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Purple Triangles: A Story of Spiritual Resistance

Jolene Chu, New York

Originally published in Judaism Today, No. 12, Spring 1999 pp. 15-19, ISBN 1358-4774 (with permission of the editors)

Hannah vividly remembers the Monday afternoon that two of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to her grandparents’ Munich home. Her grandmother had invited the two ladies into the kitchen, and over tea they discussed the ominous events of that day—January 30, 1933. Adolf Hitler had just become Chancellor of Germany.

Seven-year-old Hannah listened to the agitated conversation. “Most of it I didn’t understand,” she admits. But her grandmother said about the visit that she “felt comforted, like they were kindred spirits at that moment.” Hannah remembers watching the two visitors disappear down the street. She recalls, “Then, my grandmother said, ‘Don’t be afraid. These are good people, and they are trying to help us.’ I remembered that all my life.”

As the Hitler administration quickly hardened into a terrifying totalitarian machine, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others had foreboding evidence that perilous times lay ahead for them, although few could have known just how perilous things were to become.

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, roving bands of brown-shirted Nazi thugs often broke up religious meetings of the Bibelforscher (or Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were called until 1931). The Witnesses were vilified in the Nazi and religious press as a dangerous, subversive sect seeking to undermine German values and society. The propaganda often charged the Witnesses with having ties to supposed Jewish-Bolshevist world conspiracies. The Witnesses’ insistence on using the Hebrew name of God didn’t help matters, nor did their refusal to “cleanse” their literature of Hebrew Scripture references and Hebraic terms.

The February 28, 1933, Decree for the Protection of the People and the State provided the legal basis to suppress Hitler’s enemies, including the Witnesses.

Despite the growing frequency of raids, harassment, and arrests, the Witnesses in early 1933 hoped that it was all a misunderstanding based perhaps on the libelous charges of religious opponents. Initial communication with the new government earnestly sought to explain that Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral. They did not believe in taking up arms; therefore, they posed no subversive threat to any government, including Germany’s.

That was not what the government wanted to hear. It expected subservience, silence, and loyalty from German churches. What the Witnesses described as political neutrality the government saw as seditious insubordination. The Witnesses, numbering about 25,000 in Germany, quickly found themselves at odds with the Nazis. Holding on to religious beliefs in the totalitarian state would soon put life and livelihood in jeopardy.

The Christian theology of the Witnesses diametrically opposed Nazi ideology on three basic points: The Witnesses rejected racism, ultranationalism, and the deification of the State and its fuhrer. The Witnesses obey governmental authority, but they owe prior allegiance to God and his Kingdom. Therefore, if a government demands what God prohibits, or prohibits what God requires, the choice for the individual Witness is clear. This position threw thousands of Witnesses into a pitched spiritual battle with the Nazis.

On the streets, at factories, in schools, and even in homes, the Hitler salute signaled the people’s fidelity to the fuhrer. The calculated messianic symbolism of the Hitler salute, meaning in essence “Salvation comes from Hitler,” was not lost on the Witnesses. They couldn’t heil a mere man. This daily, visible refusal soon led to beatings, firings from jobs, destruction of property, and prison sentences. Out of obedience to God and love of neighbor, Witnesses would not join the Nazi Party, Labor Front, or Hitler Youth, nor would they vote in elections, observe boycotts of Jewish businesses, serve in the military, or perform war-related work.

In June 1933 the regime outlawed the religion, its literature, and its activities. In August, the authorities confiscated the Witnesses’ printing plant in Magdeburg, burning 25 truckloads of Bibles and Witness literature. Witnesses were banned from civil service jobs and became virtually unemployable. Being married to a Witness became legal grounds for divorce. Witness children were expelled from schools, and nearly 500 of them were taken away to be raised in Nazi penitentiary homes and reform schools. Businesses, pensions, social security benefits, and wages were seized. Witnesses were paraded through the streets, wearing placards that read, “We are traitors! We did not vote!”

Officials charged the Witnesses with “not conforming to racial and national idealism” and “openly ignoring national bodies,” according to Professor Christine King, vice chancellor of Staffordshire University and leading authority on the Witness experience in Nazi Germany. Being a Witness thus became sufficient grounds for arrest and imprisonment. Incarcerated by the hundreds, the Witnesses in camps bore on their uniforms the purple triangle, the only camp symbol designating a non-Jewish religious group.

