Putting Kingdom Interests First
As told by Helene Hartstang
BORN in 1902 in Dresden, Germany, I was one of four children reared by God-fearing parents and taken regularly to meetings of Jehovah’s witnesses, then known as Bible Students. I can recall the excitement in 1912 over the visit to our city of the first president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Charles T. Russell, when he addressed a large crowd. Having received good home training in Bible knowledge and appreciation of the Creator, I decided at the age of fifteen to dedicate my life to Jehovah God, symbolizing that dedication by submitting to immersion in water.
In September 1932, with confidence that Jehovah’s strength would make up for my own lack, I left the pleasant atmosphere of home and embarked on a career of full-time service of the Kingdom interests. I was assigned with a group of missionaries to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. When caring for this assignment, we went to preach in the Catholic village of Volendam, and placed so much literature on the first day that we ran out of supplies. Next day we returned with high hopes. Very soon I was approached by an inspector who asked if I was carrying printed matter in my bag. I answered him “Yes,” speaking in English, something I had never done before, and he let me go ahead. When I finished work and located the others at the edge of the village I learned that they had been driven out at knife-point and had been worrying over my whereabouts.
MY LIFE COMPANION
In 1934 I became a member of the branch office staff of the Watch Tower Society there in Amsterdam. As Helene Micklich I had often longed for a good companion who would be willing to share his life with me, one who, like myself, would always want to put Kingdom interests first. Imagine my great joy when Fritz Hartstang chose me as his wife. At that time he was in full-time missionary work and using the branch headquarters as his base of operations. We were married in 1936, the beginning of many years of joint happiness in Jehovah’s service.
From childhood Fritz had been deeply interested in the Bible. At fifteen years of age the youth association of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, of which he was a member, was invited to hear a series of talks supposedly exposing the “Bible Students.” When, on the final day of the series, the representative of the Bible Students took no more than fifteen minutes to refute successfully all that had been said on the preceding six days, Fritz was so impressed that he started studying and soon announced his decision to leave the Lutheran Church.
He became active in the spreading of the Golden Age magazine, known now as Awake! Soon he had built up a route of about one hundred readers to whom he delivered each issue, traveling by bicycle. During a convention he had opportunity to visit the Magdeburg office of the Society, and began to cherish the hope that he might one day serve there. Sure enough, some years afterward, he did receive an invitation to become a member of the staff. His assignment was to keep the cutter blades in the printery in good shape.
When a reduction in the staff of the Society’s branch office made it possible for some of the members to enter the full-time missionary service in foreign fields, Fritz and a companion were assigned to Paris, France. Next they went to Denis, not far from Paris, and then to Sarreguemines. Those were challenging days, for it became necessary to study and use the French language, and adjust oneself to new scenes and customs. When Fritz’ companion later married, he was assigned to Montmorency.
In the years following 1930, while Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany and persecution of the Witnesses began, various brothers moved from Germany to the Netherlands. Fritz, too, eventually received an assignment to serve at Tilburg, a Catholic stronghold in the province of North Brabant. The group of eight pioneer missionaries with whom he labored did such excellent work in the space of only two years that the local clergy raised an alarm and used all their influence to close down the preaching activity. Threats to burn down the pioneer home were made and the police declared they could not guarantee the safety of the group from mob attack. So they transferred to a place called Leersum.
Back home in Germany, Fritz’ youngest brother Otto also forsook Lutheranism and began to share in preaching the Bible’s message of the Kingdom. This led to his arrest and detention in the Esterwegen concentration camp. Upon his release he came to join Fritz in the Netherlands. Two years later Otto accepted an assignment from the Society to serve as courier in the interests of the underground preaching activity of Jehovah’s witnesses. He was betrayed and arrested a second time. Said the Gestapo officer who took him in: “We’ll get your brother Fritz as well.”
As the year 1933 ended, Fritz was assigned to the pioneer home in Heemstede, where also the branch office staff or Bethel family were housed. With a group of thirteen other pioneers he shared in preaching to a wide surrounding area, often cycling as many as fifty kilometers to make backcalls on interested persons and organize Bible studies. In inclement weather he would be busy repairing shoes for the other pioneers in the basement, utilizing old auto tires for soles and heels. When the group bought an inexpensive car to permit working far-flung areas, they would live in tents for four to eight weeks at a time so as to cut down on travel costs.
After our marriage in 1936, Fritz was assigned to circuit work, visiting a circuit of congregations and aiding them to build up improved organization for the preaching ministry. The Bethel home was still his base of operations. Things were only in their small beginnings in the Netherlands at this point. At an assembly in Nijmegen, for instance, there were present a total of 123 brothers from all over the country. However, we kept on working, undaunted by the troubles and alarms that culminated in the German invasion of 1940.
IN TROUBLESOME SEASON
The Dutch government interned all male Germans, including Fritz, as potential spies, only to release them just before the Nazis took over. Then our brothers were hunted down by the Gestapo. One day they forced their way into the Bethel home, and as I came downstairs about 9 a.m. I saw three strange men talking to the office servant in the hallway. I somehow got past them, grabbed my Bike and sped the thousand yards to our printery in adjacent Haarlem to warn the “foreign” brothers and sisters. When the Nazis quickly followed, hoping to make a big catch, their quarries had already vanished to every corner of the land.
