Jehovah’s Witnesses sue German Museum for Nazi-era abuse archive

Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pacifist religious group, are suing the German government for family records that document Nazi persecution of the Christian faith.

The archive includes 31 folders of documents relating to the Kusserow family, whose members were arrested, imprisoned and murdered by the Nazi regime because of their faith.

It has been held by the Dresden Military History Museum, which is operated by the German military, since 2009, when it was purchased from a member of the Kusserow family.

A German regional court last year rejected the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ claim, saying the museum had bought the records in good faith and should keep them. But the religious group is appealing the decision, arguing that the family member who sold it was not the true owner of the records, which were bequeathed to Jehovah’s Witnesses in Annemarie Kusserow’s 2005 will. the family member who had collected and maintained the documents.

The preservation of the archives by the museum, said Wolfram Slupina, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, “deprives us of an important and invaluable part of our cultural heritage”.

The archives document the life and suffering of the family of Franz and Hilda Kusserow, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were raising their 11 children in a large house in Bad Lippspringe, northern Germany, when the Nazis arrived in to be able to. Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first religious denomination to be banned, and the Kusserows’ home was raided 18 times by the Gestapo for religious material.

In 1939, the three youngest children were taken from their school and sent to a Nazi training school, where they were deprived of any contact with their family. Franz, Hilda and the other children were all sentenced to prison terms. Two of the brothers, Wilhelm and Wolfgang, were executed as conscientious objectors.

On April 26, 1940, the day before his execution, Wilhelm sent a letter to his family.

“You all know how much you mean to me, and it reminds me over and over every time I look at our family photo,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, above all else we must love God, as our Leader Jesus Christ commanded. If we defend him, he will reward us.

Wilhelm’s farewell letter – and that of his brother Wolfgang – are among the documents in the family archive.

Some 1,600 Jehovah’s Witnesses died as a result of Nazi persecution. About 4,200 were sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by a purple triangular badge attached to their camp uniforms.

They were the only persecuted who had the choice to end the imprisonment: if they signed a declaration of renunciation of their faith, they were released. Very few agreed to sign, Slupina said.

Before dying, Annemarie Kusserow, the custodian of the archives, had lent documents to her brother, Hans Werner Kusserow, to make copies of a book he was writing.

Although Annemarie’s will stipulated that the documents should go to the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Selters, a small town northwest of Frankfurt, her brother, who was not a member of the faith, sold them to the museum. from Dresden for less than $5,000.

He has also since died; only Hilda and Franz Kusserow’s youngest child, Paul-Gerhard, is still alive. He is 90 years old.

“My brothers died for refusing to do their military service,” said Paul-Gerhard Kusserow. “I do not find it proper that this heritage be stored, of all places, in a military museum.”

A spokeswoman for the Museum of Military History declined to comment on the legal battle. The museum’s permanent exhibition includes two archival documents in a section devoted to Nazi victims; four other items, including Wilhelm’s farewell letter, are on display in an exhibit on resistance against the regime, spokesman Kai-Uwe Reinhold wrote in an email.

“The inclusion of various objects from the Kusserow Archive in the permanent exhibition is of considerable value to the museum and to the public,” Reinhold wrote. “These objects bear witness and forcefully remind us that religious freedom and unshakable beliefs are not self-evident, they must be defended and fought again and again.”

During pre-trial negotiations, the Dresden museum offered to provide the religious organization with copies of all documents from the archive, Slupina said. But Jehovah’s Witnesses rejected this offer.

A proposal that the museum should loan the group the original documents not on display in Dresden was rejected by the museum’s lawyers, said Armin Pikl, a lawyer for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint in April 2021.

The regional court that ruled last year found that Hans Werner Kusserow had not stolen the archives and was in legitimate possession of them at the time of the sale, which was therefore legitimate regardless of the legal owner.

But Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the group was then, and remains, the owner and that the archive was sold without the consent of its surviving siblings or Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It wasn’t his place to sell,” said Jarrod Lopes, the group’s New York-based international spokesman.

Jehovah’s Witnesses also dispute the court’s view that the purchase was made in good faith, arguing that the museum should have known from its correspondence with Hans Werner Kusserow that it was not the owner. archives or had no right to sell them, Pikl said. . In 2008, Hans Werner wrote to a museum employee saying that he and his two surviving siblings had agreed on a “long-term loan” of the archives to the museum. A representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses has also been in contact with the museum about the loan. The group argues that the museum should have inferred from this contact that Hans Werner was not authorized to sell the archives.

Slupina says the group is expanding its premises in Selters, including its permanent exhibition there. “The fate of this family is very closely tied to the fate of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Slupina said. “We are very keen to have these documents taken care of by us.”

Specific mention of the suffering of Jehovah’s Witnesses is often omitted in accounts of the Holocaust or on memorials; they are often included in a vague reference to “other victim groups,” Slupina said. While Berlin has memorials for murdered Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and victims of euthanasia, there is still no memorial dedicated to Jehovah’s Witnesses killed by the Nazis. Erhard Grundl, a Green Party MP, called for a specific monument for the religious group in a speech to parliament on January 13.

A hearing on the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses has not yet been scheduled.

Paul N. Strickland