Saturday, 30 April 2016

Purple triangles in Nazi concentration camps

Much has been said about the horrors of the Holocaust, about what happened in the concentration camps, about what Hitler did to the Jews, Romani, and all sorts of ‘racially undesirably elements’ of German society. But still little is known about another group of people who Hitler also loathed and who were identified in the concentration camps with the purple triangle badge: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I was privileged to interview Magdalene Kusserow in the summer of 2003, as part of a research project I carried out about the Bibelforscher (Bible students), as Jehovah’s Witnesses were known in Nazi Germany. Magdalene was born the 23rd of January of 1924 and was a survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The Kusserow was a family of 13 members: Franz and Hilda, and their children - Annemarie, Wilhelm, Sigfried, Karl, Waltraud, Hildegard, Wolfgang, Magdalene, Elizabeth, Hans-Werner and Paul-Gerhard. They lived in a big house in Bad Lippspringe where there was a big banner with the words “The Golden Age”. This was so because their house was the main distributor of “The Golden Age” magazine. Because of this, the Gestapo searched their house 16 times. The house in Bad Lippspringe was very big. The family had animals and an orchard with fruit trees. The Kusserow´s were happy there and just as all Jehovah´s Witnesses, they studied the Bible and talked to other people about Jehovah, the Bible and God’s Kingdom. How?

The Kusserow family

“How did you study the Bible at home?”
“Every day, our father would give us advice or would ask us questions or jokes. Sometimes he would ask ‘Are you a soul, or do you have a soul?’ We already knew but he would answer ‘There´s a difference between being a donkey and having a donkey’.”

“How did you preach other people?”
“Bad Lippspringe was a very beautiful and elegant town. ‘Bad’ means ‘bath’ and Bad Lippspringe had a spa where ill people used to go and spend there some time. During the banning, my mother would tell me to stay a few steps behind her with the publications. She would go first looking for people who could be interested and when she found one, I’d approach them. This one time, we were in the street and someone called the police. Whoever phoned was someone who had come to Bad Lippspringe specifically to go to the spa so we didn’t know them. The people we personally knew from the town would’ve never called the police because they were very nice. So the policemen arrived where we were, they searched my mother and they told her to go to their office on Tuesday. My mother went and the policeman told her ‘Mrs Kusserow! Go, go! I only told you to come so those men in the street could hear me. Go home!’ I must say our neighbours were lovely people who would have never reported us to the police, even though many of them were Nazis. About 200m from our house there lived a Nazi family with a 4-year-old boy who was friends with my youngest brother, Paul-Gerhard. There was a party one day and all the houses had their flags with the swastika. That boy asked my brother: ‘Paul-Gerhard, why don’t you have a flag?’ and my brother answered ‘you have two, that’s enough’.”

“How did you hide the publications the Gestapo looked for in your house several times?”
“Sometimes we would hide them in the garden under the bushes. I remember this one time when the Gestapo came home. Our house had two floors and my brother saw them coming from the window in the upper floor. They were easy to recognise because they dressed up well. We weren’t afraid of them. My brother ran down the stairs saying ‘the Gestapo! The Gestapo!’ and my younger brothers took the publications and left. My mother invited the Gestapo in and led them to the kitchen. There they talked while my mother saw my brothers in the garden leaving with the publications. But the officers could see nothing because the window was behind their back. Besides, in those days there was a travelling Jehovah´s Witness who was visiting the congregations and that night he stayed at ours, so he was upstairs. My mother kept talking to the Gestapo officers, distracting them, while my brother went upstairs and told him ‘Go! Go now! The Gestapo is here!’ Then he ran downstairs and my mother realised what was going on because she heard ‘BOOM! BOOM!’ but the officers seemed to hear nothing. The Jehovah’s Witness left the house running down the street and took the tram, and kept looking at the house checking out if the Gestapo had left so that he could come back. Every time the Gestapo came home they would search the whole house, they even look for the photos we had. They were looking for photos of our meetings.

In 1939, the police took Magdalene’s youngest brothers away to different reformatories. Hans-Werner was 9 years old and Paul-Gerhard was only 7. But one of her oldest brothers, Wilhelm, 25, refused to go to war and he was sentenced to death. Magdalene and her mother visited him a few days before he was shot. He had been offered to sign an abjuration letter three times but he refused. A few months after his death, on the 27th of April 1940, they received a letter in the house at Bad Lippspringe informing the family that Wilhelm had died as a hero fighting for Hitler and the Reich.

“What did you feel when you received that letter if you knew it was all lies?”
“We received that letter months later. We also received a letter that said Wilhelm was in a list of missing people. My mother would laugh at this. Some years ago, my younger brother wrote a book and he looked for documents about this. He wrote to all the offices which would have lists of soldiers who had died in the war and Wilhelm’s name was only in the list of Münster. It said he had died in the battle in Münster, but there was never a battle in Münster, there he was executed by a firing squad. Now, where he was shot, there’s a hospital with a beautiful garden and a plaque in his memory.”

