Note regarding comments

I love comments. I enjoy debate. I welcome both praise and thoughtful criticism. However, I've had to change comments-permissions to require self-identification. No more anonymous messages, please!

Monday, July 27, 2009

"A Lion, but No Lionization"

Fifteen years ago this week, I started the White Rose journey. The way I first read (and told) their story, it was all about Hans and Sophie Scholl. Others played very minor, very supporting roles.

And their haloes remained intact.

Over time, I learned that Hans and Sophie were not the White Rose. They were not even its leaders - neither morally nor psychologically. And the haloes of all those involved were at best tarnished. More practically seen, those haloes were nonexistent.

In 2002 I coined a phrase to express the reality of the White Rose: Sie waren keine halb-Goetter, they were no demigods. It's a phrase that has been lifted (without attribution, oh sigh) by a handful of writers who share this perspective. But more often than not, it's a phrase that has been totally ignored, if not outright rejected by those who must have haloes on their heroes.

The July 27 issue of Newsweek reminded me all over again why the whole story is important, and not the legend that malnourishes so many college sophomores.

Jon Meacham mused on the legacy of Ted Kennedy, noting that his forty-year struggle for affordable health care may finally come to fruition, even as Kennedy himself is dying. Meacham writes that Kennedy's fight for this noble cause should be told in context, that the whole man should be seen. The man whose conscience was pricked by families who could not afford the chemotherapy his young son benefited from in 1973, and the man who had no conscience when it came to Mary Jo Kopechne.

Meacham's closing paragraph is worth quoting in its entirety, as it applies to the White Rose, to Valkyrie, to the Red Orchestra, and others who resisted Hitler and the Nazis over sixty years ago. As well as to those who are not demigods who continue the good fight against injustice and intolerance well into the 21st century.

It is fair, then, to note that when Kennedy calls health-care reform "the cause of my life," he is talking about a life that is hardly a model of sobriety and statesmanship. The important thing, though, is that it is a life that has included the sober and the statesmanlike. The complexity of Kennedy's legacy—the good and the bad, the political achievements and the personal disasters—makes him an accessible, human figure, and a strangely inspirational one. For if Ted Kennedy can successfully battle demons and drink, conquering selfishness just enough to work through the decades for causes other than the satisfaction of his own appetites, then the rest of us can, too. One can be a lion without being overly lionized. Whatever happens to health care in 2009, an appreciation that frail and fallen men can do good things will be among the legacies that Ted Kennedy will leave us—and that his successors in the Senate should bear in mind, whichever desk they are assigned.

Perhaps one day, the White Rose story will receive the same treatment. From more than just a handful of us.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Remembering on July 13

We recognize that February 18 and February 22 will likely always be the dates associated with White Rose resistance. We've tried to emphasize other significant events and realign the stars, as it were. But it's a quixotic endeavor.

Therefore, although we have partially given up and yielded to the desire to celebrate the end of the White Rose (which is essentially what happens with the February dates), we won't stop reminding our readers why the other dates are central to the notions of informed dissent and civil disobedience, as seen in the example of the White Rose.

For narrative to that end, see the post directly below this one. It is lifted directly from Chapter 63 of Volume II of my White Rose histories.

As wonderful and heartrending as this part of the story is, there's nothing like hearing Clara Geyer narrate it live and in person. Or reading her husband's accounts of that day. Or holding a copy of the letter Dr. Deisinger wrote the Schmorell family immediately after the war, and sensing the greatness of Alex Schmorell's heart.

So, here's to you, Alex and Professor Huber, whose lives were cut short this day in 1943, but whose Life could not be extinguished. And here's to you, Manfred and Harald and Josef and Wilhelm, who survived to bear witness to the actions of your younger friends. And here's to you, Clara, Josef, Erika and Karl, who stood by your friends when they needed you most.

And here's to you, dear Gisela, who on this day discovered your backbone and found redemption.

Your memories are for a blessing. To all of us.

Excerpt from White Rose History Vol. 2, July 13, 1943... The Trial. The Executions.

