[This memoir is being composed in bits and pieces as my research becomes more explicit and focused. I am also prepared to discuss events that were occurring concurrently to the personal events described. The death of the villains (the Nazis) and the distancing of war events by time allows for a frank discussion of them. Further, volunteer historians are piecing together the past in rigorous ways. The new information appearing in Wikipedia attests to this development. On the other hand, some confusion may occur here between big and little history. The “big” events don’t necessarily affect “small” ones. My feeling is that historical threads, thick and thin, skip and dance on the fabric of life like pebbles tossed on the water.]
Stadelheim, seventy-two years later, is still up and running. It’s a prison in Munich that was built in 1894 (which gives it, of course, 123 years). At the end of World War II, in the Europe of 1945, my mother watched from her cell the groups of children in the streets being taught to march and other martial tasks. Nelly Ringot, as she will be called here (and as she was called then), spent a year and a half, of the three years she spent in German prisons, in that well-populated tomb.
The following story derives from the personal records, mailed interaction with post-war authorities (Nelly’s home records), affidavits (proofs), identity papers, military papers (demobilisation, for example), and in essence two serious newspaper articles written about her. Walter F. Harmon published “Springfield School Teacher Was French Underground Spy,” a lengthy article in The Springfield Sunday Republican on March 8, 1953. The piece is the most thorough description of Nelly’s war experience, but there are other inputs as well, a shorter newspaper article (unsigned) in the same newspaper […] and a lengthy interview I held with her sister Bernadette (three years older) in 1995 — and circumstantial traces here and there of events and activities, as well as memories imparted to me, person to person. The mood of the times (mid and late 1940’s) clings to a collection of photographs I refer to occasionally.
* * *
My mother was a French political prisoner born in 1922. She worked for a British/French espionage network at the beginning of 1942 and was arrested in mid-1942. Postwar records indicate that she may not have officially been employed by the British and French more than two months. She continued to be listed as an agent after her arrest. There is some indication that she was active in aid to the British (hiding aviators) before recruitment and as early as 1940 during the invasion of northern France by the Germans. The fact that she was invited (approached, chosen) to participate in the “Centurie” network tends to point to her having a reputation for clandestine actions prior to her formal induction into the Resistance.
The formal Resistance begins, historians agree, with the arrival of “fighting French” in England at the period of France’s defeat in 1940 – 41. Splinters of the French army and some politicians (de Gaulle held a seat in the government of the Third Republic while maintaining his military rank, then of colonel, before the war; he was named general for his worthiness on the field of battle, actually moving in the right direction in his tank unit. “Colonel Remy” (pseudonym) later identified as Gilbert Renault built the Centurie network in France in 1941. This was the branch of the Resistance that inducted Nelly.
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.
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 abdomen. 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” towards her. An officer took her to a table covered with papers and she saw, as she told the story, that the Germans 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 shunted 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 by the end of 1943. 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 by the battle for England lost and the entry of the U.S. in the war, the most perverted Nazis — Himmler, Heydrich, and Eichmann — conferred in Wannsee in January 1942, to devise a plan for the wholesale murder of millions (Jews and slavs) in specially-designed camps. Heydrich would be dead in early June of the same year, killed by Czech patriots parachuted into Czechoslovakia 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 in 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 — in his autobiography of 1947, written before he was executed by the Polish.)
Yes, Stadelheim is still up and running in 2017. In May 1945, an employee of the facility wrote in the name of the director 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. The Germans bragging about not being monsters. 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, and was not deprived of “esprit de corps,” group solidarity, obviously.
Nelly narrowly escaped a Nazi sentence of death and summary execution. Even into April of 1945, the Nazis were making a clean sweep of their renegades: Canaris and other plotters against the life of Hitler were executed. As for Nelly Ringot, three times she was given clean clothes and told she would appear the next day in court and each time the night was filled with the sound of bombs falling and exploding. And in the morning, her court appointment was annulled; she stayed in her cell. The archives went up in flames, she would say. (One of the allied bombs is reported to have killed her probable judge — I’m guessing here — the henchman of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and a few other German resistance heroes.)
Stadelheim witnessed more deaths during the war than in peacetime, and not accidental ones… [New text continues here.]
I have no records of what my mother 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 a few 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 (I am guessing here) — a German Guantanamo. But it shared in a barbaric system of underfeeding prisoners and summary executions. Despite my mother’s survival, which was more 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. Actually, she was released close to three weeks after Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin. Three weeks also after the Americans entered Munich. And she was reborn, fashioned of new clay. She started a new life that led six years later to me; to my birth in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. But we are getting away from Stadelheim, the topic here. But we can explore what became of her immediately after her release. She worked for the Americans. She stayed in Germany for a short while.
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 (there are photos of her in Nice in March 1946). A little later, still in 1946, she was working in Paris for the MIS-X — once an English military agency, part of the MI network that dealt 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. Military and engaged in intelligence mopping up.
Mit ohne marken entlassen. Is the world that survived the Nazis a world “left without scars?”