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GERMANY: Jehovah’s Witnesses sue museum for archive of Nazi-era abuses

Jehovah’s Witnesses sue German museum for archive of Nazi-era abuses

The archive documents the lives and suffering of the Kusserow family, who were among many from the religious group to be persecuted by the Nazis because of their faith.

By Catherine Hickley

New York Times (25.01.2022) – The Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pacifist religious group, are pursuing legal action against the German government to claim a family archive that documents the Nazis’ persecution of the Christian denomination.

The archive comprises 31 files 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 Museum of Military History in Dresden, which is operated by the German army, since 2009 when it was purchased from a member of the Kusserow family.

A German regional court rejected the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ claim last year, saying the museum had purchased the archive in good faith and should keep it. But the religious group is appealing that ruling, arguing that the family member who sold it was not the actual owner of the archive, which had been bequeathed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 2005 will of Annemarie Kusserow, the family member who had assembled and maintained the documents.

The museum’s retention of the archive, said Wolfram Slupina, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, “deprives us of a significant and invaluable part of our cultural heritage.”

The archive documents the lives 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 in northern Germany when the Nazis came to power. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first religious denomination to be banned, and the Kusserows’ home was searched for religious materials by the Gestapo 18 times.

In 1939, the three youngest children were abducted from their school and sent to a Nazi training school, where they were denied 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 evening before he was executed, Wilhelm sent a letter to his family.

“All of you know how much you mean to me, and I am repeatedly reminded of this every time I look at our family photo,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, above all we must love God, as our Leader Jesus Christ commanded. If we stand up for him, he will reward us.”

 

Wilhelm’s farewell letter — and his brother Wolfgang’s — 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 people who had the choice of ending imprisonment: If they signed a declaration renouncing their faith, they were liberated. Very few agreed to sign, Slupina said.

Before she died, Annemarie Kusserow, the keeper of the archive, had lent documents to her brother, Hans Werner Kusserow, to make copies for a book he was writing.

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

He has also since died; only the youngest child of Hilda and Franz Kusserow, Paul-Gerhard, is still alive. He is 90.

 

“My brothers died for refusing to participate in military service,” Paul-Gerhard Kusserow said. “I don’t find it proper that this inheritance is 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 documents from the archive in a section about the Nazis’ victims; four further items, including Wilhelm’s farewell letter, are on display in an exhibit about resistance against the regime, the spokeswoman, 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 for the public,” Reinhold wrote. “These objects testify to and are a forceful reminder of the fact that religious freedom and steadfast beliefs are not a matter of course, they must be defended and fought for again and again.”

In negotiations before the lawsuit, the Dresden museum offered to provide the religious organization with copies of all the documents in the archive, Slupina said. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses rejected that 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 the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed suit in April 2021.

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

 

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

The Jehovah’s Witnesses also challenge the court’s view that the purchase was made in good faith, arguing that the museum should have been aware from its correspondence with Hans Werner Kusserow that he didn’t own the archive or have the right to sell it, Pikl said. In 2008, Hans Werner wrote to a museum employee saying that he and his two surviving siblings agreed to “a long-term loan” of the archive to the museum. A representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was also in contact with the museum about the loan. The group argues that the museum should have surmised from this contact that Hans Werner was not authorized to sell the archive.

Slupina says the group is extending its premises in Selters, including its permanent exhibition there. “The fate of this family is very closely linked to the fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Slupina said. “We are very keen that these documents are cared for by us.”

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

A hearing on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeal has yet to be scheduled.

Photo: The Kusserow children from left: Annemarie, Wilhelm, Siegfried, Karl Heinz, Waltraud, Hildegard, Wolfgang, Magdalena, Elisabeth, Hans Werner and Paul-Gerhard. In back, their parents, Hilda and Franz.Credit…Jehovah’s Witnesses, Central European Archive

Further reading about FORB in Germany on HRWF website





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In India, Coronavirus fans religious hatred

Indian officials are blaming an Islamic group for spreading the virus, and Muslims have been targeted in a wave of violence

 

By Jeffrey Gettleman, Kai Schultz and Suhasini Raj

 

New York Times (12.04.2020) – https://nyti.ms/2xwenqH – After India’s health ministry repeatedly blamed an Islamic seminary for spreading the coronavirus — and governing party officials spoke of “human bombs” and “corona jihad” — a spree of anti-Muslim attacks has broken out across the country.

 

Young Muslim men who were passing out food to the poor were assaulted with cricket bats. Other Muslims have been beaten up, nearly lynched, run out of their neighborhoods or attacked in mosques, branded as virus spreaders. In Punjab State, loudspeakers at Sikh temples broadcast messages telling people not to buy milk from Muslim dairy farmers because it was infected with coronavirus.

 

Hateful messages have bloomed online. And a wave of apparently fake videos has popped up telling Muslims not to wear masks, not to practice social distancing, not to worry about the virus at all, as if the makers of the videos wanted Muslims to get sick.

In a global pandemic, there is always the hunt for blame. President Trump has done it, insisting for a time on calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus.’’ All over the world people are pointing fingers, driven by their fears and anxieties to go after The Other.

 

Here in India, no other group has been demonized more than the country’s 200 million Muslims, minorities in a Hindu-dominated land of 1.3 billion people.

 

From the crackdown on Kashmir, a Muslim majority area, to a new citizenship law that blatantly discriminates against Muslims, this past year has been one low point after another for Indian Muslims living under an increasingly bold Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and propelled by majoritarian policies.

