Faithful and Fearless in the Face of Nazi Oppression
On June 17, 1946, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands sent a message of condolence to a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Amsterdam. Its purpose was to express her admiration for the family’s son, Jacob van Bennekom, who had been executed by the Nazis during World War II. Some years ago, the city council of Doetinchem, a town in the eastern part of the Netherlands, decided to name a street for Bernard Polman, also one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been executed during the war.
WHY did the Nazis turn against Jacob, Bernard, and others of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands during World War II? And what enabled these Witnesses to remain faithful under years of cruel persecution and ultimately gain the respect and admiration of their countrymen and the queen? To find out, let us review some events that led to a David-and-Goliath confrontation between a small band of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the giant Nazi war machine.
Banned—But More Active Than Ever
On May 10, 1940, the Nazi army swooped down on the Netherlands. Since the literature distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses exposed the evil actions of Nazism and advocated the Kingdom of God, the Nazis lost no time in trying to stop the activities of the Witnesses. Less than three weeks after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, they issued a secret edict banning Jehovah’s Witnesses. On March 10, 1941, a press report made the ban public, accusing the Witnesses of waging a campaign “against all state and church institutions.” As a result, the hunt for the Witnesses intensified.
Interestingly, though the infamous Gestapo, or secret police, kept all churches under surveillance, it persecuted only one Christian organization severely. “Persecution till the death,” points out Dutch historian Dr. Louis de Jong, “struck just one religious group—the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”—Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (The Kingdom of the Netherlands During the Second World War).
The Gestapo had the cooperation of the Dutch police in locating and arresting the Witnesses. In addition, a traveling overseer who had become fearful and had turned apostate provided the Nazis with information about his former fellow believers. By the end of April 1941, 113 Witnesses were under arrest. Did this onslaught bring the preaching activities to a halt?
The answer is found in Meldungen aus den Niederlanden (Reports From the Netherlands), a classified document that the German Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) prepared in April 1941. The report says of Jehovah’s Witnesses: “This forbidden sect carries on energetic activity in the entire land, holding illegal meetings and posting leaflets bearing such slogans as ‘Persecuting God’s Witnesses is a crime’ and ‘Jehovah will punish persecutors with eternal destruction.’” Two weeks later the same source reported that “in spite of the intensifying of strict measures taken by the Security Police against the activities of the Bible Students, their activities continue to increase.” Yes, despite the danger of arrest, the Witnesses continued their work, placing more than 350,000 pieces of literature with the public in 1941 alone!
What enabled this small but growing band of a few hundred Witnesses to have the courage to stand up to their fearsome enemies? Like the faithful prophet Isaiah of old, the Witnesses feared God, not man. Why? Because they took to heart Jehovah’s reassuring words to Isaiah: “I—I myself am the One that is comforting you people. Who are you that you should be afraid of a mortal man?”—Isaiah 51:12.
Fearlessness Demands Respect
By the end of 1941, the number of Witnesses who had been arrested had risen to 241. Few, however, gave in to fear of man. Willy Lages, a notorious member of the German secret police, is quoted as saying that “90 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to divulge anything, while just a very small percentage of other groups had the strength to remain silent.” An observation made by Dutch clergyman Johannes J. Buskes, who was imprisoned with some of the Witnesses, confirms Lages’ statement. In 1951, Buskes wrote:
“Back then, I developed great respect for them because of their trust and the power of their faith. I will never forget the young man—he could not have been older than 19—who had distributed pamphlets that predicted the downfall of Hitler and the Third Reich. . . . He could have been released within half a year if he would promise to desist from such activity. This he very emphatically refused to do, and he was sentenced to indefinite forced labor in Germany. We well knew what that meant. The next morning when he was taken away and we took leave of him, I told him we would think of him and pray for him. His only answer was: ‘Do not worry about me. God’s Kingdom will surely come.’ A thing like that you do not forget, even if you have every possible objection against the teachings of these Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Despite cruel opposition, the number of Witnesses kept increasing. While there were some 300 shortly before the second world war, the number had risen to 1,379 in 1943. Sadly, by the end of that same year, 54 of the more than 350 Witnesses who had been arrested had died in different concentration camps. As of 1944, there were 141 Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Netherlands who were still held in various concentration camps.
The Final Year of Nazi Persecution
After D day, June 6, 1944, the persecution of the Witnesses entered its final year. Militarily, the Nazis and their collaborators had their backs to the wall. One would think that in this situation the Nazis would give up running down innocent Christians. Yet, during that year, another 48 Witnesses were arrested, and 68 more of the imprisoned Witnesses perished. One of them was Jacob van Bennekom, mentioned earlier.
