They Set an Example for Us
AS TOLD BY CRAIG ZANKER
For eight years my wife, Gayle, and I have been pioneers, full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For the last six, we have been serving among the Aboriginal population in Australia’s outback. We are simply following the fine example set for us by my parents and grandparents.
LET me tell you especially about my grandparents. We have always affectionately called them Opa and Oma, the Dutch equivalent of grandpa and grandma. My grandpa, Charles Harris, is still serving zealously in Melbourne, where he has lived for nearly 50 years.
Learning Bible Truths
Opa was born in a small town in Tasmania, Australia’s island state. In 1924, when he was 14, his father bought a sailor’s sea chest at an auction. It turned out to be a real treasure chest, spiritually speaking, for it contained a set of books written by the first president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, Charles Taze Russell.
Apparently Opa’s father was not especially interested in the books, but Opa began to read them and immediately recognized that they contained vital Bible truths. So he set out to find the International Bible Students, representatives of the book’s publishers who are now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. He wanted to talk to them so that he could receive further explanations of the Bible truths he was learning.
After many inquiries he found three elderly women who were active in teaching others. They had a tremendous impact on young Charles. Eventually, in 1930, he made a dedication to Jehovah God and was baptized in water. He resigned his job as a butcher and traveled north to Sydney, where he received an assignment as a full-time evangelizer.
Pioneering in Australia
Over the next few years, Charles’ preaching territories included the Sydney seaside suburb of Bondi as well as rural areas in the state of New South Wales. Then he was assigned to Perth, Western Australia, thousands of miles away on the other side of the continent. For six months he witnessed in the business territory of Perth, and then, along with two other pioneers, he was assigned to the wide-open spaces of northwestern Australia.
The preaching assignment of this threesome—Arthur Willis, George Rollsten, and Charles—was an area four times the size of Italy! The population was sparse, the countryside barren, and the heat intense. At times it was necessary to travel more than 300 miles [500 km] between ranches, known as cattle stations. The vehicle they used was dilapidated, even by 1930 standards, but they had strong faith and lots of determination.
The narrow, potholed dirt roads were crisscrossed by camel tracks, and here and there the fine dust (called bulldust) concealed dangerous tree stumps. No wonder the car springs often broke. The rear axle fractured on two occasions, and the tires were cut many times. The pioneers often made sleeves from old tires and bolted them with roof bolts to the inside of the existing tires in order to continue their journey.
When I was just a young lad, I asked Opa what encouraged them to keep on going under such difficult conditions. He explained that in their isolation there was a closeness to Jehovah. What was at times a physical hardship, he said, became a spiritual blessing.
Without any hint of superiority or self-righteousness, Opa expressed amazement that so many people seem overly concerned with accumulating material possessions. “Life,” he reminded me, “is far better traversed with as little baggage as possible. If Jesus was willing to sleep under the stars when necessary, then we should be happy to do the same if our assignment requires it.” (Matthew 8:19, 20) And, indeed, he and his companions did.
Invited to a Foreign Field
In 1935, Opa received a new preaching assignment—to witness to islanders of the South Pacific. With a crew of six others, he sailed on the Watch Tower Society’s 52-foot [16 m] sailboat Lightbearer.
One time, while in the Coral Sea north of Australia, the auxiliary engine of the Lightbearer broke down. There was no wind whatsoever, so they were stranded many miles from land. Although there was danger of shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef, Opa was impressed by the exquisite serenity. “The sea was like a mill pond,” he wrote in his diary. “I will never forget the setting of the sun each evening on that calm sea. The sight was so beautiful that it is engraved on my memory for all time.”
Happily, before they drifted onto the reef, the wind returned, and they sailed safely under canvas into Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where they had the engine repaired. From Port Moresby they sailed to Thursday Island and then on to Java, a large island of Indonesia. Opa developed a deep love for this country that has been described as “a string of pearls strung across the equator.” At the time, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, so grandpa learned both Dutch and Indonesian. The literature he offered in his preaching activity, however, was in five languages: Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese, English, and Arabic.
