appointed for each of these countries. Then on September 1, 1995, a branch office went into operation in the Czech Republic. Jan Glückselig, Ondřej Kadlec, Jaromír Leneček, Lubomír Müller, and Eduard Sobička were assigned by the Governing Body to serve on the Branch Committee. Later on, Lubomír Müller was assigned to special service in Russia, and Petr Žitník was appointed as a new member of the Branch Committee in the Czech Republic.
“Quick-Construction” Kingdom Halls
The congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses needed places in which to meet. Finding suitable places for such meetings is not an easy thing in the Czech Republic. Many hall owners refuse to rent to Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is partly due to misleading propaganda, both new and old, about the Witnesses. Many congregations therefore seek opportunities to build a hall or to remodel an older building. Of all the methods tried for erecting new buildings, the most practical has proved to be the quick-construction method. On November 20, 1993, the first Kingdom Hall built in this manner in the Czech Republic was dedicated. The hall was constructed in the town of Sezimovo Ústí and is being used by two local congregations.
The number of Kingdom Halls has continued to grow. As of May 1999, the 242 congregations throughout the country were using 84 Kingdom Halls that belong to the Witnesses themselves. The brothers and sisters in the Czech Republic are well aware that without the financial help that has come from fellow servants of Jehovah in other lands, they would not have been able to build so many beautiful Kingdom Halls. The generosity of our international brotherhood has deeply touched the hearts of the Czech brothers. They earnestly desire to express their gratitude to their brothers in other lands and to Jehovah, who engenders such a spirit in the hearts of his servants and who has produced such a superb organization.—2 Cor. 8:13-15.
The Hidden Traps of Freedom
The euphoria over the fall of Communism in 1989 is long gone, and many new problems have surfaced. On the one hand, there is the previously unknown opportunity to acquire wealth by hard work. On the other hand, there exist social insecurity, a rapidly growing crime rate, inflation, and other negative factors influencing human relations. The rising standard of living promotes materialism, competitiveness, and envy. Many city dwellers have a cottage in the countryside where they like to spend time. A growing number of people are going abroad on expensive vacations. The newly acquired democracy has brought the freedom to criticize anything at any time. It has opened the way for propaganda about immoral life-styles. Under Communism this was unthinkable. People were not prepared, the new situation surprised them, and some of them have been overwhelmed.
This spirit has also had its effect on some of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A number have ceased serving Jehovah because of becoming engrossed in a materialistic way of life, giving excessive attention to social activities, turning away from the Bible’s high standard for marriage, or becoming critical of everything—including Jehovah’s theocratic arrangements. Others who chose to remain in the organization tried to remake congregations to conform to their own thinking. Of course, this caused tension until remedied by steadfast overseers.
In the Czech Republic today, those who endeavor to serve God find that they are surrounded by a society that is atheistic and evolution oriented. It is a society in which religion is viewed as childish tradition or philosophical eccentricity. An aggressive mass media constantly attacks Jehovah’s Witnesses. This presents tests of faith that are as penetrating as those faced in the crucibles of Nazi and Communist prisons and in the chicanery of those that used these. The large majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses stand firm in faith in the face of these tests.
In spite of the attitude of many regarding religious matters, an outstanding legal decision was handed down in the Czech Constitutional Court in the spring of 1999. An article in the Czech newspaper Lidové Noviny (People’s Daily) of March 11, 1999, announced: “Common Sense Spreads Out From Brno,” which is the site of the Constitutional Court. The court ruled that no conscientious objector could be tried twice for refusing military service. This brings a measure of relief to a good number of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The outcome of this case has been widely acknowledged to be a positive contribution by Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Czech legal system.
Impelled by Love
Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Czech Republic continue to share the good news of God’s Kingdom with their neighbors. Their desire is to help many more of them to know our loving God, Jehovah, and to appreciate the marvelous provisions that he has made for all who exercise faith. To reach them, however, the Witnesses often need to overcome the feeling of people—shaped by often-repeated slander—that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “a dangerous sect.” They may also need to overcome a feeling of disdain for religion as a whole, which has resulted from decades under an atheistic regime. Are they succeeding in this?
It is noteworthy that in 1999 when the 16,054 who were then Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered in their 242 congregations to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, thousands more joined them. The total attendance was 31,435.
The desire of Jehovah’s Witnesses is to help each one of these to run successfully, with endurance, the Christian course. While preaching to the public, they also endeavor to help one another to remain firm in faith. They well know that when describing the events of our day, Jesus said: “By endurance on your part you will acquire your souls.” (Luke 21:19) And the apostle Peter was inspired to write: “The end of all things has drawn close. Be sound in mind, therefore, and be vigilant with a view to prayers. Above all things, have intense love for one another.” (1 Pet. 4:7, 8) That love continues to impel them to share precious Bible truths with others and to draw together in unbreakable Christian unity.
[Blurb on page 165]
“I never regretted staying. In time, I realized that this was where I belonged”
[Blurb on page 168]
“‘If you want to shoot every tenth one, shoot us all!’ The entire camp was awestruck”
[Blurb on page 184]
“Mocked and insulted but secretly respected”
[Blurb on page 187]
“No sign of compromise, but Christian reasonableness!”
[Map on page 150]
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[Full-page picture on page 148]
[Picture on page 153]
Brother Erler, from Dresden
[Pictures on page 155]
Otto Estelmann showed the “Photo-Drama of Creation” throughout the country
[Picture on page 157]
[Picture on page 167]
Božena Vodrážková learned the truth in a concentration camp
[Pictures on page 169]
František Šnajdr and Alois Miczek—both incarcerated in Mauthausen concentration camp
[Picture on page 173]
Many gathered for public talks after World War II
[Pictures on page 175]
Bethel family and branch office after World War II
[Picture on page 178]
Meeting out in the woods in 1949
[Picture on page 185]
Group vacations provided opportunities for spiritual upbuilding
[Picture on page 194]
Jaromír Leneček, a Branch Committee member, zealous in service since his youth
[Pictures on page 207]
Milton Henschel and Theodore Jaracz, along with others, worked toward legal registration
[Picture on page 210]
Czech delegates at convention in Poland in 1989
[Pictures on page 216]
International convention in Prague in 1991—an extraordinary event
[Picture on page 218]
The Czech translation team
[Picture on page 223]
Branch office in Prague
[Picture on page 223]
Below: Branch Committee (from left to right): Jan Glückselig, Jaromír Leneček, Ondřej Kadlec, Petr Žitník, and Eduard Sobička