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Concentration camp uniform coat with a purple triangle worn by a Jehovah’s Witness inmate

Object | Accession Number: 1990.222.1.3

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    Concentration camp uniform coat with a purple triangle worn by a Jehovah’s Witness inmate

    Overview

    Brief Narrative
    Concentration camp uniform overcoat worn by a male Jehovah’s Witness who was imprisoned in Buchenwald and Flossenbürg concentration camps from October 25, 1939, to May 8, 1945. It has a white patch with his Flossenbürg prisoner number, 38641, beside a purple triangle marking him as a Jehovah’s Witness. The Nazi regime persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused to put any authority before God or serve in the military. In mid-September 1937, he was imprisoned by the Gestapo for leading the local Jehovah’s Witness group, whose activities were viewed as subversive activity against the Nazi regime. After two years, the SS sent him to Buchenwald concentration camp where he was a slave laborer. On December 11, 1944, he was transferred to Flossenbürg and put in a labor group of Jehovah’s Witnesses assigned to bakeries that produced bread for the main camp. He was liberated on May 8, 1945, one day after Germany’s surrender.
    Date
    use:  1939-1945
    Geography
    use: Buchenwald (Concentration camp); Weimar (Thuringia, Germany)
    use: Flossenbürg (Concentration camp); Flossenbürg (Germany)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Franz Wohlfahrt and Robert Buckley
    Markings
    front, top button, engraved : EXTRA A FEIN M58 RZM
    front, second button, engraved : 57 RZM
    front, fourth button, engraved : EXTRA FEIN • PC •
    front, fifth button, engraved : ELEGANTIA (star)
    Contributor
    Subject: Anonymous (Jehovah’s Witness)
    Subject: Franz Wohlfahrt
    Biography
    The subject, a male, was born on June 8, 1907, in Colmar, Alsace-Lorraine, Germany (now France). His mother was born in 1885, in Sierenz, Germany (France). He had two sisters. His family moved to Landshut in Bavaria, Germany. In 1924, he graduated from school and became a baker and chauffeur. As an adult, he was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. He was unmarried. Both of his sisters married.

    In January 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany and quickly established a Nazi dictatorship. The government actively persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religious convictions did not permit them to swear loyalty to any authority before God or to serve in the armed forces. German authorities considered this refusal and active missionary work to gain converts subversive political acts. The subject served as the head of his town’s Jehovah’s Witness group. He refused to serve in the military. German authorities believed the subject’s leadership role made him a threat to public safety. On September 14 or 15, 1937, he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Bayreuth. While imprisoned, he continued to practice his religious beliefs. After two years in prison, the subject stated that he would not serve in the military or stop his religious activities if he was released.

    On September 24, 1939, he was placed in protective custody by the SS, a tactic used to detain those considered undesirable. A month later, he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was given a uniform and assigned two prisoner numbers, 429 and 10648. He was imprisoned with approximately 270 other Jehovah’s Witnesses. The subject received small portions of bread and was often hungry. He was used as slave labor in the camp quarry, carpenter’s shop, and several other places. In April 1940, the Munich Staatspolizei wrote a letter to the camp Commandant explaining that the subject could be dismissed from the camp if he was willing to sign a declaration stating that he would respect the laws of the state. He remained in the camp, so it is unlikely that he signed a declaration. On December 11, 1944, he was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was assigned prisoner number 38641. On January 12, 1945, he was assigned to a small commando or labor group of Jehovah’s Witnesses and sent to the town of Erbendorf to work at the Paul Rothgen bakery, which supplied bread to Flossenbürg. On February 14, he was transferred back to Flossenbürg and then sent to another Flossenberg bakery in Hohenthan.

    On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered. The following day, the subject was liberated by US soldiers. On June 15, he was released from the Flossenbürg displaced persons camp and began baking bread for sick people who were in the camp. He later settled in Landshut and returned to his old company, the bread factory.
    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

    Classification
    Clothing and Dress
    Object Type
    Coats (lcsh)
    Physical Description
    Blue and gray vertically striped wool, calf length coat, with long sleeves and a pointed, double layer collar with zig-zag reinforcement stitching and a hook and eye closure. The front opening has reinforced plackets with 5 finished buttonholes on the left, frayed on the interior, and 5 mismatched beaded metal shank buttons on the right: 4 silver and 1 copper colored. There is a large patch pocket with rounded corners and a flap top on each side near the waist. The top edges and flap are lined with green cloth and they are reinforced on the interior. The back has a center seam and a 17 inch vent. On the interior neck band is a satiny, brown cloth hanging loop. The upper back, chest, and sleeves are lined with green cloth. The hems and seams are machine finished. Handstitched to the left breast is a rectangular, white cloth prisoner patch with a faded, inverted purple triangle, with 38641 stenciled in black beside it.
    Dimensions
    overall: Height: 44.750 inches (113.665 cm) | Width: 16.625 inches (42.228 cm)
    Materials
    overall : wool, cloth, metal, thread, paint
    Inscription
    front, left chest, patch, stenciled, black paint : 38641

    Rights & Restrictions

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

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    Provenance
    The concentration camp uniform coat was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1990 by Franz Wohlfahrt and Robert Buckley on behalf of the original owner who wished to remain anonymous.
    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:
    2022-07-28 18:21:20
    This page:
    https:​/​/collections.ushmm.org​/search​/catalog​/irn2963

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