We Did Not Give Up!
As told by Ilse Unterdörfer
Over 100 years in God’s service despite great tests of faith
IN September 1939 my friend Elfriede Löhr and I found ourselves in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. World War II had just begun.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS (Schutz-Staffel, or Elite Guard), visited us at the Lichtenburg concentration camp shortly before we were taken to the newly erected camp of Ravensbrück. His purpose was to get Jehovah’s Witnesses to abandon their faithfulness to God and to support the Nazi war effort. But, to a person, we refused. At this Himmler flew into a great rage and cried: “If you like, your Jehovah may reign in heaven, but here upon earth it is we who rule! We’ll show you who will endure longer, you or we!”
For nearly six long years, Elfriede and I, along with many of our Christian sisters, endured some of the most horrible conditions imaginable. Yet, we Witnesses survived, although Himmler, Hitler and their crowd are gone!
Years earlier, while we were still teenagers, both Elfriede and I had resolved to use our lives in God’s service and that nothing would ever make us give up! Before being sent to the concentration camp, we experienced God’s comforting care as we preached the Kingdom good news in the face of rising Nazi persecution. And today we are still at it, having just completed 100 years of dedicated service between us. But let me tell you how we came to be in Ravensbrück.
OUR EARLY YEARS IN GOD’S SERVICE
In 1926, when she was only 16, Elfriede symbolized her dedication to God by undergoing water baptism. Her heart’s desire was fulfilled when she was able to enter the full-time preaching work in the winter of 1930. Although a serious illness limited what she could do for a time, when I first met Elfriede in March 1937 she was active in the underground work. You see, the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been banned in Germany under the Nazi regime, and, at the risk of our freedom and even our lives, many of us shared in distributing spiritual food throughout the country.
My own goal as a young girl had been to help my fellow humans; I wanted to be a high-school teacher. But in 1931 I accompanied my mother to an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Paris, France. What I learned and experienced there changed my life. The following year, at 19 years of age, I was baptized.
Hitler and his Nazi party came to power in 1933 and almost immediately began persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was a great joy to me when I was given the privilege of serving as a courier in our underground activity in Saxony. In August 1936, the German gestapo (secret police) began a concerted campaign against our underground organization. Fritz Winkler, who had oversight of our work, and most of the regional directors were arrested and imprisoned.
In September 1936, I was able to get to Lucerne, Switzerland, for a convention, along with about 300 others from Germany. There J. F. Rutherford, then the president of the Watch Tower Society, entrusted Erich Frost with the responsibility of reorganizing our badly disrupted underground activity, and some days later I was appointed to work along with him.
It was an assignment from Brother Frost that sent me to Munich to locate Elfriede Löhr. The only thing I knew about her was that her father was a dentist. I found their address in the telephone directory and, as a precaution, phoned first. When we met, I told Elfriede that she had been invited to work full time with us. Thus began a close friendship of nearly 43 years. We have been companions in concentration camps and partners in the full-time preaching work for over 40 of those years.
The gestapo were looking for all of us. So we usually traveled by train at night, sleeping as best we could. During the day we would meet the brothers and sisters at various designated places to hand over to them mimeographed copies of The Watchtower and other vital information. Occasionally, we would spend the night with interested persons or at summer houses of brothers who were not yet so well known to the gestapo.
We never carried written addresses or any other notes. We memorized everything. Thus, if we were arrested, the police would not obtain evidence to incriminate anyone. We repeatedly felt Jehovah’s protection. This was especially true when we were organizing for the distribution of the resolution adopted at the Lucerne convention. This resolution raised strong objections to the cruel treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the Roman Catholic Hierarchy and their allies in Germany. On December 12, 1936, between 5 and 7 p.m., some 3,459 brothers and sisters throughout Germany shared in distributing hundreds of thousands of copies of this powerful message.
Then, on March 21, 1937, less than two weeks after I first met Elfriede, Brother Frost and I were arrested. About the same time, certain regional service directors also fell into the hands of the gestapo. Brother Heinrich Dietschi, a regional service director who was still free, assumed oversight of the work in Brother Frost’s absence.
