With Jehovah’s Help, We Survived Totalitarian Regimes
As told by Henryk Dornik
I WAS born in 1926 to parents who were devout Catholics. They lived in Ruda Slaska, a mining town near Katowice, in southern Poland. They taught their children—my older brother, Bernard; my two younger sisters, Róża and Edyta; and me—to pray, attend church services, and observe the sacrament of penance.
Bible Truth Reaches Our Home
One day in January 1937, when I was ten, Father returned home overjoyed. He brought with him a big, thick book he had obtained from Jehovah’s Witnesses. He said, “Children, look what I’ve got—the Holy Scriptures!” Never before had I seen the Bible.
The Catholic Church had long exerted a strong influence on the people in Ruda Slaska and its vicinity. The clergy were very friendly with the mine owners and demanded absolute obedience from the miners and their families. If a miner did not attend Mass or refused to go to confession, he was considered an infidel and marked for dismissal from the mine. A similar threat soon loomed over Father because he was associating with Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, when a priest visited our home, Father exposed his religious hypocrisy in front of all. The embarrassed priest did not want any more trouble, so Father was not fired.
Witnessing that confrontation with the priest strengthened me in my determination to get to know the Bible. I gradually came to love Jehovah, and I developed a personal relationship with him. A few months after Father’s conversation with the priest, we attended the Memorial of Christ’s death, during which Father was introduced to a group of 30 with the words, “This is a Jonadab.” I soon learned that “Jonadabs” were Christians with an earthly hope and that their ranks were to grow.a—2 Kings 10:15-17.
“Boy, Do You Know What Baptism Means?”
After he accepted the truth, Father stopped drinking and became a good husband and father. Nevertheless, Mother did not share his religious views, and she used to say that she would prefer him to live as he did before and remain a Catholic. However, after World War II broke out, she noticed that the same clergymen who had prayed for Poland’s victory over the invading Germans now uttered prayers of thanksgiving for Hitler’s successes! Later, in 1941, Mother joined the rest of us in serving Jehovah.
Before that, I had expressed my desire to symbolize my dedication to God by water baptism, but the congregation elders thought that I was too young. They told me to wait. Eventually, though, on December 10, 1940, Konrad Grabowy (a brother who later died faithful in a concentration camp) discreetly interviewed me in a small apartment. He asked me five questions and then, satisfied with my answers, baptized me. One of his questions was, “Boy, do you know what baptism means?” Another was, “Do you know that now that there is war, you will soon have to decide whether you will be faithful to Hitler or to Jehovah, and your decision might cost you your life?” Without hesitation, I answered, “I do.”
Why did Konrad Grabowy ask such pointed questions? The German army had invaded Poland in 1939, and after that our faith and integrity were tested severely. Each day, things grew more tense as we heard of Christian brothers and sisters being arrested, deported, and sent to prisons or concentration camps. Soon it would be our turn to face similar trials.
The Nazis wanted to turn the younger generation—including us four children—into zealous advocates of the Third Reich. Since Father and Mother had several times refused to sign the Volkslist (a list of people who had or who wanted to obtain German citizenship), they were denied custody of us children. Father was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. In February 1944 my brother and I were placed in a reformatory in Grodków (Grottkau), near Nysa, and our sisters were sent to a Catholic convent in Czarnowąsy (Klosterbrück), near Opole. The goal was to make us forsake what the authorities called “the fraudulent views of our parents.” Mother was left at home alone.
Every morning in the reformatory courtyard, a swastika flag was hoisted and we were commanded to raise our right hands and salute the flag while saying “Heil Hitler.” It was a hard test of faith, but Bernard and I remained firm in our refusal to compromise. As a result, we were badly beaten for “disrespectful” behavior. Subsequent attempts to break our spirit also failed, so the SS guards finally gave us an ultimatum, “Either you sign the declaration of loyalty to the German State and join the Wehrmacht [German army] or you will be sent to a concentration camp.”
In August 1944 when the authorities officially recommended that we be sent to a concentration camp, they stated: “It is impossible to persuade them to do anything. Their martyrdom brings them joy. Their rebellious stand is a threat to the whole reformatory.” Although I had no desire to be a martyr, suffering with courage and dignity for my loyalty to Jehovah did bring me joy. (Acts 5:41) In no way could I in my own strength have endured the sufferings I was about to face. On the other hand, fervent prayers drew me closer to Jehovah, and he proved to be a reliable Helper.—Hebrews 13:6.
In the Concentration Camp
Soon I was taken to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Silesia. I was assigned a prisoner number and given a purple triangle, identifying me as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The SS guards made me an offer. I could be released from the camp and even become an officer in the Nazi army on one condition. “You must renounce the Bible Students’ ideas, which are hostile to the Third Reich.” No other prisoners received a comparable offer. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses were given the opportunity to escape the camps. Still, I—like thousands of others—flatly refused the “privilege.” The guards’ response was: “Have a good look at that crematory chimney. Think it over very well, or else you will regain your freedom only through that chimney.” I firmly refused again, and at that moment, I was filled with “the peace of God that excels all thought.”—Philippians 4:6, 7.
I prayed that I would be able to contact fellow believers in the camp, and Jehovah made that possible. Among those fellow Christians was a faithful brother named Gustaw Baumert, who cared for me tenderly and lovingly. Without any doubt, Jehovah proved to be “the Father of tender mercies and the God of all comfort” to me.—2 Corinthians 1:3.
