Crowns, Crosses, and Stars
My Youth in Prussia, Surviving Hitler, and a Life Beyond
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: Purdue University Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
More than a decade has passed since I had the good fortune to meet a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued woman and was regaled by the stories of her distinguished family and the roles she and they played throughout the twentieth century. She spoke of her father, Ulrich Baron von Sell, trained as a diplomat...
Part I: They Even Closed the Candy Store
“There she is!” A muffled whisper at first, like the rustling of dry leaves, slowly swelled into an outburst of unrestrained joy on the deck of the Italia as the weather-beaten veteran of the seas finally neared her destination, the harbor of New York...
1. September 1914
Sweltering heat hovered over the German town of Potsdam on this late summer day when a black coach, pulled by four black horses, its curtains tightly drawn, came to a halt on the cobblestones in front of a modest villa with a little garden in front. The somber-looking vehicle...
Back in Potsdam, nineteen-year-old Augusta Ottlie Bertha Helene von Brauchitsch was ready to enter society, an occasion that would include her presentation to the Majesties in Potsdam’s Imperial Palace during the Annual Imperial Ball, the most exquisite social event of the 1910-1911 season...
The newlyweds moved into an apartment in the Neue Königstrasse in Potsdam. Housing was scarce in those days, and the couple considered themselves fortunate to have a roof over their heads—one they could afford, which was spacious enough to house three people (because without...
The tragic expression in Ulrich von Sell’s deep-set gray eyes was not only the result of the war. In the life of the thirty-five-year-old war veteran, grief and sorrow had begun early. His all too brief childhood ended on the day the sensitive eight-year old, small for his age, was sent to the...
5. My Arrival
The rat that Anna probably smelled even before my mother was not at all to her liking. A howling brat in the house? Diapers she would have to wash? On the other hand, there was the poor Herr Baron, who had lost all his brothers. So, she decided not to quit, but to wait, just...
I was two and a half years old when the family decided to bid Potsdam farewell and move to the capital. My father now held a position in the management of a Berlin bank, and the future was definitely beginning to look a little brighter. Our new residence...
7. New Men in My Life
On the day of my baby brother’s christening in our home, a flock of black-clad, elderly folk, groaning and gasping for breath, managed to climb all the way up to the third floor. Why, in heaven’s name, was there no elevator? Since they were not exactly laden with gifts, all they had to carry...
8. The New Pastor
On January 14, 1892, a son was born to Heinrich Niemoeller, who was serving as pastor in Lippstadt, a sleepy little Westfalian town with some thirteen thousand inhabitants. At baptism the little boy received the names Emil Gustav Friedrich Martin, the last one, by which he would be called...
On Pentecost Sunday, I succeeded in persuading my parents to let me accompany them to the grown-up service. I was now old enough and pretty tired of legends and fairy tales about sweet baby Jesus. Besides, on that specific Sunday, the pastor’s father, Heinrich Niemoeller from Elberfeld...
10. The Godfather
Having mastered the art of writing, I finally found myself in the position to do what I had planned for years, to inform my father’s employer, my little brother’s imperial godfather in faraway Holland, about me. So far he had ignored my existence, directing valuable gifts for Christmas...
11. The Third Reich Begins
Late in 1932, the riots organized by Hitler’s brown-clad storm troopers, called the “garbage brigade” by my parents, became even more blatant and obnoxious. It seemed as if they were already practicing what one of their favorite marching songs threatened...
12. A Pastor’s Growing Doubts
Within the first three months of the new regime, Pastor Niemoeller’s initial optimism was shattered, as was his naive faith that the führer would keep his solemn promise not to interfere in church affairs. With the Reichskonkordat of July 30, 1933, Pope Pius XI declared total neutrality...
13. Nazis on Parade
The charade of Potsdam had sent my father into a fit of rage. He learned that not only had the kaiser’s fourth son, August Wilhelm, attended the spectacle in his brown storm trooper outfit, but also his older brother, “Crown Prince” Wilhelm, nicknamed “Little Willy,” saluted the new...