Wilhelm was not the only martyr in the family. Wolfgang, 20, was beheaded on the 28th of March 1942. While all this happened, other members of the family were arrested. On 1941, Magdalene was arrested, but her parents had been arrested before her.

“They first arrested my father and my mother, but they let her go because she had many children to look after. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison. After that, once again, they looked for my mother and sentenced her to 2 years in prison. She was all alone. Then my father came out of prison without signing the resignation document and thought the Gestapo would come for him but no one came, so he started visiting the congregations. A few months later, my father, my mother, my sister Hildegard and I were arrested. They said I was too young for prison but too old for the reformatory. My youngest brothers were taken straight from the school to the reformatory. So I was home, alone, crying with my little dog. I had to pay the bills and I didn´t know how or where I had to do that. So I took the tram and went to Bonn to visit my parents. The police said I couldn’t see them but I told them I had to pay some bills so they let me talk to my father. He gave me some signed checks and explained to me what I had to do. I went back home with red eyes and the sisters from the congregation were there to help me out. Two days after that, I was arrested, but I was happy because I wouldn’t be alone anymore. They took me to the prison were my parents and sister were. They took me to a basement and my father was taken there as well, and since I was so happy to be with him again, I smiled. An officer saw me and turned me around and shouted ‘Against the wall!’ The four of us were held in preventive detention until the trial at the Bielefeld prison but in different cells. I still have a letter my dad sent me from his cell to mine where he wrote:
‘Dear Magdalene, even though you are young, you are standing firm and this is encouraging us. Ask if you can visit me.’ This was because from Monday to Thursday, from 10 to 12, visits were allowed. I asked for it through a letter, and I was allowed to visit my father in the same prison I was held. I saw my father through bars and with two guards by my side. I talked to him for 10 minutes and he encouraged me. He said ‘Be strong because you are young and you’ll probably be sentenced to 6 moths, but I’m old and you must understand I’ll be sentenced to death.’ When I was arrested, I was 17 and I was sentenced to 6 months in the prison for young people. After those 6 months, the prison supervisor called me and told me ‘You can go tomorrow but I have a document from the Gestapo. You need to sign it and renounce your faith.’ I didn’t sign it and I told her why. She was very nice but she said then that she was sorry but she had to hand me over to the Gestapo. The next day they handed me over to the Gestapo, 500km away, and I was shown the document again. I stayed 4 more months at the prison because I wasn’t 18 yet. I was a total of 10 months in different prisons until I turned 18 and I was taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.”

“How did you go to the camp and what happened when you arrived?”
“First I was alone but then, as a prisoner, I was taken to a train, to a special coach that was attached to other coaches with more prisoners. We were taken to a town, I can´t remember which one, but we spent the night there. The next day, we got on to another train and after 3 days we arrived to Ravensbrück. In the train, I was with other women. None of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many of them were prostitutes and they would make jokes with the SS officers. When we got to the camp, the SS of the camp came with their dogs and all the women went silent and started to cry. I was a little happy because at last there was a bit of order. Then we were taken to the register. Taking the register would take the whole day long: first, they would take off your clothes, made you take a shower, and write your name down. I could only think of the time I’d find my sisters in the faith because I didn’t know where or how they were, and I had been the only one in the train. After that, we were searched for lice and the woman who was searching my head asked me ‘Why are you here?’ and I answered ‘Bibelforscher’, and she replied straightaway ‘Ah! Welcome, my sister!’ and soon came another sister whom I knew because she was from my congregation and she was now working at the camp’s infirmary. Later they took me to the barrack where Gertrud Pötzinger (another Bibelforscher) was. She took my hand, and because she was old and I was only 18, she told me ‘Come next to me, there’s an empty bed here.’ She showed me around and she wanted to protect me. All the Bibelforscher were in the same barrack. It was divided in 2 big rooms, A and B. 150 on the right and 150 on the left. We were around 300 there. And right after that I was given the purple triangle and a number.”

