Jehovah Has Sustained Me as a Friend
As told by Maria Hombach
AS A little girl of six, I learned in school the beautiful German folk song: “Do you know how many stars are in the blue sky? . . . God, the Lord, has counted all, not a single one is missing . . . Knows you too and loves you dearly.” (Translated from German.) I was singing it one day when my mother said: “He knows and loves you too.” From this moment on, God became like a friend to me. I decided to love him in return. This was before World War I when we lived in Bad Ems on the river Lahn.
Seventeen years later, during a vacation in 1924, I met a girl my own age. She was one of the Bible Students, today known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. For four weeks, we had heated discussions on religion. Then the subject of “hell” came up. “You wouldn’t stick a live cat in a hot oven, would you?” she asked. That hit me like a thunderbolt, and I recognized that I had been shamefully deceived. Now I could learn all about God—what he is really like, in fact, everything I had wanted to know about him since I was a child!
For me it was like discovering “a treasure hidden in the field.” (Matthew 13:44) Back home, I rushed enthusiastically to the neighbors, my heart bursting to share the new things learned. Shortly thereafter, I moved to the southern German town of Sindelfingen, where a group of about 20 Bible Students lived. I joined them zealously in this new evangelizing activity from house to house.
The first time I heard about pioneer service was in 1929 during a talk by a traveling minister brother. He asked who would be willing to become a pioneer. I spontaneously raised my hand. No ifs and buts for me. “Here I am! Send me,” my heart said.—Isaiah 6:8.
I resigned from my office job and on October 1, 1929, started the special pioneer service, as it is called today, in southwestern Germany. In Limburg, in Bonn, on the international barges in Cologne harbor, and in other locations, we quickly and generously sowed the seed of truth in printed form.—Ecclesiastes 11:1.
Experiencing God’s Friendship
When Adolf Hitler established his dictatorship in Germany in 1933, I had to quit the pioneer service and returned to Bad Ems. The authorities soon found out that I had not voted in the elections. Two days later, a couple of policemen came to search my room. Standing alone in one corner was the wastebasket into which, just one moment before, I had thrown all my addresses of fellow Witnesses. No time left to empty it! The policemen rummaged through everything—except this basket.
How I appreciated that my sister Anna had, in the meantime, also accepted friendship with the true God! Together, in 1934, we moved to the town of Freudenstadt and there carefully began circulating Bible literature. Once, during vacation, we managed a lightning visit by train to our hometown of Bad Ems, hurriedly circulated a full box of 240 brochures, and then disappeared. The Gestapo’s harassment in Freudenstadt persuaded us to move to another city, and in 1936 we went to Stuttgart. There, I sought contact with our underground administration—and right away I was given “work” to do. I regularly received picture postcards containing greetings. Actually, they were hidden messages. My job was to bring them to a secret place in the city. So as not to endanger this activity, I was told not to circulate any literature. Everything ran smoothly until August 1938.
One day, I received a card instructing me to stand in front of a well-known church on a certain evening. There I would receive further information. I went to the meeting place. It was pitch black. A man introduced himself as Julius Riffel. This, I knew, was the name of a faithful brother who worked in the underground. He hastily told me to travel to Bad Ems on a certain date in order to meet somebody. He quickly disappeared.
However, on the platform in Bad Ems, only the Gestapo was waiting for me. What had gone wrong? The man in front of the church—actually a former brother from Dresden, Hans Müller, who knew everything about the underground work in Germany and had begun to collaborate with the Gestapo—had set a trap for me. But it did not work. Shortly before, my mother had informed me that she had suffered a minor stroke, and I, in reply, had promised to visit her in Bad Ems on a certain date. This happily coincided with the “mission,” and our letters provided an alibi at my later judicial hearing. To my surprise, I was acquitted. Yes, in February 1939, after five and a half months of detention, I was free again!
Responding to His Friendship
Of course, I did not plan to stay inactive, especially since most of the brothers were suffering in concentration camps or were under arrest elsewhere.
After the responsible German brothers had been arrested with the help of Müller, Ludwig Cyranek took over the distribution of spiritual food. This brother, formerly a Bethel worker in Magdeburg, had just been released from detention, and he visited me in Bad Ems. “Come on, Maria! Let’s keep working,” he said. He brought me back to Stuttgart, where I got secular work. My real work, however, starting in March 1939, was that of distributing suitcases full of duplicated Watchtower magazines in Stuttgart and its surroundings. Other Witnesses courageously shared in this work.
Meanwhile, Brother Cyranek covered all but the northeastern part of the country. Since the Witnesses’ residences were being watched, he had to move with great caution and sometimes even had to sleep in the woods. Express trains brought him from time to time to Stuttgart, where he dictated to me special reports about our situation in Germany. I wrote ordinary letters, putting these messages between the lines in invisible ink and then sent them, via a cover address, to the Netherlands Bethel.
