“The Nazis Couldn’t Stop Us!”
IT WAS the home of a complete stranger. I knocked at the door and stood there shaking in my shoes, hoping that nobody was at home. I was young—just 21 years old—and this was my first time out in the door-to-door preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was November 1934, and here in Germany, Hitler had strictly banned all such preaching. When the minister who led our little meetings had brought up plans to go out evangelizing, I thought, “He couldn’t mean me!” After all, I was not even baptized yet, and I knew only one scripture. But I was wrong—he did mean me, and here I was.
Nobody home! I felt relieved. At the next door, again nobody answered, but I could hear noise inside, so I opened the door. A woman was washing some pots, and she looked startled to see me. Nervously I began to explain my one scripture, Matthew 24:14. She simply stared at me. (I learned later that she was deaf.) Suddenly a man appeared at my side. Assuming it was her husband, I continued to witness, only to find a gun pressed against my ribs. He was a Nazi leader! My companion, who was preaching across the street, had called at this man’s door and had been kicked down the stairs for it. Thinking he had put an end to that brother’s witnessing for the day, the Nazi then spotted me and came to arrest me. While my companion simply dusted himself off and went on preaching, I ended up in prison for four months. So began my preaching career!
To the Concentration Camp!
After my release, the brothers trusted me to help out with the underground witnessing. The Nazis followed my every move, though, and it was not long before I was arrested again. The local police took me to the Gestapo, and my heart froze when I heard the verdict, “To the concentration camp!” I was to go to Esterwegen. About 120 of us Witnesses (Bibelforscher) were there, and the SS guards were determined to break our integrity.
There was one sergeant, whom we nicknamed “Iron Gustav,” who was determined to make us compromise. One day he forced us all to do strenuous physical exercises under the hot August sun—without interruption, all day long. By the end of the day, half of the brothers had collapsed or were very ill in the infirmary. Sadly, the overseer of one congregation weakened and signed the “compromise paper,” and 12 others from his congregation joined him in signing.
Elated that his torture seemed to be working, “Iron Gustav” now promised: “Tomorrow every one of you will be happy to sign this letter, and no Jehovah will help you.” Well, you can imagine that we prayed earnestly that night. The next morning we waited for “Iron Gustav” to show up. And we waited. Finally we were told to return to our barracks. Still no Gustav! Eventually we found out what had happened. On his way into the camp that morning, “Iron Gustav” learned the hard way that he was made of something less than iron. He had driven his motorcycle smack into one of the brick pillars flanking the camp entrance—an entrance well over 30 feet [9 m] wide! He had been rushed to the hospital with a split forehead and a broken arm. When we finally saw him again after two months, he shouted at us: “Your Jehovah did this to me!” None of us doubted him for a moment.
On to Holland
In December 1935, I was released and was told to join the German army. Instead, I decided to make my way to Spain via Holland and continue my witnessing there. Once I managed to get into Holland, I sought out the Witnesses, and they urged me to stay in Holland. What a pleasure to preach freely again and be with my brothers and sisters at Christian meetings! We bicycled though the Dutch countryside, preaching in the daytime and sleeping in tents at night. On an average, we preached from 200 to 220 hours a month.
Money to buy food and pay for other expenses was in short supply. I vividly remember one farmer who, when he saw how we prepared our meager meals at night, invited us to dinner. A table laden with the most delicious food awaited us! From then on, this loving family took care of our basic needs for butter, eggs, cheese, and bread, and they even helped with our laundry. The whole family became Witnesses. They were a vital contact during the work that lay ahead.
A convention was held in Bern, Switzerland, in 1936. Joseph F. Rutherford, the president of the Watch Tower Society at that time, spoke there. It was then, after all the time I had spent as a full-time evangelizer, that I finally got baptized!
I was assigned to the region of The Hague. Many families embraced the truth of God’s Word there. I still keep in touch with some to this day. In 1939 the Dutch police arrested me—as a Nazi spy, of all things! I continued my witnessing as best I could by letters from prison, well aware that the judge read all my outgoing mail. After five months, the last two of these in solitary confinement, I was released. Only a few days after I returned to my home in The Hague, the German Luftwaffe began bombing the region! I knew that the Gestapo would not be far behind the invading soldiers. It was time for me to go back underground.
But how would I get around without being spotted? A brother who ran a bicycle shop fixed up a special bicycle for me. It was just like the ones that the secret police used—the same special color, with high handlebars and clips that could hold a saber. The secret police would even greet me, thinking I was one of them! One day, though, as I was pedaling along a bicycle path shielded from the roadway by a hedge, two policemen pedaling along the opposite side of the road spotted me through a break in the hedge, and they recognized me as a fugitive. I pedaled faster than I ever had in my life! They had to get to an overpass before they could turn around and follow me, and though they put up a hard pursuit, I finally lost them.
Many Narrow Escapes
Now the police knew of my presence in The Hague. I began to sleep in different homes for safety’s sake. On one occasion I slept in the home of a family with three children. As usual, I laid out my clothes so that I could dress fast in case of a raid. I also had two of the children sleep together so that I could move one child to my empty bed when I left. That way, the Nazis would not find a warm, empty bed.
