Lands of the Former Yugoslavia
THE country known formerly as Yugoslavia is a region of fascinating diversity. With Central and Eastern Europe to the north, Greece and Turkey to the south, and Italy to the west, this area is a melting pot of cultures, languages, and religions. For many, however, the name Yugoslavia evokes images of conflict and strife. From the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in 1914 to the ethnic cleansing of more recent times, this section of the Balkan Peninsula has experienced little peace. As the peoples of this region clashed to gain independence, republics have become countries. Eventually, Yugoslavia splintered, and now in its former territory are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.
Against this backdrop of political, ethnic, and religious strife emerges a most remarkable account
AT THE BEGINNING
How did the work of Jehovah’s people have its start in this area? Our story begins with a young barber named Franz Brand, a native of the northern region of Yugoslavia called Vojvodina. He had traveled to Austria in search of work. While there, he came in contact with the truth, which he brought back to his hometown in 1925. He joined a small group who had been reading and discussing the Bible study aids Studies in the Scriptures, which they had received from relatives in the United States.
The group discerned the need to preach, and two booklets explaining Bible teachings were translated into Serbian. Sadly, before these booklets could be distributed, the group was visited by a prominent brother who had turned against the organization and formed his own sect. He persuaded everyone but Franz to leave the Bible Students.
Franz then moved to Maribor, Slovenia, where he found work at a barbershop. He witnessed to the owner of the shop, Richard Tautz, who accepted the truth. Dubbed the Bible-believing barbers, Franz and Richard used the shop as a center for preaching. Their customers listened attentively
THE “PHOTO-DRAMA” OPENS THE WAY
In 1931 the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Switzerland sent two brothers to show “The Photo-Drama of Creation” in large cities throughout Yugoslavia. Halls were packed, and audiences were very attentive as Ðuro presented the material. The “Photo-Drama” generated interest in Bible truth throughout the country. Meanwhile, in Maribor the brothers conducted meetings in both the Slovenian and German languages. And in Zagreb and surrounding areas, groups gathered to discuss publications that had been translated into Croatian.
Next, the brothers decided to begin translation of The Watchtower into both Slovenian and Croatian
Equipped with these magazines, brothers and sisters would travel by train to various parts of Yugoslavia to preach. At times, brothers in Slovenia rented an open-top truck and hired a non-Witness driver. He would drive them to the area where they wanted to preach and would wait the entire day until they finished. In the early days, these Kingdom proclaimers had little training, and their message was at times blunt; yet, Jehovah blessed their efforts by helping them find “those who were rightly disposed for everlasting life.”
“I heard about the truth in 1931 from my aunt, Terezija Gradič, and her husband, Franc,” remembers Franc Sagmeister. “He was among the first publishers in Slovenia. Though formerly a great opponent of religion, Franc began to read the Bible eagerly. That made a big impression on me, so I joined him in studying the Scriptures. Despite opposition from my family, I wanted to share my newly acquired knowledge with others. When this was brought to the attention of the parish priest, he promptly called me in to see him. He told me that I was not allowed to have a Bible because I could not understand it. I refused to give him my copy. Later, when my father died, the priest approached me on the street, furious that I hadn’t paid for a single Mass to be said for my father. I told him, ‘I would pay for a hundred Masses, even a thousand, if that would help my father.’
“‘It helps, it helps!’ said the priest.
“‘If he is in heaven,’ I said, ‘he doesn’t need your Mass, and if he is in hell, he wouldn’t need one.’
“‘But what if he is in purgatory?’ demanded the priest.
“‘Mister priest,’ I said, ‘you well know that I own a great deal of property. I am ready right now to go to the lawyer’s office and sign it all over to you if you can prove to me from the Bible that man has an immortal soul that lives on after death, that hell and purgatory exist, and that God is some kind of Trinity.’
“He glared at me, lit up a cigarette, and left.”
PIONEERS TO THE FIELD
In the 1930’s, dedicated men and women opened up the way for the light of truth to shine in Yugoslavia. In Maribor, Slovenia, for example, Grete Staudinger, Katarina Konečnik, and later Karolina Stropnik enrolled in what became known as vacation pioneer service. Farther south in Mostar, the principal town of Herzegovina, an orchestra conductor named Alfred Tuček recognized the ring of truth and began pioneering. Dušan Mikić, a 23-year-old from Zagreb, Croatia, obtained the booklet Where Are the Dead? He too made quick progress, was baptized, and began pioneering. The ranks of pioneers would soon be fortified by the arrival of zealous German brothers and sisters.
As the truth was taking root in Yugoslavia, it was being banned in Germany. The branch office in Switzerland arranged to send to Yugoslavia about 20 experienced pioneers, such as Martin Poetzinger, Alfred Schmidt, Vinko and Josephine Platajs, and Willi and Elisabeth Wilke. Though they did not speak Slovenian or Serbo-Croatian, these self-sacrificing pioneers used testimony cards to preach boldly, opening the way for future progress.
THE CHALLENGES OF PIONEERING
Their zeal for Jehovah and love for people helped the pioneers overcome problems with both the language and lack of money. Moving from place to place also proved challenging. It was not uncommon to travel 25 miles [40 km] on foot through harsh weather and over difficult terrain to reach remote villages. One pioneer sister recalls that to help preserve her shoes, she removed them while walking from village to village. Martin Poetzinger, who later became a member of the Governing Body, fondly recalled his time traveling through the countryside with a backpack full of literature, preaching to all who would listen.
The problem of transportation was eased with the arrival of bicycles purchased by a brother in Switzerland and donated to these faithful pioneers. Those bicycles were used in the ministry for decades.
Although the people of Yugoslavia were known for being hospitable, there was religious opposition, and our pioneers faced much persecution. The priests wielded great control over their followers, especially in the smaller villages. At times, the priests would incite schoolchildren to follow the pioneers and throw stones at them. The clergy also incited the authorities to harass the pioneers, confiscate their literature, and arrest them.
On one occasion, while preaching in a remote village in Croatia, Willi Wilke heard a loud roar of excitement from the village square. He and his wife, along with Grete Staudinger, another pioneer, were there offering the booklet Righteous Ruler, which depicted Jesus Christ on the title page. “To my horror,” he remembers, “I arrived to see an angry crowd of about 20 people, armed with sickles, surrounding my wife. Nearby, another group of people were busy burning our booklets.”
The pioneers had no idea why these humble villagers were so angry, and Sister Wilke could not speak the language well enough to find out. However, Grete was fluent in German and the local languages. She stepped up and asked, “Ladies and gentlemen, what are you doing?”
“We don’t want King Peter!” they replied almost in one voice.
“Nor do we,” Grete replied.
Surprised, the people pointed to the picture on the booklet and asked, “Then why are you making propaganda for him?”
Now Grete understood. Just the year before, in 1934, the Yugoslav King Alexander I had been murdered, and his son Peter was to succeed him on the throne. However, the villagers preferred autonomy rather than a monarch from Serbia. The villagers had thought the picture of Jesus Christ was King Peter!
The misunderstanding was cleared up, and a thorough witness concerning the King, Jesus Christ, was given. Some who had burned their booklets now wanted new ones. The pioneers left the village happy, feeling that Jehovah’s protective hand had been over them.
The pioneers also had to be mindful of local customs. When preaching in predominantly Muslim villages in Bosnia, special attention had to be shown not to offend the local people. For example, making eye contact with a married Muslim woman could evoke a negative reaction from her husband.
At that time, there were very few congregations and groups in the country. So after preaching all day in a distant village, it was sometimes difficult to find shelter for the night. Because the pioneers had little money, they could not afford to pay for a proper room at a guesthouse. Josephine Platajs recalls: “In one village nobody would take us in because they were afraid of the Catholic priest. It was already dark when we were about to leave the village. On the way out, we saw a big tree with dry leaves on the ground
These pioneers saw how Jehovah cared for them even in little things. Their concern was for advancing the good news and not for personal comfort.
STEPPING OVER INTO MACEDONIA
Alfred and Frida Tuček, both pioneers, took the opportunity to spread the Kingdom message while traveling from Slovenia to Bulgaria. In the town of Strumica, Macedonia, they witnessed to a shop owner, Dimitar Jovanovič, and lent him some literature. One month later, when returning from Bulgaria, they revisited him. Upon learning that he had not read the literature, they asked him to return it so that it could be given to someone who would appreciate it. This sparked Dimitar’s curiosity. He pleaded for another chance to read the literature. After reading it, he realized that he had found the truth, and he became the first person to be baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Macedonia.
Dimitar then shared the truth with two brothers, Aleksa and Kosta Arsov. Soon there were three Witnesses in Macedonia. Equipped with magazines, a phonograph, and records containing sermons, they began to preach. One of the magazines found its way into the hands of an Evangelical Methodist minister, who passed it on to a bright young man in his church, Tušo Carčev. Tušo liked what he read and persuaded the minister to supply him with more magazines. Soon Tušo learned that it was not appropriate to be paid to preach the good news. Excited, he told this to the minister, who responded by not bringing any more magazines. Tušo found the address of the Maribor branch office in the magazines and wrote asking that more be mailed to him. The office contacted Dimitar, Aleksa, and Kosta asking them to visit Tušo. Soon a group was formed.
In 1935 the brothers moved the branch office from Maribor, Slovenia, to the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, Serbia. Franz Brand along with Rudolf Kalle were given oversight.
THE WORK IS BANNED
Evidence of the zealous activity of our brothers in those days is seen in a brochure issued by the Catholic Church in 1933. In it the preaching activity of the Witnesses was explained in great detail, and the church predicted that our work would soon come to an end. How wrong that proved to be!
In northern Yugoslavia the clergy were angered by the zealous activity of the small group of pioneers. They were further infuriated when the courts blocked attempts to restrict the Kingdom-preaching activity. Eventually, though, a Jesuit priest from Slovenia became the minister of the interior. One of his first decrees was to dissolve the Lighthouse Society; and in August 1936, the work was officially banned. The authorities sealed the Kingdom Halls and confiscated all the literature. Fortunately, the congregations had been informed ahead of time, and the authorities found little to confiscate. So that the work might continue, a small publishing house under the name Kula stražara (The Watchtower) was opened in Belgrade, and the meetings continued in private homes.
With an official ban in place, the government increased its pressure to stop the preaching work. Those in the full-time ministry became special targets, making it increasingly difficult for our German-speaking brothers. The banning of the work in other European countries is what had brought many of these pioneers to Yugoslavia, and now the preaching work was under ban here as well. Though the pioneers were arrested and imprisoned, their zeal was unwavering. “At times it was difficult to receive visits while in prison, but Jehovah never forsook us,” said one sister. “Once when a brother came to visit us and permission was denied, he spoke with the prison warden in such a loud voice that we could hear him. The sound of his voice itself was a great encouragement to us.”
During this time of unrest, it took great courage to translate and distribute the booklet Judge Rutherford Uncovers Fifth Column, which exposed the role of Catholic churches in supporting the political agenda of the Nazi government. It was translated into Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian, and 20,000 copies of each were printed. Banned from the start, it resulted in both the expulsion of foreign pioneers and an indictment from the state attorney requesting 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for the publishers of the booklet. Despite the risk, the few publishers in Yugoslavia distributed the 60,000 copies quickly.
“People at that time were hungry for the written word and enjoyed reading,” explains Lina Babić, who learned the truth toward the end of World War II and had close contact with faithful brothers and sisters. “Since we always had to be cautious,” she relates, “I chose to copy literature by hand in my personal notebook. That way, if I was searched, it would give the impression that it was simply my personal notes.”
CHOOSING BETWEEN TOLSTOY AND JEHOVAH
As the world teetered on the verge of war, a split occurred in one of the largest congregations in Yugoslavia. Some had begun to advocate the views of the Russian writer and religious philosopher Leo Tolstoy. Once a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Tolstoy became convinced that all Christian churches were corrupt institutions that had thoroughly falsified Christianity. Some of the brothers adopted this mistrust of all religious organizations and became dissatisfied with Jehovah’s organization. Abusing the trust given to him, the brother taking the lead in the Zagreb Congregation succeeded in persuading most of the publishers to accept Tolstoy’s views. So strong was the brother’s influence that the majority of the congregation, more than 60 members, adopted a resolution to renounce Jehovah’s organization.
When Rudolf Kalle heard of this, he hastily traveled from Belgrade to Zagreb to meet with the whole congregation. He discussed basic Bible truths that Jehovah had revealed through the faithful and discreet slave class. (Matt. 24:45-47) He then asked: “Who taught you these truths? Tolstoy or Jehovah’s organization?” Quoting Joshua 24:15, Rudolf asked those who wanted to stay with Jehovah’s organization to raise their hands. Only two did so.
“It was inexpressibly painful,” said Rudolf.
It looked as if all the good that had been accomplished in the congregation was about to be lost.
Rudolf then invited the two faithful ones to come up to the platform and said: “Only three of us remain. We now represent Jehovah’s people in this city. I would like to ask all others to leave the room and go their own way. Please, leave us alone! We want to serve our God, Jehovah, and you can go and serve your Tolstoy. We do not want to associate with you any longer.”
For a few seconds, there was complete silence. Then, one after another started to raise their hand and say: “I also want to serve Jehovah.” In the end, only the apostate congregation servant and a few of his followers left the room. This test of loyalty fortified Jehovah’s faithful servants for the far more severe trials they would soon face.
ADVERSITIES OF WAR
On April 6, 1941, the German army invaded Yugoslavia. The branch office was damaged by the massive air raids that struck Belgrade. Yugoslavia was divided by the German troops. For a while, fighting disrupted communication between the brothers at Bethel in Serbia and the brothers in Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia. It was even worse for the brothers in the far south of Macedonia, who were not able to resume contact until after the war.
Suddenly, the brothers were confronted with new and challenging circumstances. A world plunged into international conflict imposed upon our dear brothers and sisters a time of severe testing and sifting. Their faith in and love for Jehovah and his organization were to be put to the test.
The office in Belgrade was closed down, and the distribution of spiritual food to the brothers was organized at Zagreb, Croatia. Because fines and imprisonments were replaced with concentration camps and death sentences, discretion and secrecy became ever more vital.
When German forces both occupied and divided Yugoslavia, concentration camps were established. In Croatia these camps were used to isolate and murder several ethnic and non-Catholic minorities as well as any religious opponents of the regime. In Serbia, Nazi forces set up labor and concentration camps. Because of their neutral stand, more than 150 of our brothers from Hungary were imprisoned in the camp located in Bor, Serbia. In Yugoslavia too, Jehovah’s Witnesses became targets of the Nazi regime. Consequently, the preaching work was carried on mainly through informal witnessing. The publishers were advised to carry only their Bibles and one piece of literature, and they were told what to say if arrested. They held their meetings in small groups and did not know where other meeting locations were.
Because literature could not be brought into the country safely, it was reproduced underground. Brothers labored throughout the night at various locations to print and assemble magazines and booklets. They also worked hard to earn money to fund the printing operations. Through various business connections, the brothers always managed to obtain the items they needed for printing. While national and religious prejudice raged within the borders of Yugoslavia, our brothers were united, and they combined their private funds to provide lifesaving spiritual food. How would they transport it to isolated groups of publishers within their territory?