14. Life in the Third Reich
Due to the new political situation, which demanded increased caution, our social life became more restricted. Unfortunately, this did not affect the regular invasions of family members seeking a cheap vacation in our spacious, vine-clad white house with the red window shutters and beautiful garden...
15. Royal Sons
Several times a year, a sleek sports car would roar down our quiet street, coming to a screeching halt in front of the house. “Little Willy” would emerge from the car, without a chauffeur and usually unannounced, an event that caused my mother extreme anxiety. His Imperial Highness...
16. School Days
Like vermin, the Nazi big shots had infested Dahlem’s stateliest residences, after the rightful Jewish owners were chased out. Behind high walls, embedded in luscious parks with swimming pools, these “prolet-Aryans,” a term invented by my father, were guarded by SA or SS with dogs from attacks...
17. Family Choices and Special Neighbors
It was around this time that my parents reached three important decisions. The first was to bring a governess into the house. More than my brother, who was well-behaved and polite by nature, I had definitely outgrown Anna’s authority. Growing up like wildflowers, roaming the streets after school...
18. Uncle Mirko
In 1934, a new term invaded my vocabulary and my life: concentration camp. I learned its true meaning in connection with Uncle Mirko. Not actually related to us by blood, the Russian-born nobleman and industrial magnate, a giant in stature, was among my father’s closest and most trusted...
19. Nazi Actions
On June 30, 1934, a bomb exploded. Hitler decided to put a bloody end to what was reported to him as an attempt on his life by his own SA. The instigator, the führer’s long-standing comrade Ernst Röhm, an extremely repulsive-looking individual and a homosexual, was among the SA members...
20. A Meeting with the Führer
For Martin Niemoeller, the year 1934 had begun with a rather interesting encounter on January 26, one that would eventually seal his fate. “Is Hitler really a great man?” In anxious anticipation, Else Niemoeller searched...
21. Problems at School and at Home
At regular intervals, I came home from school with news of a frightening nature. A course called “national-political instruction” was now taught on Saturdays by Dr. Kadner, a stocky brute, who had lately been parading around the school in his yellow-brown SA uniform, complete...
22. Uncertain Reactions
Despite the brutality with which the Nazis proceeded to tighten the screws on the Jews, few of them were able to interpret the handwriting on the wall. This, in Uncle’s Otto’s unshakeable opinion, would pass, and he steadfastly kept rejecting the urgent pleas by Aunt Edith’s son from a former...
23. Boarding School
My mother had long toyed with the idea of sending me away to boarding school. She came up with a suitable place, a private institute in Eberswalde, a bleak little town north of Berlin, where mainly daughters of aristocratic descent were accepted. In my mother’s mind, several birds...
24. My Meeting
One afternoon, a few weeks after my arrival, four of us girls set out to march into town on our way to the bookstore, accompanied by our chaperon, the chinless housemother. Passing an apartment building, we observed a big black limousine parked at the curb with an SA man at the wheel...
25. Pastor Made Prisoner
The pastor of Dahlem had continued to preach his inflammatory sermons to larger and larger crowds. During the last days of June 1937, he traveled to hold services in Bielefeld, Wiesbaden, and in the historic Paulskirche in Frankfurt where, in 1848, the National Assembly...
26. Triumphs of the Führer
Ten days after ridding himself of his foe Martin Niemoeller, an ecstatic führer proclaimed his native Austria part of the Grossdeutsches Reich. The country of his birth had “come home” to the Reich! Not quite under its own power, but with the helping hand of the Nazis, who, ruthlessly...
27. Prisoner 569
The news of Martin Niemoeller’s disappearance traveled quickly beyond the borders of Germany, making headlines in the Free World’s media outlets. However, it took four agonizing weeks of waiting before Else received the first note from her husband, a crumpled piece of paper...
28. Growing Up
Following my fifteenth birthday, my mother gave in to my nagging and took me to a beauty parlor where I received my first permanent wave. Monsieur Jean (his real name was Herr Krause, chief coiffeur in the Hotel Bristol) had taken a regretful look at my mousy hair, plain...
