By Paul Bremmer
Under the blazing August sun, the women swung their heavy shovels and picks over and over again, piercing the dry earth. They stirred up so much dust that they could taste it. Sweat rolled off their weary brows as they labored on, digging 6-foot-deep ditches.
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Anyone who dared to pause and rest received a lashing from an angry guard. Relief did not come until noon, when a horse cart drew up with buckets of water and a watery soup with a mysterious chunky substance floating in it. But the women were so thirsty that they devoured their meager rations with delight.
After a half-hour break, the women hauled their aching bodies back to the ditches for four more uninterrupted hours of digging. By the time they lined up at 5 p.m. to receive more foul-tasting soup and one slice of bread, they had spent 10 hours digging in the sweltering heat. Their hands were covered in blisters and their backs felt ready to break.
It was only the first day for these prisoners in Barthold, a Nazi forced labor camp.
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"Why does God allow this?" asked a young woman named Steffi on that first day. "Why does He allow our people to be slaughtered?"
"But what about those who live, Steffi?" replied her friend and fellow prisoner, Anita Dittman. "You and I will live to tell our story."
Steffi looked skeptical as Anita assured her, "[God] does see us, and He hears the innermost longings of our hearts."
The hellish conditions in Barthold were enough to make many of the half-Jewish inmates lose faith in God. But 17-year-old Anita Dittman never lost faith. Anita had a Jewish mother and an atheist father, but a Lutheran pastor had led her to Jesus Christ when she was about 7 years old. It was her strong faith in Jesus that sustained her, and allowed her to comfort others, when she was hauled away to Barthold in the summer of 1944.
Anita did survive the Holocaust and live to tell her story, just like she told her friend she would. She recounted her many trials and tribulations in her 2014 book, "Trapped in Hitler's Hell," as well as in the documentary film of the same title.
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Now, more than 70 years later, one Christian radio network plans to honor Dittman for her unshakable faith in the face of Nazi persecution. The Bott Radio Network will bestow its first-ever "Heroine of the Faith: Crown of Life Award" on Dittman at this year's National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, Tennessee. The award is set to be presented Feb. 26 during a breakfast hosted by the network.
Rich Bott, president and CEO of Bott Radio Network, said the award is based on the Bible verse James 1:12, which reads, "Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."
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Bott believes that verse exemplifies Dittman's ordeal as a girl in Nazi Germany.
"We're excited to be able to present Anita as a living witness to not only the evil that took place, but also the saving grace of Jesus Christ and how He provided and protected her, so that she could be a witness to our generation of what happened," Bott said.
Dittman credits her faith in Jesus with helping her make it through the Holocaust.
"My pastor in Germany, he gave me the foundation of the knowledge of God's word by the Bible, and from then that helped me to know God, to trust Him, and coming to realize that there were times, many times, when He was the only one I can trust and the only one that walked with me, wherever I had to go," Dittman said in an interview with WND.
Dittman wrote in her book about several of those times when she needed to place her trust in God.
She needed God on the cold, gray January morning in 1944 when two Gestapo agents banged on her apartment door and burst in to arrest her mother. As they hauled Hilde Dittman off to Theresienstadt, young Anita was overcome by grief.
"Falling to my knees on the floor, I poured out my heart to Jesus," she wrote.
Anita continued to rely on her Lord over the next several months as she labored in a canning factory. The Nazi regime had issued her a ration card with which to buy food, but she sent almost all the food she bought to her mother.
She saved less than a starvation diet for herself. In the morning, she ate a roll and a cup of coffee. She skipped lunch, and in the evening she consumed a bowl of soup or some lettuce.
"I survived on starvation rations for months, but never lost one pound, became sick, or missed a day of work," she wrote. "God just nourished me supernaturally in a way I will never be able to understand."
Apparently, woman does not live on bread alone.
It was faith that strengthened Anita on that summer day when she finally received her summons to report to the train station the following morning to be taken to Camp Barthold.
As she threw herself face down on her pillow that night, she prayed, "Oh, dear Jesus, I believe you can give me the strength to go through this ordeal."
The next morning, when Anita saw Steffi at the train station, she comforted her.
"All of this is happening with God's permission," she told her friend. "He has given me absolute assurance that we will be all right – even that we will be reunited with our mothers soon! Don't despair so easily, Steffi – where is your faith?"
It was faith that led Anita to attempt a daring escape in 1945, when her Nazi captors transported the women of Barthold to a deserted death camp. Anita and her friend, Hella, volunteered to ride to a factory down the road to pick up supplies for the camp. But Anita bribed their driver, a Polish prisoner of war, with 20 marks and a pack of cigarettes. She begged him to take them to the train station instead. She fully realized the insanity of her plan.
