Life Story

Though Weak, I Am Powerful

AS TOLD BY LEOPOLD ENGLEITNER

The SS officer drew his pistol, held it to my head, and asked: “Are you ready to die? I’m going to pull the trigger because you’re really a hopeless case.” “I’m ready,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I braced myself, closed my eyes, and waited for him to pull the trigger, but nothing happened. “You’re even too stupid to die!” he shouted, removing the gun from my temple. How did I end up in such a desperate situation?

I WAS born on July 23, 1905, in the town of Aigen-Voglhub, nestled in the Austrian Alps. I was the eldest son of a sawmill worker and a local farmer’s daughter. My parents were poor but hardworking people. My early years were spent in Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, amid scenic lakes and breathtaking summits.

As a child, I would often muse about life’s injustices, not only because my family was poor but also because I suffered from congenital curvature of the spine. The backache caused by this disorder made it almost impossible for me to stand erect. At school, I was barred from gymnastics and thus became a target of ridicule among my classmates.

At the end of World War I, just shy of the age of 14, I decided that it was time to look for a job in order to escape poverty. Gnawing hunger was my constant companion, and I was weakened by bouts of high fever caused by the Spanish flu, which had sent millions to the grave. “What use could we possibly have for a weakling like you?” is how most farmers reacted to my request for work. However, one kind farmer did hire me.

Thrilled by God’s Love

Even though Mother was a devout Catholic, I rarely went to church, mainly because my father had liberal views on the matter. As for me, I was disturbed by the worship of images, so widely practiced in the Roman Catholic Church.

One day in October 1931, a friend asked me to accompany him to a religious meeting sponsored by the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known. There, I was given Bible answers to important questions, such as: Is image worship pleasing to God? (Exodus 20:4, 5) Is there a fiery hell? (Ecclesiastes 9:5) Will the dead be resurrected?—John 5:28, 29.

What most impressed me was the fact that God does not condone man’s bloodthirsty wars, even if they are said to be fought in His name. I learned that “God is love” and that he has an exalted name, Jehovah. (1 John 4:8; Psalm 83:18) I was thrilled to find out that by means of Jehovah’s Kingdom, humans will be able to live forever in happiness in an earth-wide paradise. I also learned of the marvelous prospect open to some imperfect humans who have been called by God to share with Jesus in God’s heavenly Kingdom. I was prepared to give my all for that Kingdom. So in May 1932, I was baptized and became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That step required courage, considering the religious intolerance prevailing in the strictly Catholic Austria of the time.

Facing Contempt and Opposition

My parents were horrified when I quit the church, and the priest was quick to spread the news from the pulpit. Neighbors would spit on the ground in front of me to show their contempt. Nevertheless, I was determined to join the ranks of full-time ministers, and I started pioneering in January 1934.

The political situation became increasingly tense because of the strong influence the Nazi party was gaining in our province. During my pioneer days in the Styrian Valley of Enns, the police were hot on my heels, and I had to be ‘cautious as a serpent.’ (Matthew 10:16) From 1934 to 1938, persecution was an inseparable part of my daily life. Though I was unemployed, I was denied unemployment compensation, and I was sentenced to several short and four longer prison terms because of my preaching activity.

Hitler’s Troops Occupy Austria

In March 1938, Hitler’s troops marched into Austria. Within a few days, over 90,000 people—about 2 percent of the adult population—were arrested and sent to prisons and concentration camps, accused of opposing the Nazi regime. Jehovah’s Witnesses were somewhat prepared for what was in store. In the summer of 1937, several members of my home congregation made the 220-mile [350 km] trip to Prague by bicycle to attend an international convention. There they heard of the atrocities perpetrated against our fellow believers in Germany. Clearly, now it was our turn.

From the day Hitler’s troops set foot in Austria, the meetings and the preaching activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses were forced underground. Though Bible literature was being smuggled across the Swiss border, there was not enough to go around. So fellow Christians in Vienna would secretly produce literature. I often served as a courier, delivering literature to the Witnesses.

To a Concentration Camp

On April 4, 1939, three fellow Christians and I were arrested by the Gestapo while we were observing the Memorial of Christ’s death in Bad Ischl. We were all taken by car to State police headquarters in Linz. That was my very first car ride, but I was too troubled to enjoy it. In Linz, I was submitted to a series of excruciating interrogations, but I did not renounce my faith. Five months later, I was brought before the examining justice in Upper Austria. Unexpectedly, criminal proceedings against me were dropped; yet that was not the end of my ordeal. In the meantime, the other three were sent to concentration camps, where they died, remaining faithful to the end.

