Keeping My Promise to Serve God
AS TOLD BY FRANZ GUDLIKIES
Only four of my company of over a hundred soldiers were left alive. Faced with death, I fell to my knees and promised God, ‘If I survive the war, I will serve you always.’
I MADE that promise 54 years ago, in April 1945, when I was a soldier in the German army. It was shortly before the end of World War II, and the Soviet army was making an all-out push toward Berlin. Our men were positioned near the town of Seelow on the Oder River, less than 40 miles [65 km] from Berlin. There we were pounded night and day by heavy artillery fire, and my company was being decimated.
It was then, for the first time in my life, that I broke down and prayed in tears to God. I recalled a Bible text my God-fearing mother often quoted: “Call me in the day of distress. I shall rescue you, and you will glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15) There in the trenches and fearing for my life, I made the above-mentioned promise to God. How was I able to keep it? And how was it that I had become a member of the German army?
Growing Up in Lithuania
In 1918, during World War I, Lithuania declared its independence and established a democratic system of government. I was born in 1925 in the district of Memel (Klaipėda) near the Baltic Sea. The district had just been incorporated into Lithuania the year before my birth.
My five sisters and I had a happy childhood. Father was like a close friend, always doing things with us children. Our parents were members of the Evangelical Church, but they did not attend services because Mother was offended by the hypocrisy of the minister. Yet, she loved God and his Word, the Bible, which she read avidly.
In 1939, Germany seized the part of Lithuania where we lived. Then, early in 1943, I was called up for military service in the German army. One of the battles left me wounded, but after recovering from the injuries, I returned to the Eastern Front. By this time the tide of war had changed and the Germans were in retreat before the Soviet army. It was then that I narrowly escaped being killed, as related in the introduction.
Keeping My Promise
During the war, my parents moved to Oschatz, Germany, just southeast of Leipzig. In the aftermath of the war, it was difficult to locate them. But how happy we were finally to be reunited! Not long afterward, in April 1947, I accompanied Mother to a public talk given by Max Schubert, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mother believed that she had found the true religion, and after attending a few meetings, I came to share her belief.
Shortly thereafter, Mother fell from a ladder, sustaining injuries from which she died some months later. While in the hospital before her death, she encouraged me warmly: “I have often prayed that at least one of my children might find the way to God. Now I see that my prayers have been answered, and I can die in peace.” How I look forward to the time when Mother will awaken from death and learn that her prayers were fulfilled!—John 5:28.
On August 8, 1947, just four months after hearing Brother Schubert’s talk, I was baptized at an assembly in Leipzig in symbol of my dedication to Jehovah God. At last I was taking steps toward fulfilling my promise to God. Soon I became a pioneer, as full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called. At the time there were almost 400 pioneers living in what later became the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.
Early Tests of Faith
A neighbor in Oschatz tried to interest me in Marxism, offering a State-sponsored university education if I would join the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). I turned down the offer, even as Jesus turned down Satan’s offer.—Matthew 4:8-10.
One day in April 1949, two policemen came to my workplace and demanded that I accompany them. I was taken to the local office of the Soviet intelligence service where I was accused of working for capitalists in the West. I could prove my innocence, they said, by continuing my house-to-house work but reporting to them anyone who talked negatively about the Soviet Union or the SED or anyone who visited the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I refused to cooperate, I was locked in a cell. Later, I was taken before what appeared to be a military court. My sentence: 15 years of hard labor in Siberia!
I remained calm, and that impressed the officers. Then they told me that my sentence would remain in force but that it would be sufficient for me to report once a week until I was ready to cooperate with them. Wanting the advice of more mature Witnesses, I traveled to Magdeburg, where the Watch Tower Society’s branch office was then located. The trip was not easy, since I was under surveillance. Ernst Wauer, who was serving in the Legal Department in Magdeburg, told me: “Fight and you will win. Compromise and you will be defeated. That is what we learned in the concentration camp.”a That advice helped me to keep my promise to serve God.
Ban and Rearrest
In July 1950, I was recommended to serve as a traveling overseer. However, on August 30, the police raided our premises in Magdeburg, and our preaching work was banned. So my assignment was changed. Paul Hirschberger and I were to work with about 50 congregations, spending two or three days with each one, helping the brothers to be organized to carry on their ministry under the ban. In the months that followed, I escaped arrest by the police six times!
One of the congregations had been infiltrated by someone who betrayed us to the Stasi, the State Security Service. Thus, in July 1951, Paul and I were arrested on the street by five men with drawn guns. Looking back, we could see that we had not relied on Jehovah’s organization as much as we should. We had been advised by our older brothers never to travel together. Overconfidence had led to the loss of our freedom! Moreover, we had not discussed beforehand what we would say if we were arrested.
