Always Finding Something to Do for Jehovah
As told by Jean Queyroi
IT WAS a glorious summer back in 1939. The countryside around Martigny, in the Swiss canton of Valais, was radiant under the August sun. Above us towered some of the highest peaks in the Alps, such as snowcapped Grand Combin, reaching a height of 14,154 feet [4,314 meters]. I was enjoying the hospitality of a Christian family for a few days, and we spent many carefree hours rambling along mountain trails together. I felt as if I were already in Paradise.
All too soon it was time to say good-bye and return to Paris. I bought a newspaper to read on the train, and the alarming news brought me back to reality with a jolt. The world situation had greatly deteriorated, and war was imminent.
I resumed my work in the Paris office of the Watch Tower Society, where I had been serving for over a year. But a few days later, I received a draft notice and was ordered to report to the barracks of Fort of Vincennes, just east of Paris. My life was about to change drastically.
A Neutral Stand
On September 3, 1939, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. I reported to Vincennes and took my stand on the issue of Christian neutrality. I quickly found myself in the sidecar of a military motorcycle driven by a young soldier who had orders to take me to the nearby Fort of Charenton. In spite of the deafening roar of the motorcycle, the young soldier, who knew why I was being sent there, tried to reason with me. He begged: “Queyroi, please don’t go through with it. Don’t refuse to fight, or things will not go well for you.” I hastened to assure him that I was not afraid.
Then came my first night in a prison cell. The cell measured six and a half feet [2 m] by five feet [1.5 m] and contained only a couple of blankets and a board to sleep on. There was no lighting. I reflected on what I could do for Jehovah in my present situation. When I awoke, I discovered that there was not even a tiny window to let in a gleam of daylight. For a quarter of an hour each day, I was allowed out to wash, escorted to the sink by a sergeant holding a revolver, accompanied by two soldiers with rifles. I was being treated like a dangerous criminal!
Different soldiers brought me my food. They were intrigued by my stand, and this gave me the opportunity to do something for Jehovah. I gave them a good witness, and shortly some of them warmed toward me and supplied me with matches, candles, and even extra food. Initially my Bible had been confiscated, but thanks to an officer, it was given back to me. How I appreciated reading its precious words by candlelight!
I was later transferred to a military prison that no longer exists, on the rue du Cherche-Midi, in Paris. I was put in solitary confinement, so I had plenty of time to meditate on my situation.
I was 27 and had been serving Jehovah full-time for two years. My family’s first contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses was through broadcasts on Radio Vitus, a private station in Paris. That was in 1933. I took my stand for the truth in 1935, after finishing compulsory military service. I was baptized in Lucerne, Switzerland, in August 1936.
My parents, my brother, my sister, and I were associated with the only congregation in Paris. Brother Knecht, who was then in charge of the work in France, continually encouraged young Witnesses to enter the full-time ministry. As a result, in April 1938, my brother, my sister, and I decided to become pioneers, or full-time ministers. Our assignment was Auxerre, a town about 96 miles [154 km] southeast of Paris. My sister Jeannette witnessed in the town itself, and my brother Marcel and I cycled out to the surrounding villages within a radius of about 20 miles [30 km]. Back then the preaching work consisted mainly of distributing Bible literature, without making return visits. I can remember how much this bothered me.
In June 1938 I was invited to work in the Paris office of the Watch Tower Society. At that time the staff, or Bethel family, in France was made up of about ten members, and I was assigned to help in the Shipping Department. This was where I was working when I was called up for military service and received a “new assignment.”
My New Assignment—Prison
From the start I realized that if I did not seek ways to do something—however little—for Jehovah while I was in prison, my faith would quickly weaken. But I was soon able to create opportunities to talk about the truth of God’s Word. A few weeks after I arrived at the Cherche-Midi prison, I was transferred to a common room with other prisoners. There I met a law student who had been sentenced to prison because he returned from his military leave a few days late. There was also a Catholic seminary student who had been sentenced for stealing. The three of us enjoyed many long conversations about Bible truth.
