“Dear Mutti, everything is as crazy as you would imagine during a tour. We have been on the train continuously since Monday 7 am, everywhere we have 6 to 10 hours delays, and at the moment we are sitting in a Red Cross wooden barrack and have not been able to wash ourselves for days. We received rations behind Warsaw and have to wait until afternoon (now 6 o’clock in the morning, about minus 15 degrees) for the connecting train to Minsk, which we were not allowed to use this evening due to danger.”  Brigitte, a young actress from Germany writes home to her mother on Wednesday, 20 January 1943, explaining how she and her Kraft durch Freude group (K.d.F.; ‘Joy through Strength’) are on their way to the eastern front to perform for the troops. They are to be stationed in a so-called K.d.F. Heim situated just on the outskirts of Minsk. In her letters to her mother, Brigitte writes that she absorbs the situation in the east “with eyes wide open”.
In Minsk, victims and perpetrators from the same cities met far away from their hometowns: the men of the infamous Police Battalion 101 from Hamburg deported Jews from their home city, and Viennese Jews were guarded and killed by Viennese SS men. Often overlooked is that other Germans, who were not part of the SS, the police force or the military, were also present in this environment, like Brigitte, an ordinary German civilian. An estimated 10,000 Reich and ethnic Germans resided in Minsk. This included members of the K.d.F., whose roles were compromised. They were not merely civilian artists, but often enjoyed a privileged position, commonly spending only a limited amount of time in the East, free to communicate with the home front, and, more importantly, were paid for their work as propagandists for the Wehrmacht. Like many people in Western Europe and Germany, they passively watched as neighbours, colleagues and classmates were discriminated against, persecuted, and deported. Contrary to ‘ordinary bystanders’ in Germany, they were able to know what happened to these persons after their deportation. They witnessed how the Minsk ghetto functioned, how thousands of their fellow community members from Germany ended up there and that only very few managed to survive.
Minsk was occupied by Nazi Germany between late June 1941 and early July 1944. Both local Jews and Jews from Western and Central Europe, together with partisans, ordinary civilians, and Soviet POWs fell victim to the Nazi regime during this period. In 1942, the deportations from western areas in Europe to Minsk all led to Maly Trostenets, a small village just outside Minsk. This was the location of a forced labor camp created by the Nazis and the site of two large mass graves. Most of the approximately 1,000 deportees in each train were murdered upon arrival by way of gas vans or execution by gunfire. The seven deportations in 1941 were directed to the train station in Minsk. From there, the deportees were taken to a specific part of the Minsk ghetto allocated to German Jews. Many of the deportees were forced to work in the city: at the camp Maly Trostenets where they were forced to sort possessions of people who had just been murdered, at the railway tracks, or at the theatre, where they had the possibility to meet people like Brigitte (who came from the same hometown as the deportees).
The actresses in Minsk were primarily employed as part of the ministry of propaganda’s Truppenbetreuung, ‘caring for the troops’. Their job was not just to display cultural superiority over the occupied nations, but the plays were also used to support the troops on ideological grounds. Although most of the chosen plays were often not directly written as propaganda, the content of the plays had to have certain aspects to interpret them according to National Socialist standards and messages. After all, the K.d.F. was not just there to take care of the morale of the troops, but also to monitor the free time of the soldiers and to lecture them on Nazi ideology and stereotypes. Inge, an actress from Hamburg who was employed in Minsk, discovered shortly before the premiere of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice that she most likely had to take part in this because of the lack of actresses in her group. When she went to an older colleague to discuss her reservations to participate because of the obvious antisemitic nature of the play, her colleague gave her the pragmatic advice to “have a schnapps before the start”. The performance of the play, during which “real costumes” were used from the depot in the Minsk Opera–where the possessions of murdered Jews were stored–coincided with the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto in September 1943. Although none of the actors and actresses took part in this execution of the approximately 2000 Jews from the Minsk ghetto, the strong symbolic connection between ideology and acts of genocide compromised their role and invites the question whether the term bystander is strong enough to indicate their position.
The actresses’ letters and memoirs provide an insight in their ambiguous role due to their work in Minsk, as they benefitted from the war in that they had employment and found themselves in a rather privileged position. In Minsk, actors and actresses were housed in the former House of the Red Army, where they could also make use of the swimming pool. Brigitte enclosed to the letters to her mother packages with meat, butter and other goods, goods not easily available in Minsk at the time. Minsk was still in ruins, many people had become homeless because of bombings of the city in 1941 and there was a structural lack of food. Apart from a generous salary, the job also enabled particular actresses to get close to people in powerful positions. Brigitte noted how senior officers of Organisation Todt (O.T.) and the Wehrmacht all wanted to spend time with her, and how she had to spend considerable time returning love letters. An officer from the O.T. even proposed to go on a date to “go to the ghetto and show the Bolshevik apartments of the poor”. Inge, the actress from Hamburg, noted in her memoirs that she was invited to dinner at the residence of civil administrator Gauleiter Wilhelm Kube, who himself was a big fan of theatre and had had some creative aspirations. In 1933 he had met his wife Anita in Schneidemühl in Prussia (today the city of Piła in Poland) where she played the lead role in his play Totilla. The play was also performed in Minsk in 1942–this time not with Anita as a lead–but was quite critically received by the German Minsker Zeitung, which wrote that it was a “work of politicians and propagandists”. Although Anita Kube did not perform as an actress while she lived in Minsk with her husband, she did visit the theatre during rehearsals. The people there were, according to her, “excited to see her”.