Opa was very successful in placing Bible literature. Once Clem Deschamp, who was in charge of the Watch Tower depot in Batavia (now Djakarta), was called before a Dutch officer who had been closely monitoring our preaching work. “How many people do you have working down there in East Java?” the officer inquired.
“Only one,” replied Brother Deschamp.
“Do you expect me to believe that?” barked the officer. “You must have quite an army of workers down there, judging by the amount of your literature being distributed everywhere!”
Opa feels that was one of the most satisfying compliments of his life. But he surely deserved it, since it was not unusual for him to place between 1,500 and 3,000 pieces of literature each month.
Marriage, a Ban, and War
In December 1938, Opa married a young Indonesian woman named Wilhelmina, who became my grandmother. Oma, or grandma, was kind, gentle, industrious, and soft-spoken. I know, for during my childhood she was my closest friend.
After their marriage Opa and Oma continued their pioneer service together. By then the other crew members of the Lightbearer had either dispersed to other parts of the world or returned home. But Opa had made Indonesia his home, and he was determined to stay.
As World War II approached, the Dutch government ruling Indonesia, and acting under pressure from the clergy, began to place restrictions on the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses, eventually banning our work. So the preaching was done with difficulty, using only the Bible. In almost every town Opa and Oma visited, they were hauled before officials and interrogated. They were treated like criminals. Not long after the ban came, Oma’s brother-in-law was jailed for his stand of Christian neutrality. He died in a Dutch prison.
Opa and Oma lived in a truck with a caravan body built onto it. Using this mobile home, they preached all over Java. In 1940, as the threat of Japanese military invasion loomed, they were blessed with a daughter, who became my mother. They named the baby Victory, after the title of the lecture given two years earlier by the then president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, J. F. Rutherford. They continued pioneering right through the time of the baby’s birth.
Early in 1942, Opa, Oma, and Victory were on a Dutch freighter returning from Borneo when a loud gun blast from a Japanese destroyer was heard. All the lights went out, and people screamed. In this way the war came into my family’s lives. Although they made it back to port safely, the Japanese invaded Java only a few days later, and a Dutch officer disclosed the whereabouts of Opa and Oma to Japanese soldiers.
When the Japanese found them, they were stripped of their possessions, right down to little Victory’s toys, and were taken to two different concentration camps. Victory was allowed to stay with Oma, and Opa did not see them for the next three and a half years.
Life in Concentration Camps
During his internment, Opa was transferred from town to town—from Surabaja to Ngawi, to Bandung, and finally to Tjimahi. These constant moves were to thwart any attempt of an organized escape plan. The prisoners were mainly Dutch, with a few British and some Australians. While in the camps, Opa learned the barbering trade, a skill he occasionally still employs. The only religious book he was allowed to keep was the Bible—his King James Version.
Meanwhile, Oma and Victory were also being moved from camp to camp. In these camps women were called upon by the camp commandant to serve outside for “social services.” For some reason, however, Oma was never chosen. Later she learned that the women were taken out to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.
Since Japanese soldiers did not favor female children, Oma always kept Victory dressed as a boy and kept her hair cut short. The name Victory caused big trouble when the camp commandant wanted to know what the name signified—Victory for the Imperial Japanese Army or Victory for the Americans?
“Victory for God’s Kingdom over all earthly governments!” my grandmother replied proudly.
As punishment for refusing to say, “Victory for the Imperial Japanese Army,” Oma and her five-year-old daughter were forced to stand straight and at attention for eight hours under the blazing tropical sun. No shade, no water, no sitting, no slouching forward. But with Jehovah’s help they survived this dreadful ordeal.
A year after Oma’s internment, the camp commandant said to her that her husband had died! She sadly placed Opa’s picture in the bottom of her battered suitcase and continued on, despite her grief.
Prison-camp life was hard. Daily rations for each person consisted of one cup [250 cc] of tapioca for breakfast, seven ounces [190 gm] of bread made from sago for lunch, and for the evening meal, one cup [250 cc] of cooked rice in a watery vegetable soup. Because of such meager rations, malnutrition was common, and victims of dysentery died daily.
