Simone Arnold Liebster was just 11 years old when the Nazis overran her country and took control of her town.
The region of Alsace, which Liebster called home, was a special target of the Reich. It had been taken from Germany and given to France after World War I, and the Nazis wanted it back.
But while the German blitzkrieg quickly overwhelmed the French defense forces around her, little Simone never surrendered. And she is still fighting.
She and her late husband, Max, established the Arnold-Liebster Foundation in January 2002 to educate future generations in the lessons of history. It’s a non-political, non-profit organization that strives to keep alive the memory of victims of dictatorships and religious persecution.
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Through the foundation, Highland High School students were able to meet and learn from Liebster last week via a video conference.
“We look at the past and see that the masses followed Hitler. We ask: ‘What can we learn from those who didn’t?’ We want to learn from positive examples,” said Marge Fulton, the local contact for the Arnold-Liebster Foundation. “Simone Liebster refused to heil Hitler.”
Highland High School English teacher Susie Martz learned about Liebster’s story from attending the Illinois Reading Conference in Peoria. She asked if Fulton would set up a time for her class to meet Liebster and ask questions.
“I saw her in October and Simone touched my heart. She touched my heart so much that I had to share this with my students,” Martz said. “I think she surprised them. The students did a lot of prep work before this interview.”
Along with her standard English class, Martz also teaches a class on the Holocaust.
“In one of my classes, we read Night, which is a book about the Holocaust, and I teach another class that focuses only on the holocaust. I wanted the students to get different points of view of the Holocaust.”
The students eyes were glued to the projector as Fulton gave the background of Liebster’s story.
Shortly after Fulton’s presentation, her computer beeped and a video stream of Liebster popped up. Now 86 years old, Liebster may seem frail, but her spirit and resolve are just as strong now as they were when she was a child. Her strength comes from her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I was raised in peace, but there was still the past to think about from the previous world war,” Liebster told the students from her home in France. “Life was normal for me as a child.”
But then the war came. Many fled as the Germans advanced. Liebster’s family did not. She asked her father why they had stayed. His response was something she’d never forget.
“My father told me that he was responsible for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the area and we couldn’t leave,” she said. “He said, ‘I must stay to provide courage.’ ”
Firm in their faith
Unlike Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses could escape Nazi persecution if they would renounce their faith. Heiling Hitler was also mandatory. Those who did not were sent to concentration camps. But Liebster and her family stood firm in their faith.
“I was well-educated and had principles. I wanted to be faithful to my beliefs. The idea to praise Hitler as a savior was wrong, and I would not give in,” she said. “Some people told me I should pretend, but that would be lying. If I did that, I would be lying to God, and I want to honor Jesus as King. And I’d be lying to the state, and my conscience wouldn’t be clear.”
Her refusal — along with her family’s — was what landed her parents in separate concentration camps.
“My father was taken and arrested right away and put in Dachau. He was in charge of painting ammunition boxes, but refused. He was severely punished. Every so often, they’d offer him a contract to sign that would free him if he would heil Hitler. He refused, again and again. Eventually, he became a medical experiment for malaria.”
Ripped apart, then reunited
The entire family was broken up.
“A judge took me away from my mother and put me in a school in Germany. My mother was arrested and put in a separate concentration camp. We weren’t allowed to write from one prison to another.”
Liebster can still remember her “re-education” in Germany.
“We lived the same as people did in the 19th century. The living conditions were bad and food was scarce. Children never played and were taken from their parents,” she said. “I learned to obey without question.”
But she was able to hang on to who she was, thanks to her father.
“Thanks to dad. He taught me that my brain was like a shelf, I could pull anything from my mind,” she said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were forced to wear a purple triangle in the camps. The meaning behind that is a bit unclear, but Liebster said she believes it was because of the link between the color purple and royalty.
“They gave us purple triangle’s, because that’s the color of royalty, and we were messengers for God’s Kingdom,” she said.
The family wasn’t sure they’d ever see each other again. But at the end of the war, their family was lucky. They were reunited. They regrouped and rebuilt their lives, but seldom spoke of the past and trauma they’d been through.
“We started a new life, but that was difficult. We didn’t talk about the past, but mom did say that we had to forgive those who wronged us,” Liebster said. “I finally understood what forgiveness was. It’s the strength to overcome any bad feelings.”