Faith Under Trial in Nazi Europe
AS TOLD BY ANTON LETONJA
On March 12, 1938, Hitler’s troops crossed the Austrian border. Radios blared marching songs and political slogans. Waves of patriotism swept over my homeland, Austria.
AFTER Hitler’s takeover, spirits ran high in Austria. Many hoped that his “Thousand-Year Reich” would end poverty and unemployment. Even Catholic priests, caught up in the patriotic fervor gripping the nation, gave the Hitler salute.
Though only a lad of 19, I was not swayed by Hitler’s promises. I did not believe that any human government could solve mankind’s problems.
Learning Bible Truths
I was born on April 19, 1919, in Donawitz, Austria, the third and youngest child in our family. Father was a hardworking coal miner. In 1923 he took our family to France, where he obtained work in the mining town of Liévin. Because of his political convictions, he was wary of religion, but Mother was a devout Catholic. She raised us children to believe in God, and she prayed with us each night. In time, Father’s mistrust of religion grew to the point that he forbade Mother to attend church.
In the late 1920’s, we met Vinzenz Platajs, whom we called Vinko, a youth of Yugoslav descent. He was in contact with the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Shortly afterward one of the Bible Students began visiting our family. Since Father had forbidden Mother to attend church, she asked Vinko if God could be worshiped at home. He pointed to Acts 17:24, which says that God “does not dwell in handmade temples,” and explained that the home is a proper place to worship him. She was pleased and began attending meetings in the homes of the Bible Students.
Father demanded that she stop that nonsense, as he called it. To keep us from associating with the Bible Students, he insisted that we all attend Mass on Sundays! Since Mother staunchly refused to go, Father was determined that I serve as an altar boy. Though respecting Father’s wishes in this regard, Mother continued to inculcate Bible principles in my heart and mind and take me with her to the meetings of the Bible Students.
In 1928, Vinko and my sister, Josephine—or Pepi, as we called her—symbolized their dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. Later they married. The next year their daughter, Fini, was born in Liévin. Three years later they were invited to take up the full-time ministry in Yugoslavia, where the work of the Witnesses was under restrictions. Despite many difficulties, their joy and zeal for Jehovah’s service remained undiminished. Their fine example instilled in me the desire to become a full-time minister.
Sadly, our parents’ differences led to a divorce in 1932. I returned to Austria with Mother, while my older brother, Wilhelm (Willi), remained in France. After that, I had little contact with Father. He remained negative toward us till his dying day.
Mother and I settled in Gamlitz, a village in Austria. She regularly discussed Bible-based publications with me, since there were no nearby congregations. Happily, Eduard Wohinz cycled to our house from Graz twice a month to impart spiritual encouragement, a trip of almost 60 miles [100 km] each way!
At the outset of Hitler’s reign of terror in 1938, Brother Wohinz was arrested. We were grief-stricken to learn that he was gassed to death in a euthanasia institute at Linz. His remarkable faith strengthened us to continue serving Jehovah faithfully.
1938—A Fateful Year
The work of the Witnesses had been banned in Austria in 1935. When Hitler’s troops moved into Austria in 1938, our ministry became extremely risky. The neighborhood knew that Mother and I were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so we decided to keep a low profile. I even started spending the nights in a barn to make it more difficult for the Nazis to get hold of me.
By early 1938, I had completed my basic education and had begun working in a bakery. Since I refused to say “Heil Hitler” or to become a member of the Hitler Youth organization, I was dismissed from my job. But I became more determined than ever to symbolize my dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism.
Mother and I were baptized on April 8, 1938. One night, we and seven others gathered in an isolated cabin in the woods. After the baptism talk, at ten-minute intervals, one by one we walked down a narrow lane to the laundry. There we were baptized in a concrete trough.
On April 10, 1938, mock elections were held on the issue of Austria’s annexation to Germany. The appeal “Yes for Hitler!” appeared on posters all over the country. Mother and I were not required to vote, since we were stateless after our long stay in France—a circumstance that saved my life later on. Franz Ganster, from Klagenfurt in southern Austria, regularly brought us copies of The Watchtower. We were thus able to draw spiritual strength from God’s Word before World War II started raging.
