‘Suffering Evil as a Right Kind of Soldier’
As told by Gerhard Oltmanns
‘AT ALL costs we will obey the laws of God even if it means losing our lives and we will continue to assemble for worship. If your government oppresses us it will have to render an account to God Almighty.’ These were the concluding thoughts of a resolution received at the Chancellery of the Third Reich on October 7, 1934. Hundreds of copies of the same message came from congregations of the banned “earnest Bible students,” known in other countries as Jehovah’s witnesses.
I shall never forget that day, for at ten o’clock that morning we had assembled for prayer, and then, after discussion, we resolved unanimously to send this message to Hitler’s government. We could never follow Hitler as leader, or recognize him as such, for we had already undertaken to be ‘fine soldiers of Jesus Christ,’ the genuine God-given “leader and commander to the national groups.” (2 Tim. 2:3; Isa. 55:4) To me especially it was a thrilling occasion.
You see, I had first contacted the Bible Students in May 1924. It happened when I was helping one of my workmates to move to another house. I came across an old mandolin, and for no reason at all I strummed off in low bass the old hymn, “Praise the Lord, the Mighty King of Glory.” That did it. We were soon in earnest Bible discussion, for the workmate turned out to be a Bible student. I was raised a Lutheran, but I could not help being impressed by his Bible knowledge. On the surface, however, I showed no agreement with his ideas.
Then books came through the mails—one after the other—the seven volumes of a work entitled “Studies in the Scriptures,” written by Charles T. Russell. I started reading at odd moments. Then I set aside more time for studying them. Eventually I would keep on reading well into the night. At times I was really riled at the exposure of Lutheranism. At other times I found myself in complete agreement with the writer.
About this time I consented to go and hear a noted speaker, a Catholic priest, who was to speak to a group of World War I veterans, many of whom were still young men. He boasted about his work of saving souls in the trenches. But what he said about one young man who, in his dying hour, refused to receive the priestly ministrations really shocked me. The dying man turned his back on the priest. “So,” the speaker declared, “I yelled in his ear, May the Devil take your sinful soul to hell!” My revulsion at such unchristian behavior moved me to write to the offices of the Watch Tower Society and order fifty booklets on the topic “Hell: What Is It? Who Are There? Can They Get Out?” Without realizing it I was on the way to becoming an active witness of Jehovah.
In 1925 my secular work took me to the vicinity of Oldenburg. I located the congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses there and was amazed when the presiding minister welcomed me as if he knew I would be coming. When I asked how he came to know about me, he said: “The Society’s office has written us about you. We have been expecting you. We are glad that you have come.” Soon after, I found the opportunity to symbolize my dedication to Jehovah God by baptism in water.
In 1928 came marriage. I married a zealous Bible student who has continued with me to the present day, my life companion and fellow soldier. Meantime, we were in no doubt that there was a spiritual warfare to be waged, for much of the territory in which we were preaching was peopled by Catholics. Peaceful activity was not guaranteed. Newspaper propaganda began to spread lies against us. Nevertheless, we kept on spreading the Kingdom message in towns, villages and countryside.
THE FIGHT INTENSIFIES
How happy we were that we had worked so thoroughly and so conscientiously up until spring of 1933! For now the advent of Hitler’s government loomed like the warning of black storm clouds. Would we persevere under evil conditions? Now that our work was threatened and disturbed by the brown-booted supporters of Hitler’s “thousand-year rule of peace,” would we still follow the direction of our Leader in heaven, Christ Jesus?
Pressure was brought to bear on us. Our family of four was driven from our accommodations, and we were often without food. I still have the official document from the president of the government, from which I quote: “As long as you continue with these sentiments you must care for your family’s welfare yourself.” We prayed that we might be able to endure uncompromisingly. We resisted the adversary. And, just when it appeared that there was no way out, Jehovah time and again sent us help.
The conditions forced me to move about and accept even the most laborious type of work. For example, in 1934 I was working as a hotel porter, as a dishwasher and later as an assistant at the buffet on the North Sea island of Heligoland, 200 kilometers from home. But even this late we still managed to get the Watchtower magazines. What a boon they were! And we learned why Jehovah’s people must endure, even though being tested to the limit. Jehovah’s name and sovereignty were at issue. We had the privilege of proving Satan a liar in his defiant claim that God could not put a man on earth who would remain faithful under persecution.—Job 1:9-11.
