Part 1—Jehovah Cared for Us Under Ban
For decades Jehovah’s Witnesses have wondered about their brothers in lands where their Christian activities were restricted. We are happy to present the first of three articles that reveal some of what occurred. These are personal accounts of faithful Christians in what was then known as East Germany.
IN 1944, I was a German prisoner of war, working as a medical orderly in Cumnock Camp, near Ayr, Scotland. I was allowed outside the camp, although fraternization with the local people was restricted. Taking a stroll one Sunday, I met a man who made earnest efforts to explain things from the Bible to me. Afterward we often sauntered along together.
In time he invited me to a gathering in a house. This was risky on his part, since I was a member of an enemy nation. At the time I did not realize that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses—the meeting was evidently one of their small Bible study groups. Although not comprehending very much, I remember clearly a picture of a child dressed in a long white garment, together with a lion and a lamb. This portrait of the new world, as described in the Bible book of Isaiah, made a deep impression on me.
In December 1947, I was released from the prison camp. Returning home to Germany, I married Margit, whom I had known before the war. We made our home in Zittau, close to the borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia. Within a few days, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door. “If this is the same group I met in Scotland,” I told my wife, “then we have to join them.” That same week, we attended our first meeting with the Witnesses.
From the Bible, we soon learned of the need to attend Christian meetings regularly and to share in the preaching work. In fact, what the Witnesses taught from the Bible soon became the most important thing in our lives. In time I began conducting a group Bible study. Then, in February 1950, two traveling Christian overseers asked: “Don’t you ever want to get immersed?” That very afternoon Margit and I symbolized our dedication to God by baptism.
Beginning of Troubles
Zittau was in the Soviet zone of Germany, and efforts to make trouble for Jehovah’s Witnesses had begun in 1949. Only after much difficulty were facilities obtained for a small assembly in Bautzen. Then, during the summer, special trains for the larger district convention in Berlin were suddenly canceled. Yet thousands attended.
Congregation meetings were also disturbed. Hecklers would attend just to shout and whistle. On one occasion we were almost forced to stop a traveling overseer’s talk. The press called us prophets of doom. Newspaper articles even claimed that we had gathered on hilltops while waiting to be swept away in the clouds. The papers also quoted some girls as saying that Witnesses tried to commit immorality with them. The explanation that ‘those making a dedication to Jehovah would receive everlasting life’ was twisted to say that those who had sex with the Witnesses would gain everlasting life.
Later we were also accused of being warmongers. What we said about God’s war of Armageddon was misinterpreted to mean that we encouraged the arms race and war. How absurd! Nevertheless, in August 1950, when I arrived for the night shift at the local newspaper where I worked as a printer, I was stopped at the gate. “You have been fired,” said the watchman, who was accompanied by the police. “You people are in favor of war.”
Back home, Margit was relieved. “No more late work,” she said. We did not become anxious. I soon found another job. We trusted in God to provide, and he did.
Our Work Is Banned
On August 31, 1950, the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the German Democratic Republic were banned. A wave of arrests followed. Witnesses were put on trial, some receiving life sentences. Two from Zittau, who had suffered in concentration camps under the Nazis, were incarcerated by the Communists.
The one overseeing our congregation was arrested along with his wife. Those who arrested them left their two young children alone in the house to fend for themselves. The grandparents took the children, and today both girls are zealous in telling others about God’s Kingdom.
Couriers from the congregations in East Germany traveled to and from Berlin to collect literature at pickup points in the free western sector. Many of these courageous couriers were arrested, dragged into court, and given prison sentences.
The authorities turned up early one morning to search our home. We had anticipated their coming, so I had put all the congregation records, which I was keeping, in our barn, next to a wasp’s nest. The insects never bothered me, but when the men started poking around, they were suddenly enveloped in a cloud of wasps. All the men could do was run for safety!
Jehovah had prepared us for the ban by means of the conventions held in 1949. The program had urged us to intensify personal study, meeting attendance, and our preaching activity, as well as to depend on one another for support and encouragement. This really helped us to remain loyal. Thus, even though people often criticized and cursed us, we took little notice.
Holding Meetings Under the Ban
Following the announcement of the ban, I met with two fellow Witnesses to discuss how to continue our congregation meetings. Attending was dangerous, since arrest while present could mean a prison sentence. We called on the Witnesses in our area. Some were anxious, but it was encouraging that each recognized the need to attend meetings.
An interested man who had a barn offered it for use as a meeting place. Although it stood in a field, visible for all to see, the barn had a back door that opened onto a path that was concealed by bushes. So our coming and going was not observed. All through the winter that old barn played host to our meetings held by candlelight, with about 20 persons in attendance. We met each week for our study of the Watchtower magazine and for the Service Meeting. The program was adapted to our circumstances, stressing that we had to keep spiritually active. We were soon thrilled to welcome the same interested man as our new brother in the truth.
