Pastor Pokorny (1917–2008)
August Erwin (Tony) Pokorny was born at a chaotic time in history. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the brink of disintegrating and Austria was set to become a republic. Its economy was unable to cope with the large numbers returning from army and empire posts, and there was extensive unemployment.
When Pokorny’s parents divorced, he and his younger brother were sent to a Catholic boarding school. Discipline was strict, and though he received religious instruction, it remained for him a distant reality. Soon he turned against a religion that used prayer as a form of punishment.
It is perhaps not surprising that an adolescent who had experienced personal upheaval should find the well-organised and apparently benevolent Nazi Youth movement appealing. Pokorny joined at age fourteen and rose to be a leader of the local branch.
As a member, he was ordered to spy on an American missionary society that was introducing Austrians to the Bible in German – something the Catholic Church was keen to stamp out.
However, under guidance from these believers who befriended him, Pokorny committed his life to Christ. Clearly he could now no longer remain a Nazi Youth leader, but he also knew that leaving the movement would not be tolerated by the authorities. When he told them that his newfound faith meant he could never kill anyone, he was seized and put in prison.
After three months’ imprisonment, he feigned illness and was sent to hospital. From there he managed to escape to Switzerland, where he was given shelter by the Geneva Bible College. At this time he became engaged to his future wife, Mimi, who was working in Vienna as an English-speaking secretary.
In 1937 Pokorny obtained a place at an evangelical college in South Wales. While he was there, Hitler annexed Austria. Austrians abroad were sent call-up papers which required them to register for German national service.
Loyally, Pokorny returned to Vienna, but was ordered to train as a spy against the Russians. He refused, believing it would lead to the killing of women and children. Again, he was threatened with prison, but was finally offered the alternative of enrolling in the German Air Force.
This he also declined and was arrested, although this time the American missionaries managed to secure his release. It was evident that there was no room for him under the Nazis. In April 1939 he boarded a train to Switzerland, having obtained a British visa valid for three months.
Just before the train left, the Gestapo searched all civilians. Pokorny’s agitation was calmed by a quiet inward voice saying, ‘Be still and remember I am God’.
The officer who searched his bag missed the text of an anti-Nazi talk concealed in a newspaper and Pokorny was allowed to return to England. He was to arrive just before war broke out. Arrested as an enemy alien and sent to a prison camp in Canada, he was eventually freed and allowed to complete his training.1
He felt a powerful call to bring the Word of God and its message to the Austrian people in their own language, something the majority had never heard. As soon as the war ended he hurried back but was shocked at the appalling living conditions he witnessed, especially among Holocaust survivors.
He appealed to the UK churches for clothing and, helped by German-speaking students, returned with these and other supplies for those in need. Vienna itself was occupied by the Russians and in order to meet requests from Russian soldiers for Bibles, he had to smuggle in resources from the British sector.
After a wait of nine years he was finally able to marry his fiancée, who had escaped before war was declared from Austria and then qualified at the Geneva Bible College. She was collected by Tony from the channel ferry in a 1933 Ford and they were then together in England.
Shortly afterwards, Tony and Mimi began receiving an increasing postbag of letters from Austria requesting free Bibles. Totalling 375 in the first few weeks, these came as a result of newspaper advertisements in the American and British sectors of Austria.
Austrian Bible Mission
Mimi packed and despatched the requested Bibles with the help of evangelical publishers in the UK. And so began the Austrian Bible Mission (ABM). It was formally registered as a charity in 1949, and eventually attracted over 400 UK supporters.
Mimi carried out the secretarial work as well as caring for their two daughters, while Tony continued his lecture and preaching tours to raise support for the infant ABM. He was general secretary of the mission until he retired in 1992 and was succeeded by Michael Dean.
During his 45 years as general secretary, Pokorny visited Austria at least twice a year for up to two months at a time. He established an office in Salzburg, where his landlady would collect mail and help with the storage and despatch of Bibles.
In 1957 he started preparing an Austrian pocket diary, dispatched at Christmas, with a text for each day and a monthly article. This became a popular and effective evangelistic tool, widening its circulation from 500 to 35,000. Many diaries went to prisons, army units, refugee camps, and churches from a variety of denominations.
Another publication he prepared was a magazine-sized, illustrated version of John’s Gospel. He arranged for copies to be circulated in remote Austrian villages and he left them in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms and other places, such as barbers’ shops.
Pastor Pokorny also conducted speaking tours and Bible studies in churches, women’s meetings and school classes. As a ‘local’ he enjoyed unique opportunities, and had the advantage of concentrating solely on Austria, whereas other mission organisations had the whole of war-torn Europe as their mission field.
The work continued to develop in a variety of ways. Pokorny was greatly aided by two associates who helped ABM to establish market stalls.
These stalls could reach many, including the growing number of post-war tourists, beginning to enjoy again the beauty of Austria’s scenery and of course its musical heritage. One of these associates, Karl Frohlich, continues this outreach today and holds stalls in Salzburg, Vienna and other major cities.
It wasn’t long before the work expanded into refugee camps. Both Pastor Graham Lange (who had retired as minister of Salzburg Baptist Church, due to ill health) and Tony held Bible classes and distributed relief goods, often being called on to counsel newly arrived inmates and families. Good relationships with the camp staff were essential.
Similarly, Tony put much effort into developing contacts with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Salzburg and other cities. This was helped when the Vatican II Council of 1962-65 reversed its embargo on Catholics reading the Bible in German, so the Bible became freely available in Austrian bookshops.
Among these bookshops was the Christian Literature Trust (CLV) in the centre of Vienna. This had been set up in the late 1980s by the Van Dams, who had previously represented Operation Mobilisation in Austria for 30 years. As CLV sales increased they added a coffee shop, providing an ideal site for evangelism and discussion among customers. They also used an old bus for tour meetings and Christmas fairs until given a modern van by ABM.
All this time, Pastor Pokorny was continuing a punishing schedule of tours in the UK and Austria; and the effects of age and illness, notably an arthritic knee, were becoming increasingly evident.
After an operation in 2000, he recovered to make a final working winter visit to Austria. This included a dedication service for OBM, the Austrian base of ABM, and its field director Guenter Reinthaler.
Due to deteriorating health, Tony and Mimi took the decision to join their daughter, Mrs Yvonne Gregory, in her home about 40 miles from Salzburg. Sadly Mimi died of cancer only a few weeks after arriving there in 2001. By this time, Tony was 84.
He remained reasonably active, still walking in the mountains until 2005. He then moved into a nursing home in Gosau in 2007. His health continued to decline and he died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of 25 December 2008, having completed his long-felt calling to bring the Word of the Lord to his own people.
1. A 30-minute DVD is available which details the early history (mailto:[email protected] or 01489 877132)
Alan L. Gray