[The daughter of the German communist killed by the Nazis
discusses her legacy in the modern fight against the far right.]
[https://portside.org/] 

 OLGA BENARIO PRESTES: THE GERMAN WHO FOUGHT FASCISM, TO THE DEATH  
[https://portside.org/2019-02-03/olga-benario-prestes-german-who-fought-fascism-death]


 

 Gouri Sharma 
 December 21, 2018
Al Jazeera
[https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/olga-benario-prestes-german-fought-fascism-death-181213220757470.html]


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 _ The daughter of the German communist killed by the Nazis discusses
her legacy in the modern fight against the far right. _ 

 A photo of German communist Olga Benario Prestes who was killed in a
Nazi euthanasia centre in April 1942 , Image courtesy of Galeria Olga
Benario in Berlin, Germany 

 

"I fought for the just and the good, to make the world better. If I
must now say goodbye, I promise I won't give you any cause to be
ashamed of me, not to my last breath." This is how German author Ruth
Werner imagined Olga Benario Prestes's final letter to her husband
Luis Carlos Prestes and her daughter Anita before her death in 1942.

Killed in a Nazi euthanasia centre shortly after turning 34, the
German communist's words would have alluded to her lifelong fight
against fascism.

Hers is a story of bravery and resistance that speaks to the various
times in which it's been told, and which has left a legacy in Germany,
Brazil and beyond.

For her daughter, Anita Leocadia Prestes, today a retired professor
and historian living in Rio de Janeiro, it's a legacy that needs to be
remembered.

The 82-year-old tells Al Jazeera: "It's important to publicise
fighters like [Olga] Benario so people understand it's necessary to
stop the rise of fascism and to prevent similar tragedies. Her example
is inspiring to young people who want to fight against fascism, and
for social justice and freedom."

An early lesson in social justice

Born in 1908, Olga was the youngest of two siblings in a middle-class
Jewish family from Munich. Her mother Eugenie was part of Bavarian
high society, while her father Leo was a member of the German Social
Democratic Party and a lawyer. He would often represent poor factory
workers for free, and it was through him that Olga first learned about
social justice.

Her relationship with her mother, however, was 'tense', as, from a
young age, Olga questioned - and rejected - the comforts that came
with her middle-class upbringing.

Olga Benario was born in 1908 to middle-class Jewish family in Munich
[Image courtesy of Galeria Olga Benario in Berlin, Germany

In 1923, the same year an Austrian named Adolf Hitler initiated the
Beer Hall Putsch - a failed attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic
in Munich - 15-year-old Benario joined the underground Communist Youth
Organisation (KJVD).

Her activities with the group, including putting up illegal
revolutionary posters around town, led local police to register her as
a 'communist agitator'.

 

It's important to publicise fighters like [Olga] Benario so people
understand it's necessary to stop the rise of fascism and to prevent
similar tragedies. Her example is inspiring to young people who want
to fight against fascism, and for social justice and freedom.

ANITA LEOCADIA PRESTES, OLGA BENARIO'S DAUGHTER

She soon got into a relationship with Otto Braun, a fellow communist
seven years her senior. When Olga was 18, the pair left to join the
larger communist movement in Berlin and she took on similar activities
in her role as a leading KJVD member in the working class
neighbourhood of Neukolln.

Her arrest on charges of 'preparations for high-treason', followed by
her successful attempt to break Braun out of jail in 1928, made Olga a
well-known figure across the city.

A police headshot of Olga Benario taken when she was arrested in
Berlin in 1926 [Image courtesy of Galeria Olga Benario in Berlin,
Germany

Katinka Krause, 64, is a bookshop owner who has volunteered at Galeria
Olga Benario, a Berlin-based gallery, for more than 30 years.

"There were posters of her all over town and images shown before
cinema screenings offering 10,000 marks to find her. Many workers gave
her a home and doors were made in different places so she could escape
at anytime," says Krause.

Now a target for the authorities, the pair headed to the Soviet Union,
where Olga joined the Communist Youth International, a branch of the
Communist International (Comintern).

Her relationship with Braun soon over, she underwent an intense period
of military and strategic training, a skillset that included learning
English, French and Russian, plus skydiving, horse-riding and
piloting.

She also proved herself with successful international missions to
Western Europe, getting arrested in Paris and London for her part in
protests.

'A gift' to Hitler

In 1934, back in Moscow, Olga was tasked with accompanying Brazilian
communist leader Luis Carlos Prestes, then in exile in Moscow, back to
Brazil.

Olga was to be his bodyguard amid preparations to overthrow Brazilian
leader Getulio Vargas, who looked to be sliding towards dictatorship.
Disguised as a married Portuguese couple during their lengthy journey
there, the pair reached the South American nation in love.

In 1934, Olga Benario was charged with escorting Luis Carlos Prestes,
who had been in exile in Moscow, back to Brazil [Image courtesy of
Galeria Olga Benario in Berlin, Germany]

The revolution against Vargas failed in 1935, and Olga was eventually
captured. Vargas shipped her back to Germany as 'a gift' to Hitler.

Swiss-German professor Robert Cohen has written three books on Olga
Benario. The most recent, Der Vorgang Benario. Die Gestapo-Akte
1936-1942, (The Benario Process: The Gestapo File 1936-1942) examined
the 2,000 Gestapo documents on her that came to light three years ago.
According to Cohen, it's likely to be the largest dossier of documents
on any Holocaust victim.