My Brother, Willi
Willi, four years older than I was, had not communicated with Mother and me since we had left France over nine years earlier. Though Mother had instructed him in the Bible in his youth, he was deluded into believing that Hitler’s political program was the key to a glorious future. In May 1940, a French court sentenced Willi to two years’ imprisonment for his illegal activities as a Nazi. But he was soon released, when German troops invaded France. On that occasion he sent us a card from Paris. We were happy to know that he was alive yet shocked to learn what he had become!
During the war Willi was able to visit us often because of his good standing with the SS (Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s elite guard). He was dazzled by Hitler’s military successes. Almost every attempt on my part to call his attention to our Bible-based hope ended with his saying: “Rubbish! Look at Hitler’s blitzkrieg. The Germans will soon be the lords of the world!”
During one of Willi’s home leaves, in February 1942, I presented him with the book Enemies, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. To my great surprise, he read it in one sitting. It began to dawn on him that Hitler’s regime was doomed to failure. He had been supporting an inhuman system and was determined to right his wrong without delay.
Willi’s Stand for Bible Truth
When Willi visited us the following month, he was a changed man. He said: “Anton, I’ve taken the wrong course!”
“Willi,” I said, “this realization comes a bit too late.”
“No,” he answered, “it’s not too late! The Bible says that ‘you should do what you have to do as long as you are alive,’ and, thank God, I’m still alive!”—Ecclesiastes 9:10.
“And what exactly do you intend to do?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t intend to continue serving as a soldier,” he replied. “I’m going to break with the Nazis and see what happens.”
He immediately set off for Zagreb, Yugoslavia, to visit our sister, Pepi, once more. After attending banned meetings of the Witnesses there for a while, he was secretly baptized. At last, the prodigal son had returned!—Luke 15:11-24.
To escape the Nazis in France, Willi attempted to cross the border into Switzerland. However, he was apprehended by the German military police. He was court-martialed in Berlin, and on July 27, 1942, he was sentenced to death for desertion. I was allowed to visit him in the Berlin-Tegel Military Prison. I was led to a small chamber, and before long Willi entered, chained to a guard. Seeing him in that state brought tears to my eyes. We were not allowed to embrace and had only 20 minutes to bid each other farewell.
Willi noticed my tears and said: “Anton, why are you crying? You should be happy! I am so thankful to Jehovah for helping me to find the truth again! If I were to die for Hitler, I would have no hope. But dying for Jehovah means that I am sure to be resurrected and that we shall meet again!”
In his farewell letter to us, Willi wrote: “Our dear God, whom I serve, gives me everything I need and will certainly stand by me to the end, so that I can endure and come off victorious. I repeat, be assured that I have no regrets and that I have remained steadfast in the Lord!”
Willi was executed in Brandenburg Penitentiary, near Berlin, the following day, September 2, 1942. He was 27 years old. His example testifies to the truth of the words at Philippians 4:13: “For all things I have the strength by virtue of him who imparts power to me.”
Vinko’s Faithfulness to Death
The German army had marched into Yugoslavia in 1941, obliging Pepi as well as her husband, Vinko, and their 12-year-old daughter, Fini, to return home to Austria. By then most of the Witnesses in Austria had been interned in prisons or concentration camps. Being stateless—in other words, not German citizens—they were assigned to do forced labor on a farm in southern Austria, near our home.
Later, on August 26, 1943, the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) arrested Vinko. When Fini tried to bid her father good-bye, the chief of police hit her so hard that she went flying across the room. Vinko was often interrogated and brutally beaten by the Gestapo and was taken to the Stadelheim Penitentiary in Munich.
On October 6, 1943, the police arrested me at my place of employment, and I too was sent to the Stadelheim Penitentiary, where Vinko was. Since I could speak French fluently, I was used as a translator for French prisoners of war. During walks in the prison compound, I had opportunity to exchange news with Vinko.
Eventually Vinko was sentenced to death. He was accused of providing Witnesses with Bible literature and of giving financial help to Witness women whose husbands were in concentration camps. He was transferred to the same penitentiary near Berlin where Willi had been executed. There he was beheaded on October 9, 1944.
