A Lesson From a Pot of Fat
The horrors of war are some of my earliest memories, particularly those of fleeing for our lives toward the end of World War II, when I was only four. Our family of seven had been living in East Prussia, which was then part of Germany.
I STARED into the eerie darkness, listening to an approaching squadron of Russian bombers. Suddenly, blinding flashes and deafening explosions ignited fuel-storage tanks a few hundred yards away. The train we were on rocked on its rails, and people screamed. But soon the bombers left, and our journey continued.
On another occasion I awoke from a fitful sleep to see a screaming woman trying to get out of the cattle car in which we were riding. Father restrained her and threw her back inside. The woman had fallen asleep near the door, with her baby in her arms. Upon awakening, she discovered that the baby had frozen to death. Men then threw the corpse out into the snow, and overcome with grief, the mother was trying to open the door to jump out to die there with her child.
To combat the bitter cold, a potbellied stove had been placed in the middle of our cattle car. The small supply of wood at one end of the car was used sparingly to cook potatoes. Potatoes also served as our beds, since sleeping on them provided a little insulation from the frozen floorboards of the car.
Why were we fleeing for our lives? How did our family survive for months as fugitives? Let me tell you.
I was born on December 22, 1940—the youngest of five children—in Lyck, East Prussia (now Elk, Poland). Religious persecution had forced my Jewish ancestors to leave Germany in the latter part of the 1700’s. They moved to Russia in one of the great mass migrations of history. Then, in 1917, to escape the anti-Semitic persecution in Russia at the time, my Jewish grandfather migrated to East Prussia from his village near the Volga River.
Grandfather acquired German citizenship, and East Prussia seemed like a safe haven. Those with Jewish first names adopted Aryan names. Thus, my father, Friedrich Salomon, became known as Fritz. Mother, on the other hand, was Prussian. She and Father, who was a musician, were married in 1929.
Life for my parents seemed full of happiness and promise. Grandma Fredericke and Great-grandma Wilhelmine (on Mother’s side) owned a sizable farm, which proved to be a second home for my parents and us children. Music played a large part in our family life. Mother played the drums in Father’s dance band.
In 1939, ominous clouds began to appear on the political horizon. Adolf Hitler’s so-called final solution to the Jewish problem began to trouble my parents. We children were not aware of our Jewish heritage, and we did not learn about it until Mother’s death in 1978—nine years after Father died.
So that no one would suspect that he was Jewish, Father joined the German Army. To begin with, he served in the music corps. However, someone who apparently knew about his background said he was a Jew, and so our whole family was interrogated and photographed. The Nazi experts tried to determine whether or not we had Jewish features. We must have looked Aryan enough for them, so, fortunately, we were not arrested or imprisoned.
When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, fear began to rule our once peaceful region. Mother wanted to move immediately to a safer area, but the family was forcibly restrained from doing so by Nazi officials. Then, as the Russian armies pushed toward East Prussia during the summer of 1944, the Germans determined to evacuate Lyck and the surrounding area. One day in July, we were given just six hours to leave our home.
Mass Exodus in Panic
Mother was in shock. What to take? Where to go? How to travel? Would we ever come back? Each family was strictly limited in what they could take. Mother wisely chose basic items—including a large earthenware jar of beef drippings with pieces of bacon—just enough for us to carry comfortably. Other families chose to take their precious material possessions.
On October 22, 1944, Russian troops entered East Prussia. A writer explained: “It was natural enough that Russian soldiers who had seen their own families slaughtered and their own homes and crops burned should have scores to settle.” The devastation sent shock waves through East Prussia, and the people fled in panic.
By then we were refugees, living farther west in East Prussia. The only escape route now seemed to be by the Baltic Sea, so people fled to the port city of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). There, vessels were commandeered for emergency rescue operations. Our family missed the train that was going to take us to board the German passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff, which sailed from Gdynia, near Danzig, on January 30, 1945. We learned later that Russian torpedoes sank the ship and that some 8,000 passengers perished in the icy waters.
With the escape route by sea closed, we headed west. While on temporary leave from the army, Father joined us for part of the trip by train, as described in the introduction. Soon he had to return to military service, and we continued the long, dangerous trip by ourselves. Mother guarded the pot of fat, rationing out a little at a time. It supplemented whatever food scraps we gleaned along the way, keeping us alive during the long, cold winter. That pot of fat proved to be more valuable than any gold or silver!
Finally, we arrived at the town of Stargard, where German soldiers and the Red Cross had set up a soup kitchen near the railway station. To a very hungry child, that soup seemed heavenly. In time, we reached Hamburg, Germany, hungry and exhausted, but grateful to be alive. We were put on a farm next to the river Elbe, along with Russian and Polish prisoners of war. As the war in Europe came to its end on May 8, 1945, our situation was very precarious.
