Part 3—Jehovah Cared for Us Under Ban
IT WAS March 14, 1990. On that momentous day, I was among those present when a high government official at the Ministry for Religious Affairs in East Berlin handed over the document bestowing legal status on Jehovah’s Witnesses in what was then called the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. During the proceedings that day, I thought back to when I became a Witness and reflected on the difficult times we had experienced.
In the mid-1950’s, when Margarete, a workmate who was a Witness, first spoke to me about her Bible-based beliefs, the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Germany was intense. Soon thereafter she left to work elsewhere, and I began to study the Bible with another Witness. I was baptized in 1956, and Margarete and I were married that same year. We were associated with the Lichtenberg Congregation in Berlin. It had about 60 Kingdom publishers sharing in the preaching work.
Two years after my baptism, government officials called at the home of the one taking the lead in our congregation. They intended to arrest him, but he was at work in West Berlin. His family was able to notify him to remain there, and some months later they joined him in the West. Even though I was only 24 years old, I was then given heavy responsibilities in the congregation. I am thankful that Jehovah provides the wisdom and strength needed to care for such duties.—2 Corinthians 4:7.
Providing Spiritual Food
When the Berlin Wall was erected in August 1961, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the East suddenly became isolated from their brothers in the West. Thus began a period when we made copies of our literature, first by typewriter, then by a series of duplicating machines. Starting in 1963, I spent two years building a hideaway in our home to do this printing. After working all day as a toolmaker, I spent nights producing copies of The Watchtower with the help of a couple of other brothers. The authorities were bent on penetrating our printing organization, but Jehovah helped us so that our food, as we called it, appeared on time.
Producing sufficient copies of our magazines required paper in large quantities, and obtaining these amounts was not easy. If we had regularly bought paper in bulk, this would have attracted the attention of the authorities. We therefore had individual Witnesses purchase paper in small amounts and bring it to our group Bible study. From there it was taken to where we produced the magazines. Other Witnesses then distributed the finished magazines.
Since the officials suspected that I was involved in printing literature, they kept a close watch on me. Late in 1965, I noticed them following me more than usual and sensed that they were planning something. Suddenly, they struck early one morning.
A Close Call
I was on my way to work that winter morning. It was before dawn, and I braced myself against the biting cold. While walking along, I spotted four heads above the hedges. The men turned the corner and headed along the path in my direction. To my horror I recognized them as government officials. What was I to do?
Deep snow had been shoveled aside to leave a narrow pathway. I kept walking. Putting my head down, I pressed on with my eyes fixed on the ground. I whispered a quick prayer. The men came nearer and nearer. Had they recognized me? As we shuffled past one another on the cramped pathway, I could hardly believe what was happening. I kept walking faster and faster. “Hey,” one of them yelled, “that’s him. Stop!”
I ran for all I was worth. Speeding around the corner, I bounded over a neighbor’s fence and into my own backyard. Hurtling inside the house, I locked and bolted the door. “Everyone out of bed!” I bellowed. “They’re here to get me.”
Margarete was downstairs in a flash and took up a position at the door. In no time I was in the cellar stoking up the stove. I snatched all the congregation records in my possession and fed them to the flames.
“Open up!” the men thundered. “Open the door! This is the public prosecutor.”
Margarete stood her ground as I burned everything beyond recognition. Then I joined Margarete and nodded for her to open the door. The men burst in.
“Why did you run away?” they asked.
Soon reinforcements arrived, and the whole house was searched. My main concern was the hideaway where our printing machine and 40,000 sheets of paper were located. But the hidden entrance remained undetected. Though the interrogations went on for hours, Jehovah helped me to keep calm. That experience drew us closer to our loving heavenly Father and strengthened us to endure.
In Prison but Free
In the late 1960’s, I was notified to report for military duty. Since I could not conscientiously serve, I was forced to spend seven months in custody and in a labor camp. There were 15 Witnesses in the camp at Cottbus, southeast of Berlin. All of us were there because of our Christian neutrality. (Isaiah 2:2-4; John 17:16) Our workdays were long and the labor hard. We got up at 4:15 a.m. and were taken outside the camp to work on the railroad tracks. While imprisoned, however, we had opportunities to tell others about Jehovah’s Kingdom.
For example, two fortune-tellers were with us in Cottbus. One day I heard that the younger one desperately wanted to speak with me. What could he want? He poured out his heart. His grandmother had been a fortune-teller, and he had developed similar powers after reading her books. Although this man so much wanted to get free from the powers that dominated him, he was afraid of reprisals. He cried and cried. But what did all of this have to do with me?
In the course of our conversation, he explained that his ability to tell the future was impaired when he was in the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I explained that there are both bad spirits, or demons, and good ones, or righteous angels. Using the example of those who became Christians in ancient Ephesus, I emphasized the need to dispose of all items related to fortune-telling or any other spiritistic practice. (Acts 19:17-20) “Then contact the Witnesses,” I told him. “There are Witnesses living everywhere.”
