God Is My Refuge and Strength
AS TOLD BY CHARLOTTE MÜLLER
“Your nine years under Hitler do you credit,” said the Communist judge. “You really were against war, but now you are against our peace!”
HE WAS referring to my earlier imprisonment by the Nazis and to socialism in the German Democratic Republic. I was speechless at first but then replied: “A Christian does not struggle for true peace in the same way as other people do. I simply try to follow the Biblical command to love God and my neighbor. God’s Word helps me to maintain peace in word and deed.”
On that day, September 4, 1951, the Communists sentenced me to eight years in prison—one year less than the Nazi regime had done.
When we Jehovah’s Witnesses were being persecuted by the National Socialists and by the Communists, I found comfort in Psalm 46:1: “God is for us a refuge and strength, a help that is readily to be found during distresses.” Jehovah alone gave me the strength to endure, and the more I made his Word my own, the stronger I became.
Strengthened for the Future
I was born in 1912 in Gotha-Siebleben in Thuringia, Germany. Even though my parents were Protestants, my father was searching for Bible truth and for a righteous government. When my parents saw the “Photo-Drama of Creation,” they were thrilled.* Father had found what he had been searching for—the Kingdom of God.
Father and Mother, along with us six children, resigned from the church on March 2, 1923. We were living in Chemnitz in Saxony, and there we associated with the Bible Students. (Three of my brothers and sisters became Witnesses of Jehovah.)
At the meetings of the Bible Students, Scripture texts and precious truths were impressed upon me, and these filled my young heart with happiness. First and foremost there was the instruction that we Christian youths, over 50 of us, were given on Sunday, and which my sister Käthe and I received for a while. Our group included young Konrad Franke, who organized hikes and practiced singing with us. Later, from 1955 to 1969, Brother Franke served as overseer of the Watch Tower branch in Germany.
The ’20’s were turbulent years, at times even among God’s people. Some, no longer accepting The Watchtower as “food at the proper time,” were against the house-to-house preaching activity. (Matthew 24:45) This led to apostasy. But it was this very “food” that gave us the strength that we so desperately needed at that time. For instance, there were the Watchtower articles “Blessed Are the Fearless” (1919) and “Who Will Honor Jehovah?” (1926) I wanted to honor Jehovah through courageous activity, so I distributed many of Brother Rutherford’s books and booklets.
In March 1933, I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In that same year, our evangelizing work was banned in Germany. At the baptism, Revelation 2:10 was offered as advice for the future: “Do not be afraid of the things you are about to suffer. Look! The Devil will keep on throwing some of you into prison that you may be fully put to the test, and that you may have tribulation ten days. Prove yourself faithful even to death, and I will give you the crown of life.” I took this verse to heart, having no doubt that arduous trials awaited me. This proved to be true.
Because we remained politically neutral, several of our neighbors viewed us with suspicion. Following a political election, a delegation of uniformed Nazi troopers called out in front of our house, “Traitors live here!” The article “Fear Them Not,” which appeared in the German edition of The Watchtower in December 1933, was of special encouragement to me. I wanted to remain a faithful Witness of Jehovah even under the most adverse circumstances.
The Enemy’s Answer—Prison
It was possible to produce The Watchtower secretly in Chemnitz until the autumn of 1935. Thereafter the duplicating machine that was used had to be taken to Beierfeld in the Ore Mountains, where it was used to reproduce literature until August 1936. Käthe and I distributed copies to brothers whose addresses Father gave us. Everything went well for a time. But then the Gestapo put me under surveillance, and in August 1936 they picked me up in my home and put me in detention, where I awaited trial.
In February 1937, 25 brothers and 2 sisters—myself included—appeared before a special court in Saxony. It was claimed that the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was subversive. Those brothers who had reproduced The Watchtower received five years in prison. I was given two years.
Instead of being set free after having completed my sentence, I was picked up by the Gestapo. I was supposed to sign a declaration stating that I would no longer be active as a Witness of Jehovah. I steadfastly refused, upon which the official became furious, sprang to his feet, and issued a warrant for me to be placed in detention. The warrant is shown in the picture. Without being allowed to see my parents, I was immediately taken to a small concentration camp for women at Lichtenburg on the river Elbe. Shortly thereafter I met Käthe. She had been in the concentration camp at Moringen since December 1936, but when that concentration camp was closed, she, along with many other sisters, came to Lichtenburg. My father was also in detention, and not until 1945 did I see him again.
