My Family’s Love for God Despite Prison and Death
As told by Magdalena Kusserow Reuter
MY BROTHER Wilhelm was to be executed by the Nazis the following morning. His crime? Conscientious objection to service in the German army. He was 25 years old and well aware of his impending execution by firing squad. During that evening of April 26, 1940, he wrote us the following farewell letter, after which he peacefully went to bed and slept soundly.
“Dear parents, brothers, and sisters:
All of you know how much you mean to me, and I am repeatedly reminded of this every time I look at our family photo. How harmonious things always were at home. Nevertheless, above all we must love God, as our Leader [Führer] Jesus Christ commanded. If we stand up for him, he will reward us.”
In his final night our dear Wilhelm was thinking of us—his Christian parents and his five brothers and five sisters, an unusually large and harmonious family. Through the turmoils of time, as a family we have seen to it that our love for God has always come first.
Our “Golden Age” Home
My parents, Franz and Hilda Kusserow, had been zealous Bible Students, or Bibelforscher (Jehovah’s Witnesses), from the time of their baptism in 1924, the year I was born as their seventh child. The years of youth that we 11 children spent with our parents were a marvelous time. Since my father retired from secular work early in life, he was able to devote much time to us. This he did in harmony with Bible principles. Not a day passed without our receiving Biblical counsel and instruction. Our parents recognized that children will not automatically become praisers of Jehovah just because their parents are.
In 1931 Father followed the Watchtower Society’s invitation to move his large family to a territory where no local congregation existed at that time. In Paderborn and surroundings—about 200 towns and villages were included—we had a lot of work to do in preaching the Kingdom message. My oldest sister, Annemarie, served as a special pioneer, and Dad and my 15-year-old brother, Siegfried, as regular pioneers.
Even from a distance, people could see two big signs painted on both sides of our house in Bad Lippspringe. There, in German, Father had written: LESEN SIE ‘DAS GOLDENE ZEITALTER’ (READ ‘THE GOLDEN AGE,’ the former name of the Awake! magazine). The house was situated alongside a tramway line connecting Paderborn and Detmold. Whenever the tram stopped in front of the house, the driver would call out: “Streetcar stop, GOLDEN AGE!” And of a truth, our house, located on three acres (1.2 ha) of land and surrounded by a beautiful garden with bushes and trees, became for us a center of education and activity, all revolving around the golden age of God’s Kingdom to come.—Matthew 6:9, 10.
All in Harmony
A family blessed with so many children required management. There were often vegetables and fruits to harvest. The chickens and the ducks had to be cared for, and the family lamb needed its feeding bottle. Dachshund “Fiffi” and the cat “Pussi,” also beloved family “members,” needed attention. So Father scheduled the work of housekeeping, gardening, and caring for the domestic animals. Each child shared in the various chores, which were rotated weekly between the boys and the girls.
Dad also included time for recreation, which included music, painting, and a number of other things, all supervised by Mother, a professional teacher. We had five violins, a piano, a reed organ, two accordions, a guitar, and several flutes. Yes, not only did our parents supervise our school homework but they also made music and singing a part of our educational program.
What I consider of most importance today is that there was not a single day that passed without our receiving some spiritual instruction, whether at the table receiving answers to our questions or by means of learning by heart different Bible texts. Father also insisted that we learn to express ourselves correctly. In other words, we had an ideal family life, better than any story could tell. Of course, we also had our weaknesses, and Father would often discipline us with words that hurt more than any physical punishment. He always taught us to apologize for our errors and to be forgiving to others. We did not realize then how important all this training was going to be.
The youngest member of the family, little Paul-Gerhard, was born in 1931. He was welcomed by his brothers, Wilhelm, Karl-Heinz, Wolfgang, Siegfried, and Hans-Werner, as well as by me and my sisters, Annemarie, Waltraud, Hildegard, and Elisabeth.
