Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mildred Fish Harnack

By Mitch Johnson

The University of Wisconsin Hillel center just closed a moving exhibit on Mildred Harnack, the only American woman executed by the Nazis. I was lucky enough to see it on a recent visit, but if you missed it, there may be a second incarnation: a documentary is being made by Wisconsin Public Television for a possible release in the fall of 2011.

Mildred Fish was born in Milwaukee, WI in 1902, completed her Bachlor’s and Master’s degrees in English and Literature at the UW Madison in 1926, and became engaged to the German Economist Arvid Harnack at Picnic Point, also in 1926.

Mildred and Arvid moved to Berlin in the 1930s, where they eventually became part of an underground resistance network that the Gestapo named the Red Orchestra. Arvid passed sensitive information to the Soviet, British, and American embassies, and Mildred is believed to have done the same while a tutor for the American ambassador’s son.

In 1942, the Harnacks were arrested and subjected to secret trials with no legal representation. Arvid was hanged in December, and though Mildred’s initial sentence was for 6-years hard labor, archival records indicate that Hitler may have personally intervened in the case and ordered a retrail. She was executed by guillotine in February 1943. She spent her last day translating Goethe. Her last words were, “.. and I have loved Germany so much.”

I’m happy to know that people in Wisconsin are giving one of their heroines some much deserved attention.

There are some terrific photographs and documents at: There’s also a biography here:

(Any family members looking for last-minute gift ideas for me, take note!)

1 comment:

Rachel G. said...

I was lucky enough to attend this exhibit with Mitch and he summed it up beautifully. It was a very inspiring and moving piece. Mildred's relative (I think a great-nephew) made a tracing of the floor where she was executed and it was on display. I had never seen anything like that before and it was very striking. I would like to learn more about the Red Orchestra.