The Holocaust—Victims or Martyrs?
WHY make a distinction between victims and martyrs? Because all those who suffered as a result of the Holocaust were victims, but only a minority were truly martyrs in the strict sense of the word. What is the difference?
A victim is “someone who is put to death or subjected to torture or suffering by another.” Victims usually have no choice.
A martyr is “one who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce religious principles” or “one who sacrifices something very important to him in order to further a belief, cause, or principle.” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) Thus, the victim is usually involuntary, while the martyr is voluntary.
Three Types of Victims
In a conference on the non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, Dr. Gordon Zahn, University of Massachusetts, defined the Nazis’ victims under three headings: (1) those who suffered for what they were—Jews, Slavs, Gypsies; (2) those who suffered for what they did—homosexuals, political activists, and resisters; (3) and those who suffered for what they refused to do—conscientious objectors, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.
Millions of Jews suffered and died simply because they were Jews in the ethnic sense. It mattered not to Hitler’s henchmen whether they were Orthodox or atheistic Jews. They were condemned to the “final solution,” or extermination, as Hitler’s method of ridding Europe of all Jews was called. Likewise, the Slavs, who for Hitler’s crusade were mainly the Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians, were condemned just for being Slavic, ‘an inferior race’ in comparison to the “supreme” Aryan stock.
But the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Europe was different. They were of many nationalities but were misconstrued as a pacifist threat to Germany’s National Socialist regime because of their Christian stand of neutrality and refusal to be incorporated into the war effort of any nation. Hitler called them a ‘brood to be exterminated.’ How large was that “brood,” and were they exterminated?
“Tiny Sect”—Threat to Nazis
At the abovementioned conference, Dr. Christine King presented facts about the Witnesses in Nazi Germany. She reported: ‘That this tiny sect, 20,000 in a population of 65 million, 20 million of whom were Roman Catholics and 40 million of whom were Protestants, drew the attention of the authorities is at first glance surprising. But when you consider their strong American connections, their international aspirations, and their perceived communist and Zionist sympathies it becomes immediately evident that they could not be tolerated.’ Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses were neither Communists nor Zionists but were neutral in matters of politics and race. However, that was not understood by the Nazis.
The Nazi campaign against the Witnesses started in 1933 when Hitler came to power. In 1934, after receiving telegrams of protest from Witnesses all over the world, Hitler had an outburst in which he screamed: “This brood will be exterminated in Germany!” The persecution of the Witnesses mounted.
In their book Anatomy of the SS State, Helmut Krausnick and Martin Broszat state: “A further category of protective custody prisoners who after 1935 formed a substantial group of concentration camp inmates came from the members of the Internationale Vereinigung der Ernsten Bibelforscher [Jehovah’s Witnesses]. The organization had been dissolved in the Third Reich in 1933 and all recruiting or propaganda for Jehovah’s Witnesses had been prohibited by law because the organization was primarily regarded as an instrument of pacifist activity.”
“In February 1936 the order went out that all former leaders of the Internationale Bibelforschervereinigung (IBV) [Jehovah’s Witnesses] should be taken into protective custody ‘for up to two months’. In mid-May 1937 further measures were taken. The Gestapo ordered that: Everybody who in any form furthers the aims of the illegal IBV or the unity of its followers will be taken into protective custody and immediately brought before the courts for a judicial warrant of arrest to be issued.” In most cases this “protective custody” resulted in a transfer to a concentration camp.
The authors also note: “In 1937/8 the overwhelming majority of the inmates of Dachau were political prisoners while in Sachsenhausen there was even in those days an equally large number of so-called anti-social elements, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and habitual criminals.”
World War II and Neutrality
Things got worse for the Witnesses in 1939 when war broke out between Germany and the Allies, Britain and France. What happened?
Twenty-three-year-old August Dickmann from Dinslaken was one of some 600 Witnesses held at Sachsenhausen in 1939.* When war broke out in September, camp commander Baranowsky saw his opportunity to break the will of the Witnesses. August refused induction into the army, and Baranowsky requested permission from Himmler to execute young Dickmann in front of all the camp inmates. He was convinced that many Witnesses would renounce their faith if they actually witnessed an execution. Dickmann was shot from behind by three SS men and then given the coup de grace, a pistol shot in the head, by an SS officer.
