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A World War II spy didn’t live to tell her tale. Her great-great-niece will

  • >>Kate Dwyer, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-08-02 11:51:14 BdST

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Rebecca Donner in her Brooklyn office. “My grandmother Jane said to me, ‘You must write Mildred’s story,’” she said. “I very much took that to heart.” Elizabeth D Herman for The New York Times

Every year when Rebecca Donner visited her great-grandmother’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, she and her brother would stand against the kitchen wall to have their heights marked in pencil. When she turned 9, she noticed a letter M near one of the faintest lines.

“Who’s that?” she asked her great-grandmother Harriette, who muttered, “Oh, that’s Mildred.”

Donner’s curiosity was piqued, but it wasn’t until she was 16 that she learned the truth: Mildred Harnack was an American spy during World War II. Along with her husband, Arvid Harnack, she led a resistance organisation in Berlin, risking her life to leak information from Germany’s Ministry of Economics, where he worked, in hopes of defeating the Nazis. Despite nearly escaping, she was executed by guillotine in 1943 on Adolf Hitler’s direct order.

Though the lore surrounding Harnack is riddled with inaccuracies, Donner sets the record straight in “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days,” which Little, Brown will publish Tuesday.

“My grandmother Jane said to me, ‘You must write Mildred’s story.’ I very much took that to heart,” Donner said in an interview at her home in Brooklyn. “I thought, well, yes, but maybe it won’t be my first book,” because she wanted to do the story — and her lineage — justice.

She had a feeling her grandmother had more to say, but she died in a boating accident a few years later.

“I was left with this shimmer of mystery,” Donner said. “It was endlessly fascinating.”

Over the years, Donner graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, completed a Master of Fine Arts at Columbia, directed a fiction series at KGB Bar in New York’s East Village, and wrote “Sunset Terrace,” a novel set in Los Angeles, followed by “Burnout,” a graphic novel about ecoterrorism. Just before “Burnout” was published in 2008, she visited Berlin and went to the German Resistance Memorial Center, since she knew her grandmother had been in touch with archivists there.

“I thought, maybe they’ll have a little plaque or something about Mildred,” Donner said, but when the elevator doors opened, she was greeted by a portrait of her great-great-aunt at the entrance to an art exhibition about her life. “There were actually two rooms devoted to her. And this was a huge exhibition,” she said. Still, she didn’t feel ready to tackle a biography.

Instead, she spent several years working on a novel based on her grandmother’s untimely death. But in 2016, when Donald Trump’s campaign started gaining momentum, “I had this sense that resistance was in the zeitgeist a little bit,” she said. “I thought, this is actually really important for me to write right now.”

Donner had also learned from her grandmother that Harnack employed the 11-year-old son of a diplomat to deliver coded messages to his parents, who sent the information back to the United States. His name was Donald Heath Jr, he now lived in California, and he was nearly 90.

She contacted him, and in 2016 they met. Heath told her how he would take a different route to Harnack’s apartment every time they met for “tutoring sessions,” how he would use the aquarium glass at the Berlin zoo as a mirror to check for tails, and how every time he accompanied Harnack and his parents for picnics in the countryside, he would wear a stolen Hitler Youth uniform and whistle different songs to let them know whether the coast was clear.

After the interview concluded, Donner remembers, Heath said, “I’ve told you more than I’ve told anybody, but we’re like family.” His eyes welled up. “Now I can die.”

Donner replied, “Don’t do that, Don,” but a month or two later, he was indeed gone.

After that, she sought out a book deal to finance the remaining years of research. She received a six-figure offer from Lee Boudreaux at Little, Brown at auction, along with a fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography.

“I had not heard a whisper of this story before, and I thought it was an extraordinary tale,” Boudreaux said.

She was also charmed by Donner’s enthusiasm for the subject, she said. “She is just a big, charismatic personality herself and seemed to be going through life with an adventurous spirit.”

Donner plunged into archives, either in person or remotely, in the United States, Germany, Britain and Russia.

“It’s almost as if the world conspires to show you aspects of the story that you hadn’t even expected you would discover,” she said.

In the weeks after Heath’s death, she received a call from his family, offering access to 12 steamer trunks full of documents from Berlin, where she discovered his mother’s diaries. Louise Heath and Mildred Harnack were good friends, it turns out, and Donner also discovered top-secret intelligence documents offering new insight into the Heaths’ and Harnacks’ espionage.

Though jetting off to Europe for research might sound glamorous, most of Donner’s hours were spent poring over documents in her apartment. The wall behind her desk is covered in paper where she mapped out the intersecting anti-Nazi resistance networks, “to figure out what the connections are,” she said. “Are they meaningful, or are they not? Are these just coincidences, or not?” A shelving unit is filled with white binders containing scans of correspondence; a bulletin board is tacked with photographs of Harnack, Heath and other figures in her research. Three posters decorate her hallway; they were created by high school students at the Mildred Harnack School in Berlin.

Her literary agent, Jim Rutman at Sterling Lord Literistic, was “persistently dazzled” by her ability to complicate existing narratives about the resistance.

“World War II feels as gendered a category of books as we have. It is the quintessence of the ‘dad book,’ broadly speaking,” he said. “To put a woman at the centre of the story and to complicate the conventions through which the story is usually told — all of that felt very right and very overdue.”

Donner has emphasised the importance of historiography, or examining how history is written. In existing accounts, for example, Arvid Harnack is often called a “scholar” while Mildred Harnack is called a “teacher,” which Donner said is incorrect.

“She got a job at the University of Berlin, he did not, so properly speaking, she was the scholar.”

While her family connection provided unparalleled access (the Russian Embassy even sent “the tiniest shred” of Harnack’s file), Donner does not believe it made her biased in her rendering of Harnack.

“I’m not interested in hagiography,” she said. “The greatest honour I can do her is not to put her up on a pedestal but to show how human she was.”

Over the years, she continued asking herself: Why do people commit themselves to acts that look either courageous or suicidal to other people? Harnack knowingly risked death by beheading every day.

“My life was nothing like hers, but when you have a family member who has this larger-than-life story of courage and commitment, it is quite inspiring,” Donner said.

Asya Muchnick, the editor at Little, Brown who inherited the book when Boudreaux left the company in 2017, believes there are more stories like Mildred Harnack’s to be told.

“She is probably not unique in being a woman who was written out of history, and it’s going to take one book at a time to bring those stories back to life,” Muchnick said.

“It was never a question of whether I would write it; it was just a question of when I would write it,” Donner said. “I made that promise.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company