In the days following the end of WWII, translator Elena Rzhevskaya was tasked with a bizarre job: protecting a jewelry box containing the only irrefutable proof of Hitler's death.
Image by Kat Aileen
When we hear the name Hitler, we don't often think about his cavities. Given the towering history of World War II, it's odd to consider its architects as real human beings, with bad breath and stomach trouble, shoes that hurt, compressed spines, and artificial teeth. Hitler, for all that he was portrayed as an archetype of evil, was also a man of flesh and blood who eventually became a corpse. And when he died, proof of his death was carried through the ruins of Berlin by a young woman who found herself thrust into some of strangest, and most strangely human, moments of the end of the war.
During the spring of 1945, Elena Kagan was a 25-year-old war widow working as a German translator with the Soviet Red Army. Born to a well-off family of Moscow Jews, she had been a literature student and young mother when the war broke out. Her husband, an intellectual writer, was killed early in the conflict, and Kagan says she enlisted with the army as a way to feed her daughter. Her knowledge of German proved essential for interrogating prisoners, but her most memorable task began on April 29, 1945, when she was assigned to a team of three charged with finding Hitler, dead or alive. Her memoir of her war days, first published as "Berlin Notes" in a Soviet literary magazine in 1965, provided the world with the first details about how Hitler's body had been found and identified. A fuller version of her memoir went on to appear in more than ten languages, but has never been published in English, aside from selections in obscure journals and anthologies.
In her writings, Kagan--who later changed her name to Rzhevskaya in honor of the city of Rzhev, where she first experienced the full extent of the war--describes her compassion for the captured German soldiers, many barely adults, their bloodshot eyes wild with terror, and for the German women who were treated as war booty. She writes of orphans and cows wandering the bombed-out streets, soldiers getting drunk on the fine wines left by the fleeing Nazis, a Russian telegraphist trying on Eva Braun's long white evening dress, and, finally, what it was like to walk around carrying Hitler's teeth.
She was given the teeth on May 8, eight days after Hitler's death, when they were placed in a red jewelry box for her safekeeping. "I don't know where they found the box," she writes in the latest version of her recollections, Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter, a translated extract of which was provided by her literary agency to Broadly. "It was old, dark claret in color, with a soft satin lining inside--the kind of box made for perfumes or for cheap jewelry... That entire day was infused with the sense of approaching victory, and it was a great burden to carry this box around the whole time, feeling a rush of cold inside at the thought that I might accidentally forget it somewhere. The box weighed heavy on me. It oppressed me."
The day Rzhevskaya refers to, May 8, was the day Germany signed an act of surrender, and much of the world erupted in celebration. It was also the day of Hitler's autopsy at a makeshift morgue in a clinic in Buch, on the northwest outskirts of Berlin. Rzhevskaya reports that she didn't come to close to the "roughly made crates with their awful black remains inside," but she describes the difficult search for Hitler's body, rife with confusion and false positives.
The box weighed heavy on me. It oppressed me.
Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker beneath the chancellery on April 30, 1945, and asked his aides to burn his body until nothing remained. He didn't want his body to be displayed in some Moscow waxworks, he declared, or in a "spectacle arranged by Jews." But the Soviets remained unaware of his fate until the next day, when General Hans Krebs exited the bunker and, as part of a failed attempt to negotiate an armistice, informed a Soviet commander that Hitler was dead.
Several days later, a Soviet soldier found the half-charred bodies of a man and a woman buried inside a shell crater near the bunker's emergency exit. He'd noticed the tip of a gray blanket peeking out from the crater, which matched descriptions--produced by interrogating the few aides who remained in the bunker--of the blanket in which Hitler and Eva Braun's corpses had been wrapped. The bodies were accompanied by two dogs, later identified as Hitler's beloved Blondi and one of her pups. Surrounding the dead were several dark-colored medicine phials, pages of handwriting, money, and a metal medallion that read, "Let me be with you forever."
Soldiers packed the remains into wooden ammunition crates, and Rzhevskaya and her team accompanied them to the morgue in Buch. Hitler's autopsy was directed by Colonel Faust Iosifovich Shkaravsky but performed by a woman, Major Anna Yakovlevna Marants. She noted that the corpse was badly carbonized, giving off the "odor of burned meat," and only the jaws remained relatively unscathed. The doctors pried the bones loose, and then Rzhevskaya was given the claret-colored box.
Teeth are like signatures--no two people have the same set. Unlike signatures, they're hard to forge. They've been used to identify bodies in criminal trials since the mid-19th century, and the Soviet doctors knew that Hitler's jaws would be key to proving his death to the world.
After the autopsies, around midnight, Rzhevskaya's team heard news of Germany's surrender on the radio. "Silently we poured wine," she writes. "I put the little box on the floor. Silently the three of us clinked glasses, filled with emotion, disheveled, lost for words, as the sounds of fireworks in Moscow came through the radio. I ran back down the steep staircase to the ground floor... I will never forget the feeling that rushed over me at that moment. Was this really happening to me? Was this really me standing there at the hour of Germany's surrender clutching a box containing the last remaining irrefutable proof about Hitler?"