‘PRISONERS FOR THE LORD’
On June 4, 1938, I fell into the clutches of the Gestapo. I was sentenced by a special court in Hanover and served time in six different prisons. For almost twenty months I was cut off from all association with fellow Witnesses, at times even in solitary confinement. I had to draw upon my store of Bible knowledge to sustain myself spiritually. One day a friendly warden slipped a Bible into my cell. It reminded me of the angel that brought sustenance to Elijah—so unexpected was it. (1 Ki. 19:5-8) And it was comforting to reflect on why I was suffering—because I had not been intimidated and silenced, refusing to hide the sayings of Jehovah, the Holy One.—Job 6:10.
Most dangerous were those worldlings who tried to offer advice in those days. One former inmate of a concentration camp, a political prisoner, to whom I had witnessed about the Kingdom, described his own experiences and said: “Be smart and sign. Of 400 Witnesses in our camp, each day fifteen who had refused to sign were given ‘hell.’” But I well knew which course would honor Jehovah.
In January 1940 I ended up in the Sachsenhausen camp, near Berlin. Here I found 400 other Witnesses. Since March 1938 they had been isolated and denied the rights enjoyed by other prisoners. No newspapers, no books and, at first, no mail. Later, one letter of five lines per month was permitted. Mockers scoffed: “Where is your Jehovah now?” There were casualties too. One old man died in my arms, faithful to the death. His last words were to encourage us to hold firm.
And there were still opportunities to witness about the Kingdom. For example, thirty of us Witnesses were detailed to help build a new SS headquarters in Berlin. As I concluded a discussion I had with an SS leader, I happened to say: “Sir, you are a soldier. I also am a soldier.” I had in mind 2 Timothy 2:2-4. After that in difficult times he would help me by saying to his men: “Leave Oltmanns in peace. Oltmanns is a soldier!”
In the spring of 1941 what is now song number eleven in the songbook “Singing and Accompanying Yourselves with Music in Your Hearts” was composed. Jehovah was truly strengthening us to continue undaunted. With the apostle Paul we could confidently declare: “We are pressed in every way, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . thrown down, but not destroyed.”—2 Cor. 4:8, 9.
A little relief came to us in September 1941. At midday we heard over the camp loudspeakers: “Jehovah’s witnesses, Bible students, attention! Just five minutes to eat, and then move at once!” We were allowed to leave the punishment area where we had been isolated from others. Now we were to be treated like other inmates of the camp. We came to be wanted as reliable workers. “They should be won over by flatteries, since they only get the more determined under pressure”—thus it was said in a letter of the SS. “We need them also after the war to settle in the east where they can preach the gospel of peace to the Slavic peoples.”
We kept up, then, our congregational studies. In fact, some of the guards in the towers looked forward to this, for they would hear us sing folk songs, then a song of Zion, which was followed by prayer and our study. But one day there came a new block overseer. Could we have our study as usual? Why not? We prayed about it, and then proceeded. Suddenly, in the midst of our study of Daniel, chapter 11, the door of the dayroom opened and there stood our new block leader. I believe he was more shocked than we were. He stood silent for a minute or so and then gestured that we could carry on. How enthusiastically we sang our closing song!
In August 1942 we were betrayed by a member of one of Christendom’s sects. One morning everything was searched, including the sacks of straw on which we slept. A great deal of literature was found. Then punishment was meted out—fifteen of our number receiving twenty-five lashes each. One quiet worthy one, who tried to take the blame in order to protect others, received fifty lashes. Then we all had to carry heavy stones on the double.
In March 1943 we were loaded into cattle cars, the windows of which were equipped with barbed wire, and taken by rail through Belgium and Paris to picturesque Saint-Malo. Here we saw our first palm trees. We were ferried to the British island of Alderney, at that time occupied by the German army. It did not hurt us to have a refreshing sea voyage after all those months of detention. On this stony island someone gave me an English Bible, a German-English dictionary, and the books Government and Reconciliation. The SS men thought I was studying the language, but in reality our group was once again being built up spiritually.
