It all happened in less than a minute.
At precisely 9:00 A.M. on April 11, 1928, Gunnar Blemke, a guard, crossed the mahogany-paneled hearing room of the Moabit Prison in central Berlin leading the handcuffed Communist, Professor Otto Braun, aged twenty-eight, by the arm. Not that Otto was considered a dangerous prisoner; the handcuffs were a matter of form: he stood accused of “high treason against the fatherland” and had been imprisoned for a year and a half awaiting trial. The guard led him toward the table behind which sat the senior minister of justice, Ernst Schmidt, who was to interrogate him. At Schmidt’s side, Rudolph Nekien, a clerk, was struggling against falling asleep over his typewriter. On the other side of the room, directly facing the table but separated by a wooden handrail, a small gallery intended for lawyers and spectators was occupied by half a dozen young men and women. “I though they were law students,” the guard would say later.
Blemke puffed up his chest in the face of authority and announced, “Presenting the prisoner, Otto Braun.”
At that instant he felt something hard pressing against his neck. Turning his head, he saw a black pistol held by an attractive young woman with dark hair and blue eyes, who demanded in a steady voice, “Release the prisoner!”
The spectators fell into two groups and rushed Schmidt and Nekien, forcibly knocking them down. Schmidt lurched forward and managed to press an alarm button with the tip of one shoe–and received a blow to the head, administered by an enormous young man with a reddish beard and hair almost down to his shoulders. The girl who led the group kept her pistol pointed at the guard’s head. After disarming him, she backed toward the door, shielding the prisoner with her body and shouting to her companions, “Let’s get out! Let’s get out! Anyone who moves gets it!”
The guard and the two officials were ordered to stand facing the wall. The girl gestured hurriedly for the group to leave. They were already moving toward the main entrance when her last shout echoed in the room: “The first one to move gets it!”
They disappeared into the hallway. Leaping down the steps, the group disappeared. The girl dropped her pistol into the woolen bag slung over her shoulder and dashed across Fritz-Schloss Park to the gymnasium on the far side, where she threw herself into a small green van that was waiting, doors open. At the wheel sat a young man with a large nose, and in the back, still handcuffed, slumped Otto Braun, in shock.
The dilapidated van threatened to fall apart as it raced through the streets of Berlin. They headed south, hurrying away from the immediate area of the prison, where alarm sirens could be heard blocks away. Avoiding the busiest streets, the van skirted the small Blucher Cemetery and crossed Schiffarts Canal. Once they had entered the Neuk’lln district they could finally breathe freely. Neuk’lln was home.
By midday, a special edition of Berliner Zeitung am Mittag was already providing details, under a scandalous headline of what the writer referred to as a ‘daring feat, a scene straight out of the wild West,” that had taken place that morning in Moabit Prison. The front page announced the name of the attractive young woman who had commanded the “Communist raid”: Olga Benario.
“A daring feat . . .”
That evening, in the small apartment arranged as a hideout by the Communist Youth, Olga and Otto, her lover, read and reread the newspaper accounts, stopping each time at the same phrase. In fact, ‘daring” was the only word to describe, not just her own actions that morning, but the very attitude that motivated the majority of the young Communists of the working-class district of Neuk’lln. Staring out at the street from behind curtains in the half-lit room, Olga observed another manifestation of the very same state of mind. Half an hour earlier police had thronged the area, plastering walls and lampposts with enormous posters, commissioned by the prosecutor general of Germany, offering a reward of five thousand marks to anyone providing information regarding the whereabouts of writer Otto Braun and typist Olga Benario. Now Olga gazed into the street below as her comrades, tiny Gabor Lewin and an agitated Emmy Handke, yanked down every single poster.
What word other than ‘daring” could aptly describe what was happening a few blocks away in the back room of the Muller beer hall? Indifferent to the fact that the police were gathering in Neok’lln to capture the two, militants of the Red Front of the Communist Youth were planning a political action to commemorate Braun’s liberation. First to speak was a girl with braids who announced to the hundreds of people crowded into the back room–young men and women, older workers with their wives and children–that everyone involved in Braun’s liberation was safe. She drew applause when she revealed that the action had been carried out with unloaded weapons.
“We had no intention of hurting anyone. . . . If there had been any reaction from the Moabit fascists, we would no doubt at this very moment be trying to figure out how to liberate not only Professor Braun but the comrades who raided the prison as well. The truth is that the fascists responsible for the incarceration of thousands of German workers were brought to their knees by a band of kids with unloaded guns. . . .”
At 11:00 P.M. shock troops invaded the Muller beer hall with billy clubs and emptied the back room. From her room, Olga watched the tumult spill out onto Zieten Street. Otto slept beside her, indifferent to the excitement she felt. Reports from the almost inaudible radio only fueled her insomnia: all the late-night programs mentioned the raid on Moabit Prison. And they conveyed the same reassuring piece of information: of all the participants in the action, only Olga had been identified by the police.
There were, at most, only vague descriptions of the others. Rudi Konig was referred to merely as “a well-built young man with short hair who grabbed Nekien, the clerk, by the throat”; Margot Ring was “a slightly overweight redheaded girl of no more than fifteen”; witnesses described Erich Jazosch as “a huge man with long hair who hit the minister of justice over the head”; a court employee described Erick Bombach as “a child less than five feet tall with a pistol in each hand”; and, as for Klara Seleheim, “no one has been able to say for sure whether the lanky one with the close-cropped hair was male or female,” as one newscaster put it.
The police may not have known the identities of these young accomplices, but they knew all there was to know about Olga and Otto, which is why the next weeks were very tense. As the net tightened, the chance of arrest obviously increased, in spite of the great solidarity of the working-class families of Neuk’lln. The tranquil homes of metalworkers and bakers were transformed in to safe houses where the young couple would hide for four or five days at a time. The Department of Security, a secret, semimilitarized section of the Communist Youth, was responsible for their safekeeping. Experienced in protecting the organization against terrorist attacks by right-wing groups or by the police, the Department of Security functioned like a clandestine cell within the legal Communist Youth. Its members were entrusted with arranging a succession of safe houses and for transferring Olga and Otto from one to the next when it was felt the police were getting too close.
Films showing in Berlin were regularly preceded by a slide of the poster bearing photographs of Olga and Otto and offering five thousand marks for information regarding their whereabouts. The audience would invariably break into applause for the two and, almost as invariably, the lights would come up and armed police stream into the theater. Once it was dark again, the air filled with boos, hisses, and balls of crumpled paper. What puzzled the police most was that no one came forward to claim a reward equivalent to two years’ salary for a worker.
In early June, Judge Franz Vogt, the regional director of justice, summoned the press to this chambers in order to unveil a new poster-communique signed by the prosecutor general in which the five-thousand-mark reward was rescinded, because “according to information supplied by the police, the person in question have managed to flee the country.”
This time the police were right: just days earlier, accompanied by members of the Department of Security, Otto and Olga had traveled by car to the city of Stettin on the Polish frontier, where they boarded a train for Moscow. At the very moment Judge Vogt was addressing the group of reporters in Berlin, the couple was on a train at the Russian border, presenting false passports to a young Soviet soldier with oriental features and a white helmet bearing the red star. Thrilled to be “entering proletarian territory,” Olga couldn’t resist the temptation to give an affectionate nod to that ‘soldier of the people.” To her disappointment, the soldier pretended not to notice. The train slowly gathered speed and headed on toward Moscow.
Copyright ” 1985 by Fernando Morais. Translation copyright ” 1990 by Grove Press, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.