Motivated by My Family’s Loyalty to God
AS TOLD BY HORST HENSCHEL
“Be glad if you receive this letter, because I have endured to the end. In two hours I will be executed.” Those were the opening words of Father’s last letter to me. On May 10, 1944, he was executed because he refused to serve in Hitler’s army. His loyalty to God, as well as that of my mother and my sister Elfriede, has deeply affected my life.
IN 1932, about the time I was born, Father began reading the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among other things, he saw the hypocrisy of the clergy. As a result, he had no further interest in the churches.
Shortly after World War II began in 1939, Father was drafted into the German army. “According to the Bible, I shouldn’t go,” he told Mother. “This killing is not right.”
“They’ll kill you if you don’t go,” Mother replied. “Then what will happen to your family?” So Father became a soldier.
Later Mother, who until then had not studied the Bible, tried to contact Jehovah’s Witnesses, a very dangerous endeavor at the time. She found Dora, whose husband was in a concentration camp because of his faith. Dora gave her a copy of The Watchtower, but she told Mother pointedly: “Keep in mind that I may be killed if the Gestapo (secret police) find out that I gave this to you.”
Eventually, Mother received more publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses and began to appreciate the Bible truths they contained. In time, Max Ruebsam, from nearby Dresden, began to visit us at our home in Meissen. He studied the Bible with us at great risk to his own safety. In fact, not long afterward he was arrested.
As a result of Mother’s Bible study, she came to have faith in Jehovah and dedicated her life to him, symbolizing this by water baptism in May of 1943. Father and I were baptized a few months later. My 20-year-old sister, Elfriede, who worked in Dresden, was also baptized about the same time. Thus, right in the middle of World War II, all four of us dedicated our lives to Jehovah. In 1943, Mother gave birth to our baby sister, Renate.
Persecuted for Our Faith
Before I was baptized, I withdrew from the Hitler Youth movement. When I refused to give the Hitler greeting, which was required daily at school, I was struck by my teachers. However, I rejoiced to know that strengthened by my parents, I had remained faithful.
But there were times when, either because of physical punishment or out of fear, I would say “Heil Hitler!” I would then go home with my eyes full of tears, and my parents would pray with me that I might take courage and resist the enemy’s attacks the next time. More than once, out of fear I shrank from doing what was right, but Jehovah never abandoned me.
One day the Gestapo came and searched our house. “Are you one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?” a Gestapo agent asked Mother. I can still see her leaning against the doorjamb, saying firmly, “Yes”—although she knew this meant that she would eventually be arrested.
Two weeks later Mother was busy taking care of Renate, who was not yet a year old, when the Gestapo came to arrest her. Mother protested: “I am just feeding my child!” However, the woman that had come with the policeman took the baby from her arms and ordered: “Get ready! You have to leave.” It certainly was not easy for Mother.
Since Father had not yet been arrested, my baby sister and I remained under his care. One morning about two weeks after Mother was taken away, I hugged Father tightly before I left for school. That day Father was arrested because he refused to return to serve in the military. So when I came home that afternoon, he was gone, and I never saw him again.
My grandparents and our other relatives—all of whom were opposed to Jehovah’s Witnesses and some of whom were members of the Nazi party—gained custody of my baby sister and me. They did not allow me to read the Bible. But after secretly obtaining one from a neighbor lady, I would read it. I would also kneel down before my little sister’s bed and pray.
In the meantime, my sister Elfriede had endured tests of her faith. She refused to work any longer in a factory in Dresden that manufactured munitions, but she succeeded in obtaining employment caring for parks and gardens in Meissen. When she went to the office to collect her pay, she would refuse to use the greeting “Heil Hitler!” In time, she was arrested and put in prison.
Tragically, Elfriede came down with diphtheria and scarlet fever and died a few weeks after being imprisoned. She was only 21. In one of her last letters, she quoted Luke 17:10: “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” Her loyalty to God has remained a strengthening aid to me.—Colossians 4:11.