During Opa’s internment, he suffered from pellagra and nutritional edema (starvation sickness). Oma also nearly died, since she often gave her food to Victory to prevent the little girl from starving to death. Cruelty and starvation became constant companions. They were able to survive only by keeping close to their God, Jehovah.
I remember well one of Opa’s favorite sayings: “Freedom is being in harmony with the Divine One, Jehovah.” Thus, Opa considered himself to be free in a real sense even while enduring harsh imprisonment. The love that he and Oma had for Jehovah certainly helped them to ‘endure all things.’ (1 Corinthians 13:7) That close relationship with God is what Gayle and I now seek to maintain.
Freedom and a Remarkable Reunion
Finally, World War II ended in 1945. Not long after Japan’s surrender, Opa was being transported by train. En route from Djakarta to Bandung, the train was stopped by Indonesian soldiers. Although hostilities with the Japanese had ceased, the Indonesians were fighting to obtain independence from the Dutch. Opa was so surprised to be suddenly taken off the train that he forgot to speak English and instead started speaking in Dutch. To the Indonesians, Dutch was the language of the enemy, and the enemy was to be killed.
Fortunately, while the soldiers were searching Opa, they found his Australian driver’s license, which he had forgotten all about. Happily, the Indonesians were not at war with Australia. To this day, Opa regards the discovery of the license that proved his Australian citizenship as divine intervention, for at that very stop only hours later, those same troops killed 12 Dutchmen who were passing through on the train.
Shortly after this incident, Oma and Victory were waiting for transport from the war-torn regions. As they sat by the roadside, an endless line of trucks carrying soldiers and civilians went by. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the line came to a halt. Oma happened to glance into the open back of the closest truck, and there, to her astonishment, sat an emaciated man whom she recognized immediately. It was her husband! No words could convey the emotion of their reunion.
Back in Australia
When grandfather returned with his family to Australia in 1946, after living in Indonesia for 11 years, life for them was not easy. They returned as war refugees—destitute, malnourished, and regarded with suspicion by many locals. Oma and Victory had to bear the full brunt of racial prejudice against Asian immigrants. Opa had to work hard and for long hours to care for his family and provide them with a home. Despite these hardships, they endured and survived with their spirituality intact.
Now, over 48 years later, Opa lives in Melbourne, where he still shares in the house-to-house ministry. He has seen Victory and her children embrace the truth, dedicate their lives to Jehovah, and each, in turn, enter the full-time pioneer service.
Des Zanker, who became my father, and Victory were baptized in the early 1950’s, and Des became a member of the Australia Bethel family in 1958. After he married Victory, who was serving as a special pioneer, they pioneered for a while and then were invited into the traveling ministry. Then I came along, and they had to leave the traveling work to rear me. Yet, after 27 years, Dad is still pioneering.
Early in 1990, Oma died peacefully at home, in the very same house in which my mother was reared. I too was reared in this same Melbourne house, and so were my younger brother and sister. It has been a real blessing for our family to share a house together. Sometimes it was tight quarters, but I cannot remember ever worrying about it. Even during the first four years of our marriage, my wife, Gayle, fitted in there somewhere and loved it. When we finally left for our new assignment, I cried. I had received so much support and love in that house.
Now, though, Gayle and I have cause for abundant joy, for we are able to do what my parents and their parents before them did. When we left home, we found comfort in our reason for going, which was to do Jehovah’s will in the full-time service. We are trying hard to follow the fine example of our faithful forebears, who found similar comfort when working in tough assignments, when in extreme poverty, and even when held for years in Japanese concentration camps.—2 Corinthians 1:3, 4.
Opa has always found solace in the inspired words of King David to Jehovah: “Your loving-kindness is better than life.” (Psalm 63:3) It has always been my grandfather’s intense desire to enjoy that loving-kindness eternally. It is the desire of his entire family to share it with him.
[Picture on page 21]
Oma and Opa Harris
[Picture on page 23]
Craig Zanker (rear), with his wife, parents, and younger brother and sister