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Wooden sign with Biblical verse made in labor camp by a Jehovah’s Witness

Object | Accession Number: 1989.314.4

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    Wooden sign with Biblical verse made in labor camp by a Jehovah’s Witness

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    Brief Narrative
    Plaque created by Franz Wohlfahrt presumably for the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel; Protection Squadrons) while imprisoned in Strafgefangenenlager Rollwald labor camp in Germany in 1944. He was assigned the task as part of his forced labor service. However, an inscription on the back states that he made this one in secret out of wood scraps and paint samples and smuggled it home. Franz, 20, was jailed because, as a Jehovah's Witness, his beliefs did not permit him to put any authority before God. He would not submit to the authority of the German government or serve in the military. In 1943, at Rollwad, the new camp commandant, Karl Strumpf, was decorating his villa and Franz was assigned to the work detail. Franz experimented with latex paint and produced an effect like wallpaper, which was not available at the time. Strumpf got to know Franz through his work at the villa and saved his life on 3 occasions, shielding him from death by beheading for his refusal to serve in the military. The camp was liberated by the United States Army in March 1945.
    creation:  approximately 1944
    creation: Rollwald (Concentration camp); Nieder-Roden (Germany)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Franz and Maria Wohlfahrt, in memory of Gregor Wohlfahrt, father, and Gregor Wohlfahrt, brother, and the Wohlfahrt and Stossier families
    front, white paint : Verlaue dich auf den herrn vom+ ganzen herzen und verlak dich nicht auf Deinen Verstand, sondern denke an ihn, in allen Deinen Wegen, denn solchen wird er recht führen, und solchem wirdes zuletzt gut gehen. Spr. 3:5.6. [Trust in the Lord with the whole heart+, and do not rely on your understanding, but submit to him in all your ways, for he will make your paths straight forever. Proverbs. 3:5:6.]
    Artist: Franz Wohlfahrt
    Subject: Franz Wohlfahrt
    Franz Wohlfahrt was born on January 18, 1920, to Gregor and Barbara (Betty) Struk Wohlfahrt in Velden (Velden am Wörthersee), Austria. Gregor, born in 1896 in Velden, served in the Austrian Army during World War I (1914-1918). Gregor married Barbara after the war. They had a small farm and he did road construction. Gregor was traumatized by his battlefield experience, which caused a crisis of faith. In the 1920s, it led him to reject his Catholic faith and become a Jehovah’s Witness. He converted his family to the faith. In 1928, he began preaching publicly, trying to convert others. Franz had attended a Catholic school but in 1934, he began to assist his father with his missionary work. Nazi Germany banned the Watchtower Society, the Jehovah’s Witnesses administrative organization, and persecuted members. Witnesses did not obey any authority but God, refused to join the Nazi Party, and were dedicated pacifists. The Nazi regime regarded such attitudes as a threat to the state and German policies were very influential in neighboring Austria. Gregor was jailed briefly for preaching without a license and for peddling religious literature in 1936. Around this time, Franz finished school and was apprenticed for four years to a master house painter.

