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A death sentence from Hitler

EAU CLAIRE, Wisc. — Joel Waldinger left his hotel and crossed the street to where the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, once kept their headquarters.

The spot is now part-park and part-museum to the history of the dark regime that ruled Germany and started World War II in 1939.

His flight would depart in a few hours, but he carved out some time at the end of his visit to Berlin to browse through the exhibits commemorating those who died during the Third Reich.

A name caught his eye.

Mildred Fish-Harnack — a fellow Wisconsinite — is among those memorialized at the museum.

"She was the only American woman executed on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler," said Waldinger, who lives in Middleton.

Seeing the name and photo of the Milwaukee native executed in 1943 started his six-year quest to tell the life story of a woman who dared to attack the Nazi Party from the inside.

Spreading the story

His journey included records requests to the U.S. government, multiple trips back to Germany and a search for anything he could find about her in Wisconsin.

"It's kind of scattered to the wind," Waldinger said of the pieces of her life story.

He started his research in 2006 — mostly on his own time. His efforts yielded a 56-minute documentary that premiered in November 2011 on Wisconsin Public Television.

With sponsorship from foundations, private donors, endowments and public television, his years of research turned into "Wisconsin's Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story."

It's been rerun every couple of months and appears on the broadcasting network's website. There's a DVD copy in every Wisconsin school and each of the library systems.

Waldinger has traveled throughout the state and even to Germany to spread the story, but Saturday marks his first visit to western Wisconsin to exhibit the film.

As a World War II history buff, John Stoneberg, L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library's executive director, had watched the documentary's premiere airing. He'd also served as the local contact for distributing DVDs to libraries and schools, yielding discussions about getting Waldinger to visit Eau Claire.

Within a week of posting notice of the presentation, the library already had more than 50 people registered to attend.

The visit also is a gesture of respect for the L.E. Phillips Family Foundation, which contributed some of the funding for Waldinger's documentary.

"We wanted to do something in L.E. Phillips' backyard to recognize the sponsorship," Waldinger said.

The foundation carries on the philanthropy that Lewis Phillips — who had owned Eau Claire-based Presto — was known for until his death in 1978. In addition to meeting a foundation goal of supporting education, the documentary relates to the Phillips family's cultural heritage.

Edward and Rose Phillips left their home country of Lithuania in 1901 — Lewis less than 2 years old at the time — as tensions rose against Jews.

Waldinger's visit comes on a special date — the 70th anniversary of Fish-Harnack's execution.

Wisconsin to Berlin

Born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Mildred Fish graduated from UW-Madison in 1925 but stayed on to teach literature.

When German exchange student Arvid Harnack mistakenly walked into her classroom, it began a romance that turned to marriage in 1926.

They were part of a student group that spoke of progressive politics, discussions they continued when they moved a couple of years later to Germany.

Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, setting the stage for the Nazi regime. Arvid Harnack's family worked in publishing at the time.

"They were the type of family that had everything to gain from the Nazis," Waldinger said. "They were really risking it all."

The couple put on the guise of dutiful Nazis in public but secretly worked to undermine the party.

Harnack had gotten a job in the Economics Ministry, which allowed him to travel to the U.S.S.R. and the United States.

He put on the image of a hard-line Nazi but would provide secret information about Germany's economy and industry to the Allies. These conflicting personas sometimes made the Allies dismiss his tips.

On his trips to America to acquire metal in anticipation of World War II, U.S. intelligence disregarded his warnings about the impending war and locations of German factories, according to the documentary.

The Nazi regime cost Fish-Harnack her job at a university, but she later found a teaching position elsewhere and spent her spare time writing articles and book reviews. She used her teaching job to look for students who shared her political beliefs and brought them into the resistance.

While working for a publishing firm, she traveled on the company's behalf but also made arrangements to help some Jews escape Germany.

She also had the dangerous tasks of delivering papers and other errands in public where she could be discovered, Waldinger said.

The resistance intercepted illegal broadcasts from outside Germany and distributed speeches from other world leaders who opposed the Nazis.

Fish-Harnack tutored a German soldier who liked her, the documentary says, and he'd tell her low-level information about the military. A young lieutenant in the Luftewaffe, the aerial warfare branch of the German armed forces, later joined the resistance and provided important military information.

Fish-Harnack and her husband were at the top of a resistance group dubbed the Rote Kapella, which translates into "Red Orchestra." It's the name the Nazis gave them to label the group as communist sympathizers.

Deadly discovery

In 1942 the Soviets sent a message with the real names and addresses — not code names — of resistance members to a Soviet spy. The Gestapo intercepted the message and rounded up the Rote Kapella.

