Denver deacon recounts miraculous story of surviving the Holocaust

Moira Cullings

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.”

Deacon Witold Engel survived three concentration camps before hearing the call to serve God. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

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.”

The memories of Deacon Engel’s life during the Holocaust are still fresh in his mind. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

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.”

Liberation day

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.


Witold was ordained a deacon in 1999 and has served in California and Colorado. (Photo by Moira Cullings)

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.

COMING UP: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

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Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr