Faith in God Sustained Me
As told by Harald Abt
IN SEPTEMBER 1940 I was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. The SS (Hitler’s Blackshirts/ Elite Guard) officers gave me a “warm” reception; I was beaten repeatedly and threatened. Pointing to the chimney of the nearby crematorium, one officer warned: “You will be ascending there to your Jehovah within 14 days if you stick to your faith.”
I was then taken to where my Christian brothers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, were kept. I was ordered to squat with my arms stretched in front of me. For four hours I had to maintain that awkward position. How glad I was at 6 p.m. to see the Witnesses coming back from their hard day of work!
These Witnesses—earlier there were some 400 of them—told me that about 130 of their brothers had died due to inhuman treatment the previous winter. Had this frightened the survivors? No, they were determined, as I was, too, to maintain loyalty to God.
But before telling more about my nearly five years in the Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps, let me describe briefly how it was that I was sent there.
CHRISTIANS IN TROUBLOUS TIMES
I was born in southern Poland, in a part that formerly belonged to Austria; so I grew up speaking Polish as well as German. In 1931, at the age of 19, I entered the Polytechnical Institute in Danzig (Polish, Gdansk), then a German-speaking ‘Free City’ on the Baltic Sea. There in 1934 I met Elsa, a young woman who was to affect my life deeply.
In 1936, while I was preparing for my final examinations, Elsa began going to the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. These were held in secret, since some Witnesses had already been arrested. I let Elsa know that I thought it foolish for her to get involved with such people. But she eventually persuaded me to go along to a meeting. Rather than being able to find fault, I was impressed by the Bible knowledge the Witnesses had.
When I finished my studies at the university, there weren’t any good job opportunities in Poland. So I considered going to Germany to get work. But Elsa said: “If you go, then you can go without me.” Jehovah’s Witnesses were being persecuted severely in Germany, and Elsa didn’t want to expose herself unnecessarily to that. This made me think, and so I started studying the Bible more regularly. In June 1938 we were married. Then early in 1939 both Elsa and I were baptized, thus symbolizing our dedication to Jehovah God.
In the meantime, I had obtained a good job as an engineer in the administration of the port of Danzig. We had a nicely furnished apartment, and it was used for Bible meetings. About this time, our Bible literature, which was sent from the Polish branch of the Watch Tower Society in Lodz, was being intercepted in Danzig. Convinced that I had to try to do something, I wrote to our Christian brothers in Lodz, suggesting that they deliver the literature to an address just outside of Danzig. There Elsa and I would pick it up and smuggle it into the city.
Elsa was pregnant at the time, and sometimes she had 100 Watchtower magazines tied around her, beneath her clothes. Once a customs officer jokingly said: “Boy, you are going to have triplets, I’m sure!” But she was never searched. We continued smuggling literature until Germany attacked Poland September 1, 1939, after which our freedom to move in and out of Danzig was restricted. Our daughter Jutta was born on September 24.
HONOR TO HITLER?
After the Polish garrison surrendered to the Germans, I was able to return to work. My greeting, “Good morning,” caused fellow workers to stare at me; now everyone was supposed to say, “Heil Hitler.”
I asked to speak to the assistant director of the port and explained that I was a Christian and couldn’t say that greeting. “Well, I am a Christian, too,” he responded. I said, though, that I was a Christian in a strict sense, and did not feel it proper to give such glory to a man. I was fired on the spot and was told that I would be imprisoned if I would not “Heil” Hitler.
Later in that month of September, after the German armies conquered Poland, Hitler came to Danzig. He gave a fiery victory speech in the main square, near the building where we lived. Everyone was supposed to have a flag hanging out the window, but no flag was displayed from our floor!
For our safety, the brothers suggested that we move to eastern Poland. That meant, though, leaving all our possessions. With just a suitcase, a baby carriage and Jutta bundled in a pillow, we made the long trip in December. The trains were jammed and irregular.
Finally, we reached the house in Lodz where the branch office was. The sister who opened the door saw the motionless child in Elsa’s arms and ran from the door crying. After some moments she returned, saw the baby move and shouted: “Oh! She lives! She lives!” Only then did she invite us in. Many children had frozen to death in the transports; so she thought that Jutta, too, was dead.
ARRESTED AND IMPRISONED
That sister’s husband was already in prison. It was a hard winter for us. We didn’t have any coal to heat the house or to cook what little food we had. Finally, I was able to get a job. But one day in July 1940 the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) found us at the house, while they were looking for someone else. Elsa and I were ordered to report to the Gestapo office.
