20th Annual Holocaust Memorial Observance
Elizabeth Dopazo, Jehovah's Witness Survivor of the Third Reich
Town House

Interviewed April 30, 2000

Concord Oral History Program
Selectman Ruth Lauer, Interviewer.

Sponsored by the Concord Board of Selectmen and Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council

Click here for audio in .mp3 format

Selectman Ruth Lauer - More than 50 years have passed since the Nazi genocide, and we say "never again." Yet on a regular basis our newspapers and televisions expose current instances of atrocities and brutality. Hatred of people because of their race, ethnicity or religious belief continues to exist in our world stripping all of us whether we are victims, perpetrators or observers of our humanity. Since 1979 the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council mission dedicated to social justice and religious understanding has challenged the people of Concord and Carlisle to recognize our own prejudices, to learn from them so that we can choose to let them go, never to forget the terrible consequences of hate. An important goal of our celebration this evening is for us to acknowledge that these terrors will not be eliminated unless we all seek solutions to injustice present among us and elsewhere in the world. I invite you to listen to our honored guests whose lives were changed through cruelty and hatred. Let us reflect on how we, residents of this American town with its long history of seeking truth and justice, can create in our community the climate for freedom that is the model for the Human Rights Council purpose. Welcome.

[People making speeches, song sung and poems read, not recorded in this transcript]

Elizabeth Dopazo - Good evening and thank you very much for inviting me here tonight, and so many people on a Sunday night. I didn't expect that. I was here far too early and I saw three or four coming in and I thought maybe there will be ten or so, you know. So, I'm really surprised. I want to just give you a little glimpse of how life was in Germany at that time from a different perspective. Actually I feel more comfortable with teenagers, but I see quite a few of them here so I'll kind of look at them and feel that I am in a classroom.

Of course we have to go back many years. There are over 100 books written by revisionists that claim that it never happened -- people exaggerate, people died in the war and that's the way it is in war. But, you know what, unless you are informed you could read those books and actually start having doubts yourself because they are very convincingly written. The more we know and the more we tune in to that time and make ourselves aware of what really happened, the better it is. Actually the stereotypical German is very meticulous in keeping records, and the Nazis practically condemned themselves by having kept all those records. Now one can go to Berlin and find records that were not available to people until the wall came down. So now we find out even more than what we knew before. So it did happen, and Germany has to live with that history whether they like it or not. It is very difficult for young people today because they are also asking questions of their grandparents, what did you do, granddad and so on. There are even some families who are barely on speaking terms because of it.

Let's go back to 1928. Germany by the way is a beautiful country. I don't know how many of you have been to Germany. It's very much like New England, like parts of New Hampshire, Vermont even. Of course, they don't have the Grand Canyon on anything like that, but it is a beautiful scenic country. So in 1928 my mother met my father in Hamburg which is a beautiful city very much like Boston. They met at a convention and my mother was 17 years old, so she needed permission to get married. She was madly in love and she asked her parents to get permission to get married. They said, "Absolutely not, you are our youngest daughter, you're not going to get permission to get married. He's too old for you." My father was 24. What do you do then when you still want to go ahead with your plans? Well, you elope of course. And that's what they did. Actually my husband and I were hoping our daughter would do that. Go to Bermuda or Aruba and call us, we're married. Great, then we were spared that elaborate wedding. But, it was not to be. I'm all for small weddings and great marriages actually.

My parents went to the eastern part of Germany. My mother was born in Lubeck, which is a beautiful old trading city near Hamburg. So they went to the eastern part closer to the Czechoslovakian border. My father had a barber shop there. He spoke five languages fluently and corresponded with people from different parts of the world, which actually was a great detriment to him later on when Hitler came around because of the foreign mail correspondence.

Life was very pleasant. I was born first, 1929. Now we're really talking ancient history. 1929 was actually the year when you had a disaster here in this country, the Great Depression. Of course, it comes from people being depressed, very depressed, a Great Depression. And some people even, as I recall reading, jumped out of windows in New York. Oh, dear, money's gone, life is all over, that's all, that's it. That, of course, is if you are very materialistic. If you're not so materialistic, you might think well, money is gone, I'm still here in good shape, I can do something, so I start life over again. It depends on how you perceive things.

