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: A holy Church begins with you

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A holy Church begins with you

Bishop Rodriguez challenges Catholics to realize their call to holiness

Roxanne King

Even as the Catholic Church deals with the disgrace and shame of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and moves forward with repentance and renewal, it is challenging as faithful not to be disheartened and discouraged.

The answer to this situation is to follow the Scriptural mandate to holiness all Catholic Christians have been given, Denver auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez told attendees of the May 17-19 Aspen Catholic conference titled, “The Encounter: New Life in Jesus Christ.”

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘be holy, because I [am] holy,’” the bishop said, quoting I Peter 1:15-16.

“Holiness,” the bishop asserted, “…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

The annual conference, an initiative of Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Aspen where the event was held, drew people from the Archdiocese of Denver and from outside the state to strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ, deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, renew their spirit in the beauty of Colorado’s high country, and return home equipped to better share their faith.

Despite the current crisis, which is evidence the Church is comprised of sinners, every Sunday when professing the Creed, Catholics say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

“We say publicly that we believe the Catholic Church is holy. Do we mean it?” Bishop Rodriguez mused before affirming: “The Catholic Church, like it or not, will always be holy for three reasons.”

First: “Jesus Christ is the author of holiness and he is the head of the Church. … Jesus is the Church with all of us. The holiness of Jesus fills the whole Church.”

Second: “The Church is the only institution in the world that possesses all the means of sanctification left by Christ for his Church to sanctify its members and to make them holy.”

Third: “There are many, many holy people in the Church, both in heaven and here on earth.”

Holiness…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

Slain STEM School shooting hero Kendrick Castillo is an example of a holy, young Catholic, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“He gave his life for his classmates. If this is not holiness, what is?” the bishop said about the 18-year-old who was killed May 7 when he tackled a teen shooter.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave known for her acts of charity and generosity from her own meager means to others in early Denver, and St. John Paul II, who in emphasizing the universal call to holiness of all Christians beatified and canonized more people than the combined total of his predecessors in the five centuries before him, were among others Bishop Rodriguez mentioned who comprise “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) of those believers who have preceded us into God’s kingdom. Additionally, there are countless “next-door saints,” he said, using a term coined by Pope Francis to describe those unknowns of heroic virtue among our family, friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez said, because the Scriptures say, Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25-26).

“‘The Church is holy because it proceeds from God, who is holy,’” the bishop said, quoting Pope Francis’ Oct. 2, 2013, general audience address. “’It is not holy by our merits; we are not able to make her holy. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who in his love makes the Church holy.’

“The Catholic Church is and will be holy, even though some of her members still need repentance and conversion,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

Holiness is our deepest longing because we were created to be holy, the bishop said. But the only way to realize that call is to submit to God and allow him to transform us, he said, using the scriptural analogy of clay taking shape in a potter’s hands.

“We cannot deserve, produce, gain, create, or make holiness,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Only God in his gratuitousness and infinite love can make a saint of you. … Holiness is pure gift, is grace.”

Catholics believe holiness is real — that grace received through the sacraments, prayer and reading Scripture, infuses and transforms the believer into a new creation, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“Salvation is real,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis [warns] about a heresy that has been in the Church since apostolic times under different appearances — Gnosticism. It is a doctrine of salvation by knowledge, reducing Christianity to doctrine [or] text, to something intellectual.”

In doing so, Gnosticism loses the flesh of the incarnation and reduces Jesus to his message, Bishop Rodriguez said. Likewise, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a major figure of 20th-century biblical studies and liberal Christianity, promoted “demythologizing” the Gospel to attract modern adherents.

As a result, “people lost faith that these things really happened,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “[Bultmann] did tremendous damage to Christianity.”

The Apostles, however, insisted on the truth of Jesus’ incarnational reality, the bishop said, noting the First Letter of St. John proclaims: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you.

Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

“Our Christian faith is not a body of doctrines, not a code of conduct, not an ethical idea, not an elaborated ritual,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “It is not even a community. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is an event. It is a person. It is an event that happens. In the Gospel everything begins with an encounter with Jesus. Have we encountered Jesus?”

Jesus may be encountered through prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“These are three gifts God has given to us to open us to holiness,” he said. “These are the Catholic ways to have a personal encounter with Jesus that is real.”

Regarding prayer: “The best way to start is to become aware of Jesus presence. … prayer [then] becomes a personal encounter, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise.”

Regarding Scripture: “It’s not about information … it’s about God telling his love for me.”

Regarding sacraments: “The sacramental life is God touching me with his holiness.

“In the Catholic Church we believe that Jesus Christ didn’t want us to only have a recorded memory of him as in the Scriptures, but a living presence among us. He said: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’”

I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you.”

Just as Jesus was present with the people of Galilee healing and forgiving them, so he is present with us today through the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“That’s why he instituted the sacraments. Each sacrament is a merciful and sweet touch of Jesus in our lives,” the bishop said. “This is what we mean when we say he makes us holy through the sacraments.”

So why isn’t there more holiness in our lives and more saints in the Church?

“God wants to work with our clay … but to make a saint is a question of love,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Love cannot be imposed, it cannot be mandated.”

Rather, one must cooperate with God’s grace to become the saint God desires.

“Last March, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation on our call to be holy, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “His thesis is that we have been made for happiness, and true happiness and joy only comes from a holy life.”

Holiness doesn’t mean perfection, performing miracles or that we are not tempted, Bishop Rodriguez said. Rather, it means loving God and one’s neighbor by doing the everyday tasks of life with love.

The answer for times of persecution and crisis in the Church has always been the holiness of the people of God, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you,” he challenged.

“This is our response to the Church crisis today: holy Catholic men and women,” he asserted. “We will never give up and we will fight against discouragement and loss of hope. Jesus is with us as he promised.”

Featured image by Roxanne King