Visible Proof of the Holocaust
AS YOU ENTER A PLACE EXHIBITING HUMANITY at its lowest, it seems strange to find these words from the Holy Bible engraved in stone: “You Are My Witnesses.” Yet, perhaps this is the place to quote the Bible, at least that particular verse.—Isaiah 43:10.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., inaugurated April 22, 1993, stands as a stark and sober reminder of technology twisted by amoral demagogues into an unspeakable death machine. The catalog of defenseless victims murdered by Nazi tyranny numbs the mind—about six million Jews and millions of other people, including Poles, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled.
A Tour to Remember
The tour begins in a cool, gray steel elevator that takes you from the first floor Hall of Witness to the fourth floor. From there, as visitors wend their way down, they pass exhibits of all phases of the Holocaust, from Nazi propaganda to Hitler’s rise to power to the roundup of victims to the liberation of the death camps. The tour ends up in the Hall of Remembrance, where an eternal flame burns. Eyewitness testimonies, still and moving images, music and artwork—all are used to help tell this gruesome story.
Visitors witness three levels of a relentlessly evocative and overpowering permanent exhibition. Some of the more horrific exhibits hide behind four-foot-high [1.2 m] privacy walls, too high for children to see over.
A Museum to Educate
The museum’s Holocaust Research Institute includes a comprehensive library and archive. It will also serve as an international center for Holocaust scholarship. “We are dedicated to the instruction and education of the public,” says Dr. Elizabeth Koenig, director of the Museum Library. The library will have information on some of the minority groups that were in the concentration camps. “We already have a lot on Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she says.
In 1933, Hitler launched a campaign to annihilate Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thousands of Witnesses—from Germany, Austria, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, and other countries—were transported to concentration camps. They were persecuted on religious grounds only. Two of these camp survivors were invited to the museum’s opening.
One survivor, Franz Wohlfahrt, 73, saw a total of 15 members of his immediate family and relatives arrested because they were Witnesses. “Seven of them were executed, the majority by guillotine. One was gassed, and the others died in concentration camps and Gestapo jails,” he recounts.
Did he think he would ever survive the camps? “I had real doubts,” Franz says. “Almost every day I was reminded by the guards that if Germany lost the war, they still would have enough ammunition to execute me.”
Does he regret having been a prisoner because of his religious beliefs? “Never! Never!” says Franz, as though the thought were an insult to his resoluteness. “We were always in a happy mood. Many times I was stopped by guards who would ask: ‘In all this misery, you still have a smile on your face? What’s wrong with you?’ Then I’d say: ‘I have a reason to smile because we have a hope beyond this difficult time—a hope in God’s Kingdom when everything will be restored and everything made good for what we have to go through today.’”
Joseph Schoen, born in 1910, was kept busy in the underground operation of printing and distributing Bible literature in Austria, always keeping one step ahead of the Gestapo—until 1940, when they arrested him. From 1943 to 1945, he was under constant threat of death. In 1943 the concentration camp leader, in front of all assembled personnel, singled Joseph out and barked, “You still stick to the God Jehovah?”
“Yes, I do,” answered Joseph.
“Then your head is going to roll!”
The year 1945 found Joseph on the death march to Dachau. “From a physical standpoint, I was a wreck,” he remembers. “Yet I was never as strong in my faith as I was on that march.”
Now, touring the museum and reflecting on his days of imprisonment, he says: “I wasn’t scared then at all. Jehovah gives you what you need, when you need it. You have to learn how to rely upon Jehovah and see how real he is when it comes to the worst. All credit goes to him. None of us were heroes. We just relied upon Jehovah.”
The Museum’s Value
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of significance to this museum,” says historian Dr. Christine Elizabeth King, pro-vice chancellor of Staffordshire University in England. “First of all, it’s the record. And it’s here to dispute those who say: ‘This never happened.’ There is so much evidence, as well as the living witnesses who survived the Holocaust. Secondly, the museum is an excellent educational tool.”
“And for Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she continues, “it’s very important to be able to see their brothers and sisters who have suffered and who have died and who have given their lives. To see that recorded is something very special.”
[Box on page 18]
The text on the column reads:
“Nazi harassment of Jehovah’s Witnesses began in 1933. Because they refused military service and would not swear allegiance to the regime, Witnesses were often accused of espionage and conspiracy against the state. The Nazis interpreted the Witnesses’ predictions of future anarchy as revolutionary threats, and their prophecies about the return of Jews to Palestine, as Zionist statements.
“Nevertheless, the Witnesses continued to meet, preach, and distribute literature. They lost their jobs, pensions, and all civil rights, and beginning in 1937 they were sent to concentration camps. There, the Nazis designated them as ‘voluntary prisoners’: Jehovah’s Witnesses who renounced their beliefs could be freed. Not one of them recanted.”
[Box on page 19]
“It’s an Important Story to Tell”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the most remarkable stories. Because of their religious beliefs, they were one of the first religions banned . . . by the Nazi German government in 1933. That was simply because they saw their obeisance and their obligation to a higher law, the law of God. As a result of this, they were persecuted as mercilessly as Jews and Gypsies and placed in concentration camps where many of them lost their lives.
“It’s an important story to tell. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of it [was] that of the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When their father had to be taken to a camp and their mother was under arrest, they would be placed in a back row of the school, together with Jewish and Gypsy children. If the children remained unwilling to use the ‘Heil Hitler!’ salute or make any other obeisances to the Nazi State, they were classified as juvenile delinquents for nothing more than their beliefs. And these children, of course, paid not only for their parents’ ostensible and alleged crimes, which were crimes of conscience, but paid also for the fact of being their children.”—Dr. Sybil Milton, chief historian of the museum.
[Picture on page 16]
Concentration-camp coats with the purple triangle badge identified Jehovah’s Witnesses
[Picture on page 17]
Holocaust survivors Franz Wohlfahrt (left) and Joseph Schoen with historian Dr. Christine King at the exhibit “The Victims”
[Picture on page 17]
Boxcars similar to this one hauled Wohlfahrt and Schoen to concentration camps
[Picture on page 18]
Above: Survivors Wohlfahrt (left) and Schoen at the “Enemies of the State” video history display that includes Jehovah’s Witnesses
[Picture on page 18]
Below: Maria and Franz Wohlfahrt at exhibit that includes the Bible of Johann Stossier, Maria’s brother. “Johann somehow hid it for quite a while before it was discovered,” says Franz. “The Bible was the only belonging that was sent back to his mother after his execution”
[Picture on page 18]
Next to the displayed Bible, the text reads: “This Bible belonged to Johann Stossier, a Jehovah’s Witness imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Stossier died shortly before Soviet troops liberated the camp”
[Picture on page 19]
“How fragile are the safeguards of civilization,” said U.S. President Clinton at the museum’s dedication. “The Holocaust reminds us forever that knowledge divorced from values can only serve to deepen the human nightmare, that a head without a heart is not humanity”