A chart of prisoner markings used in German concentration camps. Jehovah's Witnesses were branded with purple triangles. USHMM, courtesy of KZ Gedenkstaette Dachau.

In addition to Jews, Roma and Sinti, the handicapped, and other ‘inferior’ groups, one of the Nazi party’s earliest aims was to remove Jehovah’s Witnesses from German public life. Germany’s population of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or ‘Bible Researchers’ as they were derogatorily termed, was second in size only to that of the United States.  Despite their increasing oppression in Germany, which was often condoned by the churches and passively supported by most of the populace, they organised prayer meetings, developed international networks, distributed protest pamphlets, and otherwise maintained an active community. Their situation rapidly worsened, however, as thousands were arrested, tortured, and sent to concentration camps.  From the European community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, an estimated 3,000 were sent to camps for their refusal to leave their faith; the majority of these were German.  Approximately 1,200 died of starvation or illness, or were murdered.

Within a few short years, Nazi policy touched the lives of almost every Jehovah’s Witness living in Germany and Austria. They were mistrusted not least for their refusal to conform to many elements of Nazi life: they did not utter the obligatory Hitler greeting, did not send their children to the mandatory Hitler Youth, and refused to salute the German flag.  As pacifists, they did not donate to military charities, and most notably did not accept the draft: of the hundreds executed by the Nazis for refusing to fight in the war, the vast majority were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Thousands were arrested between 1933 and 1945: the average punishment was 2 to 3 years of imprisonment, after which they were usually released, but many were sent to concentration camps.

During the pre-war years, Witnesses constituted 5 to 10% of camp prisoners.  They were branded with purple triangles, and were often singled out for punishment by the SS.  At Mauthausen, for example, they were sometimes forced to crawl on their hands and feet while singing, or risk being brutally beaten. However, they rejected collaboration with other prisoner groups, in particular groups attempting sabotage or military resistance. This made them increasingly valuable to the SS, who could rely on them to work honestly, not to attempt escape, and to reject active resistance;  thus, when the need for labour increased in the later war years, their situation in the camps improved somewhat.

Throughout the Nazi years, music was central to the Witnesses’ religious gatherings. They justified their musical activity with a passage from the second book of Moses: ‘I Jehovah want singing, for he revealed himself on high’.  In most camps, song was an important way of building solidarity and expressing faith.  In Ravensbrück, for example, small groups would sing religious songs in the evenings after work.  At Auschwitz, the musician Jan Otrebski borrowed a violin from a member of the camp band to entertain and comfort his fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In the cramped barracks, they would gather together and listen to him playing religious songs.  For these inmates, 'music made it possible to forget our worries for a short time. We always sang after prayers and during our gathering, and thus remained in closer contact to Jehovah'.

The Jehovah’s Witness Erich Hugo Frost was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen, where he was frequently called upon to perform private concerts for the guards. It was during his time at Sachsenhausen that Frost also composed ‘Fest steht’ (Stand fast), better known in English as ‘Forward, You Witnesses’. He recalled the process by which he composed the song:

Naturally I was not allowed to write in the text that had brought me to the gallows.  So, during our work in the purification plant I recited the text of the first verse to a brother, who memorised it, then the text of the second to another brother, and so on, to four brothers the texts of all the verses, that they memorised exactly, so that I could bring them together in the evening in the barracks with the music and then write it down.  In the barracks I could at least halfway conceal the song, until there was an opportunity to bring out the manuscript.

Still today, with slightly modified lyrics, the song is sung at Jehovah’s Witness gatherings, in memory of the thousands who suffered and died for their faith.

Sources

Fackler, G., 2000. "Des Lagers Stimme"– Musik im KZ. Alltag und Häftlingskultur in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1936, Bremen: Temmen.

Weinreich, R. ed., 2002. Verachtet, verfolgt, vergessen:Leiden und Widerstand der Zeugen Jehovas in der Grenzregion am Hochrhein im "Dritten Reich", Hausern: Signum Design.

1998. Zeugen Jehovas: Vergessene Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. , Vienna.  (Referate und Berichte der vom Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes (DÖW) und dem Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst (IWK) am  29. Jänner 1998 veranstalteten wissenschaftlichen Tagung.)