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Jehovah’s Witnesses Reflect on Holocaust Fate

c. 2006 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ A simple signature would have set her free. Alone in a prison cell, 17-year-old Magdalena Kusserow Reuter awaited the guard, knowing that she would relinquish her freedom to the Nazis if she did not do what she was asked. But signing the required form would mean renouncing her […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ A simple signature would have set her free.

Alone in a prison cell, 17-year-old Magdalena Kusserow Reuter awaited the guard, knowing that she would relinquish her freedom to the Nazis if she did not do what she was asked.

But signing the required form would mean renouncing her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. She decided she would rather risk death.

About 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their lives and up to 5,000, like Reuter, were sent to concentration camps from 1933 to 1945 when Adolf Hitler persecuted those who would not fall into line with the Nazis’ vision of a new Germany.

Unlike Jews who were persecuted by virtue of their birth, Jehovah’s Witnesses were given the choice to avoid the death camps by giving up their faith. But thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany chose to face imprisonment rather than betray a religion that did not allow them to bear arms for any government nor swear allegiance to anyone except God.

Reuter, 82, now a missionary in Madrid, carries her story of unwavering faith around the world.

“How could I sign that my faith was false if I was convicted there was a God, Jehovah?” she said.

Reuter recently spoke to a packed theater at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of a daylong remembrance of Jehovah’s Witnesses victims of the Nazi era. Jehovah’s Witnesses from around the nation participated in the event.

The intense faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who numbered about 20,000 in Germany in the 1930s, led the Nazis to perceive the religion as a rival ideology and thus a threat, according to Holocaust museum historian William Meinecke.

Reuter, one of 11 children, said her parents were arrested for holding Bible study meetings in their house in the small German town of Bad Lippspringe.

When Nazi propaganda began infiltrating the schools, Reuter, at age 12, refused to raise her arm with the other students in the required salute, “Heil, Hitler,” exposing herself to the ridicule of her classmates and teachers. “I saw (saluting Hitler) as worship to a man.”

Too old at 17 for reform school but too young for the concentration camps, Reuter was thrown into a prison in April 1941 and, after six months, was told she could go home if she signed the form renouncing her beliefs.

“I did not stay for half a year in prison to sign now,” Reuter said in her speech. “I explained to the guard. She nearly cried. She said, `I’m sorry, but I must send you to the Gestapo.”’

Her oldest brother, Wolfgang, 20, was shot in March 1942 for refusing to join Hitler’s army. Reuter said she was able to visit her brother shortly before his execution. “He was pale, but he was so strong,” she said.

In a letter to his family the night before his death, Wolfgang wrote: “We know that our faith will be victorious. In this faith and this conviction I leave you.”

Reuter was united with her mother and sister at the all-women Ravensbruck concentration camp, where Jehovah’s Witnesses formed a close-knit community. When another brother was beheaded for his refusal to serve in Hitler’s army, Reuter said she found comfort in the Witnesses’ company.

According to Meinecke, almost all persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to sign the form renouncing their faith. Those who signed often were trying to spare other family members, he said.

Reuter, her mother and sister were liberated in April 1945 by Russian troops and soon returned home.

“(My father) told us we forget what’s behind us and renew our life,” she said. “We do not maintain hatred against anyone.”

In fact, Reuter eventually married a former soldier in Hitler’s army who had become a Jehovah’s Witness after the war. Until her husband passed away six years ago, Reuter said they traveled the world as missionaries, settling for the past 30 years in Madrid.

Reuter stressed the importance of continuing to pass on the stories of persecution from the Holocaust.

“If we don’t do this, we will forget about it,” she said. “If we forget it, we will be condemned to do the same thing.”

KRE/JL END CHO

Editors: To obtain photos of Magdalena Kusserow and purple triangles worn by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Holocaust, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

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