We Did Not Support Hitler’s War
AS TOLD BY FRANZ WOHLFAHRT
MY FATHER, Gregor Wohlfahrt, served in the Austrian army during World War I (1914 to 1918) and fought against Italy. Altogether, hundreds of thousands of Austrians and Italians were slaughtered. The horrors of that experience completely changed Father’s outlook on religion and war.
Father saw Austrian priests bless the troops, and he learned that Italian priests on the other side were doing the same. So he asked: “Why are Catholic soldiers urged to kill other Catholics? Should Christians go to war against one another?” The priests had no satisfying answers.
Answers to Father’s Questions
After the war Father married and settled in the mountains of Austria near the Italian and Yugoslav borders. I was born there in 1920, the first of six children. When I was six, we moved a few miles east to St. Martin near the resort town of Pörtschach.
While we lived there, ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses (then called Bible Students) called on my parents. In 1929 they left the booklet Prosperity Sure, which answered many of Father’s questions. It showed from the Bible that the world was being controlled by an invisible ruler called Devil and Satan. (John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9) His influence on the religion, politics, and commerce of this world was responsible for the horrors Father saw in World War I. At long last Father had found the answers that he had been searching for.
Father ordered literature from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and started distributing it to his relatives and then from house to house. Hans Stossier, a neighbor lad of only 20, soon joined him in the house-to-house ministry. Shortly, five of our relatives also became Witnesses—Father’s brother Franz, his wife Anna, later their son Anton, Father’s sister Maria, and her husband, Hermann.
This caused quite a stir in our small town of St. Martin. At school a student asked our Catholic teacher, “Father Loigge, who is the new god Jehovah that Wohlfahrt is worshiping?”
“No, no, children,” the priest replied. “This is not a new god. Jehovah is the Father of Jesus Christ. If they are spreading the message out of love for that God, that is very good.”
I remember my father many times leaving the house at 1:00 a.m. loaded with Bible literature and a sandwich. Six or seven hours later, he would reach the farthest point of his preaching territory, near the Italian border. I would accompany him on shorter trips.
Despite his public ministry, Father did not neglect his own family’s spiritual needs. When I was about ten, he started a regular weekly Bible study with all six of us, using the book The Harp of God. At other times our house would overflow with interested neighbors and relatives. Soon there was a congregation of 26 Kingdom proclaimers in our small town.
Hitler Comes to Power
Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, and persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses increased there soon afterward. In 1937, Father attended a convention in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Conventioners were warned of trials ahead, so on his return Father urged all of us to prepare for persecution.
In the meantime, at age 16, I started to apprentice as a house painter. I lived with a master painter and attended a trade school. An elderly priest who had fled Germany to escape the Nazi regime conducted a religious instruction class in the school. When students greeted him with “Heil Hitler!” he showed displeasure and asked: “What’s wrong with our faith?”
I took advantage of the opportunity and inquired why Catholics use titles such as “Your Eminence” and “Holy Father,” since Jesus said that all his followers are brothers. (Matthew 23:8-10) The priest acknowledged that doing this was wrong and that he himself was in trouble for refusing to bow before the bishop and kiss his hand. Then I asked: “How is it possible to kill fellow Catholics with the blessing of the Church?”
“This is the greatest shame!” the priest exclaimed. “It should never happen again. We are Christians and the Church should not be involved in war.”
On March 12, 1938, Hitler marched without resistance into Austria and soon made it a part of Germany. The churches quickly aligned themselves with him. In fact, less than a week later, all six Austrian bishops including Cardinal Theodore Innitzer signed a glowing “solemn declaration” in which they said that in the coming elections “it is a must and national duty as Germans, for us Bishops to vote for the German Reich.” (See page 9.) There was a big reception in Vienna where Cardinal Innitzer was among the first to greet Hitler with the Nazi salute. The cardinal ordered all Austrian churches to fly the swastika flag, ring their bells, and pray for the Nazi dictator.
Seemingly overnight the political mood in Austria changed. Storm troopers in their brown uniforms with swastika armbands popped up like mushrooms. The priest who had earlier said the Church should not be involved in war was one of the few priests who refused to say, “Heil Hitler!” The following week a new priest replaced him. The first thing that he did on entering class was click his heels, raise his arm in salute, and say: “Heil Hitler!”
