Deliverance! Proving Ourselves Grateful
As told by Max Liebster
IT WAS to the God of Abraham that I cried from the depths of my distress when, at the age of 24, I found myself deprived of my liberty for the sole reason that I was a Jew. In my cell in Pfortzheim prison in the Black Forest, Germany, I asked myself all sorts of questions concerning the genocide of the Jews that was sweeping Nazi Germany.
Then came January 1940. My fellow prisoners and I were transferred by train to the extermination camp of Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg. We were locked in carriages that were transformed into many tiny cells for two persons. Kicked into one of them, I faced a prisoner whose eyes reflected serenity. He was there because of his respect for God’s law, choosing prison and possible death rather than shed the blood of other people. He was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. His children had been taken away from him, and his wife had been executed. He was expecting to share her fate.
The 14-day journey brought an answer to my prayers, for it was during this very journey to death that I found the hope of everlasting life. But almost miraculously I didn’t die! During the next five years and four months I survived the torturous life of five different death camps, including the incredibly terrible Auschwitz in Poland.
Operating on an around-the-clock basis, the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz murdered and disposed of over 10,000 victims daily! It is estimated that up to 4,000,000 persons or more, most of them Jews, were killed in the short time of the camp’s operation. When I arrived in Auschwitz in 1943 it was already functioning as an extermination camp.
There were some 30 work camps operating under the direction of the main camp of Auschwitz. Some days when prisoners arrived, the SS selected young men to refill these camps. I was selected and sent to Buna where an artificial rubber production factory was being constructed. In this work camp, every morning those who couldn’t work anymore were taken to the gas chambers for extermination.
Finally, in January 1945 I was transferred to Buchenwald, a camp located in the woods three miles (5 kilometers) northwest of Weimar, Germany. At the approach of the American soldiers the camp commander decided to exterminate all the Jews. They were to be transported by rail to a mass grave, then shot dead after they had dug it. In my convoy was another Jew named Heikorn, who, while in Buchenwald, had accepted the Bible truths taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In the commotion that occurred at the railway platform, we withdrew behind a pile of wood to read and meditate on the few pages of the Bible book of Revelation that Heikorn had in his possession. And then, unbelievable as it may seem, our guards forgot us in the hustle and rush that ensued!
We stayed there until nightfall. Suddenly a call was issued through a loudspeaker: ‘All Jehovah’s Witnesses go to Block No. 1.’ We obeyed the summons and found 180 Witnesses there. A few days later we were liberated by the American forces.
Deliverance! How grand it was to be free! Those hours during our liberation were indeed memorable. Consolation, the former name of Awake!, reports regarding this in its December 19, 1945, issue:
“On April 12, when Buchenwald was finally taken, there were found only twenty or thirty thousand prisoners, half-dead from starvation. A sickening sight, even for hardened soldiers, upon entering this camp, were the dead bodies that were piled up like cordwood outside the barracks. Inside of these shacks were shelves, not beds, upon which the emaciated forms of those who were still able to breathe lay rotting away. Their faces and bodies were shriveled and dried up, and many were too weak to do more than roll their eyes. These had suffered some of the most brutal tortures. Harold Denny, correspondent for the New York Times, says he was ‘told of punishments inflicted by the SS guards so depraved and so obscene that I could never tell them except to other men in whispers.’”
My health was permanently damaged, but I was grateful to be alive. The long ordeal in one death camp after another had only strengthened me in my earlier resolve. I had said then: ‘If God gets me out of this lions’ den, I will serve him exclusively.’ So immediately after our liberation, while still there in Buchenwald, I was baptized, along with Fritz Heikorn. From that day to this I have endeavored to prove faithful to Jehovah. Since my marriage in 1956, I have shared this determination with my wife, Simone.
SURVIVING NAZI PERSECUTION
Simone grew up in the province of Alsace in eastern France near the German border. Her parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses shortly before the preaching work of the Witnesses was banned there in 1939. Simone was baptized by her father, Adolphe, in 1941, when she was only 11. Later, on September 4, 1941, her father was picked up by the Gestapo at his place of work, and he was not seen again by the family until nearly four years later, in 1945.
Adolphe endured all sorts of trials during his detention. For instance, he was told that if he would sign a letter of renunciation of his faith he would be given an excellent job as a draftsman, and his wife and daughter would be returned to him. But if he refused, his wife would be arrested and his daughter would be taken to a reform school. Later, he was savagely beaten into unconsciousness and it took several hours to revive him.
Simone and her mother, Emma, were not immediately arrested, and they carried on the underground work of witnessing. “Together with Brother Koehl,” Emma explained to me, “we used to collect The Watchtower at the new frontier between Alsace and the rest of France. Then it was translated into German and finally mimeographed. In this way German-speaking brothers in Alsace and Freiburg, Germany, received spiritual food.”
After being kept in Mulhouse prison briefly, Adolphe was transferred, toward the end of 1941, to the Schirmeck concentration camp in Alsace. Then he was taken to the infamous Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany. Beginning in 1943 the situation for all prisoners in Dachau improved, and they were permitted to receive food parcels.
