Thursday, March 19, 2015

Stories Worth Sharing: The Hubener Youth

Life can get you down. The daily grind and the whirlwind of cynicism pervading society nowadays can make it hard to keep your head up. That's why we need good stories. Stories worth sharing. Stories that prove there is good in the world and that ordinary people can make a difference. The following is one of those stories.

       I really didn't deserve the opportunity to sit down with Karl-Heinz Schnibbe. He didn't know me when I called him and I'm sure he had plenty of other things to worry about without high school sophomores asking him for an interview. But for some reason he was kind enough to allow me (a friend of a friend with a history project to complete) to sit down with him in his living room and ask a few questions. Mr. Schnibbe was an elderly German man and the last surviving member of what historians now call the "Hubener group," a group of teenage boys from Hamburg who led their own resistance movement against the Nazis during WWII. Theirs is a profound story, one that everyone should have the chance to hear. 

       Schnibbe grew up in Germany just when Hitler took power and the Nazi party began its chokehold on German society. When inflation was running wild and unemployment was rampant, Hitler's new government stepped in to change things and brought with it an aggressive,
militarized dictatorship.Soon the Boy Scouts were replaced with the Hitler Youth. The police were replaced with the SA.Quiet evenings were replaced with bombing raids.Amid all this turmoil Karl-Heinz lived out his youth, attending his local LDS branch with his family and becoming friends with a boy who would have a great effect on his future. 

       Helmuth Hubener was a bright young Latter-day Saint with an intellect that belied his age. His mother was divorced and had been remarried to a man Helmuth couldn't stand. Rather than live with his parents, Helmuth stayed with his grandparents, the Sudrows. Helmuth was a passionate reader and devoured books on history and the gospel from a young age. He would often challenge people older than him on gospel topics, pointing out flawed arguments and forcing others to stop and think about their opinions from every angle. This annoyed people at times, but the boy was honest and sincere. Helmuth was a great writer and earned a place in the local Department of Social Services as an apprentice once he graduated from middle school.4

       Helmuth, Karl-Heinz, and other boy members of their branch went to movies and attended church activities, but the spread of Nazism overshadowed their happy youth. One day in church the boys came across Heinrich Worbs, a friend and mentor who had disappeared for six months. The once-vibrant man was now a broken shell of a human being. Worbs told the boys he had been overheard saying a disparaging comment about the Nazis and had been whisked away to a concentration camp, where he had been brutally 
tortured.Another branch member, Salomon Schwarz, underwent his own brutal ordeal. Schwarz's mother was a Jew, and so he was classified as Jewish despite being a devout Mormon. One Sunday he came to church to see a sign on the door of the meetinghouse saying no Jews would be allowed to enter. The sign had been hung by the branch president, who was himself a Nazi. Devastated that he could not attend church with his brothers and sisters in the gospel, Schwarz was forced to attend another branch. He was aided and comforted by many of his fellow members in the years that followed, but he was eventually taken to the Auschwitz death camp where he died in a gas chamber."You have no idea what it was like in those times," Mr. Schnibbe told me. "No idea what it was like in Germany."

       With Nazism infecting his community, Helmuth Hubener decided someone should do something about it. One of Helmuth's brothers had returned from service in the army with a Rola radio, which picked up the BBC news broadcasts in German. Listening to foreign news broadcasts was illegal in Germany, and Helmuth found out why. While German news stations told of the German army charging to victory in every battle with hardly a casualty, the BBC reported casualty numbers on both sides, offering detailed reports of battles and contradicting the rosy picture painted by the Nazis.7 This information gave Helmuth just the tool he needed to fight back. Helmuth worked in the Department of Social Services as an apprentice and also as a clerk for the branch president. This meant he had access to a typewriter and plenty of paper. 8 His clerical training had given him a knowledge of shorthand, which meant he could write down the radio broadcasts as he 
heard them.Armed with these resources, Helmuth began typing up small leaflets which revealed the truth behind the Nazi propaganda machine. His plan was to distribute the leaflets around the city to help people become aware of what was really happening.10 But he needed some help to get his plan off the ground.

       Karl Schnibbe had listened to several broadcasts on Hubener's radio with him in secret, and Helmuth thought Schnibbe would be willing to assist him. When Helmuth first approached him about the leaflets, Schnibbe refused, but after seeing the growing persecution of the Jews, he agreed to help. Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe (another friend) helped Helmuth by distributing his leaflets under the cover of darkness. "Everything we did was at night," he told me. "We couldn't do it in the daytime. You couldn't just walk up to someone and say 'Here, read this.'" Instead, the boys would secretly place the leaflets inside mailboxes and on Nazi bulletin boards. Each leaflet had a typed inscription which read "This is a chain letter. Pass it on." Knowing the treasonous nature of their activities, the boys prepared themselves in case of capture. "We made a promise, us three," Mr. Schnibbe said. "Whoever gets caught first, you take the blame. Do not incriminate anyone else." 

       Hubener turned out dozens of leaflets with headlines like "Hitler the Murderer," "Hitler, the Seducer of the People," and "Down with Hitler."11 As his little movement progressed, Huebener sought to reach a wider audience. He knew there was a large number of French POWs nearby who would be a prime audience for his pamphlets.12 All he needed was a translator who could put his work into French. Unfortunately, this plan would prove to be Helmuth's undoing. 

       One day Helmuth approached a coworker named Werner Kranz about translating for him. Kranz refused to translate the leaflets and his protests caught the attention of the office overseer, who questioned Kranz about Hubener's request. Kranz turned Hubener in and it wasn't long before Gestapo agents arrived to take Helmuth into custody.13 It took the Gestapo two days of brutal torture before they could get Helmuth to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. Schnibbe was picked up by the Gestapo and Rudi Wobbe was captured a few days later. The boys were all interrogated and tortured by the Nazis before being thrown in jail. 