Part 2: Destruction Unlimited
“Murder,” she said, without lowering her voice, “they are contemplating murder!” Returning home one evening in the late summer of 1941, I was about to cross the hall into the garden, when my mother held me back. “Do not disturb them now,” she warned. Through...
30. Out of and Into School
After my high school education had come to an untimely end, just weeks before the war, my parents realized the necessity of removing me from the acute danger zone, fearing that Dr. Bach, the Nazi teacher and Gestapo informant responsible for my dismissal, might not be satisfied...
31. An Aspiring Actress
The entrance exam for future actors and actresses was scheduled to be held on the stage of the Berlin State Theater, and I had but a month to prepare myself. It was Ditte’s mother, the only grown-up who wholeheartedly approved of my plans, who rehearsed with me the parts that...
32. A Visit Home
On March 17, 1941, a bitter cold night, Adolf Hitler’s personal prisoner was awakened by his guards. He thought there could only be one reason: they were going to drag him to the gallows; executions often took place during the night. To his surprise, he was handed his own clothes...
33. Good-bye to My Godfather
On June 4, 1941, after more than twenty years in exile, Germany’s last emperor joined his illustrious ancestors. Wilhelm II of the House of Hohenzollern, who could trace his lineage back almost a thousand years to Burchardus de Zolorin, succumbed to cardiac failure, following several...
34. The Incipient Actress
In Berlin, under the superb mentorship of Walter Franck, I continued my studies, which filled my days to the brim. In the evenings, I would usually watch a performance from the wings in the Staatstheater and return by subway late at night. In case of a night air raid, carried out exclusively...
35. The War Comes Closer to Home
Before 1941 ended, our friends Otto and Edith Stargardt were evicted from their spacious home on Schorlemerallee in Dahlem. They were issued a new domicile on the second floor of a so-called “Judenhaus” (“Jew house”) right around the corner from us, owned by an elderly couple...
Within the Reich, shortages of all consumer goods were now more noticeable. This did not mean that anybody went hungry, because whatever was needed on the home front was blatantly robbed from the occupied territories, which were ultimately bled dry. Unrationed and in ample supply...
In spite of all difficulties, I had managed a trip to Heidelberg to visit my friend Ditte, still a student at the university. So far, nobody had reported her to the Gestapo as “half-Jewish.” She had moved into a tiny, shabbily furnished apartment, a typical student hangout, with an extremely inquisitive...
38. Rescue Efforts
After two years of intense studying, I passed my state stage exams with flying colors and was in the market for my first contract with a theater. Berlin being out of the question for beginners, I had to get used to the idea of leaving Berlin, my parents, and my friends. And Walter Franck. Over the months...
Danzig was intact, Danzig was historic, Danzig was beautiful. And I hated it at first sight. “In order to find out about an actress’ psyche, I have to see her bedroom,” said the General Manager of the Danzig State Theater, which did not amuse me. His watery, bloodshot eyes, with white eyelashes...
40. The Final Attempt
The humiliating defeat at Stalingrad in January 1943, ending with the surrender of what remained of the once proud German 6th Army by Field Marshals von Paulus and von Seydlitz, sent Hitler into a rage of hitherto unknown dimensions over such “cowardice.” This catastrophe...
At six o’clock in the morning on July 22, our doorbell rang. Four Gestapo officials had been delegated by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, after Himmler second in command of the SS and the Gestapo, to search the house and arrest my father. At the sound of the bell, I had raced to the radio...
A month after my father’s disappearance, Wipper summoned me to his office, an invitation I felt I was in no position to decline. As if nothing had happened, he told me that my father was being held at Lehrterstrasse Prison in the heart of Berlin. He regretted to inform me that, not having confessed...
43. More Illegal Activities
My mother decided to visit her son, now a private in the Wehrmacht, stationed in the small garrison town of Neuruppin. At this point of the war, civilians were not permitted to ride trains without special permits, certifying that their trip was of the utmost importance to the welfare of the German...
44. A New Career
Now unemployed, I found myself confronted with the appalling alternatives of either waiting to be drafted into the Flak or being sent to a factory. I did not have to wait long, because the mail brought the notification to report at once to a certain Flak station in Berlin. Only a miracle could...