I was not permitted to join the other female Witnesses straightaway, as they were being punished for something or other. In one of the halls, I observed two groups of prisoners—women who usually sat at tables and the Witnesses who had to sit the whole day on stools and were given nothing to eat.*
I readily accepted any work assignment, in hopes of coming across Käthe somehow. And that is exactly what happened. She was on her way to work with two other prisoners when our paths crossed. Overjoyed, I gave her a big hug. But the female guard reported us straightaway. We were questioned, and from that time on, we were deliberately kept apart. That was extremely hard.
Two other incidents at Lichtenburg have stuck in my memory. On one occasion all prisoners were to assemble in the courtyard to listen to one of Hitler’s political speeches on the radio. We Jehovah’s Witnesses refused, since patriotic ceremonies were involved. So the guards turned the fire hoses on us, spraying us with the powerful jet of water from a hydrant and chasing us defenseless women from the fourth floor down to the courtyard. There we had to stand, saturated.
On another occasion I, together with Gertrud Oehme and Gertel Bürlen, was ordered to decorate the commandant’s headquarters with lights, as Hitler’s birthday was approaching. We refused, recognizing Satan’s tactics of trying to maneuver us into breaking our integrity through compromises in small things. As punishment, each of us young sisters had to spend the next three weeks alone in a small, dark cell. But Jehovah stayed close to us and, even in such a dreadful place, proved himself to be a refuge.
In May 1939 the prisoners at Lichtenburg were transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp. There I was assigned to the laundry, along with several other Witness sisters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, we were supposed to collect the swastika flag, which we refused to do. As a result, two of us, Mielchen Ernst and I, were put in the penal block. That was one of the most severe forms of punishment and meant that we had to perform hard work every day, even on Sunday, whatever the weather. Normally, the maximum sentence was three months, but we remained there for a year. Without Jehovah’s help, I would never have survived.
In 1942, conditions for us prisoners eased somewhat, and I was assigned to work as a housekeeper for an SS family not far from the camp. The family allowed me a certain amount of freedom. For instance, once when I was taking the children for a walk, I met Josef Rehwald and Gottfried Mehlhorn, two prisoners with purple triangles, with whom I was able to exchange some words of encouragement.*
Difficult Postwar Years
When in 1945 the allied troops moved closer, the family for whom I worked fled, and I had to accompany them. Together with other SS families, they formed a large convoy traveling westward.
The last few days of the war were chaotic and fraught with danger. Finally, we met some American soldiers who allowed me to register at the next town as a free person. Whom did I meet there? Josef Rehwald and Gottfried Mehlhorn. They had learned that all the Witnesses from the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen had reached Schwerin following a perilous death march. So the three of us set out for that town, which was about 50 miles [75 km] away. What a joy it was in Schwerin to meet all those faithful brothers, survivors of the concentration camps, including Konrad Franke.
By December 1945 the situation in the country had improved to such a degree that I was able to travel by train. So I was homeward bound! However, the journey included time spent lying on the roof of the railway wagon and standing on the running board. In Chemnitz, I made my way from the railroad station to the place where we had lived as a family. But on the street where Nazi troopers had earlier stood and shouted, “Traitors live here!” not a single house had survived. The whole residential area had been bombed into oblivion. To my relief, though, I found Mother, Father, Käthe, and my brothers and sisters still alive.
The economic situation in postwar Germany was atrocious. Nevertheless, congregations of God’s people began to flourish all over Germany. The Watch Tower Society spared no effort in trying to equip us for the preaching activity. Work at Bethel in Magdeburg, which the Nazis had closed, was recommenced. In the spring of 1946, I was invited to work there and was assigned to the kitchen.
Once More Under Ban and in Custody
Magdeburg is in that section of Germany that came to be controlled by the Communists. They placed our work under ban on August 31, 1950, and closed the Magdeburg Bethel. Thus ended my service at Bethel, which had been a time of valuable training. I returned to Chemnitz, determined even under the Communists to keep a tight grip on the truth and to proclaim the Kingdom of God as the only hope for distressed mankind.
