Witold Engel was living his Catholic faith at the age of nine years old in a place no one could ever imagine — Auschwitz concentration camp.
As a prisoner during the Holocaust, Witold watched as a priest who had smuggled in a rosary was beaten to death by an S.S. soldier in the camp. A Jewish man close to the scene yelled at the S.S. man to put the dying priest out of his misery. The soldier shot them both.
Witold couldn’t take it anymore.
“I stood up and I said to him, ‘Shame on you. You should turn to God instead of butchering people here.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘You Polish cockroach. I’ll crush you with my boot.’” Right when the soldier took out his gun to kill Witold, another soldier came to bring the S.S. man to the commandant.
“I was safe,” said Witold. “I guess the Lord was with me.”
The now-retired deacon shared his incredible story of survival with the Denver Catholic, recounting his time in Siberia, Auschwitz and Dachau — and the calling he felt from God despite the evil that consumed his childhood.
Growing up in Siberia
Witold was born in Stryj, Poland. He was just three years old when his family was captured by Russian soldiers and taken to Siberia as political prisoners.
Witold and his mother, father and older sister, who was five, journeyed by train for two weeks with their fellow captives to a camp near the North Pole.
The family survived for five years in horrible conditions, overcoming hot summers and below-freezing winters, abusive captors, and insufficient food. His mother even gave birth to a son during their time in captivity.
The Engels encountered kindness in a man with a wagon and a horse, who tied rags on the wagon’s wheels and snuck into the living quarters at night.
During one of those visits, the man told the Engels, “I’m going to help you escape.”
The man kept his promise and took the family away. Witold was eight, his brother four. They walked all night in the desert and hid behind massive sand piles during the day. The family traveled this way for an entire year, eating raw fish, raw birds and whatever plants they could find.
The Engels finally reached Kiev, a Ukrainian town where they encountered German soldiers who, not knowing the family was Polish, allowed the Engels to stay with them for a time.
Realizing they wouldn’t last in Kiev, the Engels moved along and, although they were mostly denied help from local villagers, they encountered a family who offered them a wagon and horses to help with their travels. Even further on their journey, they received two more horses, food and clothing from another family.
After several months of traveling, the family finally made it back to their hometown of Stryj, only to have their hopes crushed once again.
‘What did we do?’
When the Engels made it to Stryj, they found their home completely empty. Although German troops surrounded the town, they weren’t living in the Engels’ house.
“My mother cried,” recalled Witold. “She said, ‘Finally, we’re home, finally, we’re free!’ But little [did] we know.”
In 1942, just before Christmas, Witold heard trucks outside his house.
“I looked through the window and there were Germans,” he said. “There were some people jumping off the wagons, and they were shooting them.”
S.S. soldiers with swastikas on their uniforms approached the Engels’ door and took the family away, despite desperate pleas from Witold’s father.
The family was put on another train, which, two weeks later, brought them to Auschwitz.
Witold recalled the barbed wires surrounding the camp, the massive door and the sign that read “Arbeit macht frei” (Work will set you free). Approaching the camp, Witold remembers his father telling him this is where they would die.
“I said, ‘What did we do?’ Witold recalled, fighting back tears. “He said, ‘Jesus didn’t do anything, but they killed him, too.’”
Right away, Witold smelled burning flesh and saw smoke coming out of the crematorium on the other side of camp.
Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, separated the Engel family. At nine years old, Witold was sent with his father and the rest of the men.
“I was petrified,” he said.
‘I was like a zombie’
During his time in Auschwitz, Witold and a few other prisoners were tasked with pulling carts of corpses across camp to the crematorium. He recalled having to take the clothes off the men so that they were completely naked. This was so new prisoners could wear the clothes, despite their filthy, bloody conditions.
“After a while, I was afraid, but later I got immune,” said Witold. “It didn’t bother me anymore. I was like a zombie. I couldn’t even think.”
Witold described his figure as “skin and bones, because sometimes they didn’t feed us for a week or we didn’t get water for a week.”
In desperation, Witold ate snow or drank from puddles of dirty rain water. A fellow prisoner told him he would be sick drinking the water, but he never was. To him, “it tasted delicious.”
Witold felt like God was with him during those moments where he so easily could’ve fallen ill or died from the living conditions.
He believes God’s presence was undoubtedly there the first time he was sent to take a shower — an event that often ended in prisoners being poisoned by gas rather than rinsed with water.
“I was praying inside,” said Witold. “I said, ‘Oh my Lord, what are we doing here?’ We went, and God was with us because they put water [instead of gas]. Every time. A year passed by, [and] I was still alive.”
In 1944, Germany was losing the war, and when the Nazis took a few thousand people out of Auschwitz and onto another train, Witold discovered for the first time the status of his mother and siblings.
