‘We have to do this. We absolutely have to.’ Jehovah’s Witness who grew up in Nazi Germany emphasizes need to remember and reflect on the Holocaust

Elizabeth Dopazo speaking at Cabral Center during Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week.
Elisabeth Dopazo speaks in the Cabral Center as part of Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week at Northeastern University. Dopazo was born in Saxonburg, Saxony in 1929. Her parents were both arrested by the Nazi government in the 1930s; her mother was imprisoned and her father executed. Dopazo now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and is a speaker for Facing History and Ourselves. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Dopazo was only 7 years old when her parents were arrested by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police.

They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, as part of their faith, could only pledge allegiance to God, not a government or a politician. Saying “Heil Hitler” was out of the question. For their beliefs and their resistance to the Nazi Party’s fascistic rule of law and obedience, Dopazo’s parents were arrested by German authorities. Her mother was imprisoned and eventually released before World War II ended. Her father was executed at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Dopazo, who now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, shared her story of growing up an outsider in Nazi Germany Wednesday on Northeastern’s Boston campus as part of the university’s annual Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week. 

“We are doing a great disservice and worse than that to people who died and were killed and murdered in those camps if we don’t speak about it and remember them,” Dopazo says. “We have to do this. We absolutely have to.”

Born in 1929 in Saxonburg, Saxony, in east Germany, Dopazo is in many ways her father’s daughter. Her father was a barber and, as is common in barbershops, “people talk,” she says. And no one talked more than her father. 

“My father made it known fairly quickly that he didn’t like Hitler and anything he stood for,” Dopazo says. “He was reported by some customers who were Nazis, and the Gestapo came.”

The Nazi secret police arrested him, but he was released and continued working in the barbershop––and criticizing Hitler and the Nazi party. He was arrested and released a second time, but the third time “he was arrested and we never saw him again,” she says. Dopazo’s mother was also arrested and imprisoned, although she was eventually released before the war ended. Her father was not so lucky.

Separated from their parents, Dopazo and her 6-year-old brother went to live with their grandparents in north Germany, near Hamburg.

Dopazo recalls how her grandfather made his house into a playground for his grandchildren, creating a zipline and swing in the backyard and buying toys and bicycles for them. Dopazo says he did it not only to make them happy but out of necessity. Because they were outsiders in a German society that had firmly established who was and wasn’t an insider, the only friends Dopazo and her brother had were each other. 

“I did not have a friend until I was 16 years old when the war was over because in case we said something, we were always told, ‘Don’t make friends,’” Dopazo says. “If you say something and they tell their parents, the next thing is they’ll come to my grandparents and arrest them.”

Entering the German school system under the Nazi regime, Dopazo and her brother struggled to reconcile their faith and convictions with the necessities of survival. Dopazo recalls changing the way she spoke and behaved in class to avoid detection as a Jehovah’s Witness.

Although she was able to get away with not saying “Heil Hitler” a few times by blowing her nose or dropping something or coughing, her teachers would realize what she was doing eventually and watch her like a hawk. But even as a child, Dopazo, like her father, found a way to resist.

“One time I was so angry I put a thumb tack on the teacher’s seat, and when she sat down, you can imagine what happened,” she says with a mischievous smile. “She screamed. I’m looking out the window, and she’s screaming, ‘Who did this?’ … She never found out that I did it because otherwise I don’t know what would have happened.”

Dopazo has survived a lot: the death of her father, separation from her parents, the trauma of growing up persecuted in Nazi Germany, on top of two heart attacks, a stroke and cancer. But Lori Lefkovitz, the director of Northeastern’s Jewish studies program, says Dopazo’s story is powerful precisely because her life isn’t entirely defined by loss. 

“We see before us plentitude, the fullness of life, of a globe traveled, stories told and, at the bottom, tremendous loss on which this life emerges,” Lefkovitz says.

Dopazo left Germany and moved to England where she learned English at Eton College, the prestigious institution in Windsor. In England, she met her husband, a Spaniard, before moving to Canada and, eventually, Brookline. She has traveled the world, and now she travels the country sharing her story for Facing History and Ourselves.

“My father gave us the very, very best advice before he left when we were very small,” Dopazo says. “I never forgot it. He said to us, ‘When you grow up, travel a lot, learn other languages, other culture, and always, always think of everyone in the world like an international brotherhood.’”

That lesson and Dopazo’s experience have become more important than ever, Dopazo says. 

The Anti-Defamation League recently released its 2022 report tracking antisemitic incidents in the U.S. and found that last year there were 3,697 antisemitic incidents. That marks a 36% increase over 2021 and the highest number on record since the ADL started tracking these statistics in 1979. 

Dopazo herself has heard people either deny or downplay the Holocaust. Despite her urge to “explode” with anger, she says she uses it as an opportunity to be a diplomat and educator.

“We should never, ever forget,” Dopazo says.

Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week began on Monday, March 27 with a presentation from Ethan Rogers, a third-year architecture student at Northeastern and the 2022-23 Holocaust Legacy Foundation Gideon Klein Scholar. Rogers presented his research on the Secret Synagogue of Terezin, a covert place of worship for Jews that was hidden inside a storage room in the Terezin concentration camp.

Rogers not only researched the site but crafted a virtual and physical recreation of the synagogue as it looked back during the Holocaust.

“Obviously, you can go and see the space … but I think it’s really important that people see the restored version and the texts in full and get an understanding of how this space originally looked when Jews used it back in Terezin,” Rogers says.

Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week culminates on Thursday, March 30, with keynote speaker Philip Gourevitch. An author and longtime New Yorker staff writer, Gourevitch is known for his groundbreaking reporting on the Rwandan genocide and his more recent work on the war in Ukraine. The keynote will be held at 6:30 p.m. in ISEC 102, 805 Columbus Ave. Registration is required for in-person attendees, but the event will also be livestreamed.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.