|Pohl, Willi K.: Jehovahs Witnesses as a
Nazi victim group commemorating and honouring, in:
60th anniversary of the liberation
of prisoners form the Sachsenhausen and Ravenbrück
concentration camps, and the Brandenburg penitentiary. 14
to 18 April 2005, 24 April 2005.
Brandenburg Memorials Foundation / Stiftung
Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten (ed.), Oranienburg 2005,
Witnesses as a Nazi victim group
Those liberated from concentration camps, prisons and Nazi orphanages 60 years ago included thousands of Jehovahs Witnesses, or "Bible Students". Their beliefs were in total contradiction to the ideas of National Socialism. Those in Power made believers suffer for their non-conformance from the start from 1933 until the end of their rule. Over 12,000 Jehovahs Witnesses were directly affected by Nazi persecution in Germany and the occupied countries. This included over 10,000 people who were arrested, most of whom received a prison sentence and 4,000 of whom were held in one or more concentration camps. The Jehovahs Witnesses comprised a category of their own in the concentration camps, forced to wear a purple triangle. They became an object of particular hatred by the SS. Many of the children of Jehovahs Witnesses were locked up in Nazi reform schools or given to families loyal to the regime. Counting those whose names we know, over 1,400 Jehovahs Witnesses died in Europe because of Nazi persecution.
On this 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, it is right that the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation focuses on those survivors who are still alive. Only a small number of Jehovahs Witnesses are still alive from the generation that experienced how dissenters were stigmatised and viciously persecuted through crimes by the state. To avoid any repetition of such a regime of horror, we must heed Professor Roman Herzogs appeal to us all to find forms of remembrance that will continue to have an effect in the future: this is the task of every generation that follows. As some post war reports by other concentration camp survivors make evident, the manner in which the Jehovahs Witnesses adhered to their faith, their moral integrity, and their humanity has been vividly remembered. Despite this, the persecuted Jehovahs Witnesses were forgotten by others to a very great extent for a long time. Today, when we look back, we do see recent, meritorious attempts to keep the memory of the Jehovahs Witnesses as a victim group alive.
In 1994, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC drew attention to the persecution of Jehovahs Witnesses in the Nazi period. Following this, in 1996, the religious community produced a video documentary for public events entitled "Jehovahs Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault", which included interviews with contemporary witnesses and historians. They also created a travelling exhibition on the period of persecution with some 50 panels. Many citizens found out about the exhibition through reports in local newspapers. Over 600,000 visitors watched the video documentary in Germany alone. Events such as these here and abroad have helped to preserve public remembrance of the Jehovahs Witnesses steadfast advocacy of the Bibles teaching, in contradiction to the Nazi doctrines.
The historical archive of the Jehovahs Witnesses in Selters in the Taunus region of Germany was also set up during this period. The archive documents numerous concrete cases of persecution of believers and makes them accessible to researchers. This work extends beyond the period of Nazi terror; in the GDR, from 1950 onwards, hundreds of victims of the Nazis (and thousands of other Jehovahs Witnesses) were regarded as members of a banned religion on the basis of their beliefs, and sentenced to long periods in prison. This happened, for example, to over 70 former prisoners of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Tragically, several of these died in GDR prisons. Right up until its collapse, the East German Communist regime used its Stasi network to spread disinformation in order to bring Jehovahs Witnesses into disrepute in both the East and the West. This dark period of history should be included when we remember the stand the Jehovahs Witnesses took for religious freedom in Germany. In recent years, historians and contemporary witnesses have published numerous accounts of what Jehovahs Witnesses experienced at the hands of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships.
We will continue to make the exhibition referred to above available for the information of the public; for example, the 50 panels will be displayed in the Memorial of Osthofen Concentration Camp for several weeks in early 2005. our information office also acts as a resource for classroom materials dealing with the history of the persecution by the Nazi dictatorship.
The Brandenburg Memorials Foundation has provided opportunities in Sachsenhausen, on the anniversaries of the liberation, for remembering the Jehovahs Witnesses as one of the groups of victims of the Nazis, and for this we are grateful. Many Jehovahs Witnesses suffered in the Brandenburg place of execution and in the Brandenburg concentration camps at Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. Plaques now commemorate the Jehovahs Witnesses as a victim group in several concentration camp memorial sites plaques were put up in Mauthausen in 1998, in Sachsenhausen in 1999, in Buchenwald in 2002 and in Dachau in 2003. The State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau held a special exhibition on the Jehovahs Witnesses prisoners with the title "purple triangle" in the autumn of 2004. Memories of what thousands of women, men and children had to endure over 60 years ago because of their exemplary efforts to defend their Christian faith can be kept alive in a variety of ways in schools, universities, memorials and museums.
To close, I would like to remember the approaching liberation of the 230 Jehovahs Witnesses from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and other camps by quoting from a report by Karl Läufer, which reveals the extent to which they looked after each other even under the terrible conditions of the "Death March" to Schwerin, known as the "evacuation" of the camp: "In April 1945, the gates of the concentration camp finally opened for us. The order that had prevailed until then broke down, and so we were all able to assemble in a single block, without supervision. First, we prayerfully remembered the promises God had made and spoke words of encouragement for what was coming, because we would now be brought, under SS guard, from Sachsenhausen to Schwerin in Mecklenburg. We left the camp last, after all the other prisoners had marched away. The SS entrusted us with a special task for the journey; their valuables, packed in boxes and loaded onto a large handcart, which we were to bring with us. On the long march, many prisoners were shot by the SS if they became too tired to walk any further. But it was different with us brothers: as son as anyone became incapable of walking any further, he was placed sitting on the cart, and so he was taken along and saved from death."
Willi K. Pohl