Man Does Not Live on Bread Alone—How I Survived Nazi Prison Camps
As told by Joseph Hisiger
“What are you reading?” I asked a fellow prisoner. “The Bible,” he said, adding, “I’ll swap it for your week’s ration of bread.”
I WAS born on March 1, 1914, in Moselle, then part of Germany. After World War I ended in 1918, Moselle was restored to France. In 1940, it was again annexed by Germany. Then, as World War II ended in 1945, it became part of France again. On each occasion, my nationality changed, so I learned to speak both French and German.
My parents were staunch Catholics. Every night before going to bed, our family knelt down to pray. On Sundays and on national holidays, we went to church. I took my religion seriously and belonged to a Catholic study group.
Becoming Engrossed in Our Work
In 1935 my parents were visited by two of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The discussion revolved around the involvement of religion in the first world war. After that, my interest in the Bible grew, and in 1936, I asked the priest if I could obtain one. He said I would have to study theology to understand it. This, however, only increased my hunger for a Bible and the desire to read it.
In January 1937 a work colleague, Albin Relewicz, who was a Witness, began talking to me about what the Bible teaches. “I suppose you have one?” I asked. He did, and soon thereafter, he showed me God’s name, Jehovah, in a copy of the German Elberfelder version, which he gave me. I became an avid reader of it and began attending meetings of the Witnesses in the nearby town of Thionville.
In August 1937, I accompanied Albin to an international assembly of the Witnesses in Paris. There I began preaching from door to door. Not long afterward, I was baptized, and early in 1939, I became a pioneer, a full-time Christian minister. I was assigned to the city of Metz. Then in July, I received an invitation to work at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Paris.
My service at the branch was short-lived, for in August 1939, I was called up for service in the French army. I could not conscientiously take part in the war, so I was sentenced to prison. The following May while I was in prison, Germany launched a lightning attack on France. By June, France was conquered, and once again I was a German. So in July 1940 when I was released from prison, I returned to live with my parents.
Living as we were under the Nazi regime, we met for Bible study in secret. We received The Watchtower through Maryse Anasiak, a courageous Christian woman whom I used to meet in a baker’s shop owned by a Witness. Up to 1941, I was able to avoid the difficulties encountered by the Witnesses in Germany.
Then one day the Gestapo paid me a visit. After the officer made it clear that the Witnesses had been banned, he asked me if I intended to remain one. When I replied, “Yes,” he told me to follow him. Overcome with emotion, my mother fainted. On seeing this, the Gestapo officer told me to stay and take care of her.
At the factory where I worked, I did not greet the manager with a “Heil Hitler!” I also refused to become a member of the Nazi party. So the following day, I was arrested by the Gestapo. During the interrogations, I refused to reveal the names of fellow Witnesses. My interrogator struck me violently on the head with the butt of a revolver, and I lost consciousness. On September 11, 1942, the Sondergericht (Special Court) at Metz sentenced me to three years in prison “for carrying out propaganda on behalf of the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Bible Students.”
Two weeks later, I left the Metz prison on a journey that in stages took me to a forced-labor camp at Zweibrücken. There I worked on a railway maintenance crew. We changed heavy rails, bolting them down, and respread stones on the railway track. All we received for nourishment was a mug of coffee and about two ounces [75 g] of bread in the morning and a bowl of soup at midday and in the evening. Then I was transferred to a prison in a nearby town, where I worked in a cobbler’s shop. After several months, I was sent back to Zweibrücken, this time to work in the fields.
Living but Not on Bread Alone
In the prison, my cell mate was a young man from the Netherlands. By learning to speak his language to some extent, I was able to tell him about my beliefs. He made good spiritual progress, to the point that he asked me to baptize him in the river. When he came out of the water, he hugged me and said, “Joseph, I am your brother!” When I was sent back to work on the railways, we were separated.
This time the prisoner I shared a cell with was a German. One evening he began reading a little book—a Bible! It was then that he offered me the Bible for a week’s bread allotment. “Deal!” I replied. Although a week’s ration of bread was a real sacrifice, I never regretted it. I began to learn the meaning of Jesus’ words: “Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth.”—Matthew 4:4.
Now that I had a Bible, the challenge was to keep it. Unlike other prisoners, the Witnesses were not allowed to have a Bible. So I read it in secret at night, hiding under the covers. During the day, I slipped it under my shirt and carried it with me. I would not leave it in the cell because of searches.
One day during roll call, I realized I had forgotten my Bible. That evening I hurried back to my cell, but the Bible was gone. After praying to God, I went to see the guard, explaining that someone had taken a book of mine and I wanted it back. He was not paying much attention, so I was able to recover my Bible. I thanked Jehovah from the bottom of my heart!
On another occasion, I was sent to the showers. When taking off my dirty clothes, I discreetly let the Bible drop to the floor. When the guard was not looking, I pushed it toward the shower with my foot. There I hid it off to the side while I washed. When I came out of the shower, I repeated the process and slid the Bible over to the pile of clean clothes.
The Ups and Downs of Captivity
One morning in 1943 while the prisoners lined up in the courtyard, I saw Albin! He too had been arrested. He glanced at me knowingly and put his hand on his heart in symbol of brotherhood. Then he indicated by gestures that he would write me. The next day when he passed by, he dropped a piece of paper. But the guard saw it, and we both received two weeks’ solitary confinement. We had only stale bread and water and slept on wooden planks without blankets.
After that, I was transferred to the prison in Siegburg, where I worked in a metal shop. The work was exhausting, and the food rations were insufficient. At night I dreamed of delicacies—cakes and fruits—and woke up with a growling stomach and a dry throat. I weighed less than a hundred pounds. Each day, though, I read my small Bible and found a reason to live.
Freedom at Last!
Suddenly one morning in April 1945, the guards fled the prison, leaving the gates wide open. I was free! But first, I had to spend some time recovering in a hospital. By the end of May, I arrived at the house of my parents. They had given up hope that I was still alive. On seeing me, Mother burst into tears of joy. Sadly, my parents died shortly afterward.
I renewed my contact with the Thionville Congregation. What a joy to see my spiritual family again! It was a delight to learn how faithful they had been despite many trials. My dear friend Albin had died at Regensburg, in Germany. Later, I learned that my cousin Jean Hisiger had become a Witness and was executed as a conscientious objector. Jean Queyroi, with whom I had worked at the Paris branch office, had endured five years in a German work camp.a
I quickly got back to preaching in the town of Metz. At that time, I often met the Minzani family. Their daughter, Tina, was baptized on November 2, 1946. She was zealous in the ministry, and I found her charming. We were married on December 13, 1947. In September 1967, Tina took up the full-time preaching work, and she remained in that service until her death in June 2003, at the age of 98. I miss Tina terribly.
Today, at well over 90 years of age, I realize that God’s Word has always given me strength to face tests and overcome them. I have at times had an empty stomach, but I have always fed my mind and heart on God’s Word. And Jehovah has made me strong. His “own saying has preserved me alive.”—Psalm 119:50.
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My dear friend Albin Relewicz
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The Bible that cost me one week’s bread ration
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With my fiancée, Tina, in 1946
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Jean Queyroi with his wife, Titica