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Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Under the Japanese Yoke

Under the Japanese Yoke

In early 1942, the Japanese military juggernaut swept through Indonesia, seizing it with a viselike grip. Many brothers were forced to do hard manual labor—building roads or clearing ditches. Others were interned in squalid prison camps and tortured for refusing to support the war. At least three brothers died in prison.

Johanna Harp, her two daughters, and Beth Godenze, a family friend (center)

One Dutch sister, Johanna Harp, who lived in a remote mountain village in East Java, was able to avoid the camps for the first two years of the war. She and  her three teenage children used their freedom to translate the book Salvation and issues of The Watchtower from English into Dutch. * The translated publications were then copied and smuggled to Witnesses throughout Java.

The few Witnesses who still had their freedom met in small groups and preached cautiously. “I was always on the lookout to talk informally about the truth,” said Josephine Elias (formerly Tan). “I carried a chessboard when visiting interested people at their homes so that others would think I was merely playing chess.” Felix Tan and his wife, Bola, preached from door to door, pretending to sell soap. “We were often followed by spies of the Kempeitai, the dreaded Japanese military police,” said Felix. “To avoid suspicion, we visited our Bible students at varying times. Six of our students progressed very well and were baptized during the war.”

Dissent in Jakarta

As the brothers adjusted to the wartime hardships, they soon faced another serious test. The Japanese authorities ordered all foreigners (including Chinese-Indonesians) to register and to carry an identity card bearing an oath of allegiance to the Japanese Empire. Many brothers wondered, ‘Should we register and sign the identity card, or should we refuse?’

Josephine Elias with her brother Felix

Felix Tan explained: “The brothers in Jakarta urged those of us in Sukabumi to refuse to sign the identity card. But we asked the authorities if we could change the wording on the card from ‘the undersigned have  sworn allegiance to’ to ‘the undersigned will not impede’ the Japanese army. Surprisingly, they agreed, so we all obtained cards. When the brothers in Jakarta heard about our decision, they called us apostates and cut us off.”

Sadly, most of the hard-liners in Jakarta were arrested and renounced the truth. One brother who refused to compromise ended up in prison with André Elias. “I reasoned with him on the registration issue and helped him to get a more balanced view,” said André. “He humbly asked forgiveness for cutting us off. We then had a grand time building each other up, but tragically, he died because of the harsh prison conditions.”


When the war ended in 1945, the brothers and sisters were eager to press on with the preaching work. One brother who had been imprisoned and tortured wrote to the branch office in Australia: “Here I am  again after four long weary years, unbroken and still of the same mind. During all my troubles, I never forgot about the brothers. Can you please send me some books?”

The longed-for literature soon arrived in the country, a trickle at first but then larger shipments. A group of ten publishers in Jakarta resumed translating publications into Indonesian.

On August 17, 1945, the leaders of Indonesia’s independence movement proclaimed Indonesia an independent republic, triggering a four-year revolution against Dutch colonial rule. Tens of thousands of people died in the ensuing chaos, and more than seven million people were displaced.

Throughout the revolution the brothers kept preaching from house to house. “Patriots tried to force us to shout their war cry ‘Merdeka,’ meaning ‘Freedom,’” said Josephine Elias. “But we told them we were neutral in such political affairs.” In 1949, the Dutch handed over sovereignty of their longtime colony to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia (now the Republic of Indonesia). *

By 1950, the brothers in Indonesia had endured nearly ten years of conflict. But a huge work lay ahead of them. How could they spread the good news to Indonesia’s teeming millions? From a human standpoint, the task seemed impossible! Yet, in full faith the brothers pressed ahead, confident that Jehovah would “send out workers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:38) And that is what Jehovah did.

^ par. 2 Sister Harp’s youngest daughter, Hermine (Mimi), attended Gilead school after the war and returned to Indonesia as a missionary.

^ par. 3 The Dutch continued to administer West Papua (then West New Guinea) until 1962.