A chance discovery prompted Joel Waldinger to begin a five-year quest to chronicle the life of Mildred Fish Harnack, the only American woman executed under direct orders of Adolf Hitler during World War II.
The result is the award-winning documentary, “Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish Harnack Story.” The hourlong film will be shown at 2 p.m. Sept. 7 and 8 at the Bettendorf High School Performing Arts Center. Waldinger will introduce the film and answer questions after the showings.
He also will lead a teachers’ workshop on the film from 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 7 at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport.
Sept. 7 marks the 71st anniversary of the arrest of Harnack and her husband, Arvid Harnack, by the Nazis in 1942. Her husband was hanged Dec. 22, 1942, and she was beheaded Feb. 16, 1943.
The screening of the Wisconsin Public Television documentary is part of a series of events in the Quad-Cities celebrating the extraordinary life of Harnack, a Milwaukee native who married a German citizen and settled in Berlin, where she was a scholar, teacher and translator prior to being executed for defying Hitler’s power.
Other events include the exhibit “In Memoriam: Mildred Fish Harnack,” which continues through Nov. 3 at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport.
Waldinger, a senior broadcast producer at Wisconsin Public Television, first learned of Harnack in 2006, on the day he was supposed to return home from Germany after participating in a journalist exchange program.
“I came across a brief biography about an American woman involved in the Nazi resistance,” he said. "I was more than surprised to learn that she had ties to Wisconsin, and once I began to uncover her history, I became convinced that this story should be shared."
He made three trips to Germany in pursuit of the story. One of his most rewarding moments was discovering her grave at nightfall after tracing her movements all over Berlin and spending three hours scouring the cemetery where she was buried.
“The biggest challenge was arranging the pieces to this puzzle and finding the visuals to help tell the story in film,” he said. “There is no one central clearinghouse of information or artifacts about Mildred Fish Harnack, her time in Milwaukee or her life in Berlin fighting in the underground resistance.”
Another hurdle, he said, was the fact that most people who knew Mildred and her husband, an official in the Third Reich’s economics ministry, are deceased, and those who are still living were reluctant to talk.
Waldinger said that because the Harnacks provided intelligence to the Soviet Union as well as the United States, their reputations were purposely tarnished.
Get the Weekender Newsletter
Plan your weekend with our hand-picked list of the Quad Cities' best bets for entertainment.
“The Harnack name had been dragged through the mud during the Cold War, their honor had been misrepresented and, as one person put it, they had been executed twice, once by the Nazis and again during the Cold War,” he said.
Yet his persistence and passion to tell the story ultimately paid off.
His documentary, which is narrated by actress and Milwaukee native Jane Kaczmarek, had its premiere on Wisconsin Public Television in 2011. The film has received numerous awards, including a first-place Radio in the American Sector International Media Award for its contribution to trans-Atlantic mutual German-American understanding.
Waldinger said Midwesterners can relate to the woman's story.
“It’s a story that takes one unbelievable turn after another and puts in the spotlight the moral courage of a smart, progressive woman who forged a path for herself and would not stand idly by when a cruel dictator came to power in her adopted country.”