Keeping Integrity in Nazi Germany
ON A cold April day in 1939, I was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Along with other new prisoners, I appeared before the camp commander, a vicious man nicknamed Foursquare because of his husky build. In his “welcoming speech,” he berated us, describing the cruel torment we could expect.
“You can get anything you want from me,” he shouted, “a shot in the head, a shot in the chest, a shot in the stomach!” And he warned: “My boys are good shots. They will send you straight to heaven! The only way you’ll leave here is as a corpse.”
Afterward I was sent to Isolation, a fenced-in section within the camp. This was where Jehovah’s Witnesses were kept, along with other prisoners who were considered dangerous. When I was brought there, a young SS (Hitler’s Blackshirts/Elite Guard) man slapped me repeatedly in the face because I had refused to sign a statement repudiating my faith.
Otto Kamien from Herne befriended me, helping me sew onto my uniform my prisoner number and the purple triangle, which served to identify Jehovah’s Witnesses in the camp. He also showed me how to make my bed—prisoners were beaten or even killed for not having made their beds properly.
Otto cautioned: “From time to time, they will ask whether you are still one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Be firm, be steadfast, and say loud and clear: ‘I am still one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.’” He added: “If you are firm and steadfast, the Devil will leave you alone.” (James 4:7) Otto’s encouragement helped me keep integrity to God during the next six years I spent in three concentration camps.
When I think back on those trying years, I recognize, today more than ever, that it was only with God’s help that I kept integrity. How did it come about that on January 20, 1938, I was first arrested?
My Early Years
Some years before I was born in 1911, my parents, who lived in Königsberg, East Prussia, became Bibelförscher (Bible Students), as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. I had three brothers and two sisters, and Mother often took us to meetings. Sadly, after a while Father no longer joined the family in true worship. Although my brothers and one of my sisters became zealous Kingdom proclaimers, in time my sister Lisbeth and I ceased paying much attention to the Bible truths we had learned.
When I was in my early 20’s, Hitler came to power in Germany, and people were put under intense pressure. I worked as an auto mechanic at a large repair plant in Königsberg. When the Führer gave talks on special occasions, all in the plant had to assemble. It also became common to use the greeting “Heil Hitler!” Eventually I was ordered to take part in premilitary training, so I had to face the question, Whose side am I on?
From Acts 4:12, I knew that heil, or salvation, did not come from Hitler but only through Jesus Christ. So I could not say “Heil Hitler,” and I never did. Also, I ignored the order to participate in premilitary training.
During 1936 and 1937, my mother, my younger sister Helene, and my brothers, Hans and Ernst, were all arrested. From then on I also wanted to take my stand for the true God. I began to read the Bible in the evenings, and I prayed to Jehovah to help me. Lisbeth also began taking more interest.
Taking My Stand
When the time came, I took a clear stand for Jehovah and refused to serve in Hitler’s army, even though I was not yet baptized. I was arrested and handed over to the military. Five weeks later a military court in Rastenburg sentenced me to a year in prison.
I was thrown into solitary confinement at the Central Prison in Stuhm, West Prussia. During my exercise period in the prison yard, I found solace in exchanging glances with faithful Witnesses from Königsberg whom I had known from childhood. Then my brothers—Paul, Hans, and Ernst—were all put in this same prison because of their faith in God. While I was in solitary, Hans at times managed to smuggle a piece of bread to me.
Upon completion of my prison term, I was repeatedly examined by the Gestapo in Königsberg. Since I refused to change my mind, I was taken to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. There I was assigned construction work on a garage, laboring from six in the morning until six in the evening. Because of the severe mistreatment, some prisoners tried to escape, knowing that, if caught, they would be shot. I once saw a prisoner commit suicide by throwing himself against the electric fence.
The Pressure Intensifies
In September 1939, World War II broke out, and the pressure upon us in Sachsenhausen intensified. Our work load increased, and we were deprived of our warm wool clothing. On September 15 the Nazis were to make an example of our Christian brother August Dickmann, who had refused military service. So a special assembly was arranged for his execution.
Several hundred of us fellow Witnesses were eyewitnesses as the firing squad shot and August fell dead. Afterward all prisoners were dismissed except Jehovah’s Witnesses. Foursquare then asked who was ready to sign the statement rejecting one’s faith and indicating willingness to become a soldier. Not one signed, and Foursquare was furious.
The winter of 1939 was severe. We were poorly clothed and were underfed, so death took its toll. Many of our older brothers perished, but overall the percentage of deaths among us Witnesses was small compared with other prisoner groups. Even robust Foursquare took to his sickbed and died in February 1940.
To Another Camp
A few days after Foursquare’s death, 70 of us were transferred to the small camp of Wewelsburg near Paderborn. We had hoped conditions would be better there, but just the opposite was true. We had less food and harder work in a quarry. Some days we were drenched to the skin by snow and rain. During this especially hard time, I would pull the blanket over my head at night and empty my heart with weeping before Jehovah. Each time I did, I felt an inner calm and peace of mind, thus receiving from God “help at the right time.”—Hebrews 4:16.