Gustav Auschner, an eyewitness, reported later: “They shot Dickmann and told us that we would all be shot if we didn’t sign the declaration renouncing our faith. We would be taken to the sandpit 30 or 40 at a time, and they would shoot us all. Next day, the SS brought each of us a note to sign or else be shot. You should have seen their long faces when they went away without a single signature. They had hoped to frighten us with the public execution. But we had more fear of displeasing Jehovah than of their bullets. They did not shoot any more of us publicly.”
A similar situation developed in the Buchenwald camp on September 6, 1939. Nazi officer Rödl told the Witnesses: “If anyone of you refuses to fight against France or England, all of you must die!” It was a moment of test. There were two fully armed SS companies waiting at the gatehouse. Yet, “not a single Jehovah’s Witness answered the officer’s appeal to fight for Germany. There was a brief silence, and then came the sudden order: ‘Hands up! Empty your pockets!’” reports Eugen Kogon in The Theory and Practice of Hell. Were they shot? No, they were assaulted and robbed by the SS men and then assigned to dreadful quarry work. They were also barred from any hospital treatment.
Dr. King, quoted earlier, explained: ‘Yet surprisingly, for the Nazis, the Witnesses also could not be eliminated. The harder they were pressed the more they compressed, becoming diamond hard in their resistance. Hitler catapulted them into an eschatological battle, and they kept the faith. With their purple triangle (arm identification) they formed strong networks in the camps; their experience is valuable material for all who study survival under extreme stress. For survive they did.’
Auschwitz survivor Anna Pawełczyńska wrote in her book Values and Violence in Auschwitz: “On the scale of Auschwitz’s huge community, the Jehovah’s Witnesses constituted but a tiny, inconspicuous little group . . . Nevertheless, the [purple] color of their triangular badge stood out so clearly in the camp that the small number does not reflect the actual strength of that group. This little group of prisoners was a solid ideological force and they won their battle against Nazism. The German group of this sect had been a tiny island of unflagging resistance existing in the bosom of a terrorized nation, and in that same undismayed spirit they functioned in the camp at Auschwitz.” She adds: “Everyone knew that no Jehovah’s Witness would perform a command contrary to his religious belief and convictions.”
An outstanding example in this respect is the Kusserow family from Bad Lippspringe in Germany. Franz and Hilda had a large family of 11 children, 6 boys and 5 girls. Under the Nazi regime, 12 members of the family of 13 were sentenced to a total of 65 years in prisons and concentration camps. In 1940, at the age of 25, Wilhelm was shot as a conscientious objector. Two years later his brother Wolfgang, age 20, was beheaded in Brandenburg penitentiary for the same reason. In 1946, at the age of 28, brother Karl-Heinz died of tuberculosis after being brought back sick from Dachau. The parents and the daughters all served time in prisons and concentration camps. (For a detailed account of this remarkable family of martyrs, see The Watchtower of September 1, 1985, pages 10-15.)
Eugen Kogon comments in his book The Theory and Practice of Hell: “One cannot escape the impression that, psychologically speaking, the SS was never quite equal to the challenge offered them by Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
If this tiny group of Christian Witnesses, based on their Bible beliefs, could stand up to Hitler, one is bound to ask, why did the millions of Protestants and Catholics fail in this respect? Where was the clear, unequivocal religious leadership and guidance in Christian principles that would have withdrawn the support of some 60 million Germans from Nazism? (See box on page 13.)
What Sustained Them?
In his book The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi states: “In the grind of everyday life [in the concentration camps], the [religious and political] believers lived better . . . all held in common the saving force of their faith.”
He adds: “Their universe was vaster than ours, more extended in space and time, above all more comprehensible: they had a . . . millennial tomorrow . . . a place in heaven or on earth where justice and compassion had won, or would win in a perhaps remote but certain future.”
The unbending faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a future Millennium is best epitomized by the following letters from German Witnesses sentenced to death:
“My dear brother, sister-in-law, parents, and all other brothers included,
“I must write you the painful news that when you receive this letter I no longer will be alive. Please do not be overly sad. Remember that it is a simple matter for Almighty God to raise me from the dead. . . . Know that it was my attempt to serve him in my weakness and I am completely convinced that he has been with me right up to the end. I put myself into his keeping. . . . And now, my dear mother and father, may I thank you both for all the good things you have done for me. . . . May Jehovah repay you for all you have done.
