No fanfares for quiet and humble anti-Nazi heroes: Some Germans who defied Hitler have had little recognition, Steve Crawshaw writes from Berlin

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The Independent Online
'ERNA rang the bell. She said: 'My mum has gone. They've taken her.' I thought: 'She can't go back, otherwise she's dead.' I said: 'Well, you must stay here.' And that was that.' Thus 75-year-old Frieda Adam, a former seamstress, tells her story of heroism as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk in Germany of the small elite, led by Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who risked and lost their lives with their attempt on Hitler's life 50 years ago this week. Then there was Oskar Schindler and his List. But people like Frieda Adam scarcely get a mention. She was promised a medal for saving the life of a Jewish friend, but it never came.

Yet Ms Adam arguably showed as much bravery as those who are commemorated with fanfares. Stauffenberg was a close Hitler aide. Schindler was a drinking companion of the SS. Ms Adam was alone with her personal defiance of the regime.

'If a person does something, more is possible than one thinks.' That little saying, which stands framed on a shelf in Ms Adam's apartment in the east Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, provided her guiding philosophy. She looks back with a mixture of pride and bitterness. 'To hear people talk, it seems that everybody did something (against the Nazis). If only that were true.'

From November 1942 until the end of the war, Frieda gave shelter in her little ground-floor apartment to her friend Erna Puterman, a Jew. 'I can't really use the word fear,' she says now. 'It's a funny thing. We knew that if we were found out, it would mean death. But we refused to think about it.'

Ms Puterman's mother was picked up during a Sonderaktion (special action) in Berlin. Ms Adam talks of a combination of unlucky circumstances, which led to Erna's mother being taken that day. But Ms Puterman sees things differently. 'If it hadn't happened that day, it would have happened on another day.' There was, in the end, no escape for those who did not have a Frieda Adam to protect them.

Most did not have a Frieda Adam. There was no widespread sense of opposition to the regime. Erna lived on false identity papers, gained by using the birth certificate of a schoolfriend, 'Charlotte S' - who still does not know that she helped to save a life. 'If she'd known,' says Ms Adam flatly, 'she'd have denounced us.' Even Frieda's husband threatened to inform the authorities. Only one neighbour knew Frieda's secret - and Frieda feared even her betrayal, to the end.

Ms Adam dismisses the argument that ordinary people did not know what was happening at the time. She witnessed atrocities - children spiked on bayonets a few blocks from her home. 'It was a nightmare - except it wasn't. It was real.'

She also insists it is dishonest to deny knowledge of the mass deportations of Jews. 'When they were taken to the Lehrter Station (in Berlin), people just looked the other way. Later, they were taken at night. But to start with - people looked away.'

She contrasts the refusal to take responsibility at that time with the mass demonstrations against racist violence in the past two years. 'If people had gone on to the street, like today, that would have been different.' Ms Puterman - who lives in west Berlin, and is in close touch with her friend - agrees: 'Today, people do something. Then, they didn't want to do anything. They wore blinkers, like horses.'

Schindler's List has been easily the biggest movie in Germany this year, playing to packed cinemas with mostly young, shocked audiences across the country. Now, Stauffenberg and his comrades are in the headlines. But Frieda Adam and others who committed inconspicuous acts of courage are unlikely to be remembered, except in passing. Foreign organisations like the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, in New York, pay tribute to the courage of Ms Adam. At home, her bravery stands as a reproach to the millions who stayed silent, while she and a few others - with no position, no money, just their humanity - risked all.

(Photograph omitted)

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