One of the most important things I have learned in my life, is having faith. My mother and great-grandmother took my brother and I to church each Sabbath (Saturday) when we were little, and that foundation has seen me through every moment of my life, whether it be good or bad. It is faith that allows me to believe that there is good everywhere, if we look for it and that God will take care of me.
I want to introduce you to a family whose faith carried them through some of the darkest times this world has ever seen. In 1939 that Hasel family was living quiet lives in Frankfurt, Germany. Franz Hasel was forty years old and worked as a colporteur and evangelist for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His wife Helene, stayed home and cared for their three young children: Kurt nine years old, Lotte six years old and Gerhard four years old.
The war began September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland. Most Germans believed that it would be over by Christmas and that their soldiers would be coming home. Something that echoes from the American Civil War and World War I, however, it never works out that way. The family had gotten up Sabbath morning and went to church, came home and Helene warmed up the meal she had prepared the day before. Although Franz wanted to stay home and study his Bible, Lotte and Kurt convinced their father to take them for a walk in the country outside Frankfurt.
When the family returned home, little Lotte got the mail. Franz glanced at it and decided that it could wait until the Sabbath was over (sunset). When he opened the mail, he found the letter that they had hoped would never come, Franz had been drafter into the Wehrmacht (German Army). It was a shock, Franz was forty years old with a family. He was ordered to report to the recruitment office at 8 am Monday morning.
Franz had served in World War I, in the Pioneer Park Division 699, when he was 18 years old. After the first world war, at the age of twenty, he became an Adventist.
When he reported, Franz, who wanted to be a conscientious objector, requested to be a medic (for those who have seen the film Hacksaw Ridge, another Seventh-Day Adventist, Desmond T. Doss served as a medic for the U.S. Army). He explained his religious beliefs to the recruiter, that as a Seventh-Day Adventist he was an avowed pacifist. The recruiter was not aware of the Adventist faith and asked another recruiter about them, his reply was “they are like the Jews, they keep Sabbath”. Franz was sent to serve again in the Pioneer Park Division 699.
When Franz reported to the barracks for his uniform he was given a wide black belt with a shiny buckle. On the buckle was the Nazi eagle with the words “Gott mi uns”, which means “God with us”. When Kurt saw it, he thought that Hitler couldn’t be that bad if he wanted God with them, Franz sat Kurt down and explained that Hitler was an evil man and that Kurt should stay true to God. Before he left for boot camp, Franz and the family sat down to pray and Franz read Psalm 91:5-11 that reads: “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If you say, “The Lord is my refuge”, and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”
Franz was sent to Nierstein on the banks of the Rhine River for boot camp training. His company was a group of engineers and bridge builders who took orders directly from Berlin. They would be on the front line where ever they were sent. When he arrived at boot camp, Franz spoke to his superior officer, Hauptmann Brandt, about being able to observe the Sabbath and his special dietary needs, as an Adventist Franz didn’t eat pork. The Hauptmann had no issue with it, and allowed him to make arrangements with his fellow soldiers to have Sabbath off and to speak with the camp cook.
His fellow soldiers jumped at the chance to have Sunday off, as there were often dances Saturday nights and this would allow them to have the following day off. The camp cook was less enthusiastic, he called Franz a “disguised Jew” and threw him out of the kitchen. Each soldier was allotted a certain amount of food per week: breakfast was bread, jam and coffee, lunch was stew and supper was bread and sausage or some other meat, and sometimes cheese. In addition, each soldier was allotted two ounces of butter four times a week and two ounces of lard three times a week.
Luckily, Franz was billeted in a private home with a dairy store across the street. He approached the store owner and asked if he could work out a barter while he was there, the owner agreed. He would trade Franz his pork and lard for milk and cheese.
Franz turned out to be an excellent shot, he became the division sharp shooter, however Franz had promised God that he would not take another human life. At Christmas the division celebrated at Oppenheim cathedral and then with a party, where attendance was mandatory. When Franz arrived at the party, he was stopped at the door by his lieutenant who questioned him on brining a bottle into the party, liquor was already provided. Franz explained that he didn’t drink alcohol and had brought grape juice for himself. As the night progressed, Christmas cakes were eaten and carols sung, but many soldiers got very drunk, except Franz.