A TURNING POINT
Then came the Allied invasion in 1944. The death struggle of the “thousand-year Reich” was under way, and even we could sense that. Three weeks later one of the last German ships to leave Cherbourg took us aboard and transported us to the sunny island of Guernsey. It had been planned to sink the ship with all of its cargo of helpless prisoners, but the captain would not agree. Eventually we got to Jersey, and a few days later a good helmsman took us through the Allied blockade and landed us once again at Saint-Malo.
Then a train race across Europe began. Allied pilots tried to put the locomotive out of action, but refrained from bombing the cars, for they carried partisan prisoners and American prisoners, as well as our group. On the way through France the people showed much kindness, often giving us fine wine when we asked for water. Sadly, though, some of our number died on this journey. In one place three Witnesses were interred in one grave. Their fleshly bodies were no longer able to bear up, though spiritually they were strong.
Weeks passed. Through Flanders, Holland and Germany we rolled. Nor did we stop there. Our captors took us here and there through Czechoslovakia, and finally to the Munnigholz camp at Steyr. How grateful we were when the month of May came and we could see the white flag flying! We wept for joy. We longed to see our families again. Were they still alive? And then we wanted to get back into the Christian fight again, the spiritual warfare for which we had enrolled as soldiers. But traffic had been brought to a standstill. The country had been devastated.
Happily we found an old army truck and repaired it. We also made a banner with the words, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Home from the Concentration Camps.” With this banner and with birch branches, and still in our striped prison clothes, we fifty Witnesses traveled joyfully through Bavaria and Saxony to Leipzig. There we parted, and, as previously promised, I returned home punctually in the evening. It was the 4th of June—exactly seven years after I had been taken away by the Gestapo!
BACK HOME—BUT NO FURLOUGH
The children were also safely home when I arrived. It was thrilling to read the judge’s report on them, when they were only twelve and nine years of age. “We will not say Heil Hitler,” they had said. “We will not salute the Hitler flag. We will not join the B.D.M. even though we know we will not be allowed to stay with mother. Our father is in concentration camp because he believes in God. The pastors say they also believe in God, but they are not in concentration camp, because they are compromising.” Surely they had been blessed with a loving mother who bravely studied God’s Word with them daily.
But this was not the time for a furlough. Through his organization Jehovah was calling all soldiers of Christ to remain awake and busy. I was privileged to receive appointment as a special traveling representative of the Watch Tower Society in northwest Germany. Could I carry on? A weak heart was no encouragement to me. However, Jehovah answered our prayers, and the brothers everywhere were most encouraging. In fact, congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses were springing up like mushrooms after a warm summer rain.
And how our cup has kept running over since then! Service work reestablished in 1947; our first postwar convention at Kassel in 1948; the grand, unspeakable joy of flying across the ocean in 1950 for the huge “Theocracy’s Increase” convention at New York City’s Yankee Stadium, where seventy of us from Germany were present. We had come through a fiery ordeal. Now our cup of blessing was overflowing.
Unforgettable, too, the Nuremberg assemblies, conducted on the grounds of the Reich party. The 144 pillars became symbols of the victory of God’s triumphant kingdom under the scepter and crown of his appointed King, Christ Jesus. In 1955 over 107,000 loyal subjects of that “Leader and Commander” filled these grounds and sang songs of praise to Jehovah of armies. From the tower I looked over this vast concourse and tears of joy welled up in my eyes. Under Christ the King multitudes were learning to do what no worldly religious or political organization had been able to do—unite people of all nations in peace and loving cooperation.
You young people who stand at the threshold of full-time service unencumbered, do not say, “I am not qualified to serve,” or, “It is too much for me.” Press on in Jehovah’s strength. He will support and strengthen you just as he did a “cloud of witnesses,” both in ancient and modern times. Keep in mind that God’s true worshipers are warriors, for we live amidst an alien, enemy world. Until Jehovah’s final victory forever ends Satan’s whole organization, it is your privilege as well as ours to be ‘fine soldiers of Jesus Christ,’ ready to fight theocratically and to endure.