Pressure to Conform
Everyone was exposed to the pressure of the Nazis. When I greeted people with “Guten Tag” (Good day) instead of “Heil Hitler,” they became angry. Some 12 times I was reported to the Gestapo. Once a horde of storm troopers threatened the master painter with whom I was living, saying that if I didn’t give the salute and join the Hitler Youth, I would be sent to a concentration camp. The painter, a Nazi sympathizer, asked them to be patient with me since he was sure that in time I would change. He explained that he didn’t want to lose me because I was a good worker.
With the Nazi takeover, there were big marches that went late into the night, and people fanatically screamed slogans. Every day the radios blared with speeches by Hitler, Goebbels, and others. Submission of the Catholic Church to Hitler deepened, as priests routinely prayed for and blessed Hitler.
Father reminded me of the need to take a firm stand and to dedicate my life to Jehovah and to be baptized. He also spoke to me about Maria Stossier, our neighbor Hans’ younger sister, who had taken a stand for Bible truth. Maria and I had agreed to marry, and Father urged me to be an encouragement to her spiritually. Maria and I were baptized in August 1939 by her brother Hans.
Father’s Exemplary Integrity
The next day Father was called up for military service. Although his poor health, resulting from hardships suffered during World War I, would have prevented him from serving anyway, Father said to the interviewers that as a Christian he would never be involved in war again as he had been when he was a Catholic. For this remark he was held for further investigation.
One week later when Germany invaded Poland, which started World War II, he was taken to Vienna. While he was being held there, the mayor of our district wrote claiming that Father was responsible for other Witnesses’ having refused to support Hitler and that therefore Father should be executed. As a result, Father was sent to Berlin and was soon afterward sentenced to be beheaded. He was kept in chains day and night in the Moabit jail.
In the meantime I wrote Father on behalf of the family and told him that we were determined to follow his faithful example. Father generally was not an emotional man, but we could see how he felt when his last letter to us was stained with tears. He was so happy that we understood his stand. He sent words of encouragement, mentioning each one of us individually by name and urging us to keep faithful. His hope in the resurrection was strong.
Besides Father, about two dozen other Witnesses were being held in the Moabit jail. High-ranking officials of Hitler tried to persuade them to give up their faith but without success. In December 1939, some 25 Witnesses were executed. Upon learning of Father’s execution, Mother expressed how thankful she was to Jehovah that He had given Father the strength to remain faithful until death.
My Tests Begin
A few weeks later, I was called up for work service but soon learned that the main activity was military training. I explained that I would not serve in the army but would do other work. However, when I refused to sing Nazi fighting songs, the officers became infuriated.
The next morning I appeared in civilian clothes rather than in the army uniform we had been issued. The officer in charge said he had no alternative but to put me in the dungeon. There I subsisted on bread and water. Later I was told there would be a flag-saluting ceremony, and I was warned that refusal to participate would result in my being shot.
On the training grounds were 300 recruits as well as military officers. I was commanded to walk by the officers and the swastika flag and give the Hitler salute. Drawing spiritual strength from the Bible account of the three Hebrews, I simply said, “Guten Tag” (Good day), as I passed. (Daniel 3:1-30) I was ordered to march past again. This time I didn’t say anything, only smiled.
When four officers led me back to the dungeon, they told me they were trembling because they expected that I would be shot. “How is it possible,” they asked, “that you were smiling and we were so nervous?” They said that they wished they had my courage.
A few days later, Dr. Almendinger, a high-ranking officer from Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin, arrived in the camp. I was called before him. He explained that the laws had become much tougher. “You are not aware at all of what you are in for,” he said.
“Oh, yes, I am,” I replied. “My father was beheaded for the same reason only a few weeks ago.” He was stunned and fell silent.
Later another high-ranking official from Berlin arrived, and further attempts were made to change my mind. After hearing why I would not break God’s laws, he took my hand and, with tears streaming down his face, said: “I want to save your life!” All the officers looking on were very moved. I was then led back to the dungeon where I spent 33 days altogether.
Trial and Imprisonment
In April 1940, I was transferred to a jail in Fürstenfeld. A few days later my fiancée, Maria, and my brother Gregor visited. Gregor was only a year and a half younger than I, and he had taken a firm stand for Bible truth in school. I remember his urging our younger brothers to be prepared for persecution, saying there was only one way, serving Jehovah! The precious hour spent encouraging one another was the last time I saw him alive. Later, in Graz, I was sentenced to five years of hard labor.