45. Thoughts of Home
The thought of my mother being alone and my father still waiting for his trial in his cell drove me almost out of my mind. So I decided to have a confidential talk with the commander. After listening to my story, he let me in on the secret that his family, too, had been hit by the Nazis...
46. The Prisoner of Dachau Receives Tragic News
The prisoner in Dachau spent his eighth Christmas in captivity, never knowing what the next hour might bring for him. He had no idea that he was, in all likelihood, Adolf Hitler’s most precious hostage, to be used as a pawn at the right time to the führer’s advantage...
47. The War Closes In
The people of Berlin groaned under the brutal assaults from above, which turned the once proud capital into a not so proud mountain of debris. The British Royal Air Force, with vast supplies of air mines on board, kept attacking at night. Only after such a device had hit its target did...
48. Last Visit to Dachau
On April 21, 1945, a Saturday, Else Niemoeller traveled from Leoni on Lake Sternberg to the Dachau Concentration Camp for the last time. It was the day after Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, which he spent in the Reich Chancellery bunker in the beleaguered capital of Berlin, surrounded...
With Dresden practically bombed out of existence on February 13 and 14, the last major target of the Allied air attacks had been Potsdam, the cradle of Prussian military glory where, in 1933, the established Christian church once permitted Adolf Hitler to disgrace the tradition-rich old...
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 25, two open trucks left Dachau Concentration Camp. The first one held the group of prominent prisoners; the second held their wives and children. Martin’s premonition had not betrayed him; they were taken out with the purpose...
51. Continuing the Trek
Every completed mile brought us a little closer to our goal, the American or British lines, promised by the light in the far distance. Would we ever reach it? Managing about ten miles in twenty-four hours, with the horses and the Russian POWs setting the pace, we made slow but steady...
52. War’s End
The battle of Berlin would officially end three days later. It dawned on me that I must have left only hours before the iron clamp closed around the city and its three million inhabitants. Steadily and forcefully, the gigantic Russian tanks, with thousands of miles behind them...
53. The Russians are Coming
The next morning I awakened to an uncanny silence, and it took me a few moments to fully recall the events of the previous day. I went downstairs and, peeking outside, immediately noticed the total absence of American soldiers, tanks, or jeeps. In the stable, Arabella gave me one...
54. With the Americans
The platoon under the command of young Charles Battaglia settled in the village, while the rest of the regiment spread over the neighboring county. Signs were posted outside the commander’s office, indicating in English and German that fraternization with the “Huns” was strictly outlawed at every...
55. Joining the British
On June 1, the American 82nd Airborne unit moved out of the area. Charles, my liberator, and I bid each other a tearful farewell, after which he disappeared in his jeep, leaving a cloud of dust behind him. This twenty-two-year-old boy with the guts of a Rhett Butler had left my life...
56. British Intelligence
My brother had begun to work as a farm laborer on the prince’s estate, which meant ample food and a place to sleep. In the fall, he planned to return to Berlin. In August, REME relocated to Hamburg, where my services as an interpreter were not needed; I saw myself faced with the necessity...
57. Return to Berlin
Only after my ultimate return to Berlin, in January 1946, would I learn the details about what had happened one day in July the year before. With the electricity out, my mother had answered a knock on the door to find an American officer outside; he wanted to speak to her. In mortal...
58. The Confessing Accuser
Martin Niemoeller, the führer’s only personal prisoner, was free, as free as anyone could be in the vast wasteland of post-war Germany, a defeated nation cut into four zones, like slices of cake. The former inmate of Sachsenhausen and Dachau now lived with his wife, the faithful housekeeper...
59. Surviving in Berlin
As time went by, little by little I learned what had happened one day in early May of 1945. Among the first Red Army soldiers invading our house after the fall of Berlin, there had been an officer who could speak and read German. After examining my father’s release documents from Nazi...
60. Help from Many Sources
Soon after the occupation of Berlin’s western sectors by the Western Allies, and with the help of Louis P. Lochner, my mother had been able to obtain what in those days could only be compared to a passport to heaven, the “red” identification card reserved for “Victims of Fascism,” issued to surviving...
