Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted for persecution based on their religious convictions and/or expression of those convictions. When they refused to comply with compulsory military service in Germany, increasing numbers were arrested, found guilty, and incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps. Even then, few renounced their faith.
Franz Wohlfahrt was born January 18, 1920, in Velden, Austria. In this testimony, Franz, a Jehovah’s Witness, describes the persecution of his family and his own arrest and confinement in German prisons and concentration camps.
Interviewer: This is April 13, 1997. We are interviewing Mr. Franz Wohlfahrt, W-O-H-L-F-A-H-R-T. The interviewer is David Lebovich, L-E-B-O-V-I-C-H. We’re in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and the interview will be conducted in English.
Interviewer: Mr. Wohlfahrt, you were involved with the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Can you describe a little bit about what your life was like in the years before the war, when you were growing up?
Franz Wohlfahrt: My father’s name was Gregor Wohlfahrt. My mother’s Barbara Wohlfahrt, and I had three brothers, and two sisters.
Interviewer: How long did your family live in that part of Austria?
Franz Wohlfahrt: We were born in Velden, but we moved about four kilometers east to the town of Pörtschach, which is a known tourist town. But we lived above, in a little mountain there. The years after the First World War were quite a difficult time. I saw unemployment, inflation, and the parents bought a home and had to pay mortgage. It was very difficult to keep up with the payments because my father lost after awhile a job, and the farm was too small. But still they worked very hard that uh, on that little farm of about four, five acres, they were able to produce that much food that we were living on practically.
Interviewer: What religion were you first born, when you were born, what religion were you practicing?
Franz Wohlfahrt: We were before, Catholics. I also attended in the school Catholic instruction and also we went to the mass. We were also at the communion, and also later I was confirmed. But in that time, about ’27, ’28, my father started studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Although he wasn’t yet baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness, when Franz was a teenager, he would accompany his father witnessing door to door.
Interviewer: Do you remember ever having any problems when you went to somebody’s door, during those times?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Yes, it is true some, some were, very opposed. Some were very nasty, you know. Some threatened even my father [laughs]. But others again welcomed us. Yes, and my father made trips, up to six, seven hours. He left already after midnight, for the farthest part on the Italian Yugoslavian border until he reached some people who had showed interest, and he could have taken the train or the bus, but he had no money so he just walked. My parents said we must really have our own conviction because nobody can be, be talked in that he should become a Jehovah Witness. So I was reading and studying the Bible, and also observing what went on in the world, and so I came to the conclusion. This would be really the solution for mankind’s problem.
In March 1938, the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Germany) took place.
Interviewer: So can you describe what it was like when you first started to hear about the Nazis? When was that and what, what impact did that have on you?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Yes, after the takeover, we were really surprised over night, so many were in uniform they had all already prepared ahead of time. And they were armed and already they started, first of all marching, and singing these Nazi songs. And then, they were, also already observing if everyone gets in line. And I remember, when also on the radio, when the takeover took place, in fact ahead of time Hitler already on radio, warned the Bible students that they are not doing the right thing by going with this rotten Bible verses or Bible proverbs from house to house. He said, “We believe hard work, hard work is prayer and this is then what God accept, but not the going from house to house.” And he said, “But fortunately they are mostly just older people involved but the young ones, they have to change when they go through all these formations of our party. And if then one still is not for us, we have a place for such ones.” He meant concentration camp and extermination.
Interviewer: So when did you actually come into contact with somebody who wanted you to change from being a Jehovah’s Witness? What year was that and how did that look?
Franz Wohlfahrt: This was in the beginning when they took over, the Nazis in Austria, they noticed that I am not saluting Hitler. And then they noticed also when I was asked from some Nazi members, you know, when they greeted me with the “Heil Hitler” greeting, so I answered “good day” or “hello” and they reported me to the Gestapo. And there were about twelve times already reports in, and then a group of his armed men came to the house one day. It was a Sunday. The uniformed SA men, and some were SS, and they said I must join the Hitler youth. And I must salute, I have been reported that twelve times, that I refused. “Otherwise, we take you to Dachau.”
Interviewer: What did you say, what did you do?
