I Grew Up in Nazi Germany
ONE terrifying day in 1935, when I was five years old, the security of my young boyhood was shattered. Changes occurred that I could barely understand, and soon I was treated badly for reasons that I did not know. But eventually I was able to echo the psalmist’s words: “In you my soul has taken refuge; and in the shadow of your wings I take refuge until the adversities pass over.”—Psalm 57:1.
My parents had been Bibelforscher (Bible Students, or Jehovah’s Witnesses) since the 1920’s. When Hitler came to power in 1933, I was three years old and my sister, Herta, was five. Hitler soon began to persecute the Witnesses viciously, and my parents did not escape the close attention of his regime.
In 1935 a group of Gestapo officers, huge to my five-year-old eyes and menacing, barged into our home. I can still see my father standing there quietly as they roughly searched the house for evidence that he was a Bible Student. Finally, they took him away. I did not see him again for 10 years.
But the Hitlerian regime had not finished with us. Two years later the Gestapo returned in the shape of a man and a woman. Pointing at Herta and me they said to my horrified mother: “We are taking these children.” Why? “You are not qualified to bring them up.” They accused us of being delinquents and took us away to a juvenile camp. Can you imagine my mother’s feelings as she watched us being forcibly carried off by the Gestapo?
I endured the military discipline of that camp—kept separated from Herta—until 1943. Then I was sent to a farm near a little town in the province of Altmark.
All this time I had no idea why these things were happening to me. My parents had been careful about what they told me, probably because five-year-old boys are not noted for being careful about what they blurt out. Hence, I did not understand why I had been separated from them. Nor did I understand why the farmer who was responsible for me used to scold me and shout at me that I was a criminal, or why other children would have nothing to do with me.
The educational system eventually dictated that I had to spend some time each week in a special school to learn religion. I resented this. After attending twice, I told the school authorities: “I don’t want to go there anymore.” They tried to force me, telling me I would not get a diploma or I would not be able to learn an occupation. But inside I just did not care about that. I felt a strong resentment at being forced to go to that school.
Then I decided: “All right. If they want me to learn religion, I will read the Bible on my own.” And soon I wondered if the Bible could help me to discover why I was being treated so unkindly. I enjoyed reading the Gospels, and slowly I began to see how badly Jesus had been treated. In my youthful mind I tried to compare his situation with mine, thinking: ‘It looks a little similar. I am being mistreated, looked down on, for no real reason, just as Jesus was.’
Finally, the war came to an end. I wanted to go home immediately and planned to pack my suitcase and leave early in the morning when no one could stop me. However, I did not realize how dangerous things were. Germany was in the rubble of defeat. The countryside was chaotic. Nothing worked. There were no cars, no railroad. People were starving, and there were many weapons left around from the recent fighting. I doubt very much if I would have made it back to Magdeburg.
However, I now received a heartwarming indication of Jehovah’s care for me. I was, after all, dwelling ‘in the shadow of his wings.’ The very day I was preparing to leave, a stranger, a woman, came to the farmer with a special permit to take custody of me. The permit had been issued by the military authorities who were temporarily in control. The farmer did not like it. He tried to persuade me to stay. But I was glad to leave with this unknown person.
She had come with a horse and buggy, and the two of us rode in it together to her place, about three hours away. We traveled in silence for a while. She did not say much and I did not feel like asking questions. Then she started to talk. “Well, Hans,” she said, “I know all about you. I remember you as a little boy.” I looked at her. To me she was a complete stranger. “I know your father and your mother,” she went on. “Your father was sent to a concentration camp for reading the Bible.”
She went on to explain that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and she was, too. In fact, she had been working secretly as a pioneer (full-time preacher) in that area during the war. As she went on telling me about myself, I gave way to tears. This faithful Witness had kept track of me all along. She knew exactly where I was, but neither she nor my mother had been able to come and visit me since the authorities wanted me to be brought up as a good little Nazi. Now, though, at the first opportunity, she had managed to get me into her custody.
I came to know her as Sister Scheibe. In the following weeks she took every opportunity to teach me what my parents had suffered for. I read a copy of the book Children that she gave me. The copy she had was divided into little booklets for reading in secret, and she showed me how to read the sections and then discussed them with me. Overjoyed at what I was learning, I began to see how Jehovah had maneuvered things for my benefit through the difficult years.
After a month and a half Sister Scheibe thought it was time for me to go home. Travel was still difficult, but there were now some trucks running, so she was able to arrange a ride for me as far as the outskirts of Magdeburg. Then I picked my way for about three hours through the rubble that had once been the city of Magdeburg. Finally I found my home, which, happily, was still standing.
My mother happened to be looking out of the window as I walked up to the house. She recognized me and rushed out to hug me for the first time in 10 years. Can you imagine how we both felt? Quickly, we set about procuring the release of my sister, Herta, who was still in the juvenile camp. After walking and hitchhiking the 50 miles (80 km) to the camp, my mother and I secured her release over the objections of the camp authorities, and joyfully the three of us returned home. Now there was only one person missing.
Soon he arrived, pushing an old bicycle piled with his few possessions. Father had spent 10 years in different concentration camps. He told us he had been in the infamous “death march”* of thousands of prisoners from the Sachsenhausen camp toward Lübeck, where the authorities apparently had plans to kill them all. The 250 Witnesses were starving and weak, but they kept together and helped one another.
