Wartime Hardships Prepared Me for Life
AS TOLD BY ERNST KRÖMER
“This is your room.” With those words, my partner and I were welcomed to Gabon, West Africa. There was just enough space for a mattress. We lived in that room for six months.
MY LIFE on a farm during World War II prepared me for living under difficult conditions. When the war broke out in 1939, Nazi Germany quickly occupied Poland. I was four years old at the time. Our family consisted of my parents, my younger brother and sister, and my two older sisters. Father warned us to be prepared for hard times if Germany lost the war.
We lived in Löwenstein, a small German village in Lower Silesia, which is now part of Poland. On our farm of some 60 acres [25 ha], we grew grain and raised livestock. Father also worked as the administrator for the farmers of the region. When the Nazis took over, they used Father to organize the farmers in support of the war effort.
Father had served in the cavalry during the first world war, and now his government job with the Nazis saved him from the draft. My parents had long since resigned from the church because they were disappointed with the way the clergy had acted during World War I. As a result, I grew up without any interest in religion.
I started school in 1941, but I hated it and felt that there were more interesting things to do than look at a blackboard. Early in 1945, just a few months before the war ended, Breslau (now Wrocław), the capital of Lower Silesia, came under siege by the Russians. One Saturday evening we could see the town, nearly 30 miles [50 km] away, all lit up by mortar fire and by the explosions of bombs dropped from airplanes. Soon we had to flee into the mountains. When the war ended, we returned home to Löwenstein.
After the War
Terrible times followed the war. Women were raped, and plundering was a daily affair. Most of our livestock was stolen.
Father was arrested in July 1945. After seven nights of brutal interrogation, he was released. Three months later he was again arrested and taken away. We never saw him after that. Two Polish men took over our farm and claimed to be the owners. In April 1946 all the Germans in the village were told to leave and take only what they could carry.
Mother had prepared for this, and there was no panic. She had a big wheeled basket containing bedding, and each of us had a knapsack filled with what we needed. The Polish militia herded us into cattle cars—30 persons to a car. About two weeks later, we arrived at our destination in northwest Germany, not far from the Netherlands.
The government assigned our family, including our relatives—19 of us in all—to two rooms on a farm about five miles [8 km] from Quakenbrück. In time, some of our extended family received places to stay with other farmers, and we were less crowded.
Mother made a lot of sacrifices for us children, often not eating so that we could eat. We lacked firewood during our first winter. Our walls and ceilings were covered with a thick layer of ice, and our rooms had the appearance of an ice cave. Fortunately, we had warm bedding, so we survived.
Contact With Witnesses
About 1949, Mother received a copy of The Watchtower from one of my aunts. An article in it reminded her that during the war she had heard Hitler on the radio condemning ‘a brood of people’ who predicted the downfall of Germany. Mother had wondered who these people were. When she read in The Watchtower that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, her interest was sparked and she decided to study the Bible with them.
One day in April 1954, I met the Witness couple studying with Mother. After the study, I accepted the booklet Can You Live Forever in Happiness on Earth? as well as a subscription to The Watchtower. Upon reading the booklet, I was convinced that I had found the truth. So I gave it to my employer to read. When I asked her what she thought about it, she said: “The thoughts are very nice, but it’s too good to be true. I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, I’m sure this is the truth,” I told her, “and I will follow it.” Shaking her head, she said: “This message is for a mild person. You are too wild to be a Witness.” But I began to make changes in my life.
Even though there were no Witnesses in the area, I studied by myself and cycled about six miles [10 km] every week to attend their meetings. Later I went to a circuit assembly, where a number of congregations of the Witnesses met for worship. There I shared for the first time with others in preaching publicly. Soon I was doing this regularly. On July 14, 1954, Mother and I were baptized. Later, at 80 years of age, my maternal grandmother also became a Witness.
My job of working on a farm was demanding too much time, so I quit and obtained employment at a forestry reserve. Our family thereafter moved to Reutlingen, a small town near Stuttgart. It was while we were there that my younger sister, Ingrid, also became a Witness, the only one of my siblings who has.
