Putting the Kingdom First in Postwar Germany
As told by Gertrud Poetzinger
On what principle will we base our decisions in life? The best teacher of all, Jesus Christ, told his disciples to ‘seek first God’s Kingdom.’ If they did so, all their other needs would be supplied. (Matthew 6:33) Since my youth I have found that laying our burdens on Jehovah, declaring his works and keeping Kingdom interests first in life will truly ‘make us rich’ in a spiritual way. (Proverbs 10:22; Psalm 55:22; 71:5; 73:28) The following personal experiences from an exciting chapter in my life demonstrate this principle.
IT WAS early 1945. World War II was drawing to a close in Europe. The German war effort was faltering, and the attitude of the people and even of the government had changed. Instead of looking forward to victory, there was an anticipation of defeat. For this reason the pressure placed on Jehovah’s Witnesses by their Nazi persecutors had also been reduced.
I was one of a number of female Witnesses who had been transferred from the Ravensbrück concentration camp to work as governesses in the homes of Nazi officials. One afternoon, a few months before the war ended, the SS officer for whose two children I was caring approached me privately in his house. His name was Kiener.
“Have you heard that the Russians are advancing on the eastern front?” he asked coldly. When I replied that I had, he asked: “What will you do if they come in here?” Looking him in the eye, I responded: “Well, they are our enemies and you are our enemies. So what difference does it make?” Yes, with such boldness Jehovah enabled us to continue standing courageously as Christian neutrals and Kingdom advocates in those difficult days.—John 15:19.
A Successful Escape
Reports of German withdrawal were not just rumors. Toward the end of April, Kiener arranged for his wife and their children to flee southward. At my request he sent me along with them. Mrs. Kiener gave me civilian clothes to wear in order not to give any indication that she had anything to do with the Nazi organization. We boarded a truck headed for the northern Bavarian countryside, closer to the American Front than to the Russian.
That was the first time I had really been away from the concentration camps in seven and a half years. But the war was not yet over, and tension ran high. As the truck rolled along, a squadron of Allied fighter planes swooped over us. I was in front with the two children and the driver. He was sure the planes would return to strafe the truck with machine-gun fire. In my heart I urgently prayed: “Jehovah, after all you have protected me through, please don’t let me die like this now!”
As anticipated, the fighter planes were making a wide turn so as to pass over us again. The driver was pressing down on the accelerator, but of course there was no hope of outrunning the aircraft. Suddenly, there appeared a side road leading into a patch of woods. The driver made a fast, sharp turn onto it and sped into the wooded area. Since the foliage was quite thick, the truck could not be seen from above, and the planes passed us by.
There were other such close calls during the war. However, the end of the war, which came only ten days after this incident, brought challenges of other sorts.
Caring for Greater Responsibilities
Mrs. Kiener, her children and I had found lodging along with a number of other refugees in the small village of Mönchsdeggingen, near Nördlingen. When the fighting had officially been stopped for one week, I informed her that I had to leave. Her response was understandably one of distress. Whom else could she trust? Now the whole country was against the Nazis and their families. But I had greater responsibilities. With the end of the war came the need for Jehovah’s Witnesses to reorganize the Kingdom-preaching work. I also had to try to find my husband, Martin.
We had been married only three and a half months when Martin was taken away and later sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Still later, I was also arrested and eventually put in the Ravensbrück camp. It had been two years since I had heard from my husband, and nine long years had passed since we had been separated. Was Martin still alive? If so, was he well?
An Unforgettable Day
The time came for me to depart. It was 4:30 in the morning. My breakfast consisted of a piece of heavy, dark bread. I set out on foot with no money, no food-ration coupons and no possessions except a child’s small school pouch in which I had kept some of the morning’s bread and a few personal items. The day passed by with me steadily making my way along the road toward Munich, my husband’s hometown and the most likely place to find him if he was still alive.
As evening drew near I found myself on the outskirts of a village. There was a curfew in effect, and it would be impossible to spend the night outdoors without running the risk of being arrested. So I stepped off the road and began to pray: “Jehovah, please help me. In all the years I have been serving you, I have never wanted for a place to lie down at night.” When I finished praying I stepped back onto the road and looked around, but everything was the same.
On my coming into the village, the first house I saw had a wall around the yard. Through the gate I could see a woman doing some yard work, and I asked her: “Could you please tell me if there is any place to spend the night here?” She looked me over and replied rather cautiously that I would have to go around the back of the house and ask her husband, as quite a number of people already were staying there.