I was kept in custody, and on October 5, 1939, I was notified that I would be taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. A special train awaited us prisoners at the Linz train station. The boxcars were equipped with two-man cells. The man who shared the cell with me was none other than the former governor of Upper Austria, Dr. Heinrich Gleissner.

Dr. Gleissner and I struck up an interesting conversation. He was sincerely interested in my plight and was appalled that even during his time in office, Jehovah’s Witnesses faced countless legal problems in his province. He stated regretfully: “Mr. Engleitner, I cannot undo the wrong, but I do want to apologize. It seems that our government was guilty of a miscarriage of justice. Should you ever need any help, I would be more than willing to do what I can.” Our paths crossed again after the war. He helped me to receive government retirement pay for Nazi victims.

“I’m Going to Shoot You”

On October 9, 1939, I arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Shortly thereafter, the bunker attendant was informed that a Witness was among the newcomers, and I became his target. He ruthlessly beat me. Then, after realizing that he could not make me renounce my faith, he said: “I’m going to shoot you, Engleitner. But before I do, I’m going to let you write a farewell card to your parents.” I thought of words of comfort I could write to my folks, but every time I put the pen to the paper, he knocked my right elbow, causing me to scribble. He jeered: “Such an idiot! He can’t even write two straight lines. But that doesn’t keep him from reading the Bible, does it?”

Next the attendant drew his pistol, held it to my head, and made me believe that he was going to pull the trigger, as I related at the outset of this account. Then he crammed me into a small, overcrowded cell. I had to spend the night standing. But I could not have slept anyway, since my whole body was aching. “Dying for some stupid religion is really such a waste!” was the only “comfort” my cell mates had to offer. Dr. Gleissner was in the adjacent cell. He heard what had happened and pensively said, “The persecution of Christians is once again rearing its ugly head!”

In the summer of 1940, all prisoners were ordered to report for quarry duty on a Sunday, even though we usually had Sundays off. This was a retaliatory measure for some inmates’ “misdemeanors.” We were ordered to carry large stones from the quarry into the camp. Two prisoners were trying to place a huge stone on my back, and I nearly collapsed under the weight. However, Arthur Rödl, the feared Lagerführer (camp supervisor), unexpectedly came to the rescue. Seeing my agonizing efforts to carry the stone, he said to me: “You’ll never make it back to the camp with that stone on your back! Put it down immediately!” That was an order I was relieved to obey. Then Rödl pointed to a much smaller stone, saying: “Pick that one up, and bring it into the camp. It’s easier to carry!” Afterward, turning to our supervisor, he ordered: “Let the Bible Students return to their barracks. They’ve worked enough for one day!”

At the end of each workday, I was always happy to associate with my spiritual family. We had arrangements for distributing spiritual food. A brother would write a Bible verse on a scrap of paper and pass it on to the others. A Bible had also been smuggled into the camp. It was taken apart and divided into individual books. For three months I was entrusted with the book of Job. I hid it in my socks. The account of Job helped me to remain steadfast.

Finally, on March 7, 1941, I joined a large convoy that was transferred to the Niederhagen concentration camp. My condition was getting worse by the day. One day, two brothers and I were ordered to pack tools into crates. After doing that, we accompanied another group of inmates back to the barracks. An SS man noticed that I was lagging behind. He got so furious that he brutally kicked me from behind without warning, causing serious injury. The pain was excruciating, but despite the pain I went to work the next day.

Unexpected Release

In April of 1943, the Niederhagen camp was finally evacuated. Following that, I was transferred to the death camp at Ravensbrück. Then, in June 1943, I was unexpectedly offered the opportunity of a discharge from the concentration camp. This time, release was not conditional on my abjuring my faith. I just had to agree to do forced labor on a farm for the rest of my life. I was willing to do that to escape the horrors of the camp. I went to the camp doctor for a final checkup. The doctor was surprised to see me. “Why, you’re still one of Jehovah’s Witnesses!” he exclaimed. “You’re right, Herr Doctor,” I answered. “Well, in that case I don’t see why we should give you a discharge. On the other hand, it would be such a relief to get rid of a wretched creature like you.”

His description was no exaggeration. My state of health was truly wretched. My skin had been partly eaten away by lice, beatings had left me deaf in one ear, and my whole body was covered with festering sores. After 46 months of deprivation, endless hunger, and forced labor, I weighed only 54 pounds [28 kg]. In that condition, I was discharged from Ravensbrück on July 15, 1943.

