“Happy Is the Nation Whose God Is Jehovah”
As told by Robert A. Winkler
WHEN the crucial year of 1914 came along and World War I broke out, I was in school in Germany and efforts were made there to urge the students to take on military service. For those who volunteered, a special examination was prepared, and all passed with honors. I was one of those students for whom classroom studies had suddenly ended.
I was just a child of sixteen when I stood at the front in France, across from Rheims as a “one-year volunteer.” Here at the front, provision was made for religious instruction. I observed that the chaplain preached exactly the opposite to what I had learned. This instruction taught and encouraged us to kill as many of the enemy as possible and that a heroic death should be viewed as something of great honor. All this made me think. This plus my association with those in the army finally brought me to the point where I lost faith.
When I was seriously wounded and returned well decorated from the front, I was discharged from the army. I then got acquainted with someone who studied philosophy, the result of this association being that I became an atheist, as he was.
BECOMING ONE OF JEHOVAH’S PEOPLE
I remained an atheist until 1924, when I came in contact with a Bibelforscher, that is, one of Jehovah’s witnesses. What he told me about the Bible was entirely new to me. I was prodded to seek new arguments to be able to refute his views. I accepted all literature he presented to me and studied it till deep into the night. The book The Divine Plan of the Ages particularly interested me, as I wanted to know what that “plan” was.
Because I spent every evening studying this literature and spoke about it, all members of my family turned against me. Finally my father burned all my books. All new literature I could henceforth obtain had to be kept well hidden.
Very soon I realized that there were no arguments I could find to refute those of the Bibelforscher and was forced to realize it was indeed God’s truth. Indescribable was my joy in learning what Jehovah’s purposes were, in getting an understanding of God’s kingdom and the blessings it would bring to mankind. These promises, these expectations of blessings simply overwhelmed me. I got to understand what the psalmist said at Psalm 33:12 and could join with him in saying: “Happy is the nation whose God is Jehovah.”
I could hardly wait for the next time this Christian minister would visit me. But I wanted to preach, not just within the family circle, but as he did, from house to house. My joy was great when he agreed to have me accompany him from house to house. After we had gone together for the first few houses he agreed to have me go alone. I often think back on the joys and blessings the first day of witnessing brought me.
I also like to think of the moment when I, together with the brother from the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Magdeburg, stood in front of a large map and he asked me if I wanted to go to Bonn. “Bonn,” he explained, “is a difficult city, a university city with many intellectuals, a Catholic territory. If you are going to hold out in this territory,” he continued, “you will have to be strong in faith and well versed in the Scriptures.” Thus Bonn became my first ministerial assignment. Very soon my fiancée came and we were married. Soon more full-time preachers of God’s kingdom came to our aid. Jehovah richly blessed our efforts, and soon, besides our small group of attenders at the study of The Watchtower, we had quite a number of interested people, which number grew from month to month until the hall was full, more than eighty persons attending our meetings.
Suddenly a great change came. Hitler’s Gestapo began to pay us many a visit, which visits we had anticipated and so we had our literature carefully hidden. These visits were made during the day, or at midnight or during the early hours of the morning. They came to get names and addresses of Witnesses and they would carefully search each shelf, the clothes closets, the beds and the linen.
When working from house to house, we used only the Bible. One day I called at the home of a woman who was a member of the Nazi party and she phoned the police and gave them my description.
This led quickly to my arrest, after which I was transported to the Esterwegen Concentration Camp. How heartwarming it was to make persons broken in spirit and without any hope happy with the Kingdom message! The great joy to be able to help sheeplike persons in the camp to understand God’s truth and dedicate themselves to God made the cruel treatment meted out by the Gestapo mean nothing. Yes, here in camp we learned to appreciate the great privilege of being among the people whose God is Jehovah.
After my release I was to report daily to the Gestapo, and they demanded that I perform the “Heil Hitler” salute. Each day as I refused, their ire rose to greater heights and they would scream out: “You didn’t learn a thing in camp, absolutely nothing, not even the German salute, and when you return tomorrow morning and do not give the German salute, you will never see your wife again. Do you understand that?”