In Germany there also was a depression, but during the depression it depended where you lived. If you lived in the country, you probably had a garden and some fruit trees because it really gets down to the bare essentials like a roof over your head and something to eat. So it depends. We were not so much affected by the depression because my father was mostly paid in kind rather than money in his barbershop even though he wasn't there that much. He traveled a lot and he had a manager. A little chicken from the farm and some vegetables, something like that, and some eggs and so on. We didn't have a car. We had bicycles. We had lovely toys. My brother was born a year after me. Germany was known for its toy industry and other things.

This piece of history to me always seems like a huge puzzle. Now if you've ever done a puzzle, you know like when you were a child, you start with 24 pieces or something then you advance to eventually 500 or 1000 or even more. At the end there are some pieces missing and you know how frustrating that is. Extremely frustrating, you look under the table and everywhere. So this history is like a puzzle because Germany was thought of as a country of culture with intelligent people for the most part and Jews because they were Germans. They had German citizenship, they were integrated into society, assimilated perhaps better than in some other countries including this one I might add. How could that have happened? Why did so many people go along with such schemes? It's totally mind-boggling, it really is. One's mind can barely conceive thousands let alone millions of people that were done away with. It's very difficult. But if you take out one family or one person that might have been related to you, then it really becomes alive.

I have a friend and her father was a doctor and you would think a doctor had a little something up here. We were talking and he said, "Oh, I don't think it was six million, probably five. They always exaggerate." And my hair almost stood on end. I said, "Excuse me, what are we talking about here, numbers? What does it matter whether it is six million or five million, it was millions that's a fact. Now take out somebody who might have been your best friend, then it might take on a different dimension. Why do you say that and you being a doctor?" We had a heated discussion that night, I was so furious.

Now Hitler didn't spring up overnight. He was around, but we never saw him. People had radios. Of course, there was no television in those days. People were saying, a lot of people, who is this guy? Where did he come from? He's foreign, he's not German. You know I go to colleges and rather prestigious colleges and I'm not going to mention which one, and they say oh, didn't he come from Australia? What I would like to say then is what are you stupid or something? How did you get into this college? Anyway I restrain myself, believe me. So I usually say don't you mean Austria? Oh, yes, they say. So he came from Austria and overnight he presented this religion that he was part of. He was a Roman Catholic. Nevertheless he did not push for religion in general. He wanted actually to do away with it. But nevertheless, he used whatever he could to get where he finally ended up. He had an audience like you in front of him, and he found out ahead of time you were coming. He would say Christianity is the basis for our belief and may God bless our efforts. And people would say, that sounds very good. I have this picture here. I don't know what strikes you about this. When you think of other dictators like Mussolini or military dictators in some country, then you see this picture of Hitler. What is striking about this?

It's very plain, isn't it. He presents himself very simply. Of course, he never made it past corporal in the First World War. Most dictators have medals here that practically weigh them down on the left-hand side, and they strut their stuff with their medals and everything. He didn't do that. He had the Iron Cross from World War I, and he basically said I'm one of you. I'm a simple guy and I want to make Germany great again. To young people he would say you are the ones, you're going to make Germany great and if you're physically and mentally fit, you'll be the rulers of the world eventually. So that's how it was. We didn't see him, but of course, he talked plenty on the radio, especially in northern Germany. Germany is basically divided religious-wise. Catholics are in the south and in the northern part mostly Protestants or Lutheran, even to this day actually. Of course they are others mingled in but there are very few other religions in Germany. Now there are more but at that time it was basically Protestant and Catholic. And of course, there were Jewish people and they had synagogues in most cities in Germany.

