Aside from brief mentions, the literature on the history of Auschwitz Concentration Camp does not take account of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (referred to in the camp records as Bible Researchers) who were imprisoned because of their religious convictions. These prisoners deserve closer attention because of the way they managed to hold on to their moral principles under camp conditions. This was a result of their religious convictions, based on the Bible and on opposition to all forms of violence.
The period of Nazi rule in Germany and World War II represented a daunting trial for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Everywhere constituting a small but conspicuous group, they were among the first to be imprisoned in the concentration camps. They treated their imprisonment as the fulfillment of the will of God, and therefore attempted to continue to live their lives in complete harmony with all the precepts of their faith.
The ideology of the Nazi state represented a complete contradiction of their morality and everyday practices. Even rendering homage to Hitler with the greeting “Heil Hitler!” was an affront to their faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to participate in military training or serve in the army. This refusal was punishable by imprisonment, or even death. They also refused categorically to perform any work that, as they saw it, contributed directly to the war effort—and, as is known, many German factories were mobilized for armaments production. As a result, many Witnesses, including women, were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
It is estimated that over 3 thousand prisoners classified in category IBV were held in the concentration camps. More than 2 thousand of them came from Germany. The others were deported from The Netherlands (200 to 250 people), Austria (200), and Poland (100), along with some from Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR.
Under the prisoner classification system, Jehovah’s Witnesses wore a purple triangle and an “IBV” symbol, an abbreviation for the official name of their organization in German, Internationale Bibelforscher - Vereinigung (International Association of Bible Researchers). Partially extant camp records in the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, together with memoirs by former prisoners, indicate that other prisoners arrested because of their religious convictions, including clergy of various denominations, also wore the purple triangle in the camp. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses made up the decided majority of prisoners in this category.
Aside from Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned in Auschwitz for belonging to the religious group and classified in category IBV, there were also an unknown number of other Witnesses among the different prisoner categories—most often among the political prisoners who wore the red triangle.
There were Jehovah’s Witnesses among the first transports of Polish civilians from the lands annexed by the German Reich. Later, others arrived from different regions, such as Greater Poland and the General Government. The fragmentary extant records of their stay in Auschwitz include camp photographs bearing both the “IBV” symbol and the letter “P,” which designated Poles. The numbers assigned to prisoners indicate that there were Witnesses among the Auschwitz prisoners as early as the first months when the camp was in operation.
Once the women’s camp opened, female Witnesses were imprisoned in Auschwitz. The first group arrived from Ravensbrück, followed by transports from the prisons in Mysłowice, Łódź, and Poznań.
Non-Polish Witnesses were also imprisoned in Auschwitz. Most often, they were from Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, or other occupied European countries.
The incomplete nature of the documentation and the various ways that prisoners were categorized makes it impossible to determine the exact number of Witnesses in Auschwitz. However, it can be stated that at least 387 Witnesses were in Auschwitz during the 5 years that the camp operated. This includes at least 138 people classified in the IBV category and marked with a purple triangle—in other words, who were in Auschwitz because of their faith. At least 249 others were included in other prisoner categories, most often that of political prisoners; for them, their faith was an indirect cause of their imprisonment.
The records indicate that at least 152 Witnesses (men and women) who were imprisoned in Auschwitz died—132 in Auschwitz, and the other 20 in camps they were transferred to, or during evacuation or immediately after liberation.
This means that at least 32% of those deported to Auschwitz died there.
There were also an unknown but probably small number of prisoners who converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith in Auschwitz. Prisoner accounts speak of illegal meetings organized for those who wished to learn more about the Witnesses’ beliefs.