Franz Wohlfahrt: I said, I just plainly told him that we do not use that greeting because it means salvation comes from Hitler. And when you hail him like by Nero, salvation or everything good comes from Nero, of the Romans. And so I said that we do not want to be hypocrites. We believe only that salvation will come through Jehovah God and through Christ Jesus in his kingdom and that we have no part with this type of worship. But we are willing to work, we are willing to pay the taxes, we respect Hitler as the head of the state, but we do not worship him. That we made clear, but they wouldn’t agree with me, those men. They– can you imagine? They said if I don’t get in line, there’s just one thing– Dachau.
Despite entanglements with the Nazis following the Anschluss, Franz decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness in 1939.
Interviewer: When were you baptized?
Franz Wohlfahrt: I was baptized August the 30th, 1939.
Interviewer: How old were you then?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Nineteen years. I was baptized the same day was also my future wife, my fiancée Maria baptized.
Interviewer: Was that a happy time for you?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Sure, it was. But on the other hand, you can imagine, we knew that hard times and persecution is ahead.
Franz’s father was sent to a court in Vienna because he refused to participate in the military.
Interviewer: You mentioned your father. What happened to your father when he was taken away?
Franz Wohlfahrt: When I visited him on the– also Maria was with me, we visited him. And I had to get a permission from the judge and he questioned me, “What will you do?” I plainly told him I will do the same as my father. But he said, “Are you aware what terrible things going to happen?” And he said to me, “I feel very sorry for your father.” A request came in from the mayor and SA leader, Holtzinger [cannot verify spelling], it was the mayor of our town St. Martin, that “he did not vote, that he did not salute, he is responsible for the congregation, and all Witnesses refuse to take part in the elections. He is an enemy of the state and deliver him to Berlin.” And on account of this he was delivered then to Berlin. Then, he was sentenced to death, and they still give him then one month time to give up his stand, but he did not.
Interviewer: What happened then?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Then, you know, I don’t need to tell you what happened as you knew already on my face, you know. But his first words were – I am glad that Jehovah had given him the strength, that he endured faithful to the end.
In March of 1940, Franz was summoned to a work camp.
Interviewer: You were getting ready to be married and, and they took you to the work service–
Franz Wohlfahrt: Yes, we were planning, we were planning and–
Franz Wohlfahrt: The call came up. I was called to the Hungarian border, in a work service camp.
Interviewer: What was it like?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Yes, that work service camp was really a pre-training for the army. And when I arrived there, I knew ahead of time that this is just a cover up but, when I objected right in the beginning that I will not take that training he said, “Are you refusing–” the commander said, “Are you refusing work?” I said, “No, I am willing to work. But, if this is involved with military training, I have no part in it.” “No, it’s just work.” They presented us a spade, and with this spade, you make the exercises, you know, what you will do after with the gun, this well-known exercises. They also told us, next morning, “Your overalls,” uh, “your overall–” yes, and now I had this overall already on– “but your civilian clothing, make a package. We’re going to send it home, because.” They said the next day we’re going to wear the swastika, we’re going to wear the guard with [inaudible] and the swastika in the middle. And I said, “I have, I will not have any part,” I said, “I don’t want to be a hypocrite.” And in the morning, the orders, he said I must be one of the first out in the exercising round. And the officers waited and waited, I didn’t show up. Then they came in already when the others were running out, you know, they squeezed in already and [laughs] he nearly fainted. I was in civilian clothing and had all the military junk on my back in the blanket. He said, “We order you to put right away the uniform on,” again, you know? I said, “No way.” I said, “You promised yesterday it is only work involved in the work service, and what was it? [Nods] Military training. I will, I will have no part in it. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.” And then, he was screaming with me, one of the German officers, he was foaming literally, you know the edge of the mouth. And then he went over to the commander. And the commander came, reported me, and he said, “Wohlfahrt, when we discussed–” the previous day, I sit for one or two hours with that commander. He said, “I had very high respect for you, but now, you broke your word. You said you are willing to work.” And I said, “I’m sorry, there was no work involved, just military training. And that’s why I am refusing it.”