Rounding the back of the house, I stepped inside to see a big meal of German specialties spread out before my eyes. Nine people were seated around the table, ready to begin eating. I momentarily stood there dazed, having eaten nothing since very early that morning. The man of the house raised his eyes and said firmly: “Well, don’t just stand there! Ten can eat just as well as nine!”
Before eating, however, I asked the man if I could spend the night there. He agreed, and his wife showed me a cot right at the head of the stairs out in the hallway. I thought of the men swarming through the house but assured her that the cot would be fine. She then left for an evening church service.
During the meal, a younger woman also staying in the same house listened intently to the conversation, which had quickly led into a witness about God’s Kingdom. It was difficult to discern exactly how she was reacting, and after a while she retired to her room.
The lady of the house eventually returned home and invited me into the sitting room. She showed me a German Elberfelder edition of the Bible, which has God’s name, Jehovah, in many places. “I got this from a Bible Student years ago,” she said. “Can you tell me if it is a genuine Bible? I have often read it, but I couldn’t understand it by myself. Can you please explain something about it to me?”
It already was late, but our conversation lasted far into the night. Close to midnight, the younger woman who at dinner had listened to the discussion about the Kingdom joined us, saying she could not sleep because of thinking about the things we had discussed. She added that she wanted to give me something to help me on my journey. At that, she handed me 20 marks—a lot of money in those days.
I told the women about going to Munich and said that I would have to go in the morning as early as possible. The lady of the house asked when I wanted to get up, and I told her five o’clock, although it was already past midnight. Then, as I headed for the cot in the hallway, she stopped me, saying: “You are not going to sleep there. Come.” She unlocked a door in the hall, revealing a beautifully furnished guest room with lace curtains and fine linens on a comfortable bed. “Here is where you are going to sleep,” she said.
A Challenge of a Different Sort
When I arose at five the next morning, the lady and her husband were already sitting in the kitchen with breakfast waiting for me. After we had eaten, she took my small school pouch and stuffed it full of sandwiches. Finally, she and her husband stood in front of the house to see me off, waving good-bye until I could no longer see them in the distance.
I reflected on the fact that only about 24 hours earlier I had left Mrs. Kiener, the SS officer’s wife, with practically no material provisions. All I then had was the determination to put Jehovah’s Kingdom first and to take advantage of my newfound freedom to that end. Before I made it to Munich, however, Jesus’ counsel to seek not only God’s Kingdom but also “his righteousness” was to be challenged.—Matthew 6:33.
In the middle of the afternoon, tired and footsore, I tried to get a ride on one of the American trucks carrying other refugees in the direction of Munich. I succeeded in getting one to stop, and in my very limited English made my request known to the driver. He said the back was full, but I could ride in the cab with him, and I accepted his offer.
As we were nearing Munich, the driver made several stops, letting out some passengers each time. When we were about to enter the city, he turned the truck onto a road leading out into the foothills. Noticing this, I tried to explain to him that I wanted to go into the city. “No!” he said. “We are going to the mountains.”
I then realized that all the other passengers were gone. I tried to open the door but could not figure out how to unlock it. The road wound into the hills, and all along the way in my broken English I tried to tell the man that I wanted no part of what he had in mind. But he kept driving until we arrived at a small glen in the woods. He stopped the truck and got out, walked around to my side of the truck and opened the door. I stepped down and stood facing him. He began saying how beautiful the day was and what a beautiful place it was, and that no one would see us.
“Yes,” I said, “it is a beautiful day and place, and nobody may be here, but Jehovah God sees us, and Jehovah will . . . me and you.” But I could not think of the English word “punish.” So I waved my hands wildly in front of his face and screamed at him loudly! This seemed to have an effect, for his attitude obviously changed. He paused for a moment, reflecting, then bade me to get back into the truck. Without a word, we drove into the center of Munich where he stopped and asked if that was close enough. I assured him that it was. Again he opened the door from the outside, and once more I stood face to face with him. This time, however, he took my hands and said: “You are a righteous woman. Pray for me, that my wife be as faithful as you are.”
Immediately, I began to pioneer, engaging in the full-time preaching work in Munich. I tried to contact as many fellow Witnesses as possible in order to help get our meetings and other activities going again, since practically all our Kingdom-publishing activities had been disrupted by the war and the persecution.
My Husband Is Alive!
Not long after arriving in Munich, I found out that Martin was indeed alive and well. He had been transferred to the extermination camp at Mauthausen, Austria, but had survived. Along with about a hundred other Witnesses, he had to wait there until their papers were processed. These would identify them as individuals persecuted by the Hitler regime. Without such papers it would not have been possible for them to travel or to obtain adequate provisions.
After learning about the situation, I personally went to the American military commander in Munich and said: “My husband is in a concentration camp in Austria, and I want you to send a car there and bring him back!” As things turned out, the commander eventually sent two buses there and brought all the Witnesses back.
