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February 5th, 2009 · No Comments · History, It's just a Book

Simone Arnold Liebster “Facing the Lion – Memoirs of a Young Girl in Nazi Europe”

Recently, commenting on the release of a film about his grandfather’s attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler, Gottfried von Stauffenberg observed that during his lifetime, starting in the mid-1960s, German attitudes to the opposition movement during the Nazi regime have changed. Resistance fighters were seen as traitors straight after the war, others just wanted to forget. “It was easier to say, ‘We were all guilty, we were all involved, we were all misled’,” von Stauffenberg said in the interview. “But to then discover a widespread plot with hundreds executed and thousands arrested, you realise that it was possible to do something about it.”

The individual stories of Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, Sophie and Hans Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are well documented, but one group that has received increased recognition throughout this change are Jehovah’s Witnesses, or ‘Bibelforscher’ as they were then called. Apart from the Jewish community, they were the only other religious group to be persecuted as a whole. When Hitler came to power, 35,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Nazi Germany and Nazi occupied territory refused to take part in any Nazi activity, whether it was worshipping Hitler and participating in the war effort.

Hitler vowed personally to “exterminate” the Bibelforscher with the result that 13,400 Witnesses were sent to Nazi prisons and camps. It is estimated that between 2,000-5,000 of them died. The Nazis offered individual prisoners their freedom if they would sign a document renouncing their faith, but most Witnesses refused. Historian Prof. Christine E. King concluded: “If there had been more communities like Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Nazis’ destructive ways, including the Holocaust, could have been prevented. Their courage is among the few truly bright moral examples during those dark times.”

“Facing the Lion” by Simone Arnold Liebster is the true story of a young Bibelforscher who lived through the Nazi occupation. The young girl resisted the Nazi regime first with her parents, then later – when they were sent to concentration camps – alone at the Wessenberg Reformatory for Girls.

The chapters that stand out are naturally those in which she recounts her experiences about the Nazi persecution, both with the authorities and in every day life. Her account is touching since she does not attempt to hide any of her less heroic acts; for example stealing some yeast and eating it because she was so hungry.

Parallels have been drawn to “The Diary of Anne Frank”. However “Facing the Lion” adds another dimension to the experiences of this young teenager in that we learn more about how the family attempted to deal with their fate after the war. The difficulty of readjusting to life in freedom – on a physical, emotional and psychological level – affected the family as much as the persecution they had endured in captivity.

One of the most moving chapters towards the end of the book documents a unique emotional and moral struggle. Simone and her family have a chance to arrest their former persecutors, and as such have the opportunity to take revenge. Their decision is as surprising as it is hopeful.

“Facing the Lion” raises uncomfortable questions such as “What would I have done in the same situation?” and “How would I have faced my persecutors?” and shows that moral courage is a lonely endeavour.

This is a book for adolescents and grown-ups alike. 

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