Artists’ Doomed, Inspiring Resistance to Hitler

BERLIN — In early 1941, the anti-Nazi resistance group now known as the Rote Kapelle (“Red Orchestra”) communicated information to both Allied and Soviet forces about Hitler’s secret preparations to invade Russia. The members, many of them artists, also distributed leaflets calling on the German people to revolt, and helped Jews, deserters, and other dissidents escape Germany. 

The Red Orchestra did not bring down Hitler or stop the war. Their warnings about Hitler’s invasion, which began in June 1941, had been dismissed. Soviet authorities did not send an agent to make contact with the group until 1942. This agent transmitted a radio message containing members’ names and addresses from Brussels to Moscow. The Nazis intercepted the message. 

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Many acts of resistance that the Red Orchestra members carried out before their subsequent arrests in late 1942 were so small as to seem comically insignificant: sending each other poetry; flirting with strangers on the subway; making a dress. But a new exhibition in Berlin demonstrates it is precisely these small acts that are the Red Orchestra’s most enduring legacy. 

Visitors to Stefan Roloff: Bearing Witness — Red Orchestra Survivors Speak at the German Resistance Memorial Center through January 2, can watch videos of interviews conducted by the new media artist Stefan Roloff with 11 Red Orchestra survivors and family members. (The videos, in German with English subtitles, are also available online. Transcripts in German and English, with a detailed forward by Roloff, have been published to accompany the exhibition.) The stories they tell show the power of joy, creativity, and love in the fight against the compliance, fear, and silence upon which fascism still depends. 

Katja Meirowsky, drawing of a memory of looking for an arrested fellow-student (c. 1946)

Roloff, who has spent his career between Berlin and New York City, recently gave me a tour of the exhibition. His 2003 film The Red Orchestra, based on the testimony of survivors and previously closed archives, was among the first influential reconsiderations of the group, which grew out of anti-fascist discussion circles begun in the 1930s by two couples, Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen and Arvid and Mildred Harnack

During the Cold War, East Germans celebrated the group as early Communist heroes, while West Germany excoriated them as traitors who merely wanted to replace Hitler with Stalin. Both sides accepted the picture drawn by the counter-espionage branch of the SS, which had given the group their derogatory code name during their investigation: “red,” for their alleged Communism, and “orchestra” because they operated secret wireless transmitters that were known as “pianos.” Many survivors defiantly adopted this name after the war when for the first time they learned the identities of other members of what had been a decentralized, loosely linked network. But, as Roloff and other researchers have now convincingly demonstrated, Red Orchestra members did not all agree about Communism. Their visions of the political future differed. They agreed only that the Nazi present was intolerable. 

Like many who lead resistance groups, the Harnacks and Schulze-Boysens were consumed by an idealism that can seem alien in its self-mythologizing intensity. It is a pity that we can understand so little of the inner life of someone like Mildred Harnack, an American who married a German exchange student and ended up passing information to the American embassy through the schoolboy son of a diplomat during tutoring sessions. He crossed Berlin with the papers hidden in his socks. (Rebecca Donner, Harnack’s great-grand-niece, wrote a book reconstructing what she could of her life.) Fortunately, Roloff’s exhibition concentrates on the more human stories of those drawn to the Red Orchestra by their refusal to conform with fascist authoritarianism (or, in some cases, with any authority at all). 

Stefan Roloff in the exhibition (photograph by Eva Mueller)

One of these individualists was Roloff’s own father, the concert pianist Helmut Roloff. After moving to Berlin in the late 1930s to continue his piano studies, he met an anti-Nazi dentist named Helmut Himpel. Himpel was secretly treating Jewish patients who were banned from visiting “Aryan” dentists. The Aryanization laws also meant that Himpel could not marry his half-Jewish fiancé, Maria Terwiel

In his interviews, Roloff explains that his own resistance to the Nazis grew not out of political theory but out of friendship. During the first round of Aryanization laws, in the mid-1930s, he was a student in Leipzig. Nearly every evening, he ate dinner with the family of his professor. One night, the old woman who worked as their maid was gone. Roloff’s professor explained that the new laws prohibited her from working for a Jewish man, lest he harass her. Roloff thought that forcing an esteemed professor to fire a probably otherwise unemployable woman was nonsensical.

Himpel turned Roloff’s thoughts into action by introducing him to the Red Orchestra. Roloff helped type and distribute copies of their anti-Nazi leaflets. Written collaboratively, the leaflets were signed “AGIS”; the Spartan king Agis IV was strangled in prison, along with his wife and mother, after trying and failing to reform Sparta. 

