Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses were executed or languished in Nazi concentration camps alongside millions of Jews. Although Nazi terror targeted millions for reasons of biology, nationality, or political ideology, Jehovah’s Witnesses were “the only group in the Third Reich to be persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs alone,” notes Professor Robert Gerwarth.
Why did the Nazis hate a Christian group?
The Nazi regime branded Jehovah’s Witnesses “enemies of the State,” according to historian Christine King, because of “their very public refusal to accept even the smallest elements of [Nazism], which didn’t fit their faith and their beliefs.”
For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, also then known as Bible Students, took a politically neutral stance based on their understanding of Christ’s teachings. They refused to give the “Heil Hitler” salute, take part in racist and violent acts, or join the German army.
Also noteworthy, “in their literature they publicly identified the evils of the regime, including what was happening to the Jews,” says King.
Consequently, the Witnesses were among the first sent to concentration camps and were assigned a unique uniform symbol, the purple triangle. Unlike other victim groups, however, the Witnesses were presented with a choice that could have saved them from Nazi terror.
Why were the Witnesses given a choice?
The regime considered breaking the Witnesses’ religious convictions a greater victory than killing them or placing them in camps. Thus, the Nazis offered the Witnesses the opportunity to avoid execution and be released from the camp if they signed an Erklärung (issued beginning in 1938) pledging to renounce his or her faith, report other Witnesses to the police, fully submit to the Nazi government, and defend the “Fatherland” with weapon in hand. Prison and camp officials often used torture and privation to induce Witnesses to sign.
The overwhelming majority did not waiver in their convictions. According to historian Detlef Garbe, “extremely low numbers” of Witnesses recanted their faith.” Thus Garbe adds, “the declared intention of the NS [Nazi] rulers was to completely eliminate the Bible Students from German history.”
2023 U.N. IHRD theme: “Home and belonging”
This year’s theme guiding the international Holocaust remembrance and education is “Home and belonging.” The U.N. explains: “The theme highlights the humanity of the Holocaust victims and survivors, who had their home and sense of belonging ripped from them by the perpetrators of the Holocaust.”
The numbers—How many lost their home and belonging
- About 4,200 sent to Nazi concentration camps
- Some 1,600 exterminated, 548 by execution (e.g., firing squad or beheading), including at least 39 minors
- Hundreds of children were abducted from Witness families and taken to Nazi homes or reformatories
Geneviève de Gaulle, a niece of General Charles de Gaulle and member of the French Resistance, got to know female Witness prisoners while in Ravensbrück concentration camp. She relates: “What I admired a lot in them was that they could have left at any time just by signing a renunciation of their faith. . . . Ultimately, these women, who appeared to be so weak and worn out, were stronger than the SS, who had power and all the means at their disposal. They had their strength, and it was their willpower that no one could beat.” Such humble, faithful believers proved to be victors, not merely victims. The Witness community outlasted the Holocaust and continues to thrive decades after the Nazi regime crumbled.
Holocaust museums and memorials around the world display artifacts and plaques commemorating the persecution of of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Remembering the Witnesses’ experiences is important since they are likewise being systematically attacked—imprisoned, beaten, and tortured—for peacefully practicing their faith in some countries, Russia being the foremost persecutor.
Anniversary of Auschwitz-Birkenau liberation | January 27
The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau coincides with IHRD on January 27. According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum website: “Aside from brief mentions, the literature on the history of Auschwitz Concentration Camp does not take account of the Jehovah’s Witnesses…. These prisoners deserve closer attention because of the way they managed to hold on to their moral principles under camp conditions.”
- Jehovah’s Witnesses among first prisoners in Auschwitz, according to museum records, “as early as the first months when the camp was in operation”
- At least 387 Jehovah’s Witnesses sent to Auschwitz during its five years of operation
- At least 152 (close to 40% of the Witnesses) died in the camp
Rudolf Hoess, SS Commandant of Auschwitz, wrote in his autobiography about the execution of certain ones of Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to violate their Christian neutrality. He said: “Thus do I imagine that the first Christian martyrs must have appeared as they waited in the circus for the wild beasts to tear them in pieces. Their faces completely transformed, their eyes raised to heaven, and their hands clasped and lifted in prayer, they went to their death. All who saw them die were deeply moved, and even the execution squad itself was affected.”
Andrzej Szalbot (prisoner # 108703) was arrested and taken to the Cieszyn Gestapo office for refusing to join the German army in 1943. He was promised immediate freedom if he signed a document renouncing membership in the organization and declaring its teachings erroneous. Andrzej refused to sign. He was tortured and repeatedly beaten. Andrzej relates: “I lost consciousness a few times. I was not able to walk out of there on my own.” After six weeks of interrogation, at the age of 19, Andrzej was sent to Auschwitz
Cienciała family. In 1943 the Gestapo arrested Helena Cienciała and sent her to Auschwitz (prisoner # 45856). Two months later her father, Paweł, arrived in Auschwitz and in two more months, so did her mother Ewa (who died in the camp). The reason for arresting the whole family was simply because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses
Non-Witness camp survivors talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses
Anna Pawełczyńska: In her book Values and Violence in Auschwitz, she states:
“This 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. They managed to win the respect of their fellow-prisoners . . . of prisoner-functionaries, and even of the SS officers. Everyone knew that no ‘Bibelforscher’ [Jehovah’s Witness] would perform a command contrary to his religious belief.”
Tibor Wohl: In his book Arbeit macht tot—Eine Jugend in Auschwitz, he relates a conversation he overheard in the camp between fellow prisoners, one being an Austrian who claimed to be a “nonbeliever” but was impressed by the Witnesses.
“They do not go to war,” said the Austrian to his companion. “They would rather be killed than kill anyone else. In my view that is the way true Christians should behave. I must tell you about a very pleasant episode I had with them. We were together with both Jews and Bible Students in one block in the camp of Stutthof. In those days the Bible Students had to do hard labor, outdoors in the bitter cold. We could not understand how they survived. They said Jehovah gave them strength. They needed their bread desperately, since they were famished. But what did they do? They collected all the bread they had, took half of it and gave the other half to their brothers, their spiritual brothers, who came in ravenous from other camps. And they welcomed them and kissed them. Before they ate, they prayed, and afterward their faces beamed with happiness. They said that nobody was hungry anymore. So, you see, then I thought to myself, ‘These are true Christians.’ That was how I always imagined they should be. How nice it would have been to give starving comrades such a welcome here in Auschwitz!”
Please let me know if you have any questions or if you would like any related archival photographs. Upon your request, I am pleased to supply you with additional information. Jehovah’s Witnesses have educational resources that raise awareness of this critical time in history, its impact on human rights, and first-person accounts that demonstrate faith, dignity, and resilience in the face of inhumane treatment from the Nazi regime.
 Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, p. 105. Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault (vcf/-E), Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1996. Responses Outside the Mainstream Catholic and Protestant Traditions (yadvashem.org), accessed on Jan. 3, 2022. Garbe, pp. 287-288. Garbe, Detlef (2008). Between Resistance and Martyrdom: Jehovah's Witnesses in the Third Reich. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 521. ISBN 978-0-299-20794-6. “Number of victims persecuted in National Socialist Germany and in occupied countries,” Central Europe PID fact sheet. Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault (vcf/-E), Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1996.