A New Challenge Met
Now I was faced with another challenge. My husband was coming back! But where could we live? I had been living in a tool shed behind a house, sleeping in a chair surrounded by all the garden tools. We needed a place to live, but I knew that Jesus’ servants should put the Kingdom first.
So in prayer I resolved to take one full day from my pioneering to look for a suitable place to live. I went to the American-operated housing authority and obtained a list of apartments. Beginning early in the morning of the day selected, I went all the way through the list. Sundown found me standing in front of the last house listed, having just been told that it, like all the others, no longer was available. What was I to do?
I prayed to Jehovah for help. After all, he knew what was needed and would care for those who put the Kingdom first. I had taken the one day away from pioneering and had come up with nothing. When I finished praying, once again it seemed that nothing had changed. But I had confidence in Jehovah, the “Hearer of prayer.” (Psalm 65:2) So the only thing to do was to go forward and look for an answer. This I did, literally, and not too many paces in front of me I saw three women conversing along the sidewalk. Approaching them, I asked if they could direct me to an available apartment.
One of the group turned and said quite bluntly: “You just have to go out and find one for yourself!” Her impoliteness startled me, but I thought: ‘Perhaps this is my answer! I will start right here at this corner and just begin going from house to house.’ Going up to the first house, I rang the bell and a woman greeted me with the words: “You must have come from the housing authority!” Her number had not been on my list, however. She ushered me up to a second-story apartment and opened the door to a nice room with a small kitchen across the hall—and a splendid view of the Bavarian Alps!
Rich Blessings for Faithfulness
Martin and I moved into that apartment. From the very beginning, of course, we both remained busy with the Kingdom work. I continued pioneering, and Martin began to make arrangements to visit groups of Witnesses a distance from Munich in order to build them up spiritually. He made these one- or two-day excursions alone, since traveling still was very difficult.
Once, Martin returned from a trip just as I was leaving for service at 9:00 a.m. He asked me to be sure to set out clean clothing and whatever else he would need because he had to leave on another trip that afternoon. I said that I was going out to make return visits and conduct some home Bible studies and would be back at noon to fix his lunch and help him pack. Noon came and went, but I was not there; nor were his clean socks and other things ready for his suitcase. Four o’clock came and went, then 8:00 p.m., and finally I came home at 11 o’clock that night happy for all the good experiences I had enjoyed during that day. Then it dawned on me! In my enthusiasm for the service and my exciting Bible studies that day, I had forgotten all about Martin and his trip. At that time, I was just not used to having a husband at home!
Naturally, such absentmindedness did not last long. Martin had to be away much of the time, and I soon became acutely aware of his absence. Missing him, I found myself weeping quite often. However, because I did not want the landlady to see me as anything except my usual happy self, I would go to a nearby cemetery, sit down on a stump and cry there. I reasoned: ‘Lots of other people come here and cry. So it won’t seem unusual to anyone if I do too!’ But crying did not really improve the situation.
I had so many good experiences conducting 22 Bible studies with families at least once each week! But I wanted to share these good things with my husband. Martin was back and in good health, and yet we could not be together. So I prayed to Jehovah about the matter. I also confided my distress to Brother Erich Frost, then the overseer of the preaching work in Germany. I told him that having my husband back just meant that I had his socks and underwear to wash. Brother Frost might have thought that he was encouraging me by saying that I should be happy that I could at least do this. But I was not too satisfied with that answer! Nevertheless, endure I did.
Some time later, Martin was invited to Magdeburg to be trained as a servant to the brethren, as circuit overseers were then known. At the conclusion of this training, Brother Frost announced that he had something special for Gertrud. Direction had been received from the Brooklyn headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses that all wives previously in pioneer service could join their husbands in visiting the various congregations in the traveling work. My prayers had again been answered!
As I reflect on the many experiences my husband and I have had, I am convinced that our heavenly Father knows the things we need and that we will receive them at the proper time if we are really putting the Kingdom first in our lives. I can also see that I have not received things I really did not need.—Matthew 6:32.
For nearly 31 postwar years I traveled the length and breadth of Germany with my husband as he visited and spiritually assisted Christian congregations in that land. Since 1978, however, I have worked at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York, where Martin has been serving as a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although I am now 72 years old, how grateful I am to Jehovah that I still have plenty of strength—enough to spend full days in Kingdom service!
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I wore the prison uniform while caring for the SS officer’s children
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A grim expectation: The planes might return to strafe the truck
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With my husband, Martin, I now enjoy witnessing publicly and from house to house in Brooklyn, New York