Why I had to expose the 'secret' of Hitler

An extraordinary book on the last hours of the Führer tells the story of the Jewish woman who was among the first inside the bunker


When the Russian tanks entered the centre of Berlin on April 29 1945, a 26-year-old Jewish woman was travelling in a jeep ahead of the troops. Elena Rzhevskaya was a military interpreter for Russia's 3rd Shock Army. She worked for SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency, whose name is an acronym of the Russian for "death to spies".

I first came across Rzhevskaya in Antony Beevor's wonderful book, Berlin, The Downfall 1945. Further research uncovered the story of an extraordinary woman, now aged 95 and still living in Moscow, who played a crucial role in finding Hitler's bunker and proving his death. Her evidence was suppressed by Stalin and she was only allowed to publish her full memoirs in 1986. They have not yet been translated into English.

Rzhevskaya was born Elena Moiseyevna Kagan in Belarus in 1919. She changed her name after the war. Her father was the director of a large Moscow bank and she enjoyed a privileged childhood, studying German with a private tutor and attending Moscow's elite Institute of Philosophy and Literature. She married at the age of 20 but her husband died at the front shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, leaving her with a young daughter. Rzhevskaya herself enlisted and trained as a military interpreter, working in battlefields, interrogating German soldiers as they were captured.

She kept journals and recorded the trauma of the battles of Rzhev, known in Russia as the ''slaughter house'' and in honour of which she later named herself. She wrote of her conflicted feelings of compassion for the young German soldiers she was questioning.

As Soviet forces advanced through Berlin, Rzhevskaya's unit was trying to find people who might be able to provide information about Hitler's whereabouts. They had unconfirmed reports that he was in the Reich Chancellery.

Stalin was determined the German leader should be taken alive in time for May Day celebrations, scheduled to take place in Moscow two days later.

On the morning of the 29th, Rzhevskaya's unit managed to arrest a young boy wearing a Hitler Youth uniform who had been attempting to shoot them She tried to question him, but he sat in silence with his ''bloodshot eyes and cracked lips… looking around but not understanding anything. Just a boy,'' according to Beevor.

Later that day, she had more success. Her colleagues had captured a nurse who was trying to break through the Russian lines and leave the city in order to find her mother. She told Rzhevskaya that she had been working in the emergency hospital in the Reich Chancellery. She said that people there believed that Hitler ''was in the basement.''

The SMERSH jeeps immediately set off for the Reich Chancellery. As Rzhevskaya recorded in her journal, the closer they came to the city centre, the thicker and more acrid the air. She could feel the grit of masonry dust on her teeth as the American-lent jeeps negotiated the rubble and shell craters of the Berlin streets.

It was not until May 2 that the Russians finally entered the Führerbunker under the Reich Chancellery. As she waited for the breakthrough, Rzhevskaya made notes of the human stories she witnessed.

An elderly woman wearing a white armband of surrender but, Rzhevskaya notes, no hat, is taking a little boy and girl across the road. They are immaculately turned out, their hair neatly combed, but the woman is distraught and crying out, as Beevor reports, to no one in particular: "They are orphans. Our house has been bombed. They are orphans".

A sleeping German soldier curled in a foetal position, using a broken door as a pillow. A young woman with a thin little boy who grimaces, Rzhevskaya notices, as his mother talks and talks about his missing father. The woman has spent the last two years hoping for her husband's return and making a list of jobs for him to do in their flat, but now the building has burnt down and the woman has lost not only her husband and her home, but her way of coping.

When the Russians finally entered the bunker, the electric generator had broken down so that there was no light but torch light and no ventilation. By now, most of the bunker's inhabitants had killed themselves or fled; Hitler's dog handler Fritz Tornow was one of the few who remained alive, incoherent with shock, and there were still a few doctors and nurses working in the Reich Chancellery hospital.

Rzhevskaya headed for Hitler's office where she discovered 10 volumes of Joseph Goebbels' diaries as well as Martin Bormann's logs of Hitler's military conferences. She immediately copied as much of these documents as she could into her notebooks. She understood that, as soon as she handed the papers to her superiors, they would become secret documents to which she'd have no access.

The following day, May 3, the Russians discovered the bodies of the six children of Joseph and Magda Goebbels, lying in their bunk beds. Then, on May 5, some charred human remains were found in a shell crater in the Reich Chancellery garden. The find included parts of a skull, a jaw-bone and some teeth which were wrapped in sheets. These were taken to the SMERSH headquarters in the north of the city and handed over to pathologists under strict instructions to keep their work secret.

Rzhevskaya was summoned to the pathology lab. Her boss, Colonel Vassily Gorbushin, entrusted her with a large, dark-red cigar box, lined with satin. It contained the teeth, which he believed to be Hitler's. To verify this, Rzhevskaya managed to track down a dental assistant, Käthe Heusermann-Reiss, and dental technician, Fritz Echtmann, who both worked for Hitler's dentist, Dr Blaschke. They were able to confirm from records that the teeth were Hitler's; the remains included a distinctive, solid gold "telephone bridge" replacing three teeth in the lower right jaw.

On May 8, rumours of Germany's surrender spread among the Russian troops in Berlin. Unofficial celebrations broke out across the city.

Rzhevskaya spent the evening pouring drinks with one hand, while clinging to the cigar box with the other, the precious evidence that Hitler was dead. "Only two officers knew what I was carrying and I had to keep my tongue," Rzhevskaya told Tom Parfitt of the Observer in a rare interview at her Moscow apartment in 2005. "Can you imagine how it felt? A young woman like me who had travelled the long military road from the edge of Moscow to Berlin; to stand there and hear that announcement of surrender, knowing that I held in my hands the decisive proof that we had Hitler's remains."

At this point, Rzhevskaya believed that she and her colleagues would shortly be sent to Moscow with their documentary and physical evidence. "I was sure that, in a few days, the whole world would know that we had found Hitler's corpse."

It was not to be.

In the following days Rzhevskaya and her SMERSH colleagues were forced into silence. The bunker documents and the physical remains were removed to a hidden archive in the Soviet Union and, on May 26, Stalin informed President Truman's representative, Harry L Hopkins, that "Bormann, Goebbels, Hitler and probably Krebs had escaped and were in hiding".

Rzhevskaya returned to Moscow, changed her name and began her career as a writer, initially writing fiction.

It was not until 12 years after Stalin's death, during the far more liberal Khruschev years, that she was able to publish her Berlin Notes in the Russian literary magazine Znamya, and finally, after Gorbachev came to power, she published a fuller version in her book Berlin, May 1945.

"By the will of fate, I came to play a part in not letting Hitler achieve his final goal of disappearing and turning into a myth. Only with time did I finally manage to overcome all the obstacles and make public this 'secret of the century'.

"I managed to prevent Stalin's dark and murky ambition from taking root - his desire to hide from the world that we had found Hitler's corpse."

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