The following morning I went to work, gathered together my personal things, and told my boss that I had to see the Gestapo and wouldn’t be back. “Oh, this is silly,” he replied. “You’ll be back at 12 o’clock. Don’t worry.” A few minutes later I met Elsa in front of the Gestapo office, and we went upstairs together.
“Please sit down,” the officer said. “We know why you are here.” He then reminded us that Poland was under the rule of the Third Reich (Nazi Germany), and of what had happened to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. “If you continue to speak about your faith,” he said, “you will be sent to a concentration camp.”
He then went to a typewriter and started typing. Coming back, he handed me the paper. It said in part: ‘I, Harald Abt, promise to cease talking about the kingdom of God.’ I told him: “I’m sorry, I can’t sign that.”
After being told how stupid I was for refusing to sign, I was taken away. Elsa was questioned further. In the course of the interrogation, she mentioned that we had a 10-month-old baby at home. “Nobody else can feed the child,” Elsa said, “because I breast-feed her.” Concerned about the baby, the officer said: “I’ll make it short then.”
The statement he hurriedly drew up was different from the one I had refused to sign. It simply said that Elsa was aware that if she continued to follow her religion she would be sent to a concentration camp. Elsa felt she could sign that, as she was aware of this. But after signing it she became frightened. Why? Because if she was released I might think that she had compromised her faith. So when she left the office, she called out loudly to me at the far end of the hall: “I didn’t compromise! I didn’t compromise!”
After I was held for a few weeks, I was sent to a prison in Berlin and from there shipped off to Sachsenhausen.
LIFE IN SACHSENHAUSEN
After the “warm” reception, SS officers took us to get our prison clothing. Our hair was shaved off. Then we got our numbers assigned—I was 32,771. A violet triangle, the identification of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was given to me to sew on my clothes. The rest were identified by triangles of other colors—political prisoners wore red, Jews yellow, criminals green, homosexuals pink, and so forth. I was the only Witness in this group.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were assigned to a barracks by themselves. The barracks of Sachsenhausen were situated in a half circle around the big roll-call square. On the gable end of the barracks facing the square there was a saying written that went something like this: ‘There is a way to freedom: Faithfulness, industriousness, work and love for the Fatherland.’ On each barracks there was a word or two of this saying. The word LOVE was on the Witnesses’ barracks. It was here that I squatted in the cold for four hours.
These huge barracks—there were more than 60 of them—were each divided into two sleeping areas. In the middle there were the dining area, toilets and wash facilities. The sleeping quarters on either side were unheated; the beds were three tiers high. In the winter the temperature would get down to -18 degrees Celsius (-4° F), and we had only two thin blankets. The air exhaled by the breathing men condensed on the ceiling and then the water dripped down and froze on the blankets of the men sleeping on the top tier.
Mostly, our meals consisted of turnips in the form of soup, at times with horse heads boiled in it. Occasionally, we had fish soup that smelled so bad that the whole camp stank! At night we were given some bread. Since breakfast consisted only of some imitation coffee, I always saved a little bread to eat in the morning, because I was sensitive to hunger pains.
We had to get up at six in the morning, make our beds, get washed and dressed; then we had to go to the square for the roll call and march off to work. Much of the work was done outside the camp. My first assignment was building roads. Later, because of my engineering training, I was given the technical oversight of the building of new workshops.
Many SS officers were cruel, often just looking for ways to torment us. Sometimes one would come during the time we were at work and search for dust in the barracks. Usually he was able to find some on the rafters, which is not surprising since there were about 80 straw beds in one room. When we came home from work, he would announce: “I found dust in your barracks this morning, so you are not going to get any lunch today.” Then they would take off the lids, so that everyone could smell the food, and take the kettles away. Any complaint would result in the death penalty.
You were never sure of your life in Sachsenhausen. If you attracted the attention of the guards in some small way, it could mean punishment. A person might be forced to stand in front of the barracks all day in the freezing cold of winter. If he developed a fever—many got pneumonia—and couldn’t go to work, the SS guard might say: “Oh, he has a fever! Very well, let him stand out in the cold then and cool off.” Such treatment killed many.
Others were killed this way: They were ordered to sit in a large bowl of cold water in the dead of winter, and a jet of cold water was pointed in the area of their heart. Because of such inhuman treatment, we never knew whether we would survive to the following spring.
Many have asked me, “Weren’t you afraid?” No, when you are in such a situation, you develop a strength through your faith. Jehovah helps you out. At the dining tables, when others were out of earshot, we would pray together and even sing in low tones. For example, when we heard that one of our brothers had died through brutality or privation, we sang a song with a fighting spirit. Our attitude was: Stay strong! Be courageous! We knew we might soon die, too, and wanted to express firm determination to keep faithful.
