Life Story

Our Fight to Stay Spiritually Strong

As told by Rolf Brüggemeier

The first letter I received after being imprisoned came from a friend. He informed me that my mother and my younger brothers​—Peter, Jochen, and Manfred—​had also been arrested. That left our two little sisters without parents or siblings. Why did the East German authorities persecute our family? What helped us to stay spiritually strong?

WORLD WAR II shattered our peaceful childhood; we learned firsthand the cruelty of war. Father joined the German army and died as a prisoner of war. This meant that Mother, whose name was Berta, had to care for six children from one to 16 years of age.

The church she attended made Mother feel totally disappointed with religion, causing her not to want to hear anything more about God. But one day in 1949, Ilse Fuchs, a discreet little woman, came to our door to talk about God’s Kingdom. Her questions and reasoning piqued Mother’s curiosity. A study of the Bible gave Mother hope.

We boys, however, were skeptical at first. The Nazis and then the Communists had made great promises, only to disappoint us. Although we were suspicious of any new promises, we were impressed when we got to know some Witnesses who had been in concentration camps for refusing to support the war effort. The following year, Mother, Peter, and I were baptized.

Our younger brother Manfred was also baptized, but apparently Bible truth had not  become rooted in his heart. When the Communists banned our work in 1950 and he was pressured by the secret police​—the notorious Stasi—​he revealed where our meetings were held. That is what eventually led to the arrest of my mother and my other brothers.

Serving Under Ban

Because of the ban, we had to smuggle Bible literature into East Germany. As a courier, I picked up supplies in the western section of Berlin, where our literature was not banned, and transported them across the border. I escaped the police more than once, but in November 1950, I was arrested.

The Stasi put me in a windowless underground cell. During the day I was not allowed to sleep, and at night I was questioned and at times beaten. I had no contact with my family until March 1951 when Mother, Peter, and Jochen came to my court trial. I received a six-year sentence.

Peter, Jochen, and Mother were arrested six days after my trial. Afterward, a fellow believer cared for my sister Hannelore, who was 11, and an aunt took in Sabine, who was 7. The Stasi guards treated Mother and my brothers as dangerous criminals, even taking away their shoelaces. They had to remain standing throughout the interrogations. They too were sentenced to six years each.

In 1953, some other Witness prisoners and I were assigned to build a military airfield, which we refused to do. The authorities punished us with 21 days of isolation, which meant no work, no letters, and little food. Some Christian sisters saved bread from their own meager rations and smuggled it to us. This led to my knowing Anni, one of those sisters, and marrying her after she and I were released in 1956 and 1957 respectively. A year after we were married, our daughter, Ruth, was born. Peter, Jochen, and Hannelore each got married about the same time.

About three years after my release, I was arrested again. A Stasi officer tried to persuade me to become an informer. He said: “Dear Mr. Brüggemeier, please be reasonable. You know what it means to be in prison, and we do not want you to go through all of that again. You can remain a Witness, continue your studies, and talk about the Bible as you please. We just want to be kept up-to-date. Think about your wife and your little daughter.” That last statement cut me to the quick. Yet, I knew that while I was in  prison, Jehovah would care for my family better than I could myself, and he did!

The authorities tried to force Anni to work full-time and allow other people to look after Ruth during the week. Anni resisted and worked at night so that she could care for Ruth during the day. Our spiritual brothers were most caring and gave my wife so many things that she was able to share some with others. Meanwhile, I spent almost six more years behind prison bars.

How We Maintained Faith While in Prison

Upon my return to prison, my Witness cell mates were eager to know what things had recently been published. How happy I was that I had carefully studied the Watchtower magazine and had regularly attended the meetings, so that I could be a source of spiritual encouragement to them!

When we asked the guards for a Bible, they replied: “Giving Jehovah’s Witnesses a Bible is as dangerous as giving an imprisoned burglar tools to break out.” Each day, the brothers taking the lead would choose a Bible text to consider. During our daily half-hour walks in the yard, we were not as interested in exercise and fresh air as in benefiting from the day’s Bible text. Although we had to stay 15 feet [5 m] apart and were not allowed to talk, we still found ways to pass the text on. Back in our cells, we put together what each had managed to hear, and then we had our daily Bible discussion.

Eventually, an informer gave us away, and I was put in solitary confinement. What a blessing it was that by then I had learned several hundred scriptures by heart! I could fill those empty days by meditating on a variety of Bible subjects. Then I was transferred to another prison, where a guard put me in a cell with two other Witnesses and​—joy of joys—​gave us a Bible. After six months of solitary confinement, I appreciated being able to discuss Bible subjects with fellow believers once again.

My brother Peter describes what helped him endure in another prison: “I imagined life in the new world and kept my mind occupied with Bible thoughts. We Witnesses strengthened one another by asking Bible questions or giving tests on the Scriptures. Life was not easy. Sometimes there were 11 of us confined in a space of about 130 square feet [12 sq m]. There we had to do everything​—eat, sleep, wash, even relieve ourselves. Nerves wore thin.”

