Steadfast Despite Persecution by the Clergy, Nazis and Communists
As told by Ernst Seliger
MY WIFE and I between us have spent more than forty years in concentration camps and prisons. Why? Not because of wrongdoing or political involvement but because of our steadfast faith in God.
The clergy, as well as the Nazis and Communists, have opposed my participation in the work of preaching God’s kingdom. Yet, over the years, I have kept steadfast in my desire to be faithful in my service to God.
MY EARLY LIFE
Even as a youth I wanted to be a minister of God. One day when I mentioned this to my mother, she replied: “For that we are just too poor.” I was sad about that, but resigned myself to the idea that I could never become a minister. Instead, I would become a pharmacist.
Right after World War I ended in 1918, I began an apprenticeship in a pharmacy in Silesia, Germany. Due to the hardships I had to endure, I often contemplated ending my life. But a few months after my apprenticeship ended, a placard caught my eye. It announced the showing of the Photo-Drama of Creation, a slide and movie program put on by the Bible Students, or Jehovah’s witnesses.
I said to myself: “People who are sincerely studying the Bible are what I’m looking for.” The Photo-Drama lifted a veil from my eyes. I began to understand God’s purpose. I promptly ordered the seven volumes of the Studies in the Scriptures, published by the Watch Tower Society, and accepted invitations to attend Bible lectures. After making progress in learning Bible truth, I dedicated my life to God and was baptized in February 1923. A servant of God at last!
That same year a Catholic priest began to stir up trouble for us. He announced that he would give a talk against the Bible Students in the town of Gottesberg. The Catholic business manager of my Protestant employer was determined that I should go. I was only eighteen years old at the time and I discussed the matter with my Christian brothers. We decided that I should go and take notes and say something about the Bible’s truth if I had the opportunity.
Upon arrival, the business manager took me into a hall where some 250 Catholics were assembled. He took me up to the back balcony. I later learned from my employer that the manager and his accomplices planned to throw me down from the balcony. But without knowledge of their evil intent, I decided to go down into the main hall and stand behind the back row. At 8 p.m. the priest, along with other clergymen, entered the hall. During his talk I took notes, and this evidently made him so nervous that he often had to wipe perspiration from his brow.
After an intermission, the priest opened the meeting for questions. No one said anything. I prayed to Jehovah and then raised my hand. I mentioned that I had been invited to come and was not there to disturb. But certain things said about the Bible Students were not true. For about ten minutes everyone listened as I explained certain truths with the help of the Bible.
Then, suddenly, someone from behind tore the Bible and my notes out of my hand. A mob fell upon me, dragging me to a back entrance, all the time hitting and kicking me. Two Catholic policemen encouraged the mob to throw me down the spiral staircase. I clung desperately to the railing, praying to Jehovah for help. Finally someone in the hall told them to let me go without further molestation. I was determined to be steadfast for God’s truth despite any clergy-inspired pressure to stop me.
THE FULL-TIME SERVICE
In 1924, I quit my job at the pharmacy and entered the full-time service, preaching God’s Word under the direction of the Watch Tower Society. How happy I was!
What wonderful experiences I had in this preaching work! For example, at one home the woman told me: “Young man, I want to tell you something. My husband and I pray to God each morning and each evening on our knees. But hoping to understand his purposes better, we asked him last night to send someone to us with literature to explain the Bible. I was convinced that God would hear our prayer. Therefore, this morning I baked a cake with the full expectation that a messenger from God would come. As you see, the coffee is ready too. Please say a prayer for the food and let us sit down together to enjoy it. Oh! My husband will certainly be astonished this evening when I tell him.” This woman took all the Bible literature that I had.
STEADFAST DESPITE NAZI PERSECUTION
In 1925, I was invited to do work at the Watch Tower Society’s branch in Magdeburg. After my marriage in 1931, I continued to serve there. My wife and I had a very harmonious marriage until the Nazi persecution of Jehovah’s witnesses began. Suddenly, out of fear of persecution, she gave me an ultimatum: Either give up the Bible’s truth or her. My decision was to remain loyal to Jehovah, and so I lost her and my son.