In 1957, Mother was finally able to have Father legally declared dead. As a result, she began receiving a pension, which enabled her to live without my financial assistance. No longer having such family obligations, I took a part-time job and in April 1957 started preaching full-time as a pioneer. Afterward, I received an invitation to serve as a special pioneer. On hearing about this, a fellow Witness invited me to his office and said, “I’m sure you could do with some help.” He then handed me 500 deutsche marks. With it I bought all the clothes I needed and still had 200 marks left.
In 1960, I volunteered to serve in Austria, where I enjoyed preaching in the small village of Scheibbs and briefly in the city of Linz, but later that year, I had a serious motorcycle accident, fracturing my right leg. After a series of operations, I was able to continue in my assignment. In 1962, however, I had to return home to Reutlingen to care for immigration problems. While there, I had another operation to remove a metal rod that had been put in my leg. I discontinued pioneering for six months to earn money to care for medical expenses.
When a traveling overseer visited the congregation where I was serving, he suggested that I apply to serve at the branch office of the Witnesses, then located in Wiesbaden, Germany. I did, and two weeks later I received a telegram to come as soon as possible. One week later, in May 1963, I was in the Germany branch, called Bethel, working on a rotary press printing magazines.
Applying Myself to Learning
Bethel was the best place I had ever lived, and I quickly adjusted to the hard work. In 1965, I visited Spain, secretly bringing in Bible literature, since the preaching work there was then under ban. That visit caused me to want to learn another language, and I chose English. I used every opportunity to study. About this time the first English-speaking group was formed in Germany, and I joined it. The first time that I studied a Watchtower study article in English, it took seven hours. When it took only five hours the second time, I knew that I was making progress.
In 1966, I received an invitation to attend the 43rd class of Gilead, a school in the United States designed to train ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses for missionary work. Then, after graduation, Günther Reschke and I were assigned to Gabon, West Africa, in April 1967. When we arrived in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, we stayed in the tiny room described at the outset, hanging our clothes in the dining room. Six months later we moved to another missionary home.
In Gabon my biggest struggle was learning French. Finally, after intense effort I achieved a measure of mastery over it. Then, in 1970, our preaching work in Gabon was banned suddenly, and we missionaries were given two weeks’ notice to leave the country.
On to the Central African Republic
Along with other missionaries, I was assigned to the Central African Republic. French was the country’s official language, but in order to be able to preach to most of the people, we had to learn Sango. We were sent to open a missionary home in the town of Bambari, nearly 200 miles [300 km] from the capital, Bangui. Bambari had neither electricity nor running water, but the two congregations needed our help. My wartime experiences in Europe made it much easier for me to cope with living conditions in Bambari, as well as in other places that followed.
After serving for two years in Bambari, I was assigned to visit congregations as a traveling overseer. There were about 40 congregations in the country, and I spent a week with each one to which I was assigned. I had a small car, but when dirt roads became too bad, I used public transportation.
Bangui was the only place in the whole country where vehicles could be repaired. Since my ministry required extensive traveling, I bought some vehicle-repair books, got some tools, and did most car repairs myself. One time the housing of the universal bearing on the drive shaft broke, and the car couldn’t move. I was about 40 miles [60 km] from the nearest human dwelling, so I cut a piece of hardwood from the forest and fashioned it into a housing for the bearing. Using plenty of grease, I secured it to the drive shaft with wire and managed to continue on my journey.
Serving in the bush, or country areas, was especially challenging because usually few people there could read or write. In one congregation, only one person could read, and he had a speech impediment. The lesson in The Watchtower was unusually difficult, but it was faith strengthening to see the congregation making a sincere effort to grasp the points under consideration.
Afterward, I asked the group how they benefited from lessons they could not fully understand. The answer given was beautiful: “We receive encouragement from one another.”—Hebrews 10:23-25.