The Gestapo and Criminal Police assigned special units to hunt down Witnesses and destroy the religion. Despite a nationwide sweep that netted thousands in August 1936, members continued to meet in secret and to carry on their ministry work underground. Two daring protest campaigns in December 1936 and June 1937 shocked Nazi officials, as the Witnesses blanketed the country with leaflets detailing the regime’s human rights abuses. “During the whole length of the Nazi era in Germany, no other resistance organization took comparable initiatives,” wrote German scholar Dr. Elke Imberger. The repressive Nazi measures in part caused the Witnesses’ stance to take on the character of resistance, albeit nonpolitical and nonviolent.

By 1938, Nazi prisons and camps held about 6,000 Witnesses, about 5 to 10 percent of the total prewar camp population. Concurrent with the travails of the Witnesses, the Jewish community was feeling the ever-intensifying heat of Nazi terror. The plight of the Jews did not escape the sympathetic attention of the Witnesses, both in Germany and abroad. One month prior to Kristallnacht, Watch Tower Society president J. F. Rutherford voiced outrage in an international radio broadcast, saying: “The Devil has put his representative Hitler in control, a man who is of unsound mind, cruel, malicious and ruthless . . . He cruelly persecutes the Jews because they were once Jehovah’s covenant people and bore the name of Jehovah, and because Christ Jesus was a Jew.”

Witness literature became an instrument of spiritual resistance, exposing the criminal actions of the Nazi regime and its murderous antisemitic agenda. Witness prisoners wrote secret reports of camp conditions. These were smuggled out and printed in the Witness journals The Watchtower and Consolation (forerunner of Awake!). The 1938 Witness book Crusade Against Christianity contained diagrams of the camps Sachsenhausen and Esterwegen. Consolation of May 4, 1938, said, “History never recorded a more systematic, efficient, devilish obliteration of Jews than at present in Germany.” Following the November pogrom, Consolation asked, “How can one remain silent?”

Chilling descriptions of the attack on European Jewry appeared frequently in Witness publications. Hundreds of column inches detailed and decried the destruction of the Jews’ religious, social, and economic life, and ultimately, the physical annihilation of the Jews.

During and after Kristallnacht, according to historian Anton Gill, German Witnesses showed themselves “especially courageous,” sheltering and protecting Jewish neighbors. In July 1939 the New York Yiddish daily Der Tog reported about Jehovah’s Witnesses, “There were numerous cases in Danzig where members of the same religious sect have defended Jews against attacks by Nazis, or when these sincere women of the common people intentionally patronized Jewish stores just when Hitlerites picketed those Jewish shops. Only a half a year ago, when like a plague all kinds of food stores began to post the well-known signs 'Juden unerwnscht’ (Jews not wanted), the same German women regarded it as a sacred duty to provide their Jewish neighbors or mere acquaintances with food or milk without asking anything in return.”

The book Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938, reports that 300-400 Witness inmates in Buchenwald shared their bread rations with some of the 2,250 Jews brought to the camp in 1938. One Buchenwald survivor told how Witnesses gave their bread to Jewish prisoners and went without food themselves for up to four days.

Bruno Bettelheim observed that the Witnesses “were the only group of prisoners who never abused or mistreated other prisoners” and were “exemplary comrades, helpful, correct, dependable.” The Witnesses were known for sharing their Bible message with other prisoners. “Though the gentile prisoners were forbidden to talk to us,” said a Jewish woman in Lichtenburg, “these women never observed this regulation. They prayed for us as if we belonged to their family, and begged us to hold out.” BBC reporter Bjrn Hallstrom said that in Buchenwald, Witnesses were punished for eight days because they “had not avoided the forbidden paths between the Jewish blocks.”

Frustrated by the Witnesses’ persistent resistance, the SS regularly announced in Sachsenhausen that prisoners caught talking to Witnesses would receive 25 strokes. Survivor Max Liebster recalls that the SS there isolated the Witnesses and declared their barracks off limits to other prisoners. In Melk, Polish survivor Joseph Kempler says he saw “a camp within a camp” and was told that the SS kept the “purple triangles” in it, dangerous prisoners because they taught people the Bible.

