They Triumphed Over Persecution
FRIEDA JESS was born in 1911 in Denmark, from where she moved with her parents to Husum in northern Germany. Years later she took a job in Magdeburg, and in 1930 she was baptized as a Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. Hitler came to power in 1933, and for Frieda this event ushered in 23 years of ill-treatment at the hands of, not one totalitarian government, but two.
In March 1933 the German government called a general election. Dr. Detlef Garbe, head of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial near Hamburg, explains: “The National Socialists wanted to force a large majority for their chancellor and führer, Adolf Hitler.” Jehovah’s Witnesses followed Jesus’ admonition to stay politically neutral and to be “no part of the world,” so they did not vote. The result? The Witnesses were banned.—John 17:16.
Frieda carried on her Christian activities clandestinely, even helping to print the Watchtower magazine. “Some of the magazines were smuggled into concentration camps for our fellow believers,” she says. She was arrested in 1940 and interrogated by the Gestapo, after which she spent months in solitary confinement. How did she endure? She says: “Prayer was my refuge. I started praying early in the morning and turned to prayer several times a day. Prayer gave me strength and helped me not to become overly anxious.”—Philippians 4:6, 7.
Frieda was released, but in 1944 the Gestapo arrested her again. This time she was sentenced to seven years in Waldheim prison. Frieda continues: “The prison guards put me to work with some other women in the washrooms. I was often with an inmate from Czechoslovakia, so I talked a lot to her about Jehovah and about my faith. Those conversations kept me strong.”
Released but Not for Long
Waldheim prison was liberated by Soviet troops in May 1945, and Frieda was free to return to Magdeburg and her public ministry but not for long. The Witnesses again became a target for discrimination, this time by the authorities in the Soviet Occupational Zone. Gerald Hacke of the Hannah-Arendt-Institute for Research Into Totalitarianism writes: “Jehovah’s Witnesses were one of the few social groups to be persecuted almost continually by both dictatorships on German soil.”
Why the renewed discrimination? Once again, the main issue was Christian neutrality. In 1948, East Germany held a plebiscite, a direct vote by the people, and as Hacke explains, “the fundamental cause [of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses] was that they did not participate in the plebiscite.” In August 1950, Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in East Germany. Hundreds were arrested, including Frieda.
Frieda found herself back in court and was sentenced to six years in prison. “This time I was with fellow believers, and the association was a great help.” Upon her release in 1956, she moved to West Germany. At 90 years of age, Frieda now lives in Husum, still serving the true God, Jehovah.
Frieda experienced 23 years of persecution under two dictatorships. “The Nazis tried to destroy me physically; the Communists tried to break my spirit. Where did I get the strength? Good Bible study habits while enjoying freedom, constant prayer when in isolation, association with fellow believers whenever possible, and sharing my beliefs with others at every opportunity.”
Fascism in Hungary
Another land where Jehovah’s Witnesses endured decades of discrimination was Hungary. Some experienced persecution at the hands of, not two totalitarian regimes, but three. One example is Ádám Szinger. Ádám was born in Paks, Hungary, in 1922 and was raised a Protestant. In 1937 some Bible Students called at Ádám’s home, and he at once showed interest in their message. What he learned from the Bible convinced him that the teachings of his church were not Biblical. So he left the Protestant Church and joined the Bible Students in their public ministry.
Fascism was growing in influence in Hungary. A number of times, gendarmes observed Ádám preaching from house to house and took him in for questioning. Pressure on the Witnesses intensified, and in 1939 their activities were outlawed. In 1942, Ádám was arrested, taken to prison, and severely beaten. What helped him at 19 years of age to endure the suffering and the months in prison? “While still at home, I studied the Bible carefully and got a sound understanding of Jehovah’s purposes.” Only after his release from prison was Ádám at last baptized as a Witness of Jehovah. That was in the dark of night in August 1942, in a river near his home.
Prison in Hungary, Labor Camp in Serbia
Meanwhile, during the second world war, Hungary joined Germany against the Soviet Union, and in the fall of 1942, Ádám was drafted for military service. He reports: “I stated that I could not serve in the military because of what I had learned from the Bible. I explained my neutral stand.” He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. But Ádám did not spend long in Hungary.
In 1943 about 160 of Jehovah’s Witnesses were rounded up, loaded onto barges, and transported down the Danube River to Serbia. Ádám was among them. In Serbia these prisoners were now under the control of Hitler’s Third Reich. They were interned in the labor camp at Bor and forced to work in a copper mine. About one year later, they were transported back to Hungary, where Ádám was liberated by Soviet troops in the spring of 1945.
Hungary Under Communist Control
But freedom did not last long. By the late 1940’s, the Communist authorities in Hungary restricted the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, just as the Fascists had done before the war. In 1952, Ádám, who by now was 29 years of age and married with two children, was arrested and charged when he once again refused military service. Ádám explained to the court: “This is not the first time I have refused military service. During the war, I went to prison and was deported to Serbia for the same reason. I refuse to join the military because of my conscience. I am a Witness of Jehovah, and I stay politically neutral.” Ádám’s sentence was eight years in prison, later reduced to four years.
Ádám continued to experience discrimination until the mid-1970’s, over 35 years after the Bible Students first called at his parents’ home. Throughout this time, he was sentenced to 23 years of detention by six courts, being held in at least ten prisons and camps. He endured serial persecution under three regimes—Fascists in prewar Hungary, German National Socialists in Serbia, and Communists in cold-war Hungary.
Ádám still lives in his hometown of Paks, serving God loyally. Does he have extraordinary abilities that enabled him to endure the hardships so triumphantly? No. He explains:
“Bible study, prayer, and association with fellow believers were vital. But I would like to highlight two other things. First, Jehovah is the Source of strength. A close relationship with him was my lifeline. And second, I kept in mind Romans chapter 12, which states: ‘Do not avenge yourselves.’ So I never bore a grudge. Several times I had the chance to get back at those who persecuted me, but I never did. We should not use the strength that Jehovah gives us to pay back evil for evil.”
An End to All Persecution
Frieda and Ádám are now able to worship Jehovah without hindrance. What, though, do experiences such as theirs reveal about religious persecution? That such persecution is unsuccessful—at least when inflicted upon genuine Christians. While persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses consumed a lot of resources and caused cruel suffering, it failed to achieve its objective. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses are flourishing in Europe where the two great dictatorships once held sway.
How did the Witnesses react to persecution? As the accounts of Frieda and Ádám show, they applied the Bible’s counsel: “Do not let yourself be conquered by the evil, but keep conquering the evil with the good.” (Romans 12:21) Can good really conquer evil? Yes, when it is allied with a strong faith in God. The triumph of Jehovah’s Witnesses over persecution in Europe was a triumph of God’s spirit, a demonstration of the power for good resulting from the faith that holy spirit produces in humble Christians. (Galatians 5:22, 23) In today’s violent world, that is a lesson that all could take to heart.
[Pictures on page 5]
Frieda Jess (now Thiele) at the time of her arrest and now
[Pictures on page 7]
Ádám Szinger at the time of his imprisonment and now