    In March 1938, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, a merger met with great enthusiasm by most of the Austrian population. Members of the Jehovah’s Witness were aware that they were subject to arrest and harassment for their refusal to pledge allegiance, or accept the authority of any temporal power, such as Hitler, the Nazi party, and the German government. The religion was not banned, but members were arrested for their refusal to be drafted or to do any military work. They were conscientious objectors, opposed to war on behalf of a temporal authority. In 1938, Franz was reported for refusing to return a salute or say Heil Hitler. He was called in for interrogation by the Germans, and threatened with deportation to Dachau concentration camp. The master painter to whom he was apprenticed, a Nazi sympathizer, was able to get him released.
    In August 1939, Franz was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. Later that year, his father was told to report for military service, but was declared unfit for health reasons. However, he declared his opposition to the war and was sent to Vienna. He then was declared an enemy of the state and transferred to Berlin for trial. He was sentenced to death by beheading on December 7, 1939, with 28 other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    In March 1940, Franz was told to report for work service at the Arbeitsdienst Camp in Burgenland. He worked on building roads at first, but then it turned into a military training camp. Franz refused to be inducted into the Germany army. He was repeatedly interrogated and thrown into a dungeon with little food and water for weeks as they attempted to change his mind, but he refused to recant and insisted he would not support the Nazi Party or renounce his faith. He was then imprisoned in Graz and charged with demoralizing conduct. He had a trial and was represented by a state lawyer, but was found guilty and sentenced to 5 years hard labor. Under the terms of a recent law, war objectors such as Franz were to be sent to concentration or work camps until the war was over, and then they would serve their prison sentences. Franz was sent to a prison for serious and violent offenders, Graz Karlau. He was kept in solitary and nearly starved. Then he was given a job making paper bags in his cell. He was interviewed about his beliefs by a German professor who gave Franz newspapers about his case that described him as a dangerous person who must be isolated from society and forced to give up his beliefs.
    In February 1941, Franz was transferred to Strafgefangenenlager Rodgau-Dieburg with a group of political prisoners. He continued to be threatened with the consequences of not giving up his faith; one doctor told him he would be sent to the chimneys. He made steel wire fences in a factory and then dug trenches and uprooted trees in a swamp. He got gangrene and was told his legs would be cut off, but the work commandment intervened and got him proper treatment. In 1943, a new commander was assigned to the camp. He found out that Franz was a skilled painter and changed his work assignment to his villa. The caFranz was the eldest of 3 brothers and 2 sisters: Gregor, Christian, Willibald, Eda, and Anna. in Velden in VEldenmp commandant saved Franz from certain execution at least three times by helping him avoid interrogations when he was called for military duty. As the war continued, the need for soldiers and military workers intensified and if Franz had directly refused to serve at this time, he would have been executed. In 1944-1945, leaflets were dropped in the camp by US planes warning the Germans not to harm the prisoners. On another air campaign, the planes flew low enough to shoot the guards in the watchtowers. The commander surrendered the camp to American troops in March 1945. Franz testified on behalf of the commander after his release, and the commander was released by the Americans after 3 days.
    Franz returned home to Austria. He learned that the four youngest siblings had been taken away from his mother in 1943 and sent to a correction center to keep them from becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses: two sisters were placed in a convent; two brothers were sent to a camp where they were starved and often beaten by SS trainers. Willibald, 17, was shot and killed while on a forced work detail digging trenches; Christian was taken to the Russian border and shot, but he recovered. Gregor, age 21, had been called to military duty with the Luftwaffe. He stayed faithful to his religious beliefs, objected to military service, and was sentenced to death and beheaded on March 14, 1942. Few members of their Jehovah’s Witness congregation survived the war; over a dozen were executed.

    In October 1945, Franz married Maria Stossier, a fellow Jehovah’s Witness whom he had known before the war. They had four children. In 1951, the family immigrated to Toronto, Canada because they felt that most Austrians could not let go of the old beliefs and prejudices. Franz continued to work as a painter. Franz, 89, passed away on December 12, 2009.

    Physical Details

    German English
    Decorative Arts
    Physical Description
    Rectangular, light and darker brown, straight grained, wooden sign with 7 lines of German text painted in white latex paint and outlined in red. The first letter is an illuminated, red D, and the text is in a calligraphic, Fraktur font. It has a handmade, stained dark brown wooden frame. Attached to the back is a circular metal hook. The back is covered with light brown paper and has an inscription and a stamp.
    overall: Height: 6.000 inches (15.24 cm) | Width: 8.375 inches (21.273 cm) | Depth: 0.625 inches (1.588 cm)
    overall : wood, latex paint, ink, paper, varnish stain, adhesive, metal
    back, handwritten, black paint : Painted by F. WOHLFAHRT / 1944 / CAMP ROLLWALD / GERMANY AUSTRIA
    back, handwritten, blue ink : DONE IN SECRET AND SEND HOME
    back, stamped, blue ink : MALERMEISTER / FRANZ WOHLFAHRT / Sekull Nr. 106 / 9210 Pörtschach am Wörther See [MASTER PAINTER / FRANZ WOHLFAHRT]

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    No restrictions on access
    Conditions on Use
    No restrictions on use

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    The plaque was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1989 by Franz and Maria Wohlfahrt.
    Funding Note
    The cataloging of this artifact has been supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
    Record last modified:
    2023-08-09 11:56:25
    This page:

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