Striving to Be “a Workman With Nothing to Be Ashamed Of”
AS TOLD BY ANDRÉ SOPPA
World War II raged, bringing indescribable carnage and despair in its wake. As a signalman in the German Navy stationed near Narvik, in Norway, I was able to see firsthand man’s inhumanity to man. At night, in the shelter of the fjords, the ethereal beauty of the northern lights led me to reflect deeply on life. I was sure that the God who created such things could not be responsible for the madness of war.
I WAS born in 1923 in the small village of Lassoth (now in Poland), near the Czech border, and I grew up in a poor farming family. My parents were practicing Catholics, and religion played a very big part in our lives. However, early on I began to have doubts about my religion. In our village, there were three Protestant families, and these were ostracized by the Catholic community. I could not understand why this should be the case. At school we were taught catechism. But one day when I asked the priest to explain the Trinity, all I got for an answer was ten strokes of the cane. Nevertheless, it was something that happened when I was 17 years old that confirmed my disillusion with the church. My mother’s parents died one month apart, and my mother did not have enough money to pay for two church funeral services. So she asked the priest if she could pay him later. “Your parents had some things, didn’t they?” was his reply. “Sell them, and use the money for the funeral.”
A few years before that, after Hitler came to power in 1933, we were no longer permitted to speak Polish; we had to speak German. Those who refused, or who could not learn German, gradually disappeared—sent to the concentration camps, we were later told. Even the name of our village was changed to a German name, Grünfliess. I quit school at 14, and because I was not in the Hitler Youth organization, I had difficulty finding a job. Eventually, though, I was taken on as an apprentice blacksmith. Once the war started, prayers were said in church for Hitler and for the German troops. I wondered whether similar prayers for victory were being said by the other side.
Service in the German Navy
In December 1941, I signed up for the German Navy, and at the beginning of 1942, I was sent to the Norwegian coast to serve on a scout ship. We were assigned to convoy duty between Trondheim and Oslo, escorting ships carrying troops, munitions, or freight. It was while at sea that I overheard two sailors talking about the end of the world as foretold in the Bible. Although afraid to talk openly, they told me that their parents were associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses but that they had not followed their example. This was the first time I heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the end of the war, we were taken prisoner by the British and handed over to the Americans to be taken back to Germany. Those of us whose homes were now in the Soviet zone were sent to a prison camp in Liévin, northern France, to work in the coal mines. This was in August 1945. I remember asking one of my French guards what his religion was. “Catholic,” he replied. Since I too was a Catholic, I asked him what we had done to each other? “There is no point in trying to understand. That’s just the way it is,” was his answer. To me it was absurd that people of the same religion should fight and kill one another.
A Ray of Light in a Coal Mine
On my first day in the mine alongside local miners, a certain Evans Emiot shared his sandwiches with me. Originally from Ohio, in the United States, he had lived in France for a number of years. He spoke to me of a world where there would be no more war. His kindly attitude amazed me. He bore me no animosity even though I was a German and he was an American. We had no more contact until the beginning of 1948 when he gave me a booklet entitled “The Prince of Peace.” Here at last I learned of a God of goodness who hated war—the kind of God I had imagined while watching the northern lights. I determined to find the religion that taught this. But since Evans worked in another part of the mine, I was unable to contact him. I went around to all the different religious groups in the prison camp, asking if they knew anything about the booklet, but to no avail.
Finally, in April 1948, I was released from the prison camp and became a free worker. The very next Sunday, I was surprised to hear a little bell ringing in the street. How happy I was to see Evans! He was with a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses wearing sandwich boards that announced the title of a public talk. The Witness ringing the bell was Marceau Leroy, now a member of the Branch Committee in France. I was introduced to a German-speaking Pole named Joseph Kulczak, who had suffered in the concentration camps for his faith. He invited me to come to the meeting that evening. I did not understand much of what was said, but when everyone in attendance raised their hand, I asked the person next to me why they did that. “They are the ones who can go to Dunkerque next week to preach.” “May I come?” I asked. “Why, yes!” was the reply. So the following Sunday saw me preaching from house to house. Although not everyone we met was agreeable, I enjoyed myself and was soon preaching regularly.
Learning to Control My Temper
Shortly thereafter, the Witnesses began to preach in the barracks where the freed German prisoners lived. This was not easy for me, since I was well-known there for my hot temper. When someone refused to take me seriously, I would threaten him, saying: “If you’re not careful, there will be trouble.” Once while working in the mine, I even punched someone who mocked Jehovah.
With Jehovah’s help, however, I was able to make changes in my personality. One day, while we were preaching in these barracks, a group of men who had drunk too much alcohol were making trouble for some of the Witnesses. Knowing my quick temper, the brothers I was with tried to stop me from intervening, but one of the men strode up to me menacingly and started to take off his jacket. I got off my bicycle, gave it to him to hold, and put my hands in my pockets. He was so surprised at this that he listened to what I had to say. I told him to go home and sleep and then come to the public talk. Sure enough, at 3:00 p.m., there he was! Eventually, about 20 former prisoners accepted the message. As for me, I was baptized in September 1948.