Sad to say, a second brother had turned traitor in hopes of escaping detention. A year later, he betrayed the teams in Stuttgart and elsewhere to the Gestapo. On February 6, 1940, we were arrested. Ludwig Cyranek went to Müller’s apartment in Dresden—thinking that Müller was still a fellow Witness—and was caught there. Brother Cyranek was later sentenced to death and was beheaded on July 3, 1941.*
Our enemies now believed that they had paralyzed our whole operation in Germany. But arrangements had already been made to ensure that the water of truth kept flowing, even if reduced to a trickle. For instance, the group in Holzgerlingen managed to keep active until the end of the war in 1945.
He Never Forsakes His Friends
Both Anna and I, together with other faithful sisters, had been sent to the Stuttgart jail. Often I could hear prisoners being beaten. Solitary confinement with nothing to do is a horrible experience. But since we had never missed a Christian meeting and we were still young, we could recall almost all the Watchtower articles. Consequently, our faith kept strong, and we were able to endure.
One day, two Gestapo men came from Dresden to pick up my fellow prisoner Gertrud Pfisterer (now Wulle) and me for identification. Usually, prisoners were allowed to travel only on slow trains, which took days. But for us a whole compartment was reserved on an express train, despite the fact that it was overcrowded. “You are too important to us. We don’t want to lose you,” explained the officers.
In Dresden, the Gestapo confronted me with a third traitor from among our ranks. I sensed that something was wrong, so I kept quiet, not even greeting him. Then I was brought face-to-face with a tall, burly man in soldier’s uniform: the traitor Müller, whom I had met in front of the church. I left the room without saying a word. The Gestapo got nothing from me.
These traitors each came to a bad end. As the Nazis said, they loved the betrayal but not the betrayer. All three were sent to the eastern front and never came back. How different it turned out for those who never gave up friendship with God and his people! Many of the loyal ones, among them Erich Frost and Konrad Franke, who suffered much for the Lord’s sake and later became branch overseers in Germany, returned alive from the fiery furnace of persecution.*
The Gestapo in Stuttgart—very proud of their “catch”—asked their colleagues in Dresden in May 1940 to send us back. Our cases were to be tried in southern Germany. But the Gestapo in the north and in the south were apparently not on good terms, so the Dresden office refused, whereupon those from Stuttgart came and hauled us away personally. What now? The drive to the station became a pleasant trip along the river Elbe; in our cells we had not seen green trees and the blue sky for ages. As before, a whole train compartment was reserved for us alone, and we were even allowed to sing Kingdom songs. When we changed trains, we received a meal in the station restaurant. Imagine, in the morning we had had only a dry piece of bread, and now this!
My case came to court in Stuttgart on September 17, 1940. By writing and forwarding Ludwig Cyranek’s letters, I had informed people living in foreign countries about our underground activity and our persecution. That was high treason, which carried the death penalty. It therefore seemed like a miracle that I, the principal defendant in Stuttgart, was sentenced to only three and a half years of solitary confinement! Obviously, a Gestapo official named Schlipf, who looked favorably upon us and whose conscience bothered him, had used his influence. He had once mentioned that he could no longer sleep because of us “girls.” In Dresden I would not have got off so lightly.
Benefiting From a Lasting Friendship
Although the food in prison was not as bad as in the concentration camps, I did lose much weight and finally was just skin and bones. The years 1940 to 1942 passed, and I often thought: ‘When your sentence is over, they will put you in a concentration camp where you can have the company of sisters and won’t be alone anymore.’ Little did I know.
The guards were totally surprised when an application for my release, requested by my Catholic parents, was granted. (I had repeatedly refused to make such a personal request.) Whereas fellow believers were thrown into concentration camps, I—sentenced for high treason and without compromising at all—was to get off so easily! So I was free again in 1943 and thus in a position, using extreme care, to pick up theocratic material from Holzgerlingen. After having copied it, I hid it between the walls of a thermos flask full of coffee and carried it to brothers living along the Rhine River and in the Westerwald section of Germany. From that time to the end of the war, I was able to work undisturbed. Later I learned that friendly police officials who received denunciation notices against us did not forward them to the Gestapo.
And after 1945? I had the desire to pioneer again as soon as possible. Quite unexpectedly came the finest invitation I had ever received. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought of being invited to work at Bethel in Wiesbaden!
And since March 1, 1946, that is where I have been, in Bethel (now in Selters/Taunus). For many years I had the pleasure of working in an office supervised by former branch overseer Konrad Franke. I also worked joyfully in other departments, for example, in the laundry. Even today, at the age of 87, I still work there several hours a week folding towels. If you have ever toured our Bethel, we have perhaps seen each other.
In the course of time, I had the privilege of helping numerous people accept the truth, including my mother and another fleshly sister. Mother’s words, “He knows and loves you,” I have found to be true, just as were the words of the psalmist, “He himself will sustain you.” (Psalm 55:22) What a joy it has been to love Jehovah while being sustained by him as a friend!