Jehovah Proved to Be With Me
AS TOLD BY MAX HENNING
It was 1933, and Adolf Hitler had just come to power in Germany. However, the some 500 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Berlin area did not waver. Many young folk became pioneers, or full-time ministers, and some even accepted assignments to other European countries. My friend Werner Flatten and I used to ask each other: “Why do we just stand around wasting our time? Why don’t we get out there and pioneer?”
EIGHT days after my birth in 1909, I came under the care of loving foster parents. In 1918 our family was crushed when my little foster sister died suddenly. Shortly thereafter the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known, called at our door, and the hearts of my foster parents opened wide to accept Bible truth. They also taught me to appreciate spiritual things.
I applied myself to secular schooling and became a plumber. But more important, I took my stand spiritually. Werner and I started pioneering on May 5, 1933. We would bike to a town about 60 miles [100 km] out of Berlin, where we stayed and preached for two weeks. Then we returned to Berlin to care for necessary matters. Afterward we went back to our preaching territory for another two weeks.
We applied to serve in another country, and in December 1933 we received an assignment to what was then Yugoslavia. However, before we could leave, our assignment was changed to Utrecht in the Netherlands. Shortly afterward I was baptized. In those days less emphasis was placed on baptism; the ministry was the important thing. Reliance on Jehovah now became a constant feature in my life. I found much comfort in the words of the Bible psalmist: “Look! God is my helper; Jehovah is among those supporting my soul.”—Psalm 54:4.
Pioneering in the Netherlands
Not long after arriving in the Netherlands, we were reassigned to the city of Rotterdam. The father and a son in the family with whom we stayed were also pioneers. A few months later, a big house in Leersum, a town not far from Utrecht, was purchased as a residence for pioneers, and Werner and I moved there.
While living in that pioneer home, we traveled by bicycle to territories nearby and used a seven-passenger car for territories farther out. At the time, there were only a hundred Witnesses in all the Netherlands. Today, 60 years later, the territory that we worked from that pioneer home has more than 4,000 publishers in about 50 congregations!
We worked hard, up to 14 hours in the ministry each day, and that kept us happy. A chief aim was to place as much literature as possible. We commonly left more than a hundred booklets a day with interested ones. Making return visits and conducting Bible studies was as yet not a part of our regular activity.
One day my partner and I were working in the town of Vreeswijk. While he was giving a witness to a man at the gate of a military fort, I used the time to read my Bible. It was copiously underlined in red and blue. Later, a carpenter who had been working on a nearby roof warned the man at the gate that I was probably some kind of spy. As a result, that same day I was arrested while witnessing to a storekeeper, and my Bible was confiscated.
I was taken to court. There it was charged that the marks in my Bible were an effort to make a drawing of the fort. I was declared guilty, and the judge sentenced me to two years in prison. However, the case was appealed, and I was acquitted. How happy I was to be free, but I was even happier when my Bible with all its notes was returned!
During the summer of 1936, Richard Brauning, one of the pioneers in the home, and I spent the summer preaching in the north of the country. The first month, we spent 240 hours in the ministry and placed large quantities of literature. We lived in a tent and cared for all our own needs, doing our own laundry, cooking, and so forth.
Later I was transferred to the boat named Lightbearer, which became well-known in the north of the Netherlands. Five pioneers lived on the boat, and from it we were able to reach a lot of isolated territory.
In 1938, I was assigned to be a zone servant, as circuit overseers of Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. So I left the Lightbearer and began visiting congregations and isolated Witnesses in three southern provinces.
The bicycle was our only means of transportation. It often took a whole day to travel from one congregation or group of interested ones to the next. Among the cities I visited was Breda, where I now live. At the time, Breda had no congregation and just one elderly Witness couple.
While serving the brothers in Limburg, I was invited to answer many questions propounded by a mine worker named Johan Pieper. He took a firm stand for Bible truth and became a courageous preacher. Four years later he landed in a concentration camp, where he spent three and a half years. After his release he zealously took up preaching again, and today he is still a faithful elder. That small congregation of 12 Witnesses in Limburg has now grown to 17 congregations with some 1,550 publishers!
Under the Nazi Heel
In May 1940 the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. I received an assignment to the Watch Tower Society’s branch office in Amsterdam. We had to carry on our work with extreme caution, which made us appreciate the Bible proverb: “A true companion . . . is a brother that is born for when there is distress.” (Proverbs 17:17) The sweet bond of unity that thrived during this time of stress had a profound effect on my spiritual development, and it conditioned me for the still more difficult days ahead.
My assignment was to oversee the delivery of literature to the congregations, which was usually done by couriers. The Gestapo was constantly looking for young men to work as forced laborers in Germany, so we used Christian sisters as couriers. In time Wilhelmina Bakker, always known as Nonnie, was sent to us from The Hague, and I took her to where our branch overseer, Arthur Winkler, was hiding. To try to be as inconspicuous as possible, I dressed up as a Dutch farmer, wooden shoes and all, and escorted Nonnie by streetcar. Later I learned that she had a hard time holding back from laughing, since she felt I was anything but inconspicuous.
On October 21, 1941, the storage place for literature and paper in Amsterdam was betrayed to the enemy. During the Gestapo raid, Winkler and Nonnie were arrested. When they were handed over to prison, they overheard two Gestapo agents talking about how they had been chasing “a small dark-haired fellow” whom they lost track of in the crowded streets. It was obvious they were talking about me, so Winkler managed to get a message out to the brothers. Immediately, I was moved to The Hague.