61. A New Job
The first days of spring, so eagerly awaited, produced not only sweet-smelling flowers and green leaves on the trees, but also a revolting stench of sewage flooding the houses and even the streets, from broken pipes in baths, toilets, and gutters, until then mercifully frozen. But not even this calamity...
62. The News of My Father
Tom Atkinson went back to Berlin a few weeks later and told my horrified mother about my adventure. When he returned to Hamburg in the fall of 1946, he contacted John and insisted on talking to me personally, because the nature of the message that he brought from my mother could...
In the Soviet-occupied zone, the facilities of former Nazi concentration camps, like Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald, continued to be used after 1945 by the Soviet administration, which, after 1949, turned them over to the East German Communist regime. Falsely declared as places...
64. Interlude: Journey into the Unknown—July 1986
“Don’t ever go there,” my brother had warned me. He knew what he was talking about; he had been there. “You will regret it. There is no place to reminisce, to pay homage, or even to rest.” In spite of the well-meant advice, I knew I could not stay away forever...
65. New Sorrows, New Jobs
Sergeant Major Atkinson, the bearer of devastating tidings, disappeared from my life after that fateful day in Haseldorf. I never saw him again, even though hardly a day goes by when, if nothing else, the bump above my right eye reminds me of what happened during a night...
66. The Airlift
In the spring of 1948, Stalin had come to the conclusion that he was not satisfied with just a slice of the Berlin cake. He wanted to integrate the three Western-occupied sectors into his laborers’ paradise, by force, if necessary. Yalta or no Yalta, where the agreement to divide the German...
67. Cold War
At this precise point in history, with life well on its way to normalcy, efforts could and should have begun on the part of the Germans to deal with the past, their own guilt, possibly even with a hint of remorse, preconditions for a new beginning. But just then, a true miracle happened...
68. Discomfort and New Life
The realization that I would be doomed to live among people who had lost all moral orientation was more devastating than the duration of the Nazi regime. The once so close circle of friends, this small, death-defying community of human beings dedicated to resist and fight evil, had begun...
Part 3: The Promised Land
69. A Test Case
Through his gold-rimmed glasses, the white-haired judge focused on me with great intensity. His resemblance to Spencer Tracy was hard to overlook. “Madam,” he said, “as I understand the situation, the Attorney General of the State of New York has denied you the right to vote in the elections...
70. Living in America
Over five years had passed since the steamship Italia, sailing under the flag of Panama and groaning with old age, dropped its rusty anchor on Manhattan’s West Side. A mere six weeks after applying for my immigration visa, it was handed to me by the American Consul in Berlin. Due...
71. The New Yorker
I had been informed it would take me seven years to feel at home in New York. That might well have been true for anyone else; for me, however, it took barely two hours to know that this was my country, and New York was my city. Had I really lived somewhere else before? On the day...
72. The Today Show
Whenever arriving early enough at my job at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, I loved to sneak up to the eighth-floor studio to watch the tail end of the Today Show, which was shot between seven and nine o’clock, five days a week. Like most television shows in those days, it was done...
73. In Love Again
It all began in an elevator of the RCA building, where a man, evidently one of the network’s executives, would sometimes greet me with an absentminded hello, a nod of the head, or just a faint smile. Inquiring about him among my colleagues, I learned that the attractive stranger...
“Pay attention—look here, pass uff, watch me, dis is de way I want you to do it!” The lively little Hungarian-born man with the director’s hat spoke an amusing mixture of American English, Berlin slang, and Viennese. Jumping up from his chair, he proceeded...
75. Tragedies and Other Events in Europe
During the summer of 1960, part of which Marcus and I had spent exploring Greece and Italy with my mother, Anna had come from her village in the East to be with us in Berlin. Just as I had been “her” child long before, she experienced the exquisite joy of having another baby...
76. Events in America
My husband’s position as director of evening entertainment for NBC required extensive travel. Being in charge of casting for the shows he supervised, he soon found himself an irresistible target for all those starlets on their way to fame and glory, who would not leave a mattress...
