Mildred Fish-Harnack

September 16, 1902

She was a teacher. She just wanted to help.

She was born in Milwaukee on September 16, 1902. She was known as “Mili” to her friends and attended West Division High School, now known as the Milwaukee High School of the Arts.

She would meet her future husband at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1925, and a Master of Arts in English in 1926. They were married at her brother’s farm near the village of Brooklyn, Wisconsin.

“They had a profound connection through literature, her Ph.D. was in literature,” Madison arts program administrator Karin Wolf said. “That’s what inspired and sustained them, the works of Walt Whitman in particular. I just feel them as very real people. They liked to hike, they liked to canoe, they liked being outdoors.”

In 1929, she and her husband moved to Germany, where she worked on her doctorate. She taught modern American literature at Berlin University, becoming one of the first Americans on a faculty that included Albert Einstein.

The position was short lived, however, according to a story in The New York Times. Fifteen months later, the university had fired her for not being “Nazi enough.”

Adolf Hitler had been granted dictatorial powers by a subservient legislature. After the concentration camps opened, the couple had decided to stay in Germany, to assist immigrants fearful for their lives.

“They were confronted with this unacceptable situation, and they did what they felt what they needed to do as moral beings,” said Wolf.

They were saddened at what was happening to their beloved country, to see a dictator use racism to divide the people and use his propaganda machine to reinforce his power and control the people, destroying the country from within.

Alarmed by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime, she and her husband joined a small resistance group that helped imperiled Jews, assisted forced laborers, and documented the atrocities of the Nazis in Germany. Her husband would regularly meet with the first secretary of the American embassy to keep Washington informed on the state of the Third Reich’s economy, its trade agreements, rearmament and war plans.

Their group published an underground newsletter, and fed economic information not only to the U.S., but also to Soviet embassies in Berlin. After Germany invaded Russia, the group transmitted military intelligence to Moscow via radio “concerts,” prompting the Gestapo to call them the “Red Orchestra.”

On September 7, 1942, Mildred Fish-Harnack and Arvid Harnack were arrested while on a weekend outing in Germany.

Arvid was sentenced to death on December 19, 1942, and was put to death three days later. Mildred would be executed two months later, beheaded, on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

Mildred Fish-Harnack was the only American woman executed on the orders of Hitler. She was 40 years old.

“She could have come home at any time,” Wolf said. “But there was something bigger than her that was compelling her to fight in the way that she could. I just think of that strength of character.”

Shereen Blair Brysac, Harnack’s biographer, said in a 2011 Wisconsin Public Television documentary that Mildred “had an American passport and she could travel to France and Norway and Denmark,” but she instead used her connections to help those trying to flee Germany ahead of the Holocaust.

Mildred Fish-Harnack was initially given six years in prison, but Hitler refused to endorse the sentence and ordered a new trial, which ended with a sentence of death.

“This is a woman who 75 years ago was executed for her role in fighting fascism,” said Wolf.

According to Jay Rath of isthmus, Wolf noted that Mildred Harnack never set out to be a hero. “She was just trying to do the right thing. Which I feel we’re called to do in every era, and have that kind of moral compass; that you won’t see your neighbor treated that way. You will risk your own safety and your own comfort, because it’s not right.”

Ellie Gettinger, education director at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, agreed, saying, the lesson of Mildred’s life is to do what’s right, even when it’s hard.

This summer, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, unveiled a new sculpture to honor Mildred Fish Harnack, a teacher who just wanted to help – a Wisconsin farm girl who became a World War II resistance fighter in Germany.

The artist of the sculpture, John Durbrow, said the sculpture recognizes Mildred’s “strength, courage and resolve to address early on the forces of oppression which eventually inflamed the entire world.”

“None of us, hopefully, are ever going to face the kinds of conditions that Mildred faced,” Gettinger said. “But if we can just say, we did what was right in that moment, that’s keeping up her standard of excellence.”