The last meeting Vinko had with his family was heartrending. They found him chained and battered, and it was difficult for him to embrace them on account of the chains. Fini was 14 when she last saw her father. She still remembers his final words: “Take care of your mother, Fini!”
After her father’s death, Fini was snatched from her mother and placed with a Nazi family who sought to “reform” her. She was brutally beaten often. When Russian troops moved into Austria, they shot the German family that had so mistreated her. They regarded the family as notorious Nazis.
After the war my sister continued in the full-time ministry. She served at the side of her second husband, Hans Förster, in the Swiss branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses until her death in 1998. Fini has followed in her parents’ footsteps and now serves the true God, Jehovah, in Switzerland.
Freedom at Last!
Early in 1945 our prison in Munich was among the buildings that were bombed. The city lay in ruins. I had already spent 18 months in prison when finally the day of my hearing before a judge came. The date was just two weeks before the war officially ended on May 8, 1945. During the hearing I was asked: “Are you willing to perform military service?”
“A prisoner is not allowed to wear a uniform or say ‘Heil Hitler,’” I replied. When I was asked if I would be willing to serve in the German army, I said: “Please hand me my conscription papers, and then I will inform you of my decision!”
A few days later, the war was over, and I was told that I was free to go. Shortly afterward I moved to Graz, where a small congregation of 35 Witnesses was organized. Now eight congregations flourish in the Graz area.
A Loving Helper
Shortly after the war ended, I met Helene Dunst, a young schoolteacher who had been a member of the Nazi party. She was completely disillusioned with Nazism. During my initial conversation with her, she asked: “How come only you know that God’s name is Jehovah and others don’t?”
“Because most people don’t investigate the Bible,” I replied. Then I showed her God’s name in the Bible.
“If the Bible says that God’s name is Jehovah, then we should inform everybody of this fact!” she exclaimed. Helene began preaching Bible truths and a year later symbolized her dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. We were married on June 5, 1948.
On April 1, 1953, we became full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eventually we were invited to attend the 31st class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, located near South Lansing, New York. There we enjoyed truly heartwarming association with fellow students from 64 different countries.
After our graduation we were again assigned to Austria. For a few years, our work was to visit congregations to strengthen them spiritually. Then we were invited to serve in the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Luxembourg. Later we were asked to move to the branch office in Austria, located in Vienna. In 1972, while serving there, we began learning the Serbo-Croatian language in order to witness to the many Yugoslav immigrant workers in Vienna. Now there are eight Serbo-Croatian-language congregations here in Vienna, made up of people from almost every corner of Europe!
On August 27, 2001, Helene fell asleep in death. She had proved a reliable and precious helper and companion during our 53 happy years of marriage. Now the hope of the resurrection is ever dearer to my heart.
Content in God’s Love
Despite the tragedies I have experienced, I remain content with my work at the Austria branch office. A recent privilege has been to recount personal experiences in connection with the exhibition “Forgotten Victims of the Nazi Regime.” Since 1997 this exhibition has toured 70 Austrian cities and towns, providing opportunity for surviving eyewitnesses of Nazi prisons and concentration camps to tell of the faith and courage that true Christians showed in the face of Nazi persecution.
I count it a privilege to have known such faithful ones personally. They serve as striking testimony to the truth of Romans 8:38, 39: “Neither death nor life nor angels nor governments nor things now here nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creation will be able to separate us from God’s love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
[Picture on page 17]
Our family in 1930 (left to right): me, Pepi, Father, Willi, Mother, and Vinko
[Picture on page 18]
My brother, Willi, shortly before his execution
[Picture on page 19]
Vinko and I both spent time in Stadelheim Penitentiary, Munich
[Pictures on page 19]
Vinko’s daughter, Fini, was placed with a brutal Nazi family; she remains faithful to this day
[Picture on page 20]
Helene was a precious companion during our 53-year marriage
[Picture on page 20]
Speaking at the exhibition “Forgotten Victims of the Nazi Regime”