Eighteen-year-old Jacob was among the 580 persons who were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1941. Soon after that he quit a good job because it required that he compromise his Christian neutrality. He took a job as a messenger and began serving as a full-time minister. While transporting Bible literature, he was caught and arrested. In August 1944, 21-year-old Jacob wrote his family from a prison in the city of Rotterdam:
“I am in very good condition and full of joy. . . . I have by now been interrogated four times. The first two times were quite severe, and I was badly beaten, but by the strength and the undeserved kindness of the Lord, I have till now been able not to divulge anything. . . . I have already been able to give talks here, six in all, with a total of 102 listening. Some of these show good interest and have promised that as soon as they are set free, they will continue with this.”
On September 14, 1944, Jacob was taken to a concentration camp in the Dutch city of Amersfoort. Even there he kept on preaching. How? A fellow prisoner recalled: “Prisoners salvaged cigarette butts that the guards had thrown away and used pages of a Bible as cigarette paper. Sometimes Jacob succeeded in reading a few words from a Bible page that was about to be used to roll a cigarette. Right away, he would use these words as a basis for preaching to us. Before long, we nicknamed Jacob ‘the Bible Man.’”
In October 1944, Jacob was among a large group of prisoners ordered to dig tank traps. Jacob refused to do the work because his conscience would not allow him to support the war effort. Though constantly threatened by the guards, he did not give in. On October 13 an officer took him from solitary confinement back to the work site. Again, Jacob stood his ground. Finally, Jacob was ordered to dig his own grave and was shot to death.
The Hunt for Witnesses Continues
The courageous stand of Jacob and others enraged the Nazis and triggered another hunt for the Witnesses. One of their targets was 18-year-old Evert Kettelarij. At first, Evert was able to get away and go into hiding, but later he was apprehended and severely beaten to make him give information about other Witnesses. He refused and was sent to Germany to do forced labor.
That same month, October 1944, the police went after Evert’s brother-in-law, Bernard Luimes. When they found him, he was in the company of two other Witnesses—Antonie Rehmeijer and Albertus Bos. Albertus had already spent 14 months in a concentration camp. Yet, upon his release, he zealously resumed the preaching work. First the three men were mercilessly beaten by the Nazis, and then they were shot to death. It was only after the end of the war that their bodies were located and buried anew. Shortly after the war, several local newspapers reported this execution. One of the newspapers wrote that the three Witnesses had consistently refused to perform any service for the Nazis that was contrary to God’s law and added that “for this, they had to pay with their lives.”
Meanwhile, on November 10, 1944, Bernard Polman, mentioned earlier, was arrested and sent off to work on a military project. He was the only Witness among the forced laborers and the only one who refused to do this work. The guards tried different tactics to get him to compromise. He was not given any food. He was also cruelly beaten with clubs, a spade, and the butt of a rifle. In addition, he was forced to wade through knee-deep cold water, and then he was shut up in a damp basement, where he had to spend the night in his wet clothes. Still, Bernard did not give in.
During that time, two of Bernard’s sisters, who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses, were allowed to visit him. They urged him to change his mind, but that did not sway him in any way. When they asked Bernard if they could do something for him, he suggested that they go home and study the Bible. His persecutors then allowed his pregnant wife to visit him, hoping that she would break his resistance. But her presence and courageous words only served to strengthen Bernard’s resolve to remain faithful to God. On November 17, 1944, Bernard was shot by five of his tormentors while all other forced laborers looked on. Even after Bernard was dead, his body riddled with bullets, the officer in charge became so enraged that he pulled out his revolver and shot Bernard through both his eyes.
Although this brutal treatment shocked the Witnesses who learned about the execution, they remained faithful and fearless and kept up their Christian activity. One small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, located near the area where Bernard was killed, reported shortly after the execution: “This month, in spite of much foul weather and the difficulties that Satan has put on our path, we have been able to gain much ground. The number of hours spent in the field went up from 429 to 765. . . . While preaching, one brother met a man to whom he was able to give a good witness. The man asked if this was the same faith as that of the man who had been shot. Upon hearing that it was, the man exclaimed: ‘What a man, what a faith! That’s what I call a hero in faith!’”
Remembered by Jehovah
In May 1945 the Nazis were defeated and driven from the Netherlands. Despite the relentless persecution during the war, the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses had increased from a few hundred to over 2,000. Speaking about these wartime Witnesses, historian Dr. de Jong acknowledges: “The very great majority of them refused to deny their faith in spite of threats and torture.”
It is with good reason, therefore, that some secular authorities have remembered Jehovah’s Witnesses for the courageous stand they took in the face of Nazi rule. More important, however, the sterling record of these wartime Witnesses will be remembered by Jehovah and Jesus. (Hebrews 6:10) During the approaching Thousand Year Reign of Jesus Christ, these faithful and fearless Witnesses who gave their lives in God’s service will be raised from the memorial tombs, with prospects of everlasting life in a paradise earth!—John 5:28, 29.
[Picture on page 24]
Jacob van Bennekom
[Picture on page 26]
Newspaper clipping on edict banning Jehovah’s Witnesses
[Pictures on page 27]
Right: Bernard Luimes; below: Albertus Bos (left) and Antonie Rehmeijer; bottom: Society’s office in Heemstede