Life Story

We Stuck to Our Assignment


My choice was simple: serve five years in the French Foreign Legion or face internment in a Moroccan prison. Let me explain how I came to be in this predicament.

I WAS born in Oppenau, Germany, in 1911, just three years before the outbreak of World War I. My parents, Joseph and Frida Bruder, had 17 sons and daughters. I was their 13th child.

My earliest memories are of watching a military band marching down the main street of our hometown. Drawn by the lively marching tune, I followed the musicians to the station in time to see Father and other men dressed in military uniform boarding the train. As the train departed, some women on the platform burst into tears. Shortly thereafter, our priest delivered a long sermon in church and read out the names of four men who had died defending the fatherland. “Now they are in heaven,” he explained. A woman standing near me fainted.

Father contracted typhoid fever while serving on the Russian front. He arrived home severely debilitated and almost immediately was admitted to the local hospital. “Go to the chapel beside the cemetery and say 50 Our Fathers and 50 Hail Marys,” recommended the priest. “Then, your father will recover.” I followed his advice, but Father died the next day. Even for a young boy, the war was a very painful business.

 How I Found the Truth

Work was hard to come by in Germany between the wars. After I left school in 1928, however, I managed to find a job as a gardener in Basel, Switzerland.

Like Father, I was a staunch Catholic. My ambition was to serve as a Capuchin monk in India. When my brother Richard, by then one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, heard of these plans, he made a special journey to Switzerland to try to dissuade me. He warned me about the danger of trusting in men, especially clergymen, and encouraged me to read the Bible and trust in it alone. Despite misgivings, I acquired a New Testament and began to read it. Little by little it dawned on me that many of my beliefs were not in harmony with Bible teachings.

One Sunday in 1933, while I was at Richard’s home in Germany, he introduced me to a married couple who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. On discovering that I was reading the Bible, they gave me a copy of a booklet entitled The Crisis. * It was almost midnight when I finally laid that booklet down. I was convinced that I had found the truth!

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Basel supplied me with two volumes of Studies in the Scriptures * together with magazines and other publications. Impressed by what I was reading, I contacted the local priest and asked to have my name removed from the church register. The priest became very angry and warned me that I was in danger of losing my faith. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to cultivate true faith.

The brothers in Basel were planning a preaching trip over the border into France that weekend. One of the brothers kindly explained to me that I had not been invited because I had only recently begun to associate with the congregation. Undeterred, I expressed my firm desire to start preaching. After consulting with another elder, he assigned me a territory in Switzerland. Early Sunday morning, I set out on my bicycle for a small village close to Basel, with 4 books, 28 magazines, and 20 brochures in my service bag. Most of the villagers were in church when I arrived. Even so, by 11 o’clock, my service bag was empty.

When I told the brothers that I wanted to get baptized, they had a serious talk with me and asked me searching questions about the truth. I was struck by their zeal and loyalty to Jehovah and his organization. As it was wintertime, a brother baptized me in a bathtub in an elder’s home. I remember feeling an indescribable joy and a great inner strength. That was in 1934.

Working at Kingdom Farm

In 1936, I heard that Jehovah’s Witnesses had purchased a piece of property in Switzerland. I offered my services as a gardener. To my joy, I was invited to work on the Kingdom Farm at Steffisburg, about 19 miles [30 kilometers] from Bern. Whenever possible I helped others with their work on the farm as well. Bethel taught me the importance of having a cooperative spirit.

 A highlight of my years at Bethel was Brother Rutherford’s visit to the farm in 1936. When he saw the size of our tomatoes and how healthy the crops were, he smiled and expressed his satisfaction. What a dear brother he was!

When I had been serving at the farm for just over three years, a letter from the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States was read out at breakfast. The letter stressed the urgency of the preaching work and extended an invitation to any who wished to serve abroad as pioneers. Without hesitation, I volunteered. My assignment arrived in May 1939​—Brazil!

At the time, I was attending meetings in the Thun Congregation, near Kingdom Farm. On Sundays, a group of us would go to preach in the Alps, a two-hour bicycle ride from Thun. Margaritha Steiner was one of the group. A thought suddenly occurred to me: Had not Jesus sent out his disciples in twos? When I casually mentioned to Margaritha that I had been assigned to Brazil, she expressed her own desire to serve where the need was greater. We were married July 31, 1939.

