The Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pacifist religious group, have sued the German government to demand a family archive that documents Nazi persecution of the Christian denomination.
The archive contains 31 files with documents related to the Kusserov family, whose members were arrested, imprisoned and killed by the Nazi regime for their faith.
It has been kept in the Military History Museum in Dresden, run by the German army, since 2009, when it was purchased from a member of the Kusserov family.
Last year, a German district court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, saying the museum acquired the archive in good faith and should preserve it. But the religious group is appealing the decision, arguing that the family member who sold it was not the actual owner of the archive, which was bequeathed to Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2005 by Annemarie Kusserow, the family member who collected and maintained the documents.
The storage of the archive by the museum, according to the representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, Wolfram Slupin, “deprives us of a significant and priceless part of our cultural heritage.”
The archive documents the life and suffering of the family of Franz and Hilde Kusser, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses who were raising their 11 children in a large house in Bad Lippspring in northern Germany when the Nazis rose to power. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first religious denomination to be banned, and the Gestapo searched the Kusserovs’ house 18 times for religious materials.
In 1939, the three youngest children were kidnapped from school and sent to a Nazi school, where they were denied contact with their families. Franz, Hilda and other children were sentenced to prison. Two brothers, Wilhelm and Wolfgang, were executed for conscientious objection to military service.
On April 26, 1940, on the eve of his execution, Wilhelm sent a letter to his family.
“You all know how much you mean to me and I am constantly reminded of this every time I look at our family photo,” he wrote. “However, first of all, we must love God, as our Leader Jesus Christ commanded. If we intercede for him, he will reward us.”
A farewell letter from Wilhelm and his brother Wolfgang is among the documents in the family archive.
Approximately 1,600 Jehovah’s Witnesses died as a result of Nazi persecution. About 4,200 people were sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by a purple triangular badge pinned to their camp uniforms.
They were the only persecuted people who had a choice of getting out of prison: if they signed a declaration renouncing their faith, they were released. Very few agreed to sign, Slupina said.
Before her death, Annemarie Kusseroff, archive keeper, lent the documents to her brother Hans Werner Kusseroff to make copies for a book he was writing.
Although Annemarie’s will specified that the documents should be sent to the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Selters, a small town northwest of Frankfurt, her brother, who was not a believer, sold them to the Dresden Museum for less than $5,000.
He has also since died; only the youngest child of Hilda and Franz Kusserov, Paul-Gerhard, is still alive. He is 90.
“My brothers died for refusing military service,” said Paul-Gerhard Kusserow. — I do not consider it appropriate that this legacy should not be kept in some military museum.
A representative of the Military History Museum declined to comment on the lawsuit. The permanent exhibition of the museum includes two documents from the archive in the section on the victims of Nazism; Four more items, including Wilhelm’s farewell letter, are on display at the exhibition on resistance to the regime, spokeswoman Kai-Uwe Reinhold wrote in an email.
“The inclusion of various items from the Kusserov archive in the permanent exhibition is of great importance for the museum and for the public,” Reinhold wrote. “These objects testify and are a strong reminder that freedom of religion and the steadfastness of convictions are not taken for granted, they must be protected and fought for again and again.”
According to Slupina, during the negotiations before the lawsuit, the Dresden Museum offered to provide the religious organization with copies of all documents in the archive. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses rejected this offer.
A proposal for the museum to provide the group with original documents not on display in Dresden was rejected by the museum’s lawyers, said Armin Pickl, a lawyer for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a lawsuit in April 2021.
The regional court, which ruled last year, found that Hans Werner Kusseroff had not stolen the archive and was legally in possession of it at the time of the sale, which was therefore legal regardless of who the legal owner was.
But Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the group was and still is the owner and that the archive was sold without the consent of his surviving siblings or Jehovah’s Witnesses. “He shouldn’t have sold,” said Jarrod Lopez, the group’s international spokesman in New York.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses also dispute the court’s view that the purchase was made in good faith, arguing that the museum must have known from correspondence with Hans Werner Kusserov that it does not own the archive and has no right to sell it, Pickl said. . In 2008, Hans Werner wrote to a museum employee that he and his two surviving siblings had agreed to a “long-term lease” of the archive to the museum. A representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses also contacted the museum about the loan. The group argues that the museum should have deduced from this contact that Hans Werner had no right to sell the archive.
Slupina says the group is expanding its premises in Selters to include a permanent exhibition. “The fate of this family is very closely connected with the fate of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Slupina said. “We are very interested in having these documents with us.”
Specific reference to the suffering of Jehovah’s Witnesses is often not mentioned in Holocaust accounts or memorials; they are often included in a vague reference to “groups of other victims,” Slupina said. While there are memorials to murdered Jews, Sinti and Roma, gays and euthanasia victims in Berlin, there is not yet a memorial dedicated to Jehovah’s Witnesses killed by the Nazis. Erhard Grundl, an MP from the Green Party, called for a special monument to the religious group in his speech to Parliament on January 13.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal hearing has not yet been scheduled.