In April 1951, I traveled with a brother to Berlin to collect copies of The Watchtower. When we returned, we were aghast to find the railroad station in Chemnitz surrounded by civilian police. They were clearly expecting us, and we were arrested on the spot.
Upon arrival in pretrial detention, I was carrying documents that proved that I had been imprisoned for several years by the Nazis. Consequently, the guards treated me with respect. One of the chief female guards said: “You Jehovah’s Witnesses are not criminals; you do not belong in prison.”
One time she came into my cell, where I was with two other sisters, and secretly placed something underneath one of the beds. What was it? Her own Bible, which she let us have. On another occasion, she called on my parents at home, since they lived not far from the prison. She got copies of The Watchtower and some food, concealed it all on her person, and smuggled everything into my cell.
There is something else I like to recall. Sometimes on Sunday morning, we sang our theocratic songs so loud that the other prisoners applauded each song with pleasure.
Strength and Help From Jehovah
During the court proceedings on September 4, 1951, the judge made the comment mentioned at the beginning of this article. I served my prison sentence in Waldheim, then in Halle, and finally in Hoheneck. One or two brief incidents will show how God was a refuge and strength to us Jehovah’s Witnesses and how his Word invigorated us.
At the prison at Waldheim, all Witness sisters came together regularly in one hall, so that we were able to hold Christian meetings. Pencil and paper were not allowed, but some sisters got some pieces of cloth and managed to make a small banner bearing the yeartext for 1953, which was: “Worship Jehovah in holy array.”—Psalm 29:2, American Standard Version.
One of the female guards took us by surprise and reported us without delay. The head of the prison came and told two of us sisters to hold the banner aloft. “Who made this?” he demanded. “What’s the idea?”
One of the sisters wanted to own up and take the blame for us, but we quickly whispered among ourselves, agreeing that the responsibility should be shared by us all. So we answered: “We made it to strengthen our faith.” The banner was confiscated, and we were deprived of meals as a punishment. But during the whole discussion, the sisters held it aloft so that we could impress upon our minds the encouraging scripture.
When the women’s prison at Waldheim was closed, we sisters were transferred to Halle. Here we were allowed to receive packages, and what was sewn into a pair of slippers that my father sent to me? Watchtower articles! I can still recall those entitled “True Love Is Practical” and “Lies Lead to Loss of Life.” These and other articles were veritable delicacies, and when we secretly passed them from one to another, each made notes for herself.
During a raid, one of the guards found my personal notes hidden in my straw mattress. Later, she called me in for questioning and said that she definitely wanted to know the meaning of the article “Prospects for Fearers of Jehovah for 1955.” She, a Communist, had been deeply concerned about the death of her leader, Stalin, in 1953, and the future seemed gloomy. As for us, the future would bring some improvements in our conditions in prison, but I was not yet aware of that. I explained confidently that the prospects for Jehovah’s Witnesses were the very best. Why? I quoted from the theme scripture text of the article, Psalm 112:7: “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: his heart is fixed, trusting in Jehovah.”—AS.
Jehovah Remains My Refuge and Strength
Following a serious illness, I was released from prison two years early, in March 1957. The East German officials again put pressure on me because of my activities in Jehovah’s service. Hence, on May 6, 1957, I took the opportunity to escape to West Berlin, and from there I moved to West Germany.
It was several years before I recovered my physical health. But to this day I still have a healthy spiritual appetite and look forward to each new copy of The Watchtower. From time to time, I take stock of myself. Am I still spiritually minded? Have I cultivated fine qualities? Is the tested quality of my faith a cause for praise and honor to Jehovah? It is my goal to please God in all things, so that he remains my refuge and strength forever.
The “Photo-Drama” consisted of slides and moving pictures and, starting in 1914, was widely shown by representatives of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
The magazine Trost (Consolation), published by the Watch Tower Society in Bern, Switzerland, on May 1, 1940, page 10, reported that on one occasion the female Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lichtenburg received no midday meal for 14 days because they refused to make a gesture of honor when Nazi hymns were played. There were 300 Witnesses of Jehovah there.
A report about Josef Rehwald appeared in Awake! of February 8, 1993, pages 20-3.
[Picture on page 26]
The SS office at Ravensbrück
Top: Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten
[Picture on page 26]
My pass to work outside the camp