When dawn broke the next morning, Rzhevskaya and her team set off to search for anyone with information about Hitler's mouth. Driving through what remained of Berlin's roads, dotted with collapsed buildings and thick with refugees, they found a still-functioning hospital, where they asked a doctor for the name of Hitler's dentist. The doctor had no clue, but he directed them to a famous laryngologist, Carl von Eicken, who had treated Hitler. A Bulgarian student working at Eicken's clinic knew the name of Hitler's dentist, Professor Blaschke, and climbed into Rzhevskaya's car to direct them to his dental office on one of Berlin's poshest streets. There, a doctor emerged wearing a red ribbon in his buttonhole, "a sign of welcome and solidarity with the Russians," Rzhevskaya writes. He explained that Hitler's dentist had fled, but that his dental assistant, Käthe Hausermann, lived just a few doors down.
Was this really me standing there clutching a box containing the last remaining irrefutable proof about Hitler?
Hausermann walked in wearing a blue coat; Rzhevskaya describes her as a tall, attractive woman in her mid-thirties, blond hair escaping a scarf tied around her head. Upon seeing the Russians, she began to weep. She had been raped by Soviet soldiers before and had to be convinced this group was friendly. Once calmed, she was asked to describe her memory of Hitler's teeth. The location of his crowns and a sawn-through upper left bridge matched the teeth in the jewelry box, but Rzhevskaya's team needed further proof. Hausermann led them to a tiny, mildewed dental office in Hitler's bunker, where she produced Hitler's dental x-rays. The images--the placement of root canal fillings, sites of bone breakdown, and unusual bridges--confirmed that the body found in the rubble outside the chancellery had belonged to Hitler. A dental technician named Fritz Echtmann, who had worked in the same laboratory as Hausermann and created crowns and bridges for both Hitler and Eva Braun, verified the findings.
Later, when Rzhevskaya asked Hausermann why she had remained in Berlin instead of fleeing alongside her boss, the dental assistant replied that she had lost contact with her fiancé and wanted to stay in Berlin so he would be able to find her. (She had also buried a cache of dresses outside the city, "saving them from the bombs and the flames," Rzhevskaya writes, and wanted to stay close to them.) After the war, Hausermann would be deported to the Soviet Union, to spend ten years in Russian labor camps. Her crime? Having helped sustain a bourgeois regime through dental work.
With the confirmation in place, Rzhevskaya wrote a letter to her family in Moscow telling them she would soon be coming home. That didn't happen--as far as Stalin was concerned, there was still work to do. The American press reported that Hitler's body had been found, but the Russian media encouraged the idea that Hitler was still in hiding. In fact, Stalin would eventually keep the truth about Hitler's death from even his top commanders. In fact, when Rzhevskaya later met the commander who had led the assault on Germany and captured Berlin, Georgy Zhukov, in the 1960s, he asked her: "Is Hitler really dead?"
While awaiting word from Stalin about what to do next, Rzhevskaya's team moved to the small town of Finow, where they had the remains in the wooden boxes secretly sent to them. Late one night, they buried the boxes in the forest. Stalin dispatched a general to confirm their findings, then sent word that although he was satisfied, he would not make the results public because the "capitalist encirclement remain[ed] in place." Rzhevskaya wasn't allowed to return to Moscow for months. Meanwhile, Hitler's remains were moved to a military base in Magdeburg in 1946, and in 1970, before the base was returned to German control, they were exhumed, burned again, ground into dust, and thrown into a tributary of the Elbe river. Hitler had finally achieved the task he commanded his aides to carry out after death--no trace of him remained on this earth. Well, except for those jaws.
The placement of root canal fillings, sites of bone breakdown, and unusual bridges confirmed that the body found in the rubble had belonged to Hitler.
Rzhevskaya says she has long pondered Stalin's decision not to announce the confirmation of Hitler's death. In Memoirs of a Wartime Interpreter, she notes that "the system that Stalin built could only survive as long as it had an enemy to face, both within and without... If Hitler was still alive then it meant that Nazism had not yet been completely defeated and the world would remain in a state of tension"--tension that Stalin hoped to manipulate to his own ends. Stalin encouraged reports saying that Hitler had fled to Argentina, was being sheltered by Franco in Spain, or had been spotted hiding in various outposts around the world. By Rzhevskaya's account, he needed his old enemy.
But Rzhevskaya was determined that the world should know the truth. Still alive at age 95 and residing in Moscow, where she's an accomplished writer with several memoirs and six war novels to her credit, she says she battled state censorship for years before publishing her accounts of the war's last days. "By the will of fate," she writes, "I came to take part in ensuring that Hitler was unable to achieve his final objective of disappearing, turning into a myth."