Reader-submitted content. International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 Gives Jehovah’s Witnesses Time to Reflect on Victims of Nazi Persecution
Charlotte, N.C. resident David Gafel remembers being in his mid-twenties when he first understood the impact of Nazi persecution on his family. “I knew my grandfather had been in a concentration camp, but the details were too painful for my father to talk about for much of my life.” Once the enormity of his family’s experience was revealed, David was deeply moved. “I was in tears,” he remembered.
David’s grandfather, Ludwig Gafel, was imprisoned in multiple concentration camps between 1936 and 1945. What was his crime? “He was simply practicing his faith as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” said David. After the war, living in East Germany under Russian rule provided no relief. In 1949, he was again imprisoned for his faith, this time spending the next 10 years in several different camps until his death in 1959.
“When I hear accounts of Nazi persecution, it’s not some remote story,” explained David. “That’s my family. It’s painful, but at the same time, I am proud of their firm faith and endurance.”
January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp—has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to honor the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism. This year’s theme is “Fragility of Freedom,” emphasizing how religious expression and other freedoms are vulnerable to abuse and restriction.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, known in Germany at the time as “Bibelforscher” (Bible Students), were among the lesser-known victims of Nazi oppression. According to Professor Robert Gerwarth, the Witnesses were “the only group in the Third Reich to be persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs alone.”
“We acknowledge and appreciate that Nazi persecution is first associated with the systematic murder of some two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population,” said Jason Hohl, national spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The scale of horror is without equal. We also recognize that other groups, including Witnesses, suffered profoundly.”
Of some 35,000 Witnesses in Germany and Nazi-occupied territories at the time, more than two-thirds were arrested for their faith, with nearly one in eight sent to concentration camps. Some 1,600 lost their lives, 548 by execution. Hundreds of children were taken from Witness families to Nazi homes or reformatories to be “Germanized.”
Some of those children were Ludwig Gafel’s. “While my grandfather was in a concentration camp, my aunts were taken from my grandmother to live and work for local farmers who were loyal to the Nazi party,” said David. “They were so mistreated that they ran away. When a local official saw their condition, he forbid them from being sent away again.”
Ludwig’s entire family struggled to survive during this time, his wife often scouring local forests for food to feed her children. David’s father, just a small child at the time, recalls SS raids on their home, as well as mistreatment at school because of his family’s faith. “Teachers would encourage other students to beat him when he refused to say ‘Heil Hitler,’” David said.
The Nazi regime branded Jehovah’s Witnesses “enemies of the State,” according to historian Christine King, because of “their very public refusal to accept even the smallest elements of [Nazism], which didn’t fit their faith and their beliefs.”
Adherents maintained a politically neutral stance based on their understanding of Christ’s teachings and refused to salute Nazi symbols, to take part in racist and violent acts, or to join the German army. Rather, Witness literature distributed to the public worldwide “identified the evils of the regime, including what was happening to the Jews,” King noted on the website of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
Consequently, the Witnesses were among the first sent to concentration camps, where they bore a unique uniform symbol, the purple triangle.
Alone among the groups sent to the camps, Witnesses had an opportunity to leave—if they signed an “Erklärung” document renouncing their faith and pledging to report fellow believers to the police and fully submit to the Nazi government. Few did.
Ludwig Gafel did not renounce his faith, a fact that David reflects on often. “The Nazi regime has been gone for decades, but my grandfather’s family is still practicing their faith for four generations. In fact, my son lives in Germany now and volunteers at the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses there.”
The courage of Ludwig and thousands of ordinary individuals to stand up for their faith reminds ones like David not to take their worship for granted. “My grandfather recognized the value of what he learned from the Bible, and he wasn’t willing to give it up for anything. I strive to have that same determination,” said David.
“This day is a grim reminder of the fragility of freedom,” said Jason Hohl. “Even today, Jehovah’s Witnesses are being systematically attacked—imprisoned, beaten, and tortured—for peacefully practicing their faith in some countries, particularly Russia and other totalitarian states.”