Resistance Women - Jennifer Chiaverini


November 1942


The heavy iron doors open and for a moment Mildred stands motionless and blinking in the sunlight, breathless from the sudden rush of cool, fresh air caressing her face and lifting her hair. The guard propels her forward into the prison yard, his grip painful and unyielding around her upper arm. Other women clad in identical drab, shapeless garments walk slowly in pairs around the perimeter of the gravel square. Their cells within the Hausgefängnis of the Gestapo’s Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse headquarters are so cramped that they can scarcely move, and now the prisoners spread their arms and lift their faces to the sky, like dancers, like dry autumn leaves scattered in a gust of wind.

How many of them would never again know more freedom than this?

“No talking,” the guard reminds her, shoving her into the open yard. Stumbling, she regains her footing and begins treading a diagonal path between two corners of the high encircling walls, forbidden to walk with the others. She has done this ten precious minutes each day since her arrest two months before, and her stiff, aching limbs fall into the routine before she is conscious of it.

Deliberately, she holds her head up and takes long, steady strides in a false show of strength that costs her dearly. She has lost weight, and from the strands she finds on her bunk each morning, she knows that her once luxuriant blond hair has gone brittle and white. Coughs rack her almost constantly. Earlier that day she brought her hand away from her mouth and nose to find her palm spotted with blood. There is no medicine to spare for people like her, traitors to the Third Reich—although is it correct to call her a traitor, since she is American?

It does not matter, not to her jailers and not to the law, to whom she is American by birth, a dual citizen by marriage. To Adolf Hitler it matters very much that she is an American, or so she has been warned. And yet Germany is her adopted home, the birthplace of her beloved husband. It was because she could not bear to be parted from him that she had remained in Berlin even after the United States government warned its citizens to leave the country.

Arvid. Her heart aches as she imagines him languishing in a cramped, cold, dimly lit cell like her own, somewhere not far away, but impossibly beyond her reach. Their trial is pending. Perhaps they will be reunited in the courtroom, they and all of their brave, unfortunate friends in the resistance cell the Nazis call Rote Kapelle, Red Orchestra, for the illicit “music” they had broadcast to enemies of the Reich. How strange it is that the Gestapo considered them so formidable an enemy that they merited a sinister name, like something plucked from a spy novel—and yet among their diffuse network of writers, teachers, economists, bureaucrats, office workers, and laborers, they count not one professional spy.

They are ordinary people from every walk of life. Her dear friend Greta Kuckhoff grew up poor, earned her education, and is determined to provide her young son with a better life. Sara Weitz enjoyed wealth and privilege until the Nazis declared the Jews undesirable and robbed them of every civil and human right. Mildred’s heart aches as she thinks of Sara and the other students in their circle—brave, determined, idealistic, with their whole lives ahead of them, risking more than they can fully understand. Where are they now? Scattered, some imprisoned elsewhere, some in hiding, others fled to distant lands. If only Mildred could seek help from Martha Dodd one last time, but Martha returned to the United States after her father was relieved of his duties as ambassador. Even if Mildred could somehow get word to her impulsive, outspoken friend, what could Martha do?

A fit of coughing seizes her. She doubles over, clutching her shoulders to brace herself until the hoarse racking stops. When she can, she straightens, inhales deeply, ignores the foreboding rattle in her lungs, and resumes her diagonal path across the yard—

And almost stops short from astonishment. Another prisoner holds her gaze as she treads along the edge of the prison yard, her stricken sympathy plain for Mildred to see. The woman is too pale and thin to be new to the prison; surely she is aware of the grim consequences she will face if the guards see her regarding Mildred with such concern, after she has been set apart as a warning