“One day I was eating some small cakes sent to me by Emma,” Adolphe once told me. “I found that they had an unusual consistency. Suddenly I realized that I was chewing paper; messages were hidden in the cakes!”
Emma waited impatiently to receive Adolphe’s quarterly letter limited to 12 lines. How relieved and happy she was to hear that he had received the “vitamins”!
The improved situation for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adolphe said, made possible his survival. But then he received another blow. Word came to him that Simone and Emma were arrested. “I was deeply worried,” he told me. “Then one day while I was queuing up for a shower, I heard a voice quoting Proverbs 3:5, 6, which states: ‘Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding. In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.’ It echoed like a voice coming down from the heavens. It was just what I needed to recover my balance.” Actually, the voice was that of another prisoner quoting this text.
Although still very young, Simone also had to face severe trials. For her stand for Christian principles she was expelled from high school. She was interrogated under blinding lights. Two “psychiatrists” tried to obtain information regarding where The Watchtower came from and where the clandestine press was. She knew the answers, so she prayed intensely to Jehovah for help not to become a traitor. When she was at the point of collapsing, the shrill ringing of the telephone abruptly interrupted this trying session.
Eventually, on July 9, 1943, Simone was arrested by two medical social workers and taken to the Wessenberg Nazi reform school in Constance, Germany. Her mother, Emma, managed to catch the same train to accompany her. But then, in September 1943, she, too, was arrested.
Emma was put into the Schirmeck concentration camp in Alsace. On her arrival she was commanded to mend military clothing, which she refused to do. She was thrown into solitary confinement in the prison basement for seven months. She had been released for only a short time when she was thrown back there again for giving a witness to other prisoners. She spent another three months in that terrible place. But she remained firm in faith through it all.
In the meantime, Emma’s sister, Eugenie, remained free, and she did her utmost, at the risk of her life, to help the other family members. She told me: “It was a privilege to take over the sending of food parcels containing excerpts from The Watchtower into Dachau, and to visit Simone once a month in Germany. I had won the confidence of the directors of the reform school and thus obtained permission for Simone to accompany me for walks. This gave me the opportunity to study The Watchtower with her. The authorities seemed to have been blinded by Jehovah, for they were totally unaware of my association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was able to visit Simone 13 times in the 22 months of her confinement. And I got information into prison to Emma about how her daughter was getting along.”
Eventually Adolphe was transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Then he was sent to Mauthausen-Ebensee in the winter of 1944-45. This meant a complete cutting off of communication from his family on the outside. On this, Simone comments:
“I suffered no mental damage when our family was torn apart. I kept my eyes fixed on my parents’ example of integrity. Often mother’s words came back to me: ‘The testing of our faith is a privilege and good training.’ I never saw my parents at a loss when faced with trials, nor mother cry. When I had to appear time and again before the authorities, I remembered that persecuted Christians are a spectacle to outsiders. It was as if, beyond my persecutors, I could see angels encouraging me. Before I left mother we prayed together, then sang a song to Jehovah’s praise. I felt strongly the powerful hand of Jehovah upon me.
“Alone in the icy and harsh atmosphere of the reform school, I learned to walk with God as my only support. And when I prayed, I also thought about my parents’ prayers ascending to the heavens, and I felt as if we were uttering a single prayer. I then felt within me the same warmth as I did during my early years, sitting on father’s lap or snuggling close to mother. Years have gone by since then, but Jehovah never changes. He is a God of salvation.”
REUNION AND ENDURANCE
The reuniting of Simone and her family at the end of the war was indeed a moving occasion. It took place in their flat in Mulhouse. The building had remained intact while all around were only ruins and desolation.
“The gratitude overflowing from our hearts for such an unbelievable deliverance blurred the physical difficulties,” Emma told me. “With our newly found freedom to preach the ‘good news’ we felt as if we were walking—or rather cycling—on air, for it wasn’t unusual for us to cycle 60 kilometers (over 37 miles) in order to find Jehovah’s ‘sheep.’ We were short on the necessities of life, but our loving brothers in the United States, by means of the Watch Tower Society’s branch in Paris, provided us with clothes and other material help. That proved to us how Jehovah’s organization takes care of us, as a mother would.”
Shortly after their deliverance, when Simone was only 17, she refused an excellent job alongside her father as a draftswoman, so that she could pioneer. So it was only a short time after the family was reunited that Simone was off again in a preaching assignment. How happy I am for her Christian zeal, for, as a result, she was invited to Gilead in 1952 and I was able to meet and later marry her!
Our family has been richly blessed. We have been able to help more than 250 persons to take their stand for Jehovah. Some of them are now elders, others serve in Bethel homes, as circuit overseers, pioneers and missionaries. So, along with so many others in the world, we can echo the words of the Bible psalmist: “I will bless Jehovah at all times . . . out of all my frights he delivered me. . . . O magnify Jehovah with me, you people, and let us exalt his name together.”—Ps. 34:1, 4, 3.
[Picture of Max Liebster on page 20]