“Oh, Jehovah, Keep My Young Girl Faithful!”
I WAS born in 1930 in Alsace, France, into an artistic family. During the evenings, Father, sitting in his lounge chair, would be reading some books about geography or astronomy. My doggy would be sleeping by his feet, and Daddy would be sharing with Mum some highlights from his reading while she was knitting for her family. How much I enjoyed those evenings!
Religion played a big part in our lives. We were staunch Catholics, and people who saw us going to church on Sunday morning would say: “It’s nine o’clock. The Arnolds are going to church.” Every day before going to school, I went to church. But because of the priest’s misbehavior, Mum forbade me to go to church alone. I was six years old at the time.
After having read only three booklets of the Bibelforscher (Bible Students, now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses), my mother started preaching from house to house. Dad was upset about that. He made it a rule that no religious discussion was to be held in front of me. ‘No reading of that stuff!’ But Mother was so enthusiastic about the truth that she decided to do some Bible reading with me. She got a Catholic version of the Bible and read it every morning without commenting on it, to obey Dad.
One day she read Psalm 115:4-8: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of the hands of earthling man. . . . Those making them will become just like them, all those who are trusting in them.” She linked it with the second commandment, which states: “You must not make for yourself a carved image.” (Exodus 20:4-6) I immediately got up and destroyed my personal altar I had in my room.
I would go to school and share with my Catholic classmates my daily Bible reading. It caused quite a disturbance at school. Very often children would follow me in the street calling me a “stinky Jew!” That was in 1937. This situation caused my father to check on what I was learning. He got himself the book Creation, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. He read it and became a Witness himself!
As soon as the German army entered France over the Belgium border, we began to see swastikas on flags on top of churches, even though the French flag still flew over city hall. The French had closed our Kingdom Hall and banned the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we were already working underground when the Germans came. But the effort to crush the Witnesses intensified. Two years later, at age 11, I was baptized.
One month later, September 4, 1941, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the doorbell rang. Dad was due home from work. I jumped up, opened the door, and ran into his arms. A man behind him shouted, “Heil Hitler!” Down on my feet again, I then realized that the man I had embraced was an SS soldier! They sent me off to my room and gave my mother a four-hour cross-examination. As they left, one of them shouted: “You won’t see your husband anymore! You and your child will go the same way!”
Dad had been arrested that morning. He had had his monthly salary in his pocket. The SS closed down the bank account and refused my mother a working card—a necessary document to get a job. Their policy now was: “No means of living for those vermin!”
Persecution at School
During this time the pressures at the college preparatory school I was attending continued to increase. Whenever the teacher came to class, all 58 students had to stand with outstretched arms and say, “Heil Hitler.” When the priest came for religious education, he would come in and say, “Heil Hitler—blessed is the one that cometh in the name of the Lord.” The class would answer, “Heil Hitler—Amen!”
I refused to say, “Heil Hitler,” and word of this came before the school director. A warning letter was written stating: “A student is not submitting to school rules, and if no change occurs in a week’s time, this student will have to leave school.” It mentioned at the bottom that this letter had to be read to the more than 20 classes.
The day arrived when I was called in front of my class to make my decision known. The director gave me five more minutes either to salute or to take my school papers and leave. Those five minutes on the clock seemed an eternity. My legs got weak, my head felt a fullness, my heart was pounding. The heavy silence of the whole class was interrupted by a strident “Heil Hitler,” with the whole class then repeating it three times. I ran to the desk, got my papers, and ran out.
The following Monday, I was allowed to go to another school. The director said I could attend on the condition that I wouldn’t tell anyone why I had been expelled from the other school. My classmates turned on me, calling me a thief, a delinquent child, saying that was why I was sent away. I could not explain the real reason.
I was seated at the back of the class. The girl next to me realized I wasn’t saluting. She thought I was a French resister. I just had to explain to her why I refused to heil Hitler: “According to Acts 4:12, ‘There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is not another name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must get saved.’ Only Christ is our Savior. Since ‘heil’ stands for having salvation by someone, I cannot attribute this salvation to any man, including Hitler.” This girl and her mother started studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and became Witnesses themselves!