At five o’clock that morning, these measures came in handy. There was a heavy, persistent pounding at the door. I barely had time to put the nine-year-old boy in my bed, stuff my clothes into my briefcase, put on my hat and overcoat, and jump barefoot out the back window into the snow. Happily, they had not thought of stationing a guard in the backyard. I ran to the house of a family with whom I studied the Bible. Even though it was 5:30 a.m. and the dark of winter, this man let me in without a word and hid me. All three in his family later became Witnesses.
When the Gestapo questioned the family I had just left, they focused on the young boy. They even offered him money if he would tell them if an “uncle” had been visiting recently. He told them: “Yes, that was a long time ago.” How long? He didn’t know. They left, frustrated. Later, the boy’s mother asked him why he had answered that way, since he knew that “Uncle Tom” (my underground name) had just spent the night. He answered: “Twenty-four hours is a long time, with very many minutes.” And so it is!
My next assignment was in Groningen. Fear had overcome some of the Witnesses in that city, and the preaching work had virtually ceased. But soon the brothers became quite fearless again, defying the brutal Dutch Gestapo. One night in 1942, we even took part in a “raid,” distributing thousands of Bible tracts throughout the city during a predetermined ten-minute period. The newspapers all reported that the British Royal Air Force had distributed millions of pamphlets for Jehovah’s Witnesses! We had let the Gestapo know that we were alive and well. The Nazis couldn’t stop us—ever!
The war dragged on, and it became more and more dangerous to walk the streets. One night as a brother and I were leaving a secret meeting in Hilversum, someone bumped into me from the rear, and an object clattered to the ground at my feet. I picked it up and saw with horror that it was a German soldier’s helmet! Its owner was standing by his bicycle and now beamed his flashlight on me. I walked over to him; he snatched the helmet from my hands, pulled his revolver, and shouted: “You’re under arrest!”
I was trembling. If he arrested me, it would probably be the end of me. I prayed to God for help. Hearing the commotion, a crowd formed. When I noticed that the soldier was swaying slightly, it dawned on me that he was drunk. Then I remembered that German military rules allowed officers to walk about in civilian clothes. So I stepped up to the soldier and shouted with all the authority I could muster: “Don’t you know who I am?” The soldier was stunned. He clapped on his helmet and saluted me! Convinced that he had insulted an officer, he sheepishly slunk off into the night. The bystanders scattered. I could only thank Jehovah for another narrow escape!
Life Underground in Belgium
My next assignment was in another country: Belgium. I became the presiding minister in Antwerp. Because of the ban, I conducted many small meetings in different homes each week. I was also a courier, another link in the wonderful chain that kept the spiritual food coming during those hard years.
Our rendezvous for smuggling literature across the border from Holland was a restaurant. The building itself was in Belgium, but the garden was in Holland, so it was an ideal place to meet my contact and trade briefcases with him. The owner assumed we were British Intelligence agents and cooperated with us. He even told the police officer in charge to leave us alone. But one day a new patrolman was on duty, a Nazi-minded Belgian who knew nothing about me. When he saw me with a big leather case, he insisted that I open it up for him. I refused; after all, it was filled with three or four hundred Watchtower magazines. So he arrested me and escorted me to the police station. The officer in charge there told the patrolman to leave while he took care of me. Then he quietly told me: “I don’t want to see the contents of the case. Just please come with smaller cases the next time.” Again I could only thank Jehovah!
After D day (June 6, 1944) arrived and Allied forces began their invasion of Belgium, the war swept right into Antwerp. Witnessing and attending meetings became a real challenge as gunfire and shells from both sides tore through the city. When the war was nearly over, the branch servant mistakenly thought it was no longer necessary for me to remain underground. I obeyed, against the advice of a friendly police captain who thought it was still too soon to declare myself. Eleven months later I emerged from the most gruesome experience of my life. The authorities wouldn’t believe my story. Convinced I was a Gestapo agent, they imprisoned me in the most inhuman conditions I had yet seen. Many men younger than I became ill and died in those months. After I was finally released, I suffered a complete physical breakdown.
Faithful Service Continues
After more heartbreaking delays, interrogations, and imprisonments, I was at last able to return to Germany—ten years to the day since I had left! I was reunited with my mother, a faithful Witness, and we had many experiences to share. As I slowly regained my health, I began to witness full-time again, now in Schweinfurt. And what a pleasure it was to help prepare for our first postwar convention, which we held in Nuremberg right where Hitler had proudly paraded his troops! I was later thrilled to be accepted to the Watchtower School of Gilead in the United States, where I would be trained as a missionary.
At a gathering shortly before I left for Gilead, I met Lillian Gobitas, who had played a key part in the struggle for religious freedom on the flag-salute issue in the United States. She told me that she enjoyed the solos I sang at the gathering, and I simply smiled because I couldn’t understand her. I kept smiling, and she kept talking. We ended up getting married! That was after both of us had graduated from Gilead, of course, and were working as missionaries in Austria.
In time, my health problems forced us to return to the United States. Since then we have had two lovely children, a son and a daughter. We have been delighted to see them both embrace the truth. As my health improved, I helped out in congregations in the United States and Canada. The work never stops, and we try to keep up with it. I still look back on those years of underground work with fondness. The Nazis couldn’t stop us, because Jehovah was with us. Clearly, he still blesses the work, and nothing will stop it until it is done to his satisfaction!—As told by Erwin Klose.
[Picture on page 18]