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: Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

Initiatives include independent investigation and independent reparations program

Mark Haas

With a desire to “shine the bright light of transparency” on the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors within the Church, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has announced that the three Colorado dioceses have voluntarily partnered with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children.

In a joint news conference on February 19 at the attorney general’s office, it was also announced that the three dioceses will voluntarily fund an independent reparations program for survivors of such abuse.

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person like a priest, is profound,” said Archbishop Aquila. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will at least begin the healing process.”

It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Discussions for these two initiatives began last year with former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and then finalized recently with Weiser. Both Coffman and Weiser praised the dioceses’ willingness to address this issue.

“It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Coffman added: “Childhood sexual abuse is not specific to one institution or to the Catholic Church. The spotlight is on the Catholic Church, but this abuse is indicative of what has happened in other institutions. We want to shine a light on what has happened.

“[The dioceses] demonstrated their commitment to acknowledging past abuse by priests and moving forward with honesty and accountability.”

The independent file review will be handled by Robert Toyer, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado. His final report is expected to be released in the fall of 2019 and will include a list of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors, along with a review of the dioceses’ handling of the allegations. The report will also include an evaluation of the dioceses’ current policies and procedures, something that was not included in other states’ reviews, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

“We in Colorado have found our own way in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report,” said Weiser. “We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, alongside Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, speaks during a press conference announcing a comprehensive joint agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 19, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

“This is not a criminal investigation. This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church,” said Weiser.

Since 1991, the Archdiocese of Denver has had a policy of mandatory reporting of all allegations to local authorities. The procedures were further strengthened by the 2002 Dallas Charter to include comprehensive background checks, zero-tolerance policies, safe environment training, and training for children as well.

“This independent file review presents an opportunity for an honest and fair evaluation of the Church in Colorado’s historical handling of the sexual abuse of minors by priests,” said Archbishop Aquila.  “We are confident in the steps we have taken to address this issue and that there are no priests in active ministry currently under investigation.”

We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.”

The independent reparations program will be run by two nationally recognized claims administration experts, Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who will review individual cases and make financial awards to victims who elect to participate. The victims are free to accept or reject the award, but the Colorado dioceses are bound by what the administrators decide.

The program will have oversight provided by an independent committee chaired by former U.S. Senator Hank Brown. More details will be announced in the coming months, and the program will officially open closer to the release of the final report.

This is similar to a program instituted by former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2006. Archbishop Aquila said it is important for local Catholics to know the program will be funded by archdiocesan reserves, with no money being taken from ministries or charities at parishes, annual diocesan appeals, or Catholic Charities.

“With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families,” Archbishop Aquila said.

And acknowledging how painful this has been for everyone in the Church, Archbishop Aquila said he hopes this is step towards restoring confidence among the faithful.

“Helping people to restore their trust, to live their faith, that is essential,” said Archbishop Aquila. “And to help them have a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ, so that is my goal in all of this. I know that healing is possible in Jesus Christ.”

For a copy of the full agreement and a detailed FAQ, visit archden.org/promise.