There Is Nothing Better Than the Truth
As told by G. N. Van Der Bijl
In June 1941, I was handed over to the Gestapo and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, Germany. There, as prisoner number 38190, I remained until the infamous death march in April 1945. But before I describe those events, let me explain how I came to be a prisoner.
I WAS born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, shortly after the beginning of World War I, in 1914. Father worked for the railroad, and our small apartment was situated near the railway track. Toward the end of the war in 1918, I saw many so-called crisis trains roar past. No doubt they were filled with wounded soldiers who were being taken home from the front.
When I was 12, I left school to get a job. Eight years later I signed on as a steward aboard a passenger ship, and for the next four years, I sailed between the Netherlands and the United States.
When we docked in New York harbor in the summer of 1939, another world war threatened. So when a man came aboard our ship and offered me the book Government, which told of a righteous government, I gladly accepted it. Upon returning to Rotterdam, I began to look for work on land, since life at sea no longer appeared to be safe. On September 1, Germany invaded Poland and the nations were plunged into World War II.
Learning Bible Truth
One Sunday morning in March 1940, I was visiting my married brother when one of Jehovah’s Witnesses rang the doorbell. I told him that I already had the Government book and asked him about heaven and who go there. I received such a clear and reasonable answer that I said to myself, ‘This is the truth.’ I gave him my address and invited him to call on me at my home.
After only three visits, during which we had in-depth Bible discussions, I began accompanying the Witness in the house-to-house preaching work. When we reached the territory, he showed me where to start, and I was on my own. That is how many new ones were introduced to the preaching work in those days. I was advised that, so as not to be seen in the street, I should always be inside a hallway when I made a presentation of the literature. There was need for caution in the early days of the war.
Three weeks later, on May 10, 1940, the German army invaded the Netherlands, and on May 29, Reich commissioner Seyss-Inquart proclaimed that the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned. We met only in small groups, and care was exercised to keep our meeting places a secret. Especially strengthening to us were the visits of traveling overseers.
I was a heavy smoker, and when I offered a cigarette to the Witness who studied with me and found out that he did not smoke, I said: “I could never quit smoking!” Shortly afterward, however, as I was walking down the street, I thought, ‘If I am going to be a Witness, I want to be a real Witness.’ So I never smoked again.
Taking a Stand for the Truth
In June 1940, less than three months after I met the Witness at my brother’s door, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah and was baptized. A few months later, in October 1940, I entered the full-time ministry as a pioneer. At that time, I was given what was called a pioneer jacket. It had many pockets for books and booklets, and it could be worn under a coat.
Practically from the beginning of the German occupation, Jehovah’s Witnesses were systematically hunted down and arrested. One morning in February 1941, I was in the field ministry with a few other Witnesses. While they called on people on one side of a block of houses, I worked around the other side of the block to meet them. In time, I went to see what was delaying them and met a man who asked, “Do you have any of these little books too?”
“Yes,” I replied. At that he arrested me and took me to the police station. I was kept in custody for almost four weeks. Most of the officers were friendly. As long as a person was not handed over to the Gestapo, he could secure his release simply by signing a written declaration that he would no longer distribute Bible literature. When I was asked to sign such a declaration, I replied: “Even if you offered me one or two million guldens, I still wouldn’t sign.”
After being held a while longer, I was handed over to the Gestapo. Then I was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany.
Life in Sachsenhausen
When I arrived in June 1941, there were already some 150 Witnesses—mostly Germans—in Sachsenhausen. We new prisoners were taken to a section of the camp called Isolation. There our Christian brothers took us under their wing and prepared us for what to expect. A week later another shipment of Witnesses from the Netherlands arrived. At first we were assigned to stand on the same spot in front of the barracks from seven o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the evening. At times prisoners had to do that every day for a week or more.
Despite the harsh treatment, the brothers realized the urgent need to remain organized and to take in spiritual nourishment. Every day someone was assigned to prepare thoughts on a Bible text. Later, in the assembly yard, individual Witnesses approached that one and listened to what he had prepared. In one way or another, literature was regularly smuggled into the camp, and we actually assembled every Sunday and studied this Bible literature together.
Somehow a copy of the book Children, which had been released at the St. Louis convention in the United States in the summer of 1941, was smuggled into Sachsenhausen. In order to minimize the risk of the book being discovered and destroyed, we took it apart, and the sections were circulated among the brothers so that everyone could take turns reading it.
After a while, the camp management found out about the meetings we were holding. So the Witnesses were split up and put into different barracks. That presented us with an excellent opportunity to preach to other prisoners, and as a result, many Poles, Ukrainians, and others accepted the truth.
