This month, let’s meet Karlrobert Kreiten, a German-born pianist who held Dutch citizenship. Considered one of the most promising young musicians in Europe in the 1930s, Kreiten made his radio debut at the age of eleven, and would go on to study in Vienna and at the Stern Conservatory (today incorporated into the Berlin University of the Arts). After an acquaintance of his mother heard Kreiten make negative comments about Hitler, he was denounced to the Gestapo. On May 3rd 1943, hours before he was due to perform a sold-out concert in Heidelberg, he was arrested in his hotel and brought to the Gestapo HQ in Berlin (where the Topography of Terror museum now stands). After a ‘trial’ presided over by the notorious Nazi judge Roland Freisler, Kreiten was sentenced to death and executed, despite enormous protest, on September 7th, at 27 years old.
This month’s hero is the lawyer Hans Litten, who represented political dissenters during the Nazi dictatorship. In 1931, Litten subpoeanaed Adolf Hitler as a witness in a trial of a group of right-wing thugs. For three hours, Litten rigorously questioned Hitler on the legality of the National Socialist Party and on its violent practices, leaving him rattled. Following Hitler’s inauguration as Chancellor, Litten’s friends urged him to flee Nazi Germany, but he refused to abandon the activists who might need his legal assistance soon. Hitler’s revenge came soon: on the night of the Reichstag fire, Litten was taken from his bed into ‘protective custody’ and sent, without trial, to Spandau Prison in Berlin. After stints in several concentration camps, Litten committed suicide at Dachau on February 5th, 1938. He was 34 years old.
This month, let’s discuss Rosa Luxemburg, whose life was cut short by right-wing troops in early 1919. Born in 1871 into a Polish Jewish family, Luxemburg grew up to become a Marxist theorist, peace activist and revolutionary socialist who would go from the SPD (Social Democratic Party) to KPD (Communist Party of Germany). Alongside her comrade Karl Liebknecht, Luxemburg founded the Spartacus League to oppose Germany’s entry into the First World War, and would speak out vehemently against the country’s shift to the right during and after combat. On January 15th 1919, she and Liebknecht were murdered by the ‘Freikorps’, war veterans, many of whom would join the bourgeoning National Socialist movement. With the outbreak of violence on all sides out of control, the parliament would soon depart from Berlin, and assemble in Weimar as the eponymous Weimar Republic began – in chaotic conditions.
Since this month heralds the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Airlift (more on that below), the hero has to be Colonel Gail Halvorsen of the US Army Air Forces. On approach to Tempelhof Airport, Halvorsen’s signal of dipped wings was the alert for young Berliners to watch out for handmade parachutes stuffed with candy to appear from the sky! Other pilots soon joined in, and it’s estimated that ‘Operation Little Vittles’ would deliver 23 tons of sweets by air, via 250,000 mini-parachutes to the citizens of beleagured West Berlin. Halvorsen also orchestrated ‘candy-drops’ in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and more. Born in 1920, he lives today in Utah.
Otto Weidt (born on May 2nd, 1883) and his wife Else operated a factory employing blind and deaf craftspeople, many of whom were Jewish, in the Hackescher quarter of central Berlin. As a young man, Otto Weidt’s eyesight declined, though he would serve as a medical orderly during WWI. After becoming blind, he established his broom-making workshop, counting among his clients the German Army (Wehrmacht) itself! Otto’s connections allowed his business to be classed as ‘indispensable to the war effort’ and he used his status to bribe the Gestapo, obtain false documents for and provide safehouses to his Jewish workers, some of whom lived in hiding in the factory. Although the Nazis did eventually murder many of the workers, the Weidts did assist the survival of several, including Alice Licht (who subsequently emigrated to Israel) and Inge Deutschkron (a prominent Berlin-based speaker to this day!) After Otto’s death of natural causes in 1947, Else Weidt continued to run the workshop until 1952.
Georg Elster was a master craftsman living in the village of Königsbronn, who travelled to Munich in 1938 in order to attend the annual commemoration of the ‘Beerhall Putsch’ uprising of November 8th, 1923. There he confirmed his notion that concealing a bomb in a pillar behind the speaker’s podium would be the surefire means to assassinate the leadership of the Nazi Party. The carpenter and clockmaker returned to the city in August 1939, and spent over 30 nights concealed inside the Bürgerbräukeller tavern before he was satisfied with the concealment of his time bomb, set to detonate at 9.20pm on November 8th. Unbeknownst to Elser, Hitler had decided to cancel his appearance at the tavern, since war with Poland had already broken out – he relented, but instead on the planned two-hour ceremony beginning at 8.30, he determined to be present from 8 until 9. Bad weather necessitated that Hitler would return to Berlin by train inside of by plane, and he hurriedly completed his address at 9.07, departing alongside his entourage: Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, and other high-ranking Nazis. Almost all of the audience had left the building by the time the bomb exploded, thirteen minutes after Hitler left the podium. Elser was taken into custody that evening, transferred to the Gestapo HQ in Berlin and later to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau Concentration Camps. He was murdered by the Nazis on April 9th, 1945.
Dutch citizen, Willem Arondeus was gay man, painter, novelist and art historian, who did all he could to impede the Nazis in their occupation of Holland. He authored periodicals calling upon fellow artists and workers to commit acts of civil disobedience and to resist the occupiers wherever possible. Alongside others, including the lesbian musician Frieda Belinfante and Stedelijk Museum curator Willem Sandberg, Arondeus began to prepare false documents for Dutch Jews, allowing them to conceal their true identity. When the Nazis started closing in on the plot, Arondeus duped guards on duty at the Amsterdam Public Records Office and bombed the building, destroying countless files. He was among a dozen resistance fighters shot within a week of the attack, and in his last known words (a letter from prison as he awaited execution) he implored: ‘Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.’
Dr. Gisele Freund (1928-2000), Jewish artist from Berlin-Schöneberg, student at the ‘Frankfurt School’ of sociologist Theodor Adorno, considered photography integral to political activism. Freund first photographed her fellow socialist students to document their mistreatment by Nazi thugs. In March 1933, Freund followed her friend, sociologist Walter Benjamin, in fleeing to Paris, with strips of photographic negatives hidden under her clothes. She went on to live with the lesbian couple Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach, owners of the famous Parisian bookstore ‘Shakespeare and Company’. In 1947, Freund became the first woman to work for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography agency, Magnum, and would famously photograph Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, Simone De Beauvoir, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and the most elusive James Joyce. The USA denied her a visa for her leftist views in 1954, and she was ejected from Argentina after publishing photographs of Evan Perón bedecked with opulent jewels. In 1980, Freund became the first woman to receive France’s ‘Grand Prix National des Arts.’