The following day Franz ran into his captain and major, who commended him for staying sober. Shortly afterwards Franz was awarded the Kriegsverdientstkreuz 2, he had no idea why he was awarded this medal. Later on, he would find out it was for “being an outstanding moral guide to the entire division”.
During the war Franz was moved all over, he started in France and Poland. In Poland Franz was promoted to first company clerk, with this he was no longer required to carry around a rifle, he could choose his own sidearm. He chose a lightweight pistol. On June 22, 1941 Hitler invaded Russia and Franz knew that they would eventually be sent to Russia. He took his pistol, along with some soap and chocolate to a local carpenter. He traded the soap and chocolate for a wooden replica of his sidearm. He then took his pistol and threw it into the river, he would keep his promise to God and not take another human life. He was aware of what could happen to him if he was found out, as another soldier had traded his firearm to the locals for fifty pounds of butter, the major executed the man.
July 1, 1941 the Pioneers were sent to Sokal, Ukraine. It was only a few weeks since the invasion of Russia and already 500,000 Russian soldiers were dead and over one million had been taken prisoner. The rain had caused the roads to become unpassable with thick mud and the Pioneers were forced to march into the Ukraine.
Marching was not something the Pioneers were use too. They were bridge builders and often rode in trucks. The marching was taking its toll on them. Almost every soldier had blisters covering their feet, they would remove their boots and march barefoot with blood running from the blisters. Franz had blisters so bad on his feet that the sores became infected. When he stopped to rest a friend helped him to a nearby stream to soak his feet. Even though the stream was murky and polluted, the cool water felt good. Franz decided to stay there and rest by the stream. He wrapped his damaged feet in his blanket and prayed to God to keep his promise to take care of him. Franz fell asleep next to the stream, under a tree. When he awoke from his deep sleep, he unwound the blanket and found that his feet had been healed! No trace of the blisters and infection could be found.
By the winter of 1942 the Pioneers were in Donetsk, Ukraine. An SS division had been billeted with them. One morning Franz awoke to the sounds of splintering wood, Germans shouting, women and children screaming and gunfire. When he went to the mess hall to eat, Franz asked a friend what happened and he said “the SS doing their duty”. That puzzled Franz. So, his friend explained Hitlers Final Solution to him and advised him not to ever talk about it, because he could wind up dead.
From that moment on, when the Pioneers arrived in a town prior to the SS, Franz would go into town and warn the locals of the SS. He would tell them what their uniforms looked like and that if they valued their life, they needed to hide in the woods, in caves, where ever they could find. Not all the locals believed him, one Sabbath during his walk in the woods he heard the sounds of gunfire and crying. When he approached he saw the SS killing people and pushing them into a ditch. Franz confronted the SS about shooting women and children. He felt sick seeing the bodies. The SS officer threw him a shovel and said “if you care for them so much, bury them”.
The SS left Franz to bury the murdered Jews, but he noticed that some of the dirt was moving. He pulled a lifeless child from the pile and under the child was a man, shot through the head but still alive. He carried the man back to camp, and was approached by an SS man. The SS questioned Franz on what he was doing, pushed the man off his back and shot him through the mouth. The SS man told Franz that he was no better than the Jews and now the man was finally free.
Helene and the children struggled daily to survive back in Frankfurt. Clothing and food were now rationed. Kurt and Lotte faced daily brainwashing at school and their neighbor Herr Doering constantly berated Helene to join the Nazi party. Being a Nazi Party member would mean, more clothes for the children, more and better food for the family, a vacation during the summer with unrationed food and a job if she wanted one. Helene turned him down every time. She refused to sell out her faith.
Helene turned down Herr Doering so many times that he sent recruiters from the Nazi League of Women to confront her. She turned them down as well. When they came back they came with papers for her to sign, they explained that the papers were to take the children to keep them “safe” and that there was no need for her to read the fine print. Helene took her time and read the fine print. It stated that by signing these papers, she would be sending her own children to a concentration camp. She refused.
