For an historic event that happened almost 80 years ago, people around the world are still awed by Sophie and Hans Scholl.
The young Christian siblings (former fanatical Hitler Youth leaders in Germany) became fearless leaders of The White Rose movement that spoke out against the Nazi regime during World War II.
Jud Newborn — a New York-based author who’s an expert on the Holocaust — will speak to Quad Cities audiences this Thursday and Friday on those influential times, which still resonate today. He has lectured and performed to acclaim at universities, religious institutions, conferences and other venues worldwide, ranging from San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and L.A.’s Simon Wiesenthal Center to the United Nations, Canada and Cape Town. He is the co-author of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose with Annette Dumbach.
In a presentation Friday, Oct. 21 at the Figge Art Museum auditorium, Newborn will use stirring music, 80 powerful images and suspenseful storytelling, in recounting how Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans transformed uniquely to become the greatest heroes of the German anti-Nazi resistance, and icons of civil courage in Germany today.
The event is part of the German American Heritage Center & Museum exhibit, The White Rose Student Resistance to Hitler, Munich 1942/43, now on display through Feb. 12, 2023. The exhibition is on loan from the White Rose Foundation.
The foundation was created in 1985 to speak to young people and students in order to maintain the legacy of the White Rose while reminding today’s youth of the importance to fight for human rights. The courage of the White Rose members to stand up against an omnipresent and brutal dictatorship is relevant today as we ask not only “what was it like?” but “what does it mean today?”
The Friday talk will be a true multimedia event, Newborn said recently.
“The program itself is a dramatic and inspiring multimedia program with music and 80 photos, at different historical and contemporary points,” he said. “It’s also a kind of a suspense. It’s got suspenseful storytelling.”
“It’s takes a lot of energy, but I love doing it,” he said.
There were many aspects to the power and influence of the White Rose, Newborn said.
“They were beautiful, they were passionate, they were outraged,” he said. “They were a little lofty, and that’s because of who they were trying to reach out to and affect.”
Comprised mainly of University of Munich students, the White Rose called out to their uncaring countrymen against Hitler’s criminal regime and the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. Their wartime leaflets declared, “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
On Feb. 18, 1943, they mounted a gallery high above the University of Munich’s vast atrium and tossed hundreds of leaflets down upon the heads of astonished students. It was the only public protest by Germans against Nazism ever to be staged.
Spotted and captured by the Gestapo, they were vilified in a show trial only four days later. But even as Hitler’s “hanging judge,” Roland Freisler, brutally sealed their fate, “their message was spreading beyond them and even beyond the borders of Germany, leaving a legacy of hope that has never been more timely or important than it is today,” the GAHC says.
On Feb. 22, 1943, a court sentenced Christoph Probst and Sophie and Hans Scholl to death for “highly treasonous aiding and abetting of the enemy, preparation of high treason and demoralization of the troops.” The sentences were carried out that same day, as the students were beheaded by guillotine at the Munich-Stadelheim prison.
Sophie was 21 years old, and Hans was 24.
Role models for today
Newborn reveals the power of the White Rose as role models today in the ongoing struggle against oppression, genocide, injustice, prejudice, far-right fanaticism and the undermining of democracy, including the suppression of free speech and dissent.
Relating the White Rose story to today’s most compelling current events, he concludes by presenting outstanding heroes of all backgrounds today, at home and abroad, who fight for freedom and our shared humanity.
Newborn (who earned his PhD from University of Chicago) is an author, curator, and dramatic multimedia lecturer as well as an expert on anti-Semitism, extremism, and the fight for democracy and human rights worldwide.
The Holocaust is personal for Newborn, 69, since his maternal grandparents’ family lost many members though the mass murder of Jews by Nazis.
“I decided to devote myself to this subject in general, not just the White Rose, which is just a side project, but try to understand as an anthropologist, the form and meaning of the Holocaust,” he said. “Why it happened the way it did.
“That was a very long and grueling pursuit over many years,” Newborn said. “It could be very dark and difficult, but also when I was making progress and understanding things, it could be exhilarating.”
Part of Friday’s presentation will answer two central questions the book did not:
- Why would former Hitler Youth leaders transform, to not only anti-Nazis but to become heroes for all youth today?
- Why did the movement call itself “The White Rose”?
Among reasons that Hans and Sophie changed their minds about Hitler were the fact that Nazis not only targeted Jews but populations like the handicapped.
“There was a shocking, traumatic experience Hans had, and he was the one who wrote the leaflets and started the White Rose with a friend of his,” Newborn said. “Once this transformation began, they started being upset and alienated by things going on in Germany that they might not have paid attention to before and they were Christian.
“There was a Nazi program that was called mercy killing or euthanasia, but it was actually a murder and gassing of people who were handicapped or had some kind of inherited disease or condition — sometimes even alcoholics,” he said. “And the people got wind of it. And the White Rose students, especially Hans and Sophie at the time found out about it and they were outraged.”
Unique among Germans
The Scholls were unique among Germans in speaking out against Nazi concentration camps as early as June 1942, Newborn said.
