In his home in a wooded neighborhood in north suburban Lincolnshire, Mitch Work spreads out some of the extraordinary artifacts of his late father’s life.
Framed on the wall is a painting of a lakeside villa in rural Austria where his father interrogated one of the last people to come out of Hitler’s bunker. On the dining room table, Work has placed a book about Hanna Reitsch, the German pilot his father questioned, a copy of the report he wrote about the interrogation, and photocopies of two key documents Reitsch carried out of the bunker, the last letters of Joseph and Magda Goebbels.
The documents are copies because Work, 72, and his younger brother recently donated the originals to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
It wasn’t a hard decision, he says: “We wanted to find a good home for these. We didn’t want to sell them. We didn’t want to go that route. We wanted to donate them to the right place.”
A core of the Holocaust Museum’s mission is to collect artifacts such as the Goebbels letters, hard evidence of what the Nazis were and what they did, says Steven Luckert, senior program curator at the Washington, D.C., institution.
“Having these letters in the museum’s outstanding collection will allow us to educate future generations about the truth of the Holocaust and counter the hateful messages that Goebbels and the Nazis promoted,” Luckert says.
Those letters are especially significant because of their centrality to the Nazi mission, he says, but World War II-era documents regularly find their way to the museum. The museum recently opened a state-of-the-art archives facility expressly to house its widening stores of such material.
How the Goebbels’ final missives ended up among the family papers of a north suburban health care consultant is a remarkable story of postwar forgetting and historical preservation almost by accident.
Because the interrogation report of then Air Corps Capt. Robert Work, titled “Last Letters from Hitler’s Air Raid Shelter,” was thorough and widely distributed, historians have long known the contents of the letters. They were written in what looks like pencil on graph paper, Mitch Work says, in Hitler’s Berlin bunker days before the couple killed their six young children and themselves. Couched as letters to Magda’s adult son, the words are more accurately final rallying cries for Naziism from the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda and his wife.
“That Goebbels would use his final letter to his step-son for propagandistic purposes is not surprising,” Luckert explains. “Even his private diaries, which have become indispensable to scholars of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, were ultimately designed for publication.”
Goebbels’ aim in the letters was “to leave his contemporaries and posterity with a flattering portrait of himself and to promote National Socialism,” adds Luckert. “Reading them in 2019, when Holocaust distortion, outright denial and antisemitism are being peddled on the Internet and social media and promoted by powerful actors around the world, is frightening.”
But the letters themselves spent the postwar years in a kind of document limbo, a filing cabinet in the suburban San Jose, Calif., home of Robert Work. It wasn’t until his father was going through his papers almost 50 years after the war that they resurfaced, says Mitch Work.
“Basically my dad had forgotten about them, and he uncovered them,” says Work. “He was excited to show them. He was: ‘Here they are! I told you about these. Now here they are in the flesh.'”
Work, too, was excited. He was briefly after college a history teacher, and he knew the significance of such things.
“He had told me all these stories, but here was something that actually had legs and had documentation and had backup,” he says. “And I was blown away by it — because it took it from just being a story about the war to: Here it is, here’s the report about it, and here’s what happened and when.”
The letters themselves were kind of forgotten, the family thinks, because Robert Work’s interrogation report includes the original German text of them, English translations and the story of how they came out of the bunker.
Hanna Reitsch, who was a famed test pilot and a favorite of the Reich, left the bunker in late April, 1945, along with Ritter von Greim, the recently appointed head of the German air force, and “was given letters to take out by various of the occupants who were to remain in the shelter to die with Hitler,” Robert Work wrote.
These included the Goebbels letters, as well as one from Eva Braun, Hitler’s lover, and a couple of messages to German officers in the field. Reitsch and Von Greim destroyed the military messages because Nazi forces had collapsed and the Braun one because they “both felt that the text was so glaringly theatrical and in such poor adolescent taste that only odious reactions would result should the letter ever fall into German hands,” Work said in his report dated Nov. 1, 1945.
“This is what Washington, D.C., wanted to know, this report and the context,” Mitch Work says. “I asked my dad, ‘Why did you end up with the letters?’ He said, ‘The simple answer is nobody ever asked me for them, and I kind of forgot about them.'”
It was fortunate for their preservation that his father lived in a dry climate, Work thinks. After discovering the letters, Robert Work invited someone from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution to come take a look but was told the think tank didn’t really have the capacity to care for such things, Work says.
He and his brother put them into plastic sleeves, and they went back into a filing cabinet and were sort of forgotten again until their father passed away several years ago. That’s when the brothers got serious about finding them a home.
They talked to several different museums, says Work, but quickly settled on the Holocaust Museum as the right choice, a judgment that was only underscored by the letters’ content in light of recent historical events.
“We sit locked in the Fuehrer’s shelter in the Riechschancellory, fighting for our lives and our honor,” begins Goebbels’ letter. Later, he adds that someday, “The truth will again triumph. The hour will come when we will stand pure and undefiled above the world, as pure and undefiled as our beliefs and aims have always been.”
“Always be proud to have belonged to a family that even in the face of disaster remained true to the Fuehrer to the very last and true to his pure and holy cause,” Goebbels counseled his stepson, Harald Quandt, who was an allied POW at the time and would go on to become one of Germany’s leading industrialists.
Magda Goebbels’ letter is in a similar, unrepentant vein and adds the chilling plan the couple had to kill their children, who were “too precious for the life that will come after.” The six kids were poisoned in the bunker.
“Rather than just being documents of historical lore, it’s important to read what they say about how Nazi socialism and propaganda can be so, so powerful,” says Work. “And while I was negotiating with the museum about giving this donation in October of last year, it was when the synagogue shootings occurred in Pittsburgh, 11 dead, six wounded.
“This is not something historical. It’s still something that’s going on right now.
We say it can never happen here? Well, there are symptoms out there right now.”