In the mid-1950’s, court sentences became milder, and some brothers were released from prison. Many were deported to West Germany. As for me, things took an unexpected turn following the visit of a brother from West Germany.
My First Major Assignment
The brother called himself Hans. Following our conversation, I was asked to call at an address in Berlin. Upon locating the code name on the doorbell, I was invited in. Two persons joined me and engaged me in a pleasant but very general discussion. Then came what they had been leading up to: “If you were offered a special assignment, would you accept it?”
“Of course,” was my answer.
“Fine,” they said, “that is all we wanted to know. Have a safe journey home.”
Three weeks later I was asked to return to Berlin and again found myself in that room. Handing me a map of the region around Zittau, the brothers came to the point. “We have no contact with the Witnesses in this area. Could you restore contact for us?”
“Of course I will,” was my immediate reply. The area was huge, over 60 miles [100 km] long, from Riesa to Zittau, and up to 30 miles [50 km] wide. And all I had was a bicycle. When contact with individual Witnesses was established, each was integrated within his own congregation, which regularly sent a representative to Berlin to pick up literature and instructions. This method of operation prevented the endangering of other congregations when the authorities were persecuting any one congregation.
Trust in Jehovah
Despite the persecution, in obedience to Bible instructions, we never ceased going from house to house with our message about God’s Kingdom. (Matthew 24:14; 28:19, 20; Acts 20:20) We called at addresses on the basis of recommendations from individuals already known to us, and we enjoyed some wonderful experiences. At times even our mistakes were turned into blessings, as the following illustrates.
My wife and I were given an address to visit, but we called at the wrong house. When the door opened, we noticed a police uniform on the coatrack. Margit’s face paled; my heart pounded. This could mean prison. Time only for a quick prayer.
“Who are you?” asked the man tersely. We kept calm.
“I am sure I know you from somewhere,” Margit said, “but I just cannot think where. Yes, you are a policeman. I must have seen you on duty.”
This poured oil on troubled waters, and he asked in a friendly tone. “Are you Jehovah’s?”
“Yes,” I joined in, “we are, and you must admit it takes courage for us to knock on your door. We are interested in you personally.”
He invited us into his home. We visited him a number of times and started a Bible study. In time this man became our Christian brother. How that experience strengthened our trust in Jehovah!
Sisters often acted as couriers, which called upon them to place their implicit trust in Jehovah. Such was the case when Margit once traveled to Berlin to pick up literature. There was far more than expected. A clothesline was used to tie the heavy, overloaded suitcase. All went well until Margit was on the train. Then a border official came along.
“Whose is it, and what is in it?” he demanded, pointing to the suitcase.
“It’s my laundry,” Margit replied.
Suspicious, he ordered her to open it up. Slowly and deliberately, taking apart one knot at a time, Margit began untying the clothesline around the case. Since the border official’s job called for him to travel with the train only a certain distance and then disembark and take another train on the return journey, he became increasingly impatient. Finally, when but three knots remained, he gave up. “Clear off, and take your laundry with you!” he yelled.
Jehovah’s Personal Care
Often I managed no more than four hours’ sleep a night, since I usually cared for congregation matters under the cover of darkness. It was after a night of such activity that officials pounded on our door one morning. They had come to carry out a search. It was too late to hide anything.
The officials spent the whole morning turning the place inside out, even inspecting the toilet in case anything was hidden in it. No one thought to examine my jacket that was hanging on the coatrack. I had hurriedly stashed documents into its many pockets. The pockets were bulging with the very things the officials were after, but they left empty-handed.
On another occasion, in August 1961, I was in Berlin. It turned out to be my final collection of literature before the Berlin Wall was erected. The Berlin railway station was swarming with people as I prepared to return to Zittau. The train pulled in, and everyone rushed down the platform to get on. Swept along in the throng, I suddenly found myself in an empty part of the train. No sooner had I got on than the guard locked the doors from the outside. I stood alone in one section, with the other passengers being herded into the rest of the train.
We set off for Zittau. For some time I was alone in the car. Then the train came to a halt, and the doors to my section were opened. Dozens of Soviet soldiers entered. Only then did I realize that I had been traveling in a section reserved for the Soviet military. I wished the ground would open up and swallow me. Yet, the soldiers did not seem to see anything amiss.
We resumed the journey to Zittau, where the doors to our section were thrown open, and the soldiers bounded out. They began a search of all the passengers at the station. I was the only one to leave unhindered. Many of the soldiers even saluted me, thinking I was a high official.
Only afterward did we realize how valuable that literature was, for the erection of the Berlin Wall temporarily interrupted our supply route. Yet, that literature was sufficient to serve our needs for several months. In the meantime, arrangements to keep in touch with us could be made.
The advent of the Berlin Wall in 1961 brought changes for us in East Germany. But Jehovah, as always, was ahead of events. He continued to care for us under the ban.—As told by Hermann Laube.
[Picture on page 27]
We enjoyed a small assembly in Bautzen