A tale of kindness amidst the horror in Nazi Germany

Wendelgard von Staden remembers it well.

Christmas dinner spread on a long table transversing the entry hall of her parents' farmhouse; a small gift waiting at each seat; candles flickering between evergreen boughs; the aroma of spiced hot cider filling the room.

But the guests were not the usual parade of neighbors and special friends from nearby Kleinglattbach village. They were prisoners - Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews.

It was December 1944. The place: southern Germany, 15 miles north of Stuttgart. The war had reached a critical phase for the Third Reich. So had one of the shrewdest prisoner-relief operations ever conceived under the nose of the Nazi war machine. On this farm in the nation's heartland, a German family was not only bolstering the hopes of the captive laborers assigned to their farm. They were also wrangling deals with the commandant of a nearby concentration camp. In exchange for farm produce, permission was secured for hundreds of Jews to leave the camp daily and work on their farm (not to mention feeding them and smuggling food back to their gaunt fellows inside the camp).

Only recently has Mrs. von Staden gone public with the inside story.

Decades had to pass before it could be told. Time was needed. For one thing, German accounts of the war risk being received with doubt by critical students of history. And for many Germans today, the ambiguity of their feelings about their historical roots is still not easy to sort out.

But Mrs. von Staden's life has drastically changed since the war. After taking a degree in economics at the University of Tubingen, she studied in Paris at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, then in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California. She served in the German foreign service as first secretary of the West German Embassy in Washington. She later married Berndt von Staden, the West German ambassador to the United States from 1973 to 1979 and most recently assistant secretary for political affairs at the chancellery.

Now Mrs. von Staden is taking aim at prevailing images of life in Nazi Germany, just as her family took aim at the atrocities of those days. She portrays a different aspect of wartime Germany: namely, how difficult it was for the average German to understand what the Third Reich was doing.

Reflecting on her book ''Darkness over the Valley'' (New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields. $9.95), which has recently been translated into English, she said during a Boston interview: ''It's not true, as so many German young people believe, that citizens of my generation simply ignored atrocities going on around them. Things were much more complicated and subtle when you lived and grew up within that setting itself.''

It was not hard, she explains, for a young person to be taken in by the furor of the Third Reich. Mrs. von Staden is perhaps one of few Germans of her generation to publicly admit such vulnerability. In her book she shows how Hitler's image seared itself into her schoolgirl memory:

Thunderous cries of 'Heil! Heil!' greeted him right and left as row after row of people raised their arms in the Nazi salute. Suddenly he was right in front of me. There were his brown shirt and shoulder straps, his hand raised in salute , his dark hair falling across his forehead. He stared straight ahead, past the crowd. It seemed as though he saw no one. . . . I wanted to scream, but I could not . . . I saw him slowly striding in high boots. I saw his eyes, so blue they seemed fluorescent. . . I swore deep in my heart that I would die for the Fuhrer if that was what he wanted. . . .

The hard part in those days, Mrs. von Staden says, was finding out and facing up to the truth about Hitler's genocidal designs. They were veiled as deftly from Germany's own civilian population as from the outside world. But in time the farm of Wendelgard's father, Baron Ernst von Neurath, would become a crossroads where the horror behind the veil was exposed.

Picture a prosperous farm in the mountain valleys of southern Germany. The landscape is green, fruitful. An elderly father and his industrious middle-age wife live with their teen-age daughter. The war rages, though at a distance.

Then there are the laborers. They come from the ranks of the millions taken as prisoners of war by the Nazis - young Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs, French, Ukrainians, men and women. A full 12 million POWs populate the German landscape. They yearn to return to their homelands. But for now, they are satisfied to be alive, to have a roof over their heads, bread to eat, and decent treatment from the household.

Many dissatisfied Germans are, in effect, in a similar situation. There is little they can do, nowhere to run or hide. Economic problems weigh heavily on many people. News from the European, Russian and African fronts is unsettling at the very least. Few families have not lost a son or relative in the fighting. Concentration camps, most jammed with Jewish prisoners, suddenly rise up on Germany's own soil.

Some 37 camps spring up in southern Germany alone. But they are tucked away in hidden valleys, sealed off from neighboring fields.

''The vast majority of civilians had no idea about the Holocaust,'' says Mrs. von Staden. ''It was kept top secret. And other things were bearing in much more deeply - survival, the news of family members on the war front, and so on.''

''When the war was over, many German civilians hearing of the Holocaust simply didn't believe it, so isolated had they been. My family was very different.''

''Darkness Over the Valley'' details how the rust began to appear on the shiny Hitlerian faccade she had known as a little girl. She writes of the visit of Dr. Wetzel, a family friend home on leave from the battle front.