When Hitler took over in 1933 things began to change. But not like many people think -- oh, Hitler had power now and things went down hill and Jews ended up in concentration camps and so on and so on. It wasn't like that at all. It was step by step by step, and one step was a little worse than the step before. When do you actually do something? Do you wait until it gets worse? Or do you think you like some Jewish people because they were Germans? I've translated hundreds of letters right now from a rather large Jewish family and they were waiting until 1938. But then they would let us get a little more desperate towards 1939. But in the beginning oh, let's wait this out. We've always lived here and they're not going to do anything to us. One was a doctor and he said they are not going to do anything to me. I even treat people if they don't have any money. Perhaps somebody will kill the lunatic. Maybe he thinks we'll change or maybe he'll do something stupid while Hindenburg was still alive and he'll get rid of him. Something will happen. Why don't we kind of keep a low profile and don't make any waves and maybe it will be all right.

As far as our family, my father belonged to a group of people who called themselves International Bible Students. They were in a minority. There were no more than about 20,000 and later they changed their name and you have heard of them under a different name, Jehovah's Witnesses. Do you know why Hitler hated them so? That's what I'm getting at. You'd have to know a little bit about them in order to know why Hitler hated them so. He hated them so much that during the war according to an eyewitness account, he said, "These people will be exterminated along with Jews." Now why did he hate them so much? An eighth grader said the other day, "Oh, I know, because they are so annoying on a Saturday morning." And another one said, "I know why. Because they used to wake up Hitler on a Sunday morning with that Watch Tower and the Bible." Do you think they even got to his house, his eagle's nest he had in the mountains? I don't think so. Very quickly after Hitler had power he established the Gestapo, the SS and the SA. I have some pictures here. My uncle was a photographer. When you see these pictures, it was very intimidating to see some of these goons marching down the street, very intimidating unless you were a Nazi of course. Then you would be shouting Heil Hitler. An eighth grader asked me the other day, why did people always say Hi Hitler in Germany? I'm very glad when people speak up. I said Hi, what do you mean? He said I always see pictures of people saying, Hi, Hi Hitler. I said, "It wasn't like that. It was Heil. That comes from the Roman times. He got the idea from Hail Caesar." It's always nice because children are really great. They are so honest and open. They say whatever they think and you can talk about it.

My father was arrested in 1934. Hitler hated them because they would not say Heil Hitler and they pledged allegiance to God rather than governments. Of course, if you are an international brotherhood, you'll not going to take up arms against your brothers even if your government tells you to, they could be your friends and they are practically related to you. It eliminates prejudice. We were brought up to think basically we are brothers and sisters because Adam and Eve had the different genes in them and the Genesis story and then they spread out and different races came about and different cultures and God chose eight people to represent him. A lot of people don't even know if you think of Jesus as a savior or as a historical figure that he was Jewish. A lot of people don't know that.

So when my father was arrested by the local police who were also his customers in the barbershop, they would say to him why don't give up this religion now and keep a low profile, don't do anything. You could do that in Germany and those people are now called bystanders. You could be a bystander in Germany. Plus I must say there were not as many Jews in Germany as you might think. There were less than a million out of a country of 60 to 70 million people, so not everyone even knew a Jew. We only knew two during that time. One was my teacher and one was a neighbor. This is why I say it's like a puzzle. Even the wives of the Nazi's in our neighborhood would take food, clothes and offer companionship to our Jewish neighbor.

My father was arrested and sent to prison but he came back. The letters I'm translating now of the patriarch of this Jewish family, he was in Dachau twice. Twice he was able to come out through the intervention of a German business partner and the second time through the intervention of a British nobleman that he knew in business. It wasn't always in the beginning doom and gloom. Auschwitz, Treblinka, that was much later and also it was in Poland far away from Germany. On German soil these things happened also, not to say that they didn't. When you mentioned in your song about Denmark, Denmark has a much better record of helping their Jews. You know even some German soldiers helped to get the Jews on the boat for Sweden, not because they liked Jews but they wanted to get back at the SS. It wasn't like the army and the SS were all the same. The SS was the so called elite and they were used for the most part later on in concentration camps as guards because they had sworn the loyalty oath until death to Hitler personally. But many soldiers in the German army were not Nazis. It was not one giant Nazi army. You basically had two choices in Germany. Oh, you could be a conscientious objector like my father but then you had to pay the price. My father and all his friends paid the price.