"Only God could carry out this impossible plan," she wrote. "What was in it for the driver except a little money, the cigarettes, and probably severe punishment?"
But the Polish driver took the bribe and drove the young women to the train station.
"Maybe God had given us an angel as our driver!" Dittman wrote in her book.
However, young Anita's troubles were not over after she escaped from the prison camp. While on her way to Theresienstadt to find her mother, she was sitting in a train station near Dresden when the air-raid sirens began to blare. Hella and Anita's friend, Uschi, sprinted toward the stairs to the bomb shelter, but Anita's leg was infected and badly swollen. She knew she could not hobble down an endless flight of stairs.
"I can't make it!" she yelled to her two friends. "You go without me. Go, I beg you. Don't worry about me!"
Anita limped out into the street as Allied planes streaked overhead, dropping their bombs. She beseeched God in prayer: "Dear God, I can pass through this safely only with your help."
The bombs exploded all around Anita, and the city erupted in smoke and flame. Buildings collapsed, residents were mutilated, and yet Anita stood unharmed in the middle of the street. When her friends finally emerged from the train station's bomb shelter, they could not believe Anita had survived.
"I have a great big God," she told them. "For some reason He wants me alive. It is the only explanation."
Days later, Anita would rely on God yet again. She was in a hospital in Bautzen, nursing her wounded leg, when the Russian army rolled into town. All patients and staff crowded into the hospital's air-raid shelter.
After four days, the battle outside grew quiet and a crowd of Russian soldiers burst into the shelter. They grabbed some of the women one by one, threw them to the floor, and raped them in front of the horrified crowd of onlookers.
Two enormous Russians came at Anita as she cried out to God. They threw her to the floor and began to rip off her clothes – but then they saw her unbandaged leg, with its partly healed red wounds. They scowled and murmured to each other, and then walked away to look for a more appealing rape victim.
"So this was the salvation promised by my wounds!" wrote Dittman.
The now-87-year-old survivor looks back on her tumultuous early years not with anger or resentment, but with thankfulness to the God who sustained and protected her. While she said she is grateful for the award she will get from the Bott Radio Network, she gives all credit to Christ.
"I'm being rewarded for pulling through without hate, but what it really means to me is God – the Lord Jesus," she said. "Without Him, I wouldn't be here."
When Dittman says she pulled through "without hate," she really means it. After the Russian soldiers had left the air-raid shelter under the hospital, young Anita approached a woman who sat in a corner, crying. When she got closer, she saw that it was Miss Grete, a Nazi nurse who had tried to kill her by denying her sanitary bandages for her leg and leaving her unattended for hours or days at a time.
Anita knelt beside Miss Grete and put her arm around the nurse's shoulder. Miss Grete told her the Russians had raped her four times. In between her tears, she looked up at Anita.
"How can you comfort me?" she asked. "I really wanted to kill you after you talked on the operating table and we found out that you are Jewish."
The compassionate young believer replied, "Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. He loved even those who drove Him to the cross, and He begged His Father's forgiveness for them."
Bott says Dittman provides a good example of how Christians should confront evil in the modern world.
"Her life experience is instructive for us today as we see the tremendous evil that's taking place in our time," Bott said. "I think Christians are not supposed to enjoy a rest on the sidelines when such tremendous evil is taking place, but the Lord has redeemed us in order to be a righteous witness and to fight evil in our time."
He cited the persecution of Christians in the Middle East as one example of evil in our time.
Bott first became inspired to present Dittman with this award when he traveled to Poland with a large group of Christian leaders last November. While there, he toured Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp.
"That had such a profound impact on my life, to be there where such a tremendous evil took place," he said. "It just really had an impact on me."
Then, soon after Bott returned home, he was listening to Jan Markell's radio show, which his network broadcasts, when he heard Markell interview Dittman. That was the first time he heard Dittman's story.
"It just really touched my heart, having just been there to Auschwitz and feeling the tremendous evil that took place there, and then realizing that this precious lady was involved in that whole tragedy, and how the Lord protected her and how she maintained her Christian testimony through that until this present day," he recounted.
Bott said he believes God kept Dittman alive through the Holocaust so she could be a witness to the current generation. He expressed nothing but admiration for her.
"She expresses herself in such a precious, Christlike way," Bott said. "The love of Christ exudes from her when she speaks. I just think she's a witness from that generation to our generation and inspires us to serve the Lord and to stand up for righteousness."