Even though many of my Christian brothers were illiterate, they taught me a lot about life and living. I came to appreciate the value of the Scriptural counsel to ‘consider others as superior.’ (Philippians 2:3) My African brothers taught me much about love, kindness, and hospitality and about how to survive in the bush. The parting words of Brother Nathan Knorr, then president of Gilead School, on my graduation day came to mean much more to me. He had said: “Keep humble, never thinking we know it all. We don’t. There is so much for us to learn.”
Life in the African Bush
I stayed with the local brothers as I went from congregation to congregation. Usually the week I visited was a festival of sorts, especially for the children. This is because the host congregation would go hunting or fishing and made a special effort to have plenty of food for everybody.
Living with the brothers in their huts, I ate everything from termites to elephant meat. Monkey was on the menu regularly. Wild pig and porcupine were particularly delicious. Of course, every day was not a banquet. Initially, it took a while for my body to adjust to the diet, but when it did, my stomach was able to digest almost anything I was served. I learned that eating papaya along with the seeds is good for the stomach.
All kinds of unexpected things can happen in the bush. On one occasion I was mistaken for a mammy-water, which is said to be a white spirit of a dead person that lives in the water. People believe that it can pull a person down and drown him. So once when I climbed out of a stream after bathing, a girl who had come to fetch water saw me and started screaming as she ran away. When a fellow Witness tried to explain that I was a visiting preacher, not a spirit, people wouldn’t believe it. They argued, “A white man would never come way out here.”
Often I slept in the open because the air was fresh. I always carried a mosquito net, since it was also a protection against snakes, scorpions, rats, and other things. Several times I experienced an invasion of army ants, and it was the mosquito net that protected me. One night I pointed my light at the net and saw that it was covered with them. I quickly took to my heels because the ants, although small, can kill even lions.
While I was in the southern part of the Central African Republic, near the Congo River, I preached to Pygmies, who really live off the land. They are expert hunters and know what one can and cannot eat. Some speak Sango, and they were happy to listen. They would agree to a return visit, but on returning we found that they had migrated to some other place. None at the time became Witnesses, but I learned later that some Pygmies did in the Republic of Congo.
For five years, I served as a circuit overseer in the Central African Republic. I traveled all over the country, for the most part visiting congregations out in the bush.
Service at the Nigeria Branch
In May 1977, I was invited to serve at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lagos, Nigeria. This most populous country in Africa then had nearly 100,000 Witnesses, and some 80 people served at the branch. I was assigned to work in the garage, which included servicing vehicles.
In 1979, I returned to farming, the work I had done as a youth growing up in Europe. The farm, which grew food for the branch staff, was at Ilaro, about 50 miles [80 km] from Lagos. There I learned that farming in a tropical rain forest is quite different from farming in Europe. After three and a half years working there, I returned to Lagos and again worked in the garage.
In 1986, I was transferred to Igieduma, about 225 miles [360 km] from Lagos, where a large new branch complex was under construction. This facility was dedicated in January 1990. It includes a printery, a small farm, and residence buildings that accommodate more than 500 people. These are located on 140 acres [60 ha] of land enclosed by a nearly seven-foot-high [2 m] wall. Presently, I have oversight of the farm and maintenance of the grounds, which are cared for by a staff of some 35 people.
For about 27 years now, I have lived in Nigeria and have truly enjoyed my various assignments at the branch. I am happy that my mother has remained faithful to Jehovah and that my younger sister, Ingrid, who served as a special pioneer for 14 years, is still serving Jehovah along with her husband.
Despite the challenges I have faced, I have truly enjoyed serving Jehovah and my spiritual brothers in West Africa. I am grateful for the good health I have enjoyed until now and pray that I can maintain it so as to continue actively to serve our great God, Jehovah.
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Central African Republic
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
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With my mother, Gertrud, and my sister Ingrid in 1939
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Serving as a missionary in Gabon
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While in the Central African Republic, I stayed in villages like this one