Stevan Stanković, a railroad worker of Serbian descent, proved ready to help his brothers regardless of their background. Despite the danger, Stevan took on the task of secretly taking literature from Croatia to military-occupied Serbia. One day the police discovered literature in a suitcase he was carrying. They demanded to know where the literature came from. Loyal to his brothers, though, Stevan refused to divulge the information. The police took him to a prison for questioning and then transferred him to the nearby concentration camp at Jasenovac. Known for its brutality, this camp claimed the life of our faithful brother.
Mihovil Balković, a discreet and resourceful brother, worked as a plumber in Croatia during those troublesome times. In addition to his secular work, he visited the brothers to encourage them and to deliver literature. “On one occasion,” relates his grandson, “he learned that the train on which he was traveling was to be searched at the next town. So he exited the train one stop earlier than he had planned. Although most of the town was surrounded by barbed wire, he found an opening through a vineyard. He carried the literature in his backpack, and put two bottles of rakija (homemade brandy) in the upper compartment along with some groceries. While cautiously walking through the vineyard, he passed a bunker and suddenly a soldier yelled: ‘Stop! Who are you?’ When he moved closer, one of the soldiers asked, ‘What are you carrying?’
“‘A little bit of flour, some beans, and some potatoes,’ he replied.
“When asked what he had in the bottles, he said, ‘Smell it and take a taste.’
“When the soldier tasted it, Mihovil said, ‘This bottle is for you, my son, and the other one is for me.’
“Satisfied with his answer and the rakija, the soldiers responded, ‘Old man, you can go!’
“So,” concludes Mihovil’s grandson, “the literature was delivered safely.”
Mihovil was certainly courageous. His travels took him through areas controlled by opposing sides of the war. At times, Mihovil was face-to-face with the Communist Partisan soldiers; and on other occasions, he faced the Fascist Ustaše* or the Četnik soldiers. Instead of shrinking back, he used those opportunities to give a witness and explain the hope for the future that the Bible holds out. This took great courage because the life of a Witness was always in danger. Several times he was arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned.
Toward the end of the war, on the night of November 9, 1944, the Partisans raided Mihovil’s house, confiscated literature, and took Mihovil away. Sadly, he never returned. It was later learned that he was beheaded.
Josip Sabo was just a boy when he delivered literature in the Slavonia region of Croatia on his bicycle. For the baggage rack, he made a box to hold literature, which he then covered with fresh pears. At the time, the entrance of almost every village was barricaded and guarded.
“What do you have in the box?” the guards asked Josip at every post.
“Pears for my uncle,” he replied, and the soldiers would take one or two pears. As he neared his destination, there were fewer pears to cover the literature. So Josip took an abandoned path to save his last pears and the precious literature hidden underneath.
FAITHFUL TO THE LAST
Lestan Fabijan, a mason from Zagreb, shared the truth with Ivan Sever, Franjo Dreven, and Filip Huzek-Gumbazir. They were all baptized within six months and began preaching and holding meetings. On the evening of January 15, 1943, a military patrol came to Ivan Sever’s house to arrest him as well as Franjo Dreven and another brother, Filip Ilić. They searched the house, confiscated all the literature, and took the brothers away.
Lestan heard of the arrests, so he and Filip Huzek-Gumbazir went to comfort Franjo’s mother and sister. The Partisans, however, got wind of their visit and arrested both Lestan and Filip. The five brothers explained from the Bible that they served only Jehovah and showed that they were soldiers of Christ. Because they all refused to take up weapons and fight in the war, they were sentenced to death. They were then held captive.
One night the five brothers were awakened from their sleep, stripped of their clothes, and taken into the woods. As they walked, they were given the opportunity to change their minds. The soldiers tried to break the brothers’ determination by appealing to their love for their families. They spoke of Filip Huzek-Gumbazir’s pregnant wife and his four children. He replied that he was fully confident that Jehovah would care for them. Franjo Dreven had no wife and children, so they asked him who would care for his mother and sister.
Once they arrived at the designated place, the soldiers made the brothers stand in the winter cold. Then the executions began. First, they shot Filip Huzek-Gumbazir. Next the soldiers waited and asked if the others wanted to change their mind. The brothers, however, were resolute. So the soldiers executed Franjo, then Ivan, and then Lestan. Finally, Filip Ilić, the last one alive, compromised and agreed to join the soldiers. Three months later, though, he returned home because of illness and related what had happened. The life he had tried to save by compromising he lost prematurely as a result of sickness.
In Slovenia many of our brothers and sisters became victims of persecution. For example, Franc Drozg, a 38-year-old blacksmith, would not take up arms. Because of this, Nazi soldiers executed him in Maribor on June 8, 1942. Some who were there relate that a sign with the inscription “I am not from this world” was hung around his neck before he was shot. (John 17:14) His strong faith is evident in the letter he wrote just minutes before his execution: “Dear Friend! Rupert, today I was sentenced to death. Do not mourn for me. I send my love to you and to everyone in the house. See you in God’s Kingdom.”
The authorities were relentless in their efforts to stop the preaching work, yet Jehovah proved to be a God of salvation. For example, the police frequently conducted raids and lined up the residents of an area to examine their identification cards. All who looked suspicious were led off to prison. In the meantime, other police would search the houses and apartments. The brothers often saw Jehovah’s protective care when police skipped their homes, no doubt thinking that they had already been searched. On at least two occasions, the brothers’ apartments held much literature, as well as mimeograph machines. Time and again, those who participated in the preaching work in those dangerous times experienced the truth of the Biblical assurance that “Jehovah is very tender in affection and compassionate.”
SENTENCED TO DEATH
In 1945, World War II ended, finishing one of the worst periods of bloodshed in the history of mankind. With the defeat of Hitler and his allies, the brothers hoped that restrictions would be lifted and freedom to preach would be restored. There was reason for optimism: The newly installed Communist government promised freedom of the press, speech, and worship.
Yet, in September 1946, 15 brothers and 3 sisters were arrested. Among them were Rudolf Kalle, Dušan Mikić, and Edmund Stropnik. Investigations lasted five months. The authorities charged the Witnesses with acting against the people and the State and jeopardizing the very existence of Yugoslavia. They claimed that our work was directed from the United States and that we were using the proclamation of God’s Kingdom as a front to destroy socialism and reinstate capitalism. A Catholic priest took the lead in accusing the brothers of being American spies working under the guise of religion.
In court the accused brothers spoke boldly in their own defense and gave a fine witness for Jehovah and his Kingdom. Vjekoslav Kos, a young brother, said: “Wise judges, I received this religion, the teaching from the Bible, from my mother, and I worshiped God. During the time of the occupation by the Germans, my mother was put in prison. Two sisters and my brother were of this same belief as my mother. They took them to Dachau, where they shot them because they were considered to be communists because they worshiped God the way they did. For this same religion I am now found here before the court as a Fascist.” The court released him.
The court was not so lenient with the others. Three of the accused were sentenced to death by shooting, and the rest were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 1 to 15 years. This injustice, however, sparked a rapid and intense outcry from our worldwide brotherhood. Witnesses in the United States, Canada, the British Isles, and Europe wrote thousands of letters of protest to the government in Yugoslavia. They also sent hundreds of cablegrams. Even some governmental officials wrote in behalf of the brothers. This strong outpouring of support resulted in the death sentences being commuted to 20-year prison terms.
The opposition, however, did not end. Two years later, Slovenian authorities arrested Janez Robas and his wife, Marija, along with fellow Witnesses Jože Marolt and Frančiška Verbec, for preaching. The bill of indictment stated in part: The “‘jehovite sect’ . . . recruited new members whom they instigated against our present social system [and] against military service.” Claiming that the brothers were trying to weaken the defense of the country, the authorities handed down sentences of from three to six years of imprisonment with hard labor.
In 1952, because of a change in political policy, all prisoners were released; and the Kingdom message continued to be preached. Jehovah’s promise proved true: “Any weapon whatever that will be formed against you will have no success, and any tongue at all that will rise up against you in the judgment you will condemn.”
Nevertheless, the government continued trying to weaken the resolve of the brothers. The news media labeled them as “mentally ill” and as “fanatics who border on madness.” Persistent negative news reports and the constant fear of being watched began to disturb some brothers. When faithful Witnesses were released from prison, others in the congregations viewed them as spies. However, Jehovah continued to fortify the congregations by means of loyal, mature brothers.
When Josip Broz Tito came to power at the end of World War II, it became clear that the military would play a key role in Yugoslavia. Those who refused to do military service, regardless of the reason, found themselves at odds with the government.
TESTS OF LOYALTY
During World War II, nine-year-old Ladislav Foro, from Croatia, had been present at a compulsory gathering of townspeople when a Catholic priest gave a sermon. After the sermon, Ladislav looked inquisitively behind the curtain of the stage and saw the priest take off his priestly robe. Underneath he was wearing a Ustaša uniform, with a cartridge belt around his waist that held a hand grenade. Taking his saber, the priest mounted a horse outside and shouted: “Brothers, let’s go and Christianize! If somebody disagrees, you know what you have to do!”
Ladislav knew that this was not how a man of God should act. Shortly after that, he began attending secret meetings of the Witnesses with his uncle. Although this angered his parents, Ladislav continued to attend meetings and make fine spiritual progress.
In 1952 when Ladislav was drafted into military service, he made his stand on Christian neutrality clear. Officials subjected him to numerous interrogations in an attempt to force him to take the oath of enlistment into the army. On one occasion, they took him to the barracks where 12,000 recruits were assembled to take the oath. The soldiers stood Ladislav in front of them all and placed a rifle on his shoulder. He immediately threw it down. Using loudspeakers so that everyone could hear, the soldiers said that if Ladislav did that again, he would be shot. When he refused a second time, they led him away and pushed him into a bomb crater several yards deep. The execution order was given, a soldier shot twice into the crater, and the men returned to the barracks. However, the bullets missed the brother!
That night, officials brought Ladislav out of the bomb crater and took him to prison in Sarajevo. He was presented with a letter stating that others of his faith were making certain compromises while he was rotting in prison with criminals. Repeatedly, the officials pressured him with lengthy discussions along similar lines. Ladislav, however, reasoned: ‘Did I come to serve Jehovah because of a certain individual? No! Am I here to please man? No! Does my life depend on what others may say, think, or do? No!’
This spiritual reasoning helped Ladislav to remain faithful in prison until his release four and a half years later. In time he served as a circuit overseer with the support of his devoted wife and fellow worshipper, Anica.
LIMITED LEGAL RECOGNITION
After breaking with the Soviet Union in 1948, Tito decentralized the government and gradually granted the people more freedom. Although the government was still socialistic, there was greater tolerance of religion.
The government invited representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet with them and suggested that a new charter be made, which would make it possible for the Witnesses to have their work legalized. The brothers drafted a charter, and on September 9, 1953, Jehovah’s Witnesses were once again legally registered in Yugoslavia.
While other Communist countries were deporting our brothers, Witnesses in Yugoslavia enjoyed sufficient freedom to gather in designated halls. This also created an opportunity for our brothers in Macedonia to receive literature and make contact with the office in Zagreb. But even though Jehovah’s Witnesses were legally registered as a religious community in 1953, 38 years would pass before they could legally carry out the house-to-house ministry.
Problems continued. Because of the brothers’ neutral stand, the authorities viewed their preaching work as the spreading of propaganda. The nation’s network of secret police along with informants made the preaching work very challenging. Brothers caught preaching could be arrested and fined. One report stated: “Arrests and prosecution continue. This is particularly the case in Slovenia, where Catholic influence is the strongest and where many of Jehovah’s people are under the surveillance of the police and their agents, whose purpose is to catch them studying God’s Word. But the brothers have shown that they are determined to defeat the purpose of the persecution, obeying God rather than man.”
“CAUTIOUS AS SERPENTS”
When preaching in rural Slovenia, the brothers would first ask householders if they had eggs for sale. If the prices were good, the publishers would buy the eggs so as not to arouse suspicion. When they had sufficient eggs, they would ask the next householders for firewood. If it seemed prudent, during the transaction they would shift the conversation to the Bible.
In the area around Zagreb, Croatia, the brothers worked the territory systematically, yet in a way to avoid detection. One strategy was to call at every tenth house. For example, if assigned to work the first house, the publishers would visit houses 1, 11, 21, 31, and so on. Through those efforts, many came to know about Jehovah. Given the challenges that the door-to-door ministry presented, however, informal witnessing proved to be the preaching method most often used.
In Serbia the brothers met in private homes. Damir Porobić relates how meetings were held in his grandmother’s house after World War II. “Between five and ten people attended,” he explains. “My grandmother’s house was ideal for that because it was accessible from two streets. This made it possible for all to come and go discreetly so as not to arouse suspicion.”
Veronika Babić was born in Croatia, and her family began to study in the mid-1950’s. After her baptism in 1957, she moved with her husband to Sarajevo, Bosnia. Milica Radišić, from the Slavonia region of Croatia, was baptized in 1950. Her family also moved to Bosnia. Together these families started to spread Kingdom truth in Bosnia. As in other parts of Yugoslavia, they had to preach with caution. “We were reported to the police,” relates Veronika, “and our literature was confiscated. We were arrested, interrogated, threatened with jail, and given fines. Yet, none of that discouraged or frightened us. On the contrary, it strengthened our faith in Jehovah.”
“One day,” recalls Milica, “a man came to the Kingdom Hall and showed interest. He was well received and even stayed for some time in the brothers’ homes. He commented zealously at the meetings. But then our daughter saw him at her place of work attending a meeting for secret police. We then realized that he had been sent by the police to spy on us. Since his involvement with the police was no longer secret, he stopped coming.”
EARLY KINGDOM HALLS
Before their registration with the government, it was illegal for Jehovah’s Witnesses to gather together in private homes, so when they did, the brothers risked arrest. However, even after they were permitted to meet openly, it was a challenge to find a place to meet, since many people disliked Jehovah’s Witnesses and refused to rent their buildings to them. They therefore decided to purchase buildings in which to meet.
Soon the brothers found a workshop in the center of Zagreb, Croatia. They transformed it into a beautiful Kingdom Hall that seated about 160 and added a small office to it for printing literature. This Kingdom Hall was also used for assemblies and conventions and was put to use in 1957 when the first convention was held for Witnesses from all parts of Yugoslavia. A few years later, the brothers purchased a house in the center of Zagreb on Kamaufova Street, which was used by the Bethel family until 1998.
In 1957 the brothers bought a building in Belgrade, Serbia, that served as a Kingdom Hall as well as an office for Bethel work. After this, they acquired a stable in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and converted it into a Kingdom Hall. In 1963 they converted a garage in Sarajevo into a hall, which was used by the first congregation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of these structures needed much work; but the brothers gave generously of themselves and their resources, and Jehovah blessed their efforts.
BETTER ORGANIZATION SPURS SPIRITUAL GROWTH
In 1960, traveling overseers were assigned to help and encourage the congregations. Some brothers were invited to serve as “weekend” circuit overseers. These brothers willingly used their days off from work to travel and encourage the brothers and to promote unity in those early days.