During Father’s imprisonment, my grandfather—my mother’s father—visited him to try to get him to change his mind. Chained hand and foot, Father was led before him. Father firmly turned down the suggestion that he take up military service for the sake of his children. One of the prison guards told Grandfather: “If this man had ten children, he would not act differently.”
Grandfather returned home terribly angry. “This criminal!” he yelled. “This good-for-nothing! How can he desert his own children?” Though Grandfather was upset, I was happy to learn that Father was remaining steadfast.
Eventually, Father was sentenced to death and beheaded. Sometime afterward, I received that last letter from him. Since he didn’t know where Mother was imprisoned, he had written to me. I went up to my bedroom in the attic and read those opening words cited in the introduction of this article. I was sad and I cried, but I was glad to know that he had remained faithful to Jehovah.
Mother had been sent to a prison in southern Germany to await her trial. One day a guard came to her cell, saying in a friendly manner that she should remain seated. But Mother stood up and said: “I know that my husband has been killed.” Later, they sent her his bloodstained clothing, silent testimony to the torture that he had suffered before his death.
On another occasion Mother was called to the prison office and abruptly told: “Your daughter died in prison. How do you want her to be buried?” The announcement was so sudden and unexpected that Mother at first did not know what to say. But her strong faith in Jehovah sustained her.
My relatives generally cared well for my sister and me. They treated us very kindly. In fact, one of them approached my teachers and asked that they be patient with me. So the teachers also became very friendly and would not punish me when I failed to greet them with “Heil Hitler!” But all this kindness was shown for the purpose of turning me from my Bible-based convictions. And, sadly, it had some success.
Only a few months before the war ended in May 1945, I voluntarily attended some services of the Nazi Youth organization. I wrote Mother about this, and she got the impression from my letters that I had abandoned my goal of serving Jehovah. Later, she said that she was more devastated by these letters than by hearing about the deaths of Father and Elfriede.
Soon afterward, the war ended, and Mother returned from prison. With her help I regained my spiritual balance.
Beginning Full-Time Ministry
Late in 1949, four years after World War II ended, a traveling overseer discussed the Bible text at Malachi 3:10: “‘Bring all the tenth parts into the storehouse, that there may come to be food in my house; and test me out, please, in this respect,’ Jehovah of armies has said.” I was moved to fill out an application for the full-time preaching work. Thus, on January 1, 1950, I became a pioneer, as full-time ministers are called. Later, I moved to Spremberg, where there was a greater need for pioneers.
In August of that year, I received an invitation to serve at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses at Magdeburg, in East Germany. However, only two days after my arrival, on August 31, policemen came running onto our property, claiming that criminals were hiding there. Most of the Witnesses were arrested and taken to prison, but I managed to get away and travel to West Berlin, where the Watch Tower Society had an office. There, I related what had happened at Magdeburg. At the same time, I was told that many Witnesses were being arrested throughout East Germany. In fact, I learned that the police were looking for me back at Spremberg!
Arrest and Imprisonment
I was assigned to the pioneer work in East Berlin. A few months later, while serving as a courier to take Bible literature from West Berlin to East Germany, I was arrested and taken to the city of Cottbus, where I was put on trial and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Among other things, I was accused of warmongering. At my trial, I said in my final statement: “How can I, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, be condemned as a warmonger when my father refused to participate in the war because he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and for that was beheaded?” But, of course, those people were not interested in the truth.
At age 19 it was not easy for me to think about being imprisoned for 12 years. Yet, I knew that many others had received similar sentences. At times, the authorities separated the Witnesses from one another; but then we would discuss Bible truths with other inmates, and some became Witnesses.
At other times, we Witnesses were kept in the same cellblock. Then we would concentrate on learning our Bibles better. We learned whole chapters of the Bible by heart and even tried to memorize entire Bible books. We set certain goals for ourselves as to what to do and to learn each day. Sometimes we were so busy that we said to each other, “We have no time,” even though we were spending the entire day in our cells without any kind of work assignment!
