Through Stormy Seas to Calm Waters

AS TOLD BY HANS STURM

FOR over 200 years, men of my family had been sailors. My ambition was to follow my father, as he had followed my grandfather, in a life at sea.

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, my father was conscripted into the German navy to sail on a minesweeper in the Baltic Sea. By 1916, Father was assigned to a merchant ship, and his vessel was used to import iron ore from Sweden until the end of hostilities. He died in 1919, when I was only eight years old, but my memories of him spurred me on.

To fulfill my desire to advance in my chosen profession, I had to serve at sea for four years, and 20 months of that time had to be on sailing ships. Only then could I enroll in a navigation college. So when I was 15, my mother took me from Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where I was born, to Hamburg, Germany. We knew that the Laeisz company owned a number of sailing ships, and we hoped that I could join one as a cadet. We could not afford to pay, but because of my father’s background, Laeisz took me on free of charge.

In 1927, I set sail on the Padua, * a four-masted steel vessel. It traveled from Hamburg to Chile to collect cargoes of nitrate. It had no motors—only sails. Those trips across the Atlantic were a thrilling experience for all of us young lads.

We often passed through stormy seas. At such times, the sails were taken in. What was it like to climb the rigging to bring in the sails when the ship was being tossed about? I have to admit that I was scared! But when the order was given, my mind went blank and I just climbed and did what I had been told to do.

Forces Beyond My Control

My mother was a Roman Catholic, but soon after my father’s death, she started to associate with the Ernste Bibelforscher, or Earnest Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known in Germany. In 1923 she was baptized. I had never found the Catholic religion particularly attractive, and what my mother said made sense. So with my younger sister, Margot, I used to accompany Mother to her Bible study meetings.

In 1929, I left the Padua to spend the next three years on different steamships. These took me to northern European ports and to the Mediterranean. On one voyage, I sailed around the world. I enjoyed this life and looked forward to enrolling at the navigation college in Stettin, as my father had done. In 1933, I started an 18-month course there to qualify as a ship’s mate. However, my plans were thwarted by forces beyond my control.

 Hitler had come to power that same year, and nationalism was sweeping Germany. Students delighted in crying out “Heil Hitler!” Yet I knew from what I had learned from my mother that I could never do that. I was called upon to give an explanation for my refusal, but it was not accepted. I was expelled from school. The principal was a kind man and gave me a letter stating that I had studied for a year. As I could not complete the course, I left without any qualifications. My world seemed to collapse around me.

Pressure Builds Up

Because of my neutral stand, I was now blacklisted. Not only was I unable to sail on any ship but I could not get any employment at all, so I stayed at home helping my mother. She eked out a living by cooking for people, and I gladly washed dishes and prepared vegetables for her. In 1935, four years before World War II, my life took another turn.

My uncle Oskar lived in Danzig (now Gdansk). When he learned of my difficulties, he invited me to work for him in his restaurant. My uncle and his wife, Rosl, were both Jehovah’s Witnesses. I gladly accepted their kind offer. While they could not pay me a regular wage, I felt more secure with them.

After World War I, Danzig had become a so-called free city, administering a large strip of land under the direction of the League of Nations. The idea was to give Poland access to the sea, but the arrangement effectively cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany. This situation was unacceptable to Hitler. In fact, it was his invasion of Poland and annexation of this land that precipitated World War II.

Sometime after my arrival, my uncle and aunt took care of a young man who had been in a concentration camp because he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He told me about the severe treatment he had received. A little later, my uncle and aunt were arrested for refusing to heil Hitler, but they were released. At this time I was also interrogated by the Gestapo, although they did not detain me.

Meanwhile, back in Stettin my mother received papers calling me up to join the German army. She immediately wrote a guarded letter, asking me to visit my aunt Naomi, who lived in northern Sweden. I realized what she meant—get out of the country!

Nazi Persecution

Things were becoming increasingly difficult. My uncle and aunt were rearrested. This time they were taken to the concentration camp at Stutthof, a two-hour bus ride from Danzig. They were held there until the end of the war, in 1945. Sadly, I learned that my uncle died on a ship taking inmates of the camp westward to escape the approaching Russian  armies. My aunt survived, however, and became a full-time evangelizer.

When my uncle and aunt were taken to Stutthof, my mother was arrested in Stettin, and she spent seven months in prison. My sister had married the son of a Witness couple, and she was in prison at the same time as my mother. Her husband and their daughter were sent to concentration camps. Her husband died there, and her daughter spent eight years in some of the most notorious camps, including Belsen.

On one occasion, for refusing to sew cartridge belts for the army, my niece and other Witnesses were forced to stand outside in flimsy clothing from six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock in the evening—and this was in November. Their daily rations were cut to a piece of bread and a jug of water, and they were given some hot soup every third day. They slept on a concrete floor with no bedding, not even straw. This lasted for six weeks, and the camp administrators were amazed that they all survived.

Escape—To What?