In fall 1942, more than 120 Red Orchestra members were arrested. The oldest was 83, the youngest only 16. More than a third were women. Members came from all social classes, ranging from aristocrats to laborers. By early 1943, 65 of these men and women would, like King Agis, lie dead in prison with their lovers and family members. Hitler ordered the women guillotined and the men hanged from meat hooks by piano wire, to make their deaths slower.

Childhood photograph of Helmut Roloff (c. 1920)

Shortly before his arrest, Himpel had given Roloff a locked suitcase. A few days later, the Gestapo burst into Roloff’s apartment, found the suitcase under his piano, and broke its lock with a pair of pliers. Inside was a radio transmitter. 

Roloff hoped only to die without condemning anyone else. Since he knew the authorities already had Himpel, Roloff admitted he had received the suitcase from him but claimed he hadn’t known what was inside. He said he knew Himpel only as a fellow music lover — one he visited because he had a good record collection. Himpel must have confirmed this story in his own interrogations, because while both he and Terwiel were sentenced to death, Roloff was freed. The last time they saw each other, in the prison’s exercise yard, Himpel whispered, “You will become a great pianist.” 

Roloff’s story about listening to music with Himpel was not a complete falsehood. Red Orchestra members threw parties, where they played Bach and read Brecht. They danced at each other’s weddings. They took trips to the countryside to picnic and paddle around on folding canoes. (Of course, part of the attraction was the absence of eavesdropping informants in the middle of a lake.) 

Yet even friendship could be dangerous in Nazi Germany. Participating in a conversation critical of Hitler was grounds for imprisonment or worse. But the ability to talk to each other freely must have been a crucial part of the group’s attraction at a time when even acknowledging the bare facts of Nazi cruelty could take more courage than many Germans had. 

One such example comes in the interview with Karin Reetz, who recalls seeing a burning synagogue from an elevated S-Bahn train in Berlin on what would become known as Kristallnacht, in 1938. “Why, why does it burn and nobody is there?” Reetz, then 14 years old, asked her fellow passengers, but “everybody saw it and nobody said anything.” Sanity falters when you think you are the only one who sees. No wonder that Reetz, along with her parents and sister, became involved in the Red Orchestra’s resistance. 

Mietje Bontjes van Beek, drawing documenting encounter with French POWs at the Westkreuz station (1941)

The entire family was arrested in 1942. Reetz and her sister were interrogated but released. Her mother was imprisoned and her father executed. Reetz, who studied sculpting after the war, explains that “fear of the Nazis hasn’t left me, not even today.”

The sense of risky but revelatory friendship the Red Orchestra members offered to one another — the way they saved each other from being stifled by silence — comes across most clearly in the story of Katja Meirowsky, who began studying painting at the Berlin University of the Arts in 1938. In her interview, Meirowsky explains that it was easy enough to tell which of the art students might become friends: when they were forced to give the Nazi salute as they listened to Hitler’s speeches, she could see that “this one raised their hand and that one just pretends.” Around the pretenders, she was safe if she “ever [felt] like making a Hitler joke.” (Once, she misjudged. After she was denounced by another student, she arrived at her interrogation in borrowed silk stockings and high heels. The Gestapo officer released her on the condition that she get some fresh air by taking a sail with him on the Wannsee.)  

Meirowsky met fellow student Cato Bontjes van Beek one day when she came through the revolving door into the lobby wearing a red dress. “My God, there’s the revolution in person,” Bontjes van Beek said. Meirowsky explained that she had been walking with another student as Hitler addressed the nation on his birthday. “You heard him scream but the streets were empty,” because no one else dared be seen not listening to their radios. Enraged, the other student ripped down one of a row of giant Nazi flags. Meirowsky stuffed it into her bag. At home, she cut out the swastika and sewed the rest into a dress.

Bontjes van Beek soon recruited Meirowsky into the Red Orchestra. Meirowsky began lending her studio to some people the group helped flee the Nazis, providing a night or two of shelter in a chain of refuge that stretched to the Polish border. Bontjes van Beek told her to remember the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. When a man rang the bell and introduced himself as Hans, or a woman as Gretel, Meirowsky was to open her door.

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When Meirowsky’s friends were arrested, she herself fled to Poland. She became a painter and performance artist, but such was the trauma of the war, and the unfavorable portrayal of the Red Orchestra afterwards, that she had not spoken publicly about her experience until Roloff tracked her down in 2006. (He writes in his forward that even then, in her 80s, “you couldn’t spend an evening with her without drinking less than six to eight gin and tonics” — and that her hair was highlighted with red streaks. She was still the revolution in person.)

Cato Bontjes van Beek, Heinz Strelow, and Katja Meirowsky in Berlin

The Red Orchestra members wanted “to infiltrate Germany with a tiny bit of humaneness, trying to preserve it for another time,” as Bontjes van Beek’s brother puts it in his interview. Kindness is a fire that must always be fed. The Red Orchestra members were prepared to feed it with their lives. 

