Elena Rzhevskaya was tasked with a bizarre job: protecting a jewelry box containing the only irrefutable proof of Hitler’s death.
When we hear the name Adolf Hitler, we don’t often think about his cavities. Given the towering history of World War II, it’s odd to consider its architects as real human beings, with bad breath and stomach trouble, shoes that hurt, compressed spines, and artificial teeth. Hitler, for all that he was portrayed as an archetype of evil, was also a man of flesh and blood who eventually became a corpse. And when he died, proof of his death was carried through the ruins of Berlin by a young woman who found herself thrust into some of strangest, and most strangely human, moments of the end of the war.
During the spring of 1945, Elena Kagan was a 25-year-old war widow working as a German translator with the Soviet Red Army. Born to a well-off family of Moscow Jews, she had been a literature student and young mother when the war broke out. Her husband, an intellectual writer, was killed early in the conflict, and Kagan says she enlisted with the army as a way to feed her daughter. Her knowledge of German proved essential for interrogating prisoners, but her most memorable task began on April 29, 1945, when she was assigned to a team of three charged with finding Hitler, dead or alive. Her memoir of her war days, first published as “Berlin Notes” in a Soviet literary magazine in 1965, provided the world with the first details about how Hitler’s body had been found and identified.
A fuller version of her memoir went on to appear in more than ten languages, but has never been published in English, aside from selections in obscure journals and anthologies.
In her writings, Kagan–who later changed her name to Elena Moiseevna Rzhevskaya in honor of the city of Rzhev, where she first experienced the full extent of the war–describes her compassion for the captured German soldiers, many barely adults, their bloodshot eyes wild with terror, and for the German women who were treated as war booty. She writes of orphans and cows wandering the bombed-out streets, soldiers getting drunk on the fine wines left by the fleeing Nazis, a Russian telegraphist trying on Eva Braun‘s long white evening dress, and, finally, what it was like to walk around carrying Hitler’s teeth.
She was given the teeth on May 8, eight days after Hitler’s death, when they were placed in a red jewelry box for her safekeeping. “I don’t know where they found the box,” she writes in the latest version of her recollections, Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter , a translated extract of which was provided by her literary agency to Broadly. “It was old, dark claret in color, with a soft satin lining inside–the kind of box made for perfumes or for cheap jewelry… That entire day was infused with the sense of approaching victory, and it was a great burden to carry this box around the whole time, feeling a rush of cold inside at the thought that I might accidentally forget it somewhere. The box weighed heavy on me. It oppressed me.”
The day Rzhevskaya refers to, May 8, was the day Germany signed an act of surrender, and much of the world erupted in celebration. It was also the day of Hitler’s autopsy at a makeshift morgue in a clinic in Buch, on the northwest outskirts of Berlin. Rzhevskaya reports that she didn’t come to close to the “roughly made crates with their awful black remains inside,” but she describes the difficult search for Hitler’s body, rife with confusion and false positives.
Käthe Heusermann the assist of Hitler’s dentist Hugo Blaschke was deported to the Soviet Union in July, 1945, and after interrogation in Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons, she was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. According to the decision of the court: “… by her participation in Hitler’s dental treatment, she voluntarily helped a bourgeois state prolong the war”