Life as Refugees
Father had been taken prisoner by the Americans, and he received good treatment from them, especially when they learned that he was a musician. They utilized his musical skills for putting on their Independence Day celebration. Shortly afterward, he managed to escape and make his way to Hamburg, where we had a happy reunion. We settled into a small cottage, and soon both our grandmothers arrived safely and were able to join us.
However, in time, local residents, including our own Lutheran Church, began to resent the many refugees. One evening the minister visited our family. It seemed that he deliberately caused offense by making an insulting remark about our status as refugees. Father, a powerfully built man, was enraged and attacked the preacher. Our mother and grandmothers restrained Father. But then he lifted the clergyman off his feet, carried him to the door, and pushed him outside. From then on he forbade any discussion of religion under his roof.
Soon after this episode, Father obtained work with the German railways and we moved to the outskirts of Hamburg, where we lived in an unused railway car. Later, Father built a modest home for us. But the hatred of refugees continued, and as a young child, I became the target of much physical and emotional abuse by the local children.
Our Family’s Choice of Religion
As a child, I slept in the room with my two grandmothers. Despite Father’s orders, when Father was not around, both of them often talked to me about God, sang hymns, and read their Bibles. My spiritual interest was awakened. So, when I was ten, I began walking about seven miles each way to attend church on Sundays. I must say, though, that I was disappointed when many of the questions I asked were not answered to my satisfaction.
Then, in the summer of 1951, a neatly dressed man knocked on our door and offered Mother a copy of the Watchtower magazine. “The Watchtower gives insight into God’s Kingdom,” he said. My heart leapt, for that is what I desired. Mother politely declined, no doubt because of Father’s opposition to religion. However, I pleaded with her so much that she relented and obtained a copy for me. Some time later, Ernest Hibbing returned and left the book “Let God Be True.”
About this time, Father had an accident at work and broke his leg. This meant he was confined to the house, much to his annoyance. Even though his leg was in a plaster cast, he was able to hobble about. We were puzzled that he kept disappearing during the day, showing up only at mealtimes. This went on for a whole week. I noticed that whenever Father disappeared, my book disappeared also. Then, one mealtime Father said to me: “If that man comes again, I want to see him!”
When Brother Hibbing returned, to our surprise Father slammed the book onto the table and said: “This book is the truth!” Immediately a Bible study was started, and in time other family members joined the study. Brother Hibbing became a trusted mentor and a true friend to me. I was soon expelled from Sunday school for trying to share my newfound beliefs. So I resigned from the Lutheran Church.
In July 1952, I began to share with my dear friend in preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom from house to house. Each Sunday, Brother Hibbing would admonish me to listen carefully to how he presented the message to the householders. After a few weeks, he pointed to a large block of buildings and said: “They are all yours to work by yourself.” In time, I overcame my nervousness and had good success in talking with people and placing Bible literature with them.
Soon, I qualified for baptism in symbol of my dedication to Jehovah. Both Father and I were baptized on March 29, 1953, and later that year Mother was also baptized. Eventually, all our family members were, including my sister Erika; my brothers Heinz, Herbert, and Werner; and our very dear grandmothers, who by then were both well into their 80’s. Then, in January 1959, I became a pioneer, as full-time ministers are called.
Ministry in a New Land
Father had always urged me to leave Germany, and in retrospect I believe that this was due to his ongoing fears about anti-Semitism. I applied to emigrate to Australia, hoping that this would be a stepping-stone to serving as a missionary in Papua New Guinea or on some other Pacific island. My brother Werner and I arrived together in Melbourne, Australia, on July 21, 1959.
Within a few weeks, I met Melva Peters, who was serving as a full-time minister in the Footscray Congregation, and we were married in 1960. We were blessed with two daughters, who also came to love Jehovah God and to dedicate their lives to him. We have tried hard to keep our lives simple and uncluttered so that as a family we could more fully pursue spiritual goals. For many years, until health problems prevented her from continuing, Melva served as a pioneer. Presently I am an elder and a pioneer in the Belconnen Congregation, in the city of Canberra.
From my early childhood experiences, I have learned to be happy and content with Jehovah’s provisions. As illustrated by Mother’s pot of fat, I have come to appreciate that survival depends, not on gold or silver, but on basic material necessities and, more important, on study of God’s Word, the Bible, and application of what it teaches.—Matthew 4:4.
The profound words of Jesus’ mother, Mary, are indeed true: “[Jehovah] has fully satisfied hungry ones with good things and he has sent away empty those who had wealth.” (Luke 1:53) Happily, I can count 47 of my family members who are walking in the way of Bible truth, including seven grandchildren. (3 John 4) With all these, as well as with our many spiritual children and grandchildren, Melva and I look forward to a wonderful future in security under Jehovah’s gentle care and a grand reunion with our other dear loved ones when they are resurrected.—As told by Kurt Hahn.
[Picture on page 21]
Russian troops advancing in East Prussia, in 1944
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My brother Heinz, sister Erika, Mother, brothers Herbert and Werner, and me in front
[Picture on page 24]
With my wife, Melva
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A pot like this, filled with fat, sustained us