We Learned to Trust Completely in Jehovah
AS TOLD BY NATALIE HOLTORF
It was June 1945. One day that month, a pale-looking man appeared at our house and patiently stood at the front door. Startled, my youngest daughter, Ruth, shouted: “Mama, there is a stranger at the door!” Little did she know that the stranger was her father—my dear husband, Ferdinand. Two years earlier, only three days after Ruth was born, Ferdinand left home, was arrested, and ended up in a Nazi concentration camp. But now, at last, Ruth met her father, and our family was reunited. Ferdinand and I had so much to tell each other!
FERDINAND was born in 1909 in the city of Kiel, in Germany, and I was born in 1907 in the city of Dresden, also in Germany. When I was 12 years old, our family first came in contact with the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. At the age of 19, I left the Evangelical Church and dedicated my life to Jehovah.
Meanwhile, Ferdinand graduated from nautical college and became a sailor. During his voyages, he pondered questions about the existence of a Creator. Back in port, Ferdinand visited his brother, who was a Bible Student. This visit was enough to convince him that the Bible had the answers to the questions that were troubling him. He left the Lutheran Church, and he also decided to quit working as a sailor. After spending his first day in the preaching work, he felt a deep desire to do this work for the rest of his life. That same night, Ferdinand dedicated his life to Jehovah. He was baptized in August 1931.
A Sailor and a Preacher
In November 1931, Ferdinand boarded a train for the Netherlands to assist with the preaching work there. When Ferdinand told the brother who organized the work in that country that he had been a sailor, the brother exclaimed: “You are just the man we need!” The brothers had rented a boat so that a group of pioneers (full-time ministers) could preach to those living along the waterways in the northern part of the country. The boat had a crew of five, but none of them could sail it. So Ferdinand became the skipper.
Six months later Ferdinand was asked to serve as a pioneer in Tilburg, in southern Netherlands. About that time I also arrived in Tilburg to serve as a pioneer, and I met Ferdinand. But right away we were asked to move to Groningen, in the northern part of the country. There, we were married in October 1932, and in a home used by several pioneers, we had our honeymoon while pioneering at the same time!
In 1935 our daughter Esther was born. Although we had little income, we were determined to keep on pioneering. We moved to a village, where we lived in a tiny house. While I cared for the baby at home, my husband spent a long day in the ministry. The next day we traded places. This went on until Esther was old enough to come with us in the ministry.
Not long thereafter, ominous clouds gathered on Europe’s political horizon. We learned about the persecution of the Witnesses in Germany, and we realized that our turn would soon come. We wondered how we would fare under extreme persecution. In 1938 the Dutch authorities issued a decree forbidding foreigners to do colporteur work by distributing religious publications. To help us to continue in our ministry, Dutch Witnesses gave us the names of people who had shown interest in our work, and we were able to study the Bible with some of them.
About that time a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses was coming up. Although we lacked the funds to buy train tickets to travel to the convention site, we wanted to be there. So we set out on a three-day bicycle trip, with little Esther sitting in a handlebar seat. We spent the nights with Witnesses who lived along the route. How glad we were to be present at our first national convention! The program fortified us for the trials ahead. Above all, we were reminded to put our confidence in God. The words of Psalm 31:6 became our motto: “As for me, in Jehovah I do trust.”
Hunted by the Nazis
In May 1940 the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Shortly thereafter the Gestapo, or secret police, paid us a surprise visit while we were sorting out a shipment of Bible literature. Ferdinand was taken to the Gestapo headquarters. Esther and I regularly visited him there, and sometimes he was interrogated and beaten right in front of us. In December, Ferdinand was suddenly released, but his freedom was short-lived. One evening as we came home, we spotted a Gestapo car near the house. Ferdinand was able to get away while Esther and I entered the house. The Gestapo were waiting for us. They wanted Ferdinand. That same night after the Gestapo left, the Dutch police came and took me along for questioning. The next day Esther and I went into hiding in the home of a newly baptized Witness couple, the Norder family, who provided shelter and protection.
