Keeping Integrity in Nazi Germany
LIKE many young people in pre-World War II Germany, I enjoyed sports, especially gymnastics and soccer. My life was filled with these things. But eventually this changed.
Through a workmate of my father, I became acquainted with the Bible. At first I was skeptical about what this Bibelforscher (Bible Student, as a witness of Jehovah was then known) had to say. Later, what he said impressed me, particularly the information about Jesus Christ and his activity as a man.
Time of Testing Begins
In 1933, due to the Nazi takeover in Germany, the sports club to which I belonged was banned. This, together with what I was learning from the Scriptures, helped me to become more concerned with spiritual matters. In 1935 I dedicated myself to Jehovah God and symbolized this by water baptism, and at about the same time, I married a fellow believer.
Hard times had begun and worse were on the way. The owner of the business that I worked for received a letter from the German Workers’ Front, an organization that was a branch of the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or Nazi Party). The letter stated:
“We herewith request you to dismiss according to the rules and regulations of your company the Bible Student employed by you, inasmuch as he manifestly disturbs the peace of your enterprise by not becoming a member of the German Workers’ Front.” The owner of the firm complied with the letter, and since I could not conscientiously affiliate myself with a political party, I lost my job.
One year later my mother-in-law and I were arrested. Efforts were made to get me to give up my faith and to betray my spiritual brothers. My refusal to cooperate resulted in my being taken to Buchenwald concentration camp on November 25, 1937. My mother-in-law was also sent to a concentration camp.
Tests of Integrity in Buchenwald
My imprisonment in Buchenwald lasted for nearly eight years. This was supposed to be where I would end my life—at least devilish-minded men thought so. The German SS guards repeatedly told us: “You won’t get out of here alive.” I was forced to work from four o’clock in the morning until sundown, despite having little to eat. But thanks to Jehovah God, toward whom I wanted to maintain my integrity, I was able to keep going.
During such hard times, spiritual food was very important. How did we get it in the concentration camp? From time to time, more Jehovah’s Witnesses were brought to Buchenwald. They were brought not only from Germany but also from Holland, Belgium, and France. Whatever they remembered from what they had read in recent issues of The Watchtower was written down and, by our secret means of distribution, passed on to fellow Witnesses. Thus we received the spiritual nourishment that we so desperately needed in order to keep our integrity.
However, our supply of spiritual food did not remain a secret, although the guards did not succeed in finding out how we received it. One day we were given the following ultimatum: If all printed matter is not turned in by tomorrow at 12 o’clock, every second man will be shot. In a concentration camp, that was not always an idle threat!
Our brothers who were responsible for the written material found a means of getting together to discuss the matter and to pray about it. It was decided to turn in portions of our handwritten “food provisions.” In these writings, various unchristian practices of the Catholic Church were exposed. The decision to turn in such material brought good results. No one was executed, and a good witness was given. In fact, some of the SS officers showed interest in what had been committed to writing.
We were also able to supply other camps with spiritual sustenance. Whenever brothers were transferred from Buchenwald to other camps, they would risk their lives by hiding on themselves Bible truths in handwritten form. And within Buchenwald, we organized a special campaign to witness to other inmates, reaching thousands of them with the good news.
Deny the Faith or Die
When World War II began in 1939, we experienced the hardest test. It was demanded that we sign a declaration stating that we had renounced our faith and were willing to name persons who were actively advocating teachings of the Bible Students. If we signed, we were to be released. Any Witness refusing to sign was to be shot.
Time and again this threat was used. The command would be given: “Bible Students, to the gate!” We would stand there—skinny, in tattered clothing. On the towers were armed guards. The camp commander would repeat his threat that all those who refused to sign would be put to death. Total silence. No one volunteered.
On one occasion, two Witnesses who had previously signed the document stepped forward, stating that they wished to cancel their signatures! They preferred to die with their brothers. There was astonishment, and even anxiety, on the part of the otherwise hardened SS. At first, there was no abuse, no threatening, only the command: “Dismissed! Do not report for work.” Two hours later, the words rang out again: “Bible Students, to the gate!” This cat-and-mouse process continued for three days.
Loud enough for us to hear, the SS would discuss how we were to be lined up and shot. We even heard one of the commanders say: “The best thing for us to do is to stand around them and shoot at them from all sides.” But that this was simply a ploy to break our morale became clear when we again had to appear on the parade grounds.