Jochen, one of my other brothers, recalls his prison experiences: “I sang the songs I could remember from our songbook. Every day I meditated on a scripture I had memorized. After my release, I continued with a good routine of spiritual instruction. Each day, I read the day’s Bible text with my family. We also prepared for all the meetings.”

Mother’s Release From Prison

After a little more than two years of imprisonment, Mother was released. She used her freedom to study the Bible with Hannelore and Sabine, helping them to lay a good foundation for their faith. She also taught them to handle issues that came up at school because of their faith in God. Hannelore notes: “We did not mind the consequences because at home we encouraged one another. Our strong family ties made up for any trouble we experienced.”

Hannelore continues: “We also supplied spiritual food to our brothers in prison. We hand copied in small letters on waxed paper a complete issue of The Watchtower. Then we wrapped the pages in waterproof paper and hid them among some prunes that we sent in the monthly parcel. What a joy it was to receive word that the prunes were ‘so tasty.’ We were so absorbed in our work that I must say it was a wonderful time.”

 Living Under Ban

Peter describes what it was like to live for decades under ban in East Germany: “We met in private homes in small groups, arriving and leaving at intervals. At each meeting, we made arrangements for the next time. We did this by means of signals and written notes because of the constant threat of eavesdropping by the Stasi.”

Hannelore explains: “Sometimes we received tape recordings of assembly programs. This always made for a happy meeting. Our little group came together to listen for several hours to Bible instruction. Although we could not see the speakers, we followed the program carefully and took notes.”

Says Peter: “Our Christian brothers in other countries went out of their way to provide us with Bible literature. The last decade or so before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, they produced special small-size publications for us. Some risked their cars, their money, and even their freedom to transport spiritual food into East Germany. One night a couple whom we were waiting for did not show up. The police had found the literature and confiscated their car. Despite the dangers, we never considered stopping the work in order to have a calmer life.”

Manfred, my younger brother who betrayed us back in 1950, describes what helped him to regain and maintain his faith: “After I was held in detention for a few months, I moved to West Germany and left the way of Bible truth. I returned to East Germany in 1954 and got married the following year. Soon my wife embraced Bible truth, and in 1957 she was baptized. In time, my conscience started to bother me, and with help from my wife, I returned to the congregation.

“Christian brothers who knew me before I left the truth accepted me back in a loving way, as if nothing had happened. To be greeted with a warm smile and an embrace is wonderful. I am so happy to be reconciled to Jehovah and to my brothers.”

The Spiritual Fight Continues

Everyone in our family has had to put up a hard fight for the faith. “Today,” my brother Peter points out, “as never before, we are surrounded by many distractions and material enticements. Under ban, we were content with what we had. For example, none of us wanted to be in another study group simply for personal reasons, and no one complained that the meetings were too far away or too late. We were all happy to come together, even if some of us had to wait until 11:00 p.m. for our turn to leave the meeting place.”

In 1959, Mother decided to move to West Germany with Sabine, who was then 16.  Because they wanted to serve where there was a greater need for Kingdom publishers, they were directed by the branch office to Ellwangen, Baden-Württemberg. Mother’s zeal despite her poor health motivated Sabine to start pioneering when she was 18. When Sabine got married, Mother​—at the age of 58—​learned to drive in order to increase her share in the preaching work. She cherished this service until her death in 1974.

As for me, after serving almost six years of my second prison term, I was deported in 1965 to West Germany, without my family’s knowledge. In time, however, I was joined by my wife, Anni, and our daughter, Ruth. I asked the branch office if we could serve where there was a greater need for publishers, so they asked us to go to Nördlingen, Bavaria. There Ruth and her brother, Johannes, grew up. Anni took up the pioneer ministry. Her good example moved Ruth to start pioneering right after school. Both our children married pioneers. Now they have families, and we are blessed with six lovely grandchildren.

In 1987, I seized the opportunity for early retirement and joined Anni in the pioneer ministry. Three years later, I was invited to the branch office in Selters to help enlarge the facilities. After that, we helped construct the first Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in what used to be East Germany, in Glauchau, where we later served as caretakers. For health reasons, we moved back to be with our daughter in the Nördlingen Congregation, where we serve as pioneers.

To my great joy, all my brothers and sisters and most of our family members continue serving our wonderful God, Jehovah. Over the years, we have learned that as long as we stay spiritually strong, we can experience the truth of the words of Psalm 126:3: “Jehovah has done a great thing in what he has done with us. We have become joyful.”

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On our wedding day, 1957

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With my family in 1948: (front, left to right) Manfred, Berta, Sabine, Hannelore, Peter; (back, left to right) me and Jochen

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A small-size book used during the ban and “Stasi” eavesdropping equipment

[Credit Line]

Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte NORMANNENSTRASSE

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With my siblings: (front, left to right) Hannelore and Sabine; (back, left to right) me, Jochen, Peter, and Manfred