So during 1934 until 1938 my father was in various prisons and one of the prisons was near our house. My mother would always send us out practically every day with food and when the prisoners would walk past our house to their construction site, we would hide behind trees because it was absolutely out of the question to let the guards to see you. You weren't allowed to even smile or say anything to the prisoners. So we would give them the food. I had a letter sixteen years later from a teacher in that part of Germany saying that her husband always wished he could have met that little boy and girl who used to bring food. Whatever good deeds you do in life is never forgotten or lost even if you don't get to know it like I did. But I would encourage everyone not to be a bystander in any circumstances. Look for opportunities to do good deeds and especially teenagers because they are not always so happy and for many of them it is a miserable time. If you do good things for other people like my brother and I when we were little, then it comes back to you. That's the only thing that is really going to make you happy, if you do things for others and it comes back to you tenfold. Maybe not from the people you do it too, but in other ways.

1938. We knew many farmers and my father would go and study Bible with different people and we had many friends. Then one morning in 1938 the Gestapo came. Now up to that time, Jews had been told to get out, we don't want you here, Jews are our downfall, signs were up in cities especially. Now where were they supposed to go? I'd like to ask you now as an audience, where do you think they could go? Why didn't they go there? Now most German Jews were not poverty stricken, there were no ghettos in Germany. I'm not saying they were all rich, but they were fairly affluent, middle class most of them. So now you have some money but where are you going to go? You have to have a definite destination and you've got to have all kinds of papers and you have to go to the German police to get your good conduct, your citizen good conduct paper. As a Jewish person you didn't want to be seen in the police station but that's where you had to go. South America, yes many went there. But when you are in Germany, and you have no connections in South America, it's not that simple. Sweden, yes, many were able to go to Sweden. Israel, they were supposed to go there actually, but it was a British protectorate and they didn't really want them there. If you were saw the movie "Exodus," you'll see that they didn't even want them after the war. It's all a very shameful piece of history all around. Why don't you mention your own country? You have that Statue of Liberty here that says send me all your miserable people or something. So why couldn't they have come here?

It was a tiresome long process and then your government hid behind a quota system. Oh, we can't take anymore, we can take other refugees, but too many are coming. What about that ship of children that went to the coast of Florida and was sent back to Germany to Hamburg no less. It was a shameful piece of history. Canada worse. In 12 years they only took 5000. No doubt those 5000 are grateful but what I'm saying is one of their parliamentarians in Ottawa was asked how many can we take? He said and there is a book with that title, "None are too Many." So what about England? Why didn't they go to England? The same thing as here. They were not wanted in England. I went to England after the war. You know Jews were not allowed to join tennis clubs, private clubs, cricket clubs. It was very difficult for people to get out. They had to have affidavits and all kinds of papers. It was not easy. So the Gestapo came and usually they came very early in the morning or very late at night. Now you might wonder why. The element of surprise, you're home, they'll catch you. Up to that time my father had been arrested by the local police, but now when the Gestapo came, there were two of them and one of them had a small gun, he whipped out of his coat somehow. We were sitting having breakfast in a corner of the kitchen and he said to my father "One word, one word, raus." Now if you had a survivor here in your audience, they would cringe. It would give them shivers down their spine just to hear that. German is unfortunately a language that lends itself to this harshness because it's so guttural. So they said, "Raus" and there was a black van waiting outside and no good-bye, hug or anything, out, my father went into the black van and that was it, we never saw him again. He was executed in 1940 and his friends with him. One of his friends was beheaded. Now they didn't do that too often but occasionally to use as a deterrent for others who refused their military draft.