“For about one year, I served with my wife as a weekend circuit overseer,” recalls Henrik Kovačić, a member of the Branch Committee in Croatia, “and later as a full-time traveling overseer. The brothers lived in very poor conditions, and we often stayed in places without running water or flush toilets. But the brothers showed great appreciation for our visits and displayed extraordinary love and hospitality. They regularly gave up their bed for us and provided us with a meal, though they themselves had so little. In some congregations, so as not to be a burden, we stayed in a different home every night.”
“Serving as a weekend overseer was the most wonderful experience,” says Šandor Palfi, who now serves on the Country Committee in Serbia, “though it was difficult. Brothers waited eagerly for us to come. They were poor, but they did all they could to give us the very best they had. For them, the visit of the circuit overseer was a very special occasion.”
While serving as a circuit overseer, Miloš Knežević directed the work of the branch office in Yugoslavia. During the decades of Communist rule, Brother Knežević was instrumental in resolving many of the legal complaints lodged against our brothers.
HEARTWARMING PROGRESS IN MACEDONIA
In 1968, a young man from Kočani, Macedonia, was attending college in Zagreb, where he became acquainted with the truth. On returning home, he shared the good news with his relatives and friends.
“That young man was my cousin,” recalls Stojan Bogatinov, the first to be baptized from Kočani. “I was working as a waiter, and sometimes my workmates and I talked about religion. After one of our discussions, a member of the Orthodox Church came in for a meal. While I was serving him, I asked whether I could obtain a Bible from his church, because I really wanted to learn about God. He told me that he would try to bring me one. Soon I had my very own copy of the ‘New Testament.’ I was so happy that after work I hurried home to start reading it.
“On the way, I was surprised to see my cousin, who had returned from Zagreb. He invited me over to his place, but I said I could not come because I was so excited about going home to read my Bible. ‘I have something that will interest you,’ my cousin replied. ‘At home I have books that will help you to understand the Bible.’ We went to his home, and I was pleased to see that he had the complete Bible, some brochures, and some Watchtower magazines in Croatian. He offered me the publications, and I started to read them right away. Immediately I realized I was reading something special. I did not know any of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I wanted to get to know them.
“When my cousin traveled back to Zagreb, I accompanied him. There, a hospitable Witness, Ivica Pavlaković, invited me to his house, where I stayed for three days. During this time I asked many questions, and he always answered them using the Bible, which impressed me greatly. I attended a congregation meeting and was encouraged by the warm brotherhood.
“Ivica took me to Bethel in Zagreb, and I left with a happy heart and hands full of literature. After just a few unforgettable days, I returned to Kočani with the spiritual treasure I had found. There were no Witnesses living nearby, so I began corresponding with Ivica regularly. My letters were full of questions, and he wrote back with the answers. As I learned more, I shared what I learned, and my wife and children began to show an interest. We were soon a family united in the truth, and we learned a lot about the Bible. We were happy, and we zealously started to talk to our relatives and friends about the good news; and many listened to us. But with the preaching came persecution.”
ASSEMBLED IN UNITY IN GERMANY
Although our brothers in Yugoslavia were not as isolated as were those in other Communist countries, they were few and longed to experience the love of the worldwide brotherhood. Thus, when they learned that the “Peace on Earth” International Assembly was planned for 1969, they sought permission from the government to leave the country to attend. Imagine their delight when permission was granted!
The assembly was held at the large stadium in Nuremberg, Germany, where Hitler, who had threatened to exterminate Jehovah’s Witnesses, had paraded his troops just a few decades earlier. The program was presented in many languages, and the Yugoslav delegates were thrilled to learn that sessions in their languages would be held in a wooded area near the main stadium. A large platform divided the sports field so that half the delegates, seated on the one side, heard the program in Serbo-Croatian, while the other half, on the other side of the platform, heard it in Slovenian. How that eight-day program deepened the knowledge and faith of the brothers!
Trains and buses had been booked from all parts of Yugoslavia to take the delegates to Germany. “Thrilled to be united with our brothers and sisters,” recounts a brother who traveled there from Croatia, “we proudly displayed signs in the windows of our train car announcing the convention.”
The brothers were delighted to see and hear Nathan Knorr and Frederick Franz from the world headquarters. “We could hardly contain our enthusiasm,” recalls one delegate, “when they came to our section of the stadium to give greetings.” The blessings that the Yugoslav brothers enjoyed far outweighed the many sacrifices they had made to attend. “It cost two months’ wages to travel to the assembly,” says Milosija Simić, who traveled from Serbia, “and it was difficult to get ten days off from work. I wasn’t sure if I would still have a job when I returned, but I was determined to go. It was incredible! Till this day, some 40 years later, I have tears of joy when I reflect on that event.” Having joined together with fellow Witnesses from all parts of Yugoslavia to experience the unity of our international brotherhood, the brothers returned home fortified to face the challenges that lay ahead.
LOCAL PIONEERS MEET THE NEED
The German pioneers who arrived in the early 1930’s had done much work in spreading the good news. Now with an increase in publishers, there were more Yugoslavs who were entering pioneer service. Slovenia, for example, was ready to send experienced pioneers to more distant parts of Yugoslavia where there was a greater need. These pioneers courageously met the challenge of learning new languages and cultures.
“I arrived in Priština, the largest city in Kosovo,” remembers Jolanda Kocjančič. “Albanian and Serbian are spoken there. Though Minka Karlovšek and I did not speak either of those languages, we decided to start preaching, and that is how we learned. At the first house, we met the oldest son of a widow who was of Czech background. We started our presentation in Slovenian mixed with some Serbian expressions, saying, ‘We would like to talk to your household about good news from the Bible.’
“‘Come in,’ he replied, ‘my mother has been expecting you.’
“When we entered, the mother, Ružica, came hurrying to meet us. She explained that 14 days earlier she had prayed to Jehovah asking him to send someone to teach her about him. Her sister, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in what is now the Czech Republic, had repeatedly suggested that she pray to Jehovah for help. Ružica was convinced that our visit was the answer to her prayer. So while Ružica taught us Serbian, we taught her the truth from the Bible. She had student tenants in her house who joined in the Bible study. One of them gave us an Albanian dictionary, which helped us to learn that language.”
Zoran Lalović, in Montenegro, was just a boy when he received a Bible from a pioneer from Zagreb, Croatia. Five years later, in 1980, a special pioneer arrived from Serbia and studied with him. “I had a hard time cutting off contact with my disco buddies,” says Zoran, “but when I eventually did so, I made rapid progress and was baptized just a few months later in Belgrade, Serbia. Immediately thereafter, I was assigned to give the public talk, since there were so few brothers. We also started conducting all the meetings in the city of Podgorica.”
BAPTISMS AT THE RICE FIELDS
“When people were ready for baptism, I baptized them,” said Stojan Bogatinov, from Macedonia. “We had no bathtub to use, and the local river was far too small. However, in our area we have many rice fields with canals to provide water. Some were deep and clean enough to use for baptism. I remember the first baptism in a rice field. As we walked through the field to the canal, someone called out to me, ‘Stojan, so you gathered new laborers!’
“‘Yes, yes,’ I answered, ‘there is a lot of work.’ They had no idea we were laborers for the spiritual harvest that was going on in Macedonia.”
The brothers in Macedonia had limited contact with the branch office, and they still had much to learn regarding theocratic procedures. Stojan Stojmilov began attending meetings in Germany, and when he returned to Macedonia, he was delighted to find Witnesses in Kočani. “When I arrived and told the brothers how the meetings were conducted in Germany,” he relates, “they immediately asked me to conduct the Watchtower Study and to give a public talk. I explained to them that I was not yet baptized, but they were insistent, asserting that I was the most qualified person. So I agreed to do what they asked. Eventually, my wife and I progressed, and we too were baptized in the rice fields.”
Veselin Iliev, who now serves as an elder in Kočani, explains, “We had little knowledge about theocratic organization, but we had a lot of love for the truth.” In time, Jehovah saw to it that matters were corrected. For one thing, making more literature available in Macedonian did much to advance Kingdom truth and strengthen the congregations.
DISCREET USE OF INCREASED FREEDOM
Since Yugoslavia was not under the control of Russia, people enjoyed liberties that were not possible behind the Iron Curtain. In the late 1960’s, Yugoslavia became the first Communist country to abolish visas and relax its border control. With increased freedom to travel, our brothers in northern Yugoslavia took on the task of taking our literature into countries bordering the Soviet Union, where the preaching work was still banned.
First, they brought literature into Yugoslavia from Germany in cargo vans. Ðuro Landić, who serves on the Croatia Branch Committee, recalls that their house was a literature depot up until the fall of the Soviet Union. “Our family cars had false bottoms and hidden compartments in the dashboards,” Ðuro remembers. “We knew that if we were caught, we could lose our cars as well as go to prison, but the joy of our brothers when they received the literature made it worthwhile.”
Sister Milosija Simić, who took literature from Serbia to Bulgaria, recounts: “I never knew to whom I would be delivering the literature
“Because I had worked so hard to copy and retype the literature, I faced a dilemma. I could not simply throw the literature away. So I decided to take it back to Serbia where it would be put to good use. However, although I had purchased a round-trip ticket, I still needed a ticket to get to the connecting station. Usually when the literature delivery was made, the brothers who received it would give me money to purchase a ticket. We did that because there was a restriction on the amount of money I could take into the country. I approached the ticket window and prayed that I might find a woman working at the counter. Just as I arrived, the man behind the counter left and a woman took his place. In exchange for a ticket, I offered to give her the clothes we had used to wrap the literature. She agreed, and I got my ticket.”
In the early 1980’s, the brothers translated literature into Albanian and Macedonian and sent the handwritten copies to the small office in Belgrade. There Milosija used a typewriter and carbon paper to produce eight copies at a time. It was a challenging assignment because the material was handwritten and she was not familiar with the language.
YOUNG BROTHERS TAKE A FIRM STAND
While officially we had freedom of religion, the government viewed our neutral stand as a threat to the unity of Yugoslavia. For this reason, the brothers faced opposition. During World War II, many had proved faithful even to death because of their neutrality. But during the three decades that followed, not all showed the same strong faith. Some attended Christian meetings and supported the Kingdom work; yet, when they were called in for military service, they found ways to justify their participation.
The young brothers who took a neutral stand faced prison sentences of up to ten years. Moreover, they could be sentenced several times before their 30th birthday. Some who faced these tests of integrity and refused to compromise were very new in the truth. Many of them are now responsible brothers who take the lead in the congregations.
A STIRRING INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Yugoslavia had never yet experienced the joy of hosting an international convention. Imagine their excitement when in 1991 the Governing Body announced that one of the “Lovers of Freedom” international conventions was to be held in Zagreb, Croatia!
However, there were problems. Ever since Croatia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia, war clouds had been gathering. Would it be wise to hold a convention? The safety of both foreign and local delegates was paramount. After much prayer and deliberation, the brothers decided to go ahead with preparations for the convention.
Theodore Jaracz, a member of the Governing Body, traveled to Croatia a few weeks before the convention to assist with its organization. Because all other public events in Zagreb had been canceled, public interest was focused on what was to go on in Dinamo Stadium. As the time for the convention drew near, the situation in the country continued to destabilize. Daily our brothers weighed the risks, raising the same question over and over again
One cannot imagine a greater contrast. While the surrounding countries teetered on the brink of violent hostilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Croatia were welcoming thousands of guests to the “Lovers of Godly Freedom” international convention.* As many locals were fleeing the country, brothers and sisters from 15 countries were gathering together in love and freedom. Large groups arrived by air from the United States, Canada, and other Western countries. Because of the military situation, the airport in Zagreb was closed and aircraft had to land in Ljubljana, Slovenia. From there the delegates traveled by bus to Zagreb. The courage of the visiting brothers was a fine witness to the populace, and their presence was an invaluable source of encouragement to the local brothers. The largest group
It was especially faith strengthening to host five members of the Governing Body. To this day many fondly recall the talks given by Carey Barber, Lloyd Barry, Milton Henschel, Theodore Jaracz, and Lyman Swingle. Undeterred by the turbulent times, these brothers, with their many years of experience, boldly entered the country to fortify the brothers with upbuilding talks.
Because of the political unrest, the authorities feared ethnic clashes between delegates from different parts of Yugoslavia. How relieved they were to see them not only gathering together peacefully but also displaying warm, brotherly affection. With each passing day, the number of policemen present decreased.
This memorable convention demonstrated that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a true international brotherhood. Reflecting on this would help the brothers maintain unity during the trials that lay ahead. The buses taking the Serbian and Macedonian delegates home were among the last vehicles allowed to return through the checkpoint between Croatia and Serbia. After our brothers headed safely across the border, it was closed. Many say it was at this time that war began.
In the following months and years, the republics that had formerly been part of Yugoslavia went on to establish independent countries with their own governments. The ensuing upheaval cost tens of thousands of lives and untold suffering. How would our brothers fare through this time of turmoil? How has Jehovah blessed the subsequent Kingdom-preaching work in these now independent countries? Let us see.
Modern History of Bosnia and Herzegovina
“On May 16, 1992, some 13 of us huddled together in an apartment as exploding mortar shells riddled Sarajevo with shrapnel. Two shells hit the building in which we had gathered for safety. Though we came from Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian backgrounds
Sarajevo, which had a population of more than 400,000, was in the grip of one of the longest and most desperate sieges in modern history. How would our spiritual brothers and sisters cope with all the ethnic and religious strife that was tearing the country apart? Before we tell their story, let us get to know a little more about Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The country known as Bosnia and Herzegovina is located in the heart of the former Yugoslavia, surrounded by Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Cultural and family ties are strong, and much emphasis is placed on hospitality. Sipping Turkish coffee at a neighbor’s home and lingering at the kafići (coffee bars) are popular pastimes. Although physically indistinguishable, the population of Bosnia is made up of Bosnians, Serbs, and Croatians. Many do not consider themselves very devout; yet, it is religion that has divided the people. Most Bosnians are Muslim, while Serbs belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church and Croatians to the Roman Catholic Church.
The alarming increase in religious intolerance and ethnic hatred in the early 1990’s resulted in the heartrending policy called ethnic cleansing. Advancing armies evicted civilians
A CITY UNDER SIEGE
As we have seen, the Yugoslav brothers were deeply moved by the love and unity displayed at the 1991 “Lovers of Godly Freedom” convention in Zagreb, Croatia. This unforgettable convention fortified them for the ordeals ahead. One moment, Bosnians, Serbs, and Croatians were living together peacefully in Sarajevo. The next moment, an army surrounded that city and everyone was trapped
“People are starving,” reported Halim Curi, an elder in Sarajevo. “Each month they are supplied only a few pounds of flour, four ounces [100 g] of sugar, and one pint [.5 l] of oil. Any available land in the city is used to plant vegetables. People cut down the trees of Sarajevo for firewood. When the trees are gone, they strip the parquet flooring from their apartments to use as fuel for cooking and heating. They use anything that will burn, even old shoes.”
When Sarajevo was besieged, Ljiljana Ninković and her husband Nenad found themselves trapped and separated from their two daughters. “We were a normal family with two children, an apartment, and a car,” says Ljiljana. “And then suddenly everything changed.”