As the preaching work continued amid great difficulties there were casualties. Several brothers were betrayed and hauled off to concentration camps. Fritz was secretly sent to Belgium to look after the Kingdom interests there. I followed about six months later. We lived like hunted animals most of the time, for the enemy had obtained information about our general whereabouts through a confiscated letter. Equipped with large photographs of us, they searched everywhere, but somehow we were kept safe. In fact, the head of the Gestapo in Belgium, who was out to entrap Fritz, was one day sitting by the window of his home and heard the drone of airplane engines. Thinking they were German planes, he took no precautions and was hit and killed by machine-gun fire. The planes happened to be English.
Many times we had strong evidence of the protection of Jehovah’s angel around us. On one occasion Fritz was on his way home by streetcar. A thought flashed through his mind: “Let me get off one stop earlier.” The next stop was the end of the line. On his arrival we were all pale from fear, and Fritz wondered why. At the end of the line all passengers were being checked by the Gestapo. Another time at the home of a sister there was a meeting of three circuit servants, the congregation overseer from Antwerp, and another brother with Fritz as branch servant. The sister lived alone on the ground floor. During the meeting the bell rang, and who stood there? Three Gestapo agents! They inquired about a Jew and his son who were supposed to be living on the second floor. The sister told them the Jews had fled at the outbreak of war. One of the agents now stood guard at the entrance while the other two searched every corner of the upstairs and the attic. The brothers prayed that Jehovah might blind the eyes of the enemy. Had they been discovered it would have meant all the principal overseers in Belgium would have been arrested in one swoop. But Jehovah did not permit that. The Gestapo departed, and so did the brothers, one by one, never to return to that home. Two weeks later the Gestapo did return unexpectedly, and this time searched the entire premises without success, though there were still some documents of the Society secreted on the premises.
We needed faith and courage in those days, and Jehovah surely provided it through the pages of The Watchtower, which still found its way to us via Switzerland and France, where it was translated into the many languages of Europe and then delivered by trusted couriers to all parts of the continent. With David of old we could say we never lacked anything.
The war over, the Watch Tower Society’s president, N. H. Knorr, and his secretary, M. G. Henschel, visited us and aided us to reorganize the preaching activity. Soon, however, in 1947, we had to leave the country we had come to love so much. Belgium was expelling German nationals. So we returned to the Netherlands. Our service privileges were far from finished. Brother Knorr extended to us an invitation to attend the 16th Class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, the special advanced course in missionary training provided by the Society. Never in my life will I forget the joy and the love of the brothers there. Though the course was not an easy one, it was a blessed time of fellowship and study with our brothers from various parts of the world. In 1951 we returned by ship to the Netherlands to resume Bethel service there.
SUFFERING, YET JOYFUL
The day after our return Fritz turned seriously ill and had to undergo a kidney operation. Though other successive illnesses kept pulling him down, he managed to carry out his duties at the branch office and with the local congregation for ten more years. Besides this he had the great happiness of attending two international conventions of Jehovah’s witnesses in the United States, the last one in 1958, when he had the privilege of having a small part on the program at Yankee Stadium. I was privileged to be present with him on that occasion. In 1962 he underwent a stomach operation and from then on began to get weaker and weaker. Nevertheless, only a few months after the operation he was able to serve as chairman of a convention at Tilburg, where thirty years previously he had begun his missionary work in the Netherlands. Only about two hundred yards from where the pioneer home had been located, in a newly built stadium, he had the pleasure of addressing the first of four district assemblies that year with more than 6,000 attending. How his heart must have rejoiced as he looked back over those thirty years!
Finally cancer developed and slowly drained his life forces until he died on April 5, 1964. Those last months were very trying ones for him as he found it necessary to give up one after another of the responsibilities that had given him such great joy. Anxiously he longed for the opportunity once more to partake of the bread and wine at the annual celebration of the Lord’s evening meal. In the presence of the assistant congregation overseer and a few other brothers and sisters who came to his bedside, he himself asked the blessing over the emblems. Then we sang song number 5 together and he became very calm again.
Two nights before his death he mustered his remaining strength and in the presence of a few members of the Bethel family he offered audible prayer to Jehovah. Next day his youngest brother Otto read him some of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. After about one hour he wearied, and said: “It is enough. I am happy over the beautiful, comforting words.” Next morning at about eleven o’clock he fell asleep. For five hours I remained at his side without a break to keep his lips moist until he opened his eyes for the last time, and, without any sweat of death or agony of death, he passed away with a calm, satisfied expression on his face. It was a happy moment for him to be freed from his sufferings. For me it was a hard blow to have to miss my faithful companion. Thanks be to Jehovah that he allowed us to serve him together for twenty-eight years and that he has given me the strength to bear this loss. May our mutual wish, that of putting Kingdom interests first, continue to inspire me so that I, just like Fritz, may finish my earthly course in faithfulness.