The young man left the camp a few days later, and I heard nothing more of him. But the experience with that terrified and inconsolable man who yearned for freedom deepened my love for Jehovah. We 15 Witnesses were in the camp for our faith, but we were free in a spiritual way. That young man had been set free from prison, but he was still enslaved to a “god” who terrified him. (2 Corinthians 4:4) How we Witnesses should cherish our spiritual freedom!
Our Children Tested
Not only did adults have to stand firm for their Bible-based convictions but so did young people. They were pressured to compromise both in school and at work. All of our four children had to take a stand for their beliefs.
A flag-salute ceremony was held in school every Monday. The children filed into the yard, sang a song, and gave the so-called Thälmann salute as the flag was hoisted. Ernst Thälmann was a German Communist murdered by the Nazi SS in 1944. After the second world war, Thälmann became a hero in East Germany. Because of our Bible-based conviction that sacred service should be directed only to Jehovah God, my wife and I instructed our children to stand respectfully during such ceremonies without participating.
Schoolchildren were also taught Communistic songs. Margarete and I went to our children’s school and explained why they would not sing such political songs. We said, though, that they would be willing to learn songs of another nature. Thus, at an early age, our children learned to stand firm and be different from their peers.
Toward the end of the 1970’s, our eldest daughter wanted to serve an apprenticeship in an office. However, each apprentice was first required to undergo 14 days of premilitary training. Since Renate’s conscience would not allow her to participate in this, she took a bold stand and was finally absolved of responsibility to receive such training.
During her apprenticeship, Renate went to a class in which she was called upon to attend shooting practice. “Renate, you are also coming to shooting practice,” said the teacher. He was indifferent to her objections. “You need not shoot,” he promised. “You can take care of refreshments.”
That evening, we talked things over as a family. We felt that Renate’s presence at shooting practice was wrong, even if she did not directly participate. Strengthened by the discussion with us and by prayer, she did not let herself be intimidated. What an encouragement for us to see our young daughter take a stand for righteous principles!
Increasing Our Public Preaching Activities
When opposition to our work eased in the late 1970’s, large supplies of our Christian publications began to be brought from the West. Though this was dangerous work, courageous brothers volunteered to do it. We greatly appreciated these increased literature supplies and the efforts of those who made them possible. When persecution was severe during the early years of the ban, house-to-house preaching activity was a real challenge. In fact, fear of reprisal led some to refrain from it. But in time our public preaching work increased dramatically. In the 1960’s, only about 25 percent of the Kingdom publishers were participating in the house-to-house service regularly. However, the number regularly sharing in that feature of the ministry had risen to 66 percent by the late 1980’s! By then the authorities paid less attention to our public preaching activity.
On one occasion a brother I was working with in the ministry brought his young daughter along. Warmed by the girl’s presence, an elderly lady we spoke with invited us into her home. She appreciated our Scriptural presentation and agreed that we should call again. I later turned the call over to my wife, who promptly started a home Bible study with the woman. Despite advanced age and failing health, this lady became our sister and continues active in Jehovah’s service.
Adjustments as Freedom Neared
Jehovah prepared us for the time when we would enjoy greater freedom. To illustrate: Shortly before the ban was lifted, we were advised to change the way we addressed one another at meetings. For security reasons, we had called one another only by our first names. Many who had known one another for years did not know a fellow believer’s last name. In preparation for welcoming many more interested ones to our meetings, however, we were encouraged to refer to one another by family names. To some this seemed impersonal, but those who followed the advice later adjusted more easily when we obtained our freedom.
We were also encouraged to start our meetings with a song. In this way we grew accustomed to the procedure followed by congregations elsewhere. Another adjustment was in the size of our study groups. They gradually increased from four persons in the 1950’s to eight. Later they were increased to 10 and finally to 12. Additionally, a study was made to ensure that the meeting place for each congregation was centrally located for the majority of Witnesses.
At times we were able to see the wisdom of a suggested adjustment only after it had been made. How often Jehovah showed himself to be a wise and considerate Father! Gradually, he brought us into line with the rest of his earthly organization, and we felt more and more a part of the worldwide brotherhood of his people. Surely, Jehovah God had lovingly protected his people throughout the nearly 40 years that they worked under ban in East Germany. How we now rejoice to have legal status!
Today, there are 22,000 or more Witnesses of Jehovah in what was formerly East Germany. They stand as a testimony to the wise guidance and loving care of Jehovah God. His support during the years we were under ban shows that he can master any situation. No matter what weapon is formed against his people, it will not succeed. Jehovah always cares well for those who trust in him. (Isaiah 54:17; Jeremiah 17:7, 8)—As told by Horst Schleussner.
[Picture on page 31]
Horst and Margarete Schleussner at the Society’s premises in East Berlin