She feared for herself and her children. So, she contacted a church friend that they called Tante Fischer. Tante Fischer lived in the Black Forrest, in a traditional farm house (meaning the first floor was for the livestock and the second floor for the people). She welcomed them with open arms. The children thrived here and Helene found a bit of peace in the middle of a war. The peace was shattered when a letter from the mayor of Frankfurt arrived and requested all evacuees to return home. It was confounding as to why they had to return home.
A few days later, Moroccans invaded the Black Forrest village they had lived in. They were full of rage and raped and plundered the village. Women and girls from age five to seventy couldn’t escape them. Miraculously Tante Fischer escaped unharmed. When they approached her home, she put mud on her face and waved a club at them screaming like a madwoman, they left her alone.
This is something that Helene and the children would face over and over again. They would flee twice to Eschenrod, outside of Frankfurt. They would escape Eschenrod by walking forty miles back to Frankfurt as the trains were not running. Relying on the kindness of strangers and not all would be kind. One gave them only water and then forced them on their way. Another would help them to her home, give them peppermint tea, vegetable stew and bread, giving them the strength to carry on through near heat exhaustion of mother and children.
Herr Doering stopped the support payments from Franz to try and get Helene to join the party (it would backfire on him).
Helene was called to the “Brown House” in Frankfurt to meet with Herr Springer. The “Brown House” was known as SS and Gestapo headquarters, few who went in ever came out. When Helene arrived, she was shown to Herr Springers office, he wanted to know why she had written to her husband about not receiving the payments as it was subversive and considered treason. She explained her faith to him and that they had no money because of not receiving the payments. He said that he knew some Adventist, that when his home was bombed and they moved next to the Schneider family, they invited them to dinner, gave them towels, sheets and blankets, and that he had high regard for Adventist.
Helene was stunned. She did know the Schneider’s, they went to the same church. Herr Springer said that he would look into her checks and get them to her. When she thanked him and blessed him, “May God bless you Herr Springer”, he looked at her funny, then said “herr Springer is out sick, I’m just filling in for him”. God had again taken care of her and her family, a few days later she received notice to pick up her check at the family welfare office. The check contained all back payments and current payment.
The war took its toll on the Hasel family and so many others. Franz survived the front, one of seven original members of his 1,200-man division, he would make it home to his family. Helene and the children survived the war and welcomed a new life, Susi, into it. Helene had become pregnant when Franz was home on Christmas leave 1942. Franz missed keeping only one Sabbath in six years of war.
Time and again the Lord took care of the Hasel family through the war and into the recovery years that followed. In 1946 a mail van arrived at the Hasel home with a package from Lodi, California with a note outside it saying “gift parcel”, Helene was terrified! Gift in German meant poison. Seeing her distress, the mailman explained that “gift” in English meant present. When they opened it, they found a bag of Pillsbury flour, a can of Crisco, macaroni, powdered milk and eggs, rice, sugar, dehydrated potatoes, cookies, soup mixes, nuts and dried fruit from California. A strange bag of candy turned out to be M&M’s. They family wrote to the return address but the letter came back.
A year later, another package arrived and would continue to arrive at regular intervals from Lillian Bunch in Lodi, California. Years later the family would find out that Lillian was also an Adventist and she felt so badly for the families trying to recover from the war that she spoke to her pastor and picked Franz’s name from an Adventist yearbook. Her kindness saved their lives, the packages always arrived when the family was in its most dire needs.
The Hasel family grew and thrived both in Germany and the United States. Franz continued his colporteur work until his death, Helene became bedridden from rheumatoid arthritis but wrote 2,000 poems during that time, Kurt became a pastor in Southern Germany, Lotte married an American GI and came to the United States, Gerhard became a pastor and world-renowned old testament scholar and Susi, went to college in the United States.
I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of what the Hasel family survived during the war and how their faith saw them through. I encourage you to read A Thousand Shall Fall by Susi Hasel Mundy to learn their full story of faith and survival.
This story focuses on a Seventh-Day Adventist family, but I know that there are many more stories out there from those of other faiths. I look forward to learning those stories, more of them, and sharing them with you. I hope that you will join me again next week, and that you will FOLLOW this blog for updates. Until next week I leave you with this:
“Never be cruel, never be cowardly. Never eat pears (cuz they’re mushy). Remember hate is always foolish. Love is always wise. Always try to be nice. Never fail to be kind.”- Doctor Who