When neither Brother Frost nor I showed up at a prearranged meeting at the end of March, Elfriede knew that something was wrong. She could not return home, for the gestapo were looking for her. She wondered: “Who is Brother Frost’s successor, and how can I meet him?” After praying to Jehovah, it came to her mind to seek contact in the town of Leutkirch, about 150 km (90 mi.) from Munich. In Leutkirch, on that very day she met the brother whom Brother Dietschi had sent to locate her. Surely this seemed to be by angelic direction!
Since the Nazis claimed that the contents of the resolution we had distributed on December 12 were untrue, arrangements were under way to distribute throughout Germany an “Open Letter” that gave specific proofs of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Brother Frost and I had been arrested in the course of preparing for this big campaign. Now Elfriede worked closely with Brother Dietschi in completing preparations, and the campaign was successfully carried out on June 20, 1937. Elfriede’s report in the 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses explains:
“Brother Dietschi organized the campaign. We were all courageous, everything had been wonderfully arranged and each region had sufficient letters. I picked up a large suitcase of them at the train station for the territory around Breslau and took them to the brothers in Liegnitz. I also had my own, which at the appointed time I distributed like all the other brothers.”
For months prior to this campaign the gestapo had boasted that they had destroyed our organization. So what a humiliating surprise it was to them when, in such an organized way, hundreds of thousands of copies of this letter were delivered throughout Germany! It really threw them into a state of shock.
MEETING EACH OTHER AGAIN
Thus, while Elfriede was free, I found myself in the grip of the gestapo. At first I was sentenced only to a year and nine months. But immediately after serving the sentence, I was arrested again and sent to the Lichtenburg concentration camp, early in 1939. To my great surprise, Elfriede was there when I arrived.
In the summer of 1939 all of us Christian sisters in Lichtenburg were taken to the new Ravensbrück camp. Time and again we had been threatened: “Just wait until you get to Ravensbrück. There we’ll break you.” The surroundings of the new camp resembled a sandy desert. The high walls, with barbed wire on top, as well as the barracks for the prisoners and houses for the SS, had been completed. But everything else was waste and waiting for workers, namely, for inmates.
A TEST OF OUR FAITH
There were about 500 of us women, Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Ravensbrück in the fall of 1939. It was on December 19 that several sisters refused to sew ammunition pockets on soldiers’ uniforms; they could not conscientiously support the war effort in this way. Thereupon all of us were called to the camp square and asked whether we would do the work. All of us refused. As a result, a campaign was begun to force us to abandon our position of Christian neutrality and to support the war effort.—Isa. 2:4.
First, they made us stand outside in the cold from morning till night while wearing only light summer clothes. And it was one of the coldest German winters, with temperatures often 15 to 20 degrees below zero Celsius! At night we were locked in the cell block where we had to sleep on the bare floor without blankets, and with the windows open to create a frigid draft. Moreover, we were not given a thing to eat on the first day. During the following four days of this treatment, we received only a half ration of food. Then we were locked in a dark cell for three more weeks, being allowed something warm to eat only once every four days. The other days, we received a piece of bread and a cup of black coffee in the morning. During their Christmas celebration (December 25 to 27), we received nothing at all.
Afterward, we were returned to our barracks, which were declared penal barracks for three months. This meant less and poorer food, and hard pick-and-shovel work from morning till night seven days a week. And we were denied medical aid. Time and again, the SS commanders would say: ‘If you don’t agree to support the war effort, you won’t get out of here except through the chimney!’
By the spring of 1940 we were nothing but skeletons. We should have died off like flies. But Jehovah God, who had been directly challenged by Himmler, showed that He can sustain His people under the worst circumstances. Not one of our 500 sisters fell seriously ill, nor did any die. Even a few SS people said: “That’s because your Jehovah has helped you.” And, more importantly, not one sister had given up; all had remained loyal. It was a real triumph of integrity to Jehovah!
I might say that both Elfriede and I had settled accounts with life. We had determined to remain faithful to Jehovah regardless of what came. With the apostle Paul, we could say: “For both if we live, we live to Jehovah, and if we die, we die to Jehovah. Therefore both if we live and if we die, we belong to Jehovah.”—Rom. 14:8.
