From Dark Dungeons to the Swiss Alps
AS TOLD BY LOTHAR WALTHER
After spending three long years in the dark dungeons of East Germany’s Communist prisons, I could hardly wait to enjoy the sweet taste of freedom and the warm company of my family.
I WAS not prepared, however, for the bewildered look on the face of my six-year-old son, Johannes. For the second half of his life, he had not seen his father. To him, I was a total stranger.
Unlike my son, I had enjoyed the loving companionship of my parents. A warm atmosphere prevailed in our home in Chemnitz, Germany, where I was born in 1928. My father was very open about his discontent with religion. He recalled that during World War I, “Christian” soldiers on each side wished those on the other side “Merry Christmas” on December 25, only to resume killing one another the next day. To him, religion was the ultimate form of hypocrisy.
Disillusionment Gives Way to Faith
Happily, I was spared such disappointment. World War II ended when I was 17 years old, and I narrowly escaped being conscripted. Still, I was distressed over such disquieting questions as, ‘Why all the killing? Whom can I trust? Where can I find true security?’ East Germany, where we lived, came under Soviet control. The Communist ideals of justice, equality, solidarity, and peaceful amity appealed to those who were worn out by the ravages of war. Soon many of these sincere individuals would be gravely disillusioned—this time, not by religion, but by politics.
It was during my personal quest for meaningful answers that one of my aunts, who was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, spoke to me about her faith. She gave me a Bible-based publication that moved me to read—for the first time ever—the whole 24th chapter of Matthew. I was struck by the reasonable and convincing explanations given in the book, identifying our times as “the conclusion of the system of things” and pointing out the root cause of mankind’s problems.—Matthew 24:3; Revelation 12:9.
Soon I received more publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and as I devoured them, I realized that I had found the truth that I had been searching for so fervently. It was thrilling to learn that Jesus Christ had been enthroned in heaven in 1914 and that he would soon subdue ungodly elements in order to bring blessings to obedient mankind. For me, another great discovery was the clear understanding of the ransom. It helped me to turn to Jehovah God in heartfelt prayer, asking for forgiveness. I was deeply touched by the kind invitation found at James 4:8: “Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you.”
Despite my unbounded enthusiasm for my newfound faith, my parents and my sister were at first reluctant to accept what I told them. This, however, did not dampen my desire to attend the Christian meetings held near Chemnitz by a small group of Witnesses. To my surprise, my parents and my sister went with me to the first meeting! That was in the winter of 1945/46. Later, when a Bible study group was formed in Harthau, where we lived, my family started attending regularly.
“I Am But a Boy”
Learning important Bible truths and regularly associating with Jehovah’s people led me to dedicate my life to Jehovah, and I was baptized on May 25, 1946. To my deep satisfaction, my family members also progressed spiritually, and in time all three became faithful Witnesses. My sister is still an active member of one of the congregations in Chemnitz. My mother and father served loyally until their deaths in 1965 and 1986 respectively.
Six months after my baptism, I started serving as a special pioneer. This marked the beginning of a lifetime of service “in favorable season, in troublesome season.” (2 Timothy 4:2) Soon new opportunities for service opened up. There was a need for full-time evangelizers in a remote area in eastern Germany. A brother and I applied for this assignment, but I felt that I had neither the experience nor the maturity for such a responsible task. Since I was only 18, I shared Jeremiah’s feelings: “Alas, . . . Jehovah! Here I actually do not know how to speak, for I am but a boy.” (Jeremiah 1:6) Despite my misgivings, the responsible brothers kindly decided to give us a chance. Thus, we were assigned to Belzig, a small town in the state of Brandenburg.
Preaching in that territory was very challenging, but it provided valuable training for me. In time, several prominent businesswomen accepted the Kingdom message and became Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their stand, however, went against the deep-seated traditions and fears of that small rural community. Both Catholic and Protestant clergy opposed us adamantly and made slanderous accusations against us for our preaching work. But trusting in Jehovah for guidance and protection, we were able to help a number of interested people to embrace the truth.
Clouds of Intolerance Gather
The year 1948 brought both blessings and unexpected difficulties. First, I received a pioneer assignment in Rudolstadt, Thuringia. There I came to know many faithful brothers and sisters, and I enjoyed their companionship. Another far-reaching blessing came in July of that year. I married Erika Ullmann, a faithful and active young Christian woman whom I had known from the time I began to attend meetings in the Chemnitz Congregation. Together we took up the pioneer service in Harthau, my hometown. In time, however, Erika was not able to continue in the full-time service because of health problems and for other reasons.
Those were hard times for Jehovah’s people. The Labor Department in Chemnitz revoked my food ration card in an effort to force me to give up the preaching work and get a full-time secular job. Responsible brothers used my case to press for legal recognition by the State. This was denied, and on June 23, 1950, I was sentenced to pay a fine or spend 30 days in prison. We appealed the decision, but the higher court rejected the appeal, and I was sent to prison.
That was just a hint of the gathering storm of opposition and adversity to come. Hardly a month later, in September 1950, after launching a campaign of defamation in the media, the Communist regime banned our activities. Because of our rapid growth and our neutral stand, we were branded as a dangerous spy agency of the West, carrying on “dubious activity” under the cloak of religion. On the very day that the prohibition was issued, my wife gave birth to our son, Johannes, at home while I was in prison. Despite protests from the midwife, State Security officers forced their way into our apartment and searched for evidence to prove their accusations. Of course, they found nothing. Nonetheless, they later succeeded in planting an informant in our congregation. That led to the arrest of all the responsible brothers, including me, in October 1953.