He fumbled in his uniform pocket and took out a packet of photographs wrapped in paper. ''You won't believe me,'' he said wearily. ''I can't believe myself what I've seen in the Ukraine. . . . Behind the lines they're purging the villages of Jews. They're driving them into the woods and killing them, and the Ukrainians are helping them do it. . . we soldiers can't do a thing. If anyone knew I had taken these photographs, my life would be in danger. Tell me, are we supposed to fight a war for this kind of thing?

Later young Wendelgard was in a hospital in Karlsruhe, attended by a nurse she had grown to respect.

(She) came into my room one morning crying. She told me that the windows of Jewish businesses all over town had been smashed. She'd once taken care of a Jewish woman and all of the members of the woman's family had been so nice and friendly to her. Now they had to suffer like this!

On the wall opposite my bed hung a portrait of the Fuhrer . . . the nurse looked at the picture, muttering under her breath, ''What a devil!'' It was then that I began to wonder for the first time whether the Fuhrer was in fact an evil man.

In 1944, the von Neuraths got a rare look inside the Reich's machinations - and a rare opportunity to neutralize some of its effects. News arrived from Nazi commanders that a nearby limestone quarry and the surrounding lands were being appropriated ''for military purposes.'' Most farmers and villagers were sealed off from the new base. Wendelgard and her parents managed to get access to the woods neighboring the site. There they could peer down on the barrack construction, building materials, and the thousands of captive laborers below. An officer confided to Mr. von Neurath that long horizontal shafts were to be carved out of the face of the quarry cliff for planes to take off from concealed runways.

Before long they learned that the airstrip was not the only thing under construction. A concentration camp was also being built at the quarry's bottom. Gaunt, maltreated Jews were being shipped in by the thousand in boxcars. Camp Wiesengrund had been born.

Mrs. von Neurath began negotiating with the camp's commandant. She would send more farm produce to the camp, she said, if he would allow more Jewish prisoners to come and work on the farm during the daytime.

The commandant agreed. When the prisoners arrived under heavy guard, she asserted her own authority on the farm, weaned them from their guards, and got food into their stomachs. Those who were trusted were allowed to stuff bread, potatoes, and cheese - sometimes a book - in their pockets and the inside of their prison garb to smuggle into the camp at night.

''My mother was totally without fear, although there is no question that she could have been shot for what she was doing,'' says Mrs. von Staden.

As the defeat of Germany neared, news arrived of the American forces moving across France. Allied bombers pounded away at German targets, including the quarry. Camp Wiesengrund became a depot for sick prisoners from all over. Prisoners told of the tragedy of Jews in Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto. Mrs. von Neurath made another deal with the camp commandant.

''The idea had come to her. . . when she saw the empty shafts. . . intended for underground runways. She presented her plan to the camp commandant, imploring him to save the inmates by seeing that they got into the shafts before the SS received orders to liquidate them. The occupying forces, she said, would be the Americans. . . . In return, everybody from the vicinity would vouch for him when the Americans came. . . . We would secure the shafts with solid steel air raid doors.

. . . He agreed. . . . Mother kept herself informed about the position of the various Allied armies. . . . She wanted to draw the attention of the occupying troops to them quickly by hanging a conspicuous sign from the stone wall of the river valley. A large banner with red letters was fashioned . . . in less-than-perfect English: HERE ARE 2,000 MEN IN GREATEST DEPRESSION. COME AND HELP.

At the last minute the commandant failed to come through with his part of the bargain. Prisoners were evacuated by boxcar.

Still, in the end, many of those prisoners survived. Many reached the US, where they still live. And nearly four decades later, Mrs. von Staden and her family have not been forgotten. Last year a group of survivors in New York sent her an invitation. Would she come to dinner? She did. Here were many of the faces she remembered as a girl.

''They started telling me stories of how Mother had given them warm milk, sometimes things that were totally impossible,'' she said.But her book is not always received with open arms. Sometimes she gets critical questions from countrymen. ''How can you tell this story in such a detached, unemotional way?'' they ask.

For German young people torn over their history, Mrs. von Staden wants to moderate the current tendency to throw out the whole of German heritage as if Hitler was all there was to it.

''In recent years debate over our heritage revived. It was not only due to the Holocaust film, which made a tremendous impression, but also the younger generation wanted to find out for themselves what had gone on.

''Even with my own children, for many years I found them totally unable to understand the perspective of my own generation. I wrote this book partly for them. I thought that one day they might pick it up and understand at least a little more. Then it will have been worthwhile.''

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