“O for a Faith That Will Not Shrink”!
AS TOLD BY HERBERT MÜLLER
A few months after Hitler’s army invaded the Netherlands, Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned. Before long, my name appeared on the Nazis’ most-wanted list, and I was hunted like an animal.
ONCE, I was so worn out from hiding and running that I told my wife that it might even be a relief to be caught by the army. Then the words of a song came to mind: “O for a faith that will not shrink, tho’ pressed by ev’ry foe.”* Reflecting on that song renewed my strength and brought back memories of my parents in Germany and of the day my friends had sung this song to bid me farewell. May I share some of these memories with you?
My Parents’ Example
When I was born in 1913 in the town of Copitz in Germany, my parents were members of the Evangelical Church.* Seven years later, in 1920, father left the church. On April 6, he asked for a Kirchenaustrittsbescheinigung (Declaration of Withdrawal From the Church). The town’s civil registration officer filled one out. A week later, however, father was back in the office explaining that the declaration did not list the name of his daughter. The officer filled out a second document stating that the church withdrawal also applied to Martha Margaretha Müller. At that time, Margaretha, my sister, was a year and a half old. When it came to serving Jehovah, father would not settle for half measures!
That same year, my parents were baptized by the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Father raised us children in a strict manner, but his loyalty to Jehovah made it easier for us to accept his guidance. Loyalty also moved my parents to make adjustments. For instance, there was a time when we were not allowed to play outdoors on Sundays. One Sunday in 1925, however, our parents told us that we were going out for a walk. We took some snacks along and had a pleasant time—what a change from being penned up in the house all day! Father said that he had learned some points at a recent convention that had corrected his view of Sunday activities. At other times, he also showed the same willingness to adjust.
Though my parents’ health was poor, they did not hold back from the preaching work. To distribute the tract Ecclesiastics Indicted, for example, we boarded a train one evening with the rest of the congregation and traveled to the town of Regensburg, some 200 miles [300 km] from Dresden. The next day, we distributed the tracts throughout the town, and when finished, we took the train back. By the time we were home again, nearly 24 hours had passed.
My association with the Jugendgruppe (Youth Group) in our congregation also helped me to grow spiritually. Each week, young ones over 14 years of age met with some of the congregation’s older brothers. We played games and musical instruments, studied the Bible, and talked about creation and science. However, in 1932, when I was 19 years old, my association with the group came to an end.
In April of that year, Father received a letter from the Watch Tower Society’s office in Magdeburg. The Society was looking for someone who could drive a car and wanted to pioneer. I knew it was my parents’ desire that I pioneer, but I felt that I could not. Since my parents were poor, I had begun repairing bicycles and sewing machines, as well as typewriters and other office equipment, at age 14. How could I leave my family? They needed my support. Moreover, I was not even baptized. Father sat down with me and asked me some questions to see if I understood what was involved in baptism. When my answers convinced him that I had made enough spiritual progress to be baptized, he said: “You should offer yourself for this assignment.” I did.
One week later I received an invitation to come to Magdeburg. When I told my friends in the Youth Group, they wanted to send me off with a cheerful song. They were surprised at the song I chose because they considered it to be very serious. Still, some grabbed their violins, mandolins, and guitars and all sang: “O for a faith that will not shrink, tho’ pressed by ev’ry foe; that will not tremble on the brink of any earthly woe.” That day, I did not realize how often those words would strengthen me in the years to come.
A Turbulent Start
After the brothers in Magdeburg had tested my driving skills, they entrusted me and four other pioneers with a car, and we headed for the Schneifel, a region near Belgium. We soon learned that our car was a necessity. The Catholic Church in that region resented our presence, and the villagers, urged on by priests, often waited to chase us away. Many a time, the car helped us to stay just ahead of their hoes and pitchforks.
After the Memorial in 1933, the regional overseer, Paul Grossmann, told us that the Society’s work in Germany had been banned. Shortly thereafter, the branch office asked me to come with the car to Magdeburg, pick up literature there, and transport it to the state of Saxony, some 70 miles [100 km] from Magdeburg. By the time I reached Magdeburg, however, the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) had already shut down the Society’s office. I left the car with a brother in Leipzig and returned home—but not for long.
The Society’s office in Switzerland invited me to begin pioneering in the Netherlands. I planned to leave within a week or two. Father advised me, however, to get moving right away. I took his advice, and within a few hours, I left home. The next day, the police came to my father’s home to arrest me on the charge of desertion. They were too late.