But they often experienced Jehovah’s protective hand. “Twice our apartment was bombed just moments after we left it,” Ljiljana continues. “Despite the hardships, we found joy in the simple things. For example, we were happy to go to the park and pick some dandelion leaves for a salad so that we could have more than just white rice to eat. We learned to be satisfied with what we had and not to take anything for granted.”
FINDING PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL PROVISIONS
One of the biggest problems was obtaining water. Rarely was there running water in the houses. People had to walk as far as three miles [5 km] through areas targeted by snipers to get water. At the water collection point, people had to stand in line for hours waiting to fill their containers, and then they had to trudge home with their liquid burden.
“The test came when we heard that there would be water in the homes for a short time,” reports Halim. “Then everyone would have to take a shower, wash the clothes, and collect and store water in as many containers as possible. But what if this long-awaited moment was at the same time as our congregation meeting? We would have to decide
While physical provisions were necessary, the brothers appreciated how essential the spiritual provisions were. At the meetings the brothers received not only spiritual food but also details on who was imprisoned, who had been injured, or even who had been killed. “We were like a family,” relates Milutin Pajić, who serves as a congregation elder. “When we gathered for the meetings, we did not want to leave. After most meetings, we stayed for hours talking about the truth.”
Life was not easy, and the brothers often feared for their lives. Still, they put spiritual interests first. While the war ripped the country apart, Jehovah’s people were drawn closer to one another and closer to their heavenly Father. Children observed their parents’ loyalty and cultivated their own unshakable loyalty to Jehovah.
The town of Bihać, located near the Croatian border, was isolated for nearly four years. People there could not get out, and relief supplies could not get in. “It was hardest at the beginning of the war,” relates Osman Šaćirbegović, the only brother in this town, “not so much because of the difficult situation but because we were dealing with something new, something we had never experienced before. Amazingly, when the shelling started, the tension eased because we soon realized that not every grenade causes death. Some grenades don’t even explode.”
Because no one could anticipate how long the fighting would last, the Bethels in Zagreb, Croatia, and in Vienna, Austria, coordinated an arrangement for storing humanitarian supplies in Kingdom Halls and Witness homes in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Mostar, Travnik, and Bihać. As the fighting raged on, cities would suddenly be surrounded and isolated. With supply lines unexpectedly cut off, provisions would quickly be depleted. Nevertheless, although various towns in Bosnia were cut off from the rest of the world, the brotherly unity of Jehovah’s Witnesses remained unbreakable. That provided a dramatic contrast with the inferno of ethnic and religious hatred sweeping through the land.
ZEALOUS YET CAUTIOUS
Along with the challenges of finding daily necessities, there was danger from snipers stationed around Sarajevo, who would pick off innocent citizens at random. Mortar attacks continued to rain down death from the skies. At times it was dangerous to move around in towns under siege. People lived in a state of dread. Yet, balancing wisdom with courage, our brothers did not stop sharing the good news of the Kingdom with people who desperately needed comfort.
“During one of the heavier attacks on Sarajevo,” relates one elder, “thousands of shells exploded in just one day. On that Saturday morning, the brothers phoned the elders and asked, ‘Where will the meeting for field service be?’”
“I saw that people desperately needed the truth,” says one sister. “This is precisely what helped me not just to endure but to have joy under difficult circumstances.”
Many local residents realized that they needed the Bible’s hope. “People are looking for us in order to get spiritual help,” said one brother, “instead of us having to look for them. They just show up at the Kingdom Hall and ask for a study.”
Much of the success of the preaching work during the war was the result of the unity of our Christian brotherhood, which people could not fail to notice. “It was a great witness,” relates Nada Bešker, a sister who has been serving as a special pioneer for many years. “Many would see Bosnian and Serbian brothers working together in the ministry. And when they saw a Croatian sister and a sister who was formerly a Muslim together studying with a Serb, they just had to know that we were different.”
The results of our brothers’ zeal can be seen to this day because many who now serve Jehovah accepted the truth during the war. For example, the congregation in Banja Luka doubled, even though a hundred publishers moved to other congregations.
A FAITHFUL FAMILY
Our brothers were always very cautious. Still, some fell victim to “time and unpredictable occurrence” when they were unavoidably in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Eccl. 9:11, footnote) Božo Ðorem, of Serbian background, was baptized at the international convention in Zagreb in 1991. After he returned to Sarajevo, he was sent to prison several times, where he was treated badly because of his neutral stand. In 1994 he was sentenced to prison for 14 months. His greatest hardship was that he could not be with his wife, Hena, and their five-year-old daughter, Magdalena.
Shortly after Božo was set free from prison, tragedy struck. One quiet afternoon, the three of them went to conduct a Bible study near their home. On their way, the silence was suddenly shattered by the explosion of an artillery shell. Hena and Magdalena were killed instantly, and Božo died later in the hospital.
With prejudice running high, there was little if any tolerance for neutrality. In Banja Luka, the congregation was mainly made up of young brothers whom the military wanted to use for the war. Because they remained neutral, they were beaten.
“The police,” recalls Osman Šaćirbegović, “would often interrogate us and call us cowards for not defending our families.”
Osman would reason with the police this way: “Your gun is a protection for you, is it not?”
“Sure,” the policemen replied.
“Would you exchange it for a cannon to get more protection?”
“Would you exchange a cannon for a tank?”
“All this you would do to get more powerful protection,” Osman would say. “My protection comes from Jehovah, the almighty God, Creator of the universe. What better protection can I have than that?” The point was clear, and the police would leave him alone.
HUMANITARIAN AID ARRIVES
Although brothers in nearby countries knew that Bosnian Witnesses were suffering, for some time it was not possible to transport relief supplies to the needy brothers. Then, in October 1993, the authorities indicated that it might be feasible to take in relief supplies. Despite the dangers, our brothers decided to make the most of this opportunity. On October 26, five trucks left for Bosnia from Vienna, Austria, loaded with 16 tons of food and firewood. How would the convoy pass through the many areas where there was still heavy fighting?*
There were times on the trip when the brothers were in grave danger. “I had a late start that morning,” recalls one of the drivers, “and found myself behind several other trucks delivering humanitarian goods. As I approached one of the checkpoint stations, all the trucks stopped while the officers checked papers. Suddenly I heard the sound of a sniper’s rifle, and we saw that a non-Witness driver had been hit.”
Only drivers were allowed to enter Sarajevo with their trucks, so the other brothers who had accompanied the trucks had to wait outside the city. Still intent on encouraging the local brothers, they found a telephone, put a call through to the Sarajevo publishers, and delivered a much-needed encouraging public talk. Many times during the war, traveling overseers, Bethelites, and members of the Country Committee risked their lives to help their brothers survive physically and spiritually.
For nearly four years, it was not possible for shipments to reach our brothers in Bihać. Although physical food did not cross the barricades that isolated the town, our brothers were able to receive some spiritual food. How? They gained access to a telephone line and a fax machine, which enabled them periodically to receive Our Kingdom Ministry and copies of The Watchtower. They retyped the literature and provided one copy per family. When the war started, there was just a small group of three baptized publishers. With them were 12 unbaptized publishers who anxiously waited two years for an appropriate occasion to symbolize their dedication to Jehovah by water baptism.
Being isolated for so many years was a challenge. “My Bible students had never been to a convention or had the visit of a circuit overseer,” relates Osman. “We frequently talked about a time when we would be able to enjoy our brotherhood.”
Imagine the brothers’ delight on August 11, 1995, when two vehicles boldly marked “Jehovah’s Witnesses Relief Supplies” rolled into Bihać. These were the first private vehicles to bring in humanitarian aid since the city was besieged! And they arrived just when the brothers felt as if they were near their breaking point
Neighbors in Bihać observed how the brothers cared for one another, such as by repairing broken windows. “This impressed my neighbors,” says Osman, “as they knew we had no money. It was a great witness that they still talk about.” Bihać now has a zealous congregation with 34 publishers and 5 pioneers.
A TRIP TO REMEMBER!
Repeatedly, our brothers risked their lives to take food and literature to the war-torn towns of Bosnia. But the trip of June 7, 1994, would be different. A convoy of three trucks carrying members of the Country Committee and additional workers set out from Zagreb, Croatia, early that morning. The goal was to deliver relief supplies and to present an abbreviated special assembly day program, the first in three years!
One location for this special program was the city of Tuzla. At the start of the war, there were only about 20 baptized publishers in the congregation. What a surprise to see over 200 gathered to listen to the assembly program! Thirty were baptized. Today, Tuzla has three congregations and more than 300 publishers.
In Zenica, the brothers found a suitable gathering place, yet they had difficulty finding an appropriate pool for the baptism. Finally, after much searching, they found a barrel that could be used. The only problem was the smell
In Sarajevo the program could only be held near an intersection that was fired upon by snipers. Once the brothers arrived safely at the assembly, they faced the dilemma of finding not only a place for the baptism but also a means to conserve the precious water. To ensure that there would be enough water for all the candidates to get baptized, they were lined up by size and baptized from the smallest to the largest!
What a delightful time our brothers and sisters had that day! They did not allow any of the horrendous events around them to overshadow their irrepressible joy of worshipping together. Today Sarajevo has three thriving congregations.
AFTER THE STORM
As supply lines reopened, in certain respects life became a little easier for our brothers and sisters. However, ethnic cleansing, with its forced evictions, continued. Ivica Arabadžić, an elder serving in Croatia, remembers being forced from his family’s home in Banja Luka. “A man came with a gun and told us to leave, saying that this was now his house. He had been forced to leave his house in Šibenik, Croatia, because he was Serbian. Now he wanted us to leave. An army police officer with whom I studied stepped in to help us. Although it was not possible to keep our house, we were able to make a trade
Political instability exists to this day, yet the truth is flourishing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where almost 40 percent of the population profess the Muslim faith. Since the end of the war, our brothers have constructed new Kingdom Halls. One in particular, located in Banja Luka, is more than just a sorely needed meeting place. It represents a legal victory. For years our brothers tried to obtain permission to build a Kingdom Hall in this area where the Serbian Orthodox Church wields strong influence. After the war, although legal recognition had been given to our brothers in Bosnia, they were denied permission to build a Kingdom Hall in Banja Luka. Finally, after much prayer and diligent effort, the brothers obtained the needed documentation. This victory sets a legal precedent for future Kingdom Halls in that part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The freedom to worship has opened the way for 32 special pioneers, many of whom are from other countries, to assist in areas where there is a greater need. Their zeal for the ministry as well as their loyal adherence to theocratic procedures has been a real blessing.
Sarajevo, where our brothers routinely came under sniper fire only a decade ago, now peacefully hosts conventions for delegates from all parts of the former Yugoslavia. While the wars of the past century have shattered this beautiful mountainous country, Jehovah’s people have been drawn ever closer in a bond of “unhypocritical brotherly affection.” (1 Pet. 1:22) Today, 16 congregations with 1,163 publishers in Bosnia and Herzegovina unitedly bring praise to the true God, Jehovah.
Modern History of Croatia
After the international convention in Zagreb in 1991, the border between Croatia and Serbia was suddenly closed. Key roads and bridges were destroyed or were barricaded by the army, and many delegates from the eastern part of Croatia could not return to their homes. In a warm outpouring of brotherly love, many Witnesses from other parts of the country offered to accommodate those brothers, even though they themselves were limited materially.
In Zagreb, sirens wailed day and night warning of bomb attacks. People ran for shelter, some remaining in shelters for weeks or months. Because of the secure location of the Bethel basement, it was designated by the city authorities as a bomb shelter. This created excellent opportunities to witness, and people received more than the physical shelter they sought. For example, one day the sirens went off and, as usual, people scurried from a local tram to the shelter below Bethel. While everyone waited anxiously, an elder serving at Bethel asked if they would like to watch a slide presentation about the international convention held in Zagreb a few months earlier. They all agreed and afterward expressed their appreciation for the presentation.
Because of the fighting, getting to meetings was a real challenge, and unfortunately, some Kingdom Halls were damaged by bullets or grenades. However, the brothers appreciated the spiritual food more than ever, and these dear brothers ‘did not forsake the gathering of themselves together.’ (Heb. 10:25) For example, rocket-propelled grenades rained down on Šibenik for six months and made it impossible for the brothers to meet at the Kingdom Hall. “We lived outside the city,” explains one of the elders, “so we would gather at my house for the book study and the Watchtower Study. Despite the conditions, we did not slow down in the preaching work. We preached locally as well as in the surrounding villages. Everyone recognized us as Jehovah’s Witnesses. They knew we were different.”
BROTHERLY LOVE IN WARTIME
Many brothers who lost their homes sought refuge with others, and the congregations readily did whatever was needed to help. For instance, at their Kingdom Hall in Osijek, Croatia, the brothers warmly greeted a new family who had recently escaped from Tuzla, Bosnia, under very difficult circumstances. The congregation was delighted to learn that the wife was their spiritual sister.
The authorities gave the family permission to move into a house, but it was old and run-down. When the brothers saw the dilapidated condition of the house, they provided help. One brought a stove, another supplied a window, and others provided a door and a bed. Some brought building materials, and others gave food and wood for fuel. By the following day, one room had been made livable. Yet, the house was still not adequate to shelter the family through the winter. So the congregation made a list of items still needed, and different publishers supplied whatever they could. Although poor themselves, they collected everything that was needed
As the war continued, food supplies were quickly depleted, and the branch worked hard to care for both the material and the spiritual needs of our brothers. In cooperation with the Governing Body, the branch organized collections of food, clothing, shoes, and medical supplies. In the beginning, the help came mainly from local brothers, but their own difficulties limited how much they could do. In the meantime, brothers in Austria, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland generously donated clothing and medical supplies, as well as spiritual provisions. Trucks arrived day and night, driven by volunteers who put the needs of their Croatian brothers ahead of any concern for their own personal safety. From the central storage location in Zagreb, supplies were directed to needy congregations.
The brothers in Croatia had received help, but how could they now help their brothers in Bosnia? Trucks loaded with 16 tons of food and firewood headed for the Bosnian border. This was dangerous, as reports of rogue military operations abounded. Any encounter with these groups could mean loss of the humanitarian supplies as well as death for those transporting them.
“We drove through wooded terrain,” relates one brother, “passing through one checkpoint after another, and sometimes along front lines. Despite the danger, we arrived safely at Travnik, Bosnia. A soldier who heard of our arrival ran to the house where the brothers were gathered. ‘Your people are here with their trucks,’ he cried. You can imagine their joy. We carried food into the house, said a few words, and then had to move on quickly. We still had other stops to make.”
Many brothers wrote to Bethel in Zagreb to express their appreciation for the help they received. “Thank you very much for the hard work you do so that we can receive all the spiritual food regularly,” wrote one congregation. “Thank you too for the relief supplies we received; the brothers really need them. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all your effort and loving concern.”
“There are several brothers who are refugees,” stated another letter, “and some who have no income. When they received the help and saw how abundant it was, tears came to their eyes. The loving concern, the generosity, and the unselfishness of their brothers deeply impressed and encouraged them.”
During those difficult times, special efforts were made to supply our brothers with faith-sustaining spiritual food. It was apparent too that Jehovah’s spirit really helped them, not only to endure these traumatic hardships but also to grow stronger spiritually.
