What a Joy to Sit at Jehovah’s Table!
As told by Ernst Wauer
Today it is relatively easy for me to attend meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to study the Bible, and to preach the good news of the Kingdom. However, that has not always been the case here in Germany. When Adolf Hitler was dictator, from 1933 to 1945, participation in such Christian activities entailed risking one’s life.
THE year before Hitler came to power, when I was 30 years old, I first met Jehovah’s Witnesses in Dresden. In January 1935, I dedicated myself to Jehovah and expressed my desire to be baptized. Our work had already been banned in 1933, so I was asked: “Do you realize what your decision means? You are putting your family, health, work, freedom, and even your life at risk!”
“I have counted the cost, and I am willing to do God’s will and to die for it,” I replied.
Even before my baptism, I had started to preach from house to house. At one door, I met a uniformed SS (Hitler’s Blackshirts/Elite Guard) youth leader, who shouted: “Don’t you know that this is prohibited? I am going to call the police!”
“Go ahead. I am only speaking about the Bible, and there is no law against that,” I calmly replied. Thereupon I turned to the next door and was promptly invited in by a friendly gentleman. Nothing happened to me.
Soon I was entrusted to look after a study group of from five to seven Witnesses who met weekly. We studied issues of The Watchtower that had been smuggled into Germany from neighboring countries. So, despite the ban, we regularly sat down at “the table of Jehovah” in order to get strengthened spiritually.—1 Corinthians 10:21.
In 1936, J. F. Rutherford, the president of the Watch Tower Society, visited an assembly in Lucerne, Switzerland, and invited brothers who were in positions of theocratic oversight in Germany to be present. Since the passports of many of the brothers had been confiscated and a number of the brothers were being closely watched by the police, only a few could attend. The brother overseeing the work in Dresden asked me to represent him in Lucerne.
“But am I not too young and inexperienced?” I asked.
“What matters now,” he assured me, “is being faithful. That’s the main thing.”
Shortly after returning from Lucerne, I was arrested and suddenly torn away from my wife, Eva, and our two little children. On my way to police headquarters in Dresden, I racked my brains for a scripture to guide me. Proverbs 3:5, 6 came to mind: “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding. In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.” Recalling this text strengthened me for the initial interrogation. Afterward I was locked in a cramped cell, and for a moment I had a desperate feeling of abandonment. But fervent prayer to Jehovah filled me with peace.
The court sentenced me to prison for 27 months. I was kept in solitary confinement for one year at the penitentiary in Bautzen. Once, a retired judicial officer—he was substituting for someone else—opened my cell door and remarked sympathetically: “I know you’re not allowed to read anything, but maybe you need something to take your mind off it all.” With that he slipped me a few old family magazines and said: “I’ll collect them tonight.”
Actually I didn’t need anything to ‘take my mind off it all.’ While in solitary confinement, I recalled Bible texts from memory and developed sermons and delivered them aloud. But I glanced over the magazines to see if they contained any Scripture texts—and I found several! One was Philippians 1:6, which reads in part: “I am confident . . . that he who started a good work in you will carry it to completion.” I thanked Jehovah for this encouragement.
Later I was transferred to a labor camp. Then, in the spring of 1939, when my confinement was due to end, the camp supervisor asked whether my views had changed. “I intend to stay loyal to my faith” was my reply. He then informed me that I would be transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
There I surrendered my personal clothing, showered, was shaved of all body hair, and was supplied with prison clothes. Then I was put under the shower again, this time fully clothed—a process the SS termed “baptism.” Afterward I was forced to stand outside, completely drenched, until evening.
In the camps Jehovah’s Witnesses were subjected to special brutality by the SS. On many occasions we had to stand on the parade ground for hours on end. Sometimes one of us would sigh: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a really good meal?” Another would reply: “Don’t fix your mind on such things. Just think what an honor it is to stand up for Jehovah’s name and his Kingdom.” And somebody else would add: “Jehovah will strengthen us!” In this way we encouraged one another. Sometimes just a friendly nodding of the head was sufficient to say: “I want to be loyal; you do too!”
Spiritual Food in the Camp
Certain ones took the lead in feeding the brothers spiritually, and I was selected to assist them. A thick Luther Bible was all we had. Possessing it, of course, was forbidden. So this treasure was hidden, and in each cellblock only one designated brother had access to it for a short time. When it was my turn, I would creep under the bed with a pocket lamp and read for about 15 minutes. I memorized scriptures that I could later discuss with the brothers in our cellblock. Thus, the distribution of spiritual food was organized to some degree.
All the brothers were encouraged to ask Jehovah in prayer for further spiritual food, and he heard our supplications. In the winter of 1939/40 a newly imprisoned brother managed to smuggle a few new issues of The Watchtower into the camp inside his wooden leg. This seemed like a miracle, since all persons were carefully searched.
These magazines, for safety reasons, were made available to the selected brothers for one day at a time. Once, when a garage was under construction, I cowered in a trench and read while a brother kept watch outside. On another occasion I put The Watchtower on my lap during our “sewing hour” (in the evenings we sat in our barrack repairing gloves and other items), while brothers sat on either side as lookouts. When an SS guard came, I quickly stashed The Watchtower away. To have been caught would have meant my life!
Jehovah helped us in a marvelous way to commit to memory the fortifying thoughts in the articles. Sheer exhaustion usually drove me into a deep sleep at night. But on nights after I read The Watchtower, I would wake up several times and recall the thoughts quite clearly. The designated brothers in other cellblocks had similar experiences. Thus Jehovah sharpened our memory so that we could distribute the spiritual food. We did this by approaching each brother personally and strengthening him.