Starting Out in the Netherlands
On August 15, 1933, I arrived at a pioneer home in Heemstede, a town 15 miles [25 km] from Amsterdam. The next day, I went out to preach without knowing a word of Dutch. Armed with a testimony card, which contained a printed sermon, I began. What an encouragement it was when a Catholic woman accepted the book Reconciliation! That same day, I also placed 27 booklets. At the end of that first day, I felt elated to be able to preach in freedom again.
In those days, pioneers had no other source of income than the contributions received when literature was placed. That money was used to buy food and other necessities. If a little money was left at the end of the month, it was divided among the pioneers for personal expenses. We had little materially, but Jehovah provided for us so well that in 1934, I was able to attend a convention in Switzerland.
A Faithful Companion
At the convention, I saw 18-year-old Erika Finke. I knew her from when I was living at home. She was a friend of my sister, Margaretha, and I had always been impressed by Erika’s firm stand for the truth. Not long after her baptism in 1932, someone informed the Gestapo that Erika had refused to say “Heil Hitler!” The Gestapo went after her and demanded to know why she had refused. Erika read Acts 17:3 to the officer in the police station and explained that God has appointed only one man as Savior, Jesus Christ. “Are there others who believe like you?” the officer demanded to know. Erika refused to give any names. When the policeman threatened to detain her, Erika told him that she would rather die than give names. He stared at her and shouted: “Get out of here. Go home. Heil Hitler!”
After the convention, I returned to the Netherlands while Erika stayed in Switzerland. Both of us felt, though, that our friendship had grown. While still in Switzerland, Erika heard that the Gestapo back home was searching for her. She decided to stay and pioneer in Switzerland. A few months later, the Society asked her to go to Spain. She pioneered in Madrid, then Bilbao, and later San Sebastián, where clergy-fomented persecution landed her and her pioneer partner in prison. In 1935 they were ordered to leave Spain. Erika came to the Netherlands, and that same year we were married.
Clouds of War on the Horizon
After our wedding, we pioneered in Heemstede, and later we moved to the city of Rotterdam. There our son, Wolfgang, was born in 1937. A year later we moved to the city of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands, where we shared a home with German pioneers Ferdinand and Helga Holtorf and their daughter. In July 1938 the Society told us that the Dutch government had issued a warning that Witnesses who were German nationals were no longer allowed to preach. About that same time, I was appointed zone servant (circuit overseer), and our family moved to the Lichtdrager (Lightbearer), the Society’s boat that served as home base for pioneers preaching in the northern part of the Netherlands. Most of the time, I was away from my family, cycling from one congregation to the next to encourage the brothers to keep on preaching. And the brothers did just that. Some even increased their activities. Wim Kettelarij was a good example.
When I met Wim, he was a young man who recognized the truth but was very busy as a farmhand. “If you want to have time to serve Jehovah,” I advised him, “you should find another job.” He did. Later, when we met again, I encouraged him to pioneer. “But I have to work to eat,” he replied. “You will eat,” I assured him. “Jehovah will care for you.” Wim began pioneering. Later, even during World War II, he served as a traveling overseer. Today, in his 80’s, Wim is still a zealous Witness. Jehovah did indeed look after him.
Under Ban and Wanted
In May 1940, about a year after our second child, Reina, was born, the Dutch army surrendered and the Nazis occupied the Netherlands. In July the Gestapo took possession of the Society’s office and printery. The following year, there was a wave of arrests of Witnesses, and I was caught. Being a Witness and a German of draft age, it was not hard to imagine what the Gestapo would do with me. I tried to resign myself to the idea that I would never see my family again.
Then in May 1941, the Gestapo let me out of prison and ordered me to go and report for military service. I could not believe it. That same day I dropped out of sight, and that same month I was back in the circuit work. The Gestapo put me on its most-wanted list.
How My Family Coped
My wife and children had moved to the village of Vorden in the eastern part of the country. To minimize the risks for them, however, I had to limit my visits home drastically. (Matthew 10:16) For security’s sake, the brothers did not use my real name, only my pseudonym Duitse Jan (German John). Even my four-year-old son, Wolfgang, was not allowed to speak about “Dad” but only about “Ome Jan” (Uncle John). For him, this was very difficult emotionally.
While I was on the run, Erika cared for the children and kept on preaching. When Reina was two years old, Erika put her on the bicycle’s luggage rack and took her along preaching in the rurals. Though food became hard to find, Erika never experienced a severe lack of food for the family. (Matthew 6:33) A Catholic farmer, for whom I once had repaired a sewing machine, gave her potatoes. He also passed on messages from me to Erika. Once, she paid one gulden for an item in a drugstore. The owner, knowing that she was living in hiding and unable to obtain food ration cards, gave her the item and also two guldens. Such expressions of sympathy helped her to survive.—Hebrews 13:5.