A SUSTAINING MESSAGE OF HOPE
While humanitarian organizations gave what material assistance they could, only Jehovah’s Witnesses provided help that brought lasting relief. Rather than wait idly for the war to end, our brothers did everything they could to share the good news of the Kingdom with others.
In Vukovar, near the border of Serbia, where some of the worst devastation occurred, most of the population, including our brothers, had to flee the city. There was, however, one sister, Marija, who stayed behind. For four years the brothers in Croatia had no contact with her, yet she zealously continued preaching to the few people left in the city. And how richly her zeal was rewarded! Imagine the surprise of the Croatian brothers at seeing a group of 20 from Vukovar attend the 1996 district convention!
Our message of hope also has the power to change lives. At the beginning of the war, a young soldier made rapid advancement in an elite unit of the Croatian army. In 1994, while waiting for a train, he received the tract Who Really Rules the World? As he eagerly read the tract, he learned that Satan is responsible for the violence committed against man and that it is not Jehovah God. These truths made an overwhelming impression on him. One of the reasons he had trained as a soldier was to avenge the murder of his 19-year-old sister and two other family members who had been killed during the war. Though he had made plans to go to the village where the killers lived, the tract made him think. He began studying the Bible, and after several years of making his personality over, he was baptized in 1997. He finally did go to the village that was home to the killers of his family. But instead of vengeance, he was happy to take the good news of God’s Kingdom to people who needed to learn about God’s mercy.
The publishers’ zeal for the ministry, even through the most bitter conflicts, resulted in thrilling increases in Croatia. From the start of the war in 1991 until the end in 1995, the number of pioneers increased by 132 percent. Bible studies increased 63 percent, and the number of publishers rose 35 percent. Yes, the local brothers boldly proclaimed God’s Word, and Jehovah richly blessed their efforts.
Not long before the 1991 international convention, the first Gilead-trained missionaries, Daniel and Helen Nizan, from Canada, arrived in the country. In addition, couples from other European countries who had learned the local language were invited to serve in Croatia.
One of these couples, Heinz and Elke Polach, from Austria, had been special pioneers in the Yugoslav field in Denmark when they were invited to Croatia in 1991. The war began just as they were taking up the traveling work. Their first circuit encompassed the Dalmatian coast and parts of Bosnia, all of which were affected by the war. “It was a challenge to make our visits in Bosnia during wartime,” said Heinz. “Because of the dangers, we could not use our personal vehicle, so we had to depend on the unreliable bus system. We could not carry much
“We had to be resourceful. On one occasion when we were traveling between Tuzla and Zenica, soldiers stopped our bus. They told us that it was too dangerous to continue. Everyone on the bus had to exit. But we knew that our brothers in Zenica were waiting for us, so we began asking others if they could take us. Finally, a convoy of gas trucks that had the proper paperwork agreed to take us. We used our time on the road to witness to the driver, who turned out to be very attentive.
“Again we were forced to stop because of fighting, and we had to use side roads. These roads were in poor condition, and the snow did not improve matters. Often we had to stop to assist other trucks that were stuck. At one point we found ourselves under fire and were forced to flee the area. We got as far as Vareš, about 30 miles [50 km] from our destination, and had to stop for the night.
“The driver lay sleeping on the seats, while Elke and I huddled together in the back of the cab trying to stay warm. It felt like the longest night of my life. Yet, the next day when we finally made it to Zenica, the brothers were so happy to see us! It was worth it! Though they had no running water or electricity, they did all they could to provide hospitality for us. Although materially poor, they were spiritually rich and showed an irrepressible love for the truth.”
Since the war, nearly 50 special pioneers have been assigned to Croatia from Austria, Germany, Italy, and other countries. Later, Jehovah’s organization provided further strengthening aid and encouragement by sending more missionaries. These zealous full-time servants have been a great help, both in the field and in the congregations.
“I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT I HAVE LIVED TO SEE THIS DAY!”
Until the late 1980’s, a monthly edition of The Watchtower had been translated from German into Croatian by brothers living outside of Bethel. Then, from 1991 on, translation was done by a team at Bethel. In time, the Governing Body gave approval to start translating the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Until then, a 150-year-old Bible translation was used, which contained outdated language and many unfamiliar expressions. The Croatian team took the lead, closely cooperating with Serbian and Macedonian translation teams. All benefited from one another’s work and input.
Friday, July 23, 1999, is a day that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Croatia, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia, will long remember. At all four “God’s Prophetic Word” District Conventions, the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures was released simultaneously in Croatian and Serbian, and the audience was told that the Macedonian translation was progressing well. For a number of minutes, the resounding applause kept the speakers from saying any more. Joy knew no bounds, and many delegates could not restrain their tears of delight. “I cannot believe that I have lived to see this day!” said one long-time elder. The complete Bible was released in each of these three languages in 2006.
Until 1996, a Country Committee, under the supervision of the branch office in Austria, cared for the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1996, a four-member Branch Committee was appointed to oversee the preaching work in those territories, and Jehovah’s blessing upon that arrangement has been evident.
NEW BRANCH FACILITIES AND KINGDOM HALLS
As elsewhere, the Bethel family in Zagreb, Croatia, was feeling the effects of theocratic growth. The size of the family had grown from 10 to about 50. But since the Bethel Home was designed for only four or five couples, additional rooms had to be rented nearby.
Shortly after the Branch Committee was formed, the Governing Body directed them to purchase property for a new Bethel Home in Zagreb. Local volunteers and international servants soon built beautiful facilities that would help advance Kingdom interests for many years to come. The new branch facilities and Kingdom Hall were dedicated on Saturday, October 23, 1999, as was a double Kingdom Hall in the center of Zagreb. Delegates from 15 countries were present, including Brother Gerrit Lösch of the Governing Body, who gave the dedication talk. The next day, 4,886 gathered for a delightful spiritual program in a large sports hall. What an unforgettable day that was for Jehovah’s people in Croatia
An extensive construction program of building new Kingdom Halls has also been under way. Until 1990, many congregations met in basements or private apartments. For example, for 20 years a congregation in Split met in a small room in a private home. Although having only 50 chairs, they sometimes had more than twice that number in attendance, forcing many to stand outside. Assemblies and conventions were held at the same venue, with 150 or more in attendance. Today, Split has four congregations, which use two beautiful Kingdom Halls. As a result of the increase in publishers, a hotel conference hall is used for assemblies. The Kingdom Hall Construction Desk, supervised by the Regional Engineering Office in Selters, Germany, is continuing to organize the construction of practical and attractive Kingdom Halls.
Both the young and the old who have made themselves available for Kingdom Hall construction have done an enormous amount of work. Up until now, 25 new Kingdom Halls have been constructed, and 7 others renovated. This has contributed to the growth of the Kingdom work, all to Jehovah’s praise.
THE KINGDOM WORK SURGES AHEAD
In 1991 when Croatia gained independence, its administration held to the previous laws on religion until new laws could be passed. The newly formed State was nearly 90 percent Catholic. Hence, the clergy had considerable influence with the government. Yet, because of the legal status enjoyed by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past and because of our brothers’ impeccable reputation, on October 13, 2003, the Ministry of Justice decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses were now registered as a religious community in Croatia. After all the years of hardship, how delighted Jehovah’s servants were to be legally recognized in Croatia!
In the early 1990’s, all the lands of the former Yugoslavia had but one Pioneer School; now Croatia alone has several classes each year. In September 2008, Croatia rejoiced to have 5,451 publishers organized into 69 congregations. And the Memorial attendance of 9,728 was simply thrilling! All of this indicates wonderful potential for further growth.
Even though religious intolerance is widespread and daily pressures of life mount, all of Jehovah’s servants in this region are more determined than ever to continue preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom no matter what Satan in his anger may wreak. (Rev. 12:12) For the majority of people, the daily struggle of making a living has become the most important thing in life. Yet, among these people, there are those who are sighing over the deplorable moral conditions in the world and who are aware of their spiritual hunger. (Ezek. 9:3, 4; Matt. 5:6) These people are being found and helped to worship the only true God and to say: “Come, you people, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will instruct us about his ways, and we will walk in his paths.”
Modern History of Macedonia
“Step over into Macedonia and help us,” said the man who appeared to the apostle Paul in a vision in the first century. (Acts 16:8-10) Concluding that God was directing them to declare the good news of God’s Kingdom in this unworked territory, Paul and his preaching companions willingly accepted the invitation, and Christianity was soon flourishing there. How has modern-day Macedonia, a smaller region to the north of ancient Macedonia, experienced a similar growth in true worship?
After the second world war, Macedonia became the southernmost republic of Yugoslavia. It gained independence in 1991. Two years later, in 1993, Jehovah’s Witnesses rejoiced to be officially registered in the newly formed state. As a result, an office could be established in Macedonia under the oversight of the Austria Branch Committee. Hence, in 1993, a house on Alžirska Street, in Skopje, was purchased, and the Macedonian translation team moved from Zagreb, Croatia, to this newly acquired Bethel.
Michael and Dina Schieben came from Germany to serve in the circuit work, and Daniel and Helen Nizan, from Canada, who had been serving in Serbia, were reassigned to Macedonia. A Country Committee was formed, and Bethel began to function.
Though Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially registered, it was difficult to import literature. From 1994 to 1998, the government limited imported magazines to one copy per publisher. Consequently, the brothers had to make copies of Watchtower study articles for their Bible students. The brothers were also able to obtain magazines mailed to them from other countries, and visitors to Macedonia were permitted to bring in small supplies of magazines. Eventually, after several years of legal proceedings, the supreme court ruled in favor of the Witnesses, who were then permitted to import as much literature as they wanted.
In August 2000, the number of publishers reached 1,024
KINGDOM HALL CONSTRUCTION
Brothers and sisters all over Macedonia have been very grateful for the arrangement to help build Kingdom Halls in lands with limited resources. A construction team of five brothers was assigned to help local congregations build Kingdom Halls; and between 2001 and 2007, nine new Kingdom Halls were built. This multinational construction crew has given a fine witness by working in peace and unity without any ethnic prejudice. One merchant who visited a completed Kingdom Hall noticed the high quality of the craftsmanship and said, “This building was truly built by love.”
When the construction group was building a new Kingdom Hall in the town of Štip, one of the neighbors was skeptical about the success of the project because of the seeming inexperience of the youthful construction crew. However, when the hall was finished, he brought plans for his house to the site and begged the young brothers to build it for him. He was so impressed with the quality of their work that he offered to pay them generously. He was astounded when the brothers told him that they were building the Kingdom Hall, not for financial gain, but because of their love for God and neighbor.
NEW WORLD TRANSLATION
Meanwhile, another small group of dedicated men and women were occupied with a different task
Many Macedonians have a deep respect for the Bible. Orhan, for example, began studying the Bible six years ago. Though he was illiterate, he learned to read and write with the help of the brother who studied with him. Since his baptism three years ago, he has read the Bible six times!
For a time, Orhan was the only Witness in the town of Resen. Many, though, spoke favorably of the formerly illiterate man, and some parents asked the brothers to study with their children, whom they wanted to become like Orhan. Interest in the truth grew, and eventually a weekly Congregation Book Study was established in the town. One interested person became an unbaptized publisher, and Orhan now serves as a regular pioneer and ministerial servant.
STEPPING OVER INTO MACEDONIA
In July 2004, a special pioneer couple from Albania came to help preach to the Albanian-speaking people in Macedonia, who make up 25 percent of the population. It soon became evident that the couple needed help because they were the only publishers for over half a million Albanian-speaking people. Therefore, one year later a second couple was sent from Albania to join them, and the four special pioneers began to encourage the small group of seven interested persons in the town of Kičevo, situated in the center of the Albanian community in Macedonia. The following spring, this small group was delighted to have 61 in attendance at the Memorial talk, which was delivered in both Albanian and Macedonian. Since then, the group has grown to 17 zealous publishers, with an average meeting attendance of 30 or more.
To help cover all the territory in Macedonia, the Governing Body approved a special campaign for April through July of 2007. The objective was to preach in territory that had not been covered and to spread the good news to the Albanian-speaking population.
In an outpouring of support, 337 brothers and sisters from seven countries gladly made themselves available to help. What were the results? The good news was preached in more than 200 areas throughout Macedonia
“The eyes of some were filled with tears when they heard where we had come from and why we were visiting them,” reported one brother. “Others were moved to tears by what they read in God’s Word.”
Many were the expressions of heartfelt appreciation from those who shared in the campaign. One sister wrote: “A teacher told us: ‘May God bless you. What you are doing is fantastic. The things that you speak about are truly refreshing to me!’”
“It’s hard to leave this missionary-type territory,” said one publisher. “We could see how much the people need the truth, and it saddened us to say good-bye to our Bible students when we had to leave.”
“We regret that we did not take more vacation days,” said one couple, “because now we see how great the need is.”
Summing up how many felt, one publisher said, “I cannot remember a time when we enjoyed ourselves so much as a family.”
In the mountains near the city of Tetovo, a group of publishers preached in a village where no one had ever witnessed before. Two of them started preaching along the left side of a street, and two on the right side. By the time they had witnessed at just three of the houses, the whole street knew that Jehovah’s Witnesses were calling. Soon, news of their visit spread throughout the entire village, and a large group of interested women gathered around the sisters. Further down the road, a group of 16 men waited eagerly for the brothers. Householders quickly brought out four chairs to seat the publishers, and one man prepared coffee for them. The publishers handed out literature to everyone and, making good use of the Bible, began sharing the truth with the crowd.
Many asked questions, and all listened attentively. At the end of the visit, many villagers would not leave without personally saying good-bye. The brothers were alarmed, though, when an elderly woman approached with her walking stick raised. “This I will use on you!” she exclaimed, pointing the stick at them. What had the publishers done to offend the lady? “You gave everyone a book but me!” explained the woman. “I want to have the big yellow one,” she said, pointing to the Bible Stories book that her neighbor had received. Without delay, the brothers let her have the last copy they had.
PREACHING TO THE ROMA
In Macedonia, there are many Roma who speak Macedonian but whose mother tongue is an oral Romany language that is a mixture of several Romany dialects. The capital, Skopje, reportedly has the largest Romany quarter in Europe, with some 30,000 inhabitants. A double Kingdom Hall complex in the area called Šuto Orizari hosts the three Romany congregations there. The 200 publishers enjoy their fruitful territory, which has a ratio of 1 publisher to every 150 people
What is being done to help the humble and truth-hungry Roma people to learn about God’s purpose in their mother tongue? The 2007 outline for the special talk was translated into the Romany language, and an elder of Roma descent delivered the talk to an appreciative audience of 506. Publishers of all ethnic backgrounds
Today the 1,277 publishers in 21 congregations in Macedonia are working hard to follow the apostle Paul’s first-century example. The appreciative response of scores of Macedonian truth-seekers justifies the modern-day campaign to “step over into Macedonia.”
Modern History of Serbia
Serbia, in the heart of the Balkans, is a land of diverse cultures and is home to people of many nationalities. It was here in the city of Belgrade that a branch office was opened in 1935 to care for the territories of the former Yugoslavia, resulting in thrilling theocratic growth. In recent times how have the brothers in the country of Serbia provided help to the newly formed countries in the region?
