Emma was baptized as a Witness of Jehovah in 1938. That year, German forces invaded the Sudetenland, and Adolphe was drafted into the French army to monitor telephone communications. He returned from his duty with a troubled conscience, and having concluded that he would no longer take part in war, he decided that he would refuse the call if he were drafted again. He was baptized the following year. Adolphe fully knew that heavy responsibility awaited him in caring for the tiny group of Witnesses in Mulhouse. Right from the beginning, Adolphe and Emma became pillars in the group, even as the threat of war with Germany loomed.
In 1939, when the French government banned stigmatized organizations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, both Adolphes organized underground religious activities. They went out under cover of night to visit homes of Witnesses and made discreet Sunday morning visits to spread their Bible message. Adolphe Koehl’s isolated garden house made a perfect place for secret meetings. They established risky connections with Witnesses on the other side of the Vosges Mountains.
The family bonds grew ever stronger by their shared faith and Bible reading. Adolphe’s cigarette cough even went away after he quit smoking. Emma’s sister, Eugenie, and Simone both got baptized secretly in their bathtub. By early summer 1940, German soldiers paraded through the streets of Mulhouse, filling Alsatian homes with dread. Alsace was now “Heim ins Reich” (back home in the “Reich”); totalitarian authority brutally imposed Nazi law on the populace.
The Arnolds struggled to maintain a calm and cheerful climate at home. Simone’s education occupied Adolphe’s full attention, as he helped her weigh moral and religious values against Nazi ideology. Risking betrayal and arrest, Adolphe continued his underground work. One avid Bible student, Marcel Sutter, came to the Arnolds’ home and was secretly baptized in late August 1941.
Those precious moments of togetherness for the Arnold family came to a sudden end. On September 4th, the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) arrived at the Schaeffer factory with an arrest warrant for Adolphe. In front of his co-workers, they arrested him and took him away like a common criminal, making him ride his bicycle in front of the ominous “Black Maria” (black Gestapo car) so that all could see the fate of a man who dared defy the Nazis. They first drove to the Arnolds’ home exactly at the time Emma was out picking up the daily milk ration and Simone was at school. Gestapo agents swarmed through the apartment, searching for incriminating evidence—literature, names, addresses. Adolphe had been very shrewd. All the banned Witness literature had been hidden in the barber’s garden house. The Gestapo left empty-handed and pushed Adolphe into the police car. The neighbours peeked out from behind their curtains to see him taken away for further interrogation.
Seated behind a desk, a smallish Gestapo agent offered to release Adolphe immediately if he agreed to volunteer for the German army. Upon Adolphe’s refusal his voice turned harsh. He wanted names. Adolphe gazed at him in silence. The man screamed at him, demanding an answer, to which Adolphe replied, “For you, it will always be ‘No’.” Before he knew it, the little man leaped over the top of his desk, came at Adolphe, and with one blow to the head, knocked him unconscious. He awoke in a dark, damp cell in solitary confinement. In the next cell he heard a man crying. The little Gestapo man returned. ‘The voice you hear is that of the man who betrayed you.’ Adolphe realized it was the barber’s voice! For Adolphe, this revelation was harder to bear than the blow. He knew the barber Adolphe was in bad health and guessed that his physical weakness had led to his breakdown and betrayal. For days, Adolphe suffered as he heard the cries of his friend, who must have had a tortured conscience.
The guards denied Adolphe his right to a Bible: The Gestapo had issued strict orders that no Jehovah’s Witness prisoner could have one. Emma was permitted to bring clean clothes, but no letters or food. One day she tried unsuccessfully to smuggle in a Bible to Adolphe. The guard, who knew Emma, found a way to contact her outside the prison and warn her not to try it again. He had moved Adolphe to another cell and had given him the Bible from the prison library. The move got him away from the moaning in the next cell.
In December the Gestapo transferred him to Schirmeck, a camp in Alsace. Conditions were worse than the stone prison, but at least he could get a letter from Emma. In careful language
it had greetings from Adolphe Koehl and news about his underground activity. So, after four months of emotional anguish, Adolphe realized that the tortured voice in the next cell had been a cruel Gestapo trick!