The world's oldest known male Nazi concentration camp survivor, Leopold Engleitner, 107, will be in the Valley Friday to attend the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary Ladder in the Lions' Den.
The film charts Engleitner's journey as a conscientious objector and a Jehovah's Witness who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his beliefs. He is the survivor of three concentration camps: Buchenwald, Niederhagen and Ravensbrueck.
Engleitner is flying in from Austria especially for the Valley screenings, and, with the help of an interpreter, will be talking to audience members and taking part in several Q&As at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino.
The documentary's narrator and script-editor, Frederic Fuss, talked with Patch about the film and its subject.
How did you become involved in the project?
I have been a friend and supporter of Leopold and the writer, Bernhard Ramerstorfer, for many years, and I've also proofread two of [Ramerstoffer's] books and been a script-editor and proofreader of his book on Leopold, Unbroken Will, and the documentary DVD of the same name. Among the things that captivated me from the beginning is that the strength of Leopold's unbroken will and determination never diminished his positive outlook, and the intensity of his trial never made him bitter.
Can you talk a little about the subject matter of the documentary?
Ladder in the Lions' Den takes a slice of Leo's experiences and puts them into a more direct historical context. You get to the significance of the stand he took as a conscientious objector, not going along with Nazism and and its ideals. It also has outsider commentators, and they give their views, like Adolf Burger who appeared in the film The Counterfeiters—he's one of the original true life characters—he's briefly interviewed, also Renée Firestone [a Jewish Auschwitz survivor], and Gottlieb Bernhardt. He was a bodyguard of Hitler's, he briefly gives a statement in the film.
The name Ladder in the Lions' Den is about Leo's experience as a Jehovah's Witness in the camps. A document was regularly presented to the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were conscientious objectors and who objected to the principles of Nazism, and they did not subscribe to any of the racist ideas. To get out of the camp, they were told 'just sign this document where you renounce your beliefs, say you go along with Nazism and go along with Hitler'.
They [Jehovah's Witnesses] would also not say the 'Heil Hitler' greeting, and the film comments on that, that the words ascribe salvation to Hitler. They said, no, he's not God so we're not going to do that.
It's perhaps not commonly known that Jehovah's Witnesses were victims of the Nazi concentration camps.
It is a story that is often overlooked, and it's more than just a story. There are important messages in what Leopold did and he’s very active in going to schools in Austria, mainly because his message is pertinent: You don’t need to go along with peer pressure, you can stick by your conscience. You don't have to say 'we are ordinary people, what are we going to do?'
So Leopold teaches people to follow their conscience instead of say 'we were just following orders'?
Yes—that's the standard cop-out and the message of the Nuremberg Trials. There's a powerful message here.
Ladder in the Lions' Den, Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Boulevard, Encino. 818-981-9811. Opens Friday November 7. For showtimes, click here.
Leopold Engleitner is scheduled to attend all screenings, from 12:30 p.m. Nov. 9-Nov. 15, and 11:00 a.m. Sat Nov. 10 and Sun Nov. 11. Renée Firestone is scheduled to be at the two showings on Sunday Nov. 11.
And click on the YouTube video above to see a 2009 CBS2/KCAL9 news report on Engleitner.