Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project: "Forget You Not"
preserving the past to protect the future ...
Holocaust Survivor Joseph Kempler Speaks With Students
By Samantha Fredrickson
Published Nov. 7, 2002
Joseph Kempler paused as he looked at a picture of a man so thin that his spine was showing through his stomach.
"This is about 60 pounds," Kempler said. "This is about what I weighed when I was freed from the concentration camps."
After spending three years in concentration camps, Kempler was less than 24 hours away from starvation the day the American troops liberated the prisoners.
"We were lying there dead pretty much," he said. "We couldn't move."
Kempler, 74, spoke to University of Nevada, Reno students while being filmed for a documentary by PBS.
The documentary, with the working title "Knocking," is an attempt to portray how Jehovah's Witnesses were persecuted during the Holocaust.
Kempler, who was raised Jewish, remembers seeing Jehovah's Witnesses in the camps. Years after the war, he decided to become a Jehovah's Witness himself.
Co-producer and co-director of the film, Joel Engardio, said Jehovah's Witnesses were among the first group of individuals to be persecuted by Adolf Hitler.
Even though they were a small group, Hitler found them very irritating because they were opposed to his stance. By 1935, the religion was banned and Jehovah's Witnesses who defied this were imprisoned in concentration camps, he said.
"They were the only voluntary prisoners of the Holocaust," Engardio said. "Since they were Aryan, the so-called 'master race', they were offered a declaration card to sign. If they pledged their allegiance to Hitler, they could be free to leave."
Kempler said he was amazed by the Jehovah's Witnesses he met in the camps because they all refused to sign anything that would free them.
"They could always take this way out," he said. "But they wouldn't."
After the war, Kempler met Jehovah's Witnesses again when he found his sister, his only relative who was still alive.
She had been saved by a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, he said, and hidden away from the Nazis for two years.
"Jehovah's Witnesses kept coming up in my life," he said.
Then in the mid 1950's, he converted to the religion when a group of Jehovah's Witnesses came knocking at his New York City apartment.
He remembered them from the camps. And he remembered them as being the people who kept his sister hidden away. So he let them in.
"When I met Jehovah's Witnesses I saw they were not damaged," he said. "They were still intact. How could they survive without the suffering and mental damage I had?"
"People can survive without shutting down and come back stronger than before," he said.
There was no emotion in Kempler's voice when he spoke about the concentration camps. He spoke of the cold nights without blankets and the long days of working in the snow without shoes. But never once did his eyes water or his voice waiver.
His feelings were hidden away so deep, he said, that he felt completely detached from the reality.
Even on the day he was liberated, he said he felt no joy because he was too numb.
"We were no longer humans," he said.
In the attempt to survive, many prisoners resorted to cannibalism by cutting the flesh off of dead bodies.
"Survivalism was more important," he said. "The only thing was to survive."