Walter Manoschek, a political scientist at the University of Vienna who has worked on a project sponsored by the Austrian government to rehabilitate Austrian victims of the Nazi regime, says that Engleitner's story brings to life one of the least-known groups of Nazi victims that also included Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, and the mentally and physically disabled.
A 'systematic resistance'
Nazis targeted Jehovah's Witnesses mainly because as religious conscientious objectors they eschew swearing an oath to any earthly authority and refused to serve in the German Army. Refusal to serve under Hitler was regarded as treason, punishable by death. Among the 3,200 Witnesses interned in concentration camps, thousands were killed, according to historians. Unlike other groups – most notably, of course, millions of Jews – they could have walked out free had they agreed to renounce their faith.
"The Jehovah's Witnesses' systematic resistance as a collective group is something very unique," says Professor Manoschek. "Most people [laugh] at the old-fashioned way in which they try to bring religion to people's houses. But it's important for people to know what happened to them during the Nazi time."
Engleitner's principles set him apart from others beginning early in his life. As the son of a sawmill worker growing up in Bad Ischl, the "emperor's village," in the early 1900s, he and his schoolmates would often encounter Franz Joseph, the emperor, who vacationed there. The gap between the royal wealth and his own family's poverty angered the young Engleitner.
After the effects of World War I had decimated his village he vowed never to fight in a war. To overcome hunger, he left school at 13, built a small house for himself, and eked out a living crafting skis, among other things. Later, his mistrust of established authority led him to abandon Catholicism and join the Jehovah's Witnesses. "People spat at me," Engleitner says of the reaction to his adopted faith.