A Testimony to Their Faith
THE year 1995 saw the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. Throughout Europe, Nazi victims commemorated this occasion with large gatherings attended by heads of State at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and other camps. One thought that came repeatedly to the fore was, “May we never forget!”
For this reason Jehovah’s Witnesses presented exhibitions in Europe during the anniversary year. Many of the Witnesses had been interned by Hitler’s government for their refusal to give the Hitler salute and to support the war effort. From 1933 onward, thousands of them were imprisoned, and many died as a result of the treatment they received.
Their experiences are, however, generally unknown by the public. This has given rise to the expression “history’s forgotten victims.” A group of Witness survivors expressed the desire to preserve the memory of their families and companions who were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, or murdered and to make known the testimony of faith and courage left by these Bibelforscher, the name by which Jehovah’s Witnesses were identified in the concentration camps.
On September 29, 1994, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., held a seminar concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses in the concentration camps. Two large commemorative reunions were held in France by camp survivors, on March 28, 1995, in Strasbourg and on March 30, in Paris. It was very moving to hear these now aged men and women, still faithful to God 50 years later, relate their experiences. On April 27, a similar meeting was held near Berlin, in Brandenburg, Germany, where many Witnesses were executed by being beheaded. On the following day, a number of the survivors attended the ceremonies organized by the State of Brandenburg and made visits to various camps.
The French Exhibition
At these reunions, an exhibition with the theme “Mémoire de Témoins” (Witness Testimony) was presented. From May 1995 to April 1996, it toured 42 cities in France and various cities in Belgium and French-speaking Switzerland. Above all, the men and women in the exhibition are Witnesses of Jehovah God. But they are also witnesses of the suffering that they and others endured in the concentration camps. They are living proof of an ideology of intolerance that caused the suffering and death of millions of people because of their race or religion. The testimony of the Witnesses, furthermore, exposes how so-called Christians preferred a pseudomessiah, Hitler, to Jesus Christ; hate to love of neighbor; and violence to peace.
The exhibition consisted of some 70 panels, starting with a timetable of events—the opening of the camps in Dachau and Oranienburg, in March 1933; the Nuremberg Laws to “protect German blood,” in September 1935; the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria to Germany, in March 1938; Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), in November of the same year, during which thousands of Jewish shops were ransacked and more than 30,000 people were arrested and deported; the gradual ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses; the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941; and the euthanasia of the mentally sick, from 1939 to 1941.
Several panels highlighted the indoctrination of the young in the Hitler Youth and the fascination that the huge Nazi rallies in Nuremberg held for the masses. Photos called to mind Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to pledge allegiance to the führer and to give the Hitler salute. Other panels showed how Jehovah’s Witnesses were the victims of disinformation and how, as of 1935, they distributed magazines and tracts exposing Nazi excesses.
About 40 panels recounted the experiences of ordinary men and women from all over Europe who were persecuted and even killed because of their faith. Survivors supported the exhibition by their presence, and visitors listened to them attentively. Children were enthralled as Louis Arzt told his story. Originally from Mulhouse in France, he was taken from his parents and sent to Germany for refusing to say “Heil Hitler!” at school. “An SS soldier beat me for refusing to salute Hitler. He gave me 30 strokes. Two days later he took me by the shoulder and tried to play on my feelings. ‘Think of your mother. She would be so happy to see you. All you need to do is to say “Heil Hitler!” and you can get on the train.’ It was hard for a child of 12,” he added. Many were touched by the experiences of Joseph Hisiger who exchanged his week’s ration of bread for the Bible of his Protestant cell mate.
Videotaped interviews with former deportees were another feature of the exhibition. Some interviews were done at the camp locations themselves—for instance, at Ebensee in Austria and at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen in Germany. Other interviews recorded various aspects of camp life or the memories of Witnesses deported as children.
A short ceremony opened each presentation of the exhibition, during which a representative of the former deportees explained the spiritual resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses to Nazism. Non-Witness deportees as well as several historians and officials, including a former French government minister, also kindly accepted invitations to speak.
A former deportee who knew Jehovah’s Witnesses in Buchenwald said regarding them: “I am unaware of any category of deportees, apart from the Jews, who were treated as ignominiously: beaten, humiliated, insulted, given the vilest tasks. Without their faith, they could not have withstood. I have the greatest respect and admiration for them.”
Over 100,000 people visited the exhibition. In some locations hundreds of people, among them many youngsters, queued up to get into the exhibition hall. Many visitors expressed their feelings with a few words in the visitors’ book. For example, one youngster wrote: “My name is Sabrina. I am ten years old and would like to be as brave as Ruth to please Jehovah.”*
The media also spoke about the exhibition. In general, in each town one or two articles appeared in the local press. Additionally, local radio stations often publicized the exhibition and broadcast programs featuring interviews with former deportees. Regional television presented brief reports. One televised news report spoke of the exhibition as “a simple yet terrible story that looks into the heart of the unspeakable. A ‘Witness Testimony’ that pays respect to dignity that can never be taken away.”
For the survivors the 50th anniversary of the liberation will long remain engraved in their minds. While evoking painful memories was not always easy, by sharing them with others and by bringing the memories out of oblivion, the Witnesses were able to strengthen the faith of others. They considered it a privilege to participate in this exhibition and to dispel some of the prejudice and the ignorance that still linger after 50 years. Most of all, they derived satisfaction from knowing that their testimony brings honor to their God, Jehovah, and ensures that others will never forget what they endured as his Witnesses.
Ruth Danner was deported at the age of nine along with her parents and was interned in six different camps. See 1980 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., page 105.
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Articles in “The Golden Age” denounced the excesses of Nazism
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Some 70 panels told the story of the Nazi persecution of men, women, and children who refused to deny their faith
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Some of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been deported and interned by Hitler’s government told their story