Deutsche Volksweihnacht 1937 Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels bei der grossen Weihnachtsfeier im Saalbau Friedrichshain … mit seinen Töchterchen Helga und Hilde während der nationalen Lieder. Fot.: Wag., 23.12.37
[Publisher’s note: Normally, The Chamber publishes only one photo with each story. For this story I chose these two because of their direct connection to the story, which brings considerable power to each. Both photos are from the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) via Wikimedia Commons. The caption on the left photo (cropped from the original) translates as “The Führer with Dr. Goebbels and his daughter in Heiligendamm.” The accompanying text identifies the people in the photo as Goebbels, Hitler, and Helga Susanne, first daughter, born September 1, 1932. This photo is shared under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 de as is the colorized photo. The caption of the right photo translates as “German Peoples Christmas 1937 Reich Minister Dr. Goebbels at the great Christmas celebration in Saalbau Friedrichshain with his daughters Helga and Hilde during the national songs Fot.: Wag., 23 December 1937”. The blonde girl in the center appears to be Helga. Note how Dr. Goebbels is staring at his daughters.]
This is a fictional story based on the life of Helga Suzanne Goebbels—the oldest child of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. She, along with her brother and sisters, was put to death in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin.
The italicized quotes are from Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner, translated by Oliver Pretzel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000.
Over tea and biscuits Father and Uncle Adolph talk about the boycott of the Jews.
…the Nazi party took many by surprise… Party leader Adolph Hitler was still widely regarded as a somewhat embarrassing figure for ordinary Germans, his personal appearance was thoroughly repellant—the pimp’s forelock, the hoodlum’s elegance, the Viennese suburban accent—
Father wears a gray wool overcoat. When I sit on his lap, it scratches my bare legs. Sometimes it’s damp and smells of smoke.
We go with Father to the big stadium; we raise our right arms and shout, “Hail, Hitler!”
I wonder: Why does rain never follow the thunder?
Helmut, my brother, my favorite, my little clown…together we play with the dogs.
In the streets gray and green military cars are everywhere.
Yet amazingly, the notion that this failed artist and rabble-rouser, with his interminable speechifying, epileptic behavior and [his] wild gesticulations and foaming at the mouth, and the alternately shifty and staring eyes, might come to power no longer seemed absurd.
The little black dog yaps, the thin gray one slips through my hands like velvet water.
Last night I dreamt I was a Jew. My skin darkened, my blond locks turned black, in my black dress I wandered. A huge gold star followed me everywhere.
At night, under a single light, Helmut and my sisters and I do homework. I do my times tables, my worksheets, my vocabulary. But Mother crosses out one word. XXXX she crosses out: UNMÖGLICHT (IMPOSSIBLE). This word is not in our vocabulary, she says.
Father was away…most of the day, which was a relief really. It gave us a kind of freedom we didn’t feel in his presence.
I’ve heard they knock on every door, asking if there are any Jews there—if there are, they take them away. I wonder if this has been the fate of my friend who was pretending to be a Protestant. I always knew her secret—perhaps that is why we became close—I was drawn to her. I felt I also hid something.
Behind the glitter, the façade, I slowly, in my girlish mind, became aware of the cracks, the lies, the friction.
Father used to put me on his lap. He pretended my ear was a petal and nibbled it.
Who doesn’t want to please Father? Heaven is to have him shine his love and approval on us. When Father was a child, he was stricken with polio. His own father had taken him to a famous doctor, a Jew, who said nothing could be done. But Father would prove him wrong. Nothing is impossible, he says.
As a grown man he always walked with a limp. But we all hid Father’s limp by reflecting to the world our blond radiance and health.
I hear the thunder coming closer. But why does the rain never follow the thunder?
…the danger for most Germans was emptiness and boredom—the menace of monotony—with it comes yearning for salvation—through alcohol, superstition or mass intoxication.
Father says we are living through history. I’ve heard Jews can no longer ride their bicycles or go to swimming pools.
I go out and hide in the garden in Villa Bogensee. Mother says we must leave. We can take with us only one toy. I take my doll with blue glass eyes. I cover my ears when Mother calls. But they will find me. I want to stay here beside Helmut so our childhood can be frozen forever. But soon we are tightly squeezed into the big car beside our luggage stuffed with clothes and books and Mother’s music box. We must express, always, extreme enthusiasm and gratitude. My little sisters express extreme enthusiasm and gratitude. Mother calls me stubbornly antagonistic.
Father said it is not essential that we remain alive in order to continue to influence our people.
I know some secrets. I know Father was rejected for military service in WWI because of his crippled foot.
Last Christmas, beneath the first snowflakes, we bought rattles and marzipan for ten pfennigs. Now there is no more Christmas.
The hypnotic trance into which the public fell. There was something sordid, oily, about him but at the same time hypnotic, compelling.
…the government passed emergency decrees. Now they could wiretap and detain people. …laws were passed forbidding one to talk about the atrocities being committed.
People became Nazis out of fear—to avoid being beaten up. They became Gestapo to one another.
Some intellectuals felt they could change the face of the Nazi party by joining it.
“Have no fear,” Mother said, “the dentist is going to give you an injection of the sort that all children and soldiers get.”
It took about ten minutes.
Outside I know the linden trees have just begun to bud. Their nearly transparent, pale-green leaves are opening like parachutes.
I want you to know that at the end, I fought. When Doctor Stumpfegger entered our room, I watched him lean over the bodies of my sisters in their white nightgowns and over my brother Helmut. I could hear the thunder as if it were in the room.
The children would soon hear the rumble of artillery in the east, and wonder why rain never followed the “thunder.”
When Father was a young man, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. But nothing came of this. Just as nothing came of Uncle Adolph’s painting.
Goebbels was a cynic—devoid of inner convictions. He found his mission in selling Hitler to the German people. Projecting the cult of the Führer as savior of Germany from Jews, profiteers and Marxists. …inducing self-surrender in the masses.
The year I was born, Father was appointed Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. This position gave him total control over communications media. It was the same year that the Burning of the Books took place in Berlin.
Mother was taller than Father. He was dark, small in stature. Mother was tall, blond, radiant. I saw the way Uncle Adolph looked at her. So did Father…
Some that became Nazis at this time did not fully realize what they were doing.
In the stadium we sang: “A mighty fortress is our God.” Swastika flags waved. I raised my arm stiffly into the chilly air. We were puppets with invisible strings.
Outside the dark-green firs are watching. Like my doll’s glass eyes watch, unblinking. I see her eyes flash with cold light. At night I see eyes in the branches.
I want you to know why there were bruises and lacerations on my neck, my face, my hands. I want you to know that at the end, I fought for life. I pushed the doctor’s hands away. I spat in his face. I clenched my jaw against the capsule. I knew why the rain never followed the thunder.
I refused. I refused to die for an empty dream.
Lee Varon is a social worker and writer. Her poetry and prose have been published in various journals including Constellations, deLuge Literary and Arts Journal, Ibbetson Street, and Vagabond City Poetry, among others. You can read more about her work at https://www.leesvaron.com/.
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