On May 8, 1945, the Soviet military interpreter Elena Kagan was entrusted with a burgundy-colored box. Her superior in the SMERSH counterintelligence group had told her that it contained Adolf Hitler’s dentures and teeth and that she was answerable with her life for its safekeeping. On V-Day, Elena, a Jew who would have turned 100 this week, was holding a box with what remained of Hitler. “The situation in which I found myself was odd, unreal,” she later wrote in her book, Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter. “God Almighty, is this happening to me? Is this me standing here at the moment Germany surrenders, with a box in my hands containing the indisputable remnants of Adolf Hitler?!” It would take her a lifetime to fully grasp this moment, and its consequences.
The charred remains of Hitler and Eva Braun were unearthed in Berlin on May 4: A soldier found them in a bomb crater in the Reich Chancellery garden. The remains were unrecognizable and were reburied. On May 5, after a series of interrogations, which yielded testimony about Hitler’s suicide, the bodies were uncovered and an official document was drawn up. Elena was there to witness: “On a grey blanket, contorted by fire, lay black, hideous human remains, caked with lumps of mud.” The moment left her emotionally unaffected, unlike the recent sight of Goebbels’ dead children, which haunted her: The youngest girl, Heidrun, seemed to be the same age as her own daughter.
Kagan’s counterintelligence unit attached to the 3rd Shock Army was assigned to hunt for Hitler, a search conducted in deep secrecy. In late April, as the battle for Berlin was nearing the end, Elena interpreted prisoner interrogations in the basement of a house near the Potsdamer Platz. “We were interested in just one thing: where was Hitler?” Unknown to them at the time, on April 30, in the Führerbunker underneath the Chancellery, Hitler and Eva Braun had committed suicide. Elena would recall the center of Berlin ablaze, “the collapsing walls of burnt-out buildings,” and unbreathable air, “acrid and opaque from the fumes and stone dust.” It was her fourth year at the front where she volunteered at 21, leaving behind her baby daughter.
In 1941, after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the Red Army desperately needed interpreters. Elena had enrolled in a military translation course where her excellent command of German was noticed (Karl Liebknecht’s widow, Sophie, was among her teachers). Offered a posting in Moscow with the general staff, Elena refused, choosing the front lines. In January 1942 she was deployed to the environs of Rzhev, the ancient city 132 miles northwest of Moscow, and the site of ferocious battles. The Germans called Rzhev, standing at a junction of major railways and highways, “the springboard” for a leap to Moscow. In turn, Stalin demanded that the city be liberated “at any cost.”
Lasting 17 months, the battles for Rzhev and surrounding regions were some of the bloodiest in the war: The Red Army suffered incalculable losses. Yet, these battles did not even enter Soviet history books. After the war Elena campaigned for official recognition of Rzhev’s heroic and tragic role in defending Moscow and took the pen name Rzhevskaya.
In Poland Elena’s superior in the counterintelligence unit, Major Boris Bystrov, had proclaimed: “When we enter Germany I am going to capture Goebbels.” On May 2, 1945, she was astounded to see Major Bystrov and two other officers in Berlin discovering Goebbels’ remains. Goebbels’ charred body was put on display in front of the Reich Chancellery. Recognizable for its metal prosthesis and orthopedic boot, Goebbels’ body “symbolized the collapse of the Third Reich,” Elena writes. His yellow tie, which somehow survived the fire, seemed emblematic of the yellow star Goebbels invented to identify Jews.
Stalin was displeased that the discovery of Goebbels’ remains was publicized. The search for Hitler, he decreed, would proceed in strict secrecy. Elena’s counterintelligence unit was downsized to three: Colonel Vasily Gorbushin (in charge of the search), Major Bystrov, and the translator. They were prohibited all contact with the press and photographers.