The Nazis made no secret of their intention to break or kill the Bibelforscher, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were called. Consequently, the pressure exerted upon us was severe. We were told that we could be set free if we signed a declaration denouncing our faith. Some brothers began to rationalize, “If I am free, I can do more in Jehovah’s service.” Although a few signed, most of our brothers remained faithful despite all the privation, humiliation, and mistreatment. Some of those who compromised were never heard of again. Happily, though, others later recovered and are still active Witnesses.
We were regularly forced to look on as prisoners were subjected to brutal corporal punishment, such as 25 strokes with a stick. Once, we were made to watch the execution by hanging of four men. Those experiences have a real effect on a person. One brother, a tall, handsome man who lived in the same barrack as I did, said to me: “Before I came here, I couldn’t stand seeing blood without fainting on the spot. But now I have become hardened.” Still, although we may have become hardened, we did not become callous. I must say, I never bore malice or felt hate for our persecutors.
After working with a kommando (work crew) for some time, I was admitted to the hospital with a high fever. A kind Norwegian doctor and a Czechoslovakian nurse helped me, and their kindness probably saved my life.
The Death March
By April 1945, it was clear that Germany was losing the war. The western allies were advancing rapidly from the west, and the Soviets, from the east. It was impossible for the Nazis to liquidate the hundreds of thousands in the concentration camps and dispose of their bodies within a few days without leaving behind any trace. So they decided to kill off the sick and to move the rest of the prisoners to the closest seaports. There they planned to load them on ships and sink the ships at sea.
The march of some 26,000 prisoners from Sachsenhausen began the night of April 20. Before we left the camp, our sick brothers were rescued from the infirmary. A cart was obtained on which they could be transported. Altogether, there were 230 of us from six different countries. Among the sick was Brother Arthur Winkler, who had contributed greatly to the expansion of the work in the Netherlands. We Witnesses brought up the rear of the march, and we continually encouraged one another to keep going.
To start with, we marched for 36 hours without a break. While I was walking, I actually fell asleep from sheer misery and fatigue. But staying behind or resting was out of the question because one risked getting shot by the guards. At night we slept in open fields or in the woods. There was little or no food. When hunger pangs became too great, I licked the toothpaste that the Swedish Red Cross had given us.
At one point, because German guards were confused as to where the Russian and U.S. troops were, we camped in the woods for four days. This was providential because, as a result, we did not reach Lübeck Bay in time to board the ships that were supposed to take us to our watery grave. Finally, after 12 days and a march of over 100 miles [march of some 200 km], we reached Crivitz Wood. This was not far from Schwerin, a city about 30 miles [50 km] from Lübeck.
The Soviets were to our right, and the Americans, to our left. From the booming of the big guns and the incessant rifle fire, we knew that we were near the front lines. The German guards panicked; some fled, and others switched their military uniforms for prison garb that they had stripped from the dead, hoping not to be recognized. Amid the confusion, we Witnesses assembled to pray for guidance.
The brothers in charge decided that we should leave in the early hours of the next day and go in the direction of the U.S. lines. Even though nearly half of the prisoners who had started the death march died or were killed off along the way, all the Witnesses survived.
I received a ride from some Canadian military personnel to the city of Nijmegen, where a sister of mine used to live. But when I reached the place, I found that she had moved. So I set out to walk to Rotterdam. Fortunately, along the way I was offered a ride in a privately owned vehicle that took me straight to my destination.
The Truth Has Been My Life
The very day I arrived in Rotterdam, I applied again for the pioneer work. Three weeks later I was in my assignment in the city of Zutphen, where I served for the next year and a half. During that time, I regained some of my physical strength. Then I was appointed a circuit overseer, as traveling ministers are called. A few months later, I was invited to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in South Lansing, New York. After graduating from the 12th class of that school in February 1949, I was assigned to Belgium.
I have served in various aspects of the ministry in Belgium, including almost eight years at the branch office and decades in the traveling work as both a circuit overseer and a district overseer. In 1958, I married Justine, who became my traveling companion. Now, as the years begin to weigh heavily upon me, I still have the joy of being able to serve in a limited way as a substitute traveling overseer.
When I look back on my ministry, I can truly say: “There is nothing better than the truth.” Of course, it has not always been easy. I have discovered the need to learn from my mistakes and shortcomings. So when I speak with young people, I often tell them: “You too will make mistakes and perhaps even transgress seriously, but don’t lie about it. Discuss the matter with your parents or with an elder, and then make the needed corrections.”
In my almost 50 years in the full-time ministry in Belgium, I have been privileged to see ones whom I once knew as children serve as elders and circuit overseers. And I have seen the 1,700 or so Kingdom proclaimers in the country grow to more than 27,000.
I ask, “Could there be a more blessed way to live than to serve Jehovah?” There never was, there is not now, and there never will be. I pray that Jehovah may continue to guide and bless my wife and me so that we can keep on serving him forever.
[Picture on page 26]
With my wife shortly after our marriage in 1958