Berlin 1930 and Wisconsin-born Fish-Harnack had just moved to Germany from the States with her husband, Arvid Harnack. She had met him at the University of Wisconsin and decided to move back to his homeland.
Just a few years before the Third Reich tightened its grip on the country and World War II erupted, she took up a post lecturing in literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
As unrest grew and war descended, fighting back against Nazi rule became paramount for both Harnacks. The academics joined the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi group, to work on helping to bring down the Third Reich government. The group helped to feed Moscow information about planned invasions.
One of Fish-Harnack’s roles was to translate and distribute speeches by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill under the noses of the Nazis in their capital. She also acted as a go-between delivering messages from her husband to Soviet agents.
In 1940 her husband tried to get her to leave Germany and bought her a boat ticket out of the country. But she decided to stay.
Goethe poems and death
Resisting was not a decision taken lightly. But for Fish-Harnack and her husband “their moral compasses were so strong that nothing could shift them away”, great-niece to Mildred, Jilly Allenby-Ryan told The Local. “It was impossible not to go against the regime without paying for your life,” she said.
And like many resistance fighters, their beliefs led them both to their deaths. On February 16th, 1943, Fish-Harnack became the only American civilian to be executed on the order of Adolf Hitler. She was 40 years old, and died alongside 18 other women that day. Her husband had been executed months prior, on December 19th 1942.
The court report stated she was guilty of preparation of high treason and espionage, and that she would be sentenced to six years in a Berlin prison. This ruling was overturned by Hitler, and she was sent to the guillotine – in the run up to which she would sit in her prison cell translating Goethe poems.
Trauma was not a topic of conversation
In her family past traumas remained long after their deaths. Jilly Allenby-Ryan’s father was living in Berlin as a teen during the war and she said he was close to his aunt and uncle, risking his own life for them. “He would run letters between different resistance fighters,” she said.
It was in her father, that the true tragedy of the Harnacks’ death resonated. He left Germany soon after and started a new life in Britain – where Allenby-Ryan still lives in Hampshire, south England. He never mentioned his aunt and uncle, choosing to ignore his past completely in what now, she said, would be considered a Post Traumatic Stress-type reaction.
Allenby-Ryan and her sister were drip-fed snippets of the story by their other great aunt, with whom they would spend summers. “The story was hashed up,” she said. “Not only was Communism not acceptable at the time, but it was a family trauma and it wasn’t a topic for conversation.”
A mother of two children aged nine and 13, Allenby-Ryan wants to keep the story alive. One reason being that, she explained, “a lot of children in the UK still think Germans are bad.” The swathes of them that stood up to the Nazi regime barely feature on British curriculums when youngsters learn about World War II.
“Our father’s uncle and aunt were brutally murdered, and we were protected from that,” she said. Never having met the pair, the journalist explained that she was more grieving for the people they left behind, her father included. “I would have wept long ago,” she said. “It’s a cathartic experience.”
Bringing the story to life
Allenby-Ryan explained that because the Harnacks were communist sympathizers, their story was tucked away as the Cold War broke out. Hailing the couple as resistance heroes would not have settled well in the West and it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that the story began to emerge.
Fish-Harnack only really caught the public eye a few years ago after Wisconsin journalist Joel Waldinger began researching her life. A detailed documentary followed which won a Berlin International Media Award for contributions to German-American understanding.
Waldinger played a vital role in Fish-Harnack’s overdue commemoration. “His passion for the story has brought it to life,” said Allenby-Ryan.
When they began organizing the event in Berlin on Friday, which is being hosted by the US embassy 70 years after Fish-Harnack’s death, Allenby-Ryan envisioned an intimate affair in which the family could begin to have closure. But interest grew and high profile German historians and politicians began to show interest.
As a family event, the ceremony “ranks up there with births, deaths and marriages,” she said, but added that the presence of dignitaries, including US ambassador John Emerson, did give credence to ancestors’ importance.
For Allenby-Ryan, one of the only surviving relatives of the Harnack family, the ceremony in is long overdue. She, along with her sister, have organized that her great-great aunt and uncle will be commemorated with a brass Stolperstein – cobblestone – outside their last address, Genthiner Straße in west Berlin.
The tiny brass memorials can be seen across Germany in front of houses in which victims of persecution during the Nazi regime lived. And although small, each plaque holds an individual name, honouring a single person from the millions of faceless dead claimed by the war.
“I will feel that finally justice has been done, that people will have recognized them properly,” she said.