“Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance” paints portrait of a virtuous life

By - Nov 7th, 2011 04:00 am
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In the state of Wisconsin, September 16 is dedicated to Mildred Fish-Harnack, yet many Wisconsin residents don’t know her story.

A new documentary intends to change that. “Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance,” produced by Wisconsin Public Television, captures the life of Mildred Fish-Harnack, the only American woman executed on direct orders of Adolf Hitler. It is a story of great love, fearless tenacity, and devastating martyrdom, all in the name of doing what is right in the face of great evil.

Photo from the German Resistance Memorial Center“She deserves to be honored in this state,” said Ulrich Rosenhagen, Religious Studies Professor at the Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions at UW-Madison, and one of the voices in the documentary. “She paid the ultimate price.”

The documentary chronicles Fish-Harnack’s life, from her upbringing in Milwaukee to her education at UW-Madison, where she would meet her husband Arvid Harnack, a German scholar. It follows her to Berlin where she spent her time working in Nazi resistance circles. Her involvement in the resistance effort would eventually lead to her capture, torture and execution by guillotine in 1943 by the Gestapo.

“It’s a Wisconsin story,” said Rosenhagen. “It’s an amazing love story.”

Rosenhagen lent his voice to the documentary by reading letters written by Mildred’s husband, Arvid. One especially devastating moment in the documentary occurs when Rosenhagen reads the letter Arvid writes Mildred right before he is executed for crimes of espionage and high treason.

Joel Waldinger, producer of “Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance,” discovered Fish-Harnack’s story while on a German-American journalism fellowship in 2006.

“What inspired me was, here is this forgotten daughter of Wisconsin who is well-known, has serious impact, and has a school named after her in Berlin,” he said. “Yet in our home state, she’s all but forgotten.”

Photos of Mildred Fish-Harnack from the German Resistance Memorial Center

Fish-Harnack’s story began in Milwaukee, and she always took pride in her home city.

“She went to West Division High School. She grew up primarily on the west side of Milwaukee. She more than likely played in Washington Park and became aware of Goethe and Schiller, these great German poets she grew up with. She grew up at a time in Milwaukee that was tumultuous, but it was also a really happy and invigorating time. It was the turn of the century, and one thing that Mildred Harnack always said is that she was really proud to be from Milwaukee.”

Along with husband Arvid and Harro Schulze-Boysen, Mildred led the Berlin sector of a resistance group called The Red Orchestra. This group, named by the Gestapo, distributed leaflets in hopes of civil disobedience and public subversion of the Nazis. They also shared intelligence with the United States about committed Nazi atrocities. At the time, many associated the group as communist sympathizers, believing that they also shared intelligence with the Soviet Union. This notion is not as strongly felt today, but in the height of Cold War fear, there was no official recognition of their sacrifice.

But on April 10, 1986, Mildred Fish-Harnack Day became a recognized commemoration within Wisconsin’s public schools. Even so, the day never gained the recognition that many who know the story feel it deserves, and this documentary aims to be the effort that eulogizes Fish-Harnack’s legacy and lives on to commemorate her courage and fearless spirit.

“Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance” premieres on Milwaukee Public Television Monday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m. More information can be found on MPTV’s website

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