Grateful for Serving Jehovah, Even Under Trials
As told by Maatje de Jonge-van den Heuvel
I AM 98 years of age. For 70 of those years, I have had the pleasure of serving Jehovah—but not without having my faith tested. During World War II, I ended up in a concentration camp, where discouragement at one point led me to make a decision that I later regretted. Some years later, I faced another painful test. Even so, I am grateful to Jehovah that I have had the privilege of serving him, even under trials.
My life changed in October 1940. I lived in Hilversum, a town some 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The country was under Nazi rule. I had been married for five years to Jaap de Jonge, a caring husband, and we had a precious three-year-old daughter named Willy. We lived next to a family who was poor and struggling to feed eight children. Yet, they also provided lodging and meals for a permanent guest, a young man. ‘Why would they take on that extra burden?’ I wondered. When I delivered some food to them, I learned that the young man was a pioneer. He told me about God’s Kingdom and the blessings it will bring. I was deeply moved by what I learned, and I quickly accepted the truth. That very same year, I dedicated myself to Jehovah and was baptized. A year after my baptism, my husband also took his stand for the truth.
Although I had little Bible knowledge, I fully understood that by becoming a Witness, I became part of an organization that was banned. I also knew that numerous Witnesses had already been sent to prison because of preaching the Kingdom message. Still, I immediately set out preaching from house to house, and my husband and I opened our house as a place of lodging for pioneers and traveling overseers. Our home also became a storage place for Bible literature, which was delivered to us by brothers and sisters from Amsterdam. Their heavy transport bikes were loaded with books, which they covered with tarpaulin. What love and courage those couriers had! They risked their lives in behalf of their brothers.—1 John 3:16.
“Will You Be Back Soon, Mommy?”
About six months after my baptism, three police officers showed up at our door. They entered the house and searched it. Although they did not find the closet filled with literature, they did find some books hidden under our bed. Right away, they ordered me to follow them to the police station in Hilversum. When I embraced my daughter to say good-bye, Willy asked, “Will you be back soon, Mommy?” “Yes, darling,” I said, “Mommy will be home soon.” However, 18 difficult months would pass before I could hold her in my arms again.
You see, a police officer took me by train to Amsterdam for questioning. The interrogators tried to make me identify three brothers from Hilversum as Jehovah’s Witnesses. I said: “I don’t know them, except one. He is our milkman.” And that was true; that brother delivered milk. “But whether he is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” I added, “you should ask him, not me.” When I refused to say anything else, they struck me in the face and locked me up in a cell, where they left me for two months. When my husband found out where I was, he was able to bring me some clothes and food. Then, in August 1941, I was sent to Ravensbrück—a notorious concentration camp for women, some 50 miles (80 km) north of Berlin, Germany.
“Cheer Up, Dear”
On arrival, we were told that we could go home if we signed a declaration renouncing our faith. But, of course, I did not sign it. Instead, I had to hand over my belongings and strip naked in a washroom, where I met some Christian sisters from the Netherlands. We were given camp clothing with a purple triangle sewn on, a plate, a cup, and a spoon. The first night, we were kept in a transit barracks. There, for the first time since my arrest, I broke down in tears. “What is going to happen? How long will I stay here?” I sobbed. Frankly, at that point my relationship with Jehovah was not yet very strong, since I had known the truth for just a few months. I still had so much to learn. The next day at roll call, a Dutch sister must have noticed my sadness. She said: “Cheer up, dear, cheer up! What can harm us?”
After the roll call, we were taken to another barracks, where we were welcomed by several hundred Christian sisters from Germany and the Netherlands. Some of the German sisters had already lived in that barracks for over a year. Their company strengthened me—indeed, it cheered me up. I was also impressed that the barracks where our sisters were housed was so much cleaner than other barracks in the camp. Besides being clean, our barracks was also known as a place where no stealing, cursing, or fighting took place. In contrast with the cruel conditions we faced in the camp, our barracks was like a clean island surrounded by a filthy sea.
Daily Life in Camp
Camp life consisted of working a lot and eating very little. We had to get up at five o’clock in the morning, and shortly thereafter the roll call began. Guards made us stand outside for about an hour, rain or shine. At five o’clock in the afternoon, after a day of hard labor, the roll-call routine was repeated. Then we ate some soup and bread and went to sleep—exhausted.