Toward the end of January 1941, a pioneer couple living in a houseboat were arrested. The next day a circuit overseer (traveling minister) and my husband went on board to retrieve some of the couple’s belongings, but Gestapo collaborators pounced on them. Ferdinand managed to break loose and to escape on his bike. The circuit overseer, however, was taken to prison.
Ferdinand was asked by the responsible brothers to take the place of the circuit overseer. That meant that he would not be able to come home for more than three days a month. This was a new challenge for us, but I continued to pioneer. The Gestapo had intensified the search for Witnesses, so we had to keep on the move. In 1942 we moved three times. Eventually, we ended up in the city of Rotterdam, far away from where Ferdinand was carrying out his underground ministry. By that time I was expecting my second child. The Kamp family, whose two sons had recently been deported to concentration camps, kindly took us into their home.
The Gestapo Hot on Our Heels
Our second child, Ruth, was born in July 1943. After Ruth’s birth, Ferdinand was able to stay with us for three days, but then he had to leave, and that was the last we saw of him for a long time. About three weeks later, Ferdinand was arrested in Amsterdam. He was taken to the Gestapo station, where his identity was confirmed. The Gestapo subjected him to intense interrogation in an effort to force him to give information about our preaching activities. But all that Ferdinand was willing to divulge was that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and that he was not involved in any political activity. The Gestapo officers were furious that Ferdinand, a German national, had not reported for military duty, and they threatened to execute him as a traitor.
For the next five months, Ferdinand was kept in a prison cell, where he endured constant threats of being executed by a firing squad. Yet, he did not waver in his loyalty to Jehovah. What helped him to stay spiritually strong? God’s Word, the Bible. Of course, as a Witness, Ferdinand was not allowed to have a Bible. However, other prisoners could request one. So Ferdinand convinced his cell mate to ask his family to send a Bible, which the man did. Years later, whenever Ferdinand spoke about this episode, his eyes beamed and he exclaimed: “What comfort that Bible gave me!”
In early January 1944, Ferdinand was suddenly taken to a concentration camp in Vught, in the Netherlands. Unexpectedly, this move proved to be a blessing for him because there he met 46 other Witnesses. When I learned of his relocation, I was so happy to know that he was still alive!
Preaching Without Letup in the Concentration Camp
Life in camp was very rough. Serious malnutrition, lack of warm clothing, and bitter cold were the order of the day. Ferdinand contracted a serious case of tonsillitis. After a long and chilly roll call, he reported to sick bay. Patients with a fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C] or higher were allowed to stay. But no break for Ferdinand, for his temperature was only 102 degrees Fahrenheit [39°C]! He was told to go back to work. Sympathetic fellow prisoners, however, helped him by hiding him for short periods of time in a warm area. Further relief came when the weather got warmer. Also, when some of the brothers received food packages, they shared the contents with others, so Ferdinand regained some of his strength.
Before my husband was imprisoned, preaching had been his way of life, and inside the camp he continued to share his beliefs. Camp officials often made sneering remarks at him about his purple triangle, the insignia that identified a prisoner as a Witness. But Ferdinand viewed such remarks as an opportunity to start a conversation with them. Initially, the preaching territory of the brothers was confined to the barracks that mainly housed Witnesses. The brothers asked themselves, ‘How can we reach more prisoners?’ Unwittingly, the camp administration provided a solution. How?
The brothers had a secret supply of Bible literature and also 12 Bibles. One day the guards found some literature, but they could not find out whom it belonged to. So the camp officials decided that the unity of the Witnesses had to be broken. Therefore, as punishment all brothers were relocated to barracks occupied by non-Witness prisoners. Moreover, the brothers had to sit next to non-Witnesses while eating. This arrangement proved to be a blessing. Now the brothers could do what they had wanted to do in the first place—preach to as many of the inmates as possible.
Raising Two Girls Alone
Meanwhile, my two daughters and I were still living in Rotterdam. The winter of 1943/44 was exceptionally harsh. Behind our house was a battery of antiaircraft artillery manned by German soldiers. In front of us was the Waal Harbor, a prime target for Allied bombers. It was not exactly the safest place to hide. Furthermore, food was scarce. More than ever, we learned to put our complete trust in Jehovah.—Proverbs 3:5, 6.
