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Love in the time of Hitler



Last modified: Monday, September 27, 2010
The documentary, grainy and faded, ended by showing their actual wedding. And why not? This was a love story, after all, a love story like few others. Jutta and Helmuth Cords fell in love as teenagers, spent time in Nazi prisons during World War II, then reunited after the war, ready to start a new life in a new Germany.

We saw two people in Surviving Hitler: A Love Story last night at Red River Theatres, two people who

loved each other and hated Hitler and what he had done to their homeland.

We saw two people who retained their integrity, to the point where Helmuth got involved in the plot to kill Hitler, called Operation Valkyrie, and somehow escaped a firing squad and piano wire around his neck after the plan failed.

We saw their wedding, with Jutta and Helmuth dancing and spinning and smiling, the first wedding in post-war Berlin. We saw their three children, swimming at the beach and blowing out birthday candles.

We saw two showings, and we were treated to the elegant and graceful presence of 90-year-old Jutta Cords herself for an informal chat after each screening.

Concord's ties to the movie run deep. Annette Lantos, the mother of Concord's Katrina Swett, who recently lost her bid for Congress, introduced Jutta last night. Lantos's late husband, Tom Lantos, remains the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress.

Jutta's daughter, Claudia Damon, has lived in the Concord area for more than 35 years, settling here with her husband after the two met at the Boston University School of Law.

Further, the movie's director and writer, John Keith Wasson, lived in Lebanon before moving to California. Jutta is close to Wasson and his family, befriending them when she moved to Eastman in 1977, five years after Helmuth died.

The film, narrated by Jutta, is dedicated to Helmuth. It's a historical blueprint, using Helmuth's own home movies and his voice reciting the letters he wrote to Jutta while fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front.

Footage of Hitler screaming in front of a podium and Berlin smoldering in ruins run through the film, but the unmistakable undercurrent is that of two people who miraculously built a life together.

The film also reveals something often ignored: Many German citizens and officers during that time despised the Nazis and what they had created. That message was important to Jutta.

"Germany was a place where among miserable people, some very good people lived," Jutta said, sitting in a chair in front of the sold-out audience. "And we were so lucky to be alive; all four of us. None of my friends were alive when it was over."

The foursome included Jutta's parents, Kurt and Eva Sorge, who housed a fugitive in their Berlin home for three weeks. Kurt later spent time in prison, while Eva, who was Jewish, landed in a concentration camp.

None of them could have imagined the horror on the horizon when Jutta and her parents vacationed in Garmisch, where Jutta met Helmuth. She was statuesque, nearly 6 feet tall, with stunning blue eyes. Helmuth was - quite simply - tall, dark and handsome.

"He was very good-looking," Jutta says early in the movie, "which made me very suspicious of him."

Helmuth wasn't a very good skier, but the two made magic on the dance floor. "We danced the entire evening," Jutta said.

They drank hot chocolate and fell in love.

Later, Helmuth, unaware of Hitler's death camps, fought the Russians in the name of Germany. "It was honorable to fight for one's country," Jutta says in the film, "and he assumed that it was the proper thing to do."

While fighting the Russians, not to mention during one of the coldest winters on record, Helmuth sent letters to Jutta in Berlin.

"I dreamed of you again last night. . . . I can make it my custom to write whenever I dream of you. Who knows how much longer I will be able to dream?"

Germany's war with Russia lasted four years. Helmuth fought for two years.

"No one would have guessed we would still be fighting in Russia at this late date. Our chances for an end are diminishing. . . . To be so alone knowing that you are so far away. . . . I kiss your mouth; I kiss your face."

Helmuth, injured, returned to Germany in 1943 and learned the truth about Hitler from Jutta. He learned that Jutta was forbidden to marry because of her Jewish heritage, and he learned that she would never be accepted to college, nor be allowed to work. He learned the world was dying because of one man.

Helmuth, Jutta and her parents wanted no part of Hitler's Germany, refusing to march to the hate that filled the country.

So Helmuth asked Jutta and her parents for a favor: Let him work with their family friend, Werner von Haeften, the aide to Klaus von Staufennberg, the man who later planted a bomb in a briefcase and hoped it would kill Hitler.

As Claudia Damon said about her dad, "He had the moral courage to make a decision that he wanted to do something about what was happening. He didn't just drift into this. He made a decision to get involved."

Then it all unraveled. The bomb exploded on July 20, 1944, in a conference room outside Berlin. Von Haeften and von Staufennberg, unaware that Hitler had survived, returned to Berlin, to the Bendlerstrasse, the headquarters for the resistance movement.

Helmuth didn't know an attempt on Hitler's life had occurred, but he felt the vibe of the day, that big changes were being planned.

So he did what he was told, checking credentials at Bendlerstrasse to ensure collaborators got in and Nazis stayed out.

German soldiers loyal to Hitler soon showed up, and von Haeften and von Staufennberg were shot and killed in the courtyard.

Helmuth was arrested the next day. Elsewhere, Kurt Sorge was imprisoned for hiding a resistance member earlier in the war, and Eva Sorge, her Jewish background exposed, was shipped to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women.

Jutta turned herself in and spent eight months in solitary confinement. She chose not to escape to Switzerland.

"I wanted to be with my parents," she told the audience last night.

Perhaps that hope, seemingly foolish at the time, made the difference. All four survived, thanks to the chaos caused both by Allied bombing and the advancing Russian army.

Finally home again, Jutta hugged her mother, who weighed 75 pounds. "She felt like a bird," Jutta said.

Helmuth and Kurt returned home on the same day, within minutes of one another.

Later, Jutta and Helmuth married, the wedding reception recorded and incorporated late into the movie. Berlin lay in ruins that day. Jutta found an old piece of lace to cover her head and flowers from a bombed-out garden to hold in her hands.

She received a standing ovation yesterday as the credits rolled. She was asked if she'd been back to Germany since moving to America with Helmuth in 1952.

She had.

"Berlin is a wonderful spot," Jutta said. "I highly recommend it."

(Ray Duckler can be reached at rduckler@cmonitor.com.)