In the fall of 1940, I was put on a train destined for a labor camp in Czechoslovakia, but I was detained in Vienna and placed in prison there. The conditions were horrible. Not only did I suffer from hunger, but during the nights I was bitten by large bugs that left my flesh bleeding and burning. For reasons then unknown to me, I was returned to prison in Graz.
There was interest in my case because the Gestapo described Jehovah’s Witnesses as fanatical martyrs who wanted the death sentence so as to get a heavenly reward. As a result, for two days I had a fine opportunity to speak before a professor and eight students from Graz University, explaining that only 144,000 persons would be taken to heaven to rule with Christ. (Revelation 14:1-3) My hope, I said, was to enjoy everlasting life in paradise conditions on earth.—Psalm 37:29; Revelation 21:3, 4.
After two days of questioning, the professor said: “I have come to the conclusion that you have both feet on this earth. It is not your desire to die and go to heaven.” He expressed sorrow about the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses and wished me the best.
Early in 1941, I found myself aboard a train headed for Rollwald hard labor camp in Germany.
Harsh Camp Life
Rollwald was located between the cities of Frankfurt and Darmstadt and held about 5,000 prisoners. Each day began at 5:00 a.m. with roll call, which took some two hours as officers took their time updating their prisoner list. We were required to stand motionless, and many prisoners suffered severe beatings for not standing perfectly still.
Breakfast consisted of bread, which was made of flour, sawdust, and potatoes that were often rotten. Then we went to work in the swamp, digging trenches to drain the land for agricultural purposes. After we worked in the swamp all day without adequate footwear, our feet would swell up like sponges. Once my feet developed what appeared to be gangrene, and I feared they would need to be amputated.
At noon on the job site, we were served an experimental concoction of so-called soup. It was flavored with turnip or cabbage and sometimes included the ground carcasses of diseased animals. Our mouths and throats burned, and many of us developed large boils. In the evening we received more “soup.” Many prisoners lost their teeth, but I had been told the importance of keeping teeth active. I would chew on a piece of pine wood or on hazel twigs, and I never lost mine.
Keeping Strong Spiritually
In an effort to break my faith, the guards isolated me from contact with other Witnesses. Since I had no Bible literature, I would call to mind scriptures I had memorized, such as Proverbs 3:5, 6, which urges us to ‘trust in Jehovah with all our heart,’ and 1 Corinthians 10:13, which promises that Jehovah will not ‘let us be tempted beyond what we can bear.’ By reviewing such scriptures in my mind and by leaning on Jehovah in prayer, I was strengthened.
At times I was able to see a Witness who was in transit from another camp. If we did not have opportunity to speak, we would encourage each other to stand firm with a nod of our head or a raised clenched fist. Occasionally I received letters from Maria and Mother. In one I learned of my dear brother Gregor’s death, and in another, toward the end of the war, of the execution of Hans Stossier, Maria’s brother.
Later, a prisoner was transferred to our camp who knew Gregor when they were together in the Moabit jail in Berlin. From him I learned details of what happened. Gregor had been sentenced to die by guillotine, but in an effort to break his integrity, the customary waiting period before execution had been extended to four months. During that time all kinds of pressures were exerted to make him compromise—heavy chains bound his hands and feet, and he was rarely fed. Yet, he never wavered. He was faithful to the end—March 14, 1942. Though saddened by the news, I was strengthened by it to remain faithful to Jehovah, come what may.
In time I also learned that my younger brothers Kristian and Willibald and my younger sisters Ida and Anni were taken to a convent used as a correctional home in Landau, Germany. The boys were severely beaten because they refused to heil Hitler.
Opportunities to Witness
Most of those in the barracks where I lived were political prisoners and criminals. I often spent evenings witnessing to them. One was a Catholic priest from Kapfenberg named Johann List. He had been imprisoned because he had spoken to his congregation about things heard on British Broadcasting.
Johann had a very difficult time because he was not accustomed to hard physical labor. He was a pleasant man, and I would help him reach his work quota so that he would not get into trouble. He said he was ashamed that he was imprisoned for political reasons and not for standing up for Christian principles. “You are really suffering as a Christian,” he said. When he was released about a year later, he promised to visit my mother and my fiancée, which promise he kept.