I was sent back to my hometown by train without a guard to escort me, and I reported to Gestapo headquarters in Linz. The Gestapo officer gave me my discharge papers and warned me: “If you think that we are releasing you so that you can persist in your underground activity, you are sadly mistaken! God help you if we ever catch you preaching.”

I was home at last! My mother had not changed a thing in my room since I was first arrested, on April 4, 1939. Even my Bible lay open on my bedside table! I got on my knees and said a heartfelt prayer of thanks.

I was soon assigned to work on a mountain farm. The farmer, a childhood friend, even paid me a small salary, though he was not obliged to do so. Before the war, this friend had given me permission to hide some Bible literature on his premises. I was happy to make good use of that small literature depot to gain strength spiritually. All my needs were satisfied, and I was determined to wait out the war on the farm.

Hiding in the Mountains

Those calm days of freedom were short-lived, however. In mid-August 1943, I was ordered to report to a military doctor for a medical examination. First, he declared that I was unfit for active service because of my bad back. However, a week later the same doctor revised his findings to read: “Fit for active service on the front lines.” The army lost track of me for a while, but on April 17, 1945, shortly before the end of the war, it finally caught up with me. I was drafted for service on the front lines.

Equipped with a few provisions and a Bible, I sought refuge in the nearby mountains. At first, I was able to sleep outdoors, but the weather took a turn for the worse, and two feet [.5 m] of snow fell. I got soaked to the skin. I made it to a mountain cabin located at nearly 4,000 feet [1,200 m] above sea level. Shivering, I got a fire going in the fireplace, and I was able to warm myself and dry my clothing. Exhausted, I fell asleep on a bench in front of the fireplace. Before long, I was abruptly awakened by intense pain. I had caught fire! I rolled around on the floor to extinguish the flames. My whole back was covered with blisters.

At great risk, I sneaked back to the mountain farm before daybreak, but the farmer’s wife was so scared that she sent me away, telling me that a manhunt was on to find me. So I went to my parents. At first, even my parents hesitated to take me in, but they finally let me sleep in the hayloft, and Mother tended to my wounds. After two days, however, my parents were so uneasy that I decided it would be best to hide in the mountains again.

On May 5, 1945, I was awakened by a loud noise. I caught sight of Allied airplanes flying low. At that moment, I knew that Hitler’s regime had been overthrown! Jehovah’s spirit had strengthened me to endure an unbelievable ordeal. I had experienced the truth of the words recorded at Psalm 55:22, which had comforted me so much at the outset of my trials. I had ‘thrown my burden upon Jehovah,’ and though I was physically weak, he had sustained me as I walked through “the valley of deep shadow.”—Psalm 23:4.

Jehovah’s Power “Made Perfect in Weakness”

After the war, life slowly got back to normal. At first, I worked as a hired hand on my farmer friend’s mountain farm. It was only after the U.S. occupation army intervened in April 1946 that I was released from my obligation to perform forced agricultural labor for the rest of my life.

At the end of the war, Christian brothers in Bad Ischl and the surrounding district started holding meetings regularly. They began preaching with renewed vigor. I was offered employment as a night watchman in a factory and was thus able to continue pioneering. Eventually, I settled down in the St. Wolfgang area, and in 1949, I married Theresia Kurz, who had a daughter by a former marriage. We were together for 32 years until my dear wife died in 1981. I had cared for her for over seven years.

After Theresia’s death, I resumed the pioneer service, which helped me get over the great sense of loss. I am presently serving as a pioneer and an elder in my congregation in Bad Ischl. Since I am confined to a wheelchair, I offer Bible literature and talk to people about the Kingdom hope in the Bad Ischl park or in front of my own home. The fine Bible discussions I have are a source of great joy to me.

In retrospect, I can attest that the dreadful experiences I was forced to endure did not embitter me. Of course, there were times when I felt downcast because of the trials. However, my warm relationship with Jehovah God helped me get over such negative periods. The Lord’s admonition to Paul, “My power is being made perfect in weakness” proved true in my life too. Now, at the age of nearly 100, I can join the apostle Paul in saying: “I take pleasure in weaknesses, in insults, in cases of need, in persecutions and difficulties, for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am powerful.”—2 Corinthians 12:9, 10.

[Pictures on page 25]

Arrested by the Gestapo, April 1939

Gestapo document with charges, May 1939

[Credit Line]

Both images: Privatarchiv; B. Rammerstorfer

[Picture on page 26]

Nearby mountains provided refuge

[Picture Credit Line on page 23]

Foto Hofer, Bad Ischl, Austria