       After several months in jail they were brought before the highest court in the land: the "blood tribunal." The court was so named for the crimson cloaks worn by the Nazi judges. The boys were brought in, charged with high treason and aiding and abetting the enemy. When I asked Mr. Schnibbe how he felt going into the trial, he didn't hesitate to answer. "Scared to death," he said. The boys had court-appointed defense attorneys, but they could tell at first glance the lawyers were a sham. "All they did was plead 'these boys are so young!'" Schnibbe remembered. "That was all they said. 'Mickey Mouse attorneys' I called them." 

       Hubener gave a dazzling performance at the trial, answering every question with flair. He took the attention away from his fellow conspirators and placed the spotlight firmly on himself in order to protect his friends. His accusers were surprised at his intelligence, and some even laughed at the clever jibes he had taken at German leaders in his leaflets.14 Immediately after the hearing, the judges reached their verdict. All the boys were found guilty. Rudi Wobbe was sentenced to ten years in prison. Karl-Heinz Schnibbe was sentenced to five years in prison. Helmuth Hubener was sentenced to death.15 When asked if the boys had any final defense, Karl-Heinz and Rudi said no. Helmuth, however, did have something to say. The boy stood up and boldly faced his accusers. He said, "Now I must die even though I have committed no crime. So now it's my turn, but your turn will come."16

       The boys were dismissed and got to spend a few final moments together before Karl and Rudi were separated from their beloved friend, whom they would never see again in this life.17 Before his execution, Helmuth wrote a letter to some friends from his branch. In his letter he said, "I am very thankful to my Heavenly Father that this agonizing life is coming to an end this evening. I could not stand it any longer anyway! My Father in Heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong... I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter."18 At 8:13 pm, October 27, 1942, Helmuth Hubener was executed by guillotine. He was seventeen years old.19

       Mr. Schnibbe said Helmuth did not have much fear of death because he lived very close to his God. "He was so young. He was just beginning to live, and then they murdered him. But he's well taken care of on the other side. He's happier than us down here, the whole bunch together!" Hubener was posthumously excommunicated by local Nazi church leaders, but his case was never brought through an actual disciplinary hearing and his membership was restored several years later.20 His temple work was also completed.21

       Mr. Schnibbe served out his sentence and was eventually forced into the German army by his captors. When I asked what got him through his grueling years as a prisoner, Mr. Schnibbe promptly pointed upward. "Him," he said. "My prayers." Mr. Schnibbe said he didn't have the strongest testimony as a young boy, but he came very close to God during his imprisonment. 

       Both Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe were liberated when the Allies took Germany and both men eventually emigrated to the United States where they lived peacefully. Both of them wrote books on their experiences and Mr. Schnibbe helped in the production of a documentary on the Hubener story. By sharing their story with the world, these men helped to honor their friend and inspire young people today to stand up for the truth regardless of the circumstances. Mr. Schnibbe passed away in 2010, but his memory and his story live on. Near the close of our interview, I asked Mr. Schnibbe if there was one thing he wished young people would gain from his story. "Yes," he said. "Do what is right, let the consequences follow." 

(If you wish to learn more about the story of Helmuth Hubener and his friends, you can check out the books Three Against Hitler by Rudi Wobbe and Jerry Borrowman, When Truth Was Treason by Blair R. Holmes and Alan F. Keele, and Hubener vs. Hitler by Richard Lloyd Dewey. You can also check out the documentary Truth and Conviction, which features personal interviews with Mr. Karl-Heinz Schnibbe.) 

1. Holmes, Blair. "Childhood in the Shadow of the Swastika." In When Truth Was Treason: German Youth against Hitler: The Story of the Helmuth Hübener Group, 14. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

2. Wobbe, Rudolf Gustav, and Jerry Borrowman. "Growing Up in Germany Between the Wars." In Three against Hitler, 9. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 1992.

3. Wobbe, Three Against Hitler, p. 22.

4. Wobbe, "My Friend Helmuth." In Three Against Hitler, pp. 17-36.

5. Wobbe, "Contempt for the Nazi Regime." Three Against Hitler, pp. 28-29.

6. Wobbe, Three Against Hitler, pp. 30-34.

7. Wobbe, "Preparation to High Treason." Three Against Hitler, pp. 37-38.

8. Holmes, When Truth Was Treason, pp. 25, 39.

9. Wobbe, Three Against Hitler, p. 38.

10. Wobbe, Three Against Hitler, pp. 38-39.

11. Wobbe, Three Against Hitler, pp. 40-41.

12. Wobbe, Three Against Hitler, p. 43. 

13. Wobbe, Three Against Hitler, pp. 43-44.

14. Wobbe, "On Trial Before the Blood Tribunal." Three Against Hitler, pp. 78-79.

15. Holmes, "Judgment and Destruction." When Truth Was Treason, 69.

16. Holmes, When Truth Was Treason, p. 70.

17. Holmes, When Truth Was Treason, pp. 70-71.

18. Holmes, When Truth Was Treason, p. 240.

19. Holmes, When Truth Was Treason, pp. 241-242.

20. Keele, Alan F., and Douglas F. Tober. "The Fuhrer's New Clothes: Helmuth Hubener and the Mormons in the Third Reich." Sunstone Magazine, November/December 1980.

21. Dewey, Richard Lloyd. Hübener vs Hitler: A Biography of Helmuth Hübener, Mormon Teenage Resistance Leader. Provo, Utah: Academic Research Foundation, 2003. 174-175.

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