There were only six days until Christmas 1991, and the weather forecast was predicting snow and bad road conditions throughout Eastern Europe. Traveling was not advisable. But Johannes Gutjahr had a promise to keep.
Several months before, Brother Gutjahr, a Church translator in Friedrichsdorf, Germany, had promised President James L. Wilde of the Hungary Budapest Mission that as soon as copies of the long-overdue Hungarian Book of Mormon arrived in Germany, he would load his car with as many copies as would fit and drive the 1,000 kilometers from Germany, through Austria, and into Hungary. So now, Thursday afternoon, Brother Gutjahr was determined to deliver the new books before Hungarian customs offices closed on Friday for the holidays. He and President Wilde shared a common goal in this effort: to give the Hungarian Saints a surprise Christmas present they would never forget.
With that goal in mind, Brother Gutjahr loaded 1,600 copies of the sacred record into his van and started his journey. Passing the Austrian border at about 9:00 P.M. Thursday and the Hungarian border at about 3:00 A.M. Friday, Brother Gutjahr arrived in the city of Györ with plenty of time to make his delivery. But he ran into difficulty.
At the Hungarian border, officials had told Brother Gutjahr he could pass customs clearance in Györ, but now officials in Györ said he couldn’t. So in the early afternoon, after hours of unsuccessful efforts, Brother Gutjahr drove on to Budapest, hoping to find help there. But help was not quick in coming.
For one thing, the weather forecasts finally came true. “All the way down Germany and through Austria, I had not seen a single snowflake,” remembers Brother Gutjahr. “But between Györ and Budapest, especially on the autobahn, it started to snow heavily.” Braving the storm, he pressed on to Budapest, arriving just after closing time. The office would not open again until January.
Although he could have simply dropped the books off at the mission office, Brother Gutjahr was honor bound to get official customs approval. Fortunately, Elder Victor Sipos and Elder Kuen Damiano were waiting at the office and were determined to help Brother Gutjahr distribute the books before Christmas.
Hoping for a miracle, the three traveled to the already closed customs office and felt blessed to find an official still there. The official, however, was unwilling to permit distribution of the books. “Absolutely not,” he kept saying. “Come back in January.”
But January was after Christmas! Elder Sipos persisted. He explained the situation. These were religious books; they were very important. “We’d really like the people to receive them by Christmas,” he said. “We’ve all been waiting years for this.”
The customs officer continued to say no, but the missionaries—offering many silent prayers—continued to urge him to make an exception. Suddenly he changed his mind. “Something finally touched him,” recalls Elder Sipos.
Brother Gutjahr had kept his promise, and the 1,600 copies of the Book of Mormon were now in Budapest, Hungary, with official approval. But the books still needed to be distributed to the other 10 cities where members met regularly. And there was only one day—Saturday—to deliver them so the members would receive their surprise Christmas present by Sunday. Although Christmas was actually three days after the Sabbath, the Hungarian members would be celebrating the birth of the Savior in their Sunday meetings. Brother Gutjahr, President Wilde, and the missionaries longed for the Hungarian Saints to have the Book of Mormon in their own language for those worship services.
So Friday evening, missionaries met Brother Gutjahr, loaded their cars with copies of the Book of Mormon, and headed east, south, and west to deliver the books to other missionaries who would then make the surprise announcements in Church meetings on Sunday.
The reaction from members in Hungary was everything everyone had hoped it would be—and more. Elder Sipos and Elder Damiano were among the missionaries who headed out. One of the last stops on their trip was Debrecen, a city in eastern Hungary where they stayed for Church meetings on Sunday, 22 December. “I’ll never forget the reaction in the Debrecen Branch,” says Elder Sipos.
Elder István Berente made the announcement. He started by giving a talk about the importance of prophets, especially President Ezra Taft Benson. He emphasized President Benson’s message to read the Book of Mormon and said, “To help you do this, we have a little something for you.” Then the missionaries started handing out copies of the Hungarian Book of Mormon.
“The reaction was amazing,” says Elder Sipos. “People were crying and laughing. Others started clapping.”
For the next couple of hours the members of the Debrecen Branch didn’t leave the room. They pored over stories they had heard about from missionaries but had never been able to read for themselves, and they signed their names and testimonies in other people’s copies of the Book of Mormon.
“It is inexpressible the happiness that fills this day,” wrote Králik Ida* in one book. “I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”
“I am so happy,” wrote Fegyverneki Ágnes. “This was the greatest Christmas present I’ve received. Please don’t ever forget what this Christmas means for us.”
The reaction was similar throughout the country. “People had waited for it so long,” says President Wilde. “Virtually all of the members in Hungary, except those with abilities to speak either English or German, had joined the Church with just the Selections from the Book of Mormon.
They had had no opportunity to read from the complete Book of Mormon the story of the conversion of Alma the Younger or the mission of Ammon or so many other stories.
“One of the most moving memories I have of that day,” he continues, “is of a sister who had been a member of the Church for two years and finally saw the Book of Mormon in front of her. She simply grabbed the Book of Mormon to her heart and began to sob with joy.”
In Pécs, the books were handed out in a special Christmas family home evening. Elder Brian Blum particularly recalls the reaction of one member, Szücs Krisztina, who had been baptized about three months earlier. “She didn’t get up. She was just sitting there,” he says. “And I was wondering why she wasn’t doing much with her copy of the Book of Mormon. Then I looked down and saw she was crying as she was reading it.”
Elder Michael Mátyás remembers the first copy he gave out in Veszprém. It was to Petö Éva, a member of about six months. Sister Petö had to leave the meeting before the announcement was made. “I stopped her and said, ‘I know you have to go, but before you go, there’s something I want to give you.’ And I gave her a copy of the Book of Mormon. She started crying then. Since that was the first one I had given out, it was fairly emotional for me too,” he said.
“It was the greatest Christmas gift we could have received,” says Brother Hevesi András of Budapest. “It was the realization of a long-awaited dream.”
For Hungarian Saints like Brother Hevesi, receiving the Book of Mormon was just that—a dream fulfilled. For Brother Gutjahr, being able to be the one to deliver the books epitomized the joy of giving, the joy of the Christmas season.