During all this time, we continued preaching underground. We went out the first Sunday of every month to a place in the mountains where we got the French edition of The Watchtower to translate it into German. Mum had made a special garter belt with a hidden pocket for me to carry The Watchtower. One day we were stopped by two soldiers and taken to a mountain farm, where we were searched. I got so sick that they had me go lie in the hay, and because of this, they never found The Watchtower. One way or another, Jehovah always seemed to rescue me.
One day I got the call to go to a “psychiatrist.” It proved to be two of the SS. Other Witness children were there too. I was the last one to get called in. The two “doctors” sat behind a table, I sat with a bright light shining in my face, and the cross-examination began. One “doctor” would ask me some geographic or historical questions, but before I could answer, the other came in with questions about the underground work. He would also ask for the names of the other Witnesses. I was on the verge of a breakdown when suddenly a phone call interrupted their interrogation. How wonderfully Jehovah’s help always came!
When my school director learned that I had been explaining our beliefs to one of my classmates, I was arrested, tried in court, and sentenced by the judge to a “penitentiary school.” The judgment noted that ‘she was raised in the teachings of the International Bible Students Association, whose teachings are forbidden by law, and she will become a corrupt character and a danger to others.’ It was a dreadful ordeal for me, now a 12-year-old, in that awe-inspiring courtroom! However, because of the help of a sympathetic friend working in the administration, my sentence was not carried out immediately.
About a month later, our school class was chosen to go to a Hitler Youth training camp for two weeks. I never talked to my mother about that. I did not want her to have to bear any responsibility about my decision not to go there. Before the day of departure came, the school director warned me: “If on Monday you are not at the railroad station or in my office, I will get the police after you!”
So Monday morning I passed the railroad station on my way to school. All my classmates were calling me to go with them, but I was determined to go to the director’s office. I was late getting there, so he assumed I had gone with the others on the train. He was furious when he saw me. He took me into his classroom and made the whole class there suffer for four hours. For example, he would call each child to the front of the class, and rather than handing them their notebook, he would slap them in the face with it. He would point at me and say: “She is responsible!” He tried to get the 45 children, only ten years of age, to turn on me. But at the end of class, they came congratulating me because I had kept refusing to sing military songs.
Later I was appointed to sort paper, cans, and bones. I refused to do that, since the cans were used for military purposes. I was beaten and left unconscious. Later my classmates helped me back on my feet.
When I returned to school, I was surprised to see all the classes standing in the yard around a flagpole, about 800 children. I was put in the middle. A long description of freedom and the outcome for traitors was given, followed by three cries of Sieg heil! (victory and salvation). The national song was sung with me standing stiff and shivering. Jehovah supported me; I kept integrity. Later, upon entering our apartment, I found my clothes lying on the bed and a letter saying: “Simone Arnold is to present herself at the railroad station tomorrow morning.”
On to the Penitentiary School
The following morning Mother and I were at the railroad station. Two ladies took me into custody. On the train Mother repeated her counsel as to my behavior. “Always be polite, kind, and gentle, even when suffering injustice. Never be obstinate. Never talk back or answer insolently. Remember, being steadfast has nothing to do with being stubborn. It is going to be your schooling for future life. It is Jehovah’s will that we undergo trials for our future benefit. You are well prepared for that. You know how to sew, to cook, to wash, and to do gardening. You are a young lady now.”
That evening, in a vineyard outside our hotel, Mother and I knelt on our knees, sang a Kingdom song about the resurrection hope, and had a prayer. In a firm voice, Mum made supplication in my behalf: “Oh, Jehovah, keep my young girl faithful!” For the last time, Mum tucked me into bed and kissed me.
Things went fast the following day when we arrived at the penitentiary house, without giving me a chance to say good-bye to Mum. A girl showed me a bed with a wheat-bran mattress. My shoes were taken away, and we had to walk barefoot until the first of November. The first noon meal was hard to swallow. I was given six pairs of socks to mend; otherwise I couldn’t get any food. For the first time, I started crying. Tears made those socks wet. I cried almost the whole night.
The next morning I got up at 5:30. My bed was bloodstained—my periods had started shortly before this. Trembling, I went to the first teacher I came across, Miss Messinger. She called a girl who showed me how to wash my sheet in cold water. The stone floor was cold, and the pains got stronger. I began to cry again. Then Miss Messinger said with a caustic smirk: “Tell your Jehovah he should wash your sheet!” That was just what I needed to hear. I dried my eyes, and never were they able to get me to shed tears again.