On the last night of the march the prisoners were hiding in some woods. Russian and American forces were closing in. On advice from some guards, many prisoners tried to break out to the American lines. About 1,000 of them were then shot down by the guards. The Witnesses, though, had been suspicious and, after praying to Jehovah, had stayed in the woods. Soon, organization among the SS guards crumbled, and within a few days the Witnesses contacted the liberating armies. Not one Witness had died during the ordeal. “We always supported one another,” Father said.
There were also some things that he never told, which we heard from other Witnesses. There was the afternoon, for example, when he was beaten so badly by the guards that he lay apparently dead on the ground, with joints dislocated. The guards picked up his body and threw it onto a cart that they used to move dirt and small stones. Then they dumped him in a ditch and left him sprawled in the mud like so much garbage. Happily, the other Witnesses crept out after dark and found he was still alive. They carried him back inside and nursed him back to health.
Then there was the time in Buchenwald when he was so weak from hunger that everyone thought he would die. For no apparent reason the authorities suddenly transferred him to another camp where his skills as a craftsman were to be used. Hence, in many ways, Father owed his life to the saving power of Jehovah and to the love of his brothers.
Now we were a family again and we quickly busied ourselves in Jehovah’s service. From 1945 to 1949 there was fine increase all around us, and we enjoyed a freedom that had not been experienced in Germany since before Hitler’s time. But Magdeburg is in the Eastern part of Germany, and after the war it came to be under Communist rule. These authorities did not leave us in peace for long.
The last time we could freely attend an assembly was in 1949, in West Berlin. It was a very important assembly for me because I was baptized there. But bad things were already happening. Witnesses were disappearing, not being arrested, just disappearing as if they had been kidnapped. At first there was no official ban, but the pressures were mounting. Then I heard that the brothers in the branch office in Magdeburg had been led away in chains, and a ban was officially announced.
So Jehovah’s Witnesses went underground again. We had to be careful because some who came to the meetings were spies. Hence, meetings were held in secret, at different times on different days. If you missed a meeting, you would not know when the next one would be.
We were careful in house-to-house preaching, too, avoiding carrying anything that would identify us as Jehovah’s Witnesses. We became skilled at judging people’s reactions. If anything made us uneasy, we would immediately cut the conversation short and leave the area. Normally we would visit just one house in a street, then go to another house in another area. We found many people in East Germany who really loved the truth.
Of course, the authorities knew that all in my family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it was not long before we received a visit. This time the police seemed more interested in me, and I was taken away to prison. However, thanks to Jehovah, I did not stay there long—only three days.
While I was at the police department, I had a fine opportunity to witness about my faith. There were 10 policemen sitting there, and for some reason they were not unfriendly. Perhaps they thought they could convert me to communism. They asked me what I believed and why, and I can still see them sitting there listening without a word. I was about 18 years old and full of joy as I told them the truth from the Bible.
Afterward they let me go and said: “We are giving you a chance. But you cannot preach from house to house, and twice a week you have to report to us. We will be watching you, and if we find you doing something wrong, we are going to send you to Russia, to Siberia!” They laughed when they said it, but if it was a joke, it was a grim one.
In 1951 we heard that an assembly had been arranged in Frankfurt, West Germany, and the president of the Watchtower Society would be there. I desperately wanted to attend. A small group of about 12 of us carefully arranged to get across the border. But when we got into West Germany our problems were not over. Because of the currency situation, our East German marks were not worth much in West Germany. So we had to try to hitch a ride to Frankfurt.
Some truck drivers would have taken us, but our group was too big. However, there were some buses near where we were openly discussing our problem. A man got out of one, noticed us and got back into the bus. A little later, he got down again from the bus and approached us. “I heard you speaking,” he said. “I know you are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that you have come from East Germany and want to go to the assembly at Frankfurt. Well, we are Jehovah’s Witnesses too. We are all going to Frankfurt, and we have made a collection so that you can ride with us.”
We could hardly believe it! All the brothers came out of the bus, and we hugged one another. They recognized the risk we had taken crossing the border, so they helped us to travel a little more decently to Frankfurt. And when we got there we had free food and accommodations at the assembly. At the end of the assembly we were given train tickets back to the border.
However, friends soon warned me that the police were after me again. I had been identified in the preaching work! I remembered those threats about Siberia, and it seemed the course of wisdom to escape. So at three o’clock one summer morning in 1952, I got on a train in East Berlin and made the short trip across the border into West Berlin. After a few days of formalities, I was granted permission to live in West Germany. Jehovah had helped me through another crisis.
Soon after, the opportunity of moving to the United States presented itself. I arrived in that country in 1957 with a whole year ahead of me in which to learn the English language before attending the Yankee Stadium convention in 1958. After all those years working in secret, it was a wonderful experience to mingle freely with a quarter of a million fellow believers!
My sister and my parents finally left East Germany, too, and settled in West Germany. My parents have finished their lives, both faithful to the end. My sister, Herta, is still an active Witness in Germany, as I am in the United States.
We have experienced much in our lives so far, and through it all we have been able to echo David’s stirring words at Psalm 63:1, 7: “O God, you are my God, I keep looking for you. . . . For you have proved to be of assistance to me, and in the shadow of your wings I cry out joyfully.”—As told by Hans Naumann.
See the article “I Survived the ‘Death March’” in the Watchtower issue of August 15, 1980.
[Blurb on page 24]
Imagine my mother’s feelings when my sister and I were forcibly carried off by the Gestapo
[Blurb on page 25]
“Your father was sent to a concentration camp for reading the Bible”
[Blurb on page 25]
I began to see how Jehovah had maneuvered things through the difficult years
[Blurb on page 26]
My mother rushed out to hug me for the first time in 10 years
[Picture on page 24]
My sister, Herta, and me with Mother in 1937