Leopold Engleitner toiled in three Nazi concentration camps for refusing to renounce his faith as a Jehovah's Witness.
In the decades after the war, he tried to tell his tale but rarely found an audience. Now, at 100, he finally is reaching listeners, thanks to the efforts of an Austrian filmmaker who was taken with his story of endurance.
Engleitner has toured the United States since May 1, sharing his life story to encourage others to stick by their principles. His last stops were in Los Angeles this week, with screenings of a documentary about his life at the Music Hall theater on Wilshire Boulevard and sold-out presentations at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
The Austrian native's story is a lesson in faith — especially for the many Jehovah's Witnesses who drove from as far as San Diego to see him — and in history.
Jehovah's Witnesses "could have signed a document and walked out" of the camps, said Robert Buckley, a consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Buckley has traveled throughout Europe to interview non-Jewish survivors of the Nazi period. That document was a declaration agreeing to cut ties with the church, thus allowing them to join the army in defense of the fatherland, he said.
Peter Black, senior historian at the Washington holocaust museum, said the Nazis targeted Jehovah's Witnesses mainly for three reasons: Refusing to swear an oath to any earthly authority, declining to serve in any army other than Jehovah's and proselytizing to encourage others to follow their ways.
About 3,200 Witnesses were sent to concentration camps, Black said. They were among the lesser-known victims: Gypsies (also known as Roma), homosexuals and political prisoners, including Communists, Socialists and Soviet prisoners of war. The mentally and physically disabled were murdered under a euthanasia program.
"It's about time that the world came to appreciate that there were other victims of that Nazi era other than the Jewish people," Buckley said.
Engleitner's slight, stooped frame did not diminish the light that sometimes entered his eyes as he recounted his experiences.
Audiences at the theater and museum soon found that the tiny man in the wheelchair they photographed with camera phones had quite a sense of humor — despite stories of cruelty and of some prisoners so desperately hungry that, at one camp, they roasted potatoes in the crematorium.
Through a translator, Engleitner described his introduction to the Buchenwald concentration camp in October 1939. When he said, in response to a supervisor's question, that he was a Jehovah's Witness, he was beaten and locked in a dark cell where someone he couldn't see in the blackness started kicking him.
Engleitner rolled under a bed as he tried to evade the blows. Instead of kicking his stomach, his assailant made contact with the iron bed. The shouts of pain from the attacker — who turned out to be another prisoner — led the supervisor to open the door and remove Engleitner.
Another story, featured in the documentary, elicited laughter as he described how a judge warned him against rejecting military service. "Engleitner, Engleitner," the judge said. If you continue this way, "then you already have both feet in the grave."
If he already had both feet in the grave just standing there, Engleitner replied, "what on Earth will it be like at the front lines? Or do they shoot sweets out there?"
Several people who heard and saw the spry Austrian said they were not at all surprised by his sometimes sassy levity.
"Largely, it's a byproduct of his faith in Jehovah … and his hope for the future," said Perry Mason, 48, who drove with fellow Witnesses from Santa Ana to see a Monday night presentation at the Los Angeles holocaust museum.
"That would fill anybody who believed that with optimism." Mason also wore a purple triangle — the symbol assigned to Witnesses in the camps — in honor of Engleitner and others like him.
Josie Williams, 53, of Costa Mesa dabbed her eyes with a tissue a few times during a question-and-answer session with the camp survivor.
She said she could see the humor and love in Engleitner's eyes, the utter lack of bitterness toward those who had abused him. "We don't even understand the same language," Williams said. "But you can see it."
To Susanne Reyto, who lived through the days of the Nazis in Hungary, Engleitner's attitude reflects that of a survivor.
"Either you can cry or you can smile," Reyto said, "so it's much better to be smiling and laughing."
Buckley said he often encountered the same upbeat nature among the Witnesses he has interviewed.
It could be attributed, in part, to their knowing they were in the camps because of their steadfast allegiance to their beliefs, he said.
Jack Lewin, a Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, said the Monday evening presentation of Engleitner's story highlighted the fine line that ancestry drew between Jews and other Nazi victims: Though they were dealt with inhumanely, non-Jews were mistreated according to existing laws.
"We didn't have any rights," said Lewin, who volunteers as a speaker at the Museum of Tolerance. "We were outside the law."
Even the notion of being released from the camps — as Engleitner eventually was, in exchange for agreeing to a lifetime of mandatory agricultural labor — was incomprehensible to Lewin.
Yet regardless of their differences, he added, "the story should be told. People should know what kind of stuff the Germans did to us, and everyone else that was involved."
Engleitner's tale came to light 12 years ago when filmmaker Bernhard Rammerstorfer sat next to him on a park bench in Bad Ischl, where Engleitner grew up. Rammerstorfer went on to write a biography and film the documentary "Unbroken Will: The Extraordinary Courage of an Ordinary Man." To be heard now, Engleitner said in German, is "truly a joyous experience."
He managed to convey as much in the brief bit of English he attempted before his admiring audiences: "Thank you very much for your interest in my life story. I'll be back."