“(Signed) Ludwig Cyranek”
Ludwig Cyranek was executed in Dresden for being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Johannes Harms, after he was sentenced to death by guillotine, was given seven opportunities to recant as a Witness. Shortly before his execution in 1940, he sent this letter to his father, Martin, who was also imprisoned for being a Witness.
“My dear father,
“We still have three weeks until December 3, the day on which we saw one another two years ago for the last time. I can still see your dear smile when you were working in the prison basement and I was out walking in the prison courtyard.
“I have considered you with pride during this time and also with amazement at the way you have been carrying your burden in faithfulness to the Lord. And now I, too, have been given an opportunity to prove my faithfulness to the Lord unto death, yes, in faithfulness not only up unto death, but even into death.
“My death sentence has already been announced and I am chained both day and night—the marks (on the paper) are from the handcuffs—but I still have not conquered to the full. . . . I still have an opportunity to save my earthly life, but only thereby to lose the real life.
“When you, dear father, are at home again, then be sure to take particular care of my dear Lieschen [his wife], for it will be particularly difficult for her, knowing that her dear one will not return. I know that you will do this and I thank you ahead of time. My dear father, in spirit I call to you, remain faithful, as I have attempted to remain faithful, and then we will see one another again. I will be thinking of you up until the very last.
“Your son Johannes.”
These are just two of the hundreds of martyrs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who died because they dared to be conscientious objectors in an evil regime. The full story of their collective martyrdom would fill volumes.*
For a detailed account of the martyrdom of August Dickmann, see the 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., pages 165-8.
For a more detailed report of the record of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the concentration camps, see the 1974 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pages 108-212, and the 1989 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pages 111-34.
[Box on page 13]
Jehovah’s Witnesses Were Hitler’s Victims
From The New York Times, May 14, 1985
To the Editor:
My wife and I, both Germans, between us spent a total of 17 years in Nazi concentration camps. I was in Dachau and Mauthausen, and my wife, Gertrud, was in Ravensbrück. We were among the thousands of non-Jewish Germans who suffered because we did what the Nazi criminals failed to do—we were conscientious objectors to Hitler’s obligatory idolatry and militarism. While thousands of us survived the camps, many did not.
Your recent letters telling of ordinary Germans who suffered under Hitler’s Nazi regime (by Sabina Lietzmann, April 25, and Anna E. Reisgies, April 30) provoke me to mention one minority group, usually ignored, that was persecuted ferociously by the Gestapo. They were known as the Ernste Bibelforscher (Earnest Bible Students) or Jehovas Zeugen (Jehovah’s Witnesses).
As soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, he commenced a systematic persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses because of their stand of neutrality in politics and war. As a result, thousands of German Witnesses, many of whom were friends of mine, became not only victims of the Holocaust but also martyrs. Why the subtle difference? Because we could have left the concentration camps at any time if we had been willing to sign a paper renouncing our religious beliefs.
Two brief examples will show the kind of spirit that burned in the breasts of some Germans who did resist Hitlerism. Wilhelm Kusserow, age 25, from Bad Lippspringe, was shot on April 27, 1940, because he refused to serve in Hitler’s armies.
Two years later, Wilhelm’s brother, Wolfgang, was beheaded in the Brandenburg prison for the same reason. Shooting was by then too dignified for conscientious objectors in Hitler’s estimation. Wolfgang was 20 years old.
I could tell of hundreds of German men and women who suffered similar fates because, in the name of God, they dared to stand out against tyranny. Why there were not millions of principled Germans to stand and be counted, instead of just thousands, is perhaps a question for others to answer.
Brooklyn, May 1, 1985
[Picture on page 15]
The Kusserow family—Wilhelm (second from right) was shot; Wolfgang (third from left) was beheaded; Karl-Heinz (second from left) died of tuberculosis after release from Dachau
[Picture on page 16]
Martin Poetzinger (died in 1988) and his wife Gertrud each spent some nine years in Nazi concentration camps