While the borders of countries were being closed and religious and racial hatred was spreading, brothers of varied nationalities were peacefully working together at the office in Zagreb, Croatia. Eventually, with racial and national prejudice raging outside the walls of Bethel, our Serb brothers were forced to leave. In 1992 translation for Serbian publications was again done in Belgrade, Serbia, as it had been nearly 50 years earlier. This move proved to be both wise and timely.
There was a great need for humanitarian aid in Bosnia, where heavy fighting was taking place. The branch office in Austria had lovingly organized a relief shipment, and the brothers in Serbia were in the best position to deliver it to areas of Bosnia controlled by Serbs.
Although the fighting did not spill over into Serbia, the effects of the war were still felt there. An economic embargo made it difficult to receive shipments of literature from Germany, where it was printed. When the congregations did not receive the latest magazines, our brothers simply studied older articles until more recent issues arrived. Ultimately, though, the brothers never missed any issues of the magazines.
“A STRENGTHENING AID”
“When we arrived in Serbia in 1991,” said Gilead graduate Daniel Nizan, “the country was in great political turmoil. We were impressed with the zeal the brothers displayed despite the critical situation all around them. I recall how surprised we were to see about 50 new ones stand up to get baptized at the first special assembly day my wife and I attended. That was very encouraging to us.”
The Nizans were a big help in setting up the newly established office in Belgrade. The initial office, big enough for ten people, was located on Milorada Mitrovića Street. On the lower floor, there was also a Kingdom Hall. As the translation team grew, more room was needed. Property was eventually located, and construction began. Toward the end of 1995, the Bethel family moved to the new facilities.
The increasingly difficult times prompted more people to respond to the truth, and as the number of publishers increased, so did the need for loving oversight. This need was met in part by special pioneers from Italy
The pioneers from other lands helped in many ways, but most important, “they brought with them theocratic experience,” said Rainer Scholz, coordinator of the Country Committee in Serbia. Today 55 congregations in Serbia are grateful for the help of 70 special pioneers.
PAINFUL EFFECTS OF HYPERINFLATION
Serbia could not escape the painful economic effects of the war, especially the rampant inflation. “During the 116 days between October 1993 and January 24, 1994,” reports one source, “the cumulative inflation was 500 trillion percent.” Mira Blagojević, who has worked at Bethel since 1982, recalls that she had to take an entire bagful of money to the market just to buy a few vegetables.
Another sister, Gordana Siriški, relates that when her mother collected her month’s pension, it was worth only the price of one roll of toilet paper. “It’s really hard to understand how people could survive,” said Gordana, “when everything they possessed suddenly became worthless. Thanks to our worldwide brotherhood, we received relief supplies from abroad. As people lost faith in the banks and the government, many found faith in God, and the brothers drew closer to one another.”
For years the translation teams in Yugoslavia worked closely together at one location in Zagreb, Croatia. After the war each translation group moved to its respective country but, at the same time, maintained contact with the translation team in Zagreb. This proved to be particularly useful when the Serbian team began translating the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures. The goal was to have it released at the 1999 convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
However, while the translators were completing the Bible translation, the country was preparing for war. Bombing would no doubt render telephone communications unreliable, making it difficult for the translators to send material from Belgrade to the printery in Germany. On Tuesday, March 23, with air attacks looming, the brothers worked all night and were able to send the electronic files to Germany early in the morning. A few hours later, the bombing began and the translation team fled to a shelter, rejoicing! Their joy was made complete when the printed Bible was released four months later at the Belgrade convention. During the bombing and the many electrical outages, the brothers continued to translate other publications. Often, though, they had to stop and run to a safe area. True, it was a stressful time, but all were happy to share in producing the much-needed spiritual food.
With much hard work and with Jehovah’s blessing, in July 1999 the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures was released in Serbian. The delegates bubbled over with joy and appreciation at having this translation in their own language. Subsequently, at the 2006 conventions, the entire Serbian New World Translation was released in both the Cyrillic and the Latin alphabets.
RELIGIOUS OPPOSITION INTENSIFIES
Because the Serbian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion in the country, many people equate being a Serb with being Orthodox. They feel that a person is not a Serb if he does not belong to the Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, our message of hope from the Bible was accepted by many during the 1990’s. By the end of the war in 1999, the number of publishers had nearly doubled, reaching a peak of 4,026.
This spiritual prosperity brought the ire of the Orthodox Church on Jehovah’s people. By fueling the fires of nationalistic fervor, the church sought to stop our Christian preaching work. Through outright violence and by manipulating the law, opposers tried to demoralize our brothers. For example, there were still 21 of our brothers in prison because of remaining politically neutral. Most were released shortly after the war, grateful that Jehovah had strengthened their faith throughout the ordeal.
Suddenly, on April 9, 2001, the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs banned the importation of our literature. For what reason? They claimed that our publications would have a negative impact on the country’s youth. Included on the list of prohibited publications was the Bible!
Because of the negative television and newspaper reports about our work, at times some householders became violent. “They would punch or slap us when we preached from door to door,” said a special pioneer, and “at other times they threw stones at us.” In addition, some Kingdom Halls were vandalized. Today our brothers in Serbia can meet together legally, although they need to be discreet.
The brothers continue to preach zealously. They demonstrate that Jehovah’s people are not prejudiced and that they display true Christlike love. Successful preaching campaigns have been organized in recent years in which brothers from other European countries have used their vacation time to help work unassigned territories in Serbia and Montenegro. Yet, there is still much work to be done in order to reach the approximately three million people who live in these areas.
Today Bethel in Belgrade is a complex of three buildings nestled in parklike gardens. The three members of the Country Committee oversee our work in Serbia as well as in Montenegro. With Jehovah’s blessing on his people in this formerly war-torn region, the name Serbia may now call to mind the zeal and determination of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Modern History of Kosovo
The tension between Serb and Albanian communities in Kosovo through the 1980’s erupted into open combat in the 1990’s, resulting in much suffering and heartache. This situation provided our brothers and sisters with the opportunity to show “unhypocritical brotherly affection” to fellow believers of all ethnic backgrounds. (1 Pet. 1:22) In addition, they have obeyed Christ’s command “to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.” (Matt. 5:43-48) Yet, at times, it has been challenging to do so.
“Brothers who used to be Muslim are not always received kindly by practicing Muslims,” explains Saliu Abazi, a former Muslim who speaks Albanian, “and our families wrongly conclude that we have abandoned them because we have chosen a new religion. Then, too, because of the ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs, it is not always easy for former Muslims to preach to Serbs.”
Nevertheless, a multiethnic group of 30 people was meeting together in Saliu’s home. “In those years,” remembers Saliu, “meetings were held in Serbian, and we received our literature from Belgrade. One day the police unexpectedly came to my house. At the time the brothers from Belgrade had just delivered the literature, and we were all associating together. When I told the police that they were my brothers, they could not comprehend how Serbs and Albanians could be brothers.” In 1998 this group of publishers was able to rent a place for use as a Kingdom Hall in the largest city in Kosovo, Priština.
In the spring of 1999, ethnic tensions and nationalism intensified alarmingly. “My neighbor threatened that if my son and I did not join the war, our house would be burned down,” relates Saliu. “The political climate had a terrible effect on people. Because they did not recognize the former Serb government, laws could not be enforced, and people became violent and did whatever they pleased.”
As the political situation deteriorated, conditions became increasingly difficult for Serbs living in Kosovo. During the conflict of 1999, both Serbs and Albanians by the thousands were forced to flee to neighboring countries. Yet, in that climate of extreme ethnic strife, Saliu risked his life by allowing his Serb brothers to take refuge in his home.
MOLDED BY JEHOVAH’S THINKING
“Hatred between Serbs and Albanians was intense,” said one sister. “It was something we learned from childhood. Even after learning the truth, those feelings are not easily erased. Many of us had to make big changes to adopt Jehovah’s thinking. Because of this hatred, even while learning that Jehovah is love, I tended to avoid a sister in the congregation just because she was a Serb. As I continued to study, however, I came to appreciate that while the teachings of other religions divide, the truth from Jehovah’s Word unites.” Has the transforming power of God’s Word helped this sister to put on the new Christian personality? “Today,” she reported, “I am happy to serve in the same congregation with my Serb brothers and sisters.”
True Christian unity stands out in this religiously divided world. While nationalism was making people burn houses and throw hand grenades, our brothers were traveling to Belgrade, in Serbia, for a convention held in July 1998. Peacefully riding on the bus together were Albanians, Croatians, Macedonians, and Roma. Dashurie Gashi, who was on her way to that convention to be baptized, relates: “When the soldiers stopped the bus, we could see the look of shock on their faces. In the midst of all the ethnic tensions in these countries, here we were united as one people
One young woman of Roma descent learned the truth as a child from her aunts who lived abroad. The first obstacle she had to overcome was her illiteracy. Motivated by love for Jehovah, she learned to read and write during the three years she was studying the Bible. The second obstacle was her grandfather, with whom she lived. “I would sneak out of the house to go to meetings,” she says. But when she returned, her grandfather would beat her. “I suffered physically because of the truth,” she relates, “but I would not give up. I reflected on how much the faithful man Job had to suffer. My love for Jehovah was strong, and I was determined not to stop studying.” She now serves as a pioneer, and she is conducting a Bible study with two girls who are illiterate. Although she never received secular schooling, she is grateful for the way the Theocratic Ministry School has trained her to teach others.
Adem Grajçevci was a Muslim before he learned the truth in Germany in 1993. Then, in 1999, he returned to his native Kosovo, and like many other new Witnesses, he had to overcome his family’s prejudices and opposition. “When I was learning the truth,” recalls Adem, “it helped me a lot to know that Satan is the ruler of the world and that he is behind all the atrocities taking place.” Adem’s father was not pleased with his son’s new Christian faith and told him to choose between Jehovah and the family. Adem chose Jehovah, continued to make steady spiritual progress, and today serves as a Christian elder. Happily, over the years Adem’s father has softened, and he is now more respectful of Adem’s decision.
Adem’s son, Adnan, was not interested in religion at all as a child. He was engrossed in martial arts and was given the nickname Killer by his competitors. He gave it all up, though, when the truth finally touched his heart. He made good progress and was baptized. “Not long after I was baptized, I had to make a decision,” he said. “I had a good job, and I was doing well materially. But spiritually I was suffering and had little time for the ministry. I decided it was time for a change, so I quit my job.” He started pioneering, was appointed as a ministerial servant, and was later invited to attend the first class of the Ministerial Training School in Albania. Now an elder, Adnan and his wife, Hedije, are serving as special pioneers. How does he feel about the decision he made? “I could not be happier,” he says. “I have no regrets about choosing the full-time ministry.”
UNITED WORSHIP AND INSTRUCTION
Today all six congregations in Kosovo use rented facilities for Kingdom Halls. Some congregations are small, such as the one in the city of Peć, which has 28 publishers. With too few appointed brothers available, some congregations are not able to have a public talk every week. Nevertheless, they, like the brothers and sisters in Peć, faithfully meet together each week for the Watchtower Study and the other congregation meetings.
For years the Serbia Country Committee lovingly shepherded the brothers in Kosovo through extremely difficult times. In 2000, to meet the changing needs of the brothers, the Governing Body assigned the Albania branch to care for the preaching work in Kosovo.
Until recently, most of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kosovo were Serbs, so the meetings were held in the Serbian language, and the brothers were happy to help Albanian-speaking people follow the program. Now the situation is reversed. Most of the brothers in Kosovo are Albanian. Except for one Serbian-language congregation, meetings are conducted in Albanian, and the brothers are pleased to interpret the talks so that the Serb brothers can follow along. Assemblies and district conventions are held in both languages. For example, the entire 2008 district convention program was presented in Albanian and translated into Serbian, with key discourses delivered in Serbian by Kosovar elders. Explains one brother, “Despite the hatred felt outside, inside the hall we are one family.”
Though most inhabitants of Kosovo are Muslim, they respect the Bible, and many are willing to discuss religion. The brothers in Kosovo were overjoyed to have a new peak of 164 publishers in 2008. With full trust in Jehovah, they are determined to continue working hard to cover their territory, taking the good news to people of all nationalities.
Modern History of Montenegro
This hidden pearl of the Mediterranean is a delightful little country on the Adriatic Coast. Nestled among Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro is a land of stunning diversity and breathtaking beauty. The country has some 182 miles [293 km] of gorgeous Adriatic coastline. The Tara River Canyon is one of the deepest and longest canyons in Europe. Lake Scutari is the largest in the Balkans and has one of the biggest bird sanctuaries in Europe. And all of this in an area only one third the size of Switzerland!
The history of the country, however, is marked by wars, strife, and suffering. The struggles of the Montenegrin people have, in turn, profoundly influenced their tradition, mentality, and culture. A fundamental part of their culture is admiration for such qualities as bravery, integrity, dignity, humility, self-sacrifice, and respect for others. Many of the resilient Montenegrins have embraced the good news of the Kingdom and are loyally defending Bible truth.
Can anyone who attended the momentous 1991 convention held in Zagreb, Croatia, ever forget the unity and love of the brothers gathered there from all parts of the former Yugoslavia? “With the smell of war in the air, traveling from Montenegro to Croatia was dangerous,” recalls Savo Čeprnjić, who had recently begun to study the Bible. “I was amazed to see so many buses arrive at the convention without a problem. Even more impressive was the peace and unity among the Witnesses. On the first day, there were hundreds of policemen, but after realizing that we were peaceful, only a few reported for duty on the following days.”
Before the start of the war, one couple had regularly traveled from Croatia to Montenegro to conduct a study with Savo. As the borders were closed, how would Savo continue his study of the Bible?
“Interested ones who were more advanced in their study had to teach others,” explains Savo. “A baptized brother was studying the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth with me. But when that was no longer possible, an unbaptized person continued studying with me. By 1992, the group that met for the Congregation Book Study and the Watchtower Study in the city of Herceg Novi had increased to 15.” Savo, along with his wife and daughter, continued to make progress and were baptized in 1993. Today there is a Kingdom Hall with 25 publishers in this picturesque coastal city.
In the early 1990’s, a group of publishers met in the capital city of Podgorica. The group continued to grow, and in 1997 plans were made to purchase property for a Kingdom Hall. The land that the brothers purchased had a wall that they decided to keep for privacy. But a police officer living in the basement of the neighboring building asked if they would remove the wall so that more light could reach his dark apartment. To promote good relations with the neighbor, the brothers agreed to take down the wall and replace it with a fence. What a blessing their neighborliness proved to be!
When other tenants of the building made trouble for the brothers, the police officer warned the tenants that if they attacked the Kingdom Hall, he would see that they were prosecuted. Now the brothers have a beautiful Kingdom Hall as well as a house for special pioneers and a large covered parking area that can also be used for assemblies.
Things did not go as well, though, for the brothers in the town of Nikšić. They purchased property in 1996, but the community was hostile to having a Kingdom Hall. Brothers guarded the building project day and night, fearing that neighbors would try to sabotage it. One day a local priest recruited a mob of 200 people, who stormed the property with guns and sticks. They fired their weapons into the air and began to tear down the Kingdom Hall brick by brick. The police stood by without taking any action.
