Media Response

October 06, 2004

Columbia Daily Spectator

Holocaust Survivor Speaks at BC

Engleitner Tells of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Refusing Military Service
by Leora Falk

Holocaust survivor Leopold Engleitner, 99, spoke last night at Barnard.
Leopold Engleitner of Austria speaks in quiet German, but the story he tells speaks volumes. At 99, he has watched history unfold, and is one of the oldest living Holocaust survivors; he lived through three concentration camps.

Last night, Engleitner shared his story at Barnard as part of an ongoing series of public forums on the concept of non-violence, organized by Professor Dennis Dalton.

Engleitner, a Jehovah's Witness, spoke through fellow survivor and translator Robert Wagemann.

As a Jehovah's Witness, his story is unique, because, unlike other Holocaust victims, Jehovah's Witnesses were offered the chance to gain their freedom by signing a document denouncing their faith and recognizing the supreme authority of the Nazi regime.

Engleitner, who became a Jehovah's Witness in 1932, refused to sign.

Despite their relatively small population in Austria and Germany, Jehovah's Witnesses were outspoken in their dislike and distrust of the Nazi government and continued to produce anti-Nazi publications even when the Gestapo forcefully shut down Jehovah's Witness organizations.

Engleitner was tried and imprisoned because, as a religious conscientious objector, he refused to serve in the German army. He was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp soon thereafter, and then later to Niederhagen and Ravensbrück, where he endured starvation and hard physical labor.

Engleitner was almost executed twice during his internment. The first time was in Buchenwald, when after saying he was there because of his faith, the head of the barrack dragged him away from the other inmates and forced him to write a goodbye letter to his family. He held a gun to Engleitner's temple and asked if he was ready to die. "Yes, I am," Engleitner said. The man shouted, "You're too stupid for me to shoot," and removed the gun.

Later, in the same camp, he was taken to the sick ward, where the nurse decided to give him a lethal injection. When she left to get the syringe, "I gathered all my strength and crawled away," Engleitner said.

Through all he faced, Engleitner maintained his faith: he spoke about how he discussed his beliefs with other inmates, and how on one occasion the Witnesses in the camp managed to obtain a Bible.

Engleitner attributed his survival to his unflagging faith and said that thanks to this faith, he has never felt animosity towards his persecutors. "I believed strongly that God would be the avenger," he said.

When asked by a member of the audience if maintaining his faith was worth the suffering, he answered with an emphatic nod, and the audience broke into applause. The audience was visibly moved by his story, one woman calling him her "peace hero."

In 1994 Bernhard Rammerstorfer, who also spoke at the forum, met Engleitner, and later wrote his biography, Unbroken Will.

" [Engleitner] taught me that tolerance, humanity and respect for others are the highest ideals and [they] must be defended," Rammerstorfer said.

An abridged version of the documentary Jehovah's Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault, as well as part of the documentary based on Engleitner's biography, were shown at the forum.

Dalton brought Engleitner to campus as part of his forum after hearing about the struggles of the Jehovah's Witnesses from Judah Schroeder, GS '06, who was the deputy director of public affairs for Jehovah's Witnesses before enrolling in Columbia.