In Dark Dungeons
After being convicted and given sentences ranging from three to six years, we joined a number of our brothers in the slimy dungeons of Osterstein Castle, in Zwickau. Despite the abysmal conditions there, it was a real joy to associate with mature brothers. Our lack of freedom did not mean lack of spiritual food. Although despised and banned by the regime, The Watchtower found its way into the prison and right into our cells! How?
Some of the brothers were assigned to work in coal mines, where they met Witnesses from the outside who gave them the magazines. The brothers then brought the magazines secretly into the prison and by sheer ingenuity managed to pass on the much-needed spiritual food to the rest of us. I was so happy and encouraged to experience Jehovah’s care and direction in this way!
By the end of 1954, we were transferred to the infamous prison in Torgau. The Witnesses there were happy to have us. Until then, they had remained spiritually strong by reciting what they could remember from older issues of The Watchtower. How they yearned for a fresh supply of spiritual food! Now it was our duty to share with them points that we had studied in Zwickau. But how could we do so when we were strictly forbidden to speak to one another during our daily walks? Well, the brothers had given us precious tips on how to proceed, and Jehovah’s mighty protective hand was over us. This taught us the importance of diligent Bible study and meditation while we have the freedom and opportunity to do so.
Time for Important Decisions
With Jehovah’s help, we remained steadfast. To our great surprise, a number of us were granted amnesty at the end of 1956. It is difficult to describe our happiness when the prison gates were opened! By then, my son was six years old, and it was a tremendous joy for me to rejoin my wife and to share in rearing our child. For a while Johannes treated me like a stranger, but soon a warm bond was established between us.
Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Germany were facing a very difficult time. Rising hostility toward our Christian ministry and our neutral stand meant that we had to live under constant threat—a life plagued with danger, anxiety, and weariness. Thus, Erika and I had to look at our situation carefully and prayerfully, and we felt the need to move in order to live under more favorable conditions so as not to be consumed by worry. We wanted to have the freedom to serve Jehovah and to pursue spiritual goals.
In the spring of 1957, an opportunity opened up for us to move to Stuttgart, West Germany. The evangelizing work was not banned there, and we could associate freely with our brothers. Their loving support was overwhelming. We spent seven years with the congregation in Hedelfingen. During those years, our son began school and made good progress. In September 1962, I enjoyed the privilege of attending the Kingdom Ministry School in Wiesbaden. There I was encouraged to move with my family to serve where German-speaking Bible teachers were needed. This included certain areas of Germany and Switzerland.
On to the Swiss Alps
Thus, in 1963 we moved to Switzerland. We were directed to work with a small congregation in Brunnen, on beautiful Lake Lucerne, in the central part of the Swiss Alps. To us, it was like being in a paradise. We had to get accustomed to the German dialect spoken there, to the local way of life, and to the mentality of the people. Nevertheless, we enjoyed working and preaching among peace-loving people. We spent 14 years in Brunnen. Our son grew up there.
In 1977, when I was almost 50, we received an invitation to serve at the Swiss Bethel in Thun. We considered it an unexpected privilege and accepted it with great appreciation. My wife and I spent nine years in Bethel service, which we remember as a special milestone in our Christian life and personal spiritual development. We also enjoyed preaching with the local publishers in Thun and areas nearby, always having a view of Jehovah’s “wonderful works,” the majestic snowcapped mountains of the Bernese Alps.—Psalm 9:1.
Yet Another Move
Our next move came in early 1986. We were asked to serve as special pioneers in a very large territory assigned to the Buchs Congregation in the eastern part of Switzerland. Again, we had to get used to a different way of life. However, motivated by our desire to serve Jehovah wherever we could be used best, we tackled this new assignment, with his blessing. At times, I have substituted for traveling overseers, visiting and strengthening congregations. Eighteen years have passed, and we have had many happy experiences preaching in this area. The congregation in Buchs has grown, and we enjoy meeting in a beautiful Kingdom Hall, dedicated five years ago.
Jehovah has cared for us in a most generous way. We have spent the better part of our life in the full-time ministry, yet we have never lacked anything. We have the joy and satisfaction of seeing our son, his wife, and their children, as well as the children’s families, walk faithfully in the way of Jehovah.
Looking back, I feel that, indeed, we have served Jehovah “in favorable season, in troublesome season.” My pursuit of the Christian ministry has taken me from the dark dungeons of Communist prisons to the splendorous mountains of the Swiss Alps. My family and I have not regretted a single moment.
[Box on page 28]
“Double Victims” Stand Firm Under Persecution
Under the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as East Germany, Jehovah’s Witnesses were singled out for brutal suppression. Records show that over 5,000 Witnesses were sent to forced labor camps and detention centers because of their Christian ministry and neutrality.—Isaiah 2:4.
Some of these have been described as “double victims.” Some 325 of them had been incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps and prisons. Then, in the 1950’s, they were pursued and imprisoned by the Stasi, the State Security Service of the GDR. Even some of the prisons served double duty—as Nazi prisons first and then as Stasi prisons.
During the first decade of intense persecution, from 1950 to 1961, a total of 60 Witnesses—men and women—died in prison from mistreatment, malnutrition, sickness, and old age. Twelve Witnesses were given life sentences that were later commuted to 15 years in prison.
Today, in the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin, there is a permanent exhibit highlighting the 40 years of official persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Germany. The photographs and personal accounts displayed there give silent testimony to the courage and spiritual strength of these Witnesses who were faithful under fire.
[Map on page 24, 25]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Picture on page 25]
The Osterstein Castle, in Zwickau
Fotosammlung des Stadtarchiv Zwickau, Deutschland
[Picture on page 26]
With my wife, Erika