A Time for Rejoicing in the Balkans

It was 1922. A meeting by the Earnest Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known, was being held in Innsbruck, Austria. In the audience was Franz Brand, a young man from Apatin in Vojvodina, Serbia. The moment the speaker mentioned God’s name, Jehovah, a mob started booing, making it impossible for him to continue, and the meeting was broken up. Yet, what Franz heard made a deep impression on him, and he took up the preaching of the Kingdom good news. These were the humble beginnings of exciting spiritual growth in one of the Balkan countries.

TO MOST people today, the name Yugoslavia conveys the image of war and carnage. Haunting images of terrible massacres, desperate refugees, destroyed homes, and anguished orphans come to mind. Words cannot describe the excruciating pain and misery caused by the war that ravished the Balkan Peninsula from 1991 to 1995, destroying all hope for a prosperous and carefree future by human efforts. As a result of the war, the people of the former Yugoslavia are laboring under economic hardship and abject poverty. *

In the face of such suffering, one would hardly expect to find happy people in this part of the world. Strange as it may seem, though, such people do exist. In fact, they experienced a day of special rejoicing toward the end of the 20th century. What did Franz Brand, the young man mentioned at the outset, have to do with all of this?

Spiritual Growth in the Balkans

Franz Brand was excited about the new truths he had heard and decided that he must spread the good news. He found work as a barber in Maribor, a city in Slovenia near the border of Austria, and started to preach to his customers, who usually sat and listened quietly as they were being shaved. As a result of his efforts, there came to be a small group of Kingdom proclaimers in Maribor in the late 1920’s. Bible talks were given in a restaurant, which was later appropriately named Novi svet (New World) Seafood Restaurant.

 In time, the good news spread throughout the whole land. The use of the “Photo-Drama of Creation” (an eight-hour presentation involving films, slides, and recordings) was instrumental in this expansion. Then in the 1930’s when Jehovah’s Witnesses came under severe persecution in Germany, the ranks in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were fortified with German pioneers who fled their homeland. Setting aside personal comfort or convenience, they reached out to the most remote parts of this mountainous country to preach. At first, there seemed to be little response to their message. In the early 1940’s, only 150 publishers reported field service.

In 1941, fierce persecution set in, which lasted until 1952. What a joy it was when finally on September 9, 1953, under General Tito’s Communist regime, Jehovah’s Witnesses were legally registered! That year, there were 914 publishers of the good news, and the number grew steadily. By 1991, the number of publishers had increased to 7,420, and 16,072 attended the Memorial that year.

From August 16 to 18, 1991, the first international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this country was held in Zagreb, Croatia. From within the country and abroad, 14,684 attended. This unforgettable convention prepared Jehovah’s people for the trials ahead. Among the last vehicles to pass the checkpoint between Croatia and Serbia were the buses taking the Serbian delegates home. After the last bus rolled by, the border was closed and war began.

Jehovah’s People Have Reasons to Rejoice

The years of war proved to be a time of severe testing for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Balkans. Nevertheless, they have reason to rejoice because Jehovah has blessed his people there with excellent increase. Since 1991, the number of Kingdom publishers in the area of the former Yugoslavia has increased by more than 80 percent. The 2001 service year saw a peak of 13,472.

The offices in Zagreb and Belgrade (Serbia) used to care for the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in all of the former Yugoslavia. With the increase and the political changes, it was necessary to establish new offices in Ljubljana (Slovenia), and Skopje (Macedonia), in addition to obtaining new offices in Belgrade and Zagreb. Approximately 140 members are serving in these offices. Most of them are young and full of zeal and love for Jehovah. A good number of them are involved in the translation of Bible study aids into Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian, and Slovenian. What a blessing it is that most of the magazines and literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses in these languages are being published simultaneously with the original English edition! These publications help many people find comfort and hope.

A further reason for joy is the support unselfishly rendered by numerous full-time servants from other countries. A number of fine  Kingdom Halls have been built in recent years, adding to the joy of the congregations. Nevertheless, there was even more joy in store. How could that be?

A Unique Project

Many publishers often wondered, ‘Will we ever have the New World Translation in our language?’ Year after year, they cherished the hope of hearing an announcement to that effect at a district convention. Yet, how could such a tremendous project be tackled, considering that the translation teams for these languages were formed only a few years ago and there were relatively few translators?

After investigating matters, the Governing Body approved a joint project in which the Croatian, Macedonian, and Serbian translation teams would cooperate closely and thus benefit from one another’s work and input. The Croatian team was to take the lead.

A Day of Rejoicing

Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Balkans will never forget July 23, 1999. The series of “God’s Prophetic Word” District Conventions was to be held simultaneously in Belgrade, Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Skopje, and Zagreb. For some time it was uncertain whether the convention could be held in Belgrade because during the NATO bombings, no public meetings were allowed. How happy the brothers were at the prospect of being able to associate with one another after months of uncertainty! However, reality surpassed their expectations.

On Friday afternoon a special announcement was made in all four convention cities. The 13,497 delegates were in silent anticipation of what was to come. When the speaker finally released the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures in Croatian and Serbian and told the audience that the Macedonian translation was progressing well, the delegates could no longer contain themselves. Thunderous applause did not allow the speaker to finish the announcement. At the Sarajevo convention, a sudden silence fell upon the audience, who were completely taken by surprise. It was followed by prolonged applause. Tears of joy were running down many a cheek in Belgrade, and the speaker was interrupted by repeated applause before he could finish making the announcement. How very happy everybody was!

This gift was made doubly treasurable by the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses had secured the printing rights for a Croatian as well as a Serbian Bible translation. Thus, the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures in these two languages was combined into one volume with a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the same language. Furthermore, the Serbian Bible was printed in both Roman and Cyrillic fonts.

Thankful for all the blessings and guidance received, Jehovah’s people in the Balkans truly appreciate the words of David: “Even though I walk in the valley of deep shadow, I fear nothing bad, for you [Jehovah] are with me.” Despite all the hardships they continue to face, they are determined to make ‘the joy of Jehovah their stronghold.’​—Psalm 23:4; Nehemiah 8:10.

[Footnote]

^ par. 3 The former Yugoslavia consisted of six republics​—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.

[Picture on page 20]

The first group of publishers from Maribor, Slovenia, preaching in distant territory