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April 12, 2015

Two Remarkable Women

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Traudl Junge was 13 years old when Hitler came to power. Having never known her father, her childhood was dominated by her tyrannical grandfather. Traudl describes herself as late in developing and raised to be subservient.  The Hitler Youth movement was her final preparation for adult life.

“I was a thoughtless young girl,” Traudl said when she was 81 years old. “I didn’t pay attention” (to what was happening in Germany.)

In 1942 she made her way to Berlin where she more or less fell into the role of one of Hitler’s secretaries. Her first impression of Hitler—outside the public events where he was roaring and gesticulating—was of “a kindly old gentleman speaking in a low voice and giving us a friendly smile.” He had a protective, paternal air towards Traudl who had always longed for a father.

For the next three years, Traudl lived with another young woman in their own apartment within the bunker, first at the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia and then under the Chancellery in Berlin.

In 2001, the year before she died, Traudl gave an interview.  She had spoken briefly for several documentaries made over the years but this particular interview was several years in the making.

“Hitler was considered a great man,” she said. “I was shielded from the megalomaniac projects and barbaric measures.  I thought I was in the center of information.  In fact I was in a blind spot.”

Blind Spot is the English title for Im toten Winkel, the documentary of Traudl’s interview.  She is a beautiful woman with wisdom and sadness etched into her face.  Every so often she takes a drag on a cigarette and blows it out of the side of her mouth, making her look very briefly like a street tough.  That is the only comic relief in an utterly mesmerizing film.

In the film she takes us through life in the bunkers, talks about Eva Braun, describes the death of the Goebbels’ children, the taking down of Hitler’s last will and testament, and finally the end of the war. After Hitler’s suicide “we were all like puppets when the man who pulled the strings had let go.”

“This” –referring to the Third Reich—“can really only happen when a tyrannical system is so well established that it can dominate the entire fabric of society.  And the Germans are good at organizing.”

In the bunkers, Traudl had been not only isolated from the world, she had been isolated from the war itself.  She spent about a year in a Russian and then an American camp.  She was “de-nazified”—whatever that meant– classified as a “young follower” and released.  Even in the wreckage of Germany she was amazed at the spirit of freedom she encountered.  The Americans especially were friendly and helpful.  The world wasn’t anything like what Hitler had warned it would be if Germany was to lose the war.

“I suddenly realized that none of it was true.”

That was the beginning.  She was still years away from connecting herself to the horrors of the war.  She felt no guilt because she hadn’t known what was happening.  But she took early retirement from her editing and writing work because of depression.

One day she came across the Sophie Scholl memorial in Munich.  Sophie Scholl was a 22 year old woman executed for speaking out against the Nazis.  Traudl realized that Sophie was executed the same year and at the same age that Traudl began working for Hitler.

“At that moment I sensed that it is no excuse to be young.”

It was at this point in the film—both times that I watched it—I had to pause and burst into tears.  Youth really is an excuse in many ways.  Children who grow up damaged and neglected will continue to be vulnerable to predators.   This will never change.

Young people will continue to die for their beliefs.  We can’t have it any other way.  Young people are the carriers of idealism and many will die for what they believe.  Either idealism dies or the world dies.

Traudl spent her 50 years after the war slowly awakening. She didn’t try to excise the young woman who had loved Hitler.  Instead she stayed connected to herself while she developed into her own maturity. In the last months of her life, she said, “I think I am starting to forgive myself.”

In a piece of atonement, whether it was conscious or not, the young girl who lived in a blind spot during the war spent her retirement reading to people who were blind.

Agnès Humbert was in her forties, a respected art historian and a well-off divorced mother of two grown sons when the Nazis walked into Paris. Her memoir Notre Guerre was published in France in 1946, caused a stir and then went out of print.  It was first published in English translation in 2008 under the title Résistance.

