Part 2—Jehovah Cared for Us Under Ban
DURING World War II, the belt buckle of my Nazi soldier’s uniform had borne the inscription “God Is With Us.” To me this had been just another example of the churches’ involvement with war and bloodshed. It had disgusted me. So by the time two of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged me in conversation in Limbach-Oberfrohna, East Germany, I was sick of religion and had become an atheist and an evolutionist.
“Don’t get the idea that I will become a Christian,” I told the Witnesses who called. But their arguments convinced me that there is a God. Inquisitive, I bought a Bible and in time began to study it with them. That was in the spring of 1953, when the activities of the Witnesses in East Germany had already been under Communist ban for nearly three years.
The Watchtower of August 15, 1953, described the situation of Jehovah’s Witnesses then, saying: “Although constantly spied upon and threatened, although not being able to call upon one another without first making certain that they are not being followed, although being discovered with Watchtower literature in one’s possession means two or three years in prison for ‘distribution of instigation literature’, and although hundreds of the more mature brothers, those who had been taking the lead, are in prison, yet Jehovah’s servants in East Germany keep on preaching.”
In 1955 my wife, Regina, and I attended the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nuremberg, West Germany, and the following year we were both baptized in West Berlin. That, of course, was before the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, cutting East Germany off from West Berlin. But even before I got baptized, my loyalty to Jehovah God was put to the test.
Taking On Responsibility
The congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses that we had started to go to in Limbach-Oberfrohna needed someone who could pick up Bible literature in West Berlin. We had a small business and two young children, but serving Jehovah had already become the focus of our lives. We modified our old car, which made it possible to conceal 60 books. Being a courier was risky business, but it taught me to rely on Jehovah.
Crossing by car from East Berlin to the Western sector was not easy, and I often wonder how we ever managed it. Once in the free sector, we collected the literature and hid the books in the car before crossing the border back to East Germany.
On one occasion, we had just finished concealing the books when a stranger came out of an apartment house. “You there,” he yelled. My heart missed a beat. Had he been observing us? “Better go somewhere else next time. The East German police radio-car parks on the corner there, and they might catch you.” I heaved a sigh of relief. The border crossing went well, and the four of us in the car sang all the way back home.
Preparation for Isolation
In the 1950’s the brothers in East Germany relied on those in the West for literature and guidance. But in 1960 adjustments were made that helped each Witness in East Germany keep in closer touch with fellow Witnesses in the area in which he lived. Then in June 1961 the first class of the Kingdom Ministry School for elders was held in Berlin. I attended this first four-week course. Barely six weeks later, we were suddenly cut off from the West when the Berlin Wall was erected. Our work was now not only underground but also isolated.
Some feared that the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Germany would come to a grinding halt. However, the organizational adjustments introduced less than a year earlier helped us maintain spiritual unity and strength. In addition, the training received by the elders who attended the first class of the Kingdom Ministry School equipped them to pass on this training to other elders. So Jehovah prepared us for our isolation, even as he had prepared us for the ban in 1950 with the 1949 district conventions.
Cut off from the West, it was clear that we had to take the initiative to keep the organization moving. We wrote to our Christian brothers in West Berlin and suggested a meeting with them on a highway in the East that was accessible to travelers from the West. We faked a breakdown at the appointed place. Minutes later the brothers drove up, bringing us Bible literature. Happily, they also brought my Kingdom Ministry School textbook, the notes I had taken, and the Bible that I had left behind in Berlin for security reasons. What a thrill to get them back! Little did I know how much I would need these things during the next few years.
An Underground School
A few days later, we were instructed to arrange for classes of the Kingdom Ministry School in all parts of East Germany. Four instructors were appointed, including me. But to me it seemed an impossible task to train all the elders while our work was under ban. To disguise what we were doing, I decided to arrange the classes as a camping holiday.
Each class was made up of four students and me as instructor, plus a sixth brother who served as cook. The wives and children were also present. So we generally had a group of from 15 to 20 persons. A normal camping site seemed out of the question, so my family and I set off in search of suitable locations.
On one occasion, while traveling through a village, we noticed a lane leading to a grove of trees way off the beaten track. It seemed ideal, so I approached the mayor. “We are looking for a place to spend a couple of weeks camping with a few other families,” I explained. “We want to be on our own so that the children can romp around. Could we use the woods over there?” He agreed, so we made arrangements.