Camp commander Huttig began his speech with the unflattering words: “You scoundrels, you pigs . . .” But what were we hearing? Not the usual threats of death, but: “The Führer is much too good to you. The execution of your sentences has been postponed until the victory.” Deep gratitude to Jehovah welled up within us, despite the fact that Huttig screamed: “But remember . . . forbearance is not acquittal.” The enemy had lost.
Even though conditions became more bearable the following year, many hardships still lay ahead. During one bitterly cold winter, we were told to donate clothing to the German troops in the East. When we refused to support the war effort in this way, we were stripped of our gloves, our earmuffs, and our undershirts. Our leather shoes were also confiscated. Instead we were given wooden clogs, called Dutchmen. Despite the lack of clothing, we were forced to go out to work, even at temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15° C.).
One day it was declared that the Bible Students would be denied all medical aid in the camp infirmary. We were, therefore, forced to support one another all the more, helping and caring for and lovingly ‘dragging along’ sick ones, so to speak. (Galatians 6:2) This measure, which was intended to break us, actually had the opposite effect. Yes, we even began to discern the hand of our God in this matter!
Since we cared for the sick and the weak with Christian love, we had no deaths. On the other hand, many of the inmates that were treated in the camp infirmary died. Naturally, the God-estranged SS men, having become inhuman, could not comprehend what love could accomplish. After some time, on seeing that all of us would still report for roll call, one SS doctor shook his head in disbelief and said: “A medical wonder.”
Celebrating the Memorial
It was March 1942, and the time for celebrating the Lord’s Evening Meal, or Memorial of Christ’s death, was approaching. But how could we organize it in a concentration camp? One brother was able to obtain bed sheets to use as tablecloths; the SS commander who granted permission believed they were to be used for a birthday celebration. The Memorial was to be held in the D wing of our block.
The first group of brothers had been smuggled into the D wing and were already gathered for the celebration. Other brothers casually stood on guard outside the room. Suddenly something unexpected happened. The commander was on his way for a routine inspection! And he was headed right toward the D wing. The hearts of the brothers keeping watch almost stood still. There was nothing they could do. The commander was coming up the stairs. So they prayed silently. Halfway up the stairs the commander stood still, looked around, and, inexplicably, went back down.
Even now, 40 years later, memories of such events help me to trust fully in Jehovah in whatever circumstances I find myself. He changed seemingly hopeless situations into grand deliverances.—Isaiah 26:3, 4.
A Time of Relief
At the end of the war, we were released from the camp. We felt as did the Israelites of old, of whom it was said: “When Jehovah gathered back the captive ones of Zion, we became like those who were dreaming. At that time our mouth came to be filled with laughter, and our tongue with a joyful cry.”—Psalm 126:1, 2.
Shortly before the end of World War II my wife had been arrested to be taken to a concentration camp. My mother-in-law had been in Ravensbruck, and just a few months before the end of the war the SS sent her to upper Bavaria. But in 1945 all of us returned home. We were happy to be together again, grateful that we had kept integrity, and appreciative that we could again freely carry on our worship of Jehovah.
Some years after World War II, because of a ban on the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country where I lived, I was again arrested and I was separated from my family for nearly four years. During this difficult time, we repeatedly felt the help of Jehovah, our merciful God.
After the war, we were blessed with a son, and when he reached adulthood, he was also confronted with a decision involving the principle of neutrality that is set forth in the Bible at Isaiah 2:4. To our joy, he chose the way of integrity to Jehovah. Thus for two years he became acquainted with prison life.
Because of keeping integrity to God, our small family can now look back on a total of 23 years in concentration camps and prisons. Not all of us have to experience the same things. But we are all faced each day with the challenge of maintaining integrity in a perverse world. Therefore, may you also determine to hold fast to your integrity. This you will never regret, for as the psalmist says: “As for me, because of my integrity you have upheld me, and you will set me before your face to time indefinite. Blessed be Jehovah the God of Israel from time indefinite even to time indefinite.” (Psalm 41:12, 13)—Since the author lives in a country where the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently banned, his name is not used.
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Any Witness refusing to sign was to be shot
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The SS commander said: “The best thing for us to do is to stand around them and shoot at them from all sides”
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Our small family can look back on a total of 23 years in concentration camps and prisons
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Buchenwald concentration camp where I spent eight harrowing years