Sustained by Confidence in God
AS TOLD BY RACHEL SACKSIONI-LEVEE
WHEN A GUARD REPEATEDLY HIT ME IN THE FACE BECAUSE I REFUSED TO WORK ON PARTS FOR NAZI BOMBERS, ANOTHER GUARD SAID TO HER: “YOU MIGHT AS WELL STOP. THOSE ‘BIBELFORSCHER’ WILL LET THEMSELVES BE BEATEN TO DEATH FOR THEIR GOD.”
THIS occurred in December 1944 in Beendorff, a woman’s labor camp close to the salt mines in northern Germany. Let me explain how I came to be there and how I was able to survive during the closing months of World War II.
I was born into a Jewish family in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, in 1908, the second of three girls. My father was a diamond polisher, as were many Jews in Amsterdam before World War II. He died when I was 12, and afterward Grandfather came to live with us. Grandfather was a devout Jew, and he saw to it that we were brought up in accordance with Jewish traditions.
Following in Father’s footsteps, I learned the diamond cutting trade, and in 1930, I married a colleague. We had two children—Silvain, a lively and adventurous boy, and Carry, who was a sweet, placid little girl. Unfortunately, our marriage did not last long. In 1938, shortly after the divorce, I married Louis Sacksioni, who was also a diamond polisher. In February 1940, our daughter, Johanna, was born.
Although Louis was Jewish, he did not practice his religion. So we no longer celebrated the Jewish festivals that I had found so fascinating as a child. I certainly missed that, but in my heart I continued to believe in God.
A Change of Religion
Early in 1940, the year the Germans began their occupation of the Netherlands, a woman called at our door and talked with me about the Bible. I did not understand much of what she said, but I accepted literature from her whenever she came by. However, I didn’t read what she left because I didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus. I had been taught that he was an apostate Jew.
Then one day a man came to my door. I asked him questions such as “Why didn’t God create other people after Adam and Eve sinned? Why is there so much misery? Why do people hate one another and wage war?” He assured me that if I had patience, he would answer my questions from the Bible. So a home Bible study was arranged.
Still, I resisted the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. But then, after praying about the matter, I began to read Messianic prophecies in the Bible, seeing them through different eyes. (Psalm 22:7, 8, 18; Isaiah 53:1-12) Jehovah enabled me to see that those prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus. My husband was not interested in what I was learning, but he didn’t interfere with my becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Hiding—Yet Still Preaching
The German occupation of the Netherlands was a dangerous time for me. For not only was I a Jew, whom Germans were putting into concentration camps, but I was also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious organization that the Nazis were trying to eliminate. Yet, I remained active, spending an average of 60 hours a month telling others of my newfound Christian hope.—Matthew 24:14.
One evening in December 1942, my husband did not come home from work. As it turned out, he had been arrested at work along with his colleagues. I never saw him again. My fellow Witnesses advised me to go into hiding with my children. I was able to stay with a Christian sister on the other side of Amsterdam. Because it was too dangerous for the four of us to stay at the same address, I had to leave my children with others.
I often escaped capture by the skin of my teeth. One evening a Witness was taking me to a new hiding place on his bike. However, the light on his bike was not working, and we were stopped by two Dutch policemen. They shone their flashlights in my face and could tell I was Jewish. Fortunately, they simply said: “Keep going quickly—but on foot.”
Arrested and Imprisoned
One morning in May 1944 as I was about to start my ministry, I was arrested—not because I was a Witness but because I was a Jew. I was taken to a prison in Amsterdam, where I stayed for ten days. Then I was transported by train, along with other Jews, to the transit camp of Westerbork in the northeastern part of the Netherlands. From there, Jews were transported to Germany.
In Westerbork I met up with my brother-in-law and his son, who had also been picked up. I was the only Witness among Jews, and I constantly prayed to Jehovah for him to sustain me. Two days later my brother-in-law, his son, and I sat in a cattle train that was about to depart for either Auschwitz or Sobibor, death camps in Poland. Suddenly, my name was called out, and I was taken to a different train—a regular passenger train.
Aboard were former colleagues from the diamond trade. About a hundred diamond workers were transported to Bergen-Belsen in the northern part of Germany. Later, I learned that my trade had saved my life, for the Jews who went to Auschwitz and Sobibor usually went straight to the gas chambers. That is what happened to my husband, two of my children, and other relatives. At the time, though, I did not know what had happened to them.
In Bergen-Belsen we diamond cutters were accommodated in a special barrack. To spare our hands for our delicate work, we were not required to do other work. I was the only Witness in our group, and I boldly told fellow Jews about my newfound faith. However, they viewed me as an apostate, much as the apostle Paul was viewed in the first century.
I had no Bible, and I craved spiritual food. A Jewish doctor in the camp had one, and he gave it to me in exchange for a few pieces of bread and some butter. I spent seven months with that ‘diamond group’ in Bergen-Belsen. We were treated relatively well, which led to ill-feelings toward us on the part of other Jewish prisoners. Finally, though, it turned out that no diamonds were found for us to work on. So on December 5, 1944, about 70 of us Jewish women were transported to a women’s labor camp in Beendorff.
Refusal to Make Weapons
In the mines near the camp, some 1,500 feet [400 m] below ground, prisoners were put to work making parts for bombers. When I refused to do this work, I received a few hard blows. (Isaiah 2:4) The guard snarled that I had better be prepared to work the following day.
