The most important thing to know about With You There Is Light is that Alexandra Lehmann translated Fritz Hartnagel’s five letters to Sophie Scholl in which he informed her of German Army and SS atrocities.
Sophie and Fritz’s true story is important today because it helps us to comprehend the moral complexity of a people living under oppression and without personal freedoms. I chose to write about their relationship as narrative nonfiction because, after reading Fritz’s letters for the first time in 2003, I discovered that, despite the enormous difficulty of putting it into words, their kind of love was the truer story. Many of the conversations quoted in this book are actual translated excerpts from their letters. They are gratefully reproduced here with the permission of S. Fischer Verlag.
Due to a deep familiarity with German culture (both my parents survived the war in the Eastern territories) and native language fluency, I was able to ask difficult questions during my research in the language in which this history happened. “Did the German people know?” or “how much was the German Army involved in the Holocaust?” were intensely personal questions. I base my answers evident in this story on my family of origin’s individual history and the long, difficult hours spent speaking with family, German university professors, and archivists, as well as interviews with several eyewitnesses, including Elisabeth Scholl and Thomas Hartnagel.
Over ten years ago, I overcame an incident in graduate school when a professor asked if my grandmother deserved what happened to her as the Red Army descended upon Berlin in 1945. Twelve years later, when I guest lecture at colleges and universities on German resistance history during the Second World War, I get to answer different questions. Today’s students are asking about what it was like to live under a dictatorship. I see this as a new and important concern for understanding what it is like to live in a totalitarian society and a sign of appreciation for living in a free one.
Captain Hartnagel was an extremely brave man, if not a hero. Both grandfathers fought in Hitler’s Army on the Russian Front, and my father, mother and aunt, as children, experienced the horrors of war. Writing this story was often painful. My mother’s father never returned from the POW camps in East Germany. Like my family of origin, Hartnagel was confronted daily by death as the Red Army surrounded the Sixth Army at Stalingrad and as it stormed through the Eastern territories, seeking revenge.
Fritz Hartnagel also risked his life by writing to his best friend. Because he was an officer, his letters were not supposed to be censored. Because Sophie’s family was punished before the war by the Gestapo for subversive acts against the Party, she was careful in writing her letters. It is also important to note that Sophie’s letters to Fritz between March 1941 and February 1943 were returned and marked as undeliverable.
Her resistance is most evident, therefore, through her actions, but Fritz’s resistance must not be underestimated or minimized.
Here were two people caught on opposite sides of war—convinced of their moral imperative to not only know the truth but to bring it into the light.
I am honored to have written Fritz and Sophie’s story and appreciate your interest in it. The image selected above is a “doodle” from the backside of Sophie Scholl’s conviction of treason (Gestapo Trial Notes). She is practicing writing the word “freedom.”