Capitulation, not annihilation, seems to have been the Nazi goal for the Witnesses, despite the fact that Hitler had declared about them in 1934, “This brood will be exterminated!” The Gestapo and SS applied the usual tortur e methods, and in the process hundreds of Witnesses died. But a clue as to the Nazi aim of breaking Witness resolve is found in a remarkable document offered repeatedly to Witness prisoners —a renunciation of their faith and a pledge of loyalty to the fatherland. In exchange for a signature, a Witness could walk away free from camp or prison. Dr. Detlef Garbe, author of an exhaustive volume on the Witnesses, estimates that of the 10,000 Witnesses imprisoned during the Nazi period, there were only a few dozen cases of individuals who signed the so-called Declaration and gained release.

As an intimidation tactic, the SS staged several showcase executions. Heinrich Himmler ordered August Dickmann, a 29-year-old German Witness, shot by firing squad at Sachsenhausen on September 15, 1939. The New York Times named Dickmann as the first conscientious objector of the war to be executed by the Nazis. The entire camp, including Dickmann’s brother Heinrich and about 400 other Witnesses, had to watch. The commandant threatened the Witness inmates with a similar fate unless they signed the Declaration. Not one Witness yielded, but the threat was not carried out.

In Ravensbruck, 400 Witness women refused to sew ammunition pockets. Brutal punishment resulted. Yet fellow prisoner Genevieve de Gaulle, niece of Charles de Gaulle, said of the Witnesses: “Ultimately, these women, who appeared to be so weak and worn out, were stronger than the SS. . . . It was their willpower that no one could beat.”

Eugen Kogon’s famous work The Theory and Practice of Hell states, “One cannot escape the impression that, psychologically speaking, the SS was never quite equal to the challenge offered them by Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

The Witnesses, who saw themselves as part of the universal struggle of good against evil, sought to conquer the scourge of Nazism in accord with the principles of their faith. For them, says James Pellechia, producer of an award-winning documentary on the Witness experience, it was “a battle for the right to worship their God, a battle to love their neighbor, and a battle to tell the truth.”

Hannah, a children’s librarian now living in New Jersey, U.S.A., feels that her chance encounter with the Witnesses helped her to cope with the terrors her family faced before they finally escaped Nazi Germany. “It allowed me to be centered in this situation by having seen and been told not to worry, how there are good people who are there to help,” she says. “It impacted on me my whole life.”

Jolene Chu, a researcher for the Watch Tower Society in New York, specializes in the history of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Nazi era. The writer is seeking to interview survivors who had contact with Witnesses during the Nazi period. Readers can write to Jolene Chu c/o Watch Tower, The Ridgeway, London NW7 1RN.

References & Endnotes

Quoted in The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993), p. 204.

For an excellent discussion of the theory of moral responsibility, powers of agency, and the ‘could not do otherwise’ defense, as related to perpetrator behavior, see chapter 3, ‘Excuses,’ in David H. Jones’, Moral Responsibilitiy in the Holocaust—A Study in the Ethics of Character (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999), pp. 63-77

1989 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, (Brooklyn, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1988), p. 121.

Garbe, Detlef: ‘Die Verfolgung der Zeugen Jehovas im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland – Ein Uberblick, in Widerstand aus christlicher Uberzeugung: Jehovas Zeugen im Nationalsozialismus, edited by Kirsten John-Stucke, (Essen, Germany: Klartext, 1998), p. 24.

See Gabriele Yonan, ‘Spiritual Resistance of Christian Conviction in Nazi Germany: The Case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ in Journal of Church and State, Spring 1999, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 307-322.

See Light, Vol. 1 (Brooklyn, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1932), p. 164. Cf. The Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. ‘Kingdom of God;’ The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966), p. 229; Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: 450 B.C.E. to 600 C.E., Vol. 2, edited by Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green (New York: MacMillan Library Reference USA, 1996), pp. 370-371.

Cf. Acts 5:29.

Cf. John 17:16. For a fuller discussion of the Witness doctrine of neutrality, see ‘Neutrality,’ in Reasoning From the Scriptures (Brooklyn, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1996), pp. 269-276.

‘Witness’: Greek, martus; Latin, testimonium, according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, ‘denotes one who can or does aver what he has seen or heard or knows,’ from which derives the word ‘martyr,’ that is, ‘one who bears witness by his death.’