When the situation could not be resolved peacefully, the brothers looked for other property. Four years later they found a building, which they renovated and converted into a Kingdom Hall. At first, there seemed to be no problems with the community, but a few months later, the Kingdom Hall was suspiciously destroyed by fire. Our determined brothers, however, did not give up. They set to work yet again and rebuilt the hall. Since then they have had no more problems.
The four congregations in Montenegro are under the supervision of the Serbia Country Committee. With a ratio of 1 publisher to 2,967 of the population, the 201 publishers are grateful for the help of the 6 special pioneers. In general, the people of Montenegro feel that religion has more to do with tradition than with reading the Bible. But our brothers and sisters in Montenegro loyally persevere in boldly preaching the good news.
Modern History of Slovenia
Until Slovenia attained independence in 1991, it constituted the northwestern part of Yugoslavia. After Slovenia became independent, its economy enjoyed steady growth, and in 2004, Slovenia became part of the European Union. Despite its relatively small size, Slovenia offers richly diverse landscapes. Within the country are majestic alps, mountain lakes, lush forests, immense limestone caves, and the charming Slovenian Riviera. In little more than an hour, one can descend from the crisp alpine slopes to the balmy olive groves and vineyards of the Adriatic Coast. In addition, Slovenia’s cultural and historical sites offer endless possibilities for exploration. This small country’s beauty goes deeper than national parks and historic towns, though. Slovenia has a rich spiritual heritage.
KINGDOM HALLS AND PIONEERS
You no doubt recall that Maribor was the city where the “Bible-believing barbers” preached about their new faith. A restaurant, later appropriately named Novi Svet (New World), was a convenient meeting place for the small group that developed there. Today, Slovenian Witnesses thank Jehovah for beautiful Kingdom Halls in which they meet for worship and instruction. Because of the increase in publishers, as well as improved circumstances in the 1990’s, a Regional Building Committee was formed. With the help of more than 100 volunteers and funds from abroad, congregations have built or renovated 14 Kingdom Halls since 1995.
As the number of publishers grew, so did the ranks of regular pioneers
Brothers and sisters who have come from other countries to serve in Slovenia have provided great stimulus to the preaching work. In 1992 the first missionaries here, Franco and Debbie Dagostini, arrived. When they were reassigned to Africa, two new missionaries, Daniel and Karin Friedl from Austria, were assigned to Slovenia. More recently, Gilead missionaries Geoffrey and Tonia Powell and Jochen and Michaela Fischer were assigned here. They, along with special pioneers from Austria, Italy, and Poland, have brought with them a deep love for Jehovah and a fervent desire to help people.
HOSPITAL LIAISON COMMITTEES
In 1994 a Hospital Information Desk was set up at Bethel, and two Hospital Liaison Committees (HLCs) were established. Some of the brothers appointed to those committees met with the minister of health, who, in turn, organized a meeting with the directors of all the hospitals in Slovenia. The brothers explained the function of HLCs and clarified why Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions. This has led to good cooperation between doctors and their patients who refuse blood transfusions and has resulted in the appearance of articles explaining bloodless treatment in medical journals.
In 1995, doctors in Slovenia performed their first open-heart surgery without the use of blood. The media reported on the successful operation, and the surgeon and anesthesiologist involved wrote a scholarly article about it. Thus, the door to bloodless medicine has been opened, and more doctors are willing to respect Jehovah’s Witnesses’ choice of medical treatment.
MEETING THE NEEDS OF A GROWING FIELD
After the political changes in 1991, the Governing Body decided that an office should be established in Slovenia to provide better care for Kingdom activities. A one-story building was purchased in the central part of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. The premises were renovated, and on July 1, 1993, the building was ready for Bethelites to move in. At first, the Bethel family consisted of 10 members, but within a decade the number had grown to 35. Consequently, a nearby building was rented to house the kitchen, the dining room, and the laundry. Meanwhile, the Bethelites moved to nearby apartments to make room for more office space. The Slovenia office began functioning as a branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1997.
When the Governing Body approved the construction of a new branch office for Slovenia, the brothers began searching for a suitable site. After investigating about 40 different properties, the brothers chose a lot near the town of Kamnik, 12 miles [20 km] from the capital, at the foot of beautiful alpine peaks. Soon, zoning requirements were met, building permits were obtained, the property was purchased, contracts were signed with a construction company, and international servants were invited to work on the project. Everything seemed set to start.
When news about the project became public, however, neighbors quickly demonstrated their opposition. On the day that construction was to have begun, protesters barred access to the building site with barricades. Soon they displayed banners expressing their opposition. Six days later, at about noon, some 30 policemen arrived to protect city workers who had been assigned to remove the protesters’ barricades; the protesters verbally abused the police. In the meantime, though, the project had been postponed, so neither the brothers nor anyone from the construction company was on site that day. With the project postponed, opposition began to wane, and our brothers worked toward a peaceful solution.
The construction fence had been torn down three times by protesters, but the project finally got underway a month later and continued without further hindrance. Actually, what began as an attack on Jehovah’s people resulted in a blessing because the matter attracted much media attention. More than 150 news items on the building project were presented on TV and radio and in newspapers. Construction was completed after about 11 months, and in August 2005, the Bethel family moved into their new facilities.
Since then, the relationship between the brothers and their neighbors has changed completely. Many neighbors have visited the branch facilities. One former opposer later became very interested in the building project. He asked who we are and what would be done inside the building. When he toured the facilities, he was impressed by the friendly welcome he was given as well as by the cleanliness of the building. “The neighbors are asking me if I am now on your side,” he told the brothers, “and I answer, ‘As much as I was against Jehovah’s Witnesses before, I am now for them because they are good people.’”
August 12, 2006, was the happy day on which Theodore Jaracz of the Governing Body delivered the dedication talk to an audience of 144 from about 20 different countries. At a special meeting in Ljubljana, he spoke to an audience of 3,097 from all parts of Slovenia, as well as from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Slovenia face the future with complete confidence in their heavenly Father’s guidance and blessing. At the 2004 district convention, they were delighted to receive the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures in Slovenian. Now, with the support of a well-equipped new branch and with many of them working hard as pioneers, they are determined to carry out their commission to preach and make disciples.
In Slovenia, which is mostly Roman Catholic, the Communist era produced many atheists. Additionally, many people are weighed down by the anxieties of life or are enticed by the lure of materialism. Others are more interested in sports or entertainment. However, there are still honesthearted individuals who are drawn to God’s promises found in the Bible.
The work has continued to progress. A peak of 1,935 publishers was reached in August 2008, and about one fourth of the publishers were engaged in some form of pioneer service. The foreign-language fields now include Albanian, Chinese, Croatian, English, and Serbian, as well as Slovenian Sign Language. Unlike the humble beginnings of the work in Slovenia, when there were just two barbers preaching the good news, a large multinational crowd of zealous preachers is now searching out deserving ones who desire to serve the true God, Jehovah.
The area of the Balkans known previously as Yugoslavia has experienced much conflict, heartache, and suffering. Amid this climate of religious intolerance and ethnic hatred, however, the love among Jehovah’s people has identified them as true disciples of Christ and has exalted Jehovah’s true worship as being above all that this world has to offer. This godlike love has drawn increasing numbers of people to embrace pure worship and helps our brothers remain resolute, determined to serve Jehovah unitedly forever.
The Ustaše were the Fascist revolutionary movement that fought, with the backing of the Catholic Church, for the independence of Croatia. They were notorious for their brutality.
Because of the political climate, “Godly” was added to explain the type of freedom the brothers were seeking.
See the article “Aiding Our Family of Believers in Bosnia,” in The Watchtower of November 1, 1994, pages 23-27.
[Blurb on page 165]
While national and religious prejudice raged within the borders of Yugoslavia, our brothers were united
[Blurb on page 173]
‘Am I here to please man? No! Does my life depend on what others may say, think, or do? No!’
[Box on page 144]
Contrasts Within the Former Yugoslavia
If you ask a group of people about the differences within the former Yugoslavia, chances are you will get several different answers. What can be agreed upon is that there were seven distinct peoples professing different religions and even speaking separate languages with different alphabets. Ethnic groups are primarily distinguished by religion. Over 1,000 years ago, Christendom was divided between those belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and those professing the Orthodox Catholic religion. The dividing line between these two passes right through the heart of the former Yugoslavia. People living in Croatia and Slovenia are predominantly Roman Catholic, while those in Serbia and Macedonia are mostly Orthodox. Within Bosnia there is a mixture of people of the Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox faiths.
As religion has served to divide people, so has language. Most people of the former Yugoslavia, with the exception of Kosovo, speak a South Slavic language. While each country has its own language, the use of many common words makes communication between Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, and Montenegrins possible. This is less so in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Slovenia. While efforts were made at the end of the 19th century to consolidate the languages with similarities, Yugoslavia’s breakup in 1991 put an end to that. Over the past decade, all the countries have tried to establish their uniqueness by using certain words and not others.
A Clockmaker Spreads the Truth in Slavonia
In the 1930’s, Antun Abramović traveled from village to village in Croatia, repairing watches and clocks. At an inn he found one of our booklets. Upon reading it, he immediately recognized it as the truth, and his heart was touched. This moved him to write a letter to the branch asking for more literature. Before long, he became a dedicated servant of Jehovah. After that, when he traveled from village to village, he not only repaired people’s watches but also gave them a witness. Having this cover for the preaching work was important because the work was under ban. In a small place called Privlaka, he met some people who wholeheartedly embraced the truth. In time, a small congregation was formed. From there the truth spread to Vinkovci and the surrounding area.
During World War II, Brother Abramović helped to print literature underground that was distributed throughout Yugoslavia. Because of his zealous activity, he was among the 14 brothers who were sentenced to long prison terms in 1947. After his release from prison, he served as a traveling overseer. His zeal in Jehovah’s service remained strong throughout his life.
A Conductor Becomes a Pioneer
Many years ago in what is today known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, the conductor of the Royal Guards Orchestra, Alfred Tuček, received Bible literature from a colleague named Fritz Gröger. Possibly in the late 1920’s, Alfred contacted the Lighthouse Society, in Maribor, saying that he wanted to become a regular pioneer. In time, he became one of the first in Yugoslavia to pioneer. Despite his well-paying job as a conductor of the military orchestra, his love for Jehovah moved him to give up his employment and ‘not look at the things behind.’ (Luke 9:62) In the early 1930’s, he traveled with the pioneer brothers from Germany and showed the “Photo-Drama of Creation.” He also helped to make territory cards to organize the preaching work in Yugoslavia. In 1934 he married one of the German pioneers, Frida. Their first assignment was in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Later their preaching of the good news took them to parts of Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Serbia. In the beginning they did most of their traveling by bicycle, but later they used a motorbike. Although the good news at that time was not readily accepted and the preaching work was banned, they realized the importance of reaching as many people as possible.
In Sickness and in Health
Martin Poetzinger served in several Central European countries before being assigned to oversee a group of pioneers in Yugoslavia. It was during this time that he met Gertrud Mende, a zealous pioneer sister from Germany, whom he later married. For the pioneers, health care was a matter in which they had to rely fully on Jehovah. Although there was no insurance, they always got the help they needed. Sometimes in critical situations Jehovah used those who were favorably disposed to help. For example, when Brother Poetzinger became seriously ill in Zagreb, Sister Mende was there to offer assistance.
Gertrud recalls: “In the mid-1930’s, Martin and I were both assigned to serve in Sarajevo. But things did not turn out as either of us had expected. One evening Martin did not feel well, and during the night he developed a fever of more than 103 degrees Fahrenheit [almost 40°C]. The next morning when I went to the place where he was living to see how he was doing, his landlady was worried about his condition. She and I tried to cure him with a local remedy of boiled wine with lots of sugar. However, his condition did not improve. I phoned a number of doctors I found listed in the telephone directory, but no one was willing to come immediately. They all had excuses.
“The landlady suggested calling the hospital, so I called the head of the hospital and explained that Martin was in bed with a fever that had gone up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C]. The man was very friendly and sent an ambulance. When Martin was carried into the ambulance, the landlady said to me, ‘You won’t see him anymore.’
“If that were not stressful enough, there was the problem of money. The only money we pioneers had was what we received as contributions for the literature, and that was barely enough to survive. We did not know what to do, and we did not know how much the treatment would cost. Dr. Thaler examined Martin and made the diagnosis: ‘Martin has pleurisy and needs surgery. It will take some time before he will be fit again.’
“Dr. Thaler must have understood our difficult economic situation because he said, ‘I want to support people with faith like yours,’ and he did not charge Martin for the surgery. With Jehovah’s help we managed to cope with this difficult situation. Because of Martin’s sickness, we could not go to Sarajevo but had to return to Germany.”
Martin Poetzinger in Germany, 1931
Working by Day, Printing by Night
PROFILE She has served at Bethel since 1953, when the work became legalized. She helped with the printing and shipping of magazines and literature. Today she is faithfully serving at Bethel in Zagreb.
AFTER the brothers were released from prison, preparations were quickly made to produce the magazines. But there were few brothers, and there was a lot of work to be done. When I became aware of the situation, I decided to make myself available, though I had a secular job. Still, I wanted to help. So I worked all day at my secular job, and then I worked late into the night printing the literature.
At that time, the branch did not yet have its own property in the city. So an older couple, Petar and Jelena Jelić, made their one-room apartment available for mimeographing literature. The room was only about 15 feet by 15 feet [4.5m x 4.5m]. A wooden frame with linen stretched over it was put on the bed and was used for stacking the printed pages. Next to the bed was a table that held the hand-operated mimeograph. We produced about 800 pages an hour. That is not much compared with modern-day printing presses, but we were satisfied that with patience and a lot of hard work we could produce all the literature needed.
It was very touching to see how patiently the Jelićs waited until we stopped working and moved the stacked printed pages so they could go to bed. They never complained. On the contrary, they were happy, and their eyes shone with joy because they could support the Kingdom work in that way. Jelena along with other elderly sisters helped when she could to collect, stitch, and fold the printed pages. Such help was invaluable.
In 1958 we acquired an electric mimeograph, so printing became easier. What started out as only 20 magazines in 1931 turned into 2,400 copies in three languages
Today I serve in Zagreb Bethel. I am happy to look back on my years of service and see how Jehovah has blessed the work in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia.
“Tomorrow Everything Can Be Different”
PROFILE He was imprisoned five times for remaining neutral. Later he served as a weekend circuit overseer, and today he serves as an elder in a congregation in Zagreb.
MY PARENTS were in the truth, and the truth was what we spoke about at home. When I was called up for military service, I reported and said that I wanted to make a statement. After explaining my neutral stand, I was put on trial and sentenced to nine months of imprisonment. When I was released, another call-up for military service was already waiting for me. Again I was tried and sentenced, this time to one year in prison. When I was released, a third call-up was awaiting me, and again another trial. This time I was given a sentence of 15 months in prison. The fourth time, I was sentenced to 20 months; and the fifth time, to two years
Twice I was sent to Goli Otok in the Adriatic Sea. The whole island was a prison for political prisoners. I was treated like the political inmates. Our task was to “fill up the sea.” We carried stones in a wooden box from one side of the island to the other and threw them into the sea. Each load weighed over 220 pounds [100 kg]. Then we walked back to carry another load of stones, doing the same pointless thing again and again the whole day.
