A RAY OF LIGHT IN THE NAZI DARKNESS
Wendelgard von Neurath (Wendy to her friends) witnessed what few in our generation have. Her best-selling book, Darkness in the Valley, dedicated to her courageous mother, tells that moving story. Of how she, a native German herself, was an eyewitness on her own home grounds oF her countrymen’s cruelty to “subhuman” Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish and Russian prisoners.
Wendy grew up as the only daughter of the aristocratic farming family in the village of Vaihingen an der Enz in the southwestern province of Baden. The name von Neurath was well known in the entire country – Konstantin von Neurath, her father’s brother, was Hitler’s first foreign minister. In the years 1939-41 he was also the predecessor of Reinhard Heydrich as Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia – as it happens, my own homeland. Each time he visited the village in his big official black car, the locals gathered to hail him, unsurprisingly proud of their native son who made good. But after the war, in October 1945, when the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg sat in judgment of 24 leading Nazis, von Neurath was found guilty; he was sentenced to 15 years of prison, of which he served eight .
A rift between her uncle’s family and Wendy’s caused relations between the two families to be far from cordial. Because of the von Neurath name and because they employed local farmers to grow their produce, Wendy’s family was regarded with deference by the local villagers and government officials alike. During the Nazi era they suffered no physical privation; even if they did not manage to have new dresses or shoes, they always had enough food, and not only for themselves.
During the early Hitler years, Wendy, like all the village boys and girls, had to join the Hitler youth organization; that was the way to socialize and make friends within her peer group. In 1937, eleven-year-old Wendy saw Hitler at close range at a raucous, ceremonial-filled Nazi rally in Stuttgart. She was immensely impressed.
Things began to change when in early 1944 the SS appropriated a large part of the von Neurath estate for what they called a labor camp for prisoners. They fenced off the area with a barbed wire fence, closing off roads in the vicinity, thus barring any curious passerby from approaching. They filled the camp with men and women war prisoners and forced laborers who slaved under inhuman conditions to strengthen the German war machine. The only ones permitted to come near the camp (since, theoretically, it was still land they owned) were the von Neuraths.
Often, walking in the valley, passing the now-fenced-in area, Wendy and her mother Irmgard saw gaunt, shadowy figures in striped pajama-like uniforms shuffling by. Their backs bent, weakened as they were by hunger, they could hardly drag themselves. The sight of them gave birth to an idea in Irmgard’s head. Why not get some of these poor creatures for a double purpose: they could work in place of her own workers who had been drafted into the German army, and at the same time she could offer them some food which they were obviously not getting. She promptly acted on her resolution, despite her husband’s warning to keep out of affairs which were none of her concern and which could prove dangerous to the family.
But Irmgard, as her daughter describes in her best- selling book was a decided, courageous woman who was not afraid to stick her neck out when she thought her cause was just. True, she could not
do much. She could not liberate these human wretches of whose supposed crimes she was ignorant.
But she could help lighten the lot of a small number. So Irmgard stuck to her idea and unhesitatingly went to talk to the commander.
She asked for a detachment of prisoners to come help on her farm in exchange for food she would send to the camp A group of some 30 prisoners under SS armed guards appeared the next morning and Irmgard assigned each his tasks. They would prepare the fields, plant, harvest, according to the season. The Poles in the prisoner group refused to work along with their Jewish fellow prisoners and were assigned separate locations.
Once, one Jewish worker appeared to the SS guard to be working too slowly. The guard angrily swung his metal-tipped whip and hit the man, disfiguring his face. When Irmgard heard of this, she confronted the guards and told them, ”Here no one will be beaten.” The worker was never seen again. But no one was ever again beaten on the von Neurath estate.
Liberation came at the hands of the French Foreign Legion, followed by the American occupation army; the area of Baden had been assigned to become part of the American Zone.
The French held a court hearing of the Nazi commandant and staff, including the SS guards of Camp Wiesengrund. Wendy was a chief witness. After listening to her report of events in the camp as she saw them, and reports of inmates, the presiding judge called Irmgard “ one German who helped save civilization.”
The soldiers were met by a large hand-made sign calling their attention to more than 2000 prisoners in dire condition who needed urgent attention – again Irmgard’s initiative. Some of these prisoners were already dead or dying by the time the Americans reached them and began to care for the survivors.
With the Americans came denazification – and denunciation by locals. Some one brought to the attention of the Americans the fact that in the early Nazi days she had lectured to young women within Nazi frameworks. (And at the same time she managed to hide her anti-Nazi books in bushes near the garden beehive.)
As a result, Wendy spent 6 months in an American women‘s prisoner camp. She was released, without trial, as a consequence of a letter citing her deeds written by survivors of prisoners who had worked on her farm.
Jakob was one of these signatories – an ex-prisoner of Camp Wiesengrund who had been brought in Wendy’s labor detachment. A native of Poland, he was highly regarded by both his fellow prisoners and the von Neurath family. After the war, attracted to one another, Wendy and Jakob met frequently and became emotionally involved. Jakob had plans to go to America and wanted to bring Wendy as his wife. But both felt the difficulty, if not impossibility of such a step. “Could the trust Jakob and I now shared endure after all that had been done to his people by mine.?” Wendy asked herself.
Maybe we had been meant for each other, she reflects,but we had been born in the wrong place, of the wrong parents and definitely at the wrong time.”
“They had taught us to do our duty, to obey orders…You are nothing, your country is everything….”After the war “the foundation on which we had been taught to stand crumbled right under our feet..The experience of my generation had proved it to be all wrong. When we reached adulthood we were left with little to believe in, least of all the greatness of our country. Rather, we were confronted with a sea of destruction, of terror, of millions of people murdered in our name.
When Darkness in the Valley came to the attention of Teddy Kollek, then-mayor of Jerusalem, he nvited Wendy to present her book and to speak about it at the following Jerusalem International Book Fair . He encouraged her to write some more, but Wendy never did.
While the events of her early years left an indelible mark on Wendy, her optimism and vivaciousness opened to her new vistas, a new future. She entered Germany’s diplomatic service where she eventually met her future husband, senior foreign office official Berndt von Staden. Von Staden hailed from the German enclave in Talinn, Estonia – a community of Baltic German aristocrats living in Estonia and Latvia since the Middle Ages and forced to resettle in Germany in the 1939 population exchange with the Soviet Union.
The couple served twice with the German embassy in Washington, D.C. ; in the second round, in the years 1973-79, Berndt represented his country as ambassador. During that time, a friend, serving with the Israel Embassy, a member of Kibbutz Kfar Blum, invited Wendy and her teen-age daughter, Inga, to visit his kibbutz. Subsequently, Inga spent a few months at Kfar Blum picking avocados, living the life of a kibbutznik and studying, like her mother, the science of agriculture.
She has since returned to her native land where she is running a self-conceived successful project to bring young children into the 21st century’s hi-tech world.
The first time I visited Wendy on her estate – it was sometime at the late 70’s, she took me for a short walk in the valley. We stopped at a tiny sign and Wendy pointed the way in. What met the eye was a small desolate area, containing a few dozen boulders marked by numbers. “ A cemetery from those days”, said Wendy, her voice choked, her eyes filled with tears. “No names. Just numbers.”