Deliverance from Totalitarian Inquisition Through Faith in God
As told by Erich Frost
A LEADING German magazine lies open before me. Life in a concentration camp is the subject of a novel being run in serial form. It is the most genuine picture of camp life I have ever read. Yet the worst has not been told. The pen resists expressing such things on paper.
Not long ago the world was horrified by Nazi hordes crusading eastward to the banks of the Volga and blitzing westward to the Channel coast. From frigid Scandinavia to the hot sands of Africa the totalitarians goose-stepped in triumph. For many years Nazidom suffered no setbacks—except one on the home front.
In Germany itself the Nazis tried in vain to liquidate Jehovah’s witnesses. The clock was even turned back some five centuries to resurrect the terrible Inquisition, which burst into full bloom in the Nazi concentration camp. Through faith in our God thousands like myself are alive to tell the story.
I will go back to events beginning in 1919—events that led one into certain conflict with the totalitarian state. That was the year my mother became one of Jehovah’s witnesses, then known as “Bible Students.” I was interested in music. Her zealous witnessing happily caused my father and me to get baptized as Witnesses in my home town, Leipzig, Germany, on March, 4, 1923. I broke off my music studies and began to earn my living playing in coffeehouses and entertainment spots, which allowed much free time for the Lord’s work. In 1924 I began to serve Jehovah full time working in the Society’s literature depot in Leipzig. Four years later I was invited to join in showing the Society’s Photo-Drama of Creation. Thousands still remember the beautiful slides portraying earth’s creation and God’s purpose for man. It was a wonderful privilege to show the Drama and visit many congregations as a “pilgrim” or Bible lecturer.
THE GATHERING STORM
The witness work spread rapidly in Germany. From 1919 to 1933 the zealous German Witnesses distributed 48,000,000 books and booklets, besides 77,000,000 German copies of The Golden Age, now called Awake! In 1932 the spirit of Nazism began to take over. Often mob action reared its ugly head in connection with the Drama showings. It got so bad that it could be presented only under police protection. During this time I became personally known to several Nazis.
While visiting the home of one of the Witnesses in Nuremberg in January, 1933, we heard the bombastic broadcast from Berlin announcing Hitler’s seizure of power. We suspected what this would mean for us. The storm broke that April when the police occupied the Society’s large new factory and Bethel home in Magdeburg and sealed our printing presses. Since no evidence of subversive activity existed, the property was returned on April 28.
In June seven thousand Witnesses assembled in Berlin and passed a resolution strongly protesting the highhanded action of the Hitler government. Millions of copies were distributed. In three days the property at Magdeburg was confiscated and the staff of 180 were forced to leave. Our religious foes rejoiced when Hitler declared: “I dissolve the ‘Earnest Bible Students’ in Germany; their property I dedicate to the people’s welfare; I will have all their literature confiscated.”
Since the Society in America held title to the property, negotiations ensued between the United States Department of State and Germany. The property was again released, but the ban on our preaching activity was not lifted. Meetings were forbidden. More than $25,000 worth of Bibles and Bible literature was burned. By 1934 many Witnesses began to lose their jobs for refusing to vote or “Heil Hitler.”
In the spring of 1934 I was introduced to the inside of a prison for ten days, then released. Shortly thereafter I managed to get back to Czechoslovakia, where I had previously shown the Photo-Drama. How grateful I am now that at a time when the work had been outlawed in Germany and our office closed I was able to show the Drama 122 times outside the country! And yet it was not as easy as before in Czechoslovakia. Often I was awakened at night by police who feared I was a Nazi!
Meanwhile, the brothers in Germany took a bold and decisive step. Though forbidden, on October 7, 1934, all congregations met and passed a resolution of protest to Hitler’s government advising that worship of Jehovah God would continue at any cost. After solemn prayer, the protests were telegraphed to Berlin. Simultaneously, Jehovah’s witnesses in fifty other lands assembled and cabled strong warnings to Nazi Germany. A plenipotentiary of General Ludendorff later revealed that upon seeing the bold telegrams Hitler jumped to his feet and shouted: “This brood will be exterminated in Germany!”