On May 2 the Russian assault detachments of the 5th Shock Army broke into the Reich Chancellery. Elena’s group was ordered to inspect the Chancellery and the Führerbunker. During heavy bombardment artillery shells had been hitting the Chancellery, some landing on the bunker’s roof and cutting its electricity; the place was dark and stuffy. Elena recalls: “There were overturned tables, broken typewriters, glass and paper underfoot.” Working by the light of oil lamps, she sorted through documents, hoping to find clues about Hitler. There was Bormann’s correspondence, Hitler’s personal papers, and Goebbels’ diary—the notebooks dated from 1932 to July 8, 1941. She read the papers in the halls of the Chancellery. Focused on her immediate task, Elena could only skim through Goebbels’ diary before dispatching it to the front headquarters with her notes. In 1964, while researching her memoir, she would read this diary at the Council of Ministers Archive.
After the liberation of the Reich Chancellery Soviet war correspondents streamed into the Führerbunker, emerging with souvenirs. By May 5 Colonel General Nikolay Berzarin, the commander of the 5th Shock Army that liberated the Chancellery, put the place under guard. Elena’s counterintelligence group of the rival 3rd Shock Army had to smuggle out the presumed remains of Hitler and Eva Braun. On May 6, at the crack of dawn, the bodies were carried over the fence of the Chancellery garden and loaded onto a waiting truck. In Buch, on Berlin’s outskirts, a commission of medical experts and pathologists, headed by the principal forensic medical specialist of the 1st Belorussian Front, Lieutenant Colonel Faust Shkaravsky, conducted a series of autopsies. In 1936, in Buch, the first racial evaluations had been performed on Hitler’s orders. On May 8, 1945, Soviet forensic experts examined Hitler’s remains.
A Jewish female doctor, Anna Marants, a medical service major, performed the dissection. (A native of Kyiv, Marants was acting principal pathologist of the 1st Belorussian Front; after the war she worked in Kyiv’s hospitals.) The Soviet forensic pathologists were forbidden to take photographs, but on May 9, during the autopsy on Goebbels’ body, Doctor Shkaravsky photographed the medical experts in the examining room.
Because Hitler’s remains were badly burned, the teeth, with abundant bridgework, crowns, and fillings, presented the most important anatomic means of identification. Hitler’s gold bridge and lower jaw were placed in a box and handed over to Colonel Gorbushin who gave it to Elena, deemed the most reliable in their group of three. (Earlier, in Poznań, “a bulky, reinforced coffer” with gold items was brought from a bank to Elena’s bedroom. The gold was to be dispatched in sealed bags to Moscow; in the meantime it was emptied into a compartment underneath her sofa. “I was trusted. So in Poznań I slept on a hoard of gold,” she remarks.)
On May 8, driving through a devastated Berlin, they located Hitler’s laryngologist, Dr. Carl von Eicken, the head of the Charité university clinic. The professor had last treated Hitler in 1944; he said Lev Trotsky also had been his patient. A dentistry student in this clinic helped in the search for Hitler’s dentist, Dr. Hugo Blaschke, who by then had fled Berlin; working in his clinic was Dr. Bruck, a Jewish dentist recently emerged from hiding. His former student, Käthe Heusermann, had been Dr. Blaschke’s dental assistant. She had attended Hitler—and helped hide her Jewish teacher from the Nazis. Heusermann received her rations at the Reich Chancellery, sharing them with Dr. Bruck.
Heusermann was a tall, blond, attractive woman of 35. As part of Hitler’s entourage she had much to fear; however, she had refused Dr. Blaschke’s offer to evacuate. As she explained to Elena, her fiancé was in Norway and she was afraid to lose touch with him if she left Berlin. She had been working for Dr. Blaschke since 1937 and had assisted in extracting Hitler’s teeth.
Heusermann was interrogated several times and at great length. She was the only person on hand who knew the distinctive features of Hitler’s teeth. Elena writes, “I asked her not to give the teeth their specialist names—incisor, canine, and so on, for fear I might not correlate the German and Russian terms correctly. Instead she simply gave them numbers.” Heusermann’s account coincided with the autopsy report. She also helped locate Hitler’s dental records and X-rays, having guessed correctly that they were kept at the Führerbunker. Hitler’s dental records were found in the box room, surprisingly intact, given the general chaos of the bunker where Russian soldiers were partying.