For instance, in 1929 the Witness publication The Golden Age (German edition) stated: ‘National Socialism . . . is a movement that is acting directly in the service of man’s enemy, the Devil.’ Das Goldene Zeitalter, October 15, 1929, p. 316.

Scriptural precedents include the divine denunciations delivered by Hebrew prophets of old such as Isaiah’s rebuke of Assyria and Babylon (Isaiah 36:1-39:8 and 45:1-48:22), Jeremiah’s prophecies again the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Edomand Elam (Jeremiah 46:1-49:39), Obadiah’s condemnation of Edom (Obadiah 1-16), and Jonah’s message to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-4:11).

Garbe, Detlef: ‘Die Verfolgung der Zeugen Jehov as,’ p, 17.

King, Christine E., The Nazi State and the New Religions: Five Case Studies in Non-Conformity (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1982), p. 160.

Germany No. 2 (1939) ‘Papers concerning the Treatment of German Nationals in Germany, 1938-1939,’ Cmd. 6120, (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1939), p. 10.

Weiss, John, Ideology of Death--Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1996), p. 313.

See Brian R. Dunn, ‘The Death’s Head and the Watchtower: Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Holocaust Kingdom,’ Jack Fischel and Sanford Pinsker, eds., The Churches’ Response to the Holocaust, Holocaust Studies Annual, Vol. II (Greenwood, FL: The Penkevill Publishing Company, 1986), p. 158.

While some churches were known to have supplied Nazi officials with baptism records to prove ‘Aryan’ lineage, and thereby disenfranchise Jews, the Witnesses did not cooperate with Nazi authorities in identifying members with Jewish parentage. Moreover, Jews who had become Jehovah’s Witnesses were commonly sheltered and hidden by congregation members.

The San Francisco Chronicle, November 20, 1938, p. 1, reported that Protestant churches were ordered to eliminate the name ‘Jehovah’ from their churches or they would be burned down as synagogues had been shortly before.

For instance, Hans Jonak von Freyenwald’s Die Zeugen Jehovah: Pioniere fur ein judisches Weltreich is a 104-page diatribe against the Witnesses, including an extensive bibliography of similar anti-Witness literature. (Berlin: Buchverlag Germania AktienGesellschaft, 1936)

Henry R. Huttenbach, ‘The Book War: Nazism vs. Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ in The Genocide Forum, July -August 1999, p. 6.

See Watchtower Reprints of the Holocaust—1933-1946, in the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute, Washington, D.C. The multivolume set contains more than 1,200 photocopied pages of magazines, booklets, books, and tracts printed by the Watch Tower Society.

This is a recurring theme in Witness literature of the period. See, for example, ‘Jesuitized Germany (Part 2),’ Consolation, (December 14, 1938, pp. 3-11) and ‘Pius XII’s and Stalin’s Comrade (Part 2),’ (June 12, 1940, pp. 19-28.)

The 1936 and 1937 the Witnesses distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets detailing Nazi atrocities. Scholars agree that by this time no other resistance organization, political or religious, remained with the capacity to carry out a similar campaign. See Benz, Wolfgang: ‘Resistance Because of Christian Conviction,’ in Informationen zur politischen Bildung, 2/1994, p. 21, and Imberger, Elke: Widerstand ‘von unten’—Widerstand und Dissens aus den Reihen der Arbeiter bewegung und der Zeugen Jehovas in Lubeck und Schleswig-Holstein 1933-1945, (Neumunster, 1991), p. 345. Of the December 12, 1936, campaign, Imberger writes: ‘In Germany, during the whole National Socialist period, there was no other organization in opposition that conducted a comparable initiative.’

Wolfgang Benz, Informationen zur politischen Bildung, No. 243, 1994, p. 21.

Oliner, Samuel P., ‘Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust,’ in The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 686. 1 Fogelman, Eva: ‘The Rescuer Self,’ in The Holocaust and History p. 661.

Fogelman, ‘The Rescuer Self,’ in The Holocaust and History, p. 668, 674.

Pawelczynska, Anna: Values and Violence in Auschwitz—A Sociological Analysis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979), p. 137.

Pearl M. and Samuel P. Oliner, ‘Promoting Extensive Altruistic Bonds: A Conceptual Elaboration and Some Pragmatic Implications,’ in Embracing the Other, (New York: New York University Press, 1992), p. 380.

Oliner and Oliner, Embracing the Other, p. 382


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