The actresses in Minsk were clearly in a unique position. Besides the interaction with SS officers, Wehrmacht personnel and other German officials, they were also able to interact with those ‘on the other side of the fence’. Through their work at the theatre, they regularly ran into Jews who were forced to work at the theatre. Inge explicitly reflects on this in her memoirs: “The young man in the civilian clothing, who fixed the lamp in my make-up table and spoke to me, had to know Hamburg well. And he was definitely German, he spoke without any accent. Why wasn’t he a soldier, I thought, and asked him whether he was wounded or deployed to the theatre. He did not answer, only shrugged his shoulders. I stood there somewhat helplessly, while he packed his tools. Almost through the door, he turned around and quietly said: ‘We are not even good enough to function as cannon fodder.’ He was Jewish. There was not a moment of doubt, no one could have understood this sentence any differently. Jews were with us in the theatre. That explained all the odd things, it explained what no one said, but everyone knew: deported Jews from Hamburg stood next to us backstage, worked in our workshops and for the administration in the ‘House of the Red Army’.”
The encounter with Paul, the Jewish man from Hamburg impressed Inge and she wrote in her memoirs that despite the fact that she could not change the situation for him, she did try to help in one way or another. She ordered an extra pair of shoes for her theatre costumes, but gave them to Paul. Other actors and actresses were even able to smuggle out letters to relatives of Jews who had not been deported. Heinz Rosenberg, a German survivor of the Minsk ghetto and Maly Trostenets, walked into an actress, Miss Fuchsel, whom he knew from Hamburg, as both their sisters had attended the same class. During her time in Minsk, the actress sent letters to Rosenberg’s aunt in Hamburg, and even managed to receive a package from her on Rosenberg’s behalf. Heinz Rosenberg wrote in his memoirs: “Before Miss Fuchsel left Minsk, I gave her another letter. When the touring car was packed again with artists and their luggage, I couldn’t say a thing anymore. I stood there quietly near the heating room and thought about what a brave human being I had met.”
Not all actresses felt the responsibility to help their fellow-country men or even show some compassion to them, as Brigitte’s letter shows. Besides her extensive descriptions of her love affairs, she writes to her mother that she would write this time about things that would also be of interest to her. She continues: “Here in the house works a Jew from Hamburg as well, who is an artist and who works as a carpenter. We are of course forced to discuss some essential things with him (to fix our suitcase and stuff like that), and once that funny man says (I think the only Jew I interacted with during my life), that he only had one wish: to be in an hotel only once again walking into a breakfast room, or to sit in the dining car and stare out of the window. We found him incredibly funny. He also made many pictures that hang here, as he is quite gifted, even though he is a Jew. Don’t be angry or afraid, mother. I cannot help it, that I have to speak to Jews here. The staff in the kitchen and many of the maids are Jewish. Thank God, we don’t have them anymore in the Reich.”
The grim letter questions just how common the helpful acts of the other two actresses might have been. Moreover, the roles of the actresses in Minsk indicate that the ‘bystander’ was present in more places than might be expected. The compromised roles of the women of the K.d.F. offered a range of options, even though some of the women did not really see that they had an option to act any differently than what presumably was expected of them. The memoirs of Inge were published in 1982. By then, she apparently had reflected on what she had witnessed and questioned how she had been able to act as she did: “Today I often believe that I as well had come accustomed to the fate of the Jews. How did I manage to play this spoiled, cheerful girl Till? And to be Nerissa in ‘The merchant of Venice’, while the Jews had to listen?” Almost fifty years after the events, Inge had become a bystander in her own perspective of her life during the war, while her position in Minsk at the time may have been less innocent than that.
After the war, the role that actresses might have played at the frontline was not the first thing on people’s mind to question. The situation for the actresses themselves changed after the war, as they were no longer employed to support the troops or to work for the propaganda machinery. As Inge wrote: “From one day to the next the theatres were emptying. Spiritual food was barely in demand, […] The great renewal after the lost war did not take place, most of the people repressed their evil experiences. The past was soon covered by a colorful carpet on which even guilty parties were able to move freely.” Although Inge saw the present and future being paved by a colorful carpet, the question is whether this was really the case for the actresses. And did they judge their experiences in Minsk as an evil experience? For some of them the war had enabled them to experience more than they otherwise would have been able to, in a society where women were valued differently than men and where they had limited opportunities to live the life they wanted. Inge wrote in her memoirs that as a young girl she looked up to the independent prostitutes in Hamburg, who provided for themselves, always looked nice and were nothing like other women who toiled as cleaning ladies in dirty aprons to care for their husbands and children. ‘Standing by’ provided women like Brigitte and Inge with an option to escape their own lives and gave them the opportunity to not just ‘care for the troops’ but also to ‘care for themselves’. As Brigitte wrote to her mother about her “life of eroticism, love and sensations” in Minsk, she lamented: “If I’m not really reinstated [at the front] then I cannot do anything. For my art there is hardly any market, and then life just starts again in an ammunition factory. Just wait and see.”