My father could have come out. One of my uncles who was married to my father's sister was in the SS. And my aunt used to say, "Get my brother out of the concentration camp, do something." And he personally went to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin and the commandant called my father in and said, "Oh, this prisoner here has a privilege." You know what that privilege was? They allowed him to shave the SS guards. Now you might wonder why. Kids usually say well, he was a barber. That's true, but there was more to it. They knew when my father had the opportunity to slit their throat, he would not do it. The commandant said here and he thrust a piece of paper and said sign this. My father said, "I've seen this before, I cannot sign this and I will not sign it." To give up his religion and go along with the Third Reich and all it stands for. Jehovah's Witnesses did have that opportunity if you want to call it that. So he refused and 14 days later he was executed. My uncle came back without him. We didn't even know he was executed until we had the Gestapo papers that we have now confirming it. They sent a standard telegram saying he died of heart failure. He was 35 years old.

My mother was arrested the same day. The local police came and said what are you going to do with your children? My mother said I want them to go to my parents. They took us with a police escort. We had to leave our house, everything in it, only a small suitcase. You know what we took? You might think about it when you go home tonight, what you might take. Not what they, they, make everything personal, what would I take, what is important to you? We took our photo albums so that we would remember people. And we only saw a few of them again so it's very valuable that we have the photos and I do have them. You know I didn't find out something from the Gestapo files until last year sometime. A teacher who went to Berlin to look up his family came across my family's files and sent them. It said in there "Grandparents in Lubeck deemed unsuitable to bring up children, Nazi foster parents recommended." I was so shocked. But here's the thing, it was a good thing we didn't have computers in those days or everybody had telephones and so on, because the bureaucracy didn't catch up, and we went to my grandparents. It kind of died down then and we were very fortunate that we went to my grandparents. So my mother was taken back to the eastern part of Germany and was sent to prison for 3 ½ years. She did see my father one time. They made eye contact in a courtroom as they were sentenced one by one. But then she didn't see him again.

My grandmother was so outspoken that my grandfather used to say you're going to get us all killed, you never keep quiet about anything, everything is a big issue here. My grandmother said to us when I get you into a school, you will not have any friends. You can't have any friends. I was fifteen years old and I didn't have a friend. You couldn't because you might say the wrong thing, and you don't say that we say at home that Hitler is not all there, is an idiot, a lunatic, don't say that. Don't even say the war is going badly because that's treason to talk like that. At the first school the principal wouldn't even have us. I don't remember this but my grandmother said that I said well the next time we go to a school tell them we are not religious, we don't even believe in God, we're just people. She said everything is documented and if they find out then it's even worse. No, we tell them who we are then we'll see. Well, finally we were accepted in a small school and I think to this day that the principal was a Communist. The whole area was called Red.

I didn't like school from beginning to end. I graduated and had the diploma but I did not like school. It was extremely strict. I don't remember my teachers kindly. Sometimes kids will say why didn't you hit the teacher. There was one boy who hit the teacher one time, and he got three years in juvenile detention. If you were really handicapped mentally that was a big stigma in Germany. Hitler didn't want retarded people in the country. Many thousands were put away and put to death by injection. Then you got a telegram saying unfortunately your child died, pneumonia or something. Probably another one of those standard telegrams.

We think of Hitler like he wasn't even a human being, but he was. He was a vegetarian and his love for animals was publicized through schools, lectures, etc. No dancing bears in Germany. Who's been in the wilderness here? Anybody? All right, did you see any bears? Who saw a bear in the wilderness at some point? Did you see them dancing? No, of course not unless they rub their back against the tree maybe they have some fleas, but the thing is they don't dance. That doesn't come naturally. They have to be taught and sometimes rather cruelly. I don't even like circuses where performing animals are. If people want to jump around in a trapeze and all, that's their problem, but I don't like to see trained animals. So even though we could despise Hitler, he had that love for animals. He hated Goering for hunting. He was a hunter. He didn't like that. Of course, no monkeys on leashes. There were organ grinders in Germany at that time and they had monkeys on leashes. They had to flee for their life back to Italy. To counteract rumors of brutalities that were done against human beings, they showed Hitler loved animals. He can't be that bad if a person loves animals. Is that always necessarily true?

