Jehovah's Witnesses' Untold Story of Resistance to Nazis

Joel P. Engardio,

Special to The Christian Science Monitor

NEW YORK 19961106

crematoryRAVENSBRUCK, GERMANY: People stream past the crematory at the concentration camp near Berlin in 1949. "Stand Firm," a documentary on the experience of imprisoned Jehovah's Witnesses, premieres there Nov. 6., AP/FILE

Facing Stephen Spielberg's camera, Joseph Kempler dezi camp where he was a prisoner. Surrounded by barbed wire, its inmates, wearing purple triangles, were not allowed to mix with others.

"I asked, 'Who are these people, in a camp within a camp,'" the elderly Polish Jew said. "They must be very dangerous."

They were Jehovah's Witnesses. Imprisoned because of their faith and active resistance, they were often isolated so they couldn't preach to others.

Unlike Jews and others targeted by the Nazis, the Witnesses were prisoners of conscience. They could have bought freedom by signing a declaration card that renounced their faith and pledged allegiance to Hitler. Few took the offer. Most stayed, and many died.

Why Hitler bothered to single out such a minor group - and the tenacity with which the Witnesses resisted him - is what makes their story significant, says Michael Berenbaum, director of the Research Institute at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington. "The Jehovah's Witnesses were literally the only martyrs of the Holocaust," Mr. Berenbaum says.

"The Jews were victims because their experience was not a matter of choice. But the Witnesses did have a choice. They are people to be respected for not giving in."

The role of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Holocaust is a little- known story now being told through videotaped interviews by Mr. Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoa Visual History Foundation, and a separate church-produced documentary that premières Nov. 6 at the Ravensbruck camp, near Berlin.

"Stand Firm," the church's documentary, asserts that the Witnesses became early victims of the Holocaust when they refused to support - and spoke out against - Hitler's Nazi regime. The documentary covers a 1994 symposium held at the Holocaust Museum on the experience of Witnesses in Nazi Germany. It also interviews numerous American and German experts unaffiliated with the church.

James Pellechiays he did not want to minimize any group in the Holocaust. "We don't think we are heroes. We're not trying to say we're a better person than a Jew, a Gypsy, or a homosexual. Our experience pales in comparison," Mr. Pellechia says. "But our story is one of many that needs to be told."

Just 20,000 out of a population of 65 million, the Jehovah's Witnesses were a small but irritating minority for Hitler in Germany in 1933. They were a constant presence on street corners and doorsteps, distributing more than 1 million copies of their Watchtower magazine a month. Witness literature denounced Nazism and Hitler's demagoguery at the height of his popularity.

The Gestapo shut down the Witnesses' printing presses in 1933 and burned their literature, forcing the Witnesses to go underground with their preaching work. By 1934, the first of 6,000 Witnesses were sent to Nazi prisons and concentration camps. Many children were taken from their parents and sent to Nazi reform schools.

Believing allegiance is reserved solely for God, the German Witnesses would not submit to Hitler. The men refused military service and the women would not work to support the war effort. For this, 250 Witnesses were executed. The first person shot for not serving in Hitler's Army was a Jehovah's Witness, reported a Sept. 17, 1939 New York Times article. In all, about 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses died in Nazi custody.

A family persecuted

Magdalena Kusserow-Reuter's entire family - 11 siblings and both parents - endured Nazi persecution. Her two brothers were executed for refusing to fight for Hitler. The youngest children were placed in Nazi schools; the rest were put in prisons or camps.

At 17, Mrs. Kusserow-Reuter was offered the declaration card that would set her free if she renounced her beliefs. She had just completed six months of solitary confinement in a juvenile prison, but refused to sign. She spent tncentration camp.

"I said, 'Never, never!' There was no question about signing. How could I? I was thinking of my brothers," says Kusserow-Reuter, now living with her husband at the Witness branch in Spain.

"Stand Firm" shows how the church used its international branches to help the underground work in Germany. Religious literature was smuggled into Germany through the Swiss office or produced secretly in the camps.

"Stand Firm" also offers examples of Witness attempts to publicize Hitler's crimes. A book published in 1938, "Crusade Against Christianity," used reports from German Witnesses to print diagrams of concentration camps and document Nazi abuses.

A radio speech by church president Joseph Rutherford in 1938 characterizes Hitler as a man of "unsound mind ... who acts in utter disregard of the liberties of the people ... and cruelly persecutes the Jews." Rutherford's broadcast aired one month before Kristallnacht, the night Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues and businesses in Germany.

Simultaneous telegrams to Hitler were sent by Witnesses in the United States and 49 other countries in 1934 saying his behavior "shocks all good people of earth and dishonors God's name."

With fewer than 100,000 adherents worldwide in the 1930s, the Witnesses' magazines had limited circulation, and their proselytizing was often dismissed as the work of a strange cult. Today, there are about 5.5 million Jehovah's Witnesses, and their magazines, Watchtower and Awake, have a weekly printing of 17 million copies in 100 languages. "Stand Firm" will be released in English and German.

The documentary does little to explain what Witnesses believe, avoiding discussion of theology or attempts at conversion. "We live our theology," Pellechia says. "You can understand it by the way the Witnesses stood firm."

Finding surrmaine, a senior researcher for non-Jewish survivors at Shoa, has been working with the church to find and interview as many Witness survivors as possible before the Shoa oral history project is completed at the end of 1997.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses are unique because they could have avoided their fate," Ms. Jensen-Germaine says. "But in the face of torture and death, they chose not to, and stood by their principles."

While information on many non-Jewish groups is poor or nonexistent, Jensen-Germaine says Witnesses have "meticulous documentation" of survivors.

The religion continued to catch Kempler's attention after the war. In 1947, he gave depositions in preparations for the war crimes trial at Dachau to help identify SS guards. Sitting next to him was a Jehovah's Witness whose right arm was paralyzed from hanging on the torture pole. The man decided not to testify against his guard, explaining that vengeance is reserved for God.

"I was furious with the Jehovah's Witness for refusing to name their persecutors," Kempler says. "But the more I thought about it, the more their stand impressed me. But I couldn't understand their motivations."

Those he learned after immigrating to New York and meeting a Witness. Religion was not an interest since Kempler's Holocaust experience - extermination labor in a stone quarry and the death march - left him an atheist.

"I was a God-hater; he wasn't there when my people needed him," says Kempler, who became a Witness a decade after liberation. "But the Witnesses began to preach a purpose in life that many first-generation survivors like myself had given up on."

That purpose is what Pellechia says sustained the Witnesses. Rather than pray for relief, many prayed to remain faithful.

"We were in a battle for the right to worship, to love our neighbor, and tell the truth," he says. &quere good can triumph over evil, and I think they will see that in the story of the Witnesses."