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Rebecca Donner Tells The Story Of Her Great-Great-Aunt, Executed For Nazi Resistance

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Mildred Harnack is not a household name. She was a young American scholar living in Germany in the 1930s. She secretly organized resistance groups and action against the Nazi government for more than a decade. She was eventually arrested by the Nazis and executed on Hitler's orders. Her great-great-niece, Rebecca Donner, pored through years' worth of records to piece together Mildred's story. And her life is the subject of Donner's new book titled "All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days." Donner spoke to our colleague Tamara Keith about Mildred's extraordinary tale.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: So she is your great-great-aunt.

REBECCA DONNER: Yes.

KEITH: But did you know this story growing up? Did you know that you had a relative - an American who Hitler had executed?

DONNER: I did. I - my first memory of hearing her name was when I was about 9 years old. And my great-grandmother in Chevy Chase, Md., was measuring my height on the kitchen wall, and when I stepped back, I saw Mildred's. And I saw an M, and I thought, who is she? And my great-grandmother said, well, that's Mildred. And I wanted to hear more, but I - she was not forthcoming. And at the age of 9, I thought, well, there's a mystery here. And later, when I was a teenager - when I was about 16 - my grandmother gave me Mildred's letters. And she knew that I wanted to be a writer, and she said to me, you must write Mildred's story.

KEITH: Wow. Yeah, so Mildred was a scholar of American literature. She was married to a German man. They moved to Berlin, where she was teaching at a university in the early 1930s. And she soon gets knocked out of that job. What happened?

DONNER: So she taught at the University of Berlin. She taught for four semesters. Hitler hadn't yet come into power. She was teaching American literature. But it appears that the administration wasn't too fond of her candor about her opposition to the Nazi party, and so she was abruptly fired. She got a job in the fall of 1932 at a night school for adults, and a lot of working-class and unemployed Germans were students there. And this became a pool of recruits for her. This was precisely the demographic that the Nazi party was targeting relentlessly with propaganda. And so a number of Mildred's most valuable recruits in the resistance came from her students.

KEITH: It was sort of shocking to read how quickly the guardrails fell off.

DONNER: Yes. It is astonishing to me. I hadn't even really realized it until I began researching this book in earnest how quickly it happened. Mildred began holding meetings in her apartment and inviting these students who seemed as if they would be receptive to joining the resistance. And her husband, Arvid Harnack, was also a part of this, and he also recruited friends and friends of friends and colleagues. And over the course of eight years, this group, which Mildred privately referred to as the circle, intersected with at least three other underground resistance groups. And by 1940, it was the largest underground resistance group in Berlin.

KEITH: How does Mildred respond as more laws and rights are peeled away, as the Germany that it was became Nazi Germany?

DONNER: Their main weapon against the Nazi regime was paper. They produced leaflets that criticized the Nazi regime and called for revolution, and others in the group distributed them in public places - at U-Bahn stations and in factories. But this really exposed them to arrest, and, in fact, several members of the group were sent off to concentration camps because they were caught with these illegal leaflets.

KEITH: So there is another character in your story, an 11-year-old boy - an American named Don Heath. His father works at the U.S. Embassy doing intelligence work. And this kid becomes a courier, delivering messages that I guess ultimately reach the U.S. government. And he was alive. You interviewed him in your research for this book.

DONNER: I did. I did. Don had this, you know, incredibly vivid memory of his boyhood in Berlin. He would show up at her apartment twice a week between 1939 and 1941, ostensibly for tutoring sessions in English and American literature. And at the end of these sessions, she would slip a piece of paper into his knapsack, and then he would bring that back to his father, who would type up reports. And often what was written down on the paper was just a date and a time where they could meet outside of Berlin, away from Gestapo surveillance, and deliver information orally.

KEITH: This does make one think what would any of us do? You know, it's like - it was incredibly difficult and dangerous work with results that weren't fully tangible.

DONNER: Yes. That's such an important point, and I thought about this over and over and over again when I was writing this book. And as I was in the final stages of revising the book, we as a country bore witness to the storming of the Capitol on January 6. And this attempted insurrection was just shocking to so many of us. And I think it really acquainted me with the idea that our democracy is really quite fragile. And of course, in writing this book, I had this - I knew this intellectually, but it was the first time that I had a visceral sense of it.

KEITH: Yes, that the guardrails held in January of this past year.

DONNER: Yes, they did, thankfully. And so our democracy still is intact. We still have a Constitution. These were things - when Hitler came to power, there was a constitution. The Weimar Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of the press, women could vote, women could hold political office. And all of these things, all of these rights were taken away from Germany's citizens. So we still have all of those rights. And I think that it's my hope that people read this book and that they can see Mildred as a kind of inspiration in these tremendously unsettling times and that people understand that we must always take that risk of resisting, of standing up to bullies and that we cannot take democracy for granted.

DAVIS: That's Rebecca Donner, author of the new book, "All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days," speaking to NPR's Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.