Cohen describes Olga as physically and mentally tough, and says he has
sought to represent her from a feminist perspective.

"She took on roles only men were supposed to do, and was as brave and
knowledgeable. When Prestes was arrested, the Brazilian police had the
order to shoot him. By that point, Benario was two or three months
pregnant, but she stepped in front of him and the police didn't know
what to do. She didn't do this just out of love, she did it because it
was her job."

Resistance in Ravensbruck

Shortly after her return to Germany in 1936, she gave birth to Anita
in a Berlin prison. After 14 months, mother and daughter were
separated and in 1939, Olga was transferred to the Ravensbruck
concentration camp, situated 90km from Berlin in the north of the
country.

A concentration camp only for women, it was built to house inmates
considered 'deviants'. Up until its closure in 1945, more than 130,000
women and children, including aristocrats, political prisoners and
spies were held there. Olga was among the first batch of women to
arrive.

A photograph of Olga Benario Prestes in the exhibit 'Women of
Ravensbruck - Portraits of Courage', curated by Rochelle Saidel for
the Florida Holocaust Museum. Artwork on the right by Julia
Terwilliger 

Rochelle Saidel is the founder and executive director of the Remember
the Women Institute, an organisation based in New York that supports
cultural and research projects that aim to include women in history.

"She was whipped, put in a punishment bunker and worked as a slave
labourer in the Siemens factory, which was one of the main slave
labour companies at the camp," says Saidel.

"Plus, she was very broken when they took her baby away from her. For
a year-and-a-half she didn't know what had happened, for all she knew
the baby could have been given to a Nazi family. Despite that, she
continued helping other people and remained idealistic."

 

She never wavered before the enemy, stating that 'if others became
traitors, she would never be'. She paid with her life for such
steadfastness...

ANITA LEOCADIA PRESTES, OLGA BENARIO'S DAUGHTER

Olga was named Blockalteste, or block elder. She made a small secret
atlas to teach other prisoners about geography and war, collaborated
on a clandestine newspaper and put together a detailed atlas which
remains in archives today.

Then in February 1942, she was taken to the Bernburg euthanasia
clinic, where she was gassed to death in April.

Olga Benario Prestes was 34 years old when she was killed by the Nazis
[Image courtesy of Galeria Olga Benario in Berlin, Germany]

Her daughter says she maintained a firm stance towards her captors
right up until the end.

"She never wavered before the enemy, stating that 'if others became
traitors, she would never be'. She paid with her life for such
steadfastness, since if she were to deceive her comrades, she would
have had the chance to take up asylum in Russia, Mexico or England."

The politics of memory

Authors, filmmakers, curators and theatre directors have all sought to
tell her story. Saidel says the various ways in which it has been
narrated are a clear example of the politics of memory.

"It depends on who, on why and when they are remembering," she says.

The Jewish part of her identity in particular has triggered much
discussion. As a communist herself, Anita regards her mother more as a
political prisoner than a Jewish victim of the Nazis.

Cohen says he sees both. "Benario never insisted on her Jewishness, in
fact as a communist she was very distant from it," he says. "When they
captured her in 1936, the documents showed they treated her mostly as
a communist and a member of the Comintern, from whom they could learn
secrets about what the Soviet Union and other communists were up to.
But from 1940 onwards, they refer to her almost exclusively as a Jew."

 

Benario never insisted on her Jewishness, in fact as a communist she
was very distant from it.

ROBERT COHEN, SWISS-GERMAN PROFESSOR AND AUTHOR

Anita was saved by her paternal grandmother Leocadia Prestes and
reunited with her father in 1945. She has since written about her
parents extensively. Her latest book, Olga Benario Prestes: Uma
comunista nos arquivos da Gestapo (Olga Benario Prestes: A Communist
in the Gestapo Archives) was published last year in Portuguese, and
alongside Gestapo documents, features letters between her parents.

Anita Leocadia Prestes, Olga's daughter, is a retired professor and
historian who has written about her parents [Photo courtesy of the Sao
Paulo-based Boitempo publishing house, which published Anita's most
recent book]

Anita says that in Brazil, her mother is seen as a "symbol of the
struggle of freedom fighters and communists". The 2004 Brazilian
blockbuster film, Olga, was Brazil's submission for the 77th Academy
Awards in the Best Foreign Film category, although it was not accepted
as a nominee.

 

Resist. We cannot accept what is going on. Olga Benario did it two
ways. She fought fascism while she was free, and then she resisted the
Nazis for six more years. That is almost unimaginable.

ROBERT COHEN, SWISS-GERMAN HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR

In Germany, during the Cold War, she was considered a heroine in the
east of the country, with schools, care homes, factories and streets
named after her.

Being a communist heroine in the East meant that the West ignored her.
Krause, the volunteer at the gallery in former West Berlin, says
that's now changing and more people are learning about her across the
country. 

For Cohen, Olga Benario's legacy, particularly today, as far right
movements grow in prominence across much of the world, is clear.

"Resist. We cannot accept what is going on. Olga Benario did it two
ways. She fought fascism while she was free, and then she resisted the
Nazis for six more years. That is almost unimaginable."

_Gouri Sharma is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. Previously,
she spent five years working on the production desk for Al Jazeera's
media critique show, the Listening Post. _

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