I recently ran across a story about Adolph Hitler and a little girl. It was strange, a little macabre, and somewhat iconoclastic because it is not what one expects from a genocidal dictator. While some may see the episode as an anomaly and others as proof that there is good in everyone, I see in it a certain power that children have to bring even the most ruined souls love and joy.

The story emerged in 2018 when an autographed photograph of Hitler hugging a little girl sold at auction for more than $11,000. Taken in 1933 by Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s official photographer, the picture was quickly identified. A little research showed how bizarre the story was, which an auction official called “mind-blowing.” While visiting his Berghof retreat in the Bavarian region of Germany, Hitler struck up a friendship with a little girl in the crowd, who he learned had the same birthday as himself (April 20). Her name was Rosa Bernile Nienau, and she was eight at the time. She soon became a frequent guest of the recently appointed chancellor and started corresponding with him. More than seventeen letters have been discovered in the German archives from her. She became known as “Hitler’s child,” and she called him “Uncle Hitler.” In other words, she was taken with him, and he with her. So far as is known, their relationship was normal, as they chatted about flowers, the country, or beautiful things. Hoffman widely published several pictures of Bernile and Hitler to show the human side of the Fuhrer, that he was able to relate so well with children.

The problem, as some might have guessed, was that the girl’s grandmother and mother were Jewish. Since anyone who was at least a quarter Jewish heritage was considered fully Jewish by recently passed restrictions on Jews in Germany, it created an uproar among Hitler’s Antisemitic friends when his friendship with her became known in 1938. Despite his well-published attitudes toward Jews, Hitler had disregarded her heritage for the sake of friendship, which his adjutant, Fritz Widemann, described as a “purely human attitude.” Hitler had in fact known about her heritage from the beginning. The situation became serious when Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and deputy of the Nazi party, found out. He immediately barred the girl and her mother from appearing in Berghof. When Hoffmann complained that Bormann had also forbidden him from publishing any more photos of Hitler with the girl, Hitler was furious and at first refused to stop seeing her, saying, “There are people who have a true talent to spoil my every joy.” Eventually, however, the party leaders had their way, and in May 1938 the mother was officially ordered to stop having contact with party officials.

For a time, at least, the little girl had done what few were able to accomplish – she had tamed the genocidal maniac to overlook his own prejudices. Like David playing on his harp for King Saul, she had soothed the tortured soul of Hitler, giving him momentary joy. Perhaps, had the friendship continued, he may have moderated some of his views, for how could he continue to persecute the Jews when he was friends with one? More likely, he would have continued at least some of his policies but would have made an exception for his friend, as indeed many Nazi officials did when confronted by close companions who were Jewish. By cutting off his contact with the child, the Nazis closed one of the few humanizing elements in his life. It was shortly after this that the Reichstag passed the strictest laws against Jews and that the first pogrom against the Jews, Kristallnacht, took place. Though sad, it is fortunate Bernile died of polio in 1943 at the age of seventeen before she had to face what was to come – the implementation of the Final Solution. Although the Germans had already opened concentration camps, few knew of them until after the war. In other words, within a few years of losing his friendship with the girl, Hitler rapidly descended to megalomania, genocidal mania, and eventual self-destruction.

While some may look at this story to defend Hitler, who seemed to display a human side, or argue that it was just an isolated episode in the midst of Hitler’s evil, I would argue that it demonstrates the ability of children to save even the most lost of souls. We will never know what could have happened if Hitler’s relationship with the child continued, but we do know that for a time he was able to find a love that seemed to slow his decline into madness. This is the strange power children have. Because they are so innocent, so totally dependent on others, and so willing to love the unloveable, they bring incredible joy, love, and peace to those who struggle the most. I remember taking my daughter to a retirement home to visit my grandmother, and she would always end up in the lap of someone struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s. You could see the joy and love in their eyes, which nothing else seemed to bring. There came a moment of recognition, of healing, though it disappeared as soon as she had left. For a moment, at least, they felt joy and peace. The same happens to most people when they come into contact with children.

I encourage those who are struggling with depression, with hatred, and with pain to spend time with small children in a safe environment on a regular basis and watch your attitudes change. It is impossible to remain angry or depressed if you can immerse yourself even for a moment in a child’s world and experience the unconditional love that children offer. This is the power of children.

© 2022 J.D. Manders  

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