Oldest Holocaust survivor tells a story of faith and courage that's out of the ordinary
Leopold Engleitner endured the Holocaust. His long life since has inspired others.
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"I wouldn't take the easy way out," Engleitner told the audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. His faith, he said, is what helped him not yield to pressure – and what kept him alive.
His sense of humor was also on display in Frankfurt when he recounted his dealings with Gestapo officials at the Buchenwald camp.
" 'Engleitner, Engleitner! I'm warning you for the last time!' " he said, mimicking the SS official. " 'If you continue to object to military service, then you already have both feet in the grave.' " Engleitner's reply elicited laughter from a rapt audience. "If I've already got both feet in the grave just standing here," he said, "what on earth will it be like on the front line? Or do they shoot with candy out there?"
The "Little Austrian," as the Nazis called him, did walk out of the camps four years later – but for a different reason: The Nazis had come to value the Jehovah's Witnesses' work ethics.
"If appropriate tasks are chosen, no supervision will be necessary, since they will not try to run away," Heinrich Himmler wrote in 1943 about the Jehovah's Witnesses, according to official documents cited in Engleitner's biography. "They can be left to work on their own and will prove themselves the most efficient administrators and workers."
A 65-lb. Engleitner was set free in exchange for promising to work in agriculture only. It wasn't until the American forces intervened that Engleitner was able to get another job, in the roads department of St. Wolfgang, near Salzburg, where he continued working until he retired in 1969.
Life after the war wasn't easy. "We [Jehovah's Witnesses] were always treated as second-class citizens and lumped together with the work-shy and criminal elements," Engleitner says.
His parents, he says, never accepted his religion. Few seemed to care about his triumph.
"He tried to talk about his story, but no one listened," says Rammerstorfer.
Rammerstorfer, too, had hurdles to overcome in retelling Engleitner's story. When no publisher came forward, he published the book with his own money.
"In the face of our historical responsibility, I am sparing no effort to document the crimes of the Nazi regime," he says.
But his real motive in writing the book was to share Engleitner's ideals of tolerance, humanity, and respect for others.
That message wasn't lost at the book fair in Frankfurt. "It's a great lesson to feel it's possible for a human being to be free inside when you're oppressed," says Svetlana Protsenko of Moscow, who had left her own stand at the fair to hear Engleitner talk.
"For people who have suffered from totalitarian regimes," she says, "it's important to ... keep your beliefs, ideas, and moral standards."
A transformative response
Today Engleitner experiences a new kind of response to his unwavering faith.
In St. Wolfgang, he became a bit of a local celebrity. The Austrian government, too, took notice, inviting him to tour schools and universities to share his story and talk about nonviolent resistance to oppression.
At 97, he undertook the 500-mile journey to speak to an audience in Wewelsburg, where he had been interned more than 50 years before.
Although Engleitner says he is not bitter about all that he has endured, the honors he has received over the past few years have restored his faith in people.
"They transformed me from a persecuted, despised, concentration-camp internee and a cowardly conscientious objector to a completely rehabilitated man who is even regarded as an example to others," he says.
"In the past, this would have been unthinkable," Engleitner adds. "That people's attitudes should change so dramatically is something I would never have believed possible."