Alone in my cell, I tearfully begged Jehovah for help that I might not betray my brothers or compromise my faith. After I fell asleep, I was suddenly awakened by my friend Paul’s voice. Just above my cell was the room where he was being questioned by the Stasi. Since it was a warm and humid night, the balcony door was open, and I could faintly hear everything. Later, when I was questioned, I gave the same answers, which surprised the officials. Mother’s favorite Bible text, “Call me in the day of distress. I shall rescue you,” kept coming back to my mind, and I was greatly encouraged.—Psalm 50:15.
Following the interrogation, Paul and I spent five months in pretrial detention in the Stasi prison in Halle and later in Magdeburg. While in Magdeburg, I occasionally caught glimpses of our then closed branch facilities. I wished I could have been working there rather than be in prison! In February 1952 our sentence was announced: “10 years in prison and 20 years’ loss of civil rights.”
Keeping Faith in Prison
Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been sentenced to at least ten years wore special identification for some of their time in prison. A red tape was sewn to one trouser leg and to one arm of our jacket. Also, a small, round piece of red cardboard was attached to the outside of our cell door to warn guards that we were dangerous criminals.
The authorities actually considered us the worst of criminals. We were not allowed to have a Bible because as a guard explained: “One of Jehovah’s Witnesses with a Bible in his hand is like a criminal with a gun in his hand.” In order to collect fragments of the Bible, we read the works of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who often quoted Bible texts in his books. We learned these Bible texts by heart.
Prior to my arrest in 1951, I had become engaged to Elsa Riemer. She visited me as often as possible in prison and sent me a food parcel once a month. She also hid spiritual food in her parcels. Once, she stuffed articles from a Watchtower in some sausages. Guards often sliced sausages open to check if something was hidden inside, but this time the parcel arrived shortly before the end of the workday, and it was not checked.
At the time, Karl Heinz Kleber and I shared a small cell with three non-Witness inmates. How were we to read The Watchtower without being observed? Well, we pretended to be reading a book, but inside we had concealed the Watchtower articles. We also passed on this precious spiritual food to fellow Witnesses in prison.
While in prison we also took advantage of opportunities to tell others about God’s Kingdom. I was thrilled to see one of my fellow inmates become a believer as a result.—Matthew 24:14.
Return to the Full-Time Ministry
On April 1, 1957, after almost six years behind bars, I was released. Less than two weeks later, I married Elsa. When the Stasi heard of my release, they sought an excuse to have me returned to prison. To avoid that possibility, Elsa and I crossed the border to live in West Berlin.
When we arrived in West Berlin, the Society wanted to know what our plans were. We explained that one of us would pioneer while the other would take a secular job.
“How would you like it if you both became pioneers?” we were asked.
“If that is possible,” we responded, “we will start immediately.”
Thus we were given a small stipend each month to help support ourselves, and we commenced serving as special pioneers in 1958. What joy we had from observing individuals with whom we studied the Bible change their lives to become servants of Jehovah! The next ten years in special-pioneer service taught us to work together closely as man and wife. Elsa was always at my side, even when I was repairing the car. We also read, studied, and prayed together.
In 1969 we were assigned to the traveling work, visiting a different congregation each week to minister to the needs of its members. Josef Barth, a man experienced in the traveling work, offered me this advice: “If you want to make a success of your assignment, just be a brother to the brothers.” I tried to apply that advice. As a result, we had a very warm and harmonious relationship with fellow Witnesses, which made it easy to offer counsel when it was needed.
In 1972, Elsa was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery. Later, she also developed rheumatism. Though plagued by pain, she still accompanied me each week, serving the congregations, working with the sisters in the ministry as much as she could.
In 1984 my in-laws came to be in need of constant care, so we left the traveling work to help care for them until they died four years later. (1 Timothy 5:8) Then, in 1989, Elsa became gravely ill. Happily, she has recovered somewhat, but it has been necessary for me to look after all household chores. I am still learning to deal with someone who suffers constant pain. Yet, despite the stress and strain, we have retained our love of spiritual things.
Today, thankfully, we are still on the pioneer list. We have come to appreciate, however, that what is important is, not the position we have or how much we are able to do, but that we remain faithful. We want to serve our God, Jehovah, not for just a few years, but for all eternity. Our experience has been wonderful training for the future. And Jehovah has given us the strength to praise him even under the most trying of circumstances.—Philippians 4:13.
a Ernst Wauer’s life story appeared in The Watchtower of August 1, 1991, pages 25 to 29.
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I was imprisoned here in Magdeburg
Gedenkstätte Moritzplatz Magdeburg für die Opfer politischer Gewalt; Foto: Fredi Fröschki, Magdeburg
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When we married in 1957
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With Elsa today