Eight-year-old Esther helped our small family by standing in line at a soup kitchen. However, often when her turn came to collect food, there was nothing left. During one of her trips in search of food, she was caught in the midst of an air raid. I panicked when I heard the explosions, but soon my anxiety gave way to tears of joy when she returned unhurt and even in possession of a few sugar beets. “What happened?” were my first words. Calmly she replied: “When the bombs fell, I did just what Daddy told me to do, ‘Fall flat on the ground, keep lying down, and pray.’ And it worked!”
Because of my German accent, it was safer that Esther did what little shopping was still possible. This did not escape the attention of the German soldiers, who began to question Esther. But she did not give away any secrets. At home, I gave Esther Bible education, and because she could not attend school, I taught her reading and writing and other skills.
Esther also helped me in the ministry. Before I went out to study the Bible with someone, Esther went ahead of me to see if the coast was clear, so to speak. She verified if the signs that I had agreed upon with the Bible student were in place. For example, the person whom I was going to visit would place a flowerpot in a certain position on the windowsill to let me know that I could come in. During the Bible study, Esther stayed outside to watch for signs of danger while she pushed the carriage with little Ruth up and down the street.
How was Ferdinand faring? In September 1944, he along with many others were marched off to a railway station where groups of 80 prisoners were squeezed into waiting boxcars. Each car had one bucket that served as a toilet and one bucket for drinking water. The journey lasted three days and nights, and there was standing room only! There was hardly any ventilation. The boxcars were closed in with only a peephole here and there. The heat, hunger, and thirst—not to mention the stench—they had to endure defies description.
The train ground to a halt at the infamous Sachsenhausen concentration camp. All prisoners were deprived of any personal belongings they still had—except for the 12 small Bibles that the Witnesses had taken along on the journey!
Ferdinand and eight other brothers were sent to a satellite camp in Rathenow to work on the production of war equipment. Although they were often threatened with execution, the brothers refused to do that type of work. To encourage one another to stay firm, in the morning they would share a Bible verse, such as Psalm 18:2, so that they could meditate on it during the day. This helped them to meditate on spiritual matters.
Finally, the roar of artillery announced the approach of Allied and Russian troops. The Russians arrived first at the camp where Ferdinand and his companions were. They gave the prisoners some food and ordered them to leave the camp. By the end of April 1945, the Russian army permitted them to leave for home.
Finally Together as a Family
On June 15, Ferdinand arrived in the Netherlands. The brothers in Groningen gave him a warm welcome. He soon learned that we were alive, living somewhere in the country, and we received word that he had returned. Waiting for his arrival seemed to last for ages. But finally, one day little Ruth called out: “Mama, there is a stranger at the door!” There was our beloved husband and father!
Scores of problems needed to be resolved before we could function as a normal family again. We did not have a place to live, and a major challenge was that of regaining our status as permanent residents. Since we were Germans, for several years the Dutch officials treated us as outcasts. Eventually, though, we were able to settle down and take up the life we so deeply longed for—that of serving Jehovah together as a family.
“In Jehovah I Do Trust”
In later years, whenever Ferdinand and I got together with some of our friends who like us lived through those days of hardship, we recalled Jehovah’s loving guidance in those difficult times. (Psalm 7:1) We rejoiced that through the years, Jehovah allowed us to have a share in the furthering of Kingdom interests. We also often said how happy we were that we spent our youth in Jehovah’s sacred service.—Ecclesiastes 12:1.
After the period of Nazi persecution, Ferdinand and I served Jehovah together for more than 50 years before he finished his earthly course on December 20, 1995. Soon, I will be 98 years old. Daily, I thank Jehovah that our children were so supportive during those difficult years and that I am still able to do what I can in his service to the glory of his name. I am grateful for all that Jehovah has done for me, and it is my heart’s desire to continue to live up to my motto: “As for me, in Jehovah I do trust.”—Psalm 31:6.
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With Ferdinand in October 1932
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The evangelizing boat “Almina” with its crew
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With Ferdinand and the children