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The story of the oldest living Holocaust survivor

November 30, 2008

By Isabelle de Pommereau

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Leopold Engleitner’s blue eyes still burn bright. Last month, the 103-year-old traveled to Frankfurt, from his home in Austria to tell his story at the world’s largest publishing event. Mr. Engleitner, a former farmer from the Salzburg region, is a Jehovah’s Witness.

And he is the oldest living survivor of the Holocaust.

At first no one seemed interested in the facts of his life, which included an unwavering faith and enduring internments in the Buchenwald, Wewelsburg, and Ravensbrueck camps run by German Nazis. Then a young Austrian filmmaker met Engleitner by chance and ended up listening to his stories for hours on end.

The filmmaker, Berhnard Rammerstorfer, was captivated by what he heard and eventually dropped everything he was doing to write Engleitner’s biography.

“What impressed me was that a simple farmer had the courage to withstand Hitler, to refuse to go to war although millions of people did go to war, that he had the strength to adhere to his own conscience,” says Mr. Rammerstorfer.

He first published “Unbroken Will: The Extraordinary Courage of an Ordinary Man,” in German in 1999. It was republished this year, and an English edition is scheduled to be released in 2009.

Walter Manoschek, a political scientist at the University of Vienna who has worked on a project sponsored by the Austrian government to rehabilitate Austrian victims of the Nazi regime, says that Engleitner’s story brings to life one of the least-known groups of Nazi victims that also included Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, and the mentally and physically disabled.

A ‘systematic resistance’
Nazis targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses mainly because as religious conscientious objectors they eschew swearing an oath to any earthly authority and refused to serve in the German Army. Refusal to serve under Hitler was regarded as treason, punishable by death. Among the 3,200 Witnesses interned in concentration camps, thousands were killed, according to historians.

Unlike other groups – most notably, of course, millions of Jews – they could have walked out free had they agreed to renounce their faith.

“The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ systematic resistance as a collective group is something very unique,” says Professor Manoschek. “Most people [laugh] at the old-fashioned way in which they try to bring religion to people’s houses. But it’s important for people to know what happened to them during the Nazi time.”

Engleitner’s principles set him apart from others beginning early in his life.

As the son of a sawmill worker growing up in Bad Ischl, the “emperor’s village,” in the early 1900s, he and his schoolmates would often encounter Franz Joseph, the emperor, who vacationed there. The gap between the royal wealth and his own family’s poverty angered the young Engleitner.

After the effects of World War I had decimated his village he vowed never to fight in a war. To overcome hunger, he left school at 13, built a small house for himself, and eked out a living crafting skis, among other things. Later, his mistrust of established authority led him to abandon Catholicism and join the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“People spat at me,” Engleitner says of the reaction to his adopted faith.

Soon after Germany annexed Austria in April 1938, the Gestapo tracked Engleitner down at a secret Bible-reading meeting. The SS men brandished a piece of paper in his face. It was a declaration that he agreed to renounce his faith and was willing to enlist in Hitler’s Army. Along with the document came a verbal threat.

“ ‘If you sign this paper, you can go home,’ ” Engleitner recounts. “ ‘If not, you’re under arrest, and you know what will happen to you.’ ”

Engleitner refused to sign.