An Unexpected Stopover

We sailed from Le Havre, France, at the end of August 1939, bound for Santos, Brazil. All the double berths were taken, so we had to travel in separate cabins. While en route, news arrived that Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany. A group of 30 German passengers reacted by striking up the German national anthem. This so annoyed the captain that he changed course and docked at Safi, Morocco. Passengers with German travel documents had five minutes to disembark. That included us.

We were held for a day at the police station and then crowded into a rickety old bus and taken to a prison at Marrakech, about 85 miles [140 kilometers] away. Difficult days followed. Our cells were overcrowded and dark. The communal toilet​—a hole in the floor—​was constantly blocked. Each of us received a dirty sack to sleep on, and at night, rats gnawed the calves of our legs. Rations were served twice a day in a rusty can.

An army officer explained that I would be released if I agreed to serve a five-year term in the French Foreign Legion. My refusal earned me 24 hours in what can only be described as a black hole. Most of this time, I spent praying.

After eight days, the prison authorities allowed me to see Margaritha again. She was terribly thin, and wept uncontrollably. I did my best to encourage her. We were interrogated and transferred by train to Casablanca, where Margaritha was released. I was sent on to a prison camp at Port Lyautey (now Kenitra), about 110 miles [180 km] away. The Swiss consul advised Margaritha to return to Switzerland, but she loyally refused to leave without me. During the two months I remained at Port Lyautey, she traveled daily from Casablanca to visit me and bring me food.

A year earlier, Jehovah’s Witnesses had released a book entitled Kreuzzug gegen das Christentum (Crusade Against Christianity) to draw public attention to the Witnesses’ noninvolvement with the Nazi regime. While I was in the prison camp, the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bern wrote to the French authorities, enclosing a copy of the book in an attempt to prove that we were not Nazis. Margaritha also did a wonderful job visiting government officials and trying to convince them of our innocence. Finally, at the end of 1939, we received permission to leave Morocco.

It was only after embarking for Brazil once again that we learned that German U-boats were attacking shipping lanes in the Atlantic and that we were a prime target. Although a  merchant ship, our vessel, the Jamaique, had guns mounted at the prow and at the stern. During the day, the captain maintained a zigzag course and fired shells continuously. At night we observed a blackout to avoid detection by the Germans. How relieved we were finally to make port at Santos, Brazil, on February 6, 1940, more than five months after leaving Europe!

Back to Prison

Our first preaching assignment was Montenegro, a town in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. Church authorities evidently had been informed of our arrival. After we had been preaching for just two hours, the police arrested us and confiscated our collection of phonograph records containing Bible sermons, all our literature, and even the camel-skin service bags we had bought in Morocco. A priest and a German-speaking minister awaited us at the police station. They listened while the chief of police played one of Brother Rutherford’s talks on our gramophone, which he had also confiscated. Brother Rutherford certainly did not beat about the bush! When it came to a part that mentioned the Vatican, the priest turned very red and stormed out.

At the request of the bishop of Santa Maria, the police transferred us to Pôrto Alegre, the state capital. Margaritha was soon freed and sought the help of the Swiss consulate. The consul suggested that she return to Switzerland. Once again she refused to abandon me. Margaritha has always been a very loyal companion. Thirty days later I was interrogated and released. The police presented us with a choice: leave the state within ten days or “face the consequences.” At the suggestion of headquarters, we departed for Rio de Janeiro.

“Please Read This Card”

Despite this inauspicious introduction to the Brazilian field, how joyful we were! After all, we were alive, our bags were once again full of literature, and we had the whole of Rio de Janeiro to preach to. But how would we preach with our limited knowledge of  Portuguese? By means of a testimony card. “Por favor, leia este cartão” (“Please read this card”) was the first Portuguese expression we learned to use in the preaching work. And what a success the card was! In a single month, we distributed over 1,000 books. Many who accepted our Bible literature later embraced the truth. To be honest, our publications gave a much more effective witness than we could ever have done. This impressed upon me the importance of getting our publications into the hands of interested ones.

At that time Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil, and our message was especially well-received in the government buildings. I had the privilege of personally witnessing to the minister of finance and the minister of the armed forces. On these occasions, I saw clear evidence of Jehovah’s spirit in operation.

