What Happened to the Remains of Nazi Resister Mildred Harnack? Now We Know.

What Women Really Think
Nov. 7 2013 2:22 PM

What Happened to the Remains of Nazi Resister Mildred Harnack? Now We Know.

Mildred Harnack
Mildred Harnack

Courtesy of the German Resistance Memorial Center

In researching my recent Slate article on Nazi-era anatomy, I ran into a question I couldn’t answer: What happened to the remains of Mildred Harnack, the American woman executed by Hitler for her part in resisting the Nazis?

Hermann Stieve, the anatomist who conducted research using the bodies of women like Harnack who were executed, said after the war that he dissected her corpse but then returned her remains to her family. I couldn’t tell if that was true—some experts said he made up the story as cover.

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Now I have the answer, in an email from Joel Waldinger, who produced an excellent documentary on Mildred Harnack for Wisconsin Public Television. He writes:

This past October when I was touring Germany with the documentary I got the answer. A member of the Harnack family informed me that Margarete von Zahn (a niece of Arvid Harnack, Mildred’s husband) was a medical student under Dr. Hermann Stieve. One day Stieve called Margarete into the lab and explained he had Mildred’s remains. Margarete carried them home with her that evening in a shopping bag. 

Waldinger also explains that Harnack is the only member of the Red Orchestra, as the Nazis called her circle of Berlin resisters, whose remains have been recovered. She is buried in Berlin’s Zehlendorf cemetery. And her birthday, Sept. 16, is a day of remembrance in the Wisconsin public schools. 

Update, Jan. 10, 2014: Shareen Brysac discusses Harnack's death and remains in her 2002 book, Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.