The book is in three sections.  The first is a diary of events as they happened in which Agnès recounts the development of the very first resistance cell.  Somehow this manuscript survived the war. The second section was recollected after the war and deals with her experience in prison and work camps.  It makes for very heavy reading.  The final part is again a diary of events as they happened just after the liberation of the town and the prison where Agnès ended up.

Agnès is funny, sarcastic, unflinching, and gutsy—all qualities I especially admire. Here she is in her first “interview” with the Gestapo:

“I was made to stand in the middle of the space as the Germans circled around me, looking me up and down with jerky staccato movements, screaming like lunatics all the while.  .  . the din was indescribable.  This idiotic scene, presumably intended to impress me, merely reminded me of all that was most surreal in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.  I asked a typist if she would be good enough to translate what the gentlemen were shouting at me, as if they were questions I should be happy to answer them.”

During one “interview,” Agnès sees herself in a mirror and comments that she doesn’t look at all bad after a month in prison.  “The exasperated captain orders the typist to inform me that I am not there for my amusement.  I reply that I have already worked this out for myself.”

And again: “I learn that I am not allowed any ‘privileges’ I am to be subject to a ‘regime of extreme harshness.’  Before he shuts the cell door he repeats, ‘No more privileges’ in what is evidently his most imposing and fearsome voice.  ‘Oh that’s such a shame,’ I quip, ‘especially since you took me to the pictures last week.’  He looks deeply affronted.  Really, these people have no sense of humor.”

Elsewhere Agnès comments that she could get away with this attitude at the beginning of the occupation.  Later on such a response would have brought on ice baths and torture.

I’ll skip over the years in the work camps; they were almost unbearable reading.  The time after the liberation was probably the most fascinating part of the memoir for me, I suppose because in my imagination everything comes to a halt after I see the American jeeps coming through the flower-strewn streets of villages. Then there’s nothing until I first travelled in Europe in the 1970s.

Agnès was in prison in the village of Wanfried when the liberators came through.  She and her friend Madeleine make the acquaintance of the young American left in charge who is in over his head and has the humility to know it.  Agnès dubs him St. George and the three of them set to work sorting through the chaos of the village.

Everyone—former prisoners and townspeople– needs food, most need medical attention, looting needs to be clamped down on, angry former POWs need to be pacified.  There is nearby gunfire because the liberation happened village by village.  Nazis are re-grouping in the surrounding forests.

A riot begins to brew outside a bakery.  The baker is refusing to sell bread to certain of the German refugees.

“Climbing up some low steps, I address the crowd of mutinous housewives.  How I long to hear someone, just one voice, asking what earthly business it is of mine; but these people are supine, they accept anything, whatever you tell them, just as long as you say it loudly enough.”

Agnès and Madeleine set up a soup kitchen and hospital for the unending caravans of refugees and displaced people and set German women to run it “confident that they are making a splendid job of it.”

Still it took the French women to get it set up and organized. Agnès and Madeleine tried to find out why the Germans had done so little themselves.  After much evasions and inconclusiveness, someone told them, “All our charitable work was National Socialist charitable work so we couldn’t carry on with it.”

Agnès lets loose: “Not a single one of these wretched halfwits had the gumption to help the refugees because for them charity came under the heading of Nazism; not one of the poor fools had the sense to replace the swastika with the Red Cross!  No, they all said they had to wait to be given the order.  .  .they had to wait for French women to tell them not to leave their fellow Germans to die from exhaustion and starvation by the side of the road.”

While I recognize Agnès’ exasperation and no doubt fury at the apparent helplessness of the Germans especially in the crisis of those weeks and months, this is the way traumatized people behave.  As much as I love to hate the Nazis, all Germans were not Nazis and they were a traumatized people. It brings me back full circle to what Traudl Junge says:

“This can really only happen when a tyrannical system is so well established that it can dominate the entire fabric of society.”

Traudl Junge, March 16, 1920—February 10, 2002.

Agnès Humbert, October 12, 1894—September 19, 1963

Two remarkable women.



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