Cato Bontjes van Beek and her younger sister, Mietje, began passing notes to French prisoners of war when they realized they were being transported to forced labor sites on the public train system. Any contact with foreigners was forbidden, but as Mietje, then also an art student, explains in her interview, when “life was a powder keg,” this exchange of small flirtations became necessary for their survival, because “it was joy.” 

The Frenchmen, who were being worked to death, warned the girls to burn the notes they wrote in return. “Like us,” one prisoner told Mietje, “the letters end up in the fire.” But when Mietje fell ill with pleurisy and went to her family’s village to recover, she brought the letters and her drawings documenting the exchanges, rolled them up in a bottle, and buried it in their garden. Copies of some of these buried sketches are on display at the exhibition. Mietje was still in the countryside when the authorities began their investigation, trailing members named in the intercepted radio message to find their associates. Thus, she survived. After the war, she became a painter.

Cato Bontjes van Beek was arrested. Even in prison, she continued to seek out the beauty of human contact. Rainer Küchenmeister, the youngest arrestee, fell in love with her. Küchenmeister had attended Red Orchestra discussion groups with his father, a Communist so determinedly anti-Nazi that, after barbers were commanded to give only crew cuts, he ordered a newly invented electric razor from Switzerland to cut his family’s hair “so we still looked like humans,” as Küchenmeister recalls in his interview.

Küchenmeister describes the courage of the Red Orchestra women, who were held in a hastily constructed ward a floor above him. After she received her death sentence, one woman asked to visit the dentist, so she could “die with perfect teeth.” Another told the judge, “I will go laughingly.” But it was Bontjes van Beek whom Küchenmeister calls “life-preserving.” She smuggled him some of the small books by Goethe and Hölderlin her family was allowed to send to her. She whistled and hummed for him, including “Solveig’s Song” from Edvard Grieg’s opera Peer Gynt. In one of their exchanges, Küchenmeister informed Bontjes van Beek of his “irrevocable decision” to paint her: “Cato, I won’t paint you the way I saw you but just the way I felt you.” 

Katja Meirowsky, drawing of a memory of trying to hide Red Orchestra member Heinz Strelow from the Gestapo (c. 1946)

Bontjes van Beek wrote back, telling him to “keep living, dear Rainer, seek beauty in art and in every person.” Küchenmeister kept this note, which he calls “my motivation,” wrapped in waxed paper in his waistband for the years he spent in a Wehrmacht penal battalion after his arrest. Bontjes van Beek, 23 years old, died under the guillotine in August 1943. In a last letter to her family, she insisted that they “mustn’t think of me crying, because my joy always wins.”

Küchenmeister kept his promise, becoming a painter after the war and portraying Bontjes van Beek “the way I felt her. Well, the way you love someone who disappears.” Stefan Roloff notes that many of Küchenmeister’s paintings feature abstracted figures, still recognizably human, but lacking hands and faces. 

Roloff began interviewing his father about the Red Orchestra in 1998 and continued to ask him questions until shortly before his death in 2001. In their last conversation, Helmut Roloff no longer recognized his son. He treated him like a potential Red Orchestra recruit, during the dangerous moments of first contact, assuring him that “if you knew Mr. Himpel, perhaps I could almost call you a friend.” 

Stefan Roloff tried to capture some of the intensity of these friendships by constructing spaces resembling living rooms around each video screen in the exhibition, to recall the apartments where the Red Orchestra members met. Each space is decorated with a different flamboyant wallpaper, to signal the members’ individuality and the joy that ran through their resistance. Roloff left the spaces between these sketched-out rooms rough, like a forgotten construction site, to remind visitors that the Red Orchestra’s work remains unfinished. Fascism is still very much alive in our world. The fight against it can be more or less dangerous — but it must continue.

Cato Bontjes van Beek explained the way the Red Orchestra kept members’ identities hidden from each other to Meirowsky by telling her to think of “a stone which I throw into a pond. The stone makes circles, more and more circles, and in one of them you’re sitting.” I came away from the exhibition thinking that Bontjes van Beek’s joy was also still rippling out into the present. Resistance can indeed take the form of wearing a red dress, of cutting your child’s hair, of humming a tune. Resistance can look like any act that insists that individuality will survive even the most brutal repressions. 

Rainer Küchenmeister, “Large Figure” (1975)

Stefan Roloff: Bearing Witness — Red Orchestra Survivors Speak continues at the German Resistance Memorial Center (Stauffenbergstraße 13–14, Berlin-Mitte, Germany) through January 2, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Stefan Roloff.


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