The musician and devout Jehovah’s Witness Erich Hugo Frost was born on 22 December 1900 in Leipzig.  His father taught him to play the concert zither and, at twelve years old, he began playing the piano.  As he began to compose short pieces and to improvise, it became clear that Frost was musically gifted, but his parents advised him to become a merchant.  In 1915 he started training at a college for commerce, but was interrupted by military service.  After returning from the battlefields of the First World War, Frost decided to devote his life to music.  He enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, studying piano performance and composition. He was able to earn a living as a pianist and Kapellmeister (director of a choir or orchestra).

Influenced by his mother, Frost became involved with the 'Ernste Bibelforscher' (Serious Bible Researchers), as Jehovah's Witnesses were referred to in Germany until 1931.  In March 1923 he was baptised a Jehovah’s Witness and dedicated his private and professional life to the Watchtower Society.  He worked as a musician for the branch in Leipzig and he composed, among others, the music for the light show and silent movie Das Schöpfungsdrama (Drama of Creation), which was shown for missionary work in Germany and Czechoslovakia.

In April 1933, shortly after the National Socialists seized power, Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned.  In that year around 25,000 people were counted as Jehovah Witnesses in Germany.  Because of their rejection of human authority they did not follow Hitler, refused to do the Nazi salute and defied the call to military service.  Punishment and persecution of Jehovah Witnesses was harsh. Nearly 10,000 members were arrested and transported to police prisons or concentration camps, where they were held in what was euphemistically referred to as Schutzhaft (protective custody).  Around 1,000 died during their imprisonment.

Because of his activities for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which included the distribution of leaflets denouncing Nazi policy, Frost was imprisoned several times in police prisons and concentration camps between 1934 and 1945.  The first time he returned home after ten days, the second time after five months.  After his third detention he was convicted and transported, first to one of the Emslandlager, and in February 1941 to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were separated as a group of prisoners.  They lived in isolation, which made possible their particularly brutal treatment.  Some survivors remembered that around 150 ‘brothers’ died in isolation because of food rationing, the cold, illness and murder in the special barracks.  Despite these conditions, Jehovah’s Witnesses organised gatherings, read the strictly forbidden Watchtower journals, discussed religious questions and sang familiar songs.  During his time in Sachsenhausen, Erich Frost composed two songs.  One of them, ‘Fest steht in großer, schwerer Zeit (Stand Fast in Great and Hard Times), which was composed in spring 1941, became well known as a symbol of the resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany, and is still sung today.  Erich Frost recalled the process by which he composed the song:

As a composer I always have melodies in my mind and therefore I already had the music of the song for a long time in my mind.  I worked together with 40 Witnesses and every day we had to march half an hour to the sewage treatment plant outside of the main camp.  And during this march I had the idea: it is time to have lyrics to this melody to sing songs. […] Speaking was strictly forbidden, but I asked a brother if he had a good memory.  He said yes and I gave him the first stanza.  After one hour I asked another one, later a third and then a fourth.  Everybody’s task was to memorize the stanza exactly.  Back in the camp the four brought forth the lyrics and I put them together with the melody I had already written down. […] If the SS-guards had found the song, they would have hanged me.

‘Stand Fast’ was smuggled out of the camp to the Watchtower Society in Bern, and from there to the main office in New York.  In 1950 the song was translated into English for the new songbook on which all Jehovah’s Witness songbooks worldwide are based.  Erich Frost remembered that the ‘brothers’ in Sachsenhausen sang the song while marching and at evening gatherings, and gained much strength through it:

'If we were together in the evenings somebody started to sing a melody, then many of the "brothers" joined in singing and our eyes started to really shine and we gained courage.  Therefore we had a real way to relax and special encouragement through this song.'

Frost composed a second song, entitled ‘Welch ein Duften durch das Land zieht’ (What a Scent Passes Over the Land), in which he praised the coming spring with all its hope, bravery and orientation towards the future.  At the end of July 1941, Frost was transported to Neuengamme, where he composed his third song, ‘Wolkendunkel’ (Dark Clouds), in 1943.   Frost was liberated in the spring of 1945 from the satellite camp Albany.  After the end of the Second World War, he focused on his work as an active Jehovah’s Witness and was responsible for the branch of the Watchtower Society in Magdeburg until its banning in 1950. He then moved to Wiesbaden.  Erich Hugo Frost died on 30 October 1987 in Lübeck.

By Dr Juliane Brauer

Sources

Frost, E., 1937. Lebensbericht (unpublished text in: Jehovas Zeugen, Geschichtsarchiv, Selters).

Wrobel, J., 1988. Interview with Erich Frost about the song ‘Stand fast’, Der Wachtturm, 15 March 1988.

Wrobel, J., 2002. Frost, Erich Hugo, In eds. Heinrich and Schandera: Magdeburger Biografisches Lexikon – 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Biografisches Lexikon für die Landeshauptstadt Magdeburg und die Landkreise Bördekreis, Jerichower Land, Ohrekreis und Schönebeck. Magdeburg: Scriptum. (http://www.uni-magdeburg.de/mbl/Biografien/0878.htm).