(Braunau 1906 – Braunau 1973): A Jehovah’s Witness in Auschwitz
Resistance through unbroken strength of faith
Jehovah’s Witnesses were identified in the concentration camps by a purple triangle, which Maria Moser also had to wear. She grew up in Braunau, Upper Austria, and in 1927 married Alois Moser, a postal clerk, in Salzburg. Both left the Roman Catholic Church and became involved with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This had already left them exposed during the Austrofascist period, as the religion had already been outlawed in 1935/36. However, it paled in comparison to the persecution to which they were subjected once the Nazis had taken over. The terrorist regime resented the resistance of the faith’s adherents, who refused to obey the regime’s orders that clashed with their beliefs, such as giving the Hitler salute, working in military production or doing military or war service – which was punishable by death. In addition, they held illegal meetings and distributed of religious material, which was not permitted. The Mosers became caught in the Nazi machinery of persecution. A Gestapo informer reported a communion celebration, leading to raids throughout Upper Austria on 4 April 1939 during which Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested and imprisoned in the Linz police jail. Maria’s husband Alois Moser had already been taken to Dachau concentration camp in April 1939; Maria Moser arrived at Ravensbrück concentration camp on 19 June 1939. There, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were encouraged to renounce their faith in order to be released. But the approximately 400 believers remained steadfast; later on, they also refused to work building armaments. In July 1942, Maria Moser was taken with other Jehovah’s Witnesses to Auschwitz. In her account, which she had written as early as 1946, she wrote: “The sight of the new camp was horrific. There was squalor everywhere. At night we couldn’t sleep for fleas, and in the morning our whole bodies were covered with bites. As soon as we caught sight of the camp, we knew what was going on there.” For the Jewish women, no pleading or crying or their willingness to work helped – they were executed. Maria Moser described how she was as white as a sheet: “My first thought was that the hand of Jehovah would have to lead us out of this situation, because it would have been impossible to get out any other way.” Of the 550 members of the Jehovah's Witness religion in Austria, 145 perished; 42 of 51 death sentences for refusing military service were enforced.
In her memoirs, Maria Moser describes how Jehovah’s Witnesses were also put to work in SS families and were even in demand from the commanders, as they knew that the women would not run away. They were considered reliable and did not answer back as long as they did not come into conflict with their faith. Yet it was precisely their adherence to the faith that had brought them to the concentration camp and remained a “thorn in the side” of their torturers, who ridiculed it. Faith gave strength despite their inferiority, according to Maria Moser: “Just as Daniel was spared from the ravening beasts in the lions’ den, we were also able to feel the protection of Jehovah. We were subject to the whims of those people day in, day out.”
Maria Moser initially worked in the laundry room of the staff building and later became a block elder. “The prisoners did well, as there were neither punitive reports nor beatings,” she wrote. Because she had not been authoritative enough, she was dismissed; afterwards she worked as a housekeeper for an Obersturmführer. When she fell ill with typhoid fever, she came close to death. Afterwards, she worked in a grocery shop. Another internee reported her for stealing vegetables, as a result of which she lost her job and had to serve 14 days in the bunker as punishment. After that she worked for a Hauptsturmführer named Schemmel.
In January 1945 she began an odyssey that took her to the concentration camps at Groß-Rosen, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and Mittelbau-Dora. On the way to Neuengamme, the guard disappeared. She did not return home until the end of September 1945 and was reunited with her husband again after six years. He had also survived several concentration camps. They lived together in Braunau until Maria Moser’s death. Documenting the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses was always very important to her.
Franz Aigner, Die Verfolgung der Zeugen Jehovas in Österreich 1938–1945. In: Rudolf Steininger (ed.), Vergessene Opfer des Nationalsozialismus, Innsbruck-Vienna-Munich 2000, p. 9–21.
Teresa Wontor-Cichy, Für den Glauben in Haft. Zeugen Jehovas im KL Auschwitz. Staatliches Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oswiecim 2006.