Working Side by Side With Courageous Brothers
Meanwhile, I continued to visit the congregations—although I contacted only the congregations’ responsible brothers. Because the Gestapo was at my heels, I could never stay in one place for more than a few hours. Most of the brothers and sisters were not allowed to meet me. They were acquainted only with those Witnesses who belonged to their small Bible-study group. As a result, two fleshly sisters living in different parts of the same city found out only after World War II that both of them had become Witnesses during the war.
Finding hiding places for the Society’s literature was another of my tasks. We also hid paper, stencil machines, and typewriters for making copies of The Watchtower, in case they would be needed. At times, we had to move the books printed by the Society from one hiding place to another. I remember once transporting 30 cartons full of literature while trying not to be conspicuous—an unnerving job!
In addition, we organized the transportation of food from farms in eastern Netherlands to the cities in the west, even though this was forbidden. We would load food on a horse-drawn wagon and head west. When we reached a river, we could use none of the bridges because they were guarded by soldiers. Instead, we unloaded the cargo into small boats, shuttled the food across the river, and then reloaded the cargo onto another wagon. When we reached the city that was our destination, we waited till darkness fell, pulled socks over the horse’s hooves, and quietly went to the congregation’s secret food depot. From there, the food was distributed to needy brothers.
If the German army were to discover such a food depot, it could cost someone his life. Nonetheless, several brothers volunteered to help out. The Bloemink family in the town of Amersfoort, for instance, let their living room be used as a warehouse for food, although their house was only a stone’s throw from a German army garrison! Courageous Witnesses such as these risked their lives in behalf of their brothers.
Jehovah helped my wife and me to remain faithful throughout the years of the ban. In May 1945 the German army was defeated, and my life on the run finally came to an end. The Society asked me to continue serving as a traveling overseer until other brothers became available. In 1947, Bertus van der Bijl took over my work.* By that time, our third child was born, and we settled in the eastern part of the country.
Sadness and Joy
Following the war, I learned that about a year after I left home for the Netherlands, Father was imprisoned. He was released twice because of poor health, but each time he was imprisoned again. In February of 1938, he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp and then to Dachau. There, on May 14, 1942, my father passed away. He remained firm and loyal to the end.
Mother was also sent to the Dachau camp. She remained there until she was freed in 1945. Since the firm example of both of my parents contributed much to the spiritual blessings I have enjoyed, it was a privilege to have Mother come to live with us in 1954. My sister Margaretha—who had been pioneering in Communist East Germany since 1945—came along. Though mother was ill and spoke no Dutch, she continued to share in the field service until she faithfully ended her earthly course in October 1957.
The 1955 convention in Nuremberg, Germany, proved to be special. After we arrived there, brothers from Dresden told Erika that her mother was at the convention as well. Since Dresden was then under East German rule, Erika had not seen her mother for 21 years. A meeting was arranged, and mother and daughter embraced. What a joyful reunion that was!
In time, our family grew to eight children. Tragically, we lost one of our sons in a car accident. However, seeing all our remaining children serve Jehovah is a source of deep joy. We are happy that our son Wolfgang and his wife are in the circuit work and that their son also serves as a circuit overseer.
I am grateful to have witnessed the progress of Jehovah’s work in the Netherlands. When I began pioneering here in 1933, there were about one hundred Witnesses. Today, there are more than 30,000. Although our physical strength is now waning, Erika and I are still determined to live by the words of that song of days gone by: “O for a faith that will not shrink.”
Song 194.—Songs of Praise to Jehovah (1928).
The town of Copitz, now called Pirna, is located along the Elbe River, 11 miles [18 km] from the city of Dresden.
See The Watchtower, January 1, 1998, for Brother Van der Bijl’s life story, “There Is Nothing Better Than the Truth.”
[Picture on page 23]
The “Jugendgruppe” during a break after field service
[Picture on page 24]
Fellow pioneers and I covered the territory of Schneifel. I was 20 years old
[Picture on page 25]
With Erika and Wolfgang in 1940
[Picture on page 26]
Left to right: My grandson Jonathan and his wife, Mirjam; Erika, me, my son Wolfgang and his wife, Julia
[Picture on page 26]
A brother in prison with my father drew this picture of him in 1941