Thursday, October 23, 2014

Part Three: The Last Hour

At the beginning of this selection, Poelchau describes the day he found out about the Red Orchestra, and said farewell to the first group of members about to be executed.

p. 62   Only through my relationships with the prison guards at Plötzensee did I learn of the executions of the political prisoners in the afternoon that were scheduled for that evening of 22 December 1942.  I got there just in time, as the prisoners were transferred from the paddy wagon to the death cells at Plötzensee.  I spent the entire day with them; the executions were to take place that night.

            It was my day off and in fact I’d seen Hans von Haeften (later an operative of the 20 July group) who’d infiltrated the legation council.  It surprised me to meet the first sentenced, Rudolph von Scheliha.  He was a true commoner, old beyond his years and resigned.  He actually did not belong to the Schultze-Boysen-Harnack group.  He was pulled into this conspiracy by circumstances.  Beside his cell, in the other death cells the condemned listened to the executions.  In a neighboring cell was the wife of painter Kurt Schumacher, Elisabeth Schumacher, a passionate and leading fighter with her husband.

            Kurt Schumacher, a big blond man, had the typical characteristics of artists.  He was generous, to the point and uninhibited.  Yes, he projected in these hours a serenity, and his nature profoundly impressed me.  A letter from 27 November 1942, which he wrote in his earlier cell at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse [Gestapo headquarters], and hid it.

p. 63  “You took away a double-sided, cramped-ly written piece of notepaper.  I wrote it about my dreary days here, and for myself, and the national policy of chaos of the Nazis that I’ve struggled against, so I find myself here.  One way out, a life of freedom, dignified and prosperous men who know only the international socialist work of a socialist Europe.  Therefore, I have fought for them to the last.  [untranslatable passage] George Ratgeb, the farm was on the other side of the growing fields, my colleagues, my predecessors.  Confined and nearly constantly watched, I wrote.

p. 64  I know that my, our idea wins even if we drop the little vanguard.    How gladly the German people save the hardest.  Our little troop was upright and heroic in its struggles.  We fought for freedom and could not be cowards.  Oh, strong until the last!

            My valiant Elisabeth, I love you.  Your Kurt”

            Arvid Harnack, born in 1901 in Darmstadt, was without a doubt the spiritual center of the Red Orchestra.  He came from an old, learned family and was the nephew of Harnack the theologian.    1927 to 1929 he lived in America.  There he originated his dissertation ‘The Pre-Marxist Labor Movement in the U.S.’ 

About its development Karl Schirdewan wrote:  ‘In the second half of the years that Harnack lived, he was in the midst of American economic systems and like a cornerstone he placed his staunch determination on planned economies.  1929 to 1932 he and his wife Mildred, an American, this view was corroborated through their participation in the ‘Giessener School,’ the crisis of capitalism and the socialist planned economy of the USSR, which he systematically studied.  He also learned about the struggle between fascists and anti-fascists, on which he focused his sentiments and

            Footnote:  This letter and the following letters were published in various German and foreign newspapers and magazines.  Some were collected in the anthology Last Letters, edited by Eva Lippold, VVN Publishing, Berlin.

p. 65  soul.  One visit to the USSR in the year 1932 was for a scientific study trip, and he returned having learned more about the [economic] plan.  He then wrote  A Handbook of the USSR.  The Fascist dictator prevented Harnack from publishing the book in the spring of 1933.  With that, the beginning of fascist domination of his homeland, Harnack considered leaving Germany and returning to America.  Harnack did not.  He stayed in Germany, determined that the organization [the Red Orchestra] would struggle against the fascist domination of the country.   His nature favored such resoluteness.  In opposition to his fellow fighter Schulze-Boysen, impulsive and passionate, Harnack possessed the experience, and in his opinions of others were not always proven.  Human-focused, Harnack was a man of strength with a propensity for caution and distrust.  He combined a factual, scientific nature with great serenity and a talent for conspiracy….  (‘A Fair Fight in Our Roll-Call,’ Berlin Half-Month Publication, 1 Jan. 1948). 

            In my memory, he seemed a man from a different time, a sensitive man.  He was sophisticated, and quite prepared to die for what he believed.  But he knew enough and told me that with his sacrifice the spirit of the resistance lived on.  In his last hours he had deep concern for the German people.  He believed Hitler had leached their soul from them.

            He asked two things of me.  He wanted to hear the Prologue in Heaven, from Goethe’s Faust, Part I.     [Mephistopheles visits heaven, and he and God place a wager on Faust's soul.]  I too loved those words very much, and I recited them to him:  how this day, the world will be lost to you.  The Son [Jesus] stands up to greet the

p. 66  planets … rarely have I been so glad to give a soul what he longed for in his last  hour.  After that, he asked me to recite the Christmas story.  It was two days before Christmas Eve.

p. 67  Harnack’s  wife, Mildred Harnack, American, lecturer for English and German at Berlin University, passionately admired Goethe.  They both believed in his final hours she would live, because she had not been sentenced to death.  These were the first efforts of Roeder, who later boasted that he had rounded up some hundred intellectuals and workers from head to toe in two months, and executed them around the clock.  I was the first to tell her the news of the death of her husband; she learned in her own last hours.  She died on 16 February 1943.

            The sister of Arvid Harnack, Inge Havermann, wrote about her sister-in-law Mildred  ‘From the past days, then as a beautiful young lecturer, as the wife brought to Germany, until the day that she faced death in Plötzensee and spoke her last words, “And I love Germany so” – and some fifteen years in between – Mildred lived a difficult, full life.  She completed her studies for her doctorate at Berlin University, and began to teach the less fortunate at the Night School in East Berlin.

p. 68  In time to her came deep societal understanding, and love for the German worker.  After her promotion, she became a lecturer at the Lessing High School and later at the University of Berlin.  She translated assorted distinctly American novels into German … Walter Edmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk, Irving Stone’s Van Gogh novel Lust for Life.  Last, for Rutter & Loening Publishing, she translated Goethe’s poetry into English.  In addition, she was a child-like, clumsy housewife with a great sense of beauty and an atmosphere of humanity.  Those were the visible outlines of her life.  On top of this was her easily moved heart, she spoke only little.  Her remarks became brittle, but had surprising clarity.  Beginning with her support of the dangerous struggle, her husband was destined.  She divided the quiet in her life, expected him all night long; anxiety filled her as she struggled against the dark streets of the city.  But like many, in our Germany, always deeper not more worthy than even these men arose.  Mildred’s will and with it also the courage of truth.  She became herself an active member of her husband’s standing group, gave her life for it.  In September 1942 she with her husband were arrested on their first vacation to the Baltic Sea.  We [the Harnack family] never saw her again.  Without visits allowed or any other respite, she was put in solitary confinement, without permission to read, without writing paper.  On 19 December she was sentenced to six years in prison.  Hitler did not recognize this judgment.  On 15 January 1943 a second trial (without further evidence) was held.  The judge again ordered it secret.  On 16 February 1943

p. 69  she was killed by a guillotine.  She left as a last greeting two beautiful new translations in her English mother tongue of Goethe’s verse and little words she wrote on the back of a picture of her mother.  Five months before, she was beautiful, with full, luminous blonde hair; the dark, lonely cell transformed her.  A white-haired, bowed woman took that last walk.  Was she sorry that these five months had reduced her to that?  No one will ever know. “

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