77. Divorce, Despair, Deliverance
During my married years, I had begun to work for the American Friends Service Committee in downtown Manhattan. The Quaker organization, recipient of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, provided various interesting services, from establishing contacts between foreign students and American...
78. Back to Berlin
Six months later, the disarray of the move behind me, I had rented a little townhouse in Zehlendorf, and with Marcus now attending the John F. Kennedy School, I felt the time had come to make good the promise I had given to Martin—to visit him in Wiesbaden. Arriving at Frankfurt...
79. Life with Martin
What really came as a surprise was the realization that the man I had married actually relished the fact that his new wife was more than just a little different from the traditional image of a German pastor’s spouse. With a foreign passport, a decidedly different taste in clothes, favoring...
80. Under the Rug
With the realization that Hitler’s gigantic shadow still loomed over the world and particularly in Germany, where he and his minions had so badly disrupted my childhood, adolescence, and family, it did not take me long to realize the full impact of the devastating damage Germans had suffered...
81. Married Life
What was it like to be married to Martin Niemoeller? What was he really like in everyday life? Not long after our wedding, in reply to my stepson Martin, Jr.’s tongue-in-cheek inquiry about how I was coping with his temperamental father, I was ready to admit to him that keeping...
82. Martin and the World
Being received by such distinguished personalities as the Queen of England, the monarchs of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Pandit Nehru, and Indira Gandhi, deeply honored but did not change Martin’s way of dealing with regular...
83. Life in Germany
Getting used to daily life in Germany after years in New York turned into an exasperating experience. Everything was alien and most of it outright unpleasant, like the nightmare of shopping in markets that lacked most of the goods I was used to, from A to Z, meaning from avocados...
In 1968, student uprisings in West Germany shook the Federal Republic. Young people, thoroughly disgusted with the fact that universities still operated under archaic rules, first suggested and then demanded the removal of old Nazis from leading positions. Twenty years after the war, the faculty...
85. Film and Farewell
In the summer of 1981, our house on Brentanostrasse was converted into a film studio. Twice a week over a period of two years, the “Doc-Film,” noted for several award-winning documentaries, came for a few hours at a time to shoot what was to become a feature-length movie depicting...
86. The Work Is Finished
During the final phase of his life on Earth, a cherished companion other than Marcus, his lovely fiancée Claudia, and myself, was Lassie, a little long-haired dachshund who belonged to my English friend Bertha. Each morning the little animal was delivered to the house, and she promptly...
87. East Germany
Among those who wished to express their condolences during the reception following the memorial service was a delegation from East Germany, the so-called German Democratic Republic. A long-winded letter from Erich Honecker, praising my late husband, was handed to me by the...
88. New Beginnings
During the weeks following my husband’s death, thousands of condolence messages poured in from all over the world; it would take me eighteen months to answer them all. The Church of Hessen and Nassau offered to stick my notes into envelopes, address, and mail them to save me time...
89. A New Life
Through my friends Elsie and Fred Meininger, Jewish refugees from Wiesbaden who now resided in New York, I received my first invitation to give a lecture at their Upper Manhattan synagogue, Hebrew Tabernacle. After receiving the rabbi’s invitation to be the speaker on the forty-eighth...
90. Questions of Faith . . . and Answers
Almost three years prior to my appearance at Temple Emanu-El, while attending July 20 memorial services in Berlin, I had met Albert Friedlander, keynote speaker for the somber occasion. I had no idea that this eminent liberal rabbi of Westminster Synagogue in London...
There was little doubt in my mind that the God I sought was going to be different from the one I, as a child, had been taught not just to worship, but to fear. There would be little resemblance between the awesome, nameless, unimaginable God and the white-bearded, stern old patriarch...
Epilogue: August 1996
Several months after my acceptance into the family of Jews on June 11, 1990, an official letter from Temple Emanu-El informed me that, following a recommendation by their Senior Rabbi Dr. Ronald B. Sobel, the decision had been made to name me an honorary member of their...
Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 26 b/w figures
Publication Year: 2012
OCLC Number: 787852074
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