The second time I was sent to Goli Otok, the custom was to put every newcomer in solitary confinement for a month. It was terrible to be locked up and left entirely alone. During that time I prayed more than ever before. I had no Bible and no Bible publications. To be totally isolated was extremely hard for me. The only encouragement I got was a letter from my parents. It was then, though, that I felt the force of the apostle Paul’s words: “When I am weak, then I am powerful.” (2 Cor. 12:10) How happy and strong I was when I was released and then found employment.
In another prison, I had to go to a psychologist who was very harsh and insulted me verbally. He yelled at me, saying among other things that I was not normal. I was not allowed to say anything in my defense. The next day the same psychologist called me in again and said with a totally different tone of voice: “I thought about you, and I think this prison is not the right place for you. I will find work for you outside prison.” And to my surprise, he really did it. I don’t know what made him change his mind, but it showed me that we never need to be afraid or think there is no way out. Tomorrow everything can be different. I am thankful to Jehovah for all the experiences that brought me closer to him.
‘Are People Allowed to Talk About Soccer?’
PROFILE He served as a weekend traveling overseer in 1973, and then from 1974 to 1976, he was assigned as a full-time traveling overseer. He is now a member of the Croatia Branch Committee.
WE NEVER knew whether we would return home from the ministry. The police often arrested and interrogated us. Misconceptions were common.
One time at the police station, I was told that we were allowed to speak about God only at places registered for that purpose and not on streets or from house to house. Like Nehemiah, I said a quick prayer to ask Jehovah to help me find the right words. Then I asked the investigator, “Are people here allowed to talk about soccer only in the stadium or in other places as well?” He answered that people can talk about soccer in any place. I replied: “Surely, then, you can also talk about God anywhere, not only in a church or in a place of worship.” Though we were interrogated for five hours, my partner and I were set free.
When looking back on 40 years of service, my wife, Ana, and I can say that we would not exchange it for anything in the world. Together we have had the privilege of helping nearly 70 people learn the truth. Every assignment Jehovah has in store for us can only enrich our lives.
We Promised to Return
PROFILE He helped organize and distribute humanitarian aid in Sarajevo. Now he serves as an elder, a Hospital Liaison Committee member, and a legal representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
IN 1992 the city of Sarajevo was under siege. When there were no literature shipments, we studied older magazines. Using an old typewriter, the brothers typed copies of available study articles. Although there were only 52 publishers, we had more than 200 at our meetings, and we conducted about 240 Bible studies.
In November 1993, during the worst of the war, our daughter, Arijana, was born. It was a difficult time to bring a child into the world. We had no running water or electricity for weeks at a time. We used furniture as fuel, and our trips to the meetings took us through dangerous areas. Snipers fired indiscriminately, so we had to run to cross certain streets and barricades.
One quiet day, my wife, our baby, Brother Dražen Radišić, and I were on our way home from the meeting when machine-gun fire suddenly erupted. We lay down on the street, but a bullet hit me in the stomach. The pain was intense. Many people saw what happened from their windows, and some courageous young men came running out of the houses to take us to safety. I was rushed to a hospital, where they urgently wanted to administer a blood transfusion. I explained to the doctor that my conscience would not allow me to take a blood transfusion. They pressured me to reconsider; but I was determined, and I was prepared to face the consequences. They operated anyway, for two and a half hours, and I recovered without having a blood transfusion.
After the surgery, I needed to rest, which was impossible because of the war. We decided to visit our family in Austria. However, the only way to leave Sarajevo was through a tunnel under the airport. The tunnel was a half mile [900 m] long and about four feet [120 cm] high. My wife carried the baby, and I tried to carry the luggage. But because of the surgery, she had to help me.
We can hardly describe the joy our stay in Austria brought us. When we left Sarajevo, we had made a promise to our brothers and to our Creator that we would return. It was very hard to leave our family in Austria, especially my mother. We explained, though, that we had promised God we would return to Sarajevo if he helped us to get out and get a bit of rest. How could we now say to God: “Thank you for helping us to come here. We really enjoy being here, and now we would like to stay”? Also, the brothers in Sarajevo needed us. In all of this, my wife, Amra, was a great support.
So in December 1994, we arrived at the tunnel in Sarajevo. This time we were going into Sarajevo from the outside. Seeing us return through the tunnel, people asked: “What are you doing? Everybody wants to get out, and you are returning to the besieged city?” I cannot find words to describe the wonderful reunion we had with our brothers at the Sarajevo Kingdom Hall. We have never regretted that we returned.
[Box on page 210]
Croatia’s 1,105-mile [1,778 km] coastline is dotted with more than 1,000 islands, of which about 50 are inhabited. The islands range in size from less than one half square mile [less than 1 sq km] to 150 square miles [400 sq km].
The islanders mainly fish, cultivate olive trees, care for vineyards, and work their gardens. Kornati National Park, an archipelago of 140 islands and reefs, offers spectacular diving. On Krapanj and Zlarin, the inhabitants dive for coral and sponges. The island of Hvar produces lavender, honey, and rosemary oil. Residents of the barren island of Pag produce a prized cheese made from the milk of the hardy sheep that graze on the island’s herbs and salty grass.
Jehovah’s Witnesses make special efforts to reach all the inhabitants. Some need only cross a bridge to reach an island, while others must take a ferry. Groups of Witnesses love to organize special campaigns, spending a couple of days preaching on an island. Speaking to the islanders, though, can be a challenge because they have developed a distinct dialect that can be difficult for mainlanders to understand.
Happily, islanders are responding to the good news, and the island of Korčula is home to a congregation of 52 publishers. The isolated location of the congregation presents a challenge for speakers who come to give a public talk. But their efforts help this isolated congregation remain united with the worldwide Christian brotherhood.
“I Reported to Prison 11 Days Early”
PROFILE She started pioneering in 1975 and became the first special pioneer in Macedonia in 1977. She has helped 80 people to learn the truth.
MANY times when I was preaching, people reported me to the police, who would take me to the police station, where I was interrogated
I was supposed to serve my 20-day prison sentence at the very time we were scheduled to have a district convention. I asked the court to please postpone my sentence; but my request was rejected, so I decided to report to the prison 11 days early. The prison officials were surprised to see me there. They could not believe that anyone would want to go to prison as soon as possible. I had an opportunity to give a witness, and they promised to do all they could to take care of me. Eleven days later a police officer came to the prison to see if I had reported there yet. Imagine his surprise when the prison officials informed him that I had already been there for 11 days! As it turned out, I was able to attend the convention.
‘They Gave the Best They Had’
PROFILE His parents learned the truth in a camp established by Partisans shortly after World War II. He served as a weekend traveling overseer and is now a member of the Serbia Country Committee.
BECAUSE my family is of Hungarian descent, for a short time, we were sent to a camp set up by Partisans. This proved to be a blessing, though, because it was there that my parents learned the truth. As a teenager, I didn’t have much interest in the truth. But Brother Franz Brand, who lived in our house for a couple of years, had a great effect on me. I thought I was being helpful when I agreed to his request to translate a Hungarian publication into Serbian. I later found out that there was no need to translate it; he simply wanted to make sure that I read the publication. His tactic worked, and some time later, in 1964, I was baptized.
One of my greatest joys was serving as a traveling overseer. It wasn’t always easy because the brothers were of modest means. On many occasions the whole family and I slept in one room. All the sacrifices were worthwhile. It was wonderful to see the joy of the brothers, who eagerly awaited the visit. They would do all they could to give the best they had. How could I not be grateful?
“Where Can I Find These People?”
PROFILE He was a soldier in the Kosovo Liberation Army and now serves as a regular pioneer and ministerial servant.
WHEN I saw all the horrible things taking place in the war, including the murder of small children, I concluded that God must not exist. ‘If he does,’ I thought, ‘why doesn’t he do something about all the suffering?’ My faith was further damaged when I saw how Muslim religious leaders were supporting the war against the Serbs. Before the war, I was a Muslim; however, by the end of the war, I had become an atheist and had joined the Kosovo Liberation Army. Though I was with them for only a short time, I earned a lot of respect and received many privileges. This caused me to become aggressive and proud because whatever I said got done.
Unfortunately, I also displayed this attitude toward my wife. I thought that she had to do as I told her and always act on my orders. My wife, Merita, had been in contact with the Witnesses during the war and had some of their literature. One night before going to bed, she said: “Take these and read them. They are about God.” I was furious that she thought she could teach me about God. To avoid further confrontation, Merita went to the bedroom to sleep.
Left by myself with the literature, I decided to read the brochure What Does God Require of Us? Next I read the booklet The Time for True Submission to God. As a Muslim, I was surprised that it quoted from the Koran. Then I read some Watchtower and Awake! magazines. Later that night, I went into the bedroom and woke my wife up. “From whom did you get these?” I asked. “Where can I find these people?”
I was sincerely touched by what I had read, but my wife was skeptical and afraid of what I might do. Nevertheless, that night we phoned a Witness and found out when and where their meeting was to be held. The next morning we went to the meeting. I was so impressed at how kind and welcoming the brothers were! I didn’t think there could be people like that on earth. I could tell that they were different. During the meeting I had a question and could hardly wait to get it answered, even raising my hand to ask it. Not knowing why I was so anxious to speak with them, the elders were a bit nervous. What a relief it must have been when they realized that I simply wanted to know what I had to do to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
I started studying the Bible that very day. The many changes I wanted to make in my personality were not easy. I wanted to stop smoking, and I felt that I needed to cut off contact with my former friends. With prayer and regular meeting attendance, I repented of my former life and put on the new personality. What a difference the truth has made in my life and that of my family! Now my wife and I serve as regular pioneers, and in 2006, I was appointed as a ministerial servant. Now I can help others to understand why people suffer and how Jehovah will soon solve all our problems.
“It Seemed That Jehovah Blocked Their Sight”
PROFILE He spent three years in prison for his faith and is now a member of the Slovenia Branch Committee.
IN December 1984, the military authorities repeatedly issued orders for me to report to the army. When they stuck the call-up notice on my door and threatened that the military police would come for me, I decided to report to the barracks to explain my position to them. This was not successful, and they decided to do everything in their power to make a soldier out of me. They shaved my head, took away my civilian clothes, and offered me a soldier’s uniform. When I refused the uniform, they put it on me by force, and then they put a pen in my hand and tried to force me to sign up for the army. I refused.
I also refused to take part in such activities as morning exercise and saluting the flag. When four soldiers took me to the yard and ordered me to do the exercises, I would not lift up my hands. They tried to lift my hands until they realized how ridiculous the situation was. They aimed a rifle at me and threatened to kill me. Sometimes they tried to bribe me by offering me coffee and cakes.
My determination made some of them cry. Others became furious when I refused to spit on the picture of Marshal Tito that they held in front of my face. After a couple of days, they tried to make me carry weapons, which I also refused to do. This was classified as a military offense, and I was confined to the barracks for one month. Then I spent several weeks in a prison cell in Zagreb, Croatia, awaiting the verdict. A red light was left on in the cell the whole night, and only if the person in charge was in a good mood was I allowed to go to the restroom.
Finally, I was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on an Adriatic island called Goli Otok, where they sent the worst convicts. They took me to this prison, notorious for violence among the inmates, with my hands bound in chains because I refused to fight. There I met four other Witnesses who had been imprisoned because of their neutral stand.
We were not allowed to bring in a Bible or any other literature. However, one Bible was there already. My relatives mailed me The Watchtower in a box with a false bottom. The guards never discovered our literature and never found out that we were holding Christian meetings. Sometimes when guards came in, literature that had been left out was lying right in front of them, but it seemed that Jehovah blocked their sight because they did not notice anything.
After a year I was moved to Slovenia to complete my sentence. I got married to Rahela while I was still in prison. When I was finally released, I started pioneering with my wife, and since 1993 we have been serving at Slovenia Bethel.
1920’s A small group meets in Maribor, Slovenia, to discuss the Bible.
1930’s German-speaking pioneers are sent to Yugoslavia.
1935 A branch office is established in Belgrade, Serbia, to oversee the work.
1941 The German army invades, followed by intense persecution.
1953 Jehovah’s Witnesses are legally established; however, house-to-house work is restricted.
1969 An international assembly is held in this stadium in Nuremberg, Germany.
1991 First international convention is held in Zagreb, Croatia. First Gilead-trained missionaries arrive. An office is opened up in Slovenia under the oversight of Austria branch. War erupts.
1993 Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Macedonia.
1994 A Hospital Liaison Committee is established in Slovenia.
2003 Jehovah’s Witnesses get legal recognition in Croatia. A new Bethel is dedicated in Macedonia.
2004 New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures is released in Slovenian.
2006 A new branch is dedicated in Slovenia. The complete New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures is released in Croatian, Serbian, and Macedonian. A Chinese group is formed in Belgrade, Serbia.
2007 Special talk is given for the first time in the Romany language in Macedonia. The first publication in Romany is released.
1940 1950 1960 1970 1990 2000 2010
[Maps on page 147]
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BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Note: The United Nations reported that “Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February .” In an effort to resolve the dispute over Kosovo’s political status, the UN General Assembly is seeking “an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice.”
[Full-page picture on page 142]
[Picture on page 145]
[Pictures on page 146]
Rudolf Kalle, and one of his typewriters
[Picture on page 149]
Using a rented truck to preach in Slovenia
[Picture on page 154]
Early pioneers faced many challenges
[Picture on page 157]
Alfred and Frida Tuček with their bicycles
[Picture on page 158]
Rudolf Kalle in front of the Belgrade Bethel, Serbia
[Pictures on page 168]
Franc Drozg, and a reproduction of his letter
[Picture on page 180]
Right: The stable that was converted into a Kingdom Hall, Ljubljana, Slovenia
[Picture on page 180]
Bottom: One of the first Kingdom Halls in Zagreb, Croatia
[Picture on page 182]
[Pictures on page 184, 185]
Background: 1969 “Peace on Earth” International Assembly, Nuremberg, Germany; left: convention train from Yugoslavia; right: Nathan Knorr
[Picture on page 188]
[Pictures on page 192]
Milton Henschel speaking, and the baptism at the 1991 “Lovers of Godly Freedom” International Convention, Zagreb, Croatia
[Picture on page 197]
Ljiljana, with her daughters
[Pictures on page 199]
Humanitarian supplies were brought by truck from Austria
[Picture on page 200]
The Ðorem family, 1991
[Picture on page 204]
Baptism in a fish barrel in Zenica, 1994
[Pictures on page 209]
Humanitarian aid supplies were stored in Zagreb, Croatia
[Picture on page 215]
Elke and Heinz Polach
[Pictures on page 216]
Croatia Branch Committee, and branch office
[Picture on page 228]
Delivering humanitarian supplies in Bosnia
[Pictures on page 233]
Serbia Country Committee, and Bethel facilities in Belgrade
[Picture on page 235]
[Pictures on page 243]
Preaching in Podgorica; Kingdom Hall in Podgorica
[Picture on page 247]
Old town Piran, Slovenia
[Picture on page 251]
Former branch office in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2002
[Picture on page 253]
Branch office in Kamnik, Slovenia, 2006
[Picture on page 254]
Slovenia Branch Committee