Anna Johnson, 88, lives audacious faith. It came with a price.
She held on to her story a long time. She tells it now so people will know that God is always faithful without exception.
Anna was a little girl when Russian soldiers invaded Latvia in 1940 during World War II. Her father, Arvids Keikulis, was the pastor of a large house church. Invasion brought nightly arrests. Businesses confiscated. Churches closed.
More than 30,000 landowners, businessmen and pastors were sent to Siberia.
When the Germans pushed out the Russians about a year later, Latvians thought life would be better. But Jewish friends and neighbors were harassed, killed and deported to concentration camps.
“A neighbor told Nazi authorities that my father was preaching the faith of the Jews and using the Bible of the Jews,” Johnson said. “We didn’t know what was ahead. If he would be killed or taken away. But my father had faith that God would care for us no matter what was happening all around.”
Johnson’s father knew their best chance of survival was to hide deep in the forest.
Before starting the journey, he gathered his wife, Cilite, and five children and told them: “If we step to the right, we may be killed. If we step to the left, we may also be killed. We are going to walk forward in the Lord. Our steps are ordered by Him, so let us walk with the Lord.”
The family walked hours deep into the forest until they found a vacant farmhouse. Soon it was filled with others seeking safety—neighbors, friends and wounded soldiers. There was no room to sit in the potato cellar during air raids.
“In the potato cellar, we took turns telling what God did for the children of Israel and for Daniel in the lion’s den, Paul and Peter,” Anna said. “We quoted favorite promises like, ‘You will keep in perfect peace, those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you’” (Isaiah 26:3).
One early morning, when there was no food and the forest was quiet, Arvids ventured out to pray. He reminded God of their need for food. As he was praying and walking, he spotted a loaf of rye bread in the bottom of a tree. He thanked God, picked up the bread and ran back to the cellar.
The next morning, he found another loaf of bread. The next day another. That continued for 22 days.
Every day, the family gathered to thank God. They survived tuberculosis, dysentery, lice and infections through bombings so close they shattered windows in the farmhouse and toppled 100-year-old trees.
Arvids shielded the children from frozen bodies left in the snow. Johnson saw her parents care for wounded soldiers.
In December 1944, the family was captured and taken to a concentration camp in Germany, then another in Czechoslovakia. They stood through early morning roll calls in frigid cold, dug ditches and worked in the forest. Arvids’ skill as a forester helped them stay alive.
Even in the camps, Arvids gathered his family to pray and read the Bible.
They were malnourished and sick, their feet wrapped in rags inside worn shoes that were too small. Clothes in tatters. Not able to bathe for months. Johnson’s younger sisters suffered from horrid skin infections.
They survived. But just barely.
One day, Cilite saw a pile of rotten cabbage outside the barracks. She thought it was trash, but that night they were given watery bowls of cabbage soup. Everyone got sick.
Johnson’s family spent 133 days in the camps before being released and sent packing toward the American lines. For a long time, they ran for cover if they heard a plane or a loud noise.
The family eventually immigrated to the United States. In what can only be another miracle, Arvids was asked to pastor a small Ukrainian church in Newark, New Jersey.
Deprivation took a toll on the health of family members.
“We all have scars,” Johnson said. “But we don’t live in those scars. Circumstances demanded that we focus on what’s eternal, not what’s temporary. The Bible teaches us to glory in our sufferings, because we know that ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character, hope.’”
Faith that cannot be shaken was forged through years of hunger, illness, walking with her family through dense forests for safety, in concentration camps where there was little food or rest, in never knowing if they would survive another day.
Johnson and her husband, Harry, now live on a quiet street in Indiana and attend Southeast’s Indiana Campus. It seems far from her history as a child in Latvia.
“Faith is believing what we don’t see,” Johnson said. “When we’re in difficult times, we can rest knowing He has a plan. I live by faith because I know He does all things well. God is faithful. Always. Without exception.”
Anna Johnson wrote “Our Peace Guardian” about her life in World War II. It’s available on Amazon.