On July 13, 1943, Clara Geyer had taken the earliest train out of Ulm – together with both Josef and Erika Rieck, of course. By 9 am, they were sitting in the courtroom. This was the first time she had heard that Judge Freisler was not involved, that the trial would take place in a Special Court with Judge Schwingenschlögl presiding. Someone whispered that this judge was “human.” She could only hope.

Whoever passed along that “secret” was badly mistaken. In December 1941, a Polish youth named Boleslaw Buczkowski had been arrested for defending himself when attacked by the farmer he worked for. The farmer had accused the youth of stealing an apple and had hit him. Buczkowski retaliated and gave the farmer a cut over his eye. The Polish youth – who had just turned seventeen – fled into the forest and foolishly admitted to someone that he wished he could set the man’s farm on fire.

Four months later, a judge sentenced Buczkowski to eighteen months in prison. During sentencing, the judge justified the stiff judgment by stating, “With the Poles, only a harsher sentence seemed to achieve the usual goals of punishment meted out.”

The District Attorney’s office in Munich was horribly upset by what they perceived to be too mild a sentence. They appealed to Judge Schwingenschlögl, who re-opened the case in August 1942. In the new trial, the youth was given a death sentence. Schwingenschlögl de­creed that the Pole’s execution be announced throughout the greater Munich area by means of 410 placards. His family was prohibited from claiming his remains, and his farewell letters were destroyed.

If Clara Geyer had known that about Judge Schwingenschlögl, she would not have been as happy that Judge Freisler was not sitting on the bench. As it was, she believed they had been “very fortunate indeed.” And – she noticed that she and Erika were the only women in the courtroom.

Judge Schwingenschlögl was assisted by District Court Counsel Boller and Dr. Eder. Dr. Hohmann acted as prosecutor, and there was no court clerk. Dr. Reisert, a good friend of the Geyer family, had gained permission to represent all four defendants. The judge read the indictment into the court record. The defendants were accused of credible knowledge of a treasonous activity and failure to report same. The prosecutor did not try to make a case for aiding and abetting etc.

The judge questioned each defendant individually. First Söhngen, then Eickemeyer, followed by Geyer, with Dohrn last. Clara stated that her husband “gave the best answers out of all of the defendants.”

Schwingenschlögl grilled Geyer about his religious beliefs. Why are you a fanatical Catholic, he wanted to know. Geyer responded that he was not a fanatical Catholic. “A fanati­cal Catholic is never a good Catholic.” – “Why then do you go to church every Sunday?” said the judge. – “Because I must set a good example for my children,” replied Geyer.

The prosecution then called in Gisela Schertling, specifically to testify against Wilhelm Geyer and Josef Söhngen. “We all held our breath,” said Clara, “because everything hung on her statement.”

To their shock and voiceless ecstasy, Gisela recanted everything she had said in her Gestapo interrogations. She spoke in favor of Wilhelm Geyer and bore witness on his behalf.

The prosecutor was caught completely off guard by this development. He tried to undo the harm her testimony was wreaking on his case by introducing facts not in evidence. The judge would have none of it. If it was not already in the files, Schwingenschlögl told Dr. Hoh­mann, he could not mention it now.

Addressing Gisela directly, the judge inquired, “Do you have anything to say regarding the Gestapo reports?” When Gisela said she did not, the judge started to dismiss her. “Then I have no further questions for you.”

Söhngen saw his opportunity and took it. He jumped up and said, “But I have some questions.” He would never forget the expression on Gisela’s face when she turned to look at him. “It was immediately clear that I had won,” he said.

The judge permitted the defendant Söhngen to cross-examine Gisela Schertling. She recanted every last bit of her statements made in Gestapo custody. Without hard copy of those transcripts, Dr. Hohmann was hard pressed to prove that she had said what Agent Beer claimed she had said. The February 16 meeting between Hans Scholl and Josef Söhngen? It never happened.

It is easy to see why Clara Geyer thought they had gotten a good judge. Söhngen remembered that while he was questioning Gisela, Schwingenschlögl would occasionally interrupt. “I think you mean to ask if…,” he would say, presenting Söhngen’s query in an even more favorable light.

