Maintaining Faith Along with My Husband
As told by Elsa Abt
WHILE he was in Sachsenhausen, Harald was occasionally permitted to write a letter of just five lines. There was stamped on it: ‘Because he continues to be a stubborn Bible Student, the privilege to carry on normal correspondence has been denied.’ That stamp was always an encouragement to me, for it showed that my husband was remaining firm in the faith.
One day in May 1942 I returned from work and found the Gestapo waiting for me. They searched the house, then ordered me to get my coat and go with them. Our little daughter, Jutta, went up to one of the Gestapo, an unusually tall man. Tugging his pant leg, she said: “Please leave my mommy here!” Since he did not react, she went around to the other side of his legs and pleaded: “Please leave my mommy here!” This made him uncomfortable, so he sternly said: “Take this child away! Take her bed, too, and her clothes!” She was given to another family in the building, the door was sealed, and I was taken to Gestapo headquarters.
There I saw many other Witnesses who had been arrested that day. We had been betrayed by a person who had pretended to be a Witness and who had won our confidence. When the Gestapo questioned us about the whereabouts of our mimeograph machine and the identity of the one taking the lead in carrying on the underground preaching work, I pretended not to know anything. We were then thrown into prison.
Our unshakable faith frustrated the Gestapo. Once, during an interrogation, an officer came toward me with clenched fists. “What are we going to do with you people?” he exclaimed. “If we arrest you, you don’t care. If we send you to prison, you don’t care one bit. If we send you to the concentration camp, it doesn’t worry you. When we sentence you to death, you just stand there unconcerned. What are we going to do with you?”
After six months in prison, I, along with 11 other Christian sisters, was sent to Auschwitz, the infamous extermination camp.
DIFFERENT AND RESPECTED
First, we were taken to Birkenau, one of Auschwitz’ subsidiary camps. When one SS officer found out that we were there because we were Bible Students, he said: “If I were you, I would sign the paper and go home.”
“If I had wanted to sign, I could have done so before,” I responded.
“But you will die here,” he warned. I told him: “I am prepared for that.”
Later we had to have our pictures taken, and were to fill out forms and questionnaires. While waiting in a line that passed through the medical center, two doctors, also prisoners, were observing the arrivals. One doctor had been in the camp much longer than the other. I overheard the older one say to the younger: “You can always recognize the Bible Students.”
“Oh, yes?” the younger doctor replied, a little incredulous. “Well, then, show me in this group which one is a Bible Student.” I was just then moving past them in the line, and they could not see my violet triangle. Yet, pointing to me, the older doctor said: “This is a Bible Student.” The younger one came around, looked at my triangle and exclaimed: “You are right! How did you know?”
“Well, these people look different,” he said. “You can just tell them apart.”
It was true. We did look different. We walked upright, not stooped down, depressed. Our gaze was always straight ahead; we looked at the other person openly and freely. We were there as witnesses for Jehovah’s name. That is why we had a different bearing, and others recognized that.
We 12 sisters were in Birkenau only a few days. Then we were taken to Auschwitz to work in the homes of the SS officers. They wanted only Jehovah’s Witnesses for that; they were afraid to have others working in their homes. They knew that we would not try to poison them; we were honest and wouldn’t steal or try to escape.
LIFE AND DEATH IN AUSCHWITZ
For some time we all lived within the concentration camp, along with other prisoners, in the basement of a large brick house. The time came to give us our work assignments. “Who wants to work where?” we were asked. But we did not speak up. “Oh, you are so proud,” the woman overseer said.
“No, we are not proud,” my girl friend answered, “but wherever you put us, we shall work there.” And this was always our policy. We did not want to choose our work place, for we were praying to Jehovah for his guidance. If we were put in a place that turned out to be difficult, we could then turn and ask: “Jehovah, now please help us.”
My assignment was to work for an SS official who lived outside the camp. My job was to clean his house, help his wife with the cooking, care for their child and shop in town—only Jehovah’s Witnesses were trusted to leave the camp without guards. Of course, we always wore the striped prison uniform. After a while we were allowed to live where we worked, instead of returning to the camp at night. I slept in the SS officer’s basement.
But we were not really considered persons. For example, when the SS officer called me to his office, I had to stand at the door and say: “Custody Prisoner Number 24,402 asks permission to enter.” And after receiving his instructions, I was supposed to say: “Custody Prisoner Number 24,402 requests to leave.” Our names were never used.