Interrogations by the secret police could be grueling. They might go on day and night, accompanied by all kinds of threats. Once, I became terribly tired and discouraged, making it hard for me even to pray. After two or three days, for no reason in particular, I removed from my cell wall a piece of cardboard that had the prison house rules written on it. Turning it over, I saw writing. Holding it up to the little available light, I saw the words: “Fear not those who kill the body,” and “I will keep all who are faithful as the apple of my eye.” These are now part of song number 27 in the songbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
Obviously, another brother in a similar situation had been in this cell, and Jehovah God had strengthened him. I immediately regained spiritual strength and thanked Jehovah for this encouragement. I never want to forget this lesson, for it taught me that though I cannot succeed in my own strength, with the help of Jehovah God, nothing is impossible.
Mother had since moved to West Germany, so she had no contact with me at the time. However, there was Hanna, who had grown up in the same congregation as I had and who was very close to our family. She visited me during all those years I was in prison, and also wrote me encouraging letters and sent me valuable food parcels. I married her when I was released from prison in 1957, after serving 6 years of my 12-year sentence.
As my dear wife, Hanna has faithfully served at my side in our various assignments and has always been most supportive of me. What she has done in my behalf throughout our full-time service together is something for which only Jehovah God is able to repay her.
Hanna and I began our full-time ministry together at the office then maintained by the Watch Tower Society in West Berlin. I was assigned to do construction work there as a carpenter. Later, we began pioneering together in West Berlin.
Willi Pohl, who then had oversight of our work in West Berlin, encouraged me to continue to learn English. “I don’t have time,” I replied. Yet, how happy I am that I obediently kept up my study of English! As a result, in 1962, I was invited to the ten-month course of the 37th class of Gilead School, in Brooklyn, New York. After my return to Germany on December 2, 1962, Hanna and I spent 16 years in the traveling work, visiting congregations all over Germany. Then, in 1978, we were invited to serve at the branch office in Wiesbaden. When branch operations were moved to large new facilities at Selters in the mid-1980’s, we served at that beautiful facility for a number of years.
A Treasured Privilege of Service
In 1989 something totally unexpected occurred—the Berlin Wall fell, and the Witnesses in Eastern European countries began to enjoy freedom of worship. In 1992, Hanna and I were invited to Lviv, in Ukraine, to provide support for the rapidly growing number of Kingdom proclaimers in that area.
The following year, we were asked to go to Russia to help with the organization of the Kingdom work there. At Solnechnoye, a village about 25 miles [40 km] outside St. Petersburg, an office was then set up to care for the preaching work throughout Russia and most of the other republics of the former Soviet Union. When we arrived, construction had already begun on residence buildings as well as on a large office and storage complex.
Our joy was unbounded at the dedication of our new branch facilities on June 21, 1997. A total of 1,492 from 42 countries gathered at Solnechnoye for the special program. The following day a crowd of over 8,400 gathered at St. Petersburg’s Petrovsky Stadium for a review of the dedication program as well as encouraging reports by visitors from other countries.
What marvelous increases we have been enjoying in the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union! In 1946, about 4,800 Kingdom proclaimers were preaching in this territory. Nearly 40 years later, in 1985, the number had increased to 26,905. Today, there are more than 125,000 Kingdom proclaimers in the ten republics of the former Soviet Union being cared for by our branch office here in Solnechnoye, and over 100,000 are preaching in the five other former Soviet republics! How thrilled we were to learn that in the 15 former Soviet republics, more than 600,000 attended the Memorial of Christ’s death last March!
I marvel when I see how grandly Jehovah God has directed the gathering and organizing of his people in these “last days.” (2 Timothy 3:1) As the Bible psalmist says, Jehovah gives his servants insight, instructs them in the way they should go, and gives advice with his eye upon them. (Psalm 32:8) I count it a privilege to belong to Jehovah’s international organization of people!
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With my two sisters, in 1943
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Father was beheaded
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Mother helped me regain spiritual balance
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With my wife, Hanna
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During dedication talk in Kingdom Hall at Russia branch
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Courtyard and windows of the dining room in our new branch in Russia