Brookline has long been home to a community of Holocaust survivors, and Elisabeth Dopazo is one of them. Her infectious spirit reveals nothing of her war-torn childhood in Nazi Germany. At 82 years old and a grandmother of three and great-grandmother of two, she speaks excitedly and rapidly about the 40 years she has spent as a volunteer lecturer for Facing History and Ourselves.
“I’m around teenagers all the time,” she said. “They keep me young!” Dopazo makes a point to interject humor into her talks, despite the often dark subject matter. Her humor certainly shines through even when reminiscing through sad memories and she doesn’t hesitate to offer a cup of tea. Her zestful spirit has, no doubt, carried her through difficult times.
Nazi Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Dopazo came from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose faith requires that adherents pledge allegiance only to God. They refused to salute the Nazi flag and say, ‘Heil Hitler.’ Their faith also forbade participation in war and combat, encouraging peace and pacifism. Much of Dopazo’s values can be traced directly from her upbringing.
“It’s the way I was brought up,” she said. It’s beyond me to hate.” Viewed as enemies of the state, her parents were arrested, and Dopazo and her brother were outsiders in their school, suffering discrimination from both teachers and their peers. “School was awful,” she said. “We couldn’t trust anyone. We couldn’t tell which teachers were Nazis or not.”
Dopazo recognizes that, as a non-Jew, she does not fit into the dominant narrative of the Holocaust. She describes her most memorable Facing History lectures have been at synagogues where many young Jewish adults expressed some solace to her that Jews were not the only victims, that the Nazi’s evil was not limited just to them. Indeed, Jews were far from the only victims. “Many young Jewish people that I’ve met only know the Jewish side of the Holocaust.” Gypsies, gays, the disabled and anyone who dissented from the Nazi regime were targeted for brutality as well. Dopazo sees a crucial part of her purpose as a lecturer is to remind Holocaust students of this fact — that Nazi brutality touched many, many people.
Dopazo’s parents were both arrested as enemies of the state. Her father was executed at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. With their father’s death, she and her brother ceased to believe in any God. Her brother received the opportunity to repent for her opposition, but ultimately choose to stand firm in his Jehovah’s Witness faith. Initially resentful of her father,
Dopazo now states “I am very proud of my father. He is my hero.”
Her father’s passing marked a new phase of her childhood. “We were able to justify lying in a way we hadn’t before now that we didn’t have our faith,” she said. “That made it easier to get on at school and pretend to pledge allegiance to Hitler.” Dopazo enrolled in Hitler Youth due to school pressure, where she still internally harbored many doubts but never dared to express anything to her peers, knowing what the consequences would be. Dopazo’s homefront was becoming increasingly dangerous. Bombings hit their house and she lost all her possessions. “I learned not to be materialistic,” she said. “I survived losing everything except the clothes that I was wearing.” She was sent to Austria as part of the program although at that point, Germany was losing the war and Nazi fervor was withering away.
Reminders of the Past
Sadly, the hatred that permeated Elisabeth’s childhood in Nazi Germany lingers in the present day. Saddened by today’s political rhetoric, Dopazo believes that some aspects of society have not advanced as much as she had hoped and that Neo-Nazism and participation in white supremacy groups have surged. “I wish Trump was not so much a reminder of others we knew in the past,” she said.
When asked if there is anything she has not yet done in regards to her lecturing work, she said with no hesitation, “I would like to go to a Neo-Nazi rally and talk to those people. I want to make those people understand.” Her passion for her work transcends whatever the current political climate. “I would do this work anyways regardless of who’s president or who’s not,” she said. Almost every school I go to I come away with a feeling that I’ve done something good.”
Dopazo retains her Jehovah’s Witness faith although she does not actively practice. The tenants of pacifism and worship of false idols are values that she continues to hold dear. “I do not fly the American flag at my home,” she said. “Not because I don’t love America, but I’ve seen enough flag waving throughout my life.” When asked what keeps her optimistic in an age with so many reasons to be pessimistic, she states “I try not to dwell on the past. I try to constantly interject humor into everyday life. Constant depression doesn’t help. Just be happy. Every day is a gift!”