How Marlene Dietrich went to save her German sister from the Bergen Belsen death camp – only to find she wasn’t an inmate but ran a cinema there entertaining Nazi SS soldiers
Dressed in US Army fatigues and wearing a helmet and combat boots, a woman walked into the office of Lieutenant Arnold Horwell, a British intelligence officer at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Her visit was unexpected – and she introduced herself as ‘Captain Dietrich’. She said she had heard that her sister was interned there.
After overcoming his initial surprise, Horwell recognised the woman as the Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich.
British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen three weeks before, in April 1945. No other Nazi camp had witnessed more prisoners die of disease and privation in the final months of the war.
In March that year alone, 18,168 of an estimated 45,000 inmates died, including schoolgirl diarist Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who had been transported to the camp from Auschwitz.
When the SS commandant, Josef Kramer, finally surrendered Bergen-Belsen, British soldiers witnessed a horrific sight. More than 13,000 bodies were strewn all over the grounds. Thousands more died after being liberated.
Having failed to fulfil her childhood dream of becoming a concert violinist, Marlene began doing the rounds as a chorus girl in nightclubs, getting her first experience on stage, and also playing bit parts in silent movies
Berlin-born Marlene Dietrich had returned to Germany as the Third Reich was in its death throes. Just days before, in the early hours of April 30, 1945, in the bunker deep beneath the Old Reich Chancellery in Berlin, Adolf Hitler had learned that his troops’ advance east had been halted at Schwielowsee, a lake south-west of Potsdam.
That defeat dashed the last hope of relief for the German capital, which had become surrounded by Soviet troops. Hitler finally decided to take his own life – and on the same day, the Americans took Munich almost without a fight. People in the city lined the streets welcoming the GIs.
It was in the aftermath of the Allied victory that Dietrich had travelled to Munich to entertain troops.
Having asked to see her sister Liesel on May 6, she was informed that a woman using the name ‘Elisabeth Will’ in Bergen-Belsen was claiming to be her sister.
Dietrich had not heard from Liesel for six years and feared the Nazis had interned her in a concentration camp as payback for her own service to the US Army.
The following day, she was flown to an air base in northern Germany and then driven to nearby Bergen-Belsen in a Jeep.
But when Lieut Horwell summoned Elisabeth Will, Dietrich was stunned to learn that she was not an inmate of the death camp. Instead, with her husband, Georg Will, she had been running a cinema nearby for the entertainment of Wehrmacht soldiers and SS members.
Dietrich was worried, not without reason, that this embarrassing revelation would cast a shadow over her own exemplary contribution to the fight against Hitler’s Germany. Thus, while she promised her sister material support, Elisabeth had to pledge in return to keep a low profile, not to give interviews, and to conceal the fact that she was closely related to a Hollywood star.
Marlene Dietrich had been born in 1901 in Berlin’s Schoeneberg district and grew up with her sister, two years her senior, in an affluent household. Her father, Louis Dietrich, was a police lieutenant, and her mother, Josephine, was the daughter of a jeweller who owned a luxury shop on the famous Unter den Linden boulevard.
The two sisters could not have been more different.
Elisabeth was small in stature, somewhat overweight, and shy and retiring. Marlene was charming and vivacious and attracted attention from an early age.
Marlene is pictured above entertaining US troops as they crossed into Germany in 1945
After Louis’s death in 1908, Josephine married a Prussian officer, who, too, died, in 1916, from a wound sustained in the First World War.
Josephine raised her daughters in a strict household, emphasising the ‘Prussian virtues’ of diligence, honour and discipline.
Whereas Elisabeth obeyed, earning the scornful sobriquet ‘terrible tubby of virtue’ from her sister, Marlene rebelled and left school before graduating. The two sisters went their separate ways. Having failed to fulfil her childhood dream of becoming a concert violinist, Marlene began doing the rounds as a chorus girl in nightclubs, getting her first experience on stage, and also playing bit parts in silent movies.
During the shooting of the film Tragedy Of Love, she met Rudolf Sieber, a production manager, whom she married in May 1923. In December the following year, their only child, a daughter named Maria, was born.