In the meantime Nonnie was released from prison, and she returned to The Hague to pioneer. There I met her again. But when the congregation servant in Rotterdam was arrested, I was sent to take his place. Later the congregation servant in the Gouda Congregation was arrested, and I was moved there to replace him. Finally, on March 29, 1943, I was caught. While I was checking our stock of Bible literature, I was surprised by a Gestapo raid.
Besides the Bible literature spread out on a table, there was also a list of names of Christian brothers and sisters, although these were in coded form. In anguish, I prayed that Jehovah would provide a way for me to protect those who were still free to preach. Without being detected, I managed to place my open hand atop the list of names and rumple it up inside my palm. Then I asked permission to go to the toilet, where I shredded the list and flushed it down.
When in such dire straits, I learned to draw strength from Jehovah’s dealings with his people in the past and from his promises of deliverance. This is one inspired assurance that has always stuck in my mind: “Had it not been that Jehovah proved to be for us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up even alive.”—Psalm 124:2, 3.
Prisons and Concentration Camps
I was taken to the Rotterdam prison, where I was thankful to have my Bible with me. I also had the book Salvation, portions of the book Children, and plenty of time to read all this literature. After six months I took seriously ill and had to go to a hospital. Before I left the prison, I hid the literature under my mattress. Later I learned that another Witness, Piet Broertjes, was transferred to my cell and discovered it. Thus the literature was being used to strengthen still others in the faith.
When I recovered I was transferred to a prison in The Hague. While there I met Leo C. van der Tas, a law student who was in prison for resisting the Nazi occupation. He had never heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I had opportunity to witness to him. Sometimes he would wake me up in the middle of the night and ask questions. He could not hide his admiration for the Witnesses, especially after learning that we could be released if we would only sign a document renouncing our faith. After the war, Leo became a lawyer and fought dozens of legal cases for the Watch Tower Society that involved freedom of worship.
On April 29, 1944, I was loaded onto a train for an agonizing 18-day journey to Germany. On May 18 the gates of the Buchenwald concentration camp closed behind me. Until we were liberated by the Allied forces nearly a year later, life was indescribably horrible. Thousands died, many before our eyes. Since I refused to work in a nearby factory that produced war materials, I was put to work on a sewer.
One day the factory was bombed. Many dashed into the barracks for safety, while others ran into the woods. Stray bombs hit the barracks, and incendiary bombs set the woods on fire. It was a terrible sight! Many were burned alive! I had found a safe hiding place, and when the fire subsided, I walked past the countless dead bodies back to the camp.
Most people today are aware of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. I am thankful to Jehovah that he strengthened my thinking ability, so that the horrors that I experienced have not dominated my thoughts throughout the years. When I think of my period of imprisonment, my foremost feeling is that of joy for having kept integrity to Jehovah to the glory of his name.—Psalm 124:6-8.
After my liberation and return to Amsterdam, I reported directly to the branch office for an assignment. I was anxious to be brought up-to-date on what had taken place during my absence. Nonnie was already working there. During the last year of the war, she had served as a courier delivering Bible literature to the congregations. She had not been arrested again, although she had experienced dozens of narrow escapes.
I pioneered a short while in Haarlem, but in 1946, I was asked to go to the branch in Amsterdam to work in the Shipping Department. Toward the end of 1948, Nonnie and I were married, and we left the branch to pioneer together. Our pioneer assignment was in Assen. Twelve years earlier Richard Brauning and I had spent the summer there, living in a tent and preaching. I learned that Richard had been shot to death en route to a concentration camp.
My period of imprisonment had obviously impaired my health. Six years after being released from Buchenwald, sickness confined me to bed for four months. Years later, in 1957, I was laid low by tuberculosis for a whole year. My body was sapped of strength, but my pioneer spirit was still strong. During my illness, I grasped every opportunity to witness. I feel that this pioneer spirit was an important factor in not allowing my cases of illness to turn me into an idle sick man. Nonnie and I are determined to stick to the full-time service for as long as our health permits.
Following my recovery, we were assigned to the city of Breda. This was 21 years after I had first visited the city as a zone servant. When we arrived in 1959, there was a small congregation of 34 Witnesses. Today, 37 years later, it has grown to six congregations with over 500 Witnesses, who meet in three Kingdom Halls! At our local meetings and at assemblies, we see many who came to a knowledge of Bible truth as a result of some efforts of ours. We often feel as did the apostle John when he wrote: “No greater cause for thankfulness do I have than these things, that I should be hearing that my children go on walking in the truth.”—3 John 4.
We have now grown old. I am 86, and Nonnie is 78, but I must say that pioneering is a healthy occupation. Since I have been in Breda, I have overcome most of the health problems that I picked up during my imprisonment. I have also enjoyed many productive years in Jehovah’s service.
Looking back over many years of fruitful service is a source of joy to both of us. Our daily prayer is that Jehovah will give us the spirit and the strength to continue in his service as long as there is breath in our bodies. Confidently, we express ourselves in the words of the psalmist: “Look! God is my helper; Jehovah is among those supporting my soul.”—Psalm 54:4.
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Standing next to the tent used while pioneering in the 1930’s
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The boat used to reach isolated territory
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Being interviewed on convention program in 1957
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With my wife today