A Long Way From Home, I Promised to Serve God
THE flying sleet and snow stung our faces. The icy wind had now become a gale. Our truck drivers refused to go any farther. “All out and walk!” The terse command was barked in such a way that none of us dared refuse. So we walked the last two miles [3 km] or so back to our camp in Siberia—miserable, homesick, and cold.
There were about 150 of us—all German prisoners in the custody of 6 Russian guards. The relentless storm was so severe that we had to lean 45 degrees into the wind. Visibility was down to about five men ahead of us. From time to time, the furious head wind would suddenly drop, causing us to fall forward on our faces!
Finally, we arrived at the camp, completely exhausted. It was that night in Siberia, with the temperature 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit [-50° C], that I promised God that if I ever got back home to Germany, I would find some way to serve him.
Problems in Wartime
I was born in 1928 in Berlin, Germany. When I was about ten, I enrolled in the Hitler Youth movement. Later, Mother wanted me to be confirmed in the church, so she had me attend religious instruction classes. Sadly, just two days before my confirmation, she died. I was very lonely and began to pray often as best I knew how, talking to God about my problems.
World War II was intensifying, and there were air raids on Berlin almost every day and every night. The cruel pattern was for a wave of bombers to fly over and drop incendiary bombs, usually phosphorus. Then, as people—mainly women and children—left their shelters to extinguish the fires, they were caught out in the open and blown to pieces as the next wave of bombers dropped their larger bombs loaded with explosives.
One winter the Royal Air Force dropped time bombs that were preset to explode, not on impact, but at 7:00 p.m. on December 24. They knew that families would be together on that night before Christmas. The question kept going through my mind: ‘Why does God allow such terrible things to happen?’
In 1944, I decided to join the army. However, at my final medical checkup, I was told that I wasn’t yet strong enough for military service and that I should come back in six months. Finally, in March 1945, I was called up for the army, but I decided not to report.
Real Hardships Start
Shortly afterward, in May 1945, World War II ended. Father had been taken as a prisoner of war, and the Soviet army now occupied our section of Berlin. During the following months, we had to work for the occupying forces, packing machinery and other equipment of a chemical factory to send back to Russia. This gave me an opportunity to get to know some Russians. To my surprise I found that they were people just like us, believing that their fight was for freedom and a better world.
On August 9, 1945, about two o’clock in the afternoon, a car stopped in front of our house. Two Russian soldiers and a civilian stepped out and, after learning my name, shoved me into the car. A number of other youths were also picked up that day. All of us were eventually taken to a nearby suburb. Most of us were charged with being members of the Werwolf organization, which none of us had even heard of.
One of the younger lads claimed that I knew the addresses of other youths. I denied this and so was thrown into a dark, wet cellar along with the young informant. Alone in the cellar—cold and very lonely—tears ran down my cheeks as I kneeled and prayed to God. Prayer always seemed to help. In fact, that evening when I was taken out of the cell and allowed back with the rest of the lads, many commented on my cheerful disposition despite what I had just been through.
A week or two later, we marched to the town of Cöpenick, a short distance away. There we were made to sit outside on the hard ground. It started to rain. Eventually the boys were called into the house in groups of five at a time. We heard the screams of those who had preceded us and saw them come out bleeding and holding up their trousers. Their belts had been taken away and the top buttons of their trousers had been ripped off so that they would fall down unless held up by hand. As our group went inside, we knew that something dreadful awaited us.
I did not have a belt but instead wore a pair of suspenders. When the sergeant saw them, he snatched them off my trousers and began to whip me about the face with them. At the same time, two other soldiers kicked and hit me. I was bleeding profusely from the mouth and nose. If other soldiers had not pulled me away, I might have been killed.
We were again put in cellars and were allowed out only to go to the latrine once each morning. We were timed, being permitted just two minutes to relieve ourselves. Any who dared stay longer ran the risk of being pushed into the pit of human excrement. One poor soul drowned when he was pushed in.
My Situation Improves
After four days we were loaded onto trucks and taken to a camp in Hohen-Schönhausen. There were about 60 of us between the ages of 13 and 17, as well as about 2,000 adults. Polish prisoners were assigned to dish out the soup, and they saw to it that we younger ones were always served first.
Then, on September 11, 1945, very early in the morning, we began marching to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, about 30 miles [50 km] away. Those who died during the march were thrown onto a horse-drawn cart, as were those who were too weak to walk. In the afternoon it started to rain. Finally, late at night, we reached the gates of one of the side camps, soaked, cold, and exhausted. The next day we were marched into the main camp. Two hundred persons were assigned to each barrack.
Not far from Sachsenhausen, there was a big food-storage depot in a town called Velten. There prisoners loaded wheat and other foodstuffs onto trains going to Russia. After working there for a while, I was picked to work as a delivery boy. My assignment was to take results of medical tests from the Russian camp over to the laboratory some distance away. What a pleasant change!
I shared a room with another delivery boy and a Russian male nurse. Each day we were given fresh sheets and as many blankets as we wanted. Our food was much better, and we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted. So the other delivery boy and I began to explore the grounds of what had been the Sachsenhausen concentration camp used by the Nazis.
On the far side of the camp, we visited the gas chambers and the crematory ovens. I could scarcely believe what the Nazis had done. I was shocked. Although I was not being badly treated personally, hundreds of fellow German prisoners were dying each day in the main camp. Their bodies were thrown onto carts and taken away to mass graves in the forest.