“What sort of jobs did you have to do in the camp?”
“First I had to work at the gardens of a big house which belonged to the SS. We worked there in the morning, we had to get up at 4:30am, and we were given a little bit of coffee and a loaf of black bread. Then we would divide the bread in 10 parts and we would keep the ends of the loaf for a sister who was needier, because the ends of the German black bread are usually a bit bigger. That bit of bread had to last all day and I used to keep it until night time because my mother had told me that if I had nothing to eat, I had to chew a lot whatever I had because that produced sugar. I would eat the bread at night and it would take me an hour to eat it. That kept me alive. After the breakfast, they would count the prisoners. We were around 20000, but if the count was wrong, they would start counting all over again. Sometimes the counting could take 5 hours, it was outside, in the cold, standing up, and we weren’t allowed to put our hands in the pockets. I got chilblains because of this. After the counting, we had to go to our workplace, in my case it was the garden and it would take me 20 minutes to walk there. After that, I worked at a kindergarten with the children of the single female guards. They were very naughty children. We had to get up even earlier, skip the counting, and walk through a forest to the kindergarten where the children were sleeping. There were also babies. 3 Bibelforscher and I would cook and wash there. Here you see a very big contradiction: My younger brothers were taken to a reformatory so they wouldn’t have any contact with other Bibelforscher. However, we were assigned to look after the children of the SS along with other women who weren’t Bibleforscher but who would leave us alone with the children. On the weekends, the children’s mothers would come to pick them up and used to complain: ‘What’s going on? My girl only talks about these Bibelforscher! Don’t you do anything at all? Do they do everything?’ The truth is they trusted us more than the SS.
Here I have the card that allowed me to go to work and leave the camp without a guard. It says prisoner Magdalene Kusserow is working with the family of the SS-Gruf Lörner, a high ranked officer in Ravensbrück, and can be in zones E and F without supervision. I worked as a housewife for this family during my last months in the camp, when the war finished.”

“What helped you endure in the camp?”
“I was 4 years and a half in prisons and the camp. To endure there you had to have a big faith in God and when you have parents that lay on you a good foundation… Look, my father used to say ‘Jehovah is happy if you are loyal as Proverbs 27:11 says ‘Be wise, my son, and make my heart rejoice, So that I can make a reply to him who taunts me.’ You must make Jehovah happy and then we’ll prove Satan a liar.’ And then when you go to the camp and you see the big difference between that and what my home used to be like… How nice it was to be home with my parents! Because we used to make music concerts at home at night since we all learned to play an instrument. And then you see the difference between that and the SS home and it can’t be compared. In the concentration camp you could easily tell who was a Bibelforscher and who wasn’t. I haven’t seen the love among the brotherhood of Witnesses anywhere else, and I’m happy to belong to it.”

In 1942, Magdalene’s mother and sister Hildegard also arrived in Ravensbrück. In 1944, only Annemarie was free and working in Berlin.

“Did you have any news from Annemarie?”
“Annemarie was the last one to be arrested and was the link to all the members of the family because we were all in different places and could only write 6 lines a month. All of us would write to Annemarie, who worked as a secretary in Berlin. She would copy our letters and send them to the other members of the family. She just turned 90, she’s the oldest. She phoned me a few days ago and told me she’s putting the letters in chronological order. She has 150 letters,
but I have 2 here she hasn’t counted in. I have a postcard with the stamp of the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women and it says it’s not allowed to send parcels or… anything. Nothing is allowed. It also says I’ve been there since the 25th of February 1942, and it has my ‘address’: Magdalene Kusserow, Ravensbrück, number 9591, block 17. This is Adolf Hitler’s stamp.
In the back it says ‘The prisoner remains a stubborn Bible Student. For this reason only, the privilege of otherwise permissible correspondence is taken from him.’ The Bibelforscher were only allowed to write 6 lines, while the rest of prisoners could write 4 pages. This is why our handwriting was tiny.”

If religious literature was completely forbidden outside the camps, obviously it was even more inside them. However, that literature made its way inside the camps. Magdalene told me a case she knew:

“This morning, Louis [Piechóta] told us that when he was in the camp, they read Bible-based literature every night that they used to receive and one day he asked where it came from. He was told he’d better not know. In 1974, in the Yearbook of the Jehovah’s Witnesses it was explained where it came from: One of Himmler’s masseuses would look for trustworthy prisoners for his big estate. He took one of the Bibelforscher as a housewife to his house in Switzerland. He was a good man and he told her all that happened in the camps. When Himler had very bad pains and he had to massage him, he would ask Himmler for more prisoners for his estate and so he managed to have 25 Bibelforscher working for him, men and women who were almost free. A Bibelforscher who worked as a seamstress at the estate would give the doctor publications for the other Bibelforscher in the camps. He would take them in his briefcase, and since he was an important man, he was never searched and so he managed to introduce many publications in the camps.”

Magdalene, her sister and their mother left Ravensbrück in April 1945. 

While interviewing Magdalene, I also met the following survivors:

Max Liebster
Arrested because he was Jewish, he was deported to several concentration camps: Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. While in the camps, he became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was liberated by the U.S. Army in 1945.

Max Liebster & Simone Arnold
Simone Arnold-Liebster
Simone and her family were arrested for being Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was taken away from her parents and sent to a reform school. Her father was sent to the Dachau concentration camp where he suffered ‘scientific’ experiments daily.

Louis Piechóta in the background
Louis Piechóta
He was a prisoner at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for being a Bibelforscher. He survived the evacuation of the camp, also called the Death March were most prisoners died of exhaustion or shot by the SS.

Ruth Danner
She was taken away from her parents when she was 9 and sent to several working camps were she suffered so much her organs aged too early and her health was forever affected.

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