This same day the Watch Tower Society’s circuit supervisor came to visit us, and I told him the things the Gestapo had told me. He said he had heard of similar cases and, since each Gestapo post in the country had a copy of my photo, it would be wise for me to continue the witness work in the Netherlands. We accepted our new assignment and gladly left our home and all we possessed to the thievish Gestapo.
When we got to Holland and began our new assignment we knew nothing of the Dutch language. Jehovah blessed our efforts to serve in that land. As we daily went from house to house we soon got to know the people. In 1938 I received the assignment to visit all the congregations in the Netherlands. In 1939 my privileges were expanded and I was called to the branch office of the Watch Tower Society. In 1940 German troops occupied the Netherlands, and now it was clear that the Gestapo would soon carry on its campaign of searching and robbery in this country as well.
On October 21, 1941, I was betrayed and arrested. The Gestapo rejoiced when they finally got me. They made this news known to many a Gestapo post in Germany and the Netherlands.
EFFORTS TO GET ME TO BETRAY JEHOVAH’S PEOPLE
It was the wish of the Gestapo to squash the organization of Jehovah’s witnesses, and, according to them, I would be a smart man to cooperate in their schemes. “This Jehovah,” they scoffed, “is bankrupt in Germany and the same is happening in other lands.” The Führer, according to them, was God-sent, and I would have to change my mind. I would raise my position something wonderfully, they said, if I would support the cause of the Führer and break with something that really did not exist. I was to tell them who belonged to the office staff and where they were, where my wife was and who the leaders in the congregations were. They assured me that none of those betrayed would ever get to know that I gave the information nor would they arrest all those informed upon. They would merely inform them to mend their ways and to serve the cause of the Führer.
When I told them squarely I would not go along with them in their plan, they pulled the curtains shut, turned on the radio full volume and beat me unmercifully. When one of them could not go on any further, another brute would take over until I fell unconscious to the floor, later to regain consciousness. “So,” they sneered, “we did not expect you to be so unreasonable. One who has proved to be a good organizer and intelligent, one who was such a good fighter for a bankrupt cause, should have more sense. We need people like you. Just think how you could improve your lot in life. Tell us where your wife is, and we give you our word of honor she will not be beaten. If you are smart and go along with us, you can exchange your prison for a villa and your condition of shame and revilement for one of honor, money and prestige.”
As I remained silent, the second round began. First it was the Obersturmführer Barbie, and when he was tired Oberschaarführer Engelsman took over. This went on till I lost consciousness again. This continued from one o’clock in the afternoon till midnight. At 1 a.m. I was handed over to the prison guard. With teeth knocked out and the lower jaw dislocated and my body beaten raw, I was taken to the dark cell. “Do you know why I am bringing you to the dark cell?” the guard asked me.
“No,” I answered.
“Because they could not get anything out of you.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
The guard replied: “Because when they have mistreated anyone like you have been and he has given in and spilled everything then he gets a better cell, better food and better treatment. You go to the dark cell because they think this type of treatment will break you. But I will let you have light and something warm to eat.”
The thoughts of Jehovah’s promises to help one in all kinds of trouble gave me the comfort and strength to endure all this, so that thoughts of any compromise with my demonized persecutors never once entered my mind.
When I looked at myself in the mirror the next day, I was shocked at the way I looked. The two Dutch plainclothes policemen who had transported me from the prison to be interrogated by the Gestapo could not recognize me now. They had given the Gestapo assistance with my arrest and when they saw me now they asked: “Are you Winkler?”
“Are you that R. A. Winkler?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Are you Winkler, the witness of Jehovah?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Are you the Witness Winkler whom we arrested in the Wittenkade last week?”
I told them I was the man. They asked me what the Gestapo had done to me. When I told them, they said they never would have arrested me if they had known what the Gestapo would do to me.