One day we discovered a blackboard listing the various types of prisoners that had been in the concentration camp during Hitler’s time. Among those listed were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Little did I know then that one day I would have the privilege of becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses myself.
Further Severe Treatment
The improved conditions I was enjoying did not last long. An officer stopped me and demanded to know why I had misappropriated some medical supplies. Although I told him I knew nothing about what he was accusing me of, he did not believe me, and I was put in solitary confinement. In the small cell, I received very little food and no blankets, even though it was winter. Then, suddenly, on the 11th day, I was let out.
As I walked back, I was surprised when the young soldier on duty at the gate to the main camp welcomed me warmly. Previously he had been very cold toward me. But now he put his arm around me and in broken German said that his parents had been killed by the Gestapo and that he had been in German concentration camps. He said that he knew I was innocent.
Soon after this, the fittest of us prisoners were told that we would be sent elsewhere to work. On January 30, 1946, we were loaded onto a train with crude upper and lower shelves. There were 40 prisoners in each car, which meant a very tight squeeze on the shelves. It was difficult to sleep at night, for when one person turned over, all had to turn with him.
There were all sorts of rumors about our destination, but all of them proved to be wrong. At the first stop, 500 more prisoners from another camp joined us. From then on we received daily rations of some dry, hard bread plus a salted herring and a little hot soup. Every other day we were given a small cup of tea. In an effort to quench their thirst, most of the men would lick the icy walls of the train cars. When we arrived at the outskirts of Moscow, we showered and were deloused. I think I drank a whole bucket of water that day.
On to Siberia!
On March 6, 1947, we arrived at Prokopyevsk, Siberia. The civilian population of the city was a mixture from many parts of the Soviet Union. Deep snow was everywhere, in some places as high as the fences. The barracks were built halfway into the ground to provide protection from the icy cold of winter. It was during our stay here that a group of us suffered the life-threatening experience that I described at the outset.
The first year in Siberia was a tough one. The camp was hit by a severe outbreak of dysentery. Quite a few died. I also got very sick and at one point despaired of recovering. One advantage for us in the camp was that we received our daily rations of bread, whereas most of the Russians living in Prokopyevsk had to stand for hours in the cold, and then sometimes food supplies ran out before they could get any.
In the autumn of 1949, a commission of judicial officers arrived from Moscow to review our initial statements and determine what was to be done with us. A patriotic young officer, who seemed to hate all Germans, interviewed me. I was grateful not to receive a prison sentence. Those of us who did not receive sentences were transported to Stalinsk, now called Novokuznetsk, where we were assigned to work on the construction of a power station.
Back Home at Last!
Finally, in March 1950, we were sent back to Germany, and on April 28, I was at last reunited with my family. Although it was a great joy to be home, my troubles were not over. Because of my brief connection with the Hitler Youth, the East German Communist authorities treated me as a Nazi sympathizer and provided me only half the normal food and clothing ration. So, after being home for just three weeks, I moved from East Berlin to West Berlin.
However, I had not forgotten my promise that if ever I got back home to Germany, I would find some way to serve God. Often I would stand in front of a church, but I could not bring myself to go inside. I had become disappointed with religion, so I decided that I would just continue praying privately to God, asking that he show me a way that I could serve him.
In time I married Tilly, and we had a son, Bernd. Then, in the spring of 1955, a workmate who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses began to talk to me about God. However, I soon lost contact with him when we suddenly left the country. Earlier I had applied to immigrate to Australia. Our sudden departure was prompted by a telegram that advised us that our application had been accepted and that we should be ready to sail from Bremerhaven in three days.
A New Land, a New Life
We eventually settled in Adelaide. Here a German-speaking Witness called on us late in 1957. We were delighted! Soon we made good progress in our regular Bible study. But to be truthful, after all that Tilly and I had been through, our main concern at first was for freedom from oppression. Now that we had come to sunny Australia, we felt as free as birds and loved it. But we soon found out that even here there are forms of oppression, economic problems, and other pressures of life.
How thankful we were to learn the fundamental reason. “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one,” the Bible says. (1 John 5:19) As a result, there would be problems no matter what country we lived in. We were also delighted to learn the meaning of the prayer I had repeated so often: “Your kingdom come.” We came to understand that God’s Kingdom is a real government, a heavenly one, and that Christ Jesus had been installed as King of that Kingdom in 1914. What a thrill it was to learn that the Kingdom of God had already gone into action—that it had ousted Satan and his demons from the heavens and that soon, during the great tribulation, the earth will be cleansed of all wickedness!—Matthew 6:9, 10; Revelation 12:12.
“That’s it,” I said. I knew now how to keep my promise to God. So on January 30, 1960, I began to fulfill my promise to serve God by being baptized in symbol of my dedication to him, and Tilly joined me in Christian dedication.
Since then, for more than 30 years, we have enjoyed varied blessings in serving God. Bernd now has a family of his own, and he also serves as an elder in the Christian congregation. In 1975 we sold our house so that we would be free to move and serve wherever there was a greater need for Witnesses to preach the good news. Then, in 1984, I accepted the offer to serve as caretaker of the Adelaide Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
How glad my wife and I are that I was able to honor the promise I made to God when I was a long way from home in Siberia over four decades ago. We humbly believe that for us the inspired proverb has proved true many times over: “In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:6)—As told by Gerd Fechner.
[Picture on page 23]
With my wife, Tilly