Franz was placed in a prison cell at the work camp until a high-ranking Gestapo officer came to interrogate him.
Franz Wohlfahrt: The first order was I must put on the uniform. I said “For”– because I refused, I said, “For your information my father has been just beheaded a few weeks ago for a similar reason.” I said, “I have no fear when it necessary, we’d rather give our life than we kill other people or break God’s laws, not to love God and our fellow man.” And then, he was shocked when I told him that and he said, “Then I cannot help you.” He said, “I admit we have a lot of problem with you people.” He said that, “Very seldom there are compromises.” He said, “Very seldom.” And that– he gave up after.
The court sentenced Franz to five years of hard labor. He was transferred to Graz-Karlau, a prison for violent criminals.
Franz Wohlfahrt: I had to put first in the dungeon water on bread, dark room for some days. And then the reception was that some breaks the law, steals or even sometime kill somebody. This is human weakness. But to do such [inaudible] to our Fuhrer, that’s the worst kind. That was my reception there. Then, I was put in a, in a, a single cell, I was not allowed to speak to anyone. I even lost the voice you know, some months I could not speak, not allowed to speak. And we had one hour where we could go walk, but I was so weak that I fainted, from hunger, you know. I started fainting, once they had to, to pick me up, just from starvation, you know. It was very little food.
Interviewer: So you had no contact with other people during that time?
Franz Wohlfahrt: No, no. Completely cut off, yes.
In February of 1941, Franz was transported to a labor camp near Rodgau-Dieburg in Germany.
Interviewer: What did it look like when you got off the train at the camp?
Franz Wohlfahrt: There, there was the reception with the dogs, the barking of the dogs and then screaming of the guards, and the usual reception you know.
Interviewer: Was that a big camp? Can you describe it?
Franz Wohlfahrt: No, it was not such a big camp. I don’t know how many were in the other camps; I was just in a branch of that camp. We had there the average about one thousand five hundred, one thousand seven hundred, and they have dozens, over dozens, branches. And there was a num– a camp number one, I was in the camp number two, and you know they branched out, in the different directions. And there was involved mainly work for the Luftwaffe, and our main job was draining the land, swamp, you know digging the trenches, putting the pipes in and also digging out trees. And there, where I got such there, was sore feet by having poor boots and then in, in the evening we got these wooden clogs without socks. And we had to march for kilometers, sometimes up to five, six, eight kilometers at least, on foot. And when we reached the camp, and this was on the sand, it was such a sandy soil. And we had to goose step. And so it grinded and then it became so infected that I got gangrene. And then they say it already they have to cut my legs off because the way they looked, you know, put, uh, put [inaudible] legs. And when I tried once to get help that doctor he took some benzene with a, on a paper towel, wrapped it and kicked me out. He said, “Back on the job.” And then I collapsed. I just couldn’t walk anymore. There was crying during the night from pain. And then the work commander, his name was Neidelpeck from Hamburg, Bremen, Hamburg, in that area. He said, “What you have really, is it that bad? Take your glove– your clogs off.” I took them off. “Oh no,” he said. “Why are you not looked after in the lot?” So I, I told him, “I went there and they just kicked me out.” He took me personally after over and he said, “Get the treatment.” And then he got me some of this, hypomanganate, and I was able to (inaudible]. And slowly I recovered but it always came back again and I have still, I am very sensitive today still with infection from my legs.
Interviewer: Were there any Jews in your camp?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Yes, they were. But they transferred them after, mainly to Auschwitz.
Interviewer: Gypsies? Were they –
Franz Wohlfahrt: Gypsies too. The same thing happened to them yes, yes.
Interviewer: Were there other Witnesses with you in your barracks?
Franz Wohlfahrt: No, they, that was interesting that they really followed their order from the Gestapo to keep me isolated from them. But they were in all branches of the camp. After the liberation I found out where a number of Witnesses, what came from all the other branches, you know, in the main camp.
Interviewer: Did you have a chance to, to witness to other prisoners, guards, Gestapo?