In 1929, the movie director Josef von Sternberg handed the still little-known actress the role of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, an adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat.
The role of the brash nightclub hostess fitted Dietrich perfectly. She overshadowed the male lead and was on her way to becoming a global star.
Immediately after the premiere in Berlin, she followed Sternberg to America, where she was given a lucrative seven-year contract by Paramount Pictures.
In her first Hollywood film, Morocco, she acted alongside Gary Cooper, and in quick succession she appeared in several movies including Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is A Woman.
Her transformation from a bratty young Berliner into a Hollywood diva was complete. By contrast, Elisabeth’s life was anything but glamorous. She married theatre manager Georg Will in 1926, giving up her career as a school teacher and devoting herself to her family after the birth of their son.
In 1933, although her husband had joined the Nazi Party, he was in effect prohibited from working because he had run a theatre with a Jewish composer.
Separate ways: Marlene, right, and her sister could not have been more different growing up
He duly wrote to the director of the Reich Culture Chamber, asking for help to find a job, stressing that he had always felt fully affiliated with the ‘national cause’, mentioning that as a member of the ‘Oberland’ paramilitary militia, he had helped ‘liberate’ Munich and Upper Silesia from revolutionary, Left-wing governments.
At this point, the Nazi regime’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, had not yet given up hope of luring Marlene Dietrich back to Germany.
In April 1936, he saw her in the film Desire and wrote in his diary that she was a ‘very great actor’ and he regretted that ‘we unfortunately no longer have her in Germany’.
Goebbels enlisted Dietrich’s brother-in-law in his efforts to bring her ‘back home to the Reich’.
Although she resisted the siren calls from Berlin – Dietrich had applied for US citizenship in 1937 – her sister’s husband was rewarded for his services.
The Propaganda Ministry put the unemployed vaudeville manager in charge of three cinemas located near Nazi exercise grounds.
One of these was Bergen-Belsen, with a seating capacity of almost 2,000 and where he personally oversaw daily operations. Shortly before the start of the Second World War, his wife and son joined him, moving into a spacious apartment above the cinema.
There are no written records regarding Dietrich’s sister from the war years, but she can hardly have been unaware of the horrors at the concentration camp less than two miles away.
Meanwhile, Marlene became an American citizen in June 1939.
The war in Europe still seemed very distant, but after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the US was drawn into the conflict, Dietrich crisscrossed the country drumming up support for war bonds, cooked for soldiers in the ‘Hollywood Canteen’ (the club for servicemen where stars volunteered to help) and visited the wounded in hospital wards. She felt that it was important to take an active part in the war against Nazi Germany.
‘I wanted to help to bring this war to an end as quickly as possible,’ she would write many years later in her memoir.
In 1944, she applied to the United Services Organisation to entertain troops overseas. Wearing a uniform and holding the rank of captain, she flew to Algiers, where she performed her first concert for GIs. Soon, her repertoire included Lili Marlene, a song that had been equally popular in pre-Nazi Germany and in America.
From North Africa, she travelled to Italy, where she and her unit followed the Allied advance. In June 1944, a few days before the Normandy landings, she reached Rome with American GIs, and in an interview with the New York Herald Tribune, she described the Romans not believing their eyes when they first saw her in a Jeep: ‘They must have thought Americans are wonderful. We bring them freedom, bread – even movie stars.’
After a short respite in New York, Dietrich set off again for Europe. From Paris, she joined the advancing troops of General George S. Patton. During the Ardennes Offensive of December 1944, Hitler’s final attempt to turn the tide of the war, her unit was temporarily surrounded and only narrowly escaped being captured.
Dietrich’s first encounter with Germans after crossing the German-Belgian border turned out to be far less stressful than she had feared.
‘We arrived in Germany, and to our great surprise there was no threat, nothing to be afraid of,’ she wrote in her memoir.
‘The people on the street would have loved to hug me. They asked the Americans for small favours. They couldn’t have been nicer.’
In mid-April she followed American troops into southern Germany, and as American and Soviet soldiers celebrated victory together, Dietrich sang for Russian Red Army troops.
