Lecture given at Symposium 'Lessons of the Holocaust and Modern Russia,' Moscow, May 5, 1997:


How the Watchtower History Archive in Germany

Benefits Holocaust Research

After the shocking "Crystal Night" pogrom on November 9, 1938, thirty thousands Jews, each wearing a yellow star (formed by two triangles), were taken to Nazi concentration camps. [1] There they met prisoners wearing a purple symbol (one triangle), prisoners who had already been suffering in these camps for one, two, or more years; they were the Bibelforscher or Jehovah's Witnesses. From 1937 onward, the purple triangle, assigned to Jehovah's Witnesses by the SS, served as the unique identification symbol for this religious group in all concentration camps. Jews who survived the Holocaust often speak of Jehovah's Witnesses in the camps. And, as we shall see, Jehovah's Witnesses are able to recount what they saw regarding the Jews in these same camps.

A German Jew recalls the following in Buchenwald: "The Bibelforscher (or, Jehovah's Witnesses) were made to line up every morning and evening at roll call, and they were told each time that they could leave as free men if they renounced their faith. Out of many hundreds I only saw one recant. Unlike the Jews, the Bibelforscher were neither allowed the usual two brief letters a month, nor were they allowed to receive money from their friends." [2]

Jehovah's Witnesses (or Bibelforscher as they were know before 1931), a Christian faith established in Germany in 1897, kept strict political neutrality and refused any cooperation with the Nazi regime or ideology, going so far as refusing to use the common greeting "Heil Hitler!" Hence, their religious publications and activities were strictly banned right from the beginning of the Nazi regime. Active members were hunted by Gestapo officials all over Germany. Once apprehended, they were put into custody, often brutally interrogated. Some were even killed. By 1937 thousands of Witnesses had been arrested and sent to German prisons and Nazi concentration camps.

In our documentary video Jehovah's Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault, 10 historians and over 20 survivors give evidence of the remarkable stand of the Witnesses and their own unique way of resistance. The Russian language version of Stand Firm is also now available.

Historian Dr. Detlef Garbe (Neuengamme Memorial) states: "Prior to World War Two, about five to ten percent of concentration camp inmates were Jehovah's Witnesses." [4] Since the Witnesses made up such a relatively large number of pre-war prisoners, their history is an important one. However, as some of you may know, statistics and information about the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses are still incomplete. Therefore, Holocaust researchers and educators will be pleased to learn that for their benefit the Watchtower Society recently established in Germany a special department that we call the "Watchtower History Archive." (The Watchtower Society is the legal, religious, non-profit corporation of Jehovah's Witnesses.)

So far we have established that before the vicious attack on the Jews in 1938, over 6,000 German Witnesses were already imprisoned in Nazi prisons and camps. However, a total of 10,000 Witnesses in Germany one way or another became victims of the Nazi regime; they were stripped of their pensions, fired from their places of work, their businesses were shut down, and their children were taken away etc. In addition, from 1938 onward, about 1,300 non-German Witnesses were sent to concentration camps; over 450 from Austria, about 450 from the Netherlands, over 280 from Poland, about 70 from France, and an unknown number from the former Soviet Union and other countries. [5]

The Watchtower History Archive in Germany is also collecting all available information about the almost 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses who were killed by the Nazis. As well, we are in the process of gathering names and facts about the over 250 Witnesses (conscientious objectors) who were executed after their court trials. However, there is still much research that needs to be done.

In 1938, Franz Zrcher, the Watch Tower representative from Berne (Switzerland), published the book, Kreuzzug gegen das Christentum (Crusade Against Christianity). It appeared in German, French, and Polish. The book contains excerpts of reports smuggled out of Germany about the ill treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses. Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann wrote: "I have read your book and its terrible documentation with deepest emotion." [6] Our archive possesses some of these original reports from the Berne office, and we plan to analyze them soon and make full use of them in our research.

It is noteworthy that, starting in 1933 and continuing to our day, the publications of the Watchtower Society, such as The Watchtower and Awake! magazines, have contained valuable information about the Nazi persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses. Many publications of Holocaust survivors, historians, and Holocaust institutions opened after 1945 contain information dealing with this topic. [7] In researching the history of Jehovah's Witnesses, this rich collection of already-published resource materials should not be overlooked.

Naturally we have on file much private, unpublished material from survivors, such as oral history reports, documents, and photographs. Although the Watchtower History Archive is not a public archive, Holocaust researchers and educators will greatly benefit from our work. We are pleased to answer questions and fulfill requests from Memorial Museums and researchers from all over the world, and to share the results of our research with others.

