Atrocities in life were not few for Holocaust survivor Leopold Engleitner of Austria. However, one of the happiest moments of his life was when he was presented with the Best Documentary Short award for a film made about his life and shown at the 2013 Fallbrook International Film Festival in April. Unfortunately, on April 21, one week after saying the honor was the “first and only award” he had received in the 107 years of his life, Engleitner passed away of natural causes.
In hearing the news, film festival founder Ronald Shattuck said, “Getting to know Leopold through Bernhard’s [Rammerstorfer’s] stories and film, ‘Ladder in the Lion’s Den,’ had a profound effect on those of us involved in this festival; little did we realize how we could affect this man, Leopold, who endured and lived through mankind’s worst nightmare.”
Rammerstorfer, who was a close friend and caretaker of Engleitner, had written a book titled “Unbroken Will” and produced several documentary films about Engleitner’s life and experiences during World War II in three different Nazi concentration camps. The Fallbrook International Film Festival award was bestowed upon Rammerstorfer at the film festival gala on April 7, and he presented it to Engleitner on April 14 upon his return to Austria.
“When I gave Leopold the award, he was eager to hold it and stared at it a long time; he told me it was the first and only award he had received in his whole life,” said Rammerstorfer. Cast in pewter, the attractive award was conceived by film festival supporters Heidi and Rich Minga and made by CR Studio 4 in Fallbrook, owned by Robin and Cy Vojak.
Engleitner, a Jehovah’s Witness, was born July 23, 1905 in Aigen-Voglhub, Austria, a short distance from where Adolf Hitler was raised. He grew up in the so-called “Emperor’s Town” of Bad Ischl. Engleitner, who grew up in dire poverty and suffered from the devastating effects of the Spanish Flu as a boy, told European journalists that he was “horrified by the atrocities of World War I.” After doing an intensive study of the Bible, he courageously changed his religion in 1932 when he was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“As a result, he suffered from the religious intolerance of his neighbors and of the authorities during the Austrofascism period from 1934 to 1938,” explained Rammerstorfer. “He was incarcerated many times because of his beliefs during that period.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses were gathered together when Austria became part of the German Reich in 1938. Engleitner and others sharing the same religion were given a directive – to sign a paper renouncing their faith and join the Nazi regime, or be sent to a concentration camp, where death prevailed.
Reflective of the title of the documentary film, Rammerstorfer said, “Essentially, Leopold was offered a ‘ladder’ whereby he could renounce his faith and walk out of the camps.”
Engleitner refused to compromise his religious beliefs and succumb to Hitler.
“He was arrested in Bad Ischl by the Gestapo and held in custody in Linz and Wels,” said Rammerstorfer. Engleitner was imprisoned from October 9, 1939 to July 15, 1943 in a succession of three Nazi concentration camps/prisons – Buchenwald, Niederhagen and Ravensbrueck. Many that refused to join Hitler were killed immediately.
“Ladder in the Lion’s Den” details (in 40 minutes) Engleitner’s horrific ordeal, part of which prevented him from having children.
Reported to be the oldest male survivor of Nazi concentration camps before his death, Engleitner, who measured 5′ 3″ in height, weighed a skeletal 62 pounds after his release from Ravensbrueck in 1943. To gain release at that time, he agreed to work as farm slave laborer. When he was later ordered to report to Hitler’s army, he hid in the Tyrolean countryside until after the war ended.
After the survivor returned home, he worked on a farm in St. Walfgang until another life-threatening directive came forward.
“Three weeks before the end of the war, on April 17, 1945, he received call-up papers ordering him to join the German Wehrmacht, immediately,” said Rammerstorfer. “He refused to comply and fled into the mountains of the Salzkammergut. There he hid in a Meistereben alpine hut and a cave.”
“He was hunted like an animal by the Nazis for weeks, but they could not find him,” Rammerstorfer said. On May 5, 1945, Engleitner was able to return home once again.
After he suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Nazi’s, Engleitner insisted, “My personal experience has left me absolutely convinced that the Bible is still the best guide for a happy and full life.”
The balance of Engleitner’s work life consisted of doing farm work, working as a night watchman in a soap factory, and performing general labor as a road maintenance worker.
The film’s narrator and script editor, Frederic Fuss, said what amazed him was “the strength of Leopold’s unbroken will and determination never diminished his positive outlook, and the intensity of his trial never made him bitter.”
Up until July, 2012, this Holocaust survivor spoke at schools throughout Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and the United States, and encouraged students to “stick by their own beliefs and not succumb to peer pressure.” More than 50,000 students heard his lecture.
Engleitner spent the last two years of his life living with Rammerstorfer and his family, as an adopted, beloved grandparent.
According to Rammerstorfer, he was surprised at Engleitner’s death because he was “doing well and even spent time out in our garden.”
“He was eager to start school visits again,” said Rammerstorfer. “What does make me feel good is that we all were with him and held him when it happened. My wife, Beate, hummed a song to him while touching his nose with her cheek.”
For organizers of the Fallbrook International Film Festival, Engleitner left an indelible impression.
“We have, in a small way, become a part of history… the history of a remarkable person and the man and his family that adopted him,” said Shattuck. “Leopold wanted very much to attend our festival since this was the first film fest his film had been submitted to.” Engleitner was advised not to make the trip as the time neared, but he sent a memento in his stead.
Prior to the festival, Engleitner inscribed a copy of “Unbroken Will” for film submittal coordinator Shirley Duke.
“This was to be the last time he would write his name,” said Shattuck.
Rammerstorfer, who continues to miss his “best friend,” said more than 500 reports have been made in newspapers around the world on Engleitner’s experiences.
“Leopold was not only a treasure of history, but also a treasure of character,” he said, citing one of Engleitner’s quotes.
“I never got angry or worried, because I entrusted everything to God,” he said. “What I couldn’t alter, I accepted. I was grateful for every day I was allowed to live.”