Her lover, the French actor Jean Gabin, was also playing an active war role as part of a French tank division that followed troops from the 3rd US Infantry Division whose target was Hitler’s Alpine retreat. There, the commander of the SS contingent had fled – but not before ordering his men to burn what was left of the Berghof, which had been bombed by the Allies ten days before.
The American reporter Lee Miller – who a few days earlier had posed naked in the bath of Hitler’s Munich apartment for a photo – took pictures of the ruins of the Berghof and recorded her impressions for a feature in British Vogue.
She described a heavily bombarded landscape where buildings had been crushed like eggshells and craters covered the slope down to the valley.
Hitler’s house was still intact even while flames from the fire ignited by the retreating SS licked at its windows. Souvenir-hunting American and French soldiers ransacked silverware and linens imprinted with eagles, swastikas and the initials AH.
Meanwhile, in Munich, Dietrich was receiving word about the woman in Bergen-Belsen claiming to be her sister.
‘Thank you for coming all that way,’ Elisabeth Will wrote two weeks after her reunion with her younger sister. ‘I’m convinced you’ll find mother as well.’
In fact, Josephine von Losch had survived the war in Berlin, and, in September 1945, Dietrich flew in a military plane to the city’s airport where she was reunited with her mother.
Berlin had been devastated by the recent battle. Countless homes had been destroyed or badly damaged, and many Berliners were living in provisional accommodation, often in crowded basements, air-raid shelters and allotment gardens. Others had no roofs over their heads.
When Dietrich arrived in Berlin, she could hardly find her way around the city she had left 15 years previously. ‘All of it in ruins,’ she wrote to her husband, to whom she had remained married despite her numerous affairs.
The house where her mother had lived had been destroyed by fire. ‘The balcony sagged. Mom had searched the rubble for days, and on top of one pile of it… was the bronze mask of my face, undamaged. She sat there for a long while, crying.’
In November 1945, her mother died at the age of 63. That same month, Dietrich, who was performing twice a day for GIs, made another brief stop in Bergen-Belsen and saw her sister again, although she took precautions to keep her visit secret.
When the Allies conquered Germany in the spring of 1945, many were astonished to find a country apparently free of Nazis. ‘No one is a Nazi,’ wrote the American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. ‘No one ever was. To see a whole nation passing the buck is not an enlightening spectacle.’
Like many Germans who went along with Hitler’s regime, Georg Will had quickly changed sides after the war. He was allowed to continue to run his cinema, which now catered to British soldiers. When that commission expired in 1950, he opened another cinema in Hanover, leaving his wife behind in Bergen-Belsen.
She lived there in seclusion – and free from any financial worries as Marlene sent her most of the royalties from her German music sales and repeatedly gave her large sums of money.
Elisabeth kept her side of the bargain and never let on in public that she was Dietrich’s sister.
After the war, Dietrich went back to making movies, including A Foreign Affair, in which she played a seductive nightclub singer with a dark past.
When touring the world in her second career as a singer, she passed through Germany in 1960, where she was by no means welcomed everywhere with open arms.
In the eyes of many Germans, this courageous opponent of the Nazis was a ‘traitor to the fatherland’. By contrast, she had been awarded the Medal of Freedom, one of the highest American civilian honours.
Occasionally Dietrich invited her sister to her concerts, after which they would clandestinely meet.
Twenty-eight years after Dietrich’s first visit to Bergen-Belsen, in 1973, her sister died in a fire at her home.
Dietrich lived on for almost two decades more.
Her last major film, Judgment At Nuremberg, saw her play the widow of a Wehrmacht general who had been hanged as a war criminal and who, like most Germans after 1945, claimed to have known nothing about the Nazi crimes against humanity.
Interviewed in Paris, where she spent her final days and died aged 91 in 1992, she was asked if she had any siblings. She simply replied: ‘No.’
© Volker Ullrich, 2021
Edited extract from Eight Days In May, by Volker Ullrich, which is published by Allen Lane on September 7 at £25. To pre-order a copy for £22.50, including free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before September 13.
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