“What they wanted to do was, first of all to raise consciousness, to pull apart the veil of Nazi lies, as well as the complete complacency, as well as the complicity of Germans,” he said. “And they wanted them to engage in effective passive sabotage of the Nazi war effort.”
The White Rose told Germans that the war was killing their sons and their families.
“They said the war cannot be won. It’s a misguided war. it’s a criminal war,” Newborn said. “They wanted people to get out of the Nazi party organization and the party itself. They also wanted people to suddenly sabotage munitions plants and do everything they could to slow down the functioning of the mechanisms of daily life.
“They wanted people to be creative and think about ways in which they could slow down the Nazi war effort and get people to see the truth,” he said.
There are stark parallels between the Nazi movement and Donald Trump and today’s MAGA movement, Newborn said. Like Trump has called journalists “the enemy of the people,” the White Rose was derided in similar terms.
“There was this manipulation of consciousness of language, this kind of lying to the people is pernicious, whether it’s done in a horrendous criminal regime, or whether it’s being used today in our own country, because it confuses fact from rumor,” he said.
“You don’t know what the truth is, lies are spread, and people’s resentments are raised,” Newborn said. “And instead of understanding what it means to protect democracy, they’re confused into thinking that the democracy is under threat in a false manner.
“So all of this stuff really tied together with what the lessons are for today, because the White Rose were students who spoke truth to power, and that’s what we need today,” he said. “We need more people who risk themselves despite the general attitude resist conformism and speak the truth and speak out.”
Newborn is awestruck at the bravery Sophie and Hans showed.
“Their courage was beyond imagination because they knew what they were risking,” he said. “Of course, they did not want to be caught. So they had all sorts of classic techniques whereby you try to keep your resistance secret.”
The White Rose movement was not hailed as heroic until years after the war.
“The resistance was not the kind that would bring the downfall of the Nazis,” Newborn said. “It was more kind of spiritual example that there was courage still and that there were good people in Germany who still were able to see and tell the truth. But they were considered traitors by many Germans.”
“And they only really began to be recognized and admired as we got towards the student unrest period of 1969,” he said.
The dropping of leaflets from the top floor of the University of Munich atrium was truly a cinematic, galvanizing act, Newborn said.
“That’s how they stepped into history,” he said. “It was like a classic act of political theater. If they had not done that, Germans probably wouldn’t have known about them. They might have heard something but that was so dramatic and so unique, that it couldn’t be ignored.”
Newborn is working on adapting the White Rose book into a Hollywood feature film, now in an early phase with an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and producer (who he wouldn’t name).
A previous German-language film, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” was released in 2005, directed by Marc Rothemund and written by Fred Breinersdorfer. It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and will be shown at the Figge Sunday, Nov. 6 at 1 p.m.
The punishment against the Scholls was especially cruel, since there originally was supposed to be a three-month interval between their “trial” and their sentence, Newborn said.
“They were so concerned after the trial, they immediately took them out and executed them,” he said.
Engaging with students
Newborn has been honored by the Anne Frank Center USA with the prestigious Spirit of Anne Frank Human Writes Award, the highest honor in his field. A pioneer in the creation of Holocaust museums, Newborn served as Founding Historian, curator and co-creator of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.
On Thursday in the QC, he will speak with Augustana and Ambrose students, as well as some high school students at the German American Heritage Center.
“My lecture programs are very popular at universities and colleges,” he said, noting Hans and Sophie are role models for students.
“Oh my gosh, the students are thrilled and deeply moved and they almost inevitably come up to me and say, ‘I’m not Sophie and Hans, and the other members who did so much. What am I doing? How can I be more like them?’” Newborn said.
“I say to them, whatever you do, don’t get caught, don’t risk your life,” he said. “There are smaller ways in which you can speak truth to power — being an asset to your community by getting involved in all sorts of things that help make your world better and also to be politically involved and try to look at what’s really going on and try to enlighten people.
“That’s very hard because especially today, our nation is so divided, there’s almost no dialogue between the different factions,” Newborn said. “And so that is a risk for young people.”
That also applies to speaking out against bullies, he noted. Like the White Rose, strength comes in numbers. “You need to get some solidarity by getting a few people around you, and together you can confront the bullies,” Newborn said.
While minds of many people today can’t be changed (like some Republicans in response to the Jan. 6 investigation), there are many independents who are worth reaching through the facts, he said.
“The January 6th insurrection was a horrendous threat to our democracy, democratic system, and if that isn’t properly investigated and the record isn’t established, it could happen again,” Newborn said.
He added that he’s very impressed by the scope and comprehensiveness of the QC “Out of Darkness” series of events, of which his talk is one.
“I believe that these ongoing events is quite unusual,” Newborn said. “Other places do work together, they may do something for a week or something, but to do something like this for months — pulling together so many different organizations all towards the same cause but with different angles that educate people – that is great.”
“I want to praise ‘Out of the Darkness,’ the German American Heritage Center and the Quad Cities for doing something really important,” he said. “I’ve rarely seen something this extensive.”
He will present “Speaking Truth to Power” at the John Deere Auditorium at the Figge (225 W. 2nd St., Davenport) on Friday, Oct. 21 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20, or $15 for GAHC&M members, available on Eventbrite.