When Söhngen finished with Gisela, Dr. Hohmann called in Karl Rieber to testify against Geyer. He had been present for Theodor Haecker’s reading, they reminded him. He should tell the judge about that treasonous lecture.

Clara Geyer laughed every time she thought about the sight of Karl Rieber in that Nazi courtroom. It was a beautiful, sunshiny day, yet he stood in court holding an umbrella under his arm. He could barely hear a single question the prosecutor posed. “How do you stand with regards to the Party?” Hohmann would ask. Party, party? And Rieber would cup his hands to his ears, straining to make out the words. “How do you stand with regards to the Party?” Hohmann would repeat. Finally Rieber grasped the question. “Loyal,” he said, following a tense pause.

Clara dug her fingernails into Josef Rieck’s arm to keep from laughing out loud in relief. She could not help but notice that even the judge fought back his own guffaws. “The pleased looks were contagious, starting behind the bench.”

Judge Schwingenschlögl read Clara Geyer’s letters to her husband into the court record. Her words sounded strange out there in public, unusually calm and trusting. This was not at all what she had expected. Things were going too smoothly. Well, hopefully not too smoothly.

Emboldened by the turn of events, Dr. Reisert petitioned the court for acquittal for all four men. They had surely done nothing to merit punishment. Their deeds were a far cry from anything deserving of the death penalty.

Around 4:30 pm – seven-and-one-half hours after the proceedings had gotten underway – Judge Schwingenschlögl called for a recess. Clara’s optimism and that of the four defendants rapidly dissipated with the words, “The verdict was to be handed down from Berlin by tele­phone.” So much for a human judge and hopes for a mild verdict.

However, the judge decreed that the prisoners were to be allowed to eat the food their families had provided, and indicated that they were to be taken to an adjoining room. “They were starving,” Clara recalled. Naturally, she had brought plenty to go around.

While they anxiously waited, hoping for an acquittal but ready for anything, the executions of Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber were just beginning. Alex went first. But not before spending a few moments with Dr. Deisinger, the attorney who was awed by the young man whose life he had been unable to spare.

“You may be surprised to find me so at peace at this hour,” Alex told Deisinger. “But I can tell you that even were they to tell me that another – say this prison guard here who has been assigned to guard me – if even he were to say that he would die in my stead, I would nev­er­the­less choose to die. I don’t know what else there could be for me to do on this earth were I to be released at this moment.”

Alex made Deisinger promise that when the war ended, if the Allies tried to prosecute Marie Luise for denouncing him, Deisinger must take her case. No harm should come to her. His attorney should make that clear to everyone.

Deisinger joined the others who had gathered to “witness” Alex’s execution on behalf of the State. Even the executioner was surprised when three SS officers appeared around 4:45 pm, bearing special permission to watch the prisoner die.

“I will never forget the conversation among these SS Officers and the magistrates,” said Deisinger. “They discussed when death occurred at a beheading and whether it were possible to make it happen slower or faster if they so desired. It was also noteworthy that the execution was delayed for a while because the three SS Officers and the executioner thought it necessary to discuss the age, set-up, and methodology of the guillotine.”

“These were terrible minutes for me,” he continued, “as well as for those sitting on death row. On the one hand, the idealism and moral greatness of a young person who was ready to die for that idealism in just a few minutes; and on the other hand, the ribald lust of subhumanity hungry for a glimpse of the death of a defenseless sacrifice.”

But the execution took place despite these morbid contemplations. Forty-six seconds after Alex left his cell, eight seconds from the time he was handed over to the executioner named Reichhart. “There are no incidents or other events of any significance to report,” Mr. Tiefenbacher would report to Berlin two days later.

Alex’s clear and loud “Yes” – when asked if he were the prisoner Alexander Schmorell – remained inside Dr. Deisinger’s head for a very long while. That room was so oppressive. His young client, so terribly free. “I left that room shaken to the very core of my being,” said Dr. Deisinger.

