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Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Holocaust

A historic black-and-white image of a group of prisoners of war, some dressed in striped uniforms
Post-war group of Jehovah's Witness prisoners held in Niederhagen-Wewelsburg camp

A blue-and-white striped prisoner’s uniform with a badge reading “38641” and a purple triangle
Camp uniform with purple triangle on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.

A historic black-and-white image of a group of German soldiers, dressed in military uniforms
Nazi storm troopers occupy Witness headquarters, April 24, 1933

During the Nazi regime, about 35,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses lived in Germany and Nazi-occupied lands. As they had before Adolf Hitler assumed power, they attempted to keep a neutral position regarding politics, refusing to take part in Nazi rituals, elections and programs. Witnesses refused to join organizations such as the Hitler Youth and the Nazi Party. When military service became mandatory, Witness men refused to be inducted.

Hitler personally vowed to exterminate Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Nazis branded Witnesses a dangerous enemy, hounding them out of their homes, jobs and classrooms. Witness teachers and railroad clerks were fired simply for failing to give the “heil Hitler” salute. For the same reason, Witness children were beaten and expelled from school.

Under this ban, Witnesses held secret worship services. They ran underground printing operations, producing Watchtower magazines and pamphlets that exposed the criminal activity of the Nazi regime. In coordinated nighttime actions in 1936 and 1937, they left hundreds of thousands of copies of protest leaflets at German homes and offices, including Gestapo headquarters.

The Nazis arrested thousands of Witnesses, men and women. Many faced interrogations and torture. About 13,400 were sent to Nazi prisons and camps. Since Nazi officials regarded Witness parents as a corrupting influence, they took nearly 500 Witness children away and placed them in reformatories and Nazi foster homes.

By 1938, about 6,000 Witnesses had been sent to prisons and camps. They constituted five to 10 percent of the inmate population prior to the start of World War II. Jehovah’s Witness inmates were identified by purple triangles on their uniforms. The Nazis offered Witnesses their freedom if they would sign a document renouncing their faith, but most Witnesses refused. Witness prisoners banded together and helped each other to survive by sharing food and caring for the sick. Nearly 2,000 Witnesses died during the Hitler years, including 270 Witness men who were executed for refusing to join the German army.

Read about Witnesses' beliefs on blood transfusions >>

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