On May 11 Dr. Shkaravsky, who had been in charge of the autopsies, interviewed Heusermann in Buch. This time she drew a diagram of Hitler’s teeth, commenting on every detail. She said Dr. Blaschke’s dental technician, Fritz Echtmann, could confirm her report. Echtmann examined Hitler’s and Eva Braun’s dentures. He recognized his work and said that Braun’s bridge was his invention: “I did not make such a bridge for anyone else …”
The investigation was nearing the end when a member of Hitler’s bodyguard, Harry Mengershausen, was captured. He had observed Hitler’s and Braun’s cremation and burial. Mengershausen and his interrogators sat on logs in the Chancellery garden while Elena translated. When Mengershausen pointed out the burial site, irrefutable evidence of Hitler’s death was obtained.
“I was confident,” Elena writes in her memoir, “that within another day or two the whole world would know we had found Hitler’s body.” But Pravda, the major Soviet publication, printed accounts of Hitler’s escape, and the Red Army was urged to hunt for Hitler. “It was a deceitful charade, a weird attempt to disguise the fact that his body had been found,” Elena remarks.
Stalin, informed of the investigation results, sent his representative to Berlin to personally verify the reports. Around May 23 Lieutenant General Alexander Vadis, head of counterintelligence SMERSH of the 1st Belorussian Front, launched a new round of interrogations. Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann, free until then, were detained. Elena, as a translator, was warned of her potential liability: Everything concerning the investigation of Hitler’s death was a Soviet state secret and the punishment for disclosing it was up to 15 years in the gulag. Lieutenant General Vadis compiled a dossier for Stalin, which was sent to Moscow along with material evidence: Hitler’s dentures and teeth. From Berlin, Vadis’ reports went to Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD.
Elena’s superior, Colonel Gorbushin, was summoned to Moscow where Victor Abakumov, the head of SMERSH of the USSR Commissariat of Defense, told him: “Comrade Stalin has familiarized himself with the entire course of events and the documents relating to the discovery of Hitler. … He considers the matter closed. At the same time, Comrade Stalin said, ‘But we shall not make this public.’”
On Nov. 1, 1965, Kagan, now Elena Rzhevskaya, received a phone call from Marshal Georgy Zhukov. During World War II the distance between Zhukov, the commander in chief of the Soviet army and Stalin’s deputy, and Elena, then a rank-and-file translator, was immense. Now aged 69, demoted after the war by Stalin and later by Nikita Khrushchev, Marshal Zhukov lived in obscurity, receiving no one.
His meeting with Elena was an exception. Despite his proximity to Stalin Zhukov had not been informed about Hitler’s death, obtaining the first definite confirmation from Elena’s book. Unfathomable to her, even the glorious marshal who had accepted Germany’s surrender in Berlin was kept unaware that Hitler’s body had been found and identified. After the war Stalin had pressed Marshal Zhukov, “Where is Hitler?”
By then, Stalin had received ample factual evidence of Hitler’s death, yet he denied this knowledge to the world. So, it fell to Elena to disclose the secret of the century. First published in Moscow in 1965, her memoir became widely translated (although not into English) and sold 1.5 million copies. The English translation of an expanded version of her book appeared in 2018.
Elena struggled for answers as to why Stalin suppressed information about Hitler’s death. Stalin’s “inscrutable personality” and his “ambiguous attitude towards Hitler” were some of her best clues. In 1965, Marshal Zhukov would tell her the obvious: “Stalin had no sense of responsibility to the historical record …”
Before returning to her army unit stationed in the German town of Stendal, Elena had visited Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann at the front headquarters and was allowed to take Heusermann for a walk. They chatted about things they would do together upon her release. “I liked everything about her. … Käthe was just somebody people liked.” She would not see Heusermann again. Two decades later, from an archival document, Elena would learn her fate and that of Echtmann.