THE CHRISTIAN UNDERGROUND
Upon returning to Germany in May, 1935, I took part in the underground work. On the night of June 13 I was arrested at my hotel and taken to Berlin’s “Columbia House,” where I spent the worst five months of my life. Clubbed and stepped on, always in solitary confinement, vexed and humbled daily, I learned then that humans could become beasts. A Gestapo agent’s senseless questions failed to convict me of being a revolutionist. Unexpectedly I was released and soon faded back into the underground to serve Jehovah further.
Preparations got under way for a convention in Lucerne, Switzerland. Meanwhile, the Nazis began a new drive against us. Already most of the brothers holding responsible positions had been arrested. My efforts were to pick up the loose ends and get things going again. Numberless back doors and windows provided narrow escapes from the Gestapo, but my mother and brother were arrested.
Attending the Lucerne convention in September, 1936, was the Society’s president, Brother Rutherford, and 2,500 of us from Germany. I was assigned to reorganize the severely disrupted underground work, and began immediately. We also planned a blitz distribution in Germany of a convention resolution. On Saturday, December 12, 1936, between five and seven o’clock in the evening, 300,000 copies were silently left at homes in all of Germany’s big cities. Swarms of police and SS patrols failed to catch even one Witness!
Of course, underground work was done in the face of persecution and the danger of losing freedom and life itself. But the brothers had to have spiritual food to retain strength and also to have something to use in their witnessing. Searches made on trains were constant dangers. Even buying large amounts of paper was considered suspicious. Many carriers fell into Gestapo hands. Several brothers accused of preparing The Watchtower for distribution were executed. Nevertheless, with love for God and neighbor His witnesses kept telling the good news of God’s kingdom under Christ. Our resourcefulness was noted in the report published on the front page of The National Socialist Legal Mirror, official organ of Nazi justice:
“The adherents of the forbidden association tried also to maintain the association among themselves and to strengthen one another in the faith. Aside therefrom, they tried on every possible occasion to bring other fellow citizens to their way of thinking. Very often the Earnest Bible Students, while shopping, out for a walk, sitting in the parks or standing in the street, address people who are strangers to them, engaging them at first in a discussion of present events, then gradually to their faith and forbidden doctrine. They deem it their duty as ‘Witnesses of Jehovah’ to do so.” No matter what the risk to themselves, Jehovah’s witnesses are interested in imparting faith to others so that they too may be delivered at this time of the world’s end.
UNDER NAZI ROOFS
The annual Memorial celebration of Christ’s death was due March 27, 1937. I had arranged to meet with ten brothers at that time to discuss the underground activity. At two o’clock in the morning came heavy blows and kicking against the apartment door! In seconds I hid a small roll of paper containing vital information in the mattress of my couch. In came ten secret police: “All right, get up and get dressed, Frost. The jig is up!” I prayed to Jehovah and proceeded to dress while they turned the room into shambles. The small roll was never found.
Things happened quickly. The Gestapo knew of our plan to meet that Friday for the Memorial, but they did not know where. More than once they beat me into unconsciousness, then poured water over my head to revive me. Soon I was unable to lie down or sit. From Friday to Monday I hardly ate or drank, but kept calling on Jehovah to help me keep silent for the sake of the brothers. When brought before the Gestapo gang again I thought of Daniel in the lions’ den. Their angry flood of words revealed what I was anxious to hear: The police dragnet had failed to catch the brothers! My joy was indescribable.
July brought announcement of my wife’s arrest. Our son would be raised by Nazis. Many other Witness children were snatched from their parents and placed in Nazi homes. Most of these youngsters were strengthened by this ordeal. One girl of thirteen wrote her parents: “I always remember the faithful men like Job, Daniel and others, taking them for an example, and I would rather die than become unfaithful to God.” Despite severe pressure, these children refused to join the Hitler youth movement. Because of their Christian manners some were preferred by Nazi parents ahead of their own children.
FROM PRISON CAMP TO SACHSENHAUSEN
In the Emsland Swamp area the inhuman work requirements and cruel treatment drove one almost to desperation. Perhaps you have heard of the “hell of Waldesrand.” Faith and the companionship of loyal Witnesses enabled me to put up with the most difficult things. On Sundays we held joint Bible studies by recalling from memory what we had learned of God’s Word in previous years. Fellow prisoners were invited to drink the “waters of life” with us. They often listened attentively to our discussions.