DAILY LIFE IN RAVENSBRÜCK
However, for us conditions soon changed for the better. Many agricultural workers were inducted into the army, creating a farm-labor shortage. Therefore, camp inmates were sent to work on farms in the vicinity of Ravensbrück. Since the risk of such workers escaping was greater, and since it was known that Jehovah’s Witnesses would not try to get away, many of us were sent to the farms to work. There we were given food to eat in addition to the meager fare of the concentration camp.
But spiritual feeding was of greatest concern to us. We would build one another up spiritually by sharing the Bible knowledge that we had acquired before we were imprisoned. Also, newcomers to the camp would share what they had learned more recently in their Bible studies. How glad we were when several Bibles were smuggled into the camp! Whenever possible, we gave a witness to other inmates, as well as to our overseers. Nothing could stop us from demonstrating our faithfulness to Jehovah. Our decision was: “Rather die than give up!”
Elfriede was assigned to do gardening for SS officers, and I, along with other sisters, was sent to work on an SS farm. Toward the end of 1942, we began to sleep overnight at the farm rather than returning to the camp barracks; thus we enjoyed considerable freedom. In the spring of 1943, I succeeded in contacting Brother Franz Fritsche by letter. He was a courageous brother who was active in smuggling spiritual food into the concentration camps. Once I was able to meet him in a forest adjacent to the farm. Arrangements were made for us to begin receiving The Watchtower and other publications regularly. There were a number of ways that we got literature into the camp.
But then conditions changed again. Brother Fritsche was arrested. The gestapo finally discovered that through organized channels the Bible literature regularly was being smuggled right into the concentration camps. What a shock this discovery was to them! And what powerful evidence that after 10 years of vicious persecution the spirit of God’s people had not been broken, either within the camps or outside! Immediately, Himmler ordered that all suspected camps be searched for Bible literature.
SURVIVING THE WORST YEAR
The gestapo quite unexpectedly appeared in Ravensbrück on May 4, 1944. They made a sudden thorough search for Bibles and Bible literature, particularly The Watchtower. Also, they went to where Elfriede was doing gardening for the SS and to the SS farm where I was assigned. Finally it was determined that 15 sisters regarded as the ones responsible would suffer for all. Elfriede and I were included in this number.
First, we were locked in the notorious cell block. There we were crammed into small dark cells, and for seven weeks we were not allowed into the open air. Then we were taken to the “punishment building,” where Elfriede and I again came in close touch. What we lived through there during our last year in Ravensbrück can hardly be expressed with words. But we always felt Jehovah’s protection and loving care. He gave us the strength to endure. A great help was the spiritual food that the sisters who remained at the farm were able to smuggle in to us. The gestapo had not found the literature there, since we had good hiding places.
During the final months, conditions at the camp grew progressively worse, particularly where we were—in the punishment building. The barracks were crammed. Originally they had been designed for 100 prisoners, but finally the punishment building had to accommodate 1,200 to 1,500 persons. Six or seven slept in two beds, and so no one could really sleep well. Due to the poor, often insufficiently washed food, intestinal diseases were the order of the day. Prisoners perished miserably by the hundreds.
Elfriede also became seriously ill. She contracted an inflammation of the lungs and ran a high temperature. Before I could prevent it, she was taken to one of the barracks for the sick, which was crowded with those in the throes of death. No one was allowed to leave the punishment block alone. However, with the help of the room leader I was, on occasion, able to get out to take Elfriede something to drink.
It became clear that Elfriede would not live much longer where she was. Trucks regularly pulled up in front of the barracks for the sick, and the dead and the dying were thrown onto them and taken to the crematory. So, with the help of the room leader, two of us went to Elfriede. Her bed was near a window. Summoning all of our strength, we were able to get her out through the window. We then carried her back to the punishment building. There an inmate, a Russian woman who was a doctor, applied a simple though painful treatment so that the inflammation in Elfriede’s lungs subsided. Her life was saved.