Franz Wohlfahrt: Yes I did, wherever was opportunity or some, you know, what they were hateful and you could, you could guess already who can’t be approached. But some said a few kind words or a number of times they called me, stopped me, they said, “Tell me, why, why are you here? You have still a smiling face and all that misery that you still in a different behavior than the other prisoners.” So I said, “I have still a hope, I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And I have still a hope that we do not suffer in vain. That we have a better time ahead.” And they said, “Oh, oh, that’s different,” you know. And some were very, very kind, really. But the majority, I mean they were, also out of fear they did not try to have any closer contact with prisoners, you know. But there were exceptions.
By March of 1945, the Allied air raids in the region became more frequent.
Franz Wohlfahrt: You can imagine how tense the situation was. I was once in a workshop and the bomb fell just so close, and I jumped in one of this, you know where they repair the cars, in that pit. I jumped down, you know, that I had some protection. And it was quite obvious when they started bombing systematically the surrounding areas with this like kind of dive bombers. And can you imagine? Then with the leaflets that they warn. And then what one of the biggest sign was one day they said that windows have to be opened. We hear that from the guards, that they announce, “The windows should be opened.” A big ammunition depot was blown up, then we knew and that was very close and we knew how many prisoners slaved there for years in that depot, carrying all the ammunition. And then we knew, and you can imagine, how on the other hand, we were tense but how happy we are that there are signs toward the end, you know? And then, from General Patton, bypassed our camp and I listened after when they had encircled us, and, and liberated us on the radio, that this was one of the fastest move of any army. That it bypassed that camp area and then encircled them and came from all directions.
Although Franz’s camp was liberated in March 1945, he worked as a painter for four months before returning home to Austria on a donated motorcycle.
Franz Wohlfahrt: It needed some repair and I couldn’t get just a little repair, it was a brand new, two hundred Kubik Zundapp. And I was working hard and I had to wait until about the 8th of July that the bike was ready and with that bike I made the trip home. And they loaded me up with gifts and all kinds of things, the German people, you know? Some gave me porcelain, [laughs] some vases, and for my wife, they, some gave me some of this silk that she could make, make a blouse. You know that was the blouse when she made for the wedding (Laughs). But can you imagine? They were so kind, and so many German people said, “We should have done that, we should taken such a stand,” you know? And then I got home, and can you imagine there on the way up to that village, I met a relative of Mary. I said, “Is Mary ok?” They are wondering, they were all already assuming I have been killed, I never survived. And I ask if she is okay. “Yes she is just up with her father, they are, they are just harvesting the wheat on the field.” And I went up there. You know I came up there, stopped, and they wouldn’t recognize me. I had a cap like one of this tank, you know what the tank crew head, this black, [laughs] and a, a big coat, and this goggles, you know? I said, “Come along.” She looked, “Uh.” She came little bit closer, “Uh.” What did this fellow want, you know? And, can you imagine? [Laughs] I had to insist, “Come closer.” She didn’t recognize me and then you can imagine what a outcry and we were united again. And then she, jumped up on that bike, you know I had already a seat, a thing prepared. Then we drove up to, rode up to, my mother’s house. And she was up on the hill just cutting some grass, and they called here, “Franz is home.” She threw everything away, came running down with us. A really outstanding reunion.
Franz’s family continues to be active in the Jehovah’s Witness faith.
Picture #1 – Family
Interviewer: Sir, please describe this photograph, when it was taken and from left to right, who the people are in there, and what happened to them.
Franz Wohlfahrt: That photograph was taken still in the ‘30s, before the war. And to the left is a cousin of mine who was also in a concentration camp, then my brother, Christian, and the little brother Willibald, and my sister Eda. And to the right is my cousin, Anton Wohlfahrt who was also in the concentration camp, but they experienced some terrible experiments in the camp, Flossenbürg.
Picture #2 – Document
Franz Wohlfahrt: This is a document from the Austrian government for survivors, that we had some privileges for example, that they took care for our health and also that we were eligible when we were disabled to receive a support from the government.
Picture #3 – Family
Franz Wohlfahrt: That photograph was taken about ’86. To the left is me, Franz Wohlfahrt, and my youngest daughter, Hidi. And behind is my son Gregor, my wife Maria, then my daughter Willima, and the oldest daughter Johanna.