A Full but Rewarding Schedule
I was given the responsibility of caring for the territories in which we were to preach and of finding locations where we could hold public talks. To this end I sometimes traveled about 30 miles [50 km] on my little motorcycle, before working the late shift in the mines. Then on weekends, we went to the territory by bus and dropped off two or four publishers along with the speaker. In larger towns, on finding a suitable location, we piled up our suitcases to use as a speaker’s stand. Often, we wore sandwich boards to advertise the theme of the public talk to which we invited people.
It was in 1951 that I met Jeannette Chauffour, a Witness from Reims. It was love at first sight, and one year later, on May 17, 1952, we were married. We moved to Pecquencourt, a mining town near Douai. Soon, however, I started to have health problems. I was diagnosed with silicosis, a respiratory illness caused by working in the mines, but I was unable to find any other kind of work. So when, in 1955, during the international assembly in Nuremberg, Germany, we were asked to help a small congregation in Kehl, a little industrial town on the Rhine, we were free to move there. At the time, there were only 45 publishers in the congregation. Over the next seven years that we worked with this congregation, the number of publishers increased to 95.
Further Privileges of Service
Seeing that the congregation was firmly established, we asked the Society for an assignment in France as special pioneers. To our great surprise, we were assigned to Paris. The eight months that we spent there were filled with great joy. Between us, Jeannette and I had the privilege of conducting 42 Bible studies. Five of our students were baptized during our stay, and 11 others subsequently accepted the truth.
Since we lived in the Latin Quarter, we often met professors from the Sorbonne. A retired professor of philosophy who practiced faith healing studied the Bible and eventually became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. One day I started a Bible discussion with a civil engineer who was in close contact with Jesuit teachers. He came to our apartment at three o’clock in the afternoon and left at ten o’clock that evening. To our surprise, he was back at our door one and a half hours later. He had spoken with a Jesuit who could not answer his questions about Bible prophecy. At one o’clock in the morning, he went home, only to return at seven o’clock. In time, he too became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Such a thirst for truth was a great encouragement to my wife and me.
After serving in Paris, I was invited to serve as traveling overseer for the east of France. It was a real joy for us to visit French- and German-speaking congregations, strengthening the brothers. While visiting the congregation of Rombas, in Lorraine, I met Stanislas Ambroszczak. He was a Pole who had served on an Allied submarine during the war and had fought in Norwegian waters. We had been on opposing sides while sailing the same seas. Now we were brothers working together serving our God, Jehovah. On another occasion at an assembly in Paris, I caught sight of someone I recognized. It was the commander of the camp where I was a prisoner in the north of France. How happy we were to work together during the convention! Such is the power of God’s Word that it turns former enemies into brothers and close friends!
Sadly, after 14 years in the traveling work, I had to stop because of my declining health. However, my wife and I were determined to continue serving Jehovah to the best of our ability. So we found accommodations and employment in the town of Mulhouse, in the east of France, and became pioneers (full-time evangelizers).
Another great joy over the years has been my involvement in the construction of Kingdom Halls. In 1985, I was asked to organize a construction team for the east of France. By using skilled tradesmen and training willing volunteers, we were able to form a team that has participated in the construction or renovation of over 80 halls, making them fit for Jehovah’s worship. And how happy I was, in 1993, to work on the construction of an Assembly Hall and five Kingdom Halls in French Guiana, South America!
Pressing On Despite Trials
I can certainly say that over the past 50 years of theocratic activity, my life has been filled with great joys and privileges of service. Sadly, in December 1995 my dear wife, with whom I had spent 43 years, died. While this was a time of great sorrow—and I still grieve today—Jehovah gives me strength, and my spiritual brothers and sisters have given me love and support that lessen the pain somewhat with the passing of time.
I still clearly remember the words of an anointed brother at an assembly in Munich, Germany, in 1963. “André,” he said, “don’t look to the left or to the right. The brothers in the concentration camps underwent tests. Now it’s up to us to carry on. We must never feel sorry for ourselves. So press on!” I have always kept this in mind. Now that I cannot do as much because of ill health and growing older, the words found at Hebrews 6:10 are a constant source of comfort to me: “God is not unrighteous so as to forget your work and the love you showed for his name.” Yes, working in Jehovah’s service is the greatest privilege that anyone can have. For the past 50 years, my goal has been, and still is, to be “a workman with nothing to be ashamed of.”—2 Timothy 2:15.
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The type of boat that I served on in the fjords of Norway
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Preaching by bicycle in northern France
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Piled-up suitcases served as the speaker’s stand for the public talk
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With my wife, Jeannette, at our wedding in 1952