Once, while preaching in a square in the center of Rio, I entered the Palace of Justice. Somehow I found myself in a room surrounded by men dressed in black, in the middle of what seemed to be a funeral ceremony. I approached a distinguished-looking man and handed him my testimony card. It was no funeral. I had in fact interrupted a court case, and I was talking to the judge. Laughing, he signaled to the guards to be at ease. He graciously accepted a copy of the book Children * and made a contribution. On the way out, one of the guards pointed to a conspicuous notice on the door: Proibida a entrada de pessoas estranhas (No Strangers Allowed).

Another productive field was the port. On one occasion, I met a sailor who accepted publications before returning to sea. Later, we met him at an assembly. His whole family had embraced the truth, and he himself was making good progress. That made us very happy.

However, not everything was smooth sailing. Our six-month visa expired, and we were faced with the prospect of deportation. After writing to headquarters about our situation, we received a loving letter from Brother Rutherford, encouraging us to persevere and suggesting how we should proceed. Our desire was to stay in Brazil, and with the help of a lawyer, we finally obtained a permanent visa in 1945.

A Long-Term Assignment

Before that, however, Jonathan, our son, was born in 1941, Ruth in 1943, and Esther in 1945. To care for the needs of our growing family, I had to take up secular work. Margaritha continued in the full-time preaching activity right up to the birth of our third child.

From the beginning, we worked together as a family in the preaching work in city squares, in train stations, on the streets, and in business districts. On Saturday nights, we distributed The Watchtower and Awake! together, and these were especially happy occasions.

 At home, each child had daily tasks to perform. Jonathan was responsible for cleaning the stove and the kitchen. The girls cleaned the refrigerator, swept the yard, and polished our shoes. This helped them learn to be organized and to develop initiative. Today, our children are hard workers who take good care of their homes and belongings, which makes Margaritha and me very happy.

We also expected the children to behave well at the meetings. Before the program began, they drank a glass of water and used the bathroom. During the meeting, Jonathan sat on my left, Ruth on my right, followed by Margaritha, and on her right, Esther. This helped them to concentrate and take in spiritual food from an early age.

Jehovah has blessed our efforts. All our children continue serving Jehovah faithfully and participating joyfully in the preaching work. Jonathan currently serves as an elder in the Novo Méier Congregation, Rio de Janeiro.

By 1970, our children had all married and left home, so Margaritha and I decided to move to serve where the need was greater. Our first stop was Poços de Caldas, in Minas Gerais State, which at the time had a small group of 19 Kingdom publishers. I was dismayed when I first saw their meeting place​—a basement room with no windows and in desperate need of repair. Immediately, we started looking for a more suitable Kingdom Hall and soon found an attractive building in an excellent location. What a difference that made! Four and a half years later, the number of publishers had increased to 155. In 1989 we moved to Araruama, in Rio de Janeiro, where we served for nine years. During this time we witnessed the forming of two new congregations.

Rewarded for Sticking to Our Assignment

In 1998, health problems and the desire to be near our children led us to move to São Gonçalo, Rio de Janeiro. I still serve there as a congregation elder. We do our best to participate regularly in the preaching work. Margaritha enjoys witnessing to people at a nearby supermarket, and the congregation has kindly set aside some territory for us near our home, which makes it easier for us to preach as our health permits.

Margaritha and I have been dedicated servants of Jehovah now for more than 60 years. We have personally experienced that ‘neither governments nor things now here nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creation can separate us from God’s love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38, 39) And what a pleasure it has been to witness the ingathering of the “other sheep,” who have the marvelous hope of everlasting life on a perfect earth, surrounded by God’s beautiful creations! (John 10:16) When we arrived in 1940, Rio de Janeiro had just one congregation, with 28 publishers. Today there are some 250 congregations and well over 20,000 Kingdom publishers.

There were occasions when we could have returned to our families in Europe. But our assignment from Jehovah is here in Brazil. How glad we are that we have stuck to it!


^ par. 11 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but no longer in print.

^ par. 12 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but no longer in print.

^ par. 33 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but no longer in print.

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At Kingdom Farm, Steffisburg, Switzerland, late 1930’s (I am at the far left)

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Shortly before our wedding, 1939

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Casablanca in the 1940’s

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Preaching as a family

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Participating regularly in the ministry today