What Can I Repay to Jehovah?
As told by Ruth Danner
With quite a touch of humor, Mother used to say that 1933 was a year of catastrophes: Hitler came into power, the pope declared it a Holy Year, and I was born.
MY PARENTS lived in the town of Yutz, in Lorraine, a historic region of France close to the border with Germany. In 1921, Mother, a devout Catholic, married Father, a Protestant. My older sister, Helen, was born in 1922, and my parents had her baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church.
One day in 1925, Father received a German copy of the book The Harp of God. Reading that book convinced him that he had found the truth. He wrote to the publishers, who put him in contact with the Bibelforscher, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known in Germany. Immediately, Father set about preaching what he had discovered. This was not to Mother’s liking. “Do whatever you want,” she would exclaim in her colorful German, “but don’t go with those Bibelforscher!” However, Father had made up his mind, and in 1927 he was baptized as one of them.
As a result, my maternal grandmother began pushing Mother to get a divorce. One day at Mass, the priest warned his parishioners to “keep away from the false prophet Danner.” On returning home from that Mass, my grandmother threw a flowerpot at Father from an upper story of our house. The heavy missile struck him on the shoulder, just missing his head. This incident made Mother think, ‘A religion that turns people into murderers cannot be good.’ She began reading the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Soon, she was convinced that she had found the truth, and she was baptized in 1929.
My parents did their utmost to make Jehovah real to my sister and me. They read us Bible stories and then asked us why Bible characters acted the way they did. During that time, Father refused to work nights or evening shifts, even though his decision meant a serious loss of income for the family. He wanted time for Christian meetings, the ministry, and study sessions with his children.
Storm Clouds Gather
My parents regularly showed hospitality to traveling overseers and Bethelites from Switzerland and France, who told us of the difficulties our fellow believers were facing in Germany, just a few miles from our home. The Nazi government was deporting Jehovah’s Witnesses to concentration camps and taking children away from their Witness parents.
Helen and I had been prepared to face the ordeals ahead of us. Our parents helped us to memorize Bible verses that would give us guidance. They might say: “If you do not know what to do, think of Proverbs 3:5, 6. If you are afraid of trials at school, use 1 Corinthians 10:13. If you are separated from us, recite Proverbs 18:10.” I learned Psalms 23 and 91 by heart and came to trust that Jehovah would always protect me.
In 1940, Nazi Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine, and the new regime required all adults to join the Nazi party. Father refused, and the Gestapo threatened to arrest him. When Mother would not make military uniforms, the Gestapo began threatening her as well.
School became a nightmare for me. Each day, our class began with a prayer for Hitler, the “Heil Hitler” salute, and the national anthem with right arm outstretched. Rather than telling me not to salute Hitler, my parents helped me train my conscience. So on my own, I decided not to give the Nazi salute. The teachers slapped me and threatened to expel me from school. Once when I was seven years old, I had to stand before all 12 teachers in the school. They tried to force me to give the Hitler salute. Nonetheless, I stood firm with Jehovah’s help.
One teacher began playing on my feelings. She told me that I was a good student, that she liked me very much, and that she would regret my being expelled from school. She said: “You don’t have to stretch out your arm. Just raise it a little. And you don’t have to say, ‘Heil Hitler!’ Just move your lips and pretend.”
When I told Mother what my teacher was doing, she reminded me of the Biblical account of the three young Hebrews before the image set up by the king of Babylon. “What were they supposed to do?” she asked. “Bow down,” I replied. “If at the moment they were to bow before the image they had bent over to tie their shoelaces, would that have been right? You decide; do what you think is right.” Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I decided to give my allegiance only to Jehovah.—Dan. 3:1, 13-18.
The teachers expelled me from school a number of times and threatened to take me away from my parents. I felt very anxious, but my parents kept encouraging me. When I left home for school, Mother said a prayer with me, putting me under Jehovah’s protection. I knew that he would strengthen me to stand firm for the truth. (2 Cor. 4:7) Father told me that if the pressure became too great, I should not be afraid to come home. “We love you. You will always be our daughter,” he said. “The issue is between you and Jehovah.” Those words strengthened my desire to keep integrity.—Job 27:5.
The Gestapo frequently came to our home to search for Witness publications and to question my parents. They would take my mother away for hours and would pick up my father and sister from their places of work. I never knew if Mother would be home when I returned from school. Sometimes a neighbor would tell me: “They have taken your mother away.” I would then hide in the house, asking myself: ‘Are they torturing her? Will I ever see her again?’
