In the most difficult moments of his life, Franz Hasel prayed: “Lord, if I am attacked, I will have no way to defend myself. I must trust in You to be my protector. My life is in Your hands.”
The campaign to spread the new worldview was going on frantically. Children were returning from school bubbling up with the enthusiasm of imminent victory. Hard work, demands for quality, and typical German determination had raised Germany out of extreme poverty to the most powerful country in the world. The future belonged to Germany—at least, that’s what everyone strongly believed. Almost everyone.
The Hasel family was having a beautiful Saturday afternoon in nature. Sitting in the shade of the hedge surrounding the little paradise, Franz and Helene secretly discussed the gloomy political climate, watching their children gather pebbles and snail shells. They knew that Hitler was ready to start a war, and, like many Seventh-day Adventists, they wondered what the consequences thereof would be.
In the evening, back in their apartment in a suburb of Frankfurt, Franz checked the pile of letters. His gaze froze on an envelope. On Monday, at 8:00 AM, he was scheduled to report to the recruiting centre. In two days. He had believed that at his age, 40 years old, no one would ask him to go to war.
On Monday morning, at the army registry, Hasel passed the medical examination and, after completing a thick form, told the officer: “Sir, I’m a Seventh-day Adventist and I’m non-combatant. I would like to work as a medical orderly.”
The officer received some clarification from a colleague: “Adventists are like Jews. They keep the Sabbath.” With a mischievous look, he assigned Franz to Company 699, the famous team of engineers tasked with building bridges for Hitler’s armies.
Before parting, the family knelt for prayer. They all entrusted their lives to God, imploring divine protection and asking for the strength to remain faithful, no matter the difficulties.
Once he arrived in the battalion, Franz managed to exchange the portions of pork—which Adventists do not consume—for milk and butter. He even got permission to arrange his work schedule so that he could be free on Saturday. However, the lieutenant warned him that, as they advanced on the front, he would have to say goodbye to this luxury.
The Jewish problem: deliberate confusion
For her part, left behind with the children, Helene had to fight against the persuasive indoctrination to which they were submitted. Her refusal to join the Nazi Party and her decision not to send the children to school on Saturday would have consequences. The party’s propagandists spread the rumour that she was Jewish. The rumour seemed credible, not only because she kept the Sabbath, but also because she would shop for the Jews driven out of grocery queues.
One afternoon, three men dressed in long, black leather clothes showed up at her door—the Gestapo: “Frau Hasel, you are under suspicion of hiding a Jew in your apartment. We have a search warrant… Now we are asking you: ‘Are you hiding a Jew?’”
It was true. A 13-year-old boy was hiding in the basement of her apartment. Helene was thus confronted with the old ethical dilemma: in a limiting situation, what should one choose when the choice is between lying or murder? Helene stepped resolutely over the threshold and said: “If you want to, you may search my apartment!”
The question was repeated, receiving the same answer. The agents turned and left.
The “Weapons Factory”
Franz’s company advanced with the construction of bridges on French territory, and behind it the German army quickly conquered Paris. In June 1940, the battalion received a transfer order to Poland. The news spread among the soldiers that Hitler was ready to defy the non-aggression pact with Russia. During this time, the captain decided that he needed a senior official. Franz Hasel had worked in the field of publications as a literature evangelist, so he was appointed to this position.
With the advancement came the privileges. Franz was no longer required to carry a rifle, only a revolver on his belt. However, his thoughts were running wild: How will he be able to keep the Sabbath in the first line of the front? Where will he find the strength to resist the instinct to use the revolver if he were to be attacked?
On the morning of June 22nd, 1941, the attack on the Russian army began. Franz ran to a carpenter’s workshop, where he quickly obtained a piece of wood cut according to the pattern he had brought to the shop. Back in his office, Franz sanded the corners of his fake revolver and polished it with boot cream. He then asked the company’s shoemaker to make him a leather weapon holder. Late at night, Franz went to the outskirts of the town, where there was a small lake. However, before having the opportunity to throw the real revolver away, he heard the voices of the guards.
He knew what would happen next if he was caught. A soldier who had obtained food from the locals in exchange for a weapon had been executed on the spot. The guards searched the area agitatedly. “Ah, it was just a rabbit,” one of them concluded, then walked away slowly.
Franz got up from the bush where he had been hiding, grabbed his revolver and threw it away, far into the lake. Returning to the barracks, he put the piece of wood in the place of the revolver, praying: “Lord, if I am attacked, I will have no way to defend myself. I must trust in You to be my protector. My life is in Your hands.”
Someone keeps the Sabbath…while Rome burns
Company 699 was ordered to cross the border into Ukraine. The engineer soldiers were to fight on the front, not just build bridges. On their way into the new territory, they came across the bodies of German or Russian soldiers and camps for Russian war prisoners. The terrible feeling of insecurity was becoming increasingly present. Under these circumstances, Franz prayed that God would help him keep every Sabbath. One Friday, they were ordered to stop for a few days’ rest.
The next Friday, the company learned that it had to stay put for two or three days until the roads dried out. It had rained heavily and it was impossible to advance with all the artillery. On another occasion, the sergeant asked him to draw up the ten-day report on Saturday. Franz politely explained to him that the paper was wet and would have been destroyed in the typewriter. With one exception, during the pullback from frontline positions, when Franz completely lost track of time, he managed to keep the Sabbath as a holy day of worship, even under war circumstances.
As they advanced east, the company sergeant told Franz: “I notice that you are the only man in our company who has not gotten so much as a scratch or a bruise in this war. The bullets always seem to miss you… From now on, you and I will share the same quarters! You are going to be my guardian angel!” Until the moment they retreated to German territory, they remained together.
Generosity as a bodyguard
In Frankfurt, the landscape had become desolate. The growing threats led Helene to leave the city and take refuge in the home of some kind peasants. As the Americans approached the village, at Helene’s urging, the peasants hung white sheets at the windows. Soon, the soldiers knocked on the doors, signalling that they were hungry. Helene opened the door, rushed into the basement, and brought everything she could find to feed thirty-five American soldiers.
Later, around midnight, she heard screams, then footsteps approaching her room. The door opened, revealing some of the soldiers she had fed that day now steaming with alcohol. Their superior searched the room, the sleeping children, then said: “You good woman. You sleep.”
The next day, Helene discovered the disaster that had taken place. Many people had said they had no food. The soldiers had devastated all the food resources they found, and during the night the women had been raped.
The end strengthens the perspective
Although they had advanced eastward until they saw the Asian border signs, German troops were far from feeling the thrill of victory. On the contrary, they had suffered enormous losses in the struggle against fatigue, cold, hunger, and the enemy. Now they were eager to step back. Passing through Romania, Hungary, and Austria, they hurried across the Enns River in order to surrender to the Americans before falling into Russian hands. They managed to arrive on time.
The Americans were waiting for them on the other side of the river. Arriving in front of them, they were ordered to hand over their weapons. At that moment, Franz unzipped his holster, pulled out his “revolver” and threw it at the pile of weapons. The sergeant, white as a sheet, couldn’t believe that this was the man he’d chosen to be his guardian angel during the entire war!
Of the 1,200 soldiers of Company 699, only seven returned home. Of those seven, only three escaped unharmed. Franz Hasel was one of the three, rejoicing to find all his family members unharmed as well.