Berlin, 1942. Wisconsin native and UW grad Mildred Fish-Harnack led a double life. She and her husband Arvid, a German national who she met while attending the University of Wisconsin, were respected academics at Berlin University. They also were an integral part of the Red Orchestra, an anti-Hitler resistance group that included Greta Lork Kuckhoff, a UW grad student from Germany who had met Mildred and Arvid in Madison during the 1920s.
In early 1942, the Red Orchestra was rounded up and put on trial. Arvid Harnack was sentenced to death and Mildred was sentenced to six years in prison. The defense argued well in her favor, convincing the German judges that because of her job at the University translating great German works into English, she was an asset to the German cause. The decision angered and obsessed Hitler to a point where he took a personal interest in her case.
Arvid Harnack and many other members of the Red Orchestra were quickly hung with a short rope, a technique meant to prolong the agony of the victims. For Mildred, there was to be a retrial. On Jan. 16, 1942, she was sentenced to death and transferred to Prison. Five months of interrogation left her broken, unable to stand upright. On February 16, 1943, she was led into a courtyard and inside a red brick building that housed a guillotine.
She would be the only American woman to be executed on direct orders from Hitler.
In a cemetery in the Zehlendorf neighborhood of Berlin is Arvid and Mildred's headstone. "It was only by luck that Mildred was buried there. After execution, her headless body was put in a wooden crate and sent to an anatomical institute for dissection. But, as it turned out, a professor that Mildred knew recognized her remains and secretly cremated her. He kept her ashes in an urn and, after the war, returned them to the Harnack family."
On the night before their trial, Arvid wrote a farewell letter to Mildred, he wrote of Wisconsin.
"Do you remember picnic point, when we became engaged? Before that our first serious conversation in the restaurant on State Street? That conversation became my guiding star, and has remained so. You are in my heart. You shall be in there forever. My greatest wish is for you to be happy when you think of me. I am when I think of you."