“When I entered the prison hallway, I passed Professor Huber’s cell. He was the next sacrifice who was to be presented to that Moloch Hitler. And he was also being led from his cell, as he called out a final farewell to the prison chaplain, an ‘I’ll see you in a better world.’"

Mr. Tiefenbacher may have reported that nothing of significance happened, but the Catholic prison chaplain told a different story. When the executioner’s assistant asked Huber if he were the prisoner Kurt Huber, he said yes, and “Shame on you!” Deisinger recalled what happened next.

The chaplain stood at a window in the hallway from which you could see over to the exe­cution room. Shortly thereafter, a hollow thud. We knew that Professor Huber had also sacrificed his life for freedom. The chaplain made the sign of the cross in the direction of that room of death. We silently shook hands and I left that terrible house of horror, left to tell the parents of Alexander Schmorell about the death of their son.

The news caught Hugo Schmorell and his wife completely off guard. No one had told them – or Klara Huber – about the July 13 date. In fact, Klara still waited for a response to her request for a visitor’s pass, received in Berlin only three days earlier.

At 5:20 pm, the Executive District Attorney sent a telegram to Berlin. “With regard to 6I (sic) 24/43G, matter taken care of today without incident.”

About thirty minutes later, close to 6 pm, “Eickemeyer et al” were re-called to the court­room. Clara said that Eickemeyer was still chewing his food. The judge did not make them wait long. Manfred Eickemeyer, Wilhelm Geyer, and Harald Dohrn were acquitted. There sim­ply was no credible evidence to show that they knew anything about Hans Scholl’s activities.

Josef Söhngen received six months in prison for failure to report the leaflets he had received – a crime that had even gotten the “girls” a full year in prison, and seven years in the peniten­tiary for Helmut Bauer and Heinrich Bollinger. Judge Schwingenschlögl ruled that Söhngen’s guilt could be mitigated because his failure to report had been due to negligence, not a conscious decision to hide evidence from the authorities.

Schwingenschlögl found it completely believable that “even Wilhelm Geyer” had not been initiated into Hans Scholl’s intrigues. The judge had developed a curious thesis, allegedly based on Gisela Schertling’s testimony that day in court.

All of the accused have been brought to trial because of their relationship to the traitor Scholl. According to their descriptions, Scholl was a person of above-average abilities, who was interested in all realms of intellectual life. Though he was only twenty-four years old, he was easily able to strike up an acquaintance with all kinds of people. He had a large circle of friends, which included older people as well. Scholl, however, appears to have been more reserved when it came to his treasonous activities. The circle of participants and confidants who have been arrested is relatively small.

The witness Schertling – though she was his lover – was not initiated into his treasonous activity at all. She stumbled onto it shortly before his arrest when she came across a large inventory of leaflets while visiting him in his room.

Except for Professor Huber, to whom Scholl was close, Scholl and Schmorell recruited and initiated only young people. This is possibly because they had hopes of greater activity from young people, or because they were afraid that older people would wrestle leadership away from them. It therefore cannot be assumed that Scholl initiated every acquaintance into his activities.

When court was adjourned, the party began in earnest. Fortunately, Wilhelm Geyer had warned his wife that they would have to spend one more night in prison. She therefore was not worried when they led him and his three friends away. Clara Geyer did not think it was possible to be this happy.

Nor were Clara and the Riecks the only ones celebrating that night. “Fellow prisoners romped,” her husband said later. It was unbelievable, simply unbelievable. Four men on death row, and three had been acquitted! (Dr. Reisert, who one year later was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt, told Wilhelm Geyer after the war, “You all obviously had a better attorney than I did.”)

Their outrageously high spirits were dampened, however, when someone said: Did you hear? Professor Huber and another fellow were executed today. While you were in court.

Wilhelm Geyer harbored no illusions about the outcome of the day’s trial. If he had not gotten the key and cigarette ration coupons back… If Gisela Schertling had not recanted her testimony… If the files had not gotten so screwed up… If Freisler had presided… All these “If’s,” and things could have ended differently for him as well.

