How People Can Live Together in Peace
IT WAS September 1944, and the world was filled with hate. World War II was raging, and millions were suffering terribly. I was a German prisoner of war in France.
Once I was put before a firing squad. But after a time the would-be executioners began to walk away. They were only bluffing. I was in a state of shock, yet grateful to be alive. A few weeks later, I was put through the same procedure. Although I survived, scores of fellow prisoners were executed or died of disease and starvation. How did I come to be in these situations?
A few months earlier, in June 1944, Allied troops had crossed the English Channel and successfully established a beachhead on the French coast. Their subsequent breakout and invasion of northern France forced the German Army to retreat. I was a sergeant major in the German Air Force. In August part of our company, including me and 16 others, were captured by the French underground, known as Maquis. After a few months in one prisoner-of-war camp, we were transferred to another near Montluçon in southern France.
Prisoners were forced to do physical labor, but as an officer I was exempted. However, I volunteered to work and was put in charge of the kitchen. One day a new group of prisoners arrived, and among them was a youngster named Willy Huppertz from my hometown. I asked the officer in charge if Willy could help me in the kitchen, and that arrangement was made.
Later, Willy and I came to enjoy the kind of friendship that can bind all people together in peace. Before explaining how I came to learn about this way to peace, let me tell about inconsistencies in life that bothered me.
Why So Much Disunity and Hate?
As a lad growing up in Aachen, Germany, I was disturbed by the religious disunity, which existed even in my own home. Father was a Lutheran, but Mother was a Roman Catholic. So Mother saw to it that my sister and I were educated in the Catholic faith. From my early years, I regularly attended the Catholic Church, although I could never understand why Father followed a different faith. As time went by, I often wondered, ‘Why are there so many religions if there is only one God?’
When World War II began in 1939, I was drafted into the German Air Force. After preliminary training in Germany, I was sent to Vienna, Austria, where I joined a training corps for new recruits. Then, in December 1941, I was sent to northern Holland (now the Netherlands). There I met Jantina, a young woman from Den Helder. Despite the fact that our countries were enemies at war, we fell in love.
Shortly, in April 1942, I was suddenly transferred to La Rochelle in southern France. By then I held the rank of sergeant major, and our battalion was responsible for training new recruits and protecting the local airstrip. As a result, I never saw combat at any time during the war. For this I am grateful, since I never wanted to kill anyone.
What disturbed me during those war years, though, was seeing clergymen of practically all denominations—Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and so forth—blessing the aircraft and their crews before they took off on missions to drop their deadly cargo. I often thought, ‘Whose side is God on?’ Yet, I never actually asked the chaplains, since I felt sure they didn’t know anyway.
German soldiers wore a belt with a buckle (see top left on page 12) on which was inscribed Gott mit uns (God is with us), but I wondered, ‘Why wouldn’t God be with soldiers on the other side who were of the same religion and who were praying to the same God?’
The years passed, and the war dragged on. Occasionally I was able to get over to Holland to see Jantina, the last time being in December 1943, when we became engaged. By 1944 the tide of battle began to turn, and with the landing of Allied troops in France, for the first time the possibility that Germany would lose the war dawned on us. The thought was quite a shock! Then came that August when 17 of us were captured.
Eventually we prisoners in the camp near Montluçon were permitted to correspond with loved ones. Thus Jantina and I regained contact. In time, along with several other prisoners, I volunteered to work on a collective farm where we were still regarded as prisoners of war. I even found that life on the farm began to appeal to me. It was quite a change in life-style for a city boy.
The war in Europe came to an end in May 1945, but the French government held us as prisoners of war until December 1947. We were then given the choice of joining the French Foreign Legion or staying on in France as voluntary workers until the end of 1948. I chose the latter, becoming a farmhand on a collective farm along with several other prisoners. Under this arrangement, we enjoyed more freedom than when working on the farm as prisoners of war. However, we were still confined and under restrictions. So our greatest joy was in receiving mail from loved ones.
Reunion With Jantina
One day in 1947, I received a letter from Jantina in which she inadvertently included a small printed slip listing several house numbers and a record of books and magazines. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘Jantina is making some money selling books.’ Little did I know that she had been contacted by Jehovah’s Witnesses and was now active in preaching from house to house and distributing Bible literature, not ‘selling books.’