After a few months, approaching Russian armies forced the Nazis to evacuate the camp quickly. As we were preparing for departure, we brothers—risking our lives—decided to go up to the women’s barracks and check on the condition of about 20 of our spiritual sisters—among them Elsa Abt and Gertrud Ott.b When they saw us, they quickly ran up to us, and after a short interchange of encouragement, they sang together the Kingdom song that includes the words: “He that is faithful, he that is loyal, yields not his soul unto fear.”c There was hardly a dry eye among us!
To the Next Camp
The Nazis crammed from 100 to 150 of us prisoners into empty coal carriages, without food or water, and we traveled through frost and freezing rain. We were tormented by thirst and fever. As the sick and exhausted prisoners fell to the floor and died, the carriages became less crowded. My legs and joints swelled so much that I could not stand up. After traveling for ten days, the handful of prisoners who survived arrived at the penal camp of Mittelbau-Dora in Nordhausen, which is near Weimar in Thuringia. Remarkably, not one of the brothers died during that nightmare journey.
No sooner did I start to recover from the journey than an epidemic of dysentery broke out in the camp, and some of the brothers, including me, got sick. We were told to refrain for a while from accepting the soups served in the camp and to eat only charred bread. I did so and soon recovered. In March 1945 we heard that the Scripture text for that year was Matthew 28:19: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of people of all the nations.” (American Standard Version) Evidently, the gates of the camps would soon open and the good news would continue to be preached! That filled us with joy and hope, since we had thought that World War II would climax in Armageddon. How wonderfully Jehovah strengthened us through those difficult times!
Liberation From the Camps
On April 1, 1945, Allied forces bombed the SS barracks and our nearby camp. Many were killed or wounded. The next day, we suffered a mass bombing, and during that attack, a powerful blast threw me into the air.
One of the brothers, Fritz Ulrich, came to my aid. He dug into the heap of rubble, hoping that I was still alive. Finally, he found me and dragged me out from under the debris. When I regained consciousness, I realized that I had extensive injuries to my face and body and could not hear anything. The noise of the explosion had damaged my eardrums. I had severe problems with my ears for many years before they finally healed.
Out of thousands of prisoners, only a few survived that bombing. Some of our brothers died, among them the beloved Gustaw Baumert. The wounds that I sustained caused an infection accompanied by a high fever. Soon, however, we were discovered and liberated by Allied troops. Meanwhile, decomposing bodies of dead or murdered prisoners caused an epidemic of typhus, which I also caught. Along with the rest of the sick, I was taken to a hospital. Despite the earnest efforts of doctors, only three of us survived. How thankful I was that Jehovah strengthened me to remain faithful during those difficult times! I was also grateful that, in my case, Jehovah saw fit to rescue me from the “deep shadow” of death.—Psalm 23:4.
Back Home at Last!
After the German surrender, I hoped to return home as soon as possible, but that proved to be more difficult than I had expected. I was spotted by some former prisoners who were members of Catholic Action. They shouted, “Kill him!” and threw me to the ground, trampling on me. A man came along and saved me from their cruelty, but it took me a long time to recover, since I was wounded and feeling weak from the typhus. Finally, however, I was able to go home. How happy I was to be reunited with my family! They were all thrilled to see me, since they thought I was dead.
We soon resumed the preaching work, and many sincere seekers of truth responded positively. I was entrusted with the task of providing congregations with Bible literature. Together with other brothers, I had the privilege of meeting in Weimar with representatives from the Germany branch office, and from there we brought to Poland the very first postwar issues of The Watchtower. They were immediately translated, stencils were prepared, and copies were printed. When our office in Lodz assumed full oversight of the work in Poland, Bible-based literature began to reach congregations regularly. I started serving as a special pioneer, or full-time evangelizer, covering the large territory of Silesia, much of which was by then part of Poland.
Soon, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses were again persecuted, this time by the newly installed Communist regime in Poland. Because of my Christian neutrality, I was sentenced in 1948 to two years in prison. While there, I was able to help many other prisoners to draw close to God. One of them took a stand for the truth and later dedicated himself to Jehovah and was baptized.
In 1952, I was again sent to prison, this time for allegedly spying for the United States! While waiting for my trial, I was kept in solitary confinement and interrogated day and night. However, Jehovah again delivered me from the hands of my persecutors, and in the years that followed, I suffered no more of such abuse.
What Helped Me to Endure
As I look back on all those years of trials and hardships, I can identify some major sources of encouragement. First of all, the strength to endure came from Jehovah and his Word, the Bible. Constant fervent supplications to “the God of all comfort” and daily study of his Word helped me and others to stay alive spiritually. Handwritten copies of The Watchtower also provided much-needed spiritual nourishment. In the concentration camps, I was greatly strengthened by caring fellow believers who were ready and willing to help.
Another blessing from Jehovah was my wife, Maria. We married in October 1950 and later had a daughter, Halina, who grew up to love and serve Jehovah. Maria and I were married for 35 years before she died after a long battle with illness. Her death filled me with grief and pain. Although for a while I felt “thrown down,” I was “not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:9) In those hard times, I found support in the company of my dear daughter, her husband, and her children—my grandchildren—all of whom are faithfully serving Jehovah.
Since 1990, I have been serving at the branch office in Poland. Daily association with a wonderful Bethel family is a great blessing. Sometimes my deteriorating health makes me feel like a weak eagle that can only glide. Nevertheless, I look to the future with confidence, and I “sing to Jehovah, for he has dealt rewardingly with me” down to this day. (Psalm 13:6) I am looking forward to the time when Jehovah, my Helper, will undo all the harm that has resulted from Satan’s oppressive rule.
c Song number 101 in the 1928 songbook entitled Songs of Praise to Jehovah, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the current songbook, it is number 56.
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I received this number and a purple triangle in the concentration camp
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With my wife, Maria, in 1980