One day I noticed a prisoner all alone in a corner of the yard. As I approached, I could see that he was reading. I spoke to him. He turned around and showed me his Bible. Just imagine! He was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses! He was of Polish descent, named Ceglarski, and like me, he was in prison because of his neutrality. Christian fellowship at last! You can imagine how overjoyed we both were. We could now enjoy many hours in upbuilding conversation.
In this prison we were allowed out into the yard several hours a day, so I managed to speak with a few prisoners who enjoyed hearing the Bible message. Sometimes even some of the guards joined in our discussions. I had found something to do for Jehovah. In fact, prison had become my new preaching assignment, and I was now doing pioneer hours, even though I could not report them. But that did not trouble me.
Months passed by relatively uneventfully—the so-called Phony War. But this came to an end in May 1940, when the Germans attacked France. In June the French authorities evacuated all the Paris prisons because of the advancing German troops. We were loaded into military trucks and taken to Orleans, a town over 70 miles [100 km] south of Paris. After a short halt, both civil and military prisoners were grouped and instructed to continue southeast on foot along the north bank of the river Loire. Armed guards kept watch over the convoy. The going was hard under the hot June sun.
There were criminals among us, and the guards had received instructions to shoot anyone who stopped, fell, or was unable to continue walking. On the third day, Brother Ceglarski began to suffer from sunstroke. To abandon him would have meant certain death for him. The guards allowed me, with the help of some other prisoners, to put him in a blanket, and we carried him. The following day he felt better and was able to continue on foot.
Just before arriving at Briare, a small town situated on the north bank of the Loire, our group met up with a stream of people laden with as many of their possessions as they could carry or push in a cart. They were fleeing south from the advancing German armies. We were able to grasp to some degree the extent of the civilian exodus as thousands fled for their lives.
Then we discovered that our guards had disappeared, and we were on our own. What were we to do now? It was impossible to cross the wide river Loire and continue our journey south because all the bridges had been blown up. Our little group (made up of Brother Ceglarski, two other prisoners, and me) decided to return to Paris.
We found some abandoned horses, and we saddled them as best we could. I had injured my knee and could not bend my leg, so my companions had to help me onto the back of the horse. Then we discovered that my horse had a limp too! So progress was slow as my horse hobbled along. In any case, our expedition soon came to an abrupt end. We had covered only a few miles when we came face-to-face with a German army detachment, and a military policeman made us dismount. All we had succeeded in doing was to change guards!
Prisoner of War
Soon after our capture, Brother Ceglarski and I were separated, and he remained a prisoner of the Germans until the end of the war. After a few months in prison at the Joigny barracks, in central France, I was deported to Stettin, a port in what used to be East Prussia. It is now the Polish port of Szczecin.
Since I was technically in a French military prison when the Germans captured me, I was put in a prisoner-of-war camp, where conditions were nowhere near as harsh as in the concentration camps. The camp was an enormous hangar accommodating 500 prisoners, watched over by armed guards. The prisoners worked at different jobs in the city during the day and were brought back to camp in the evening. So how was I going to find something to do for Jehovah, with the men away all day?
In the hangar, there was a large board where information could be posted, and I obtained permission to use a small space on the board. I found some paper, and after having carefully smoothed it out, I wrote several short texts on Bible subjects. At the bottom, I explained where I could be found and at what time anyone interested in the message of God’s Kingdom could come and see me.
Preaching to All Sorts of Men
This method brought good results. Soon I was able to hold a small meeting each evening with six, eight, and sometimes even ten in attendance. Our discussions often lasted an hour or more, depending on the questions brought up. From time to time, a German guard who spoke French joined in.
As I had only one Bible, I wrote to the Red Cross in Geneva, asking them to send me as many Bibles as they could. Time passed, but eventually I received my first parcel of secondhand Bibles. One day I was told to go to the camp office because a visitor, a representative of the Red Cross, wished to see me. He turned out to be a Protestant minister. He apparently thought that I was a Protestant also. He was a little disappointed when he learned that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses!
Nevertheless, he was kind and even congratulated me for what I was doing. He assured me that I could continue ordering Bibles and that I would receive them. This turned out to be true. Thus, I was able to distribute nearly 300 Bibles during the time I stayed in that camp. After the war, what a joy it was to learn that a Belgian prisoner named Wattiaux, to whom I had witnessed in the Stettin camp, had taken his stand for the truth!