My prison term ended after World War II erupted and I was brought back to Berlin. Ninety-nine days later the gates of Sachsenhausen concentration camp shut behind me. Unimaginable was the cruel reception by the SS guards; unimaginable too was my joy when greeted by 280 Witnesses, all proved and strengthened through similar hard trials. These were the faithful Christians mentioned in the best seller The Theory and Practice of Hell: “When the war broke out the Witnesses at Sachsenhausen concentration camp were invited to volunteer for military service. Each refusal was followed by the shooting of ten men from their ranks. After forty victims had been killed, the SS desisted. . . . One cannot escape the impression that, psychologically speaking, the SS were never quite equal to the challenge offered them by Jehovah’s Witnesses.” What joy and consolation to be among them! I understood better than ever what the Bible meant: “By iron, iron itself is sharpened. So one man sharpens the face of another.”—Prov. 27:17.
It was repeatedly thrown up to us that the camp gates would swing open if we would sign a declaration rejecting our faith. Miss Genevieve de Gaulle, niece of France’s Charles de Gaulle, verified this when recalling our sisters in Ravensbruck camp: “They could have been immediately freed if they had renounced their faith. But, on the contrary, they did not cease resistance, even succeeding in introducing books and tracts into the camp, which writings caused several among them to be hanged.” Such fearless witnessing caused 300 young Russian women in that camp to become Jehovah’s witnesses. Though forbidden to speak to other prisoners (who could earn twenty-five lashes and solitary confinement by listening), Jehovah’s people determined to stand firm to the very end, in order to demonstrate Jehovah’s power on behalf of his own. A survivor of Buchenwald camp related that the Witnesses testified to their faith “regardless of prohibitions and punishment.” Their concern was not alone for themselves, but also for others. At Neuengamme camp, near Hamburg, our brothers even produced a regular newspaper, News About God’s Kingdom.
In Auschwitz (Oswiecim) extermination camp one of the brothers was sent to repair the heating system where thirty sisters worked. During dinner hour for six consecutive days he spoke to them about God’s Word, renewing their strength, for which they thanked Jehovah. A sympathetic sentry, with rifle at his feet, sat and listened with interest. It was not unusual for guards to match wits with the brothers in conversation. Our captors always received an open and bold witness, because we knew their eternal life, as well as our own, was at stake. A sister assigned to work in the office of an SS-Obersturmfuhrer (about the rank of major) was often warned by him: “I’ll have your head chopped off!” Unknown to him she was using his equipment to produce literature surprises for a camp convention. Many times she spoke to him about Jehovah’s purposes, and bit by bit he became more friendly. By such fearless preaching and neighbor love faith was often born in the lions’ den. Here and there, in various camps, SS guards renounced their Nazi oath and declared their belief in Jehovah. These “Sauls,” our persecutors, became “Pauls,” our fellow prisoners! Among the political prisoners many men and women also became Jehovah’s witnesses. Even a water barrel served for a baptism pool.
Our faith in Jehovah was never misplaced. What Björn Hallström, well-known Swedish journalist, later reported was true of our brothers throughout the Nazi inquisition: “They were treated worse than any other group, but they managed, through their belief in God, to survive better than any others.”
Outside the camps, Gestapo dragnets ensnared only half the Witnesses at any one time. While about 10,000 of us were incarcerated, equal thousands continued to tell the good news of Jehovah’s kingdom. They held secret meetings at night or in the forests. Even funerals brought precious periods of Christian fellowship.
HANDWRITING ON THE WALL
As punishment for being “ringleaders” sixteen of us each received twenty-five blows with a steel rod, followed by detention detail. Finally, they landed us on the rocky island of Alderney between France and the English coast as a so-called SS building company. Though we had to bear up under many hardships inflicted by our captors, there were also opportunities to fend off dangers and sufferings from our fellow prisoners. As it happened, Hitler’s star began to fall after his armies were stopped at Stalingrad. Nazidom was beginning to understand the handwriting on the wall.
Under starlit skies one June night in 1944, we stood down at the harbor and observed the Allied invasion. Then came our withdrawal in old ships to St. Malo, then by train—sixty persons to each freight car—through France, Belgium, Holland and back to Germany. The plan to sink several ships in Kiel Bay with us aboard miscarried when our transportation to Austria was delayed. On the fifth of May, 1945, American tank troops finally set us free.
