Beyer, Helga (1920–1942)
Beyer, Helga (1920–1942)
German-Jewish member of the anti-Nazi resistance. Born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) on May 4, 1920; murdered at the Bernburg hospital near Dessau in February 1942; daughter of Adolf Beyer (a Jewish businessman) and Else Beyer (who was not Jewish); sister of Ursel Beyer (b. 1918).
Joined an anti-Nazi resistance cell (1933); became a member of the German-Jewish youth group Kameraden, resisting Fascism under the sign of the Weisse Möwe (White Gull); for more than three years, worked as a courier in a resistance cell organized by a group of Communist Oppositionists in Breslau; arrested (January 28, 1938), convicted of "preparation for high treason," and sentenced to three and one halfyears imprisonment; though sentence was scheduled to end August 1941, was moved to the women's concentration camp, Ravensbrück; taken to Bernburg near Dessau and killed as part of a group of other female "undesirables" (February 1942).
Helga Beyer was an idealistic German youth of mixed Jewish-Christian parentage whose principled opposition to Nazism led her inexorably into a life of resistance to the Nazi regime. Born in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) on May 4, 1920, Helga, along with her older sister Ursel , grew up in secure middle-class circumstances. Her father Adolf Beyer was from an assimilated Jewish family, and both he and his older brother Georg, who became a journalist and associate editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, were deeply committed to the ideals of democracy and were members of the Social Democratic Party. Helga's mother Else, who died while Helga and Ursel were young, was not Jewish (neither was the woman who became Helga's stepmother in 1934). Although her father was not religious in an Orthodox Jewish fashion, neither did he deny his heritage, and he raised his daughters in the Jewish faith. With the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, Adolf Beyer and his daughters would defiantly remain Jewish, as much out of political and moral conviction as out of any traditional religious faith.
In 1930, when she was ten, Helga Beyer joined a youth group, the Deutsch-Jüdischer Wanderbund (DJW). Strongly influenced by the romantic and idealistic notions of the German youth movement, the DJW saw itself as "above the fray" of political corruption and compromise. The organization's main goal was to mold physically strong, morally pure human beings through fellowship, hikes and trips. In the next several years, Helga was active in Jewish youth organizations in Breslau, so that by early 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, she had established a number of strong friendships. Out of these personal ties—and her growing conviction that the evil of Nazism had to be resisted in a practical as well as idealistic fashion—her commitment to fighting the Hitler regime developed.
Both Helga and her sister Ursel were strongly attracted to the Socialist Workers Party. This was a faction of Marxists deeply suspicious of the Stalinized German Communist Party (whose "line" was dictated by Moscow) and disillusioned with the official policies of the Social Democratic Party. Despite their extreme youth, both sisters were interested in other ideological stirrings on the Left, particularly those emanating from a small group of anti-Stalinist Communists, the "oppositionist" KPO. Convinced that the Soviet Union had become a bureaucratized dictatorship that did not represent the needs of the working class, these remarkably astute young women were drawn to the numerically tiny but ideologically persuasive revolutionaries of the Communist Party "opposition" group.
By 1934, when she was only 14, Helga was actively involved in KPO underground activities. In addition to meeting in cells to discuss revolutionary ideology and strategy, her work included risky assignments like crossing over the German-Czech frontier as a courier to retrieve information from the KPO groups operating in a still-democratic Czechoslovakia. Increasingly aware of this "treasonous" activity, the Gestapo benefitted from relentless intelligence efforts with the arrest of 35 members of the Breslau KPO organization between October 1937 and April 1938. Helga Beyer and her sister Ursel were seized on January 28, 1938. Though her sister Ursel was acquitted and able to immigrate to the U.S., Helga was sentenced to three and one-half years in December 1938. Helga's aunt Emma had also immigrated to Palestine in 1936, but other family members were not so fortunate. Her aunt Paula was killed in Auschwitz, and her aunt Klara Junker , who managed to survive the war years, fell victim to the chaos created during the exodus of Germans from Breslau when that city was captured by Soviet troops and annexed by Poland.
Beyer, Ursel (b. 1918)
Name variations: Ursula. Born in Breslau on April 12, 1918; daughter of Adolf Beyer (a Jewish businessman) and Else Beyer (who was not Jewish); sister of Helga Beyer.
Held in several prisons during the first part of her sentence, Helga Beyer expected to be released when her term was served. However, as a Communist, even if not of the Stalinist variety, she was regarded as particularly dangerous. The defiant commitment to Judaism of this "racially" half-Jewish woman further marked her for "special treatment." Instead of being released at the conclusion of her term in 1941, she was transferred to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp for political prisoners. Helga Beyer did not survive Ravensbrück. Sometime in February 1942, she was murdered at the Bernburg hospital near Dessau. In March 1942, her aunt Klara in Breslau received a small package from the camp. It contained an urn with her niece's ashes. Several weeks before, Klara had received a form letter informing her that Helga Beyer had died "of pneumonia."
Bergmann, Theodor. "Gegen den Strom": Die Geschichte der Kommunistischen-Partei-Opposition. Hamburg: VSA-Verlag, 1987.
Dertinger, Antje. Weisse Möwe, gelber Stern: Das kurze Leben der Helga Beyer. Berlin and Bonn: Verlag J.H.W. Dietz Nachf., 1987.
Drechsler, Hanno. Die Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAPD): Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung am Ende der Weimarer Republik. Hanover: SOAK-Verlag, 1983.
Erpel, Simone. "Struggle and Survival: Jewish Women in the Anti-Fascist Resistance in Germany," in Leo Baeck Institute, Year Book XXXVII. London: Secker & Warburg, 1992, pp. 397–414.
Merson, Allan. Communist Resistance in Nazi Germany. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985.
John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia