The memoir of a Jewish military translator who helped the Soviet army identify Adolf Hitler’s burned corpse is about to be published in English for the first time.
Elena Rzhevskaya, who died in April at the age of 97, was just 25 years old in May of 1945 when she carried a box of the Nazi dictator’s teeth around war-torn Berlin in search of an expert who could confirm that the teeth had belonged to the Fuhrer.
Eventually she found a dental assistant who had visited Hitler in his underground bunker just days before his death. The dental assistant was able to draw a sketch of Hitler’s teeth from memory, which matched with the drawing made by the Soviet pathologist who autopsied Hitler’s charred body.
Rzhevskaya’s memoir, entitled “Berlin, May 1945,” will be published in the United Kingdom and will also be sold in the United States, said Elena Rzhevskaya’s granddaughter Liubov Summ in a telephone interview from Moscow.
The book, which was first printed in 1965 in Russian and sold more than a million copies in the Soviet Union, has already been translated to German, Italian and Japanese. But there has been no English translation until now, nor has the book been translated to Hebrew, Summ said.
Explaining why her grandmother was trusted with the dictator’s teeth, Summ said, “She was an officer and a woman and everyone knew that [all the men] would get drunk on Victory Day.”
“She carried the box under her arm. It smelled lightly of perfume. She saw her own reflection in a big mirror and thought, ‘My God, am I standing here holding in my hands the only thing that is left of Hitler?’”
Hitler’s dental assistant Kathe Heusermann’s recollection and the letters of the Soviet pathologist who removed the teeth from Hitler’s jaws will also be included as appendices in the book. They are being published for the first time, said Summ.
It was possible to identify Hitler from his teeth because he had had extensive dental work. By the end of his life, Hitler had very few of his own teeth left, and most of them had crowns. The remaining teeth were prosthetic and were held together with bridges.
“His teeth were in such bad shape that his dentist was with him in the bunker,” Summ said. “There are photos that are very unpleasant to look at.”
When Heusermann was questioned, she talked not only about Hitler’s teeth, but also about what she saw and heard during his last days in the bunker, Summ said. Rzhevskaya listened and later included these stories in her book. For example, Heusermann said that she tried to talk Magda Goebbels out of murdering her six children, and shared the story about how Eva Braun, who got married to Hitler just before their suicide, wanted everyone in the bunker to call her “Frau Hitler.”
“Everything that Kathe said, was said with my grandmother’s lips — because my grandmother translated,” Summ said.
The two women bonded. Heusermann told Rzhevskaya about how she had twice been raped by Soviet soldiers. Rzhevskaya also found out that Heusermann had hidden a Jewish dentist, for whom she worked before the war, in her home.
“He returned to Berlin at the end of April, met her and asked her to hide him in her apartment, while she was going to Hitler’s bunker to work every day! You understand [what would have happened] if someone found out,” said Summ. “She is also one of the righteous in a way.”
Summ said that the last time the two women spoke, Heusermann promised that as soon as the Soviet interrogations stopped, she would bring Rzhevskaya to her hairdresser.
But that was not to be. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided that Hitler’s suicide and the story about how his body was discovered should be a military secret. Heusermann was sent to the gulag, where she spent 10 years, including six years in solitary confinement, Summ said. By the time she returned home, her fiancé had married someone else.
“They told her that by helping to fix Hitler’s teeth she contributed to the continuation of the war, and that she should have hit him on the head with a bottle,” Summ said. “But her actual fault was that she was a witness of Hitler’s death and that was a secret.”
After the war, Rzhevskaya — whose birth name was Kagan — returned to Moscow, studied literature in university and became a writer.
She changed her family name because she could not get a job with a name that sounded so obviously Jewish, said Summ.
“She would phone schools and libraries and they would tell her that there was a vacancy, but when she went there, and they saw her documents and her Jewish name, they would not hire her,” Summ said. “She couldn’t even get a job in a village school.”
When she became a writer, she also didn’t want to use her real name because she didn’t want to the impression that “the Jews are writing about the war again,” Summ said.
So her grandmother adopted the name “Rzhevskaya,” which means “From Rzhev,” the town where she was almost killed by shrapnel from a German bomb in 1942. It was also here that she was sent on her first translation assignment, questioning a German soldier who was taken prisoner.
Her first memoir, entitled “Memories of a Wartime Interpreter,” originally included a few pages in the end about what it was like to identify Hitler from his teeth, but the editor of the magazine that published the memories cut those pages, Summ said.
“No one wrote about this before, so why should we be first?” the editor reportedly said, according to Summ. “It was a funny comment for an editor of a magazine.”
But in the Soviet Union, editors had to be cautious.
It was not until after Stalin’s death that Rzhevskaya openly wrote about identifying Hitler, and it was not until 1996 that she found out what happened to Hitler’s dental assistant.
“It was a big blow for her,” Summ said. “Heusermann returned home when she was 45 years old. She ended up losing her [future] husband and never had children, and this really haunted my grandma.”
The Soviet pathologist was also upset that the story about the identification of Hitler’s teeth was kept secret.
“He was hurt that he did this work to identify Hitler, but he didn’t get any recognition,” Summ said.
To remember Rzhevskaya, a special evening in her honor will be organized in Moscow on her birthday, October 27, her granddaughter said.
The museum in the town of Rzhev is also planning a local history conference dedicated to her memory in the spring. A few handwritten pages from Rzhevskaya’s memoir and her World War II military uniform, which she kept all of her life, will be donated to the museum.