Saturday I had been beaten by the Gestapo, and on the following Monday I was to be interrogated by them again. What would happen now and what was I to do? I turned to Jehovah in prayer, trusting in his promises. I knew this meant the use of theocratic war strategy for the sake of the Kingdom work and the protection of my Christian brothers. It was a great trial for me to endure and the seventeenth day I was completely worn out, but I thanked Jehovah that in his strength I was able to endure this trial and keep my integrity.
SPIRITUAL STRENGTH DESPITE PHYSICAL ILLS
At this point I felt a very great need for spiritual food. A couple of days later this same friendly prison guard came up and asked if he could do something for me. I told him he certainly could; he could procure a Bible for me from my wife. “Yes,” he said, “write a note. I will bring you a pencil and some paper.”
The day of February 10, 1941, I will never forget. The door of my cell flew open and someone threw a pocket Bible into the cell, and before I realized what was going on the door slammed shut again. What a joyful occasion! The Gestapo did not permit me to have any reading material at all, and now, by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness, I had a Bible to read. What a joy it was daily to enjoy the pleasant words of truth from His Word! Although any reading had to be done secretly, I felt myself getting stronger spiritually.
I was able to retain this Bible until moved to another camp in the Netherlands, Camp Vught. While in Vught I was able to get another Bible.
From Vught I was moved to Germany, to a camp in Oraniënburg-Sachsenhausen. There we were brought into barracks where we were forced to remove our clothing and get under a shower. All our clothes along with our shoes were taken away from us; only those who had wooden shoes could retain them. I let my Bible slip unnoticed into a wooden shoe and thus was able to keep it while in camp.
Here in this new camp I turned ill. I soon found myself in the camp hospital where there were already about 3,000 persons being treated by doctors who themselves were prisoners. As soon as I was free from one illness I fell prey to another. In time I was brought over to other barracks, where I was treated by a Swedish doctor.
This doctor asked me if I knew Witnesses Erich Frost, Konrad Franke and R. Braüning. When I said I knew them, he told me they had saved his life on the island Wight, and now, in gratitude, he was going to try to save my life. The doctors were required to report to the SS guards every prisoner who, due to illness, would not be able to report to work during the coming six months. Such patients were brought over to other barracks and were loaded into buses that proved to be nothing else than gas chambers on wheels. The exhaust gases killed the victims en route to the crematories. This would have been my lot, but the Swedish doctor did not do what the Nazis expected of him, because of the kindnesses of my Christian brothers.
I also often think back on the so-called “March of Death” from the Sachsenhausen Camp to Schwerin in April of 1945. I would never have endured this march were it not for the loving care of my Christian brothers who had risked much to remove me from the barracks for the ill who could not move on their own power. The SS wanted to burn the barracks with the seriously ill so as not to let such evidence fall into the hands of the Russians. The brothers got hold of a sort of wagon on which they placed me and other Witnesses who could not walk. They pulled this wagon with their Christian brothers on it who could not walk, till the end of this nightmarish march of death. Anyone who collapsed during this march was dispatched by the SS with a bullet in the neck. The loving care of our Christian brothers helped us to avoid such a lot.
I finally returned to my place of theocratic assignment in the Netherlands clothed in camp uniform and with nothing but paper sheets as underwear and able to walk only with the aid of a cane. However, I quickly recovered and was soon able to take on work in God’s Kingdom service. This I have done for over twenty years since my release. We still have the great privilege of working in the Society’s branch office in the Netherlands.
From the German government we received a compensation and thus we were able to buy things we had lost. Now that I have passed my sixty-fifth year, I also get an old-age pension. I am thus able to maintain a car, which enables me to do as much as possible in the ministry.
Yes, Jehovah does not allow any test greater than that we can bear, and, in addition to this, provides the strength to endure. For no price on earth would I want to miss the trials I have endured in His power. These trials have added to my faith in Jehovah, to my appreciation of his love, wisdom, righteousness and might. By actual experience I learned the great truth we read in the Bible: “Happy is the nation whose God is Jehovah.”