After her husband was taken, the Luftewaffe lieutenant's wife warned Harnack and Fish-Harnack, who fled to the Baltic Coast.

But the Gestapo found them, brought them back to Berlin, interrogated them and tried them in a secret court.

Harnack got the death sentence for high treason and espionage. He was hanged Dec. 22, 1942.

He died thinking his wife would only serve six years in prison — her sentence at trial as a wife just doing her husband's bidding.

"It was Adolf Hitler who intervened and said he will not sign off on the six-year sentence," Waldinger said.

Instead, Hitler ordered a second trial, which meant certain death for Fish-Harnack.

"She was the only American within his grasp at the time," Waldinger said.

Hitler did not want to make an example of Fish-Harnack, though. He just wanted her gone without a trace.

Shocked at the large group of Germans working to undermine the Nazi Party, Hitler did not want martyrs or remembrances of the resistance, Waldinger said.

"They didn't even want people to know this group existed," he added.

On Feb. 16, 1943, Fish-Harnack was led from her cell at Plötzensee Prison to a room where political prisoners were executed.

An account of her execution was kept in the meticulous records the Nazis were known for keeping. They noted it took seven seconds for her to die after a guillotine beheaded her.

Her last words were (translated): "And I have loved Germany so much," according to the documentary.

After the war ended in 1945, remaining members of the Gestapo told Allied forces that Harnack and Fish-Harnack were communists — the enemy of the U.S. in the Cold War.

Tainted legacy

Unfortunately for the couple's legacy, the Soviets went along with it, even using Harnack's image as a medal in East Germany to people who inform to the Ministry of State Security. The documentary shows an image of this medal.

Some members of their family now live in London, but Waldinger said they're still reluctant to talk about the resistance activities of Harnack and Fish-Harnack.

After World War II ended, the Russians portrayed the couple as heroes of communism. "They were definitely pawns in the Cold War," Waldinger said.

Accusations that they had communist leanings had some basis.

Harnack, an economics expert, had written a thesis on the Marxist movement and spoke of communist economics, in part as a reaction to the 1929 stock market crash. Fish-Harnack toured the U.S.S.R., showing interest in the Soviets' equal treatment toward women.

But Harnack rejected overtures from the Soviets to become a full-fledged spy, refusing to take orders from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Instead he insisted his work was for the betterment of Germany, according to the documentary.

Federal records Waldinger got through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the U.S. government suppressed the story of the couple's attempts to aid the United States, instead just going along with Gestapo and communist propaganda.

A school in East Germany was named in Fish-Harnack's honor under Soviet rule. That school decided to retain the name after the Iron Curtain fell and it was revealed that Fish-Harnack helped more than just communists.

Little-known story

In early research, Waldinger learned Sept. 16 — her birthday — actually is Mildred Fish-Harnack Day in Wisconsin, though only a few schools observe it.

Milwaukee civil rights attorney Art Heitzer pushed for the state Legislature to honor her, which it did in 1986.

However, Waldinger had a difficult time finding out much about her.

The Wisconsin State Historical Society had nothing, and he could find only information about her early years in Milwaukee. He had to travel much farther to learn about her years as a Nazi resistance fighter.

Waldinger made six more trips to Germany during his research, visiting places Fish-Harnack had worked, combing through archives and searching for more clues to her story.

"One day on my own, I set out and walked in her footsteps," he said.

The German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin had a small exhibit about her and her story.

Fish-Harnack did leave "a trail of bread crumbs" behind with relatives, Waldinger said, including 54 pages of a semi-autobiographical novel that tells part of her life story.

Some records still prove elusive or incomplete.

"Information of the second trial she had has never been found," Waldinger said.

Waldinger sent 19 Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Army, CIA, FBI and other federal agencies. Even though she'd been dead for almost seven decades, some of the records related to Fish-Harnack had sections redacted.

On a family trip to Washington D.C., Waldinger even took some time to look for records at a school Fish-Harnack had visited.

During Waldinger's research, a couple of authors wrote books on the Berlin resistance that included her and her husband. There are efforts in Milwaukee to get a school named after her.

Waldinger had produced television programs for broadcast stations in Minneapolis, Green Bay and Madison before landing a job at Wisconsin Public Television about four years ago in Madison.

Aside from his personal time, Waldinger said the project took a lot of persistence but it was satisfying.

As he learned more and more, he found Fish-Harnack's story was one worth telling on the pure merits of what she risked for what she believed was right.

"She made this moral decision that she wasn't going to stand by and do nothing," he said. "When push came to shove, she could've stayed home. I don't know if a lot of people would've made that decision if their life was on the line."

andrew.dowd@ecpc.com

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