Nazi persecution intensified. Twice I was arrested for being a Witness. When, after six months’ imprisonment, I still refused to stop associating with the Witnesses, I was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in July 1937.
Because I was steadfast in my refusal to sign a military induction slip in July 1940, I was told by a major: “You realize that within four to six weeks you’ll be shot?” My answer was: “Yes, Major, but my decision remains!” But it turned out otherwise. There had been a change in the law, so that anyone who had been in prison before World War II began did not come under the military conscription law. So, then, I would not be executed.
It was different, however, with my younger brother Martin, who learned God’s truth from me just nine months before my arrest. He was called to military service, refused to take up arms and was sentenced to death. In February 1943 he was executed on the guillotine in the prison of Brandenburg.
In the concentration camp, Brother Schurstein encouraged us by providing a daily Bible text with comments. Just before he was sent to the concentration camp in Dachau and put in the gas chamber there, he said to me: “Brother Seliger, continue what I have started here and strengthen the brothers, just as you have already tried to do.” I considered that an honorable assignment from Jehovah. And since I was assigned to work in the hospital, I managed to find time to write up daily Bible texts for an entire month at a time. These were passed on to the other Witnesses in the camp.
STEADFAST DESPITE COMMUNIST PERSECUTION
Following the war and my release from the camp, I had the privilege of helping to reorganize the preaching work of Jehovah’s witnesses in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). After marrying Hildegard Mesch, I was given the privilege of serving as circuit overseer, to encourage and build up congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses. But just a few years later our preaching work was banned again—this time by the Communists. We were both arrested in November 1950 as we were on our way to the train station in Torgau to travel to the next congregation. In July 1951, a Communist court in Leipzig sentenced me to fifteen years’ imprisonment. My wife, who had spent many years in Nazi concentration camps, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Some of the other imprisoned Witnesses who had been with me in the Nazi concentration camp asked me once again to help to provide spiritual food. Despite rigid controls in the penitentiary, for a time it was possible for us to have a daily Watchtower study and other meetings to build up our faith.
Although my wife and I were in the same prison at first, we were not allowed to see or speak with each other. But my wife also managed to get spiritual food and to share it with others. She relates:
“In February 1952, I was transferred to the Waldheim prison. Jehovah was very kind to me, for, unexpectedly, while in detention earlier, I received a Bible, which I read through six or seven times. I was able to share with my Christian sisters many things out of the Bible that I still remembered. Each day we discussed a day’s text, which was smuggled through all the cells where Witnesses were. Then reports from the Bible followed and finally thoughts from Watchtower articles. We even smuggled a Bible into the prison; then we dissected it and distributed the parts to various cells. Each week these various parts of the Bible were exchanged. When sudden raids were made on the cells, parts of the Bible or written day’s texts sometimes fell into the hands of the Communist warders.
“Because of such raids I spent one year in solitary confinement; for three months I was deprived of all privileges, and for three weeks I was kept in ‘dark arrest’—a cell used for a mad person. But as soon as I was back, I again had Bible literature and shared it with others.
“In 1954, all women were transferred to Halle. Prison officials classified me as being especially dangerous, because, as one woman guard said, I spoke about the Bible all day long. So I was put in a basement cell along with other Witnesses who were not allowed to work. Here we really did talk about the Bible all day long and also about the Watchtower articles that we still had in mind. Then on November 1, 1960, I was freed—after ten years in prison.”
Three years after my wife’s release I was released from prison and allowed to join my wife in West Berlin. As soon as I recuperated somewhat from my very poor health, I again entered the full-time preaching work, and, thanks to the undeserved kindness of Jehovah, my wife and I are still serving in this capacity.
One thing is certain: I had no idea back there in 1922 when I learned God’s truth that my second wife and I would spend over forty years in concentration camps and prisons. But, with the apostle Paul, we can say that “in prison . . . , in blows to an excess, in near-deaths often . . . in labor and toil,” we are determined to be steadfast as “ministers of Christ.”—2 Cor. 11:23-27.