Scrapbookpages Blog

February 16, 2010

Jehovah’s Witnesses – mistreated by the Nazis?

Jehovah's Witnesses at the Niederhagen camp near Wewelsburg

The photo above appears on my web site on this page.

Under the photo, I wrote this sentence:

“Note that the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the photo above appear to have been well treated.”

Recently, I got an e-mail from a woman who claimed that I was wrong in saying that the prisoners in this photo look like they were well treated.  She claims that the photo was taken long after the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the photo had been released and had recovered from their torture and mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis.

It is possible that some of the Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Niederhagen camp kept their striped prison shirts and posed years later for a photo.  It is also possible that their prison shirts still fit them when they gained weight after being released.

There is nothing that indicates the date of the photo.  Most of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Niederhagen camp were over 40 years old when they were sent there. They were selected from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp because of their building skills.  The Niederhagen camp was set up to house prisoners who were working on restoring the  Wewelsburg castle.

North tower of Wewelsburg Castle

The following quote is from my own web page about the Jehovah’s Witnesses at Niederhagen concentration camp:

After several escape attempts by the German criminals at Niederhagen, they were replaced by Jehovah’s Witnesses, called “Bible students,” who were considered to be more trustworthy and not likely to escape. The Nazis called the Bible students “volunteer prisoners” because they could have been released at any time if they would only renounce their religion and join the German Army. Note that the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the photo above appear to have been well treated.

According to a book by Hans Hesse, entitled “Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Nazi Regime,” published in 2001, there was a total of 306 Jehovah’s Witnesses sent to the Niederhagen-Wewelsburg camp and 19 of them died. Other sources say that there were 21 Jehovah’s Witnesses who died in the camp.

Hans Hesse attributed the low mortality rate among the Jehovah’s Witnesses to group cohesiveness and their willingness to help and support each other. By way of comparison, there were 903 German prisoners in other categories at Niederhagen-Wewelsburg and at least 357 of them died, according to Hans Hesse’s book.

Hans Hesse wrote that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were selected from prisoners at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald for their professional skills in building construction. Although younger workers were preferred by the Nazis, 65% of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at Niederhagen-Wewelsburg were over 40 years of age, according to Hesse’s book.

Hermann Pister, the Commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp claimed in his testimony before the American Military Tribunal at Dachau that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned “not for their religious convictions, but for their Communist tendencies.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sent to the Niederhagen camp when they were over 40 years old could not have been imprisoned just because they refused to serve in the Army.  Could they have been arrested because of their “Communist tendencies?”

My e-mail correspondent also claimed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were separated in the camps and were not allowed to live together.  So how did they support each other with “group cohesiveness” as Hans Hesse wrote?

In the early days at the Dachau concentration camp, visitors were brought to see the “model camp”  including some prison wardens from America.  According to a book written by Paul Berben, a former prisoner who wrote the official history of the camp, the visitors were always shown the barracks of the Jehovah’s Witnesses because they were the neatest and cleanest barracks of all.

Typically, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were given jobs in the homes of the SS officers because they were considered trustworthy.  In the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” there is a scene where a Jewish doctor is peeling potatoes with a knife in the home of the Commandant of a camp that is supposed to be like Auschwitz.  There is no way that the Commandant of Auschwitz would have allowed a Jew to use a knife in his home, at least not while there were trustworthy Jehovah’s Witnesses available.

So what is the truth?  Were the Jehovah’s Witnesses mistreated by the Nazis or not?

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany and during the Nazi years, around 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, mostly from Germany, were imprisoned in concentration camps. The USHMM estimates that 2,500 to 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses died in the concentration camps or prisons; more than 200 men were tried by the German War Court and executed for refusing military service.

According to the USHMM:

“After 1939, small numbers of Witnesses from Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland (some of them refugees from Germany) were arrested and deported to Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and other concentration camps.”

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