Each day except Sunday, I was put to work on farms, where I cut wheat with a scythe, dredged ditches, and cleaned pigsties. Though the work was heavy and dirty, I could handle it from day to day because I was still young and quite strong. Also, by singing songs with a Bible message while working, I strengthened myself. However, every day I yearned for my husband and child.
We received very little food, but all of us sisters tried to save a piece of bread every day so that we would have something extra on Sundays, when we had an opportunity to get together to discuss Bible topics. We had no Bible literature, but I eagerly listened to the older, faithful German sisters as they considered spiritual matters. We even observed the Memorial of Christ’s death.
Distress, Regret, and Encouragement
At times, we were ordered to do work that directly supported the war effort of the Nazis. Because of our neutrality in political matters, all sisters refused to do that work, and I followed their courageous example. As punishment, we did not receive food for days and had to stand at roll calls for hours. Once, during wintertime, we were locked up for 40 days in a barracks without any heating.
As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we were told over and over again that we would be released and could go home if we signed a declaration renouncing our faith. After I had been living in Ravensbrück for over a year, I became very discouraged. The desire to see my husband and daughter became so strong that I went to the guards, asked for the form with the declaration that stated that I would no longer be a Bible Student, and signed it.
When the sisters learned what I had done, some began to avoid me. However, two elderly German sisters named Hedwig and Gertrud sought me out and reassured me of their love. While working together in the pigsties, they kindly explained to me the importance of keeping integrity to Jehovah and how we show our love for him by making no compromises. Their motherly concern and tender affection touched me deeply.* I knew that what I had done was wrong, and I wanted my declaration to be annulled. One evening I told a sister about my decision to ask for an annulment. A camp official must have overheard our conversation because the very same evening, I was suddenly discharged from the camp and sent on a train back to the Netherlands. One of the supervisors—I can still remember her face—said to me, “You are still a Bibelforscher (Bible Student), and you always will be.” I replied, “Yes, I will, Jehovah willing.” Still, I kept thinking, ‘How can I renounce that declaration?’
One of the points in the declaration stated: “I assure by this never again to be active for the International Bible Students Society.” I knew what to do! In January 1943, soon after I reached home, I again began to share in the preaching work. Of course, if I was caught a second time by the Nazi authorities while preaching about God’s Kingdom, my punishment would be severe.
To demonstrate further to Jehovah my heartfelt desire to be a loyal servant, my husband and I again opened our home as a lodging place for the couriers and the traveling overseers. How grateful I was for having received another opportunity to prove my love for Jehovah and his people!
A Painful Ordeal
A few months before the war ended, my husband and I faced a painful ordeal. In October 1944, our daughter suddenly fell ill. Willy had diphtheria. Her condition quickly deteriorated, and she died three days later. She was only seven years old.
Losing our only child was a devastating blow. Truly, the trials I went through in Ravensbrück were nothing compared to the pain I felt when we lost our child. However, in moments of distress, we always drew comfort from the words found at Psalm 16:8: “I have placed Jehovah in front of me constantly. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be made to totter.” My husband and I had firm confidence in Jehovah’s promise of the resurrection. We persevered in the truth and were always zealous preachers of the good news. Until my husband’s death in 1969, he truly helped me to serve Jehovah gratefully.
Blessings and Joys
During the past decades, one great source of joy has always been close association with full-time servants. As it had been during the war, our home was always open to host traveling overseers and their wives when they visited our congregation. One couple in the traveling work, Maarten and Nel Kaptein, even lived in our home for 13 years! When Nel became terminally ill, I had the privilege of caring for her in our home for three months until she died. The association with them and with the dear local brothers and sisters has helped me to enjoy the spiritual paradise in which we live right now.
One of the highlights of my life came in 1995—an invitation to attend a commemoration in Ravensbrück. There I met sisters with whom I had been in camp and whom I had not seen for over 50 years! Being together with them was an unforgettable and heartwarming experience and a fine opportunity to encourage one another to look forward to the day when our dead loved ones will live again.
The apostle Paul states at Romans 15:4 that “through our endurance and through the comfort from the Scriptures we might have hope.” I thank Jehovah for furnishing this hope, which has enabled me to serve him gratefully, even under trials.
During that time, in the absence of contact with headquarters, brothers handled matters relative to neutrality to the best of their ability. For that reason, there was some variation in the way individuals dealt with the issue.
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With Jaap, 1930
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Our daughter, Willy, at age seven
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In 1995, I attended a heartwarming reunion. I am in the first row, second from the left