About this time Adolf Hitler was coming to power in Germany. It seemed that Father knew that problems were on the way, and more and more he prepared us for the difficult years to come. He showed us from the Bible that some faithful Witnesses would be persecuted, thrown into prison, and even killed. (Matthew 16:25; 2 Timothy 3:12; Revelation 2:10) I remember thinking that this would not necessarily happen to our family. Little did I know what the future held for us.
The first blow was the death of my brother Siegfried by accidental drowning at the age of 20. Then in the spring of 1933 we came under scrutiny by the National Socialists, now commonly known as the Nazis. The secret police ordered that the signs on our house be painted out. But the paint in those days was so poor that you could still see “GOLDEN AGE” shining through! And the tram driver continued to call out: “Streetcar stop, GOLDEN AGE!”
Gradually the pressures became stronger. Fellow Witnesses, severely mistreated by the Gestapo, sought refuge in our home. Father’s pension was cut because he refused to say “Heil Hitler.” Between 1933 and 1945, the Gestapo searched our house some 18 times. But did all of this intimidate us children? My sister Waltraud remembers: “Even with persecution running high, we drew strength from our parents, who regularly studied the Bible with us. We still followed Father’s schedule.”
The Youngest Under Pressure
With butterflies in our stomach, the youngest of us went to school each day. The teachers demanded that we salute the flag, sing Nazi songs, and raise our arms while saying “Heil Hitler.” Because we refused, we were made objects of derision. But what helped us remain steadfast? We all agree that the secret was that Father and Mother daily discussed our individual problems with us as they occurred. (Ephesians 6:4) They showed us how to act and how to defend ourselves with the Bible. (1 Peter 3:15) Often we held practice sessions, asking questions and giving answers.
My sister Elisabeth recalls a severe test she had: “A most difficult moment for us that we will never forget was when, in the spring of 1939, the school principal accused us children of being spiritually and morally neglected and arranged by court to have us hauled off from school and abducted to an unknown place. I was 13, Hans-Werner 9, and little Paul-Gerhard only 7 years old.”
Just recently, over 40 years later, Paul-Gerhard received a letter from an official whose conscience was still bothering him. He wrote: “I was the policeman who took you and your brother and sister to the reform school. I handed you over that same evening.” Imagine, those three defenseless children abducted from school without a word to our parents!
Mother tried to find out where they had been taken. At last, after some weeks, she located them in a reform school in Dorsten. The director soon realized that the children were well mannered and that they did not belong there, so after several months they were released. But they failed to arrive home. What had happened?
My brothers and sister had been intercepted by the Gestapo and taken from Dorsten to Nettelstadt near Minden and placed in a Nazi training school. Visits by relatives, of course, were forbidden, but mother tried in every possible way to strengthen her children, including sending hidden letters. Once she was even able to meet and speak with them secretly. Later the children were separated and taken to different places. They maintained integrity, however, and refused to salute the flag or to say “Heil Hitler.” They pointed to Acts 4:12, where of Jesus Christ it is said: “There is no salvation [Heil, in German] in anyone else.”
Entire Family Put to the Test
In the meantime, Father served two prison sentences. On August 16, 1940, he was released from prison, only to be sent eight months later for his third sentence to the penitentiary at Kassel-Wehlheiden. But during this short period of freedom, what a joy it was for him to be able to baptize three of us—19-year-old Hildegard, 18-year-old Wolfgang, and me, then 16.
Father was reimprisoned at the same time that Mother and Hildegard were incarcerated. I was also taken to court, and at 17 years of age was sentenced to solitary confinement in the juvenile prison at Vechta. There I had hardly anything to do. Arising early and just sitting around the whole day looking at whitewashed walls was not easy. I tried to remember as much as possible of what I had learned and was amazed at the spiritual riches I found. I recalled entire Kingdom songs and worked out Bible themes. How thankful I was for all the careful training that my parents had given me!