We had to get up at 5:30 each morning to clean the house before breakfast—a bowl of soup at 8:00 a.m. School was held in the home for the 37 children, from 6 to 14 years of age. In the afternoon we did the washing, the sewing, and the gardening, as no men were available to do the hard work. In the winter of 1944/45, with another girl, I had to saw trees up to two feet [60 cm] in diameter using a lumberjack’s saw. The children were forbidden to talk to one another and were not allowed to be alone, not even to go to the toilet. We had a bath twice a year, and we washed our hair once a year. Punishment was food privation or a beating.
I got to clean Miss Messinger’s room. She demanded that I go under the bed every day to clean the springs. I had a little Bible that I had smuggled into the house, and I was able to wedge this into the springs. Thereafter, I was able to read parts of the Bible every day. No wonder I was called the slowest child they ever had!
The Protestant girls went to their church on Sunday, and the three Catholic girls to theirs, but I had to do the cooking for all 37 children. I was so small that I had to stand on a bench and hold the spoon with two hands to stir the soup. For our four teachers, I had to cook meat, bake cakes, and prepare vegetables. On Sunday afternoon, we had to embroider napkins. There was no playtime.
Several months later, with obvious pleasure, Miss Messinger gave me the news that dear Mum had been arrested and was in a concentration camp.
In 1945 the war ground to a halt. The concentration camps collapsed and spilled their tortured contents out over the land, setting thousands wandering about looking for any remnants of family that might still exist.
At least my mother knew where I was, but when she came to get me, I did not recognize her. Little wonder, from what she had been through! When Mum was arrested, she was sent to the same camp where Daddy had been sent, Schirmeck, except she was put in the women’s camp. She refused to mend soldiers’ uniforms and was put in solitary for months in an underground bunker. Next, to contaminate her, she was moved in with women who had syphilis. While being moved to Ravensbrück, she became very weak with a cough. At that time the Germans fled, and the prisoners en route to Ravensbrück were suddenly free, my mother among them. She headed for Constance, where I was, but an air raid blast had left her face cut and bleeding.
When I was ushered into her presence, she was so changed—emaciated from hunger, obviously sick, her face bruised and bloody, her voice scarcely audible. I had been trained to bow down in front of visitors and show them all my work—the embroideries, the sewing—because some ladies came to the home to get a maid. And that is the way I treated poor Mum! Only when she took me to a judge to get the legal right to take me home did the realization dawn on me that this was my mother! All at once the tears I had kept inside of me for the past 22 months burst out.
As we left, the statement of the director, Miss Lederle, was like soothing oil to Mum. She said: “I give your girl back to you in the same mental attitude she came.” My integrity was still intact. We found our apartment and started to settle in. The only thing that still saddened us was that Dad was missing. He was listed as dead by the Red Cross.
In the middle of May 1945, there was a knock at the door. Again I ran to open it. A friend, Maria Koehl, was at the door, and she said: “Simone, I’m not alone. Your father is downstairs.” Dad could hardly make it up the steps, and he had lost his hearing. He passed right by me and went straight to Mum! The spontaneous little 11-year-old girl he had once known had grown to be a shy young teenager during those long months. This new girl he did not even recognize.
What he had been through had taken its toll. First to Schirmeck, a special camp, then to Dachau, where he contracted typhus and for 14 days thereafter was unconscious from it. He was later used in medical experiments. From Dachau he was sent to Mauthausen, an extermination camp worse than Dachau, where he suffered hard labor and beatings and was set upon by police dogs. But he had survived and was finally here at home once more.
When I became 17, I went into the full-time service as a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses and then to Gilead in the United States, the Watch Tower Society’s school for missionaries. At the Society’s world headquarters, I met Max Liebster, a German Jew who had become a Witness in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. We married in 1956, and with the help of our God, Jehovah, we have kept on until now in full-time service as special pioneer ministers here in France.
How true were the words Mum had spoken in her prayer for me those many years ago, the evening before she left me at the penitentiary house: “I make supplication to you, oh, Jehovah, keep my young girl faithful!”
And down to this day, Jehovah has done just that!—As told by Simone Arnold Liebster.
[Picture on page 18]
Simone Arnold Liebster and her husband, Max Liebster