After the second arrest of my uncle and aunt, I knew that it was imperative that I leave Danzig before the Gestapo returned for me. My uncle had loaned me a small sum of money, and I eventually got passage on a Polish ship bound for Hull, on the east coast of England. On disembarking, I was given permission to stay three months, the usual period for a foreigner.

I immediately made my way to 34 Craven Terrace in London, the address of the branch office of the Watch Tower Society. There I met Pryce Hughes, the branch overseer at the time. He arranged for me to stay with a relative, Stanley Rogers, in Liverpool, on England’s west coast. Stanley was very kind to me.

In the spring of 1937, I was baptized in Liverpool, symbolizing my dedication to Jehovah. However, I still wanted a life at sea, so I enrolled in the Liverpool Navigation College and was able to obtain my second mate’s ticket after two months. My permit to stay in England was fast running out, so friends in Liverpool contacted their member of parliament, and my time was extended an additional three months—a needed breathing space.

Because of my experience on the sailing ship Padua, my seamanship instructor at the navigation college took a special interest in me. When he learned of my predicament, he recommended that I approach the Blue Funnel Line. There I met one of its directors, Lawrence Holt. Two years later when I again met him on one of the company’s ships in Liverpool, he asked me if I had got my first mate’s ticket. I told him that I needed just two more weeks of experience serving on the bridge of a ship, so he arranged for me to sail to Port Said, Egypt.

When I returned to Liverpool on July 7, 1939, I planned to sit for my first mate’s ticket, but this proved impossible, since war was imminent. Instead, I was sent to a ship in London. When governmental authorities found out, they immediately took me off all ships and wanted to jail me as an enemy alien because I was German. But Mr. Holt intervened, and I was put to work as a gardener in Liverpool. In May 1940, however, I was arrested, and in June, I was sent to Canada on the S.S. Ettrick.

On to Canada

The Ettrick carried some 5,000 Germans, half of them refugees and half of them prisoners of war. Among the refugees was Count von Lingen, as we knew him, grandson of the former German kaiser. All our mail was checked, so when the intelligence officer saw a letter from Von Lingen addressed to Queen Mary, the Queen Mother of England, with the opening salutation “Dear Aunt Mary,” he questioned it. However, Von Lingen was correct—the royal families of England and Germany were closely related. To me, this incident only served to highlight the stupidity and futility of war.

 Stanley Rogers, mentioned earlier, had served as a pilgrim (as traveling overseers of Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called) in Canada during the time between the two world wars. He got in touch with Witnesses there, and they contacted me and fellow Witness Tony Steffens, who had also been deported. Their letters and parcels did much to cheer us up. I was detained for two and a half years in eight different camps, where I spent most of my time making wooden tables and benches.

Back to England and Freedom!

As World War II drew to a close, I was returned to England, to a detention camp on the Isle of Man. There, John Barr, from the London branch office of the Watch Tower Society—now a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses—visited me, bringing along with him some local Witnesses. I was released in 1944 and rejoined Stanley. In the meantime, Stanley had married Nita Thomas and was living in Birkenhead, the port on the river Mersey opposite Liverpool. That was where I met Olive, Nita’s sister, and we were married the following year.

As soon as we got permission, Olive and I traveled to Germany to see my mother. It was heartbreaking to pass through the devastated cities I had known so well. I particularly wanted to go to Hamburg to visit the Laeisz office. What a surprise to meet Captain Piening there, the master of the Padua on my last two voyages in 1928 and 1929! During the war he had been in active service, and both his sons had been killed in the conflict. He was a broken man. I was greatly saddened by what I heard and saw.

The Blue Funnel Line continued to take an interest in me during my years in Canada, and they willingly took me back upon my return. In 1947, I at last qualified for my first mate’s ticket. The following year, Olive became a full-time evangelizer.

Finding My Purpose in Life

I went to sea again, and during my voyages I met a number of Witness missionaries in countries in the Far East. But a convention in London in 1947 left a lasting impression on my heart, as it helped me to determine that serving Jehovah full-time would now be my goal. My employers were disappointed. But in 1952 they kindly gave me part-time office work to enable me to join Olive in the full-time preaching activity. My deep-seated desire for a life at sea had been replaced by a more compelling desire.

Olive and I greatly enjoyed preaching together and were privileged to help many people come to an accurate knowledge of Bible truths. (2 Corinthians 3:2, 3) Over the years, I have enjoyed additional privileges at district conventions and circuit assemblies. Today I continue to serve as an elder on the Wirral Peninsula, in and around Birkenhead.

My dear Olive died in 1997. Looking back, I can see that in my earlier life, I survived many stormy seas. But eventually, under Jehovah’s loving direction, I sailed with a loving partner in calm waters for over 50 years in the greatest career of all—that of serving Jehovah.

[Footnote]

^ par. 6 In 1946 the Padua was handed over to the Soviet Union and renamed Kruzenshtern.

[Picture on page 18]

With my father and mother, in 1914

[Pictures on page 18, 19]

My German discharge book, which recorded my voyages on the four-masted “Padua”

[Picture on page 21]

With my wife, Olive, at the London convention in 1974