In this case, what’s making things worse is that there’s an element of truth behind the government’s claims. A single Muslim religious movement has been identified as being responsible for a large share of India’s 8,000-plus coronavirus cases. Indian officials estimated last week that more than a third of the country’s cases were connected to the group, Tablighi Jamaat, which held a huge gathering of preachers in India in March. Similar meetings in Malaysia and Pakistan also led to outbreaks.

 

“The government was compelled to call out this congregation,” said Vikas Swarup, a senior official at India’s foreign ministry.

 

He said that the gathering in March “had a significant impact on the containment methods” but denied that the government’s frequent blaming of the group had “anything to do with a particular community.”

 

Tablighi Jamaat is a multinational Muslim missionary movement. A tall, white, modern building towering over the Nizamuddin West neighborhood of Delhi serves its global headquarters. The group is one of the world’s largest faith-based organizations, with tens of millions of members.

 

The Indian government has been racing to track down anyone from Tablighi’s seminary and quarantine congregants. Masked police officers have sealed the headquarters on all sides; the other morning, they patrolled the area with their fingers on the triggers of assault rifles.

 

The neighborhood resembles one near a bus depot or a port; the seminary was the center of the economy, and all around it stand money changers, guesthouses, travel agencies and gift shops, catering to the Muslim missionaries who would flow through here.

 

The virus and the new wave of hatred have changed everything. Mohammed Haider, who runs a milk stall, one of the few businesses allowed to stay open under India’s coronavirus lockdown, said, “Fear is staring at us, from everywhere.’’

 

“People need only a small reason to beat us or to lynch us,’’ he said. “Because of corona.’’

 

Muslim leaders are afraid. They see the intensifying attacks against Muslims and remember what happened in February, when Hindu mobs rampaged in a working-class neighborhood in Delhi, killing dozens, and the police mostly stood aside — or sometimes even helped the Hindu mobs. In many villages now, Muslim traders are barred from entering simply because of their faith.

 

“The government should not have played the blame game,” said Khalid Rasheed, the chairman of Islamic Center of India. “If you present the cases based on somebody’s religion in your media briefings,’’ he said, “it creates a big divide.”

 

“Coronavirus may die,” he added, “but the virus of communal disharmony will be hard to kill when this is over.”

 

Tahir Iqbal, a recent university graduate from Kashmir, was among the 4,000 or so gathered at the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in early March for missionary training. He said people slept, ate and prayed in close quarters, with little fear of the coronavirus. “We didn’t take it seriously at the time,” he said.

 

On March 16, the Delhi government banned gatherings of more than 50 people. Several days later, Mr. Modi announced a nationwide lockdown.

 

But instead of dispersing, more than 1,000 people stayed put at the center. During a March 19 sermon, Maulana Saad Kandhalvi, a Tablighi Jamaat leader, told followers that coronavirus was “God’s punishment’’ and not to fear it.

 

About a week later, health inspectors found around 1,300 people still sheltering at the center without masks or other protective gear. Many Muslim leaders criticized the group’s center for not closing down.

 

But by that point, hundreds of congregants had already left. They wended their way across India by car, bus, train and plane, spreading the coronavirus to more than half of India’s states, from beach towns in the Andaman Islands to the hot, farming cities in the country’s northern plains.

 

On March 31, the Delhi authorities filed a criminal case against Maulana Kandhalvi for “deliberately, willfully, negligently and malignantly” putting the public’s health at risk. Tablighi Jamaat’s center was sealed. The maulana, a title for a Muslim scholar, disappeared.

 

Indian authorities have been tightening the lockdown on hot spots across the country, shutting down all movement in areas where coronavirus cases have been detected. Though the nationwide total remains relatively low, many fear the highly contagious virus could rip through crowded urban areas, overwhelming India’s already beleaguered public hospitals.

 

Indian authorities have used cellphone data to track Tablighi Jamaat congregants and intercepted Malaysian missionaries at an airport before they could board an evacuation flight out of India.

 

At a public briefing last week, Lav Agarwal, a health ministry spokesman, said that the number of days it would have taken India’s coronavirus cases to double would have been 7.4 — not the more alarming 4.1 days it hit this past week — had the gathering not happened.

 

Since then, more than 25,000 people who came in contact with Tablighi members have been quarantined. Some nurses have complained that Tablighi members put in isolation wards acted lewdly. One Muslim man who tested positive for coronavirus slit his throat in a central Indian hospital on Saturday.

 

Some Hindu nationalist politicians and their supporters seized on the situation, eagerly piling on the anti-Muslim sentiments that have been building in recent years under Mr. Modi’s government.

 

Raj Thackeray, the leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a far-right nationalist party, told local news outlets that Tablighi Jamaat members “should be shot.”

 

Rajeev Bindal, a leader within Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said Tablighi members were moving through the population “like human bombs.”

 

In the village of Harewali, near Delhi, a mob beat Mehboob Ali, a young Muslim man, for attending Tablighi Jamaat events, and filmed the beating.

 

“Tell us your plan!” someone shouts in the video. “Was your plan to spread corona?”

Mr. Ali, bloodied and crouching in a field, shakes his head.

 

Sensing the backlash against Muslims, India’s health ministry has stopped blaming Tablighi Jamaat at public briefings.

 

“Certain communities and areas are being labeled purely based on false reports,” the health ministry said in a statement a few days ago. “There is an urgent need to counter such prejudices.”


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