Stadelheim, seventy-two years later is still up and running. It’s a prison in Munich. At the end of World War II, my mother watched from her cell the groups of children in the streets being taught to march and other martial tasks. My supposition is that when the Germans started losing the war, they brought their prisoners back home to Germany, perhaps to provide a bargaining chip when the surrender ensued or perhaps for show trials like those of Stalin . Perhaps they were just punctilious, just as they were about killing or imprisoning the Jews and other primary enemies of the Reich. Communists. And a heap of others: homosexuals, common criminals, gypsies, traitors (German resisters to the Nazi regime) and so on. If you read Mein Kampf you will be astounded by the sexual prudishness and the superstitious morality (blacks are inferior to whites according to Mister H.) of the nazis. Which didn’t stop them from wholesale genocide.
My mother was a French political prisoner. She had worked for a British/French espionage network at the beginning of 1942 and been arrested in mid-1942. Postwar records indicate that she may not have officially “worked” more than two months, but she continued to be listed as an agent after her arrest. She was employed — her “day job” — in the train station at Douai in the north of France, a railway hub, doing secretarial and translation work. But as an agent, she delivered to British handlers train displacement information, schedules, and carbon copies of letters that she typed as part of her duties for railway management. It was all small potatoes, she would later say. She delivered this documentation as requested by her liaison, a man she had met in a coffee shop at lunchtime and who in the best French outlined the risks of clandestine activity and the need for it. She led a double life for a short time before being arrested at dawn one morning and driven to the German command center.
Later records show that she belonged to the “Centurie” network of the Resistance FFC (French fighting forces under General DeGaulle). For her aid to the British and Free French, she later received certificates, one from the British Admiralty (Arthur Tedder, the Deputy Supreme Commander from 1943 onwards, a title which sounds pretty funny today) and one from General Degaulle, who shook my mother’s hand in Paris in 1946.
During the hours that preceded her interrogation in August 1942, the Germans gave her a bucket of water, a brush and soap, and compelled her to clean the latrines. It was standard procedure for the Germans, especially toward women prisoners — a way of softening them down before questioning and in so doing demonstrating their male domination. One oddball walked up to her and punched her in the stomach. It was the golden hour hour of the bully when inappropriate behavior went undeterred, but she said that on the whole the Germans were “correct.” An officer took her to a table covered with papers and she saw, as she told the story, that they had all the proofs — the names and identities of the members of her cell (which she didn’t even know, since she reported to the head of the cell only) and precise facts concerning the activities she had been engaged in. It was open and shut. They asked her to sign a confession, which she did (no use getting beat up for nothing), and was generally left alone afterward.
This was, according to my mother, “the beginning of the war” when the Germans in France still observed a semblance of protocol. For the next three years until her liberation she would be shuttled from prison to prison in the rusty cattle cars of the day — from Douai to Brussels, from Brussels to Essen, from Essen to Zweibrucken, and from Zweibrucken to Munich. Every day, she would get a bowl of watery soup and, if lucky, a piece of black bread. Outside in the larger world, the German advance would freeze to a halt by the end of 1942. The Germans would lose the battle of Stalingrad just as they had lost the battle of Britain. And other defeats were on the way. Undismayed, the most perverted Nazis such as Himmler, Heydrich, and Eichmann were in conference at Wannsee in January 1942, planning the murder of millions of civilians in specially-designed concentration camps. Heydrich would be dead in early June of the same year, killed by Czech patriots parachuted in from England. In her stone prison, Nelly Ringot, as she was then called (or Nellie, as her name is sometimes typed in French and German documents) thought enviously of the prisoners of concentration camps. They had sunlight and received mail like normal people. (She had no idea of the true horror of their conditions. Rudolf Hoess, the commander of Auschwitz in 1942 makes no secret of these abominations — for which he was in large part responsible.)
Yes, Stadelheim is still up and running in 2017. In May 1945, an employee of the facility writing in the name of the director prepared a statement to the effect that upon release the “genannte” (named person) Nellie Ringot was left without any marks (“war hier … und wurde mit ohne marken entlassen”). Apparently, she was released on the eighteenth of May 1945. The reference to physical marks, scars, debilitations seems somewhat self-serving. Photos of the time show a twenty-three-year-old woman with wild eyes. She refused to leave the prison before everyone else had been released. Not deprived of “esprit de corps,” group solidarity, obviously.
I have no records of what she did during her immediate post-Stadelheim days, but it’s very probable that she simply worked for the the liberation officials, American and British, translating documents and testifying as to what happened — the who, what, and where. The traitor in her cell of 1942 was easy to identify. He was the only one of the group walking around freely after the entire cell was arrested. She pleaded with the authorities to spare his life. That’s how she was. Catholic to the core, but free of fanaticism. She could forgive her enemies. In 1944, three times she was given civilian clothes and told she would appear the next day in nazi court and each time the night was filled with the sound of American and British bombs falling and exploding. And in the morning she stayed in her cell and was told to return to prison garb. (One of the bombs is now reported to have killed her probable judge, the henchman of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, and other German resistance heroes).
Did Nelly know about the Scholls? I can’t say. Did she know about the guillotine on the ground floor of Stadelheim? I don’t imagine that she could not know. There were plenty of executions in Stadelheim in the years when she was there. The prison has a peaceful look in photos of the time and no doubt it continued functioning because it wasn’t a place of sheer barbarity — a German Guantanamo. But it shared in a barbaric system of underfeeding prisoners and summary executions. Despite my mother’s survival, which was more of an exception than a rule.
So she was released about the time the Russians were converging on Berlin and that Hitler was taking his life. And she was reborn, fashioned of new clay, …
In the beginning of 1946 she was sent her to a hotel in Nice for two months of rest and relaxation, and to recover her normal weight (I have photos of her in Nice). A little later, in 1946, she was working in Paris for the MIS-X — once an English organization, part of the MI network, dealing with counterintelligence and secret operations in territories occupied by the enemy. The MIS-X had been turned over to the Americans, and they emblazoned their letterheads with MIS-X Detachment, U.S. Occupation Forces –in clear defiance to DeGaulle and the French who considered that they had recovered their country –and engaged in intelligence mopping up.
Mit ohne marken entlassen. Is the world that survived the Nazis a world “left without scars?”