When my first six months in prison were about to end, the prison director called me to her office and explained that I would be released if I signed a paper renouncing my beliefs as false teaching. Again I had the privilege of defending my faith. Her reply was silence. Then she said with a sad voice that she would have to return me to the Gestapo. Four months later I was transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
My mother and Hildegard were still in another prison. I met them later when they were assigned to Ravensbrück. Then Mother and I were able to stay together until the end of the war. Annemarie and Waltraud were also serving time in prison. Every member of the family had now been either put behind bars or abducted. The large house in Bad Lippspringe, once filled with the laughter and singing of carefree children, was now empty. The signs on both sides of the house had been painted over again and again. The GOLDEN AGE had faded from sight.
Ravensbrück—Friends and Foes
When I arrived at Ravensbrück, in spite of my apprehension I was looking forward to meeting other Witnesses. But how would I find them among all those thousands of prisoners? Part of the reception procedure was delousing. The prisoner who examined my head asked in a low voice “Why are you here?” “I am a Bibelforscher,” I answered. Joyfully she replied, “A heartfelt welcome, my dear sister!” I was next taken to the Bibelforscher block where Sister Gertrud Poetzinger took me under her wing.
The next day I was called to the camp commander’s office. On his desk was a big Bible opened to Romans chapter 13. He ordered me to read the first verse, which says: “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities.” After I had finished he said: “And now you will explain to me why you do not want to obey the superior authorities.” I answered: “In order to explain this, I would have to read the whole chapter.” With that he closed the Bible abruptly and then dismissed me. Thus I started my three and a half years in Ravensbrück.
Apart from the brutality of the SS guards, the winters, perhaps, were the worst part of that experience. We used to stand out on parade in the freezing cold for the official head count every morning. That started at 4 a.m. and could last anywhere from two to five hours! We were not allowed to put our hands in our pockets, and I got chilblains on my hands and feet and needed medical attention.
But we also used those wasted hours on parade to build one another up spiritually. When the SS guards were out of earshot, we would all repeat a text from mouth to mouth and thus center our minds on God’s Word. On one occasion we all learned Psalm 83, repeating it one after the other, being careful that no guard caught us. This spiritual aid helped us to endure. But let us return to the spring of 1940.
The First Martyr
My older brother Wilhelm was sentenced to death and executed publicly in the hospital garden in Münster. He was the family’s first martyr. Mother and I visited him shortly before his death. We were impressed by his resolute composure. He wanted Mother to take his overcoat, saying, “I don’t need it now.”
Hitler turned down Wilhelm’s third appeal against the death sentence and personally signed his execution warrant. But even as Wilhelm’s eyes were being bound, he was offered a last chance to renounce his faith. He refused. His last wish? That they should shoot straight. His court-appointed counsel later wrote the family: “He died immediately, meeting death standing erect. His attitude impressed the court and all of us deeply. He died in accordance with his convictions.”
Mother immediately went to Münster to claim the body. She was determined to bury him in Bad Lippspringe. As she said, “We will give a great witness to the people who knew him.” She added, “I will make Satan pay for killing my Wilhelm.” She applied for Father to have four days leave from the prison to attend the funeral, and to our surprise it was granted!
Father gave the prayer at the funeral, and Karl-Heinz, the next eldest son, spoke Biblical words of comfort to a large crowd of mourners gathered at Wilhelm’s grave. Some weeks later, without a trial, Karl-Heinz was also sent to a concentration camp, first to Sachsenhausen and later to Dachau.
A Second Martyr
My other older brother, Wolfgang, had taken a stand for the true God when he got baptized, even though he knew it could also lead to his death. But he could not forget the outstanding examples of steadfastness on the part of his father and brothers, indeed those of the entire family. On March 27, 1942, a year and a half after his baptism, he himself was sitting in a cell in Berlin writing the following farewell letter:
“Now, as your third son and brother, I must leave you tomorrow morning. Do not be sad, for the time will come when we will be together again. . . . How great our joy will then be, when we are reunited! . . . Now we have been torn apart, and each of us must stand the test; then we will be rewarded.”