At the site, we situated the tents and my trailer so as to create a central quadrangle that was hidden from the outside. The trailer served as our classroom. We met in it for intensive study 8 hours a day for 14 days. In the enclosed area were chairs and a table, set out just in case we had unexpected visitors. And we had them! At such times we really appreciated the loving support of our families.
While we were having classes, our families stood guard. On this particular occasion, the mayor, who was also the local secretary of the Communist Party, was spotted coming up the lane toward our grove. The guard pressed a switch that was connected by cable to an alarm in the trailer. Immediately we leaped out of the trailer and took up prearranged places around the table and started playing cards. There was even a bottle of schnapps to make the scene look realistic. The mayor paid us a friendly visit and returned home without any suspicion of what was really going on.
Classes of the Kingdom Ministry School were held throughout the country from the spring of 1962 until late 1965. The intensive training received there, which included information on how to cope with our particular situation in East Germany, prepared the elders for the oversight of the preaching work. In order to attend the classes, the elders not only sacrificed their vacation but risked imprisonment as well.
Benefits of the School
The authorities were carefully observing our activities, and late in 1965, after most of the elders had been through the school, they attempted to deal a fatal blow to our organization. They arrested 15 Witnesses considered to be the ones taking the lead in the work. It was a well-prepared action, sweeping right across the land. Again, many thought that the Witnesses would cease to function. But with Jehovah’s help we adjusted to the situation and carried on our work as before.
What particularly made this possible was the training that the elders had received in the Kingdom Ministry School and the bonds of trust that had been welded through the association they enjoyed during these classes. Thus, the organization showed its mettle. How important it was that we had obediently followed organization instructions closely!—Isaiah 48:17.
It became evident in the following months that the massive clampdown by government authorities had had little adverse effect on our activity. After a short while, we were able to resume classes of the Kingdom Ministry School. Once the authorities took note of our resilience, they were forced to change their tactics. What a triumph for Jehovah!
Active in the Ministry
At that time our Congregation Book Study groups consisted of about five persons. Each of us received our Bible literature through this book-study arrangement, and the preaching work was coordinated from these small study groups. From the start Jehovah blessed Regina and me with many people who desired to study the Bible.
House-to-house service was adapted somewhat to protect us from being detected and arrested. We would call at one address, then skip a few homes before knocking on another door. At one house a lady invited Regina and me in. We were discussing a Scriptural theme with her when her son walked into the room. He was very direct.
“Have you ever seen your God?” he asked. “Just so that you know, I only believe what I see. Everything else is rubbish.”
“I cannot believe that,” I replied. “Have you ever seen your brain? Everything you do indicates that you have one.”
Regina and I offered examples of other things we accept without seeing them, such as electricity. The young man listened attentively, and a home Bible study was started with him and his mother. Both of them became Witnesses. In fact, 14 persons with whom my wife and I studied became Witnesses. Half of that number we contacted during our house-to-house visitations, and the other half we first met during informal witnessing.
Once a home Bible study was being conducted regularly and we considered the person to be trustworthy, we invited that one to our meetings. The prime consideration, however, was whether the student might jeopardize the safety of God’s people. Thus, it was sometimes a year or so before we would invite a Bible student to a meeting, and on occasion it was much longer. I recall one man who enjoyed a degree of prominence; he was on first-name terms with top officials in the Communist Party. He had a Bible study for nine years before he was permitted to attend meetings! Today this man is our Christian brother.
Authorities Still on Our Tail
After 1965 we experienced no further mass arrests, but neither were we left in peace. The authorities still kept close tabs on us. About this time I became closely involved with the function of our organization, so I received special attention from the officials. Innumerable times they picked me up for questioning, driving me to the police station and interrogating me. “You can say good-bye to your freedom now,” they would say. “Off you go to prison.” But they always let me go eventually.
In 1972 two officials visited me and inadvertently paid our organization a fine compliment. They had been listening in on our congregation Watchtower Study. “We found the article very offensive,” they remonstrated. They were obviously concerned about what others might think of Communist ideology if they read the article being considered. “After all,” they said, “The Watchtower has a circulation of five or six million, and it is read in developing countries. It is not just a cheap tabloid.” I thought to myself, ‘How right you are!’
By 1972 we had been under ban for 22 years, and Jehovah had guided us lovingly and wisely. We had followed his instructions carefully, but it would be another 18 years before the Witnesses in East Germany would be granted legal recognition. How grateful we are for the wonderful freedoms that we now enjoy to worship our God, Jehovah!—As told by Helmut Martin.