During my captivity in Germany, I was privileged to receive food parcels from my family. I soon discovered that each parcel also concealed an abundance of precious spiritual food. My sister typed out articles from The Watchtower on very thin paper and hid them in packets of macaroni. The guards never found them. I even received a copy of the book Children in a food parcel. This proved to be most useful to me in my ministry.
Expanding My Ministry
Being a mechanic, I was eventually assigned to work at a garage repairing tractors. About 20 Germans, most of whom were too old to be drafted into military service, worked there. So I made efforts to learn a little German. My heartfelt desire was to expand my ministry and no longer limit my preaching to French-speaking prisoners.
I had to act cautiously, however, because the German workmen were afraid to express their opinions in public. So I talked to them individually. As a rule, they knew the Bible quite well and had heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some even knew that many Witnesses had been sent to concentration camps.
Each day in the garage, I ended up by making the rounds to talk to my fellow workers about the truth. Some were favorable toward the message, but the man in charge was not. I no doubt overdid things when I chalked Jehovas Zeugen (Jehovah’s Witnesses) on his work bench to help him understand who I was. The man seemed scared when he saw it and quickly rubbed it off. But he did not punish me. As time went on, other workers became friendly. In fact, they brought me so much food that I was able to share it with several other prisoners back in the camp.
Jehovah, a Strong Tower
Over the years, I have learned that we can always do something for Jehovah and our fellowman, however difficult circumstances may become. Stettin was heavily bombed several times by the Allied forces. We tried to shelter in trenches covered with planks and earth. These offered only an illusion of security, for dozens of prisoners lost their lives in those trenches. During the air raids, I would sometimes feel a hand grip me in the dark, only to let go as soon as the raid was over. I never knew who it was. Apparently, some of the prisoners thought that I had special protection because I talked about God.
During one air raid, our camp was burned to the ground by incendiary bombs. Left to ourselves in the streets of the town, we witnessed many scenes of horror. Civilians suffering from severe burns jumped into the Oder River canals that flow through Stettin. When these burn victims got out of the water, the phosphorus continued to burn on them. Many died.
Because of the advance of the Russian troops, we were ordered to leave Stettin and make our way west to Neubrandenburg and then on to Güstrow. Perched high on a large tractor, we traveled along a road where Soviet shells fell from time to time. The Russian tanks finally caught up with us at Güstrow. The Soviet shock troops were the masters of the town for a week. The British troops were nearing, and while waiting for the armies to meet, the Soviet authorities separated the military prisoners from the civilian. They detained some of the prisoners and turned the rest (including me) over to the British.
That was the end of a nightmare. A few weeks later, I found myself back on the platform of the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris. Day was just starting to break. It was mid-May 1945, and I was back at last, after 69 months of captivity.
Finding More Things to Do for Jehovah
In 1946 the Society again invited me to serve in Bethel, then located in Montmorency, a suburb north of Paris. A few months later, Brother Paul Dossman and I were assigned to visit the congregations in France as circuit overseers. At that time, there were barely 2,000 Witnesses in the whole country. Today, more than 40 years later, there are over a hundred thousand publishers.
Later I was called back to Bethel, by then located in a residential section of Paris. In 1949, encouraged by two missionary brothers from England, I started learning English—not without some difficulty, I must admit. The following year, I was invited to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead.
When I got back to France, I served for a while in the circuit work, and then the Society asked me to serve as a missionary in Africa. Meanwhile, I had married Titica, a sister of Greek descent. We stayed in Senegal for five years and were privileged to see the first congregation formed in Dakar. For health reasons, we were later obliged to return to France.
I am now in my 50th year of full-time service and have had the joy over all these years of helping over a hundred persons take their stand for the truth. Jehovah has indeed continually been good and generous toward me. I have learned from life’s experiences that whatever our situation may be, we can always find some way of praising and honoring our God, Jehovah.
[Picture on page 23]
Jean Queyroi with his wife, Titica