“They called my name first, my father’s name second,” he said. “Then, I heard my mother’s name, my sister’s name, my brother’s name. I cried. I said, ‘They’re alive!’”
During the journey that would eventually take them to Dachau, the Engels’ train was attacked by Russian soldiers, who killed both Nazis and prisoners in the process. Still, Witold and his family survived and made it to the new camp.
The sights and smells of Dachau are still fresh in the deacon’s mind.
“There was a horrible smell,” he said. “Right in the middle of the yard, they had all the skeletons left. They didn’t burn them all.”
The Engels endured the horrible conditions of camp for a few more months, until finally, in April 1945, Witold watched as American tanks arrived at Dachau.
“By accident, they saw the camp,” he said.
The Americans cautiously approached the prisoners and brought them water and coffee.
“A lot of people took a sip of water or coffee and they were dropping like flies,” said Witold. “They were undernourished, and they couldn’t take anything fresh.”
One officer approached Witold and his family. He was from Chicago but his parents were from Poland, so he spoke some Polish.
“He lifted me up, and I was crying,” said Witold. “We had lice, we were dirty. I told him, ‘No, don’t pick me up.’ He said to me, ‘You are my countryman,’” Witold recalled, holding back tears.
“Then he said, ‘You are free. Germans cannot touch you anymore.’ He lifted me up, he didn’t care [that I was dirty]. He cried, too. He said to me, ‘What are you doing in here?’”
Witold explained their situation and showed the soldier his family. The soldier looked at them and said, “You’re free.”
‘God has something else for you’
After their liberation, the Engels lived in Ingolstadt and welcomed two more children — a boy and a girl — into the world.
The family decided to move to America, but a few situations almost prevented that journey from happening, one of which was an illness Witold experienced just a week before the family was set to embark. The day before they were to leave, that illness mysteriously went away.
“I had miracles in the concentration camp, and another miracle there,” said Witold. “Miracle after miracle.”
In 1951, when Witold was 18, he and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York.
At 23, Witold talked to the local priest about the call he felt to the priesthood. After all he had been through, he wanted to give his life back to God. But he was told he was too old and didn’t speak enough English.
After facing that disappointment, Witold proudly served in the United States Army for six years.
He eventually ended up moving to California, where he met his wife, Carmen, through a coupon for singles form they both filled out. After two months of dating, the couple got married. They celebrated their 50th anniversary earlier this year.
Although Witold had faced rejection when he sought the priesthood, he later realized God was bringing him to Carmen.
I can tell you [my story], but you can’t even imagine. You can read books, see movies about the Holocaust, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same, what I experienced.”
But God’s work wasn’t finished yet.
Witold suffered another traumatic event during his marriage when he was hit by a car. After the accident, Carmen was told he wouldn’t survive, and if he did, he’d never walk again.
Little did the doctors know, Witold was a fighter. He made a complete recovery and learned to walk again.
During his time in the hospital, a priest told him, “God loves you so much, he saved your life.”
“I said, ‘Many times he’s saved my life,’” said Witold.
The priest looked into Witold’s eyes and told him something he’ll never forget.
“I can see in your eyes God has something else for you, something good for you,” he said. “That’s why God saved your life.”
‘I want to serve God’
God’s timing is never in vain.
When Witold was in his 50s, he felt called again to give up his life to God — this time, as a deacon. He spent nearly a decade applying to the diaconate in California, and after patiently waiting, was finally accepted at 60 years old to begin the life he longed for.
He was on his way to the diaconate.
“I had a calling, I know,” said Witold. “I said, ‘God is there. God saved my life. I want to serve God.’”Looking back at his life, Witold believes God spared him time after time so he could serve as a deacon and make an impact on the lives of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.
Witold was ordained a deacon in 1999, and his ministry in California included serving at two prisons, which he and Carmen visited almost every week.
After telling some of the prisoners parts of his story, they were moved to tears. Two men came to God because of the visits. They were so changed, they were even granted early release from prison.
Witold was surprised to see one of the men walking free after his release.
Just decades earlier, Witold was in the arms of a soldier, crying with him as the man saved his life. Now, Witold was doing the same with this prisoner, but this time, he was the liberator — not of his life, but of his soul.
Witold and Carmen moved to Colorado in 2005 to be closer to their daughter, Jennifer, her husband, Tim, and their son, Dylan.
The deacon served at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Littleton and Assisted Living and Memory Care at Morningstar until he retired around nine years ago. Witold is now 85 years old.
“I can tell you [my story],” he said, “but you can’t even imagine. You can read books, see movies about the Holocaust, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same, what I experienced.”
Over 80 years after being sent to his first concentration camp, Witold continues to pray constantly and put his complete trust in God — who, he believes, saved his life over and over again.