Faithful Until Death
On September 15, 1939, our labor detachment had to march back to camp earlier than usual. What was the occasion? August Dickmann, one of our young brothers, was to be publicly executed. The Nazis were confident that this would convince a large number of Witnesses to renounce their faith. After the execution, all other prisoners were dismissed. But we Jehovah’s Witnesses were hounded back and forth on the parade ground, kicked and beaten with sticks until we couldn’t move anymore. We were ordered to sign a declaration renouncing our faith; otherwise, we also were to be shot.
By the next day, nobody had signed. In fact, a new prisoner, who had signed upon arrival, now retracted his signature. He preferred to die with his brothers rather than leave the camp as a traitor. In the following months, we were punished with hard labor, continual mistreatment, and deprivation of food. Over a hundred of our brothers died during the severe winter of 1939/40. They kept their integrity to Jehovah and his Kingdom to the very end.
Then Jehovah provided some relief. Many brothers were relocated to work in newly established camps, where they received more food. Moreover, the bullying declined somewhat. In the spring of 1940, I was transferred to the Neuengamme concentration camp.
Spiritual Provisions in Neuengamme
When I arrived, there was a group of some 20 Witnesses, with no Bible or other publications. I prayed to Jehovah that he might help me use the things I had learned in Sachsenhausen to strengthen the brothers in Neuengamme. As a first step, I recalled scriptures and selected them as daily texts. Then provisions were made for meetings in which I could explain thoughts from Watchtower articles I had read in Sachsenhausen. When new brothers arrived, they reported the things they had learned from recent Watchtowers.
By 1943 the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Neuengamme had risen to 70. Jehovah’s Witnesses came to be preferred to do work outside the camp, such as cleaning up after air raids. As a result, we were able to bring Bibles, copies of The Watchtower, and some of the Society’s books and brochures secretly into the camp. We also received parcels by mail, containing additional literature as well as red wine and unleavened bread for the annual Memorial. Jehovah evidently blinded those who checked the parcels.
Scattered as we were among different barracks, we formed seven Watchtower Study groups, each with a conductor and a substitute. Copies of The Watchtower were secretly made in the camp commandant’s office, where I worked temporarily. Therefore, each study group received at least one complete issue for the weekly study. Not one meeting was canceled. In addition, each morning on the parade ground, the groups got a copy of the daily text, including a comment taken from The Watchtower.
Once the SS had a holiday, so we were able to hold a half-day convention and to discuss how to preach in the camp. We divided the camp into territories and tried systematically to reach the prisoners with the “good news of the kingdom.” (Matthew 24:14) Since the prisoners came from various countries, we made multilingual testimony cards that explained our work and the Kingdom. We preached so zealously that political prisoners complained: “Wherever you go, all you hear is talk about Jehovah!” A field service report of our activity even reached the branch office in Bern, Switzerland.
All went well until the Gestapo made an investigation of all concentration camps in 1944. Our literature depot in Neuengamme was not detected, but a few things were found with Karl Schwarzer and me. For three days we were interrogated and beaten. When the ordeal ended, both of us were covered with bruises. However, with Jehovah’s help, we survived.
Spiritual Blessings in Abundance
I was freed by Allied troops in May 1945. The day after being liberated, I began marching along with a small group of brothers and interested persons. Tired, we sat down at a well in the first village we came to and had a drink of water. Feeling refreshed, I went from house to house with a Bible under my arm. A young woman was quite moved to learn that we Jehovah’s Witnesses had been in concentration camps for our faith. She disappeared into her kitchen, returning with fresh milk and sandwiches for our group.
Afterward, still wearing our camp clothing, we proclaimed the Kingdom message through that whole village. Another villager invited us in for a generous spread. He served us things we had lacked for years. What a mouth-watering sight! Yet, we did not just devour the food. We said a prayer and ate in a calm, well-mannered fashion. This impressed the onlookers so much that when we began a meeting afterward, they listened to the Bible talk. A woman accepted the message and is today our spiritual sister.
We marched on and experienced Jehovah’s care in amazing ways. What a grand feeling it has been to continue enjoying, now in freedom, all the spiritual food published by Jehovah’s organization and to share it with others! In the years that have followed, our absolute trust in Jehovah has been rewarded again and again.
From 1945 to 1950, I had the privilege of serving in the Magdeburg Bethel and then, until 1955, in the office of the Watch Tower Society in Berlin. Afterward, I served as a traveling overseer until 1963, when my wife, Hilde, announced that she was expecting a baby. (Eva, my first wife, had died during my detention, and I married again in 1958.) Our daughter later became a zealous Witness.
What about the children from my first marriage? Unfortunately, my son showed no interest in the truth. But my daughter Gisela did, and she attended the Gilead missionary school in 1953. She now serves, together with her husband, at one of the Assembly Halls in Germany. With Jehovah’s help, I have been able to stay in the regular pioneer service since 1963 and to serve where help was needed, first in Frankfurt and then in Tübingen.
To this day I continue to enjoy all the provisions made by Jehovah’s organization for his household of faith. (1 Timothy 3:15) Nowadays, it is so easy to get spiritual food, but do we always appreciate it? I am confident that Jehovah has abundant blessings in store for those who trust in him, stay loyal, and feed at his table.
[Diagram on page 26, 27]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
SACHSENHAUSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP
A. SS barracks
B. Roll-call courtyard
E. Delousing station
F. Place of execution
G. Gas chamber