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New exhibit explores Nazis' persecution and incarceration of Jehovah's Witnesses

By RAFAEL GUERRERO | The Courier-News, Elgin, Ill. | Published: November 2, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Simone Arnold Liebster can still remember being 12 years old and forced to stand alone in front of 500 fellow students while her school principal demanded give the Seig Heil salute.

Liebster, 89, refused, unable to pledge her allegiance to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and the regime that persecuted her family for being Jehovah's Witnesses. More than 12,000 members of the faith were arrested under Hitler's command in the 1930s and '40s, and about 2,000 killed.

"I got ice cold, but in my heart I had taken a determination that I would be faithful to myself, to always have God with me, and never abandoning Him," Liebster said Wednesday, speaking via video from her home in France to an audience gathered at Elgin Community College.

Liebster's presentation kicked off a month-long exhibit at Elgin Community College, "Jehovah's Witnesses: Faith Under Fire," which explores a lesser-known aspect of the Holocaust – the Nazi persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Her story and those of other survivors and victims make up the traveling exhibit, made possible by the Arnold Liebster Foundation, which Simone Arnold Liebster co-founded with her late husband, Max. It's open to the public in ECC Building B through Nov. 29.

Each panel of the 12 that make up the 27-foot-long exhibit provides information and photos about the plight of Jehovah's Witnesses prior to and during World War II. It was the first Christian denomination was banned by the Nazis in 1933, and many members who would not renounce their beliefs and give their allegiance to Hitler were jailed, ordered to re-education centers or sent to concentration camps.

Jehovah's Witnesses in the camps wore purple triangles on their clothing, similar to the gold stars worn by Jewish inmates. Unlike Jewish prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses could sign declaration forms that would set them free if they renounced their beliefs, supported the German military and pledged their allegiance to the regime.

"There is no question about it that it would have been easier (to sign) – for the moment," Liebster said. "But if you have something in your heart that is sacred and you go against it, your conscience speaks and looks at you, feeling like you've betrayed it. That is not a situation I would have liked to endure."

Liebster's parents were taken to concentration camps and Liebster sent to a Nazi penitentiary home, where she had no contact with her family for two years. Her parents survived, and the family reunited and returned to their home to France after the war.

"In spite of my youth, my whole life has been very rich, very peaceful, and it was a life where I felt I was walking on solid ground," she said.

ECC English professor Ginger Alms helped bring the exhibit to Elgin, requesting the funding needed from the school's English Department and its Global/International Studies Team.

Alms had her students read Liebster's memoir, "Facing the Lion." The book was both moving and eye-opening, she said.

"(Jehovah's Witnesses) were denouncing Hitler before the war," said Alms, distributing anti-Nazi literature, refusing to participate in the military and demonstrating at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "It's amazing to me they were so organized even after they were formally banned and just the strength so many had (while persecuted).

"We live in a time where a lot of kids deal with bullying and peer pressure," she said. "I felt (Liebster's) story was an important one to hear."

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