The next morning I did not report for roll call, remaining in the barracks. I felt certain that I would be shot, so I prayed that Jehovah would reward me for my faith. I kept repeating to myself the Bible psalm: “In God I have put my trust. I shall not be afraid. What can earthling man do to me?”—Psalm 56:11.
The barracks were searched, and I was brought out. That is when one of the guards hit me repeatedly, asking: “Who is it that does not allow you to work?” Each time, I said that it was God. That is when another guard told her: “You might as well stop. Those Bibelforscher* will let themselves be beaten to death for their God.” Her words strengthened me enormously.
Since cleaning toilets was assigned as punishment and was the filthiest work I could think of, I offered to do it. I was happy to receive that assignment because it was work that I could conscientiously do. One morning the camp commander, who was feared by everyone, came along. He stood in front of me and said: “So, are you the Jew that doesn’t want to work?”
“You can see that I am working,” I replied.
“But you will not work for the war effort, will you?”
“No,” I answered. “God does not want that.”
“But you would not be taking part in killing, would you?”
I explained that if I took part in making weapons, I would be violating my Christian conscience.
He took my broom and said: “I can kill you with this, can’t I?”
“Oh, sure,” I answered, “but a broom is not made for that. A gun is.”
We talked about Jesus’ being a Jew and about the fact that even though I was Jewish, I had become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When he walked away, fellow prisoners came up to me, surprised that I had the nerve to speak to the camp commander so calmly. I told them that it was not a matter of nerve but that I could do it because my God had given me the strength to do so.
Surviving the War’s End
On April 10, 1945, as Allied forces approached Beendorff, we had to stand for roll call in the courtyard almost the entire day. Afterward, about 150 of us women were crammed into cattle trains, without food or water. The trains left for an unknown destination, and for days we traveled back and forth between the front lines. Some strangled their fellow prisoners in order to make more room in the cars, and as a result, many of the women suffered a mental breakdown. What kept me going was my confidence in Jehovah’s care.
One day our train stopped near a men’s camp, and we were allowed to get out. A few of us were given buckets to fetch some water from the camp. When I got to the tap, I first had a long drink and then filled my bucket. When I returned, the women charged at me like wild animals. All the water was knocked from the bucket. The SS (members of Hitler’s elite guard) just stood there laughing. Eleven days later, we ended up in Eidelstedt, a camp in a suburb of Hamburg. About half our group had died as a result of the rigors of the trip.
One day while in Eidelstedt, I was reading from the Bible to a few of the women. Suddenly, the camp commander stood at the window. We were really frightened because the Bible was a forbidden book in the camp. The commander came in, took the Bible, and said: “So this is a Bible, eh?” To my great relief, he returned it, saying: “If one of the women dies, then you have to read something aloud from it.”
Reunited With Fellow Witnesses
After our liberation 14 days later, the Red Cross took us to a school near Malmö, Sweden. There, we were kept in quarantine for a while. I asked one of our caregivers if she would let Jehovah’s Witnesses know that I was in the refugee shelter. A few days later, my name was called out. When I told the woman that I was a Witness, she began to sob. She was a Witness too! After she calmed down, she told me that the Witnesses in Sweden had always prayed for their Christian brothers and sisters in the Nazi concentration camps.
From then on, a sister came every day with coffee and something sweet. After leaving the refugee shelter, I was transferred to a place near Göteborg. There the Witnesses organized an elaborate afternoon gathering for me. Even though I was not able to understand them, it was heartwarming to be surrounded once again by my brothers and sisters.
While in Göteborg, I received a letter from a Witness in Amsterdam informing me that my children Silvain and Carry and all my relatives had been picked up and had never returned. Only my daughter Johanna and my youngest sister had survived. Recently I saw the names of my son and my daughter in a register of Jews who were gassed in Auschwitz and Sobibor.
Back in Amsterdam and reunited with Johanna, who was then five, I immediately took up the ministry again. Sometimes I met those who had been members of the NSB, the Dutch National-Socialist Movement, the political party that had collaborated with the Germans. These had assisted in massacring virtually my whole family. I had to overcome negative feelings in order to share the good news about God’s Kingdom with them. I kept thinking that Jehovah is the one who sees the heart and that ultimately he is the one who judges, not I. And how I was blessed for that!
I started a Bible study with a woman whose husband was in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis. When I walked up the stairs to their house, I would hear the neighbors saying: “Look! That Jew is visiting the NSB people again.” But in spite of serious opposition from her imprisoned anti-Semitic husband, this woman and her three daughters all became Jehovah’s Witnesses.
To my delight, my daughter Johanna later dedicated her life to Jehovah. She and I moved to serve where the need for Kingdom proclaimers was greater. We enjoyed many spiritual blessings. Now I live in a small town in the south of the Netherlands, where I share in the preaching work along with the congregation as often as I can. Looking back, I can only say that I have never felt abandoned by Jehovah. I have always felt that Jehovah and his beloved Son, Jesus, are with me, even in the worst of times.
During the war, I lost my husband, two of my children, and most of the rest of my family. However, my hope is to see them all again soon in God’s new world. When I am alone and think back over what I have experienced, I reflect with joy and gratitude on the psalmist’s words: “The angel of Jehovah is camping all around those fearing him, and he rescues them.”—Psalm 34:7.
The name by which Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known in Germany.
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Jews being taken to Germany from the camp in Westerbork
Herinneringscentrum kamp Westerbork
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With my children Carry and Silvain, both of whom perished in the Holocaust
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While in quarantine in Sweden
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Temporary identity card for my repatriation
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With my daughter Johanna today