A Guest of the Reich

From The Wall Street Journal:

In September 1944, while at the Ritz in Paris celebrating the city’s liberation, Gertrude Legendre made the reckless decision to visit the front. She loved adventure and wanted to get close enough “to smell the fighting.” Together with three American intelligence officers, she set off for the German border village of Wallendorf, which they thought had been taken by the Allies. The idea was to “mosey up to the line,” as one of her companions put it, “so the lady could hear some gunfire.” When they arrived, they heard plenty of shots, but the shots were directed at them. The village had been retaken by the Nazis.

In “A Guest of the Reich,” his gripping account of Legendre’s captivity by the Germans in World War II, Peter Finn brings to light an unfamiliar side of the Nazi regime. During her time as a prisoner, Mr. Finn tells us, Legendre discovered that there was “a parallel Nazi detention system whose relative privileges stood in stark contrast to the horrors and barbarism of the death camps.” Castles, private villas and hotels were used to detain high-ranking figures. “Eventually, the system housed hundreds of prisoners; members of several European royal families; German dissidents whom Hitler or Himmler didn’t wish to be killed, at least not immediately.”

Legendre (1902-2000) was a big-game hunter from South Carolina high society. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she joined the OSS, the wartime intelligence agency created by Franklin Roosevelt, and worked first in Washington, then in London, where she was privy to closely guarded government secrets. She was not afraid of danger. She’d always rebelled against the strictures of high society, preferring the wild outdoors to balls and debutante parties.

. . . .

When she accidently crossed the front line into Germany with her friends, Legendre was dressed in the khaki uniform of the Women’s Army Corps. The Nazis at first suspected her of being a spy. She was relentlessly interrogated (but not tortured) and subjected to stretches of solitary confinement. Once they became aware of her wealth (and connections to senior American generals) they saw a potential propaganda tool and treated her as a “special and honored” prisoner.

When the Allies pushed toward the Rhine, the Germans retreated, taking their prisoners with them. Legendre was moved from city to city and witnessed firsthand the damage done by the Allies. She arrived in Frankfurt under moonlight to see “crumbled buildings, heaps of rubble, gaunt skeletons of towers” silhouetted against the night sky, a shocking contrast to the vibrant town with its medieval center that she had visited in 1936. The center of Berlin was a “dead city”; the gaunt pedestrians wore “masks of defeat and apathy.”

Eventually she was escorted to the Rheinhotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg. The hotel had been a favorite of the Führer before the war, the place where he and Goebbels planned the Night of the Long Knives, the 1934 purge of Nazi leaders. Legendre found the distinguished Art Nouveau building, despite the barbed wire, watchtowers and SS troops on its grounds, less like a prison than an old-folks’ home. There were hot-water bottles; games of chess, bridge and Chinese checkers; math lessons; lectures; even deck tennis. Residents each had a favorite chair and were given to picky grumbling about the food, which was plentiful.

Other “guests” included retired French officers—42 generals and 75 colonels—and Marie-Agnès Cailliau de Gaulle, older sister of Charles, who had been arrested in Normandy. After much pleading on her part, her husband—who had been sent to the Buchenwald death camp—was finally allowed to join them at the hotel. His arrival was a stark reminder of the other side of Nazi prison life. He’d lost so much weight that at first his wife didn’t recognize him.

During her six months’ captivity, Mr. Finn writes, Legendre showed a great deal of courage. She had a personality that “radiated confidence and resolve” and was “an archetypical American woman, endowed with a kind of bullying certainty, as if she had just strolled, cigarette in hand, out of a celluloid frame.” She also had an enormous ego and a strong sense of entitlement.

At the Rheinhotel there was plenty of wine on hand but water was limited. Baths were allowed just once a month. During air raids, Legendre, who hated to go down to the cellar, would stay back so she could steal some of the hotel’s supply of hot water. “Without a twinge of conscience, I hopped into many a tub not meant for me and thus increased my baths far above the legal quota.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

2 thoughts on “A Guest of the Reich”

  1. Hemingway’s son Jack (aka « Bumby ») was also for a time a guest of this Nazi internment system. He was an OSS agent who parachuted in behind the lines in Eastern France and was shot in the arm in the course of his capture. On learning of his identity, his German interrogator sent him to a special hospital camp or facility that took care of the rich and or famous among captives. He was operated on and permitted to convalesce before being sent on to a standard internment camp for captured American military personnel (he had parachuted in wearing the uniform of an MP and the ruse of his being standard mililtary was accepted so that he was not shot as a spy and was permitted to be interned with other captured soldiers).

  2. I’m reading Gertie’s story as a result of this article. She was an amazing woman who safari’ed repeatedly, leaving behind a brimming trail of the blood of such ferocious beasts as elephants, rhinos, monkeys, any bird you can name, lions, tigers, cheetahs, humpbacks and just about any other mammal you can name. It seems, during her time, that NY museums and their dioramas kept her always on the hunt for the perfect specimen to mount for time and eternity behind a glass window in a lifeless, cheerless world that meant to represent natural habitat, setting, and attitude. It is a horror, the murder of innocent animals she committed in the name of the advancement of natural museums so that others, less monied, might have access to the sights she’d seen. When she was finally captured by the Germans and put into a prison camp i could only breathe a sigh of relief. For awhile, at least, the majestic animals of the world would be safe from her guns and need to murder. Yes, I plan to finish the book and, yes, I am cheering for her captors.

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