Hitler had decided that death by shooting was too good for conscientious objectors. He ordered beheading by guillotine. As our family’s second martyr, Wolfgang was beheaded in Brandenburg penitentiary. He was only 20 years of age.
Love for God Still Comes Foremost
What has become of the family members who survived the Nazi era? Waltraud and Hans-Werner were the first to arrive back in Bad Lippspringe at the end of World War II. Hildegard, Elisabeth, and Paul-Gerhard followed. Father, with a broken leg, set out for home nestled between sheep riding on a livestock wagon.
“We were so happy to have Father free and back with us again,” Waltraud recalls. “But he was very sick. In June 1945, a nurse brought our seriously ill brother Karl-Heinz back from Dachau concentration camp. In July 1945, Annemarie, in a roundabout way, arrived back from Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel penitentiary. The last members of the family, Mother and Magdalena, after many difficulties returned from Ravensbrück in September 1945. How much we had to talk about!”
Did this period of persecution and family loss deaden our love for God? By no means! Father, although sick, did not have a quiet moment until he had reorganized the work, including house-to-house preaching activity, and had arranged for holding meetings. While setting up a family schedule, which provided care for the sick and also saw to the need of making a living, we did not forget that our love for God should come foremost. We considered the possibilities of full-time service. So it was that Elisabeth and I became special pioneers in 1946, while Annemarie and Paul-Gerhard served as regular pioneers.
But the aftereffects of persecution on our health soon became apparent. In October of 1946, at the age of 28, Karl-Heinz died of tuberculosis. In July of 1950 my beloved father finished his earthly course in the conviction that his works would go along with him. My mother, who likewise had a heavenly hope, died in 1979. (See Revelation 14:13.) Elisabeth had to quit her full-time service but continued faithful until her death in 1980. In 1951 Mother had taken up pioneer service and, although over 60 years old, was able to continue for three and a half years. And what a great joy for her to see, before her death, most of her grandchildren take up the full-time ministry.
My youngest brother, Paul-Gerhard, worked in the printery at the German Bethel until he was invited to attend the missionary school of Gilead. He graduated with the 19th class in 1952. After several further years of full-time service, he was forced to quit when his wife became seriously ill. Even though she is still bedridden, he serves as an elder, and their daughter Brigitte is now serving as a special pioneer. Their son Detlef has been pioneering for 14 years. Elisabeth’s two children, Jethro and Wolfgang, have also been in the full-time service for many years.
In 1948 I, too, went to serve in the Wiesbaden Bethel. Within the Bethel family I felt secure, just like at home. We worked hard, often working well into the night, unloading huge shipments of books from Brooklyn headquarters. In 1950 I married George Reuter, a fellow Bethel worker. With that, a new period began for me, with wonderful experiences at the side of my husband in circuit, district, and missionary service in Togo, Africa, in Luxembourg, and now in southern Spain.
And the rest of the family? In 1960, Annemarie, Waltraud, and Hildegard, together with Mother, moved to a large German city where they could work with English- and Italian-speaking congregations. Hildegard, who had survived nearly five years of prisons and concentration camp, finally succumbed to death in 1979. Annemarie and Waltraud have carried on with their self-sacrificing spirit and devoted work.
Truly, our family, whose love for God came first, has experienced the words of Jesus that “the Devil will keep on throwing some . . . into prison,” testing the faithfulness of God’s servants “even to death.” But we have never forgotten what Jesus also said: “He that conquers will by no means be harmed by the second death.”—Revelation 2:10, 11.
Therefore, we have every reason to look forward to being united in the coming “GOLDEN AGE”—no longer just painted on a wall. Under God’s Kingdom it will be reality!—Revelation 20:11–21:7.
[Picture on page 11]
The last photo ever taken of the entire family. Left to right, rear: Siegfried, Karl-Heinz, Wolfgang, Father, Mother, Annemarie, Waltraud, Wilhelm, Hildegard. Below: Paul-Gerhard, Magdalena, Hans-Werner, and Elisabeth
[Picture on page 12]
The family house located at the streetcar stop “GOLDEN AGE”