White Rose Resistance: Six leaders of the storied White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany were executed by guillotine, but George Wittenstein managed to evade the Gestapo and survived to become a Santa Barbara surgeon. (Among the six beheaded was his friend, Sophie Scholl, 21, subject of the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, and the book Sophie Scholl and the White Rose.)
The Gestapo was hot on Wittenstein’s trail but he eluded them by volunteering for the Italian front — from the frying pan into the fire. There he was wounded by a U.S. strafing plane as he bicycled home, a red cross emblazoned on his back, while the German army was in full retreat as the war neared an end.
Wittenstein, now 87, was among a courageous group of Munich students who risked their lives by writing and passing out leaflets appealing to the conscience of the German people, urging them to stand up and do something about Hitler’s tyranny, including sabotage.
Although the White Rose group’s heroic efforts failed to spark an anti-Hitler revolt, their acts of conscience and moral courage are awakening interest among American youth who are calling and visiting Wittenstein. “They are so moved,” he told me in an interview at his Hope Ranch home. “It is my firm belief that no one raised in the United States can fully comprehend what it is like to live under an absolute dictatorship,” he continued, where the state controls communications, news, the arts, literature, and all other parts of life, and encourages neighbors and children to spy on adults.
“I remember only too well an incident in a cinema: Someone sitting a few rows in front of me was led away by the Gestapo. Apparently he had made a derogatory remark to his companion about Hitler. Whoever had overheard him must have, as a patriotic duty, tipped off the secret police,” Wittenstein said. Although there were about 300 small German resistance groups, for the most part none were aware of one another. The White Rose was the only one Wittenstein is aware of that protested the treatment of Jews. No one in the White Rose was Jewish.
During early summer 1942, medical students Alex Schmorell and Hans Scholl, Sophie’s brother, wrote four anti-Nazi leaflets, copied them on a typewriter and distributed them throughout Germany. Wittenstein edited the third and fourth issues, for which he faced execution if caught, and undertook the dangerous mission of taking them to Berlin by train. Also joining the group were medical students Christoph Probst and Wilhelm Graf and philosophy professor Kurt Huber.
The sixth and last leaflet proved fatal. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie walked into the University of Munich with a suitcase jammed with leaflets. After placing stacks of them outside each lecture hall, with no one around, they left the building, then decided to return and tossed the rest from the top of the stairs. A janitor spotted them and they were arrested.
“Within a few days, 80 people were arrested all over Germany,” Wittenstein said. Four days later, in a show “trial” before a court created by Hitler — greatly feared because there was little chance of escaping the death penalty — the two Scholls and Probst were sentenced to execution for high treason. Wittenstein took the risky step of alerting the Scholls’ parents and taking them from the train station to the trial to have a last chance to see their children alive. “Long live freedom,” Hans shouted. All three students were executed the same day.
Wittenstein, although confined to his barracks — all medical students had been inducted in the army — managed to get out to notify the Schmorell family and hoped to hide Alex on the Wittenstein estate. Alex tried to escape to Switzerland but had to turn back due to snow. “He was arrested during an air raid in Munich, betrayed by a former girlfriend,” Wittenstein said.
A few months later, Schmorell, Graf, and Dr. Huber died via the guillotine. “There were other groups, more arrests and executions of people loosely connected with the White Rose,” and others were sentenced to prison, Wittenstein said.
Meanwhile, the Gestapo had long had its eye on him. After he offered to help smuggle a Jewish woman, whose son had been executed, out of Germany he was grilled by the Gestapo and a military court. This was a capital offense but Wittenstein managed to talk his way out of it.
Wittenstein felt his only escape from the Gestapo’s grasp was to volunteer for the front lines. In Italy he performed countless operations on wounded soldiers. While there he sent arms back to Munich to help another anti-Nazi group he belonged to. The group ended up saving Munich from destruction, countering Hitler’s order that every city must be defended to the last, Wittenstein said, and saving lives. After finishing medical training in Germany following the war, Wittenstein arrived in Santa Barbara in 1960 and taught at UCLA Medical School and practiced here as a thoracic cardiovascular surgeon.