JANUARY 21, 2015
WARSAW, Poland—On January 27, 2015, thousands will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a Nazi German concentration and death camp. This infamous camp, primarily used to eliminate racial groups targeted by the Nazis, was also a mechanism for persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses of various nationalities, including Germans.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council are organizing the event. The president of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski, is expected to attend, and several countries from around the world will send official state delegations. The event will also be broadcast live online.
Auschwitz is located in the suburbs of Oświęcim, a Polish city annexed by the Nazis during World War II. It began as a German concentration camp with some 700 Polish prisoners arriving there in June 1940. Auschwitz quickly grew into a massive complex with over 40 camps and subcamps. The four gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau claimed as many as 20,000 lives a day. At least 1.1 million people, including over 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, were sent to Auschwitz during its almost five years of operation.
According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum website: “Aside from brief mentions, the literature on the history of Auschwitz Concentration Camp does not take account of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (referred to in the camp records as Bible [Students]) who were imprisoned because of their religious convictions. These prisoners deserve closer attention because of the way they managed to hold on to their moral principles under camp conditions.” Museum records indicate that Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first prisoners sent to Auschwitz, and of the hundreds of Witnesses sent, over 35 percent died there.
The Nazi government targeted the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as early as 1933 and banned the organization throughout Germany. The Witnesses’ moral principles and practices were not compatible with Nazi ideology. For example, the Witnesses would not offer the obligatory “Heil Hitler!,” as they considered paying homage to Hitler a betrayal of their loyalty to God. The Witnesses also refused to perform any military-related duties, a stand the regime considered to be anti-state. “To refuse military service meant being sent to a concentration camp,” explains Andrzej Szalbot, who was arrested in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz at only 19 years of age. Jehovah’s Witnesses were promised immediate freedom if they signed a document renouncing their membership in the organization and declaring that its teachings were erroneous. Mr. Szalbot refused to sign.
Official Nazi documentation refers to Jehovah’s Witnesses by using the abbreviation “IBV,” which stood for Internationale Bibelforscher-Vereinigung (International Bible Students Association), the official German name of their organization. The Nazis required the Witnesses to wear a purple triangle on their uniforms. This symbol helped the Witnesses to identify their fellow believers in the camp. They met every evening before roll call for mutual support. Secret meetings were also organized to discuss the Bible with prisoners who were impressed by the Witnesses’ kindness and faith. A number of prisoners became Jehovah’s Witnesses while in Auschwitz camps.
On Saturday morning, January 27, 1945, the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived in Oświęcim. By 3 p.m., the Soviet forces had liberated some 7,000 prisoners from Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz).
Stanisław Zając, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was among the tens of thousands forced by the Nazis to evacuate the Auschwitz camps in anticipation of the Red Army’s approach. Mr. Zając and about 3,200 other prisoners left the Jaworzno subcamp and trudged through deep snow as part of the infamous death march. It is estimated that less than 2,000 survived the three-day walk to Blechhammer, an outlying Auschwitz subcamp located in the forest. In his memoirs, Mr. Zając recalled the battle that ensued while he and other prisoners were hiding in the camp: “We could hear tanks passing by, but nobody got up the courage to go and see to whom they belonged. In the morning, it turned out they were Russian. . . . The Russian army was filling the wide clearing and this is where my concentration camp nightmare ended.”
This year, on January 27, conferences and exhibitions related to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz will take place in various cities around the world.
International: J. R. Brown, Office of Public Information, tel. +1 718 560 5000
Germany: Wolfram Slupina, tel. +49 6483 41 3110
Poland: Ryszard Jabłoński, tel. +48 608 555 097