Life for Me Improves
Late in 1943, we got a new camp commander by the name of Karl Stumpf, a tall, white-haired man who started to improve conditions in our camp. His villa was due for painting, and when he learned that I was a painter by trade, I was given the job. That was the first time I was called away from working in the swamp.
The commander’s wife had a hard time understanding why I had been imprisoned, even though her husband explained that I was there because of my faith as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She took pity on me because I was so skinny and fed me. She arranged more jobs for me so I could be built up physically.
When prisoners from the camp were being called for fighting on the front lines toward the end of 1943, my good relationship with Commander Stumpf saved me. I explained to him that I would suffer death before becoming bloodguilty by taking part in war. Although my position of neutrality put him in an awkward position, he was able to keep my name off the list of those called up.
Last Days of the War
During January and February of 1945, low-flying American planes encouraged us by dropping leaflets that said the war was near its end. Commander Stumpf, who had saved my life, provided me civilian clothes and offered his villa as a hiding place. Leaving the camp, I saw overwhelming chaos. For example, children in battle gear with tears streaming down their faces were fleeing before the Americans. Fearing that I would run into SS officers who would wonder why I was not carrying a gun, I decided to return to the camp.
Soon our camp was completely encircled by American troops. On March 24, 1945, the camp surrendered, flying white flags. How surprised I was to learn that there were other Witnesses in camp extensions who also had been held back from execution by Commander Stumpf! What a joyous meeting we had! When Commander Stumpf was jailed, many of us approached the American officers and testified personally and by letter in his behalf. As a result, three days later he was freed.
To my astonishment, I was the first one of the some 5,000 prisoners allowed to go free. After five years of imprisonment, I felt as if I were dreaming. With tears of joy, I thanked Jehovah in prayer for having preserved me alive. Germany did not surrender until May 7, 1945, about six weeks later.
On my release, I immediately established contact with other Witnesses in the area. A Bible study group was organized, and during the following weeks, I spent many hours witnessing to the people in the area surrounding the camp. At the same time, I obtained employment as a painter.
Back Home Again
In July, I was able to buy a motorcycle, and then my long trek home began. The journey took several days, since many of the bridges along the highway had been blown up. When I finally arrived home in St. Martin, I drove up the road and spotted Maria harvesting wheat. When she finally recognized me, she came running. You can imagine the happy reunion. Mother threw down her scythe and also came running. Now, 49 years later, Mother is 96 years of age and blind. Her mind is still clear, and she remains a faithful Witness of Jehovah.
Maria and I were married in October 1945, and in the years since, we have enjoyed serving Jehovah together. We have been blessed with three daughters, a son, and six grandchildren, all of whom are zealously serving Jehovah. Over the years I have had the satisfaction of helping scores of people take their stand for Bible truth.
Courage to Endure
Many times I have been asked how, as a mere youth, I was able to face death without fear. Be assured—Jehovah God gives the strength to endure if you are determined to remain loyal. One learns very quickly to rely fully on him through prayer. And knowing that others, including my own father and brother, endured faithfully to death served to help me remain loyal as well.
It was not only in Europe that Jehovah’s people did not take sides in war. I remember that during the Nuremberg trials in 1946, one of Hitler’s high-ranking officials was being questioned about the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in concentration camps. He pulled from his pocket a news clipping that reported that thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States were in American prisons because of their neutrality during World War II.
Indeed, true Christians courageously follow the example of Jesus Christ, who maintained integrity to God down to his dying breath. To this day I often think of the 14 members of our small congregation in St. Martin during the 1930’s and 1940’s who, out of love for God and their fellowman, refused to support Hitler’s war and for that reason were put to death. What a grand reunion it will be when they are brought back to enjoy life forevermore in God’s new world!
[Picture on page 8]
[Pictures on page 8, 9]
Below and left: Cardinal Innitzer voting in support of the German Reich
Right: The “Solemn Declaration” in which six bishops declare that it is their ‘national duty to vote for the German Reich’
[Picture on page 10]
In 1939, Maria and I were engaged
[Picture on page 13]
Our family. Left to right: Gregor (beheaded), Anni, Franz, Willibald, Ida, Gregor (father, beheaded), Barbara (mother), and Kristian
[Picture on page 15]
With Maria today