For now, he could not figure out why things had gone so agreeably. He could not lose sleep over the reasons fate had dealt him one hand and Professor Huber another.

The only thing he knew, the only thing that mattered? Tomorrow he would hold his babies for the first time in one-hundred-and-one days.

(c) Ruth Hanna Sachs.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Logical Disconnects

Several years ago, a fellow who follows our work emailed me a link to a most bizarre Web site. There's a group of far, far right-wing extremists who decorate people who murder abortion doctors with a White Rose, in honor of Hans and Sophie Scholl. That's what their Web site proclaims, as unbelievable as it sounds.

I've often wondered if those ... people understand what White Rose stood for nearly seventy years ago. They haven't got a clue.

That makes about as much sense as the anti-Semitic Web site (which has since come down) that quoted Mordechai Anielewicz as a good thing. Somewhere, there's a logical disconnect.

In these days of Obama, when the KKK and John Birch Society are seeing their ranks swell with racists who are becoming ever more vocal with their hate speech, it's interesting to see what my daily Google alert for White Rose resistance brings me. Because a growing number of these haters bedeck themselves with the mantle and mantras of the White Rose. It would be funny were it not so sad.

Although the friends we call the White Rose were hardly of one mind in their politics and religious beliefs, and although a few - most notably Professor Kurt Huber - struggled with anti-Semitism till the very end, in general the students and adults we know as the White Rose advocated liberty and justice for all. They abhorred the murders of human beings for whatever reason. They promoted ideals that we associate with tolerance, compassion, and hearts that broke at the crimes their country perpetrated.

The far, far right wing wannabe politicos that wrap themselves in the words of the White Rose take those very words out of context. Instead of working for tikkun olam - repairing the world - they try to marginalize the Other. The very thing the White Rose worked to undo.

Alex Schmorell especially felt like an Other, neither Russian nor German. As did Christoph Probst, whose stepmother had been relegated to a no-class citizen, much as the KKK/JBS does to the Other in our country.

It is a terrible thing when we must rescue the good story of civil disobedience and informed dissent from the hands of those whose lives and words most imitate the oppressors during the dark days we call the Holocaust or Shoah. But rescue it we must.

Freedom and honor. Those concepts were abused for twelve horrible years seventy years ago. We must not allow them to be abused again.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy birthday, Aunt Lelia!

July 1, 1905, my favorite great-aunt was born. Aunt Lelia never married, so she adopted her great-nieces and -nephews.

Through her, we learned that women not only could do anything, but that we should set our sights far higher than we could dream. A financial whizkid, she earned fairly big bucks, especially considering that her salary was less than 50% of what a man in her position would have taken home.

Ethics, now that got her going. Her boss regularly dipped into the company till, and dear Aunt Lelia regularly made him put it back. Anheuser Busch thanked her for her ethical accounting practices and the way she kept her boss honest by refusing to give her the pension she deserved when she retired.

She would have loved Title IX and women's sports. One of the earliest members of Houston's YWCA, she could do anything she set her mind to. What would she have done had she had access to athletic competitions post-Title IX!

Her generosity knew no bounds. She frequently "loaned" money to nieces, nephews, and us, her adopted grandchildren, each time telling us to keep it under our hats, that she did not want repayment. But not to let anyone else know, because she was doing it just for us. Imagine how surprised we all were to learn after her death that practically everyone in the family had benefited from her secret not-a-loans!

Many times while working on White Rose materials, I find myself wondering what she would have thought about it. She died before we started on this research, so none of us ever had the opportunity to bend her ear, to get her opinion, to see her eyes light up at stories of people who died in the battle for liberty and justice.

Yet I know exactly how she would have responded. She'd have gotten a tear in her eye, one she would not have tried to hide. Followed by a loving pat on the knee. "That's good, honey," she would have said. "Let me know what else you find out."

And a couple of days later, she would have called to chat, having thought about the last conversation, with incisive questions to make me dig some more.

In this sometimes overwhelmingly difficult work, I believe sometimes I most wish for an Aunt Lelia to accompany us on the journey.