As in other camps, spiritual food in the form of The Watchtower and other publications regularly found its way into Auschwitz. I even received letters from Harald. This is how regular communications were established with Witnesses from outside:
Some of our group, including my friend Gertrud Ott, were assigned to work in a hotel where the families of SS men lived. One day Gertrud was washing windows when a couple of women walked by, and, without looking up, one said, “We are Jehovah’s Witnesses too.” Later, when they came back, Gertrud said to them: “Go to the bathroom.” There they met and talked, and from then on they arranged other such meetings to smuggle in precious Bible literature and other communications.
We were thankful to Jehovah for his guidance and protection during those years in Auschwitz, especially since we knew that the most horrible things imaginable were happening. Whole shipments of Jews were arriving and being sent straight to the gas chambers! I once nursed a woman overseer at the camp who had worked in the gas chambers, and she told me what was going on there.
“People are herded into a room,” she explained, “and on the door to the next room is a sign, ‘To the Bathroom.’ They are told to undress. Entirely naked they go into the ‘bathroom.’ The door is locked behind them. But gas, instead of water, comes out of the shower heads.” What she had seen there had affected her emotionally, to the extent that she had become physically ill.
TO OTHER CAMPS AND LIBERATION
Beginning in January 1945, Germany suffered defeat after defeat on the eastern front. In an effort to evacuate the concentration camps, many of us were moved from one camp to another. After marching two nights and two days toward the Gross-Rosen camp, several sisters were too exhausted to continue. What a relief when on the third night we were finally permitted to lie down in a crowded barn! The only food we had on the whole trip was the little bread we had been able to take along. None of us felt we could survive another day’s march. But then something happened that was so extraordinary that I shall never forget it.
As we started out the next day, an SS doctor for whom I had once worked saw us, and he began shouting: “Bible Students out! Bible Students out!” Then he told me: “Make sure that we have all of you.” So 40 of us sisters were taken to a station and arrangements were made to transport us by train. It seemed like a miracle to us.
The trains were overcrowded, and three of us somehow missed the stop, going on to Breslau (Polish, Wroclaw). We got off there and were given directions to get to the camp. When we arrived at the gate, the guards laughed and laughed and finally said: “Only Jehovah’s Witnesses would come here of their own accord.” But we knew it would have meant trouble for our sisters if we hadn’t returned to the camp.
We were in Gross-Rosen only two weeks, and then we were transported to the Mauthausen camp near Linz in Austria. Conditions there were dreadful. Just too many people were herded together. Food was scarce, and we didn’t even have straw to sleep on, only wooden boards. After a short time we were on the move again, to the Bergen-Belsen camp, near Hannover, Germany. One of our sisters died en route. Due to the wretched conditions in this camp, many of our sisters who had survived the transport up until this point now died.
About 25 from our group were taken to yet another camp, a secret one, called Dora-Nordhausen. Originally this was a camp for men only, but recently some prostitutes had been taken there. However, the camp commandant made it clear to the woman overseer that we were of a different sort. We had it better at Dora-Nordhausen. A brother worked in the prisoners’ kitchen, and he saw to it that we had some decent food to eat.
By then the end of the war was near. Arrangements were made to transport us to a place near Hamburg. For the trip I was given a can of meat and some bread, but the men did not receive anything. A Polish brother was very sick; so I gave him my food ration. Later, he told me that this had saved his life. En route, we met the American soldiers, and we were freed. The SS men put on the civilian clothes they had brought along, hid their weapons and fled. The war was ending!
When Harald and I found each other about a month later, it was so extraordinary. We just hugged each other for the longest time—it had been five long years since we had been separated.
MORE TRIALS AND BLESSINGS
When we returned home we found this message on the door: “Jutta Abt lives here. Her parents are in the concentration camp.” How good it was to be home—and safe! Especially was it satisfying to know that we had been faithful to Jehovah.
My years in German concentration camps taught me an outstanding lesson. It is, how greatly Jehovah’s spirit can strengthen you when you are under extreme trial! Before I was arrested, I had read a sister’s letter that said that under severe trial Jehovah’s spirit causes a calmness to come over you. I thought that she must have been exaggerating a bit. But when I went through trials myself, I knew that what she had said was true. It really happens that way. It’s hard to imagine it, if you have not experienced it. Yet it really happened to me. Jehovah helps.
What helped me in my separation from my daughter was Jehovah’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son. (Gen. 22:1-19) Jehovah did not really want him to kill Isaac, but he wanted to see Abraham’s obedience. In my case, I thought, Jehovah does not require that I sacrifice my child, only that I leave her. This is nothing in comparison to what was asked of Abraham. Jutta has remained faithful to Jehovah all these many years, for which we are very happy.
The faithfulness of my husband has always been a joy and a strength to me. I just have to love and respect him for such faithfulness to Jehovah. And we have been richly rewarded as a result.