Jehovah took care of our spiritual health. Witnesses from the Buchenwald concentration camp were sent to Wewelsburg, bringing with them spiritual food in the form of Bible literature. In small groups we went to the dormitory, where we joined them in a secret Watchtower Study. Even the physical food in the camp got slightly better.
I thanked Jehovah for his kindness when a fellow Witness saw to it that I got to work with him in a blacksmith shop. In the workshops, where mainly Witnesses worked, prisoners received better food rations. Furthermore, it was warm, and there was no oppressive driving of the workers. Physically I benefited so much that within six months I was again robust, although earlier I had been reduced to skin and bones.
Word About My Brothers
While in Wewelsburg, I received word from my sister Lisbeth that our brother Ernst had kept his integrity to Jehovah to the death. He had been beheaded in Berlin on June 6, 1941, after four years’ imprisonment. When other Witnesses heard the news, they came by and congratulated me. Their positive attitude touched me deeply. Remaining loyal meant more to us than survival.
Two years later, on February 1, 1943, my brother Hans was shot in Quednau near Königsberg. Hans was 34 and had been imprisoned for five years. Later, an eyewitness to his execution told me that the officer asked Hans if he had a last wish. Hans requested permission to say a prayer, which was granted. The prayer made such an impression on the soldiers that when the officer finally gave the order to fire, not one of them obeyed. He repeated the order, whereupon one shot was fired, hitting Hans in the body. The officer then drew his own pistol and personally finished him off.
Further Examples of Integrity
Of the Witnesses transferred from Buchenwald to Wewelsburg, 27 were chosen for military service and sent to serve in various units. Each refused to be inducted; only one accepted noncombatant service. The 26 were threatened with execution, all to no avail. After they returned to the Wewelsburg camp, the commander threatened: “You will be pushing up daisies within four weeks.”
These loyal brothers were then given particularly severe treatment. The SS thought of all manner of ways to oppress, exhaust, and torment them to death. Yet, all 26 survived! Later, the same treatment was accorded to some non-Witnesses, and among them the death rate was high even after a short period of time.
My Integrity-Keeping Sisters
In April 1943, I was transferred to the Ravensbrück camp. It was principally for women but had a small section for men. I was put to work in the auto repair shop, directly in front of the women’s camp. Christian sisters passing by soon noticed my purple triangle. What a joy it was to exchange a concealed greeting or a warm smile! Soon word spread that I was the son of Grandma Rehwald. Yes, my mother was among those in the women’s camp, along with my sister Helene and my sister-in-law, wife of my late brother Hans!
Our Christian sisters were able to provide me with underwear and an occasional piece of bread. They once maneuvered matters so that I could secretly speak with my dear mother. Had our meeting been discovered, it would have meant big trouble for us. What a joyful reunion! Some months later, shortly before the camp was liberated, my mother died. She had kept integrity to death.
Liberated At Last!
In April 1945 the Russians and the Americans were getting closer to Ravensbrück. I was entrusted with a tractor and trailer to help evacuate the camp. After an adventurous trip, the SS officer in charge told us that the Americans were close by and that we were all free to do as we pleased.
We finally got to Schwerin, Mecklenburg state, where we met a number of Witnesses who had been in the Sachsenhausen camp, among them my brother Paul. He had survived the death marches from Sachsenhausen, as well as other exertions. Some days later we caught a train to Berlin and located a family of Witnesses who hospitably took us in.
This family did much to help brothers and sisters who were liberated from the camps and prisons. In 1946, I married Elli, a daughter of that family. Finally, arrangements were made for me to be baptized, something that had not been possible in the concentration camps.
What a thrill it has been over the years at conventions to meet brothers with whom I had been in concentration camps! Some had risked their lives for their brothers, and these were especially dear to me. The six members of our family who were arrested—my mother, my sister Helene, and I, plus my brothers, Paul, Hans, and Ernst—spent a total of 43 years in confinement. And my sister Lisbeth also kept her integrity to God until her death in 1945.
Dependent on Jehovah’s Strength
After getting married, Elli and I were privileged to serve for a number of years at the Magdeburg Bethel and in the pioneer work until we began raising our two sons. We are very thankful that one of these, Hans-Joachim, is serving as an elder and his wife as a pioneer. Unfortunately, our other son has not held to the Christian course in which we directed him.
Over 45 years have flown by since my concentration camp experiences. But even now, the God of all undeserved kindness himself has not finished my training. (1 Peter 5:10) I have often been reminded of the apostle Paul’s words at 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Let him that thinks he is standing beware that he does not fall.”
Today, at age 81, I am thankful that I can still share in the witness work and serve as a congregation elder. And I am grateful that I have been able to help a number of people to come to the point of dedication and baptism. This too I view as an expression of Jehovah’s undeserved kindness.—As told by Josef Rehwald.
[Picture on page 20]
Josef Rehwald in 1945
[Picture on page 21]
Rehwald family, about 1914. Mother with little Josef on her lap
[Picture on page 23]
Josef and Elli Rehwald at the 1991 Berlin convention, with son Hans-Joachim and his wife, Ursula