October 28, 2004
Jehovah’s Witness Recalls Nazi Capture
A 99-year-old Jehovah's Witness who survived Nazi persecution has been touring the United States and giving people a face to put on the usually obscure story of the estimated 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses killed in the Holocaust.
Once an Austrian farmhand persecuted in World War II after being arrested at a Bible study group, Leopold Engleitner spoke very little at an Oct. 12 Museum of Tolerance evening event, where he shook many hands as he signed copies of a book about his Nazi persecution.
Despite his frailty and advanced aged, he was sharp. During the audience Q and A, the first question was what Bible scripture did he draw strength from while imprisoned.
Engleitner instantly said, in German; "Psalms 35:1."
Several Jehovah's Witnesses in the museum theater pulled out Bibles and found the passage, which reads, "Strive thou, O Jehovah, with them that strive with me: Fight thou against them that fight against me."
Despite Nazi offers of freedom if he renounced his faith, Engleitner refused and remained imprisoned with other Jehovah's Witnesses at three concentration camps, including Buchenwald. His saga is the subject of a book and DVD documentary by fellow Austrian Bernhard Rammerstorfer, both titled, "Unbroken Will: The Extraordinary Courage of an Ordinary Man."
Although he was almost executed twice, Engleitner held fast to his faith. After being freed by the Nazis from the concentration camps, he was called up in 1945 for German military service. Being a religious conscientious objector, he fled to the Austrian Alps. It was only when he saw Allied planes flying overhead that Engleitner realized the war was over.
He remained in rural Austria and got married, raised a family, worked more in farming and tended to his dying wife. Since her passing, he has taken care of himself and only recently required a wheelchair while traveling.
His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses were deeply moved. Unlike Europe's Jews who had virtually no options to leave concentration camps, "he had choices," said David Goldfarb, a Jehovah's Witness church leader in Beverly Hills who grew up Jewish and became a Jehovah's Witness at age 15. "He had choices -- to stand up to the entire Hitler regime by choice."
"When you actually meet a person, you connect more; you can see that he's not a superman," said Claybourne Roberts, a 43-year-old Gulfstream executive and one of almost 200 Jehovah's Witnesses who came to the museum that night.
At Buchenwald, Engleitner was told by a camp officer to write a final letter to his parents, and when the letter was finished he held a gun to Engleitner's temple and asked if he was ready to die.
"Yes, I am," Engleitner said, according to the documentary.
Then the officer removed the pistol and said, "You're too stupid for me to shoot," and walked away.
The evening drew working-class Latinos and African Americans from Jehovah's Witness churches, known as kingdom halls, in the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire. Many were familiar with the purple triangle, which the Nazis used to identify Jehovah's Witnesses prisoners. The audience was struck by how the documentary noted that because Jehovah's Witnesses were pure pacifists, they were the only inmates in concentration camps trusted enough to be assigned to shave and give haircuts to Nazis.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, praised Engleitner and other devoutly religious people for, "the tremendous spirit that people of faith bring to the table."
"No, he is not a survivor of the Holocaust," Cooper said. "But he is a survivor of Nazi tyranny, targeted because he made a decision about how he was going to pray to God."
Another audience question was if Engleitner feels bitter toward his tormentors. Through a translator, the longtime farmhand said, "I would have only hurt myself if I had dwelled on this."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born and raised in Austria, sent a letter of greetings to Engleitner read at the museum by Michelle Kleinert, his Jewish community liaison. Also present was the Austrian consul general of Los Angeles.
At 99, Engleitner's California trip allowed him to make his first visit to Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Engleitner laughed when he heard Cooper, in translation, gave an old Jewish saying a new twist.
"You should live to be 120 years old and one week," said Cooper, explaining that Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz added the extra week because, "Why should you die on your birthday?"