On January 28, 1943, the Gestapo woke us up at half past three in the morning. They said that if my parents and my sister and I joined the Nazi party, we would not be deported. We were given three hours to get ready. Mother had prepared for this situation and had our knapsacks packed with a change of clothes and a Bible, so we used the time to pray and encourage one another. Father reminded us that ‘nothing could separate us from God’s love.’—Rom. 8:35-39.
The Gestapo did come back. I will never forget elderly Sister Anglade as she waved good-bye to us with tears in her eyes. The Gestapo drove us to the train station at Metz. After three days on a train, we arrived at Kochlowice, a satellite camp of the Auschwitz complex in Poland. Two months later, we were transferred to Gliwice, a convent that had been transformed into a work camp. The Nazis told us that if each of us signed a certificate renouncing our faith, they would release us and return our possessions. Father and Mother refused, and our captors said, “You will never return home.”
In June we were transferred to Swietochlowice, where I began to have headaches that still bother me. I developed infections in my fingers, and a doctor removed several of my fingernails without anesthetic. On a lighter side, my job of running errands for the guards often took me to a bakery. A lady there would give me something to eat.
Until then, we had stayed as a family separate from other prisoners. In October 1943 we were sent to a camp at Ząbkowice. We slept on bunk beds in an attic with about 60 other men, women, and children. The SS saw to it that the food we got was foul and almost inedible.
Despite the hardship, we never gave up hope. We had read in The Watchtower of the great preaching work to be done after the war. So we knew why we were suffering and that soon our hardship would come to an end.
Reports of advancing Allied armies told us that the Nazis were losing the war. Early in 1945, the SS decided to abandon our camp. On February 19, we began a forced march of almost 150 miles [240 km]. After four weeks, we arrived in Steinfels, Germany, where the guards herded the prisoners into a mine. Many thought that we would be killed. But that day the Allies arrived, the SS fled, and our ordeal was over.
Reaching My Goals
On May 5, 1945, after nearly two and a half years, we arrived home in Yutz, dirty and full of lice. We had not changed clothes since February, so we decided to burn those old garments. I remember my mother telling us: “Let this be the most beautiful day of your life. We have nothing. Even the clothes we are wearing are not ours. Still, all four of us have come back faithful. We did not compromise.”
Following three months of convalescence in Switzerland, I returned to school, no longer in fear of expulsion. We could now meet with our spiritual brothers and preach openly. On August 28, 1947, at the age of 13, I publicly symbolized the vow that I had made to Jehovah years before. My father baptized me in the Moselle River. I wanted to become a pioneer immediately, but Father insisted that I learn a trade. I thus learned to be a seamstress. In 1951 at the age of 17, I was appointed a pioneer, to serve in nearby Thionville.
That year, I attended an assembly in Paris and applied for missionary service. I was not old enough, but Brother Nathan Knorr said he would hold my application “for later on.” In June 1952, I received my invitation to attend the 21st class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead in South Lansing, New York, U.S.A.
Gilead and Beyond
What an experience! I had often found it hard to speak in public in my own language. Now I had to speak in English. Yet, the instructors lovingly supported me. One brother gave me the nickname Kingdom Smile because of the smile on my face when I felt shy.
On July 19, 1953, our graduation took place at Yankee Stadium in New York, and I was assigned to Paris along with Ida Candusso (later Seignobos). Preaching to well-off Parisians was intimidating, but I was able to study the Bible with numerous humble ones. Ida married and left for Africa in 1956, but I stayed in Paris.
In 1960, I married a brother from Bethel, and we served as special pioneers in Chaumont and Vichy. Five years later, I contracted tuberculosis and had to stop pioneering. I felt terrible because since childhood my goal had been to take up the full-time service and remain in it. Sometime later, my husband left me for another woman. The support of my spiritual brothers and sisters helped me during those dark years, and Jehovah continued to carry my load.—Ps. 68:19.
I now live in Louviers, Normandy, near the France branch office. Despite health problems, I am happy to have seen the hand of Jehovah in my life. The upbringing that I received helps me even today to maintain the right spirit. My parents taught me that Jehovah is a real Person whom I can love, to whom I can speak, and who answers my prayers. Indeed, “what shall I repay to Jehovah for all his benefits to me?”—Ps. 116:12.
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“I am happy to have seen the hand of Jehovah in my life”
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With my gas mask when I was six
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With missionaries and pioneers in Luxembourg for a special preaching campaign when I was 16
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With Father and Mother at a convention in 1953