Shortly afterward, in December 1947, we prisoners received a pleasant surprise—we were given four weeks’ compassionate leave to visit our homes. Of course, this was granted on the condition that we return to France to fulfill our work commitment. Jantina traveled from Holland to Germany to spend those weeks with my parents and me. As you can imagine, after more than four years of separation, this was a very emotional reunion for us. It was then that I learned the meaning of the printed slip I had found in her letter. Jantina told me that she was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and eagerly explained to me the wonderful things she had learned.
Although I could sense the ring of truth in what she was saying, I told her that I was happy to remain a Catholic. I did not see how she could know more than the priests who had studied religion for many years. And to make things more difficult, my family did not take kindly to Jantina’s new beliefs. In fact, they were very opposed, and their prejudice influenced me.
A Turning Point in My Life
When my four weeks’ leave was over, I returned to France. Upon unpacking my clothes, I found a book called Deliverance in among them. Jantina had placed it there when she packed my suitcase. To please her I sat down that night and began reading it. It was not long before I found, to my amazement, that many of the questions I had been thinking about during my imprisonment were being answered. I could hardly wait to read the entire book.
A scripture Jantina had quoted to me came to mind: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Indeed, I felt I was beginning to learn the truth about many things. All people are one family, regardless of race. (Acts 17:26-28) True Christians love one another and don’t fight and kill anyone as I had seen so many professed Christians do. (John 13:34, 35; 1 John 3:10-12) Clearly, then, nationalism is an instrument of the Devil that divides people and prevents true brotherhood.
I began to see that true peace would come only when all people apply the teachings of Jesus Christ. Since the nations will never do this, the only hope for peace is through the government of God, for which Jesus taught his followers to pray. (Matthew 6:9, 10) Already I began to experience a feeling of real freedom and contentment from learning such things. How grateful I was to my dear Jantina for putting the book in my suitcase! But what would I do now?
Making Spiritual Progress
Well, I needn’t have worried. A few days later, a man named Lucien came to the farm where I was working and introduced himself as a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He explained that he had been directed by the Witnesses’ branch office in Paris to contact me at the request of my fiancée. Lucien was a kind, genuine man, and I felt at ease with him immediately. Fortunately, by now I spoke French fluently, and this made things a lot easier.
I agreed to have a Bible study with him, and so each Sunday Lucien and his wife, Simone, would pick me up at the farm and take me to their home for the study. Afterward we would go for walks, during which we would talk about Jehovah’s wonderful creation. They were both good teachers, and they also gave me something that I had missed for so long—real friendship. And this provided by a French couple—people I had trained men to bomb and kill!
I made good progress in my studies, and Lucien invited me to attend the annual Memorial celebration of Christ’s death on March 25, 1948. I was very impressed with this simple yet serious meeting and have not missed a Memorial since.
Jantina was delighted with my spiritual progress, and so she joined me in France. There we were married in November 1948. Lucien and Simone provided a beautiful wedding meal for us, and two pioneers (full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses) shared this happy occasion with us. That unforgettable evening reinforced my conclusion that the Witnesses do indeed demonstrate the kind of love that Jesus said would identify his true disciples.—John 13:35.
To Germany, Then to a New Land
In December 1948, we returned to Germany, and the Christian ministry became our way of life. Although my family continued to oppose our activity, we did not let that stop us. We kept on helping meek, humble ones to learn the only way humankind can enjoy true peace and security.
In 1955, Jantina and I migrated to Australia. We initially settled in the pretty island state of Tasmania, across Bass Strait from the southern tip of the vast mainland. With the loving assistance and patience of our spiritual brothers and sisters there, eventually we were able to add English to the languages we knew.
In 1969, after spending 13 years in Tasmania, we moved to the northern state of Queensland, where we have lived ever since. I currently serve as a Christian elder in the local congregation and cherish Jantina’s company as we serve Jehovah together. Whenever we returned to Germany on vacation, we would look up Willy Huppertz and study the Bible with him. Eventually he too dedicated his life to serve Jehovah, and we have come to enjoy the kind of friendship that can bind all people together in peace.
When I look back over my life since those years as a prisoner of war in France, I am indeed grateful that I was able to come to know our loving Creator, Jehovah God. How happy I now am that Jantina took the initiative to put that Deliverance book in my suitcase and then wrote to the Witnesses in France to arrange for me to be contacted! As a result, my life personally and our life together as husband and wife have been enriched and rewarded in many ways.—As told by Hans Lang.
[Picture on page 15]
With Jantina today