When in October 1945 Elena was leaving Germany, Major Bystrov told her: “There were three of us at every stage of this Hitler saga. Of those three, you are the only one who can write about it.” Elena was a future writer, having studied literature before the war; two others were intelligence officers. She left Germany on board Zhukov’s Douglas cargo plane, which was returning to Moscow.
During the postwar decade, when Stalin launched his campaign against the Jews, Elena witnessed arrests in the Jewish community. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was killed on Stalin’s orders. Elena was in the stream of mourners going past the great actor’s coffin in the Jewish State Theater. Mikhoels’ theater, which she had frequented, was shut down the following year. Like other Soviet Jews at the time Elena was denied employment. She also faced an additional fear—she was one of the three witnesses of Adolf Hitler’s postmortem. Nonetheless, she recorded information about the search for Hitler.
In 1954, one year after Stalin’s death, she took her memoir to Znamya literary magazine, which published war journalism and prose. The editor, afraid to be the first to publish an account about the discovery and identification of Hitler’s remains, printed her memoir, but without this vital part. In 1961 Elena outwitted her editors and included the story establishing Hitler’s death in her book Spring in a Greatcoat, a collection of her previously published novellas. Her editors failed to spot the new material.
In September 1964, after years of trying, she received access to the documents she had been translating in Berlin two decades earlier. Some bore her signature as a military translator; others were new to her. Thus, she came upon a folder containing the 1945 “delivery notes for items the staff at front headquarters were sending to the SMERSH directory in Moscow.” Two of Hitler’s tunics and a cap were being forwarded to Moscow along with two other “items”—K. Heusermann and F. Echtmann. This brief inhumane reference spelled out their fate. “I just sat there dejected, switched off,” Elena writes. “I just had to live with it, another secret.”
Much later, Elena read Heusermann’s unpublished memoir about her imprisonment in Russia, which she received from Lev Bezymensky, a fellow wartime interpreter and writer who had interviewed Heusermann in Düsseldorf. Before being charged she spent six months in the Lubyanka Prison, then six years in solitary confinement in Lefortovo. In November 1951 Heusermann and Echtmann (among others) were condemned by resolution of the Special Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs “as witnesses of Hitler’s death.”
In December Heusermann was dispatched in a cattle car to a labor camp in Taishet, southeastern Siberia, where, unable to fulfil her labor quota and put on a penal ration, she became emaciated. She was saved by a woman, a Carpathian Jew, who shared her food parcels with her.
The end of Heusermann’s term, in 1955, coincided with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s visit to the USSR; he agreed with Khrushchev about the return of German prisoners. Flown to Moscow, placed in a well-furnished cottage in the countryside, Heusermann was taken on a sightseeing tour of Moscow—before being dispatched to Berlin in a first-class sleeping compartment. She was 45 when she returned. Her fiancé was long married and raising a family. Heusermann settled in Düsseldorf and worked for a while in dental practice. In the mid-1960s she and Echtmann testified in Germany that they had identified Hitler’s body from his teeth. Elena learned this from articles in Shtern and Die Welt.
After publication of her book Berlin, May 1945 Elena repeatedly traveled to Germany. When offered to meet Heusermann, she refused. “What could I say to her?” she writes. “I had been spared, but had evidently myself come within a whisker of her fate.” Heusermann had paid a terrible price for helping the Soviet investigation. In Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter where she first included Heusermann’s story, Elena writes: “That burden of guilt will never leave me.”
A brief afterword: In 1986 my father, the writer Grigory Baklanov (Friedman), published Elena Rzhevskaya’s account of her meeting with Marshal Zhukov in the literary magazine Znamya, which he edited. He was able to prevail over censors who wanted to suppress Zhukov’s negative remarks about Stalin.
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Alexandra Popoff is the author of several literary biographies, most recentlyVasily Grossman and the Soviet Century.