About the same time, the pressure of advancing Allied armies caused the gates of various concentration camps to swing open, pouring thousands of gaunt captives into the bombed-out countryside. Under guard they had to march, the SS shooting those too weak to push on or those caught pillaging food along the way. Many were the dead. Jehovah’s witnesses helped each other keep going. Often they preached to villagers who expressed appreciation by sharing their food—another provision of Jehovah. Soon the happy words of one Witness were typical: “Now I am free. I am thankful to the Father and our Leader Jesus Christ that I can continue to praise His name.”
The inquisition had failed.
Jehovah’s spirit stimulated us to action. Many of us did not plan to return home, even if we still had one. Our first concern was the Society’s property in Magdeburg. We found it about to be converted into a hotel for the Russians. Making the Soviet officers understand who Jehovah’s witnesses are proved a nerve-racking job. Our work in the Eastern Zone probably never would have been restarted had we not stressed day after day that the headquarters for our organization in Germany used to be in Magdeburg and we planned to direct the work in all four occupation zones from that office. They finally consented, and the work proceeded in the Communist zone as elsewhere.
Soon the German congregations were organized anew. At first we preached almost exclusively with the Bible and one tract, but at least we could meet together in freedom and could aid one another. During those meetings shortly after the war our brothers and sisters sometimes fell from their seats due to hunger and weakness. From Jehovah’s witnesses in America came CARE packages as well as large shipments of clothing from our American and Swiss brothers. This was much appreciated and a great help.
Eagerly 9,000 of us attended a convention in Nuremberg in 1946. Magdeburg also had a convention with 6,000 present. It would be hard to imitate the facial expressions and gestures of the Russians when they heard our singing and saw hundreds walking to the place of baptism. Of course, any gathering on the streets was strictly forbidden, but after we explained the baptism they did not interfere. This freedom under East Germany’s new totalitarian rule was not to last much longer.
The Society’s president, Brother Knorr, came to Germany in 1947. A lease was signed for the building and land in Wiesbaden on which our expanded Bethel home now stands. Here in Western Germany we have rejoiced to see the few thousand Witnesses at the close of the war increase until today there are 68,000 zealously proclaiming the happy news of Jehovah’s new world. My heart overflows with joy and gratefulness to Jehovah for bringing this about. I appreciate too the happy weeks spent in 1950, 1953 and 1958, at the large international conventions in New York. Jehovah has also provided additional assemblies for us here in Germany, such as in 1955, when 125,000 came to Nuremberg and Berlin. How much servants of God can do and see in a few years!
When the Communists were fellow prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps they often threatened: “If we ever gain power, we will hang you bunch of comedians!” In 1950 the totalitarian inquisition was revived in Communist East Germany by a ban placed on Jehovah’s witnesses. The Madgeburg office was confiscated again. And once more, with faith in Jehovah’s ability to deliver, our brothers have accepted the challenge.
Can you appreciate why my thoughts often penetrate the “curtain” dividing Germany and reach out to those Witnesses who suffered for years in Nazi camps and who now endure Communist prisons? At the present time there are 407 faithful Witnesses imprisoned in Eastern Germany. I think of seventy-year-old brothers like Brother X and Brother Y, and others only slightly younger, such as Brother Z, Brother A, and Brother B, each of whom has spent almost twenty years in the hands of cruel enemies of God because of faithfulness to Jehovah.
Reports filtering through are courageous and full of confidence. Our brothers there are remaining steadfast, keeping the Kingdom hope ever before their eyes and before the eyes of their neighbors. Thereby they daily demonstrate that Jehovah through Christ his King is reigning in the presence of his enemies. Totalitarian inquisitions can capture and harass Jehovah’s people if he permits it for a witness; but nothing can imprison Jehovah’s spirit!
Let Christians under totalitarian inquisition and their oppressors never forget: Jehovah was constantly with his Witnesses during the Nazi inquisition. He fed and comforted them when they cried from exhaustion. He revived and refreshed them when they fainted. He gave assurance of deliverance by resurrection for those faithful unto death. And in his due time He threw wide the gates and set his people free!
Deliverance through faith in God is certain. His new world of righteousness is at the doors! Already Jehovah’s witnesses are singing, “Thanks to God, for he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”—1 Cor. 15:57.