When I was 15, my mother remarried. When your mother has a boy friend and you're 15 years old, it does not make your day. It could be somebody on a white horse coming riding along with a crown on top, and still you say, who is this guy? Get rid of him. We said that, my brother and I. How many languages does he speak? You know my father was rather intellectual. Then when the war ended my stepfather said he was a Communist. Oh, my God. I used to say to him why don't you go to Russia, they'll make you mayor of a big city or something and get out of here. But I'm so glad she married him because I have two lovely sisters and nephews and nieces.

You know it was because of my stepfather that I almost couldn't come here. Governments sometimes force you to lie. I hope it won't be held against me, but I've been here 35 years. My husband and I lived in Spain for a while then we went to Canada. Then I said why don't we go to the United States? We came here and didn't know a single sole in this country. We came to Boston simply because my husband suggested California and I said that's another 3000 miles, what if we don't like it and it's too much sun. I know that from school. Every day the sun shines, that's going to get on my nerves. I've been to California and it proves to be true. It's a beautiful state, I'm not saying that. Florida is the same. It's a beautiful country, Arizona, Grand Canyon, but here I like it best because it has the four seasons, it's just a beautiful area.

My mother was released from prison late in 1941 after her sentence was served, and she got a rather nice letter from the last warden in the prison and a gift. That letter enabled her to get a job in a non-war related factory making Easter eggs mind you. Jehovah's Witnesses are not big on Easter eggs either. Things were pretty bad in late 1941. The most fear we had at that time, my brother and I, was that we would be killed by your big American planes. It was the British in the beginning, and they dropped incendiary bombs. We lost our home the second time after my mother came from prison. We had an apartment in the inner city and on Palm Sunday mind you, the British bombed Lubeck and we were at my grandmother's house and we never saw the place again. But we have our pictures. We were so afraid later when the Americans got into the war. The bombs got bigger and the planes were bigger. I tell you we spent so much time in school in the basement or in people's basements. We didn't like that because when the water pipes burst from a direct hit, you could drown in your basement. All kinds of things can happen.

My grandmother died miserably of breast cancer and bone cancer when she was 63 years old. My brother was killed in Africa. It's just life. One has to just keep going. I know they would want me to do that and keep my sense of humor in this life.

Let me tell you about the immigration papers. It says are you white, are you black, are you an oriental, Indian? I said to my husband we are all equal in America, why do they have to know if you're black, white or different? He said why do you always make an issue out of everything? Then it said were you ever a prostitute? Oh! Let's say you were one of those and you write yes, then they don't let you into the country. It asked were you ever a Communist? Have you ever had any connections with Communists? You know I never even liked my stepfather that much. If I write yes, they won't let me into the country. I'm going to write no, that's it. I can say I didn't know he was a Communist, I had no interest in politics. Bluff my way through.

I was even in the Hitler youth. I hate to tell you this. I was in it from 1944 to 1945 and I'll tell you the reason why. When the Gestapo came to our house several more times, and this one time they came for my uncle who was my mother's oldest brother. He was in telecommunications and was supposed to have joined the Nazi party. There wasn't one giant Nazi party. Teachers had their Nazi party, women's Nazi party, all these different factions. So they threatened him and he could join the next day. At that time they said your granddaughter is well past the age of joining the Hitler Youth, there will be grave consequences and whatever else they said, I can't remember the exact words. When they left, I said to my grandmother that's it, I'm not going to end up where papa did. You get that uniform, I'll take it and so I joined. I'm really not happy to talk about it. We were sent to Austria doing good deeds for the country, helping farmers to bring in the crops. As girls we were taught knitting, crocheting, and all those things. The knitted things would go to Russia for the soldiers. Of course, that didn't help the Russians. Nothing helped. But there I made my first friend. I met another girl who was also very nice. Boys were trained in a different way than girls. They were trained in a pre-military way so that they were ready and obedient for the army, navy or whatever when the time came. All they had to do was change uniforms. But girls differently. During Kristalnacht in 1938 there were also Hitler Youth, boys, not girls, that helped the other goons smash Jewish windows and all that. But there were also others in the Hitler Youth who joined because they wanted to get away, as you do when you're a teenager, from their parents. They wanted to be with their peers or their friends.

Text mounted 16 Feb. 2008; audio added 6 July 2013. -- rcwh.