I’ve been reading the news about the football players on European teams going to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Most of the stories mention that victims in the Auschwitz death camp included Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, the news article here has this statement:
Most of the Auschwitz victims were Jews but the Nazis also killed many Poles, Soviet prisoners of wars, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and political opponents there.
The following information is from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website which says that the total number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany was 20,000:
In the Nazi years, about 10,000 Witnesses, most of them of German nationality, were imprisoned in concentration camps. 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. An estimated 2,500 to 5,000 Witnesses died in the camps or prisons. More than 200 men were tried by the German War Court and executed for refusing military service.
The Nazis referred to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “volunteer” prisoners because they could leave at any time if only they would change their minds about serving in the Army or stop distributing pamphlets against the German government.
So why would Jehovah’s Witnesses be sent to Auschwitz, which was a death camp?
Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to all the camps because they were selected to work as servants in the homes of the SS men who were running the camps.
The movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shows a scene in which a Jewish doctor is working in the kitchen in the Commandant’s house, using a knife to peel potatoes. That’s not what happened in real life. Jewish doctors were put to work in the camp hospitals, and it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were allowed to use knives in the homes of the SS men, because they were considered to be trustworthy.
The main camp where Jehovah’s Witnesses (Bibelforscher) were sent was Sachsenhausen, which is near Berlin. In 1936, after the Bibelforscher were banned by law in Germany, there were 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses sent to Sachsenhausen.
At the Sachsenhausen Memorial Site, there is a memorial stone in honor of a prisoner named August Dickman who was executed because he was a member of the International Bible Students Association, who refused to serve in the Germany army. The memorial stone says that he was a “conscientious objector.”
According to Rudolf Höss, who was the adjutant in the Sachsenhausen camp at the time that Dickmann was executed, there were a large number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sachsenhausen; he wrote in his memoirs that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were sent to the camps beginning in 1937, because they were “using religion to undermine the will of the people for military preparedness,” by recruiting others to their beliefs about not serving in the military. Höss claimed that only those who were actively preaching against the state and recruiting others were imprisoned. Höss would later become famous as the first Commandant of Auschwitz.
When World War II started, all concentration camp prisoners, who were fit for military service, were drafted. Höss wrote in his memoirs: “A large number of them (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) refused to serve in the military and were, therefore, sentenced to death by Himmler as draft dodgers.” Those who were willing to renounce their ideas against the military, or to serve in the army were released.
In America, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Japanese-American prisoners in the internment camps, who refused to serve in the American army, were sent to federal prisons where they were forced to work at hard labor, but none were executed.
Mauthausen was a Class III camp where the worst criminals were sent. The first Jehovah’s Witness to be registered at the Mauthausen camp was Franz Bräuchle, who was Prisoner No. 337. By August 1939, a year after the Mauthausen camp was opened, there were 143 Jehovah’s Witnesses who were prisoners there.
Niederhagen was a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen. The photo above shows Jehovah’s Witnesses who were prisoners in the Niederhagen camp. Some of them were over 40 years old when they were sent to the camp, so they could not have been imprisoned just because they refused to serve in the Army.
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 in the concentration camps “not for their religious convictions, but for their Communist tendencies.”
In all of the news articles about Auschwitz, it is implied that the prisoners in the camp, regardless of their category, were sent there, and murdered, for no reason at all.