Researchers are aware that the history of Jehovah's Witnesses under the Nazi regime is intertwined with the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. A Jew who survived the Buchenwald camp said about the Bibelforscher: "They were very helpful to other prisoners. When the pogrom sent a massive influx of Jews to the camp on November 10, 1938, the 'Jehovah's schwein', as the guards referred to them, went round with a bread ration for the elderly and famished Jews, going without food themselves for up to four days." [8]

Konrad Mbus, a German Witness from Hesse, recalls the final days of Buchenwald before the liberation: "It would take days to empty the camp of 80,000; an impossible task. Above all the Jews were to be carried off. Hence, the voice in the loudspeaker said again and again: 'Jews to the gate!' And since this did not work, the SS came and tried to force the Jews together onto the main streets of the camp. The Jews, being hunted down like wild animals, scattered in different directions. Now the whole camp was lined up according to their blocks (or barracks), which were numbered. Every barrack lined up in rows of ten men; one row behind the other, and each barrack consisted of a few thousand prisoners. Suddenly, and this is the amazing part, a Jew ran to the rear of our rows like a wounded deer in the throes of death. I knew him and called out: 'Fritz!'... 'Fritz, come here!' I was standing in the seventh row and pulled him next to me. He wanted to say something to me, but I said to him: 'Shhh, keep silent and pray!' Shortly thereafter another Jew came, also out of breath. I called over him as well. He came and stood in the eighth row right among us (Witnesses)." [9] Both Jews survived.

Reports also show how Witnesses helped needy Jews outside the camps. Hans Rosenthal, a young Jew who later became a famous TV personality in Germany, personally related how a good woman, Ms. Jauch, a Witness, saved his life in 1943 by hiding him in her garden shed in Berlin for over a year and by sharing with him what little food she had. [10]

As time goes on, the work of the Watchtower History Archive in Germany will continue to benefit Holocaust research and education by providing more and more valuable information and statistics about the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses under the Nazi regime. As historian Dr. Detlef Garbe said, "The history of the prisoners with the purple triangle was a beam of light in a dark age." [11] Yes, the history of Jehovah's Witnesses is an enlightening aspect of Holocaust research and education.


1 Martin Broszat and Norbert Frei: Das Dritte Reich im berblick. Chronik, Ereigniss, Zusammenhnge. Munich, 1992, p. 251

2 The Watchtower, magazine, Watch Tower Society, Brooklyn, New York (USA), August 15, 1945, p. 256.

3 Johannes Wrobel: Die Videodokumentation Standhaft trotz Verfolgung – Jehovas Zeugen unter dem NS-Regime. Eine Stellungnahme. Selters/Taunus, Juli 1997.

4 Statement in documentary video Jehovah’s Witnesses Stand Firm Against Nazi Assault, Watch Tower Society, 1996.

5 Johannes Wrobel: Einige Grundwerte und Glaubensinhalte der Zeugen Jehovas und ihr Verhalten whrend der Haft, Selters/Taunus, 1994, S. 8.

6 Awake!, magazine, Watch Tower Society, Booklyn, New York (USA), August 22, 1995, p. 9.

7 Detlef Garbe: Zwischen Widerstand und Martyrium. Die Zeugen Jehovas im "Dritten Reich," (Between Resistance and Martyrdom. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the ‘Third Reich’), R. Oldenbourg Publishing House, Munich, 1993 (1st edition), 1994 (2nd edition), 1997 (3rd edition), 1999 (4th edition), pp. 539-64.

8 Same as 2.

9 Report by Konrad Mbus (about 1971) Rmershausen (Germany), Jehovas Zeugen, Geschichtsarchiv (Watchtower History Archive), Selters/Taunus, Germany. The original German reads: "Bis nun das Lager von 80,000 leer gemacht war, vergingen einige Tage, berhaupt es war unmglich. Aber die Juden sollten vor allen Dingen abtransportiert werden. Und so ertnte fortwhrend die Stimme im Lautsprecher: ‘Die Juden ans Tor!’ Und als das nicht klappte, kamen die SS und trieben die Juden in den Lagerstraben zusammen. Diese wiederum, wie die wilden Tiere gehetzt, stoben in alle Richtungen auseinander: Das ganze Lager war blockweise angetreten und abgezhlt. Jeder Block in 10er Reihen hintereinander, und jeder Block einige Tausend Hftlinge, Pltzlich, und das ist die wunderbare Erfahrung, sprang wie ein angeschossenes Reh in Todesangst ein Jude hinter uns vorbei. Ich kannte ihn und rief ‘Fritz!’ ... ‘Fritz hierher!’ Ich nahm ihn neben mich ins siebente Glied. Er wollte mir etwas sagen, aber ich ermahnte ihn: ‘Still jetzt im Gebet!’ Kurze Zeit spter kam noch ein Jude ganz ausser Atem, auch den rief ich an. Er kam ins achte Glied zwischen uns."

10 Hans Rosenthal: Zwei Leben in Deutschland, 1980, p. 61 ff. See also Marianne Brentzel: Nesthkchen kommt ins KZ. Eine Annherung an Else Ury 1877-1943. Frankfurt am Main 1996, p. 186 f., 219.

11 Statement made at press conference in Berlin before world premiere of the German version of the Stand Firm documentary video which took place on November 6, 1996, at the Ravensbrck Memorial Museum, Germany. See Awake! magazine, June 22,1997, pp. 14-5.

Lecture published in: "How the Watchtower History Archive in Germany Benefits Holocaust Research," in: Shadow of the Holocaust. Second International Symposium "Lessons of the Holocaust and Contemporary Russia" Moscow, May 4.-7, 1997 (The Russian Holocaust Library). Moskau 1998, pages 285-288.

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