SPIRITUAL FEEDING AND PREACHING
Things improved a bit for us in 1942. A new commandant of the camp took over, and we had a little more freedom. We were no longer forced to work on Sundays. Also, about that time seven issues of The Watchtower were smuggled in that dealt with the prophecies of Daniel. And we obtained a few Bibles, too. So on Sunday afternoons we would crowd together in one wing of the barracks for Bible study; there would be about 200 of us. A few would be posted outside to signal if any SS guard approached. These were very memorable, faith-strengthening meetings for me.
‘Smuggled Watchtowers?’ you might wonder. That in itself is a story of faith and courage. Some Witness prisoners worked outside the camp and came in contact with brothers who had not yet been arrested. Thus they could secretly get some literature to smuggle back into the camp. Brother Seliger, who was like our overseer in the camp, worked in the prison infirmary, and he would hide the smuggled Bible literature behind a tile in the bathroom there.
In time, however, it was discovered how well organized we were. Also, some Bibles were found in our barracks. So about 80 brothers were put in a work brigade and sent away from Sachsenhausen. The remaining Witnesses were dispersed into the many different barracks of the camp. Though this broke up our large meetings, it provided many more opportunities to preach to fellow prisoners.
Quite a few young Russians, Ukrainians and Polish men responded and became Witnesses. Some were secretly baptized right in the camp—in the bathtub in the camp infirmary. I remember especially two young Ukrainian men. One day they heard a brother whistling a Kingdom song, and asked about it. “This is a religious melody,” the brother said. They were very impressed to learn that people were put in the camp because of their religious convictions. After the liberation, one of these young men took the lead in the witnessing work in a part of eastern Poland. He was killed by foes of Jehovah’s Witnesses while on his way to conduct a Christian meeting.
One day in 1944, while marching in with my work brigade for the noon meal, I saw my brothers standing in the courtyard. Recognized as a Witness, I was told to join them. Somehow the SS had learned about our secret mail service in and out of the camp (and from one camp to another), as well as how we would meet in small groups of two or three in the roll-call square and discuss a daily Bible text. We were ordered to stop this illegal activity, but we stood unitedly in our determination to continue strengthening one another spiritually. When Brother Seliger, who was a chief link in the secret mail service, was asked if he was going to continue preaching in the camp, he said: “Yes, that is exactly what I am going to do, and not only I, but also all my brothers.” The spirit of faith and courage that Jehovah’s Witnesses had clearly was not broken, and the Nazis again saw that there was nothing they could do to break our integrity to God.
BUCHENWALD AND LIBERATION
Toward the end of October 1944 I was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, along with a brigade of building experts. We were to rebuild some workshops that American planes had bombed. The brothers in Buchenwald soon got in touch with me and welcomed me to share spiritual fellowship with them. Here I was number 76,667.
By early 1945 it was evident that the Nazi regime was nearing collapse. When English fighter planes flew over the camp they greeted us by tilting their wings from side to side, trying to encourage us. The final two weeks or so before our liberation, prisoners didn’t even go out to work anymore.
On Wednesday, April 11, 1945, we gathered to hear a brother give a talk covering all the Scripture yeartexts from 1933, when Hitler came to power, to 1945. As the meeting progressed, we could hear the sound of battle drawing closer. Then, right in the middle of the talk, a prisoner opened the door wide and shouted: “We are free! We are free!” There was chaos in the camp, but we said a prayer of thanks to Jehovah and continued our meeting.
There were still over 20,000 prisoners in Buchenwald. The SS guards took off their uniforms and tried to escape, while many prisoners took vengeance on them. Later a prisoner told me how he had plunged a knife into the belly of an SS man. But, of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses took no part in the violence.
It was about a month later that I finally found Elsa. She had survived life in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. In August 1945 we returned home and found our daughter with some brothers who had taken care of her. By then she was nearly six years old and didn’t recognize us.
After liberation from occupation by the German army, Poland became a People’s Republic. Right away Elsa and I applied for work at the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Lodz. For five years we worked there, rejoicing to see the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses grow from around 2,000 in 1945 to about 18,000 in 1950. Over the years since 1950, we have continued to serve in various assignments given us by Jehovah’s organization, determined always to be strong in faith.
In all, I have spent 14 years of my life in concentration camps and prisons because of my faith in God. I have been asked: “Was your wife a help to you in enduring all of this?” She has been indeed! I knew from the beginning that she would never compromise her faith, and this knowledge helped sustain me. I knew that she would rather see me dead on a stretcher than know that I was free because of having compromised. It is a real help to have a stalwart partner like this. Elsa endured many hardships during her years in German concentration camps, and I’m sure that reading some of her experiences will be encouraging to you.
[Picture on page 9]
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
Place of Execution