By the early spring of 1945, World War II was coming quickly to a close. It was the intention of the Nazi SS troops to blow up the camp. But the Russians came with such speed that the Nazis were not able to carry out their devilish plans. On April 28 Ravensbrück fell into Russian hands without a fight. Thus we were released from that ‘fiery furnace’ after nearly six long years. This was in addition to about two years of imprisonment before coming to Ravensbrück.
MAINTAINING OUR FIRM DECISION
We had both promised Jehovah that, should we ever be free again, all our time and strength would be devoted to his service. On our difficult way home, we visited Brother Frost, who showed the same attitude. He invited us to come, as soon as possible, to Magdeburg, from where the preaching work in Germany was to be reorganized.
Soon after I arrived home in Olbernhau, however, the local government offered me the job of directing the criminal investigation department. I did not give this job offer a single thought; my decision to enter full-time service had long since been made. Only three weeks later, Elfriede and I were among the first five Bethel workers to return to Magdeburg.
In 1947 Brother N. H. Knorr, then the president of the Society, visited West Germany. He encouraged certain brothers and sisters to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. So Elfriede and I applied for this missionary training. In time, we received our invitations, and in 1949 we departed for the United States to attend school.
After being cut off for many years from regular meetings and service activities of Jehovah’s organization, what a blessing it was for us to drink in the spiritual blessings at Gilead! We considered it a great reward and wonderful compensation for the many hardships that we had gone through. Then, as a climax, in the summer of 1950 we attended the Theocracy’s Increase Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses at Yankee Stadium in New York city. The graduation exercises of our 15th class of Gilead were held on opening day.
Our first missionary assignment was Cologne, Germany, located on the banks of the Rhine River. We began working with the local congregation of 35 publishers and soon were conducting many productive Bible studies and assisting others to share in Kingdom service. After three and a half years there, we received a new assignment, to Austria. But in the meantime the congregation in Cologne had increased to 214 publishers, and we saw the dedication of a new Kingdom Hall.
In our last 24 years serving in Austria, we have had assignments in many places, including the valley of Gastein, at Gmunden on the beautiful Traunsee Lake, at Hohenems in Vorarlberg and at Telfs in Tyrol. Presently, we are working in Vorarlberg again, in the Forest of Bregenz. In our various assignments, we have aided in obtaining seven Kingdom Halls. Also, when we started in three of our assignments, there were either no Kingdom publishers or only one or two. But, in time, we saw the founding of new congregations in these places. Although we do not have children of our own, we have many spiritual children and grandchildren with whom we are united in a surpassing bond of warm love.
WHAT HAS HELPED US NOT TO GIVE UP
Even after surviving great tests of our faith in concentration camps, we have experienced temptations to give up our full-time service to Jehovah. There have been health problems due to advancing age and the aftereffects of our years in concentration camps. And in recent years the indifference of people in territories where materialism has such a hold has often been discouraging. Thus the wish has sometimes arisen for a more tranquil life with more ease and conveniences than are enjoyed by a full-time Kingdom proclaimer. What has helped us to endure?
For one thing, we have kept our eyes on the examples of faithful servants of Jehovah who left everything behind to serve him—persons like Abraham, Sarah, Moses, the apostle Paul and our greatest example, Jesus Christ. This has helped us to maintain the right attitude and hold to true values. We have kept in mind Jesus’ advice: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness.” Also, we have remembered what Jesus said earlier in his Sermon on the Mount: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”—Matt. 6:33, 21.
This is what we have always tried to do, to keep our hearts focused on the kingdom of God and on serving him with all that we have. Holding this as a precious treasure is what enabled us to endure the cruel tyranny of Nazism. Firmly holding this same Kingdom hope has helped us in the years since then to continue on full time in God’s service without giving up.
Truly, ours has been a richly satisfying life! Time and again we have experienced the truthfulness of the words at Malachi 3:10: “‘Test me out, please, in this respect,’ Jehovah of armies has said, ‘whether I shall not open to you people the floodgates of the heavens and actually empty out upon you a blessing until there is no more want.’” Our wish and prayer are that we might, with Jehovah’s help, continue in the full-time service on into eternity in association with Jesus Christ and in the presence of Jehovah God.
[Picture on page 9]
Ilse Unterdörfer and Elfriede Löhr as they appear today