27. In Her Childhood, Josephine Baker Was Homeless, Forced to Scavenge Food From Trash Cans
Baker’s parents struggled to make ends meet. She was raised in poverty in a poor neighborhood that consisted mostly of boarding houses, whorehouses, and apartments without running water or indoor plumbing. Growing up, Baker often went hungry, and was always poorly dressed in second or third hand hand-me-downs. Playing with other urchins in the rail yard, she developed street smarts that served her well in her future career.
The young girl’s schooling was spotty. Eventually, Baker dropped out of school at age twelve, having progressed only to fifth grade. For a while, she lived as a street kid in St. Louis’ slums, sleeping in cardboard boxes, scavenging food from trash cans, and earning a bit of money every now and then by dancing on street corners. Things stabilized somewhat when she got a job, at age thirteen, as a waitress. While waiting tables, she met and married a man named Willie Wells, but things quickly soured between the duo, and she got a divorce.
26. This Future Icon and Nazi Fighter Launched Her Entertainment Career as a Comedienne
In 1919, Josephine Baker got started as a professional entertainer, touring with the Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers, and performing a variety of comical skits. When the troupes split, she tried out for a spot as a chorus girl with The Dixie Steppers, in a production called Shuffle Along. However, she was rejected for being “too skinny and too dark”.
Undaunted, Baker stayed on as a dresser, and learned the chorus girls’ routine on her free time. When a dancer unexpectedly left, Baker was the obvious replacement, and she made the most of her opportunity. She put a comic spin on her performance by deliberately acting clumsy and rolling her eyes onstage, and the audience ate it up. Baker became a mainstay and a box office draw for the rest of the show’s run.
Josephine Baker’s rise coincided with the Harlem Renaissance – an artistic, social, and intellectual explosion centered in Harlem, NY, during the 1920s. Unfortunately, her early comic career revolved around blackface performances in NY clubs – a demeaning form of entertainment of which her mother disapproved.
Her comic dance routines often called for her to bumble and stumble through her act, as if she was a ditz who didn’t know what she was doing. Then, during the encore, she would close out by performing the routine correctly, and with added layers of complexity exceeding those of all other dancers. It was such a hit, that Baker was billed as “The Highest Paid Chorus Girl in Vaudeville!”
24. Racism at Home Forced Josephine Baker to Emigrate to France
Josephine Baker did relatively well in New York City, but 1920s America was not a great era for black people seeking to realize their full potential. Growing tired of the glass ceiling of racism that capped her career prospects, Baker decided to bet on herself by leaving America in search of greener pastures abroad. In 1925, aged nineteen, she headed to Paris, where she opened La Revue Negre. She became an immediate hit with her erotic dancing, performed semi-nude.
Baker took the City of Light by storm, as she remade herself into a glamorous Jazz Age cabaret star. Her signature stage act was quite risque, performed while clad only in high heels, a skirt made of artificial bananas, and a bra that revealed far more than it concealed. She sang and danced with a wild abandon and erotic frenzy that held the audience spellbound. Baker was often accompanied by her pet cheetah, Chiquita. Wearing a diamond collar, the feline would sometimes escape into the orchestra pit, terrifying the musicians and further enhancing the wildness of the moment.
Josephine Baker’s banana-skirted dance, which became famous in Paris as the Danse Sauvage, won her world renown. It went beyond a signature fashion statement, however, and revolutionized how dancers thought of movement itself. As one scholar put it: “Where European dancers showed the front, presenting the body as a unified line, Baker contrived to move different parts of her body to different rhythms. Most shocking to dance purists, she used her backside, shaking it, as one of her biographers says, as though it were an instrument“.
Josephine Baker also captured the hearts of the modernist art movement’s leaders, who congregated in Paris. Pablo Picasso jumped at the chance to paint her, seeking to capture her alluring beauty, and saying that she had “legs of paradise”. Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw“. French director Jean Cocteau set out to make her a movie star, although her film success was limited to silent films in Europe.
In 1928, while in Budapest, Baker was ogled by a Hungarian cavalry captain named Andrew Czolovoydi. When Czolovoydi made a pass at her, Baker’s manager and on-and-off lover, “Count” Pepito di Abatino (he was no aristocrat, but a former stonemason) was offended. So he challenged the Hungarian officer to a sword duel.
The challenge was accepted, and the two men went at each other with blades in a cemetery, while Josephine watched from atop a tombstone. She stopped the fight, however, when her manager took a shoulder wound. Honor thus satisfied, the two men shook hands and made peace.
21. American Racism Broke This Nazi Fighter’s Heart
Josephine Baker thrived in the integrated Paris of the 1920s. After La Revue Negre ran its course, she starred in La Folie du Jour, in which she continued to wow audiences with jaw dropping performances. Before long, she rivaled Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson as the world’s most photographed woman. By 1927, within two years of her arrival in France, Baker was Europe’s highest paid entertainer, male or female. In the early 1930s, she starred in a pair of movies, and moved her family from St. Louis, to come and live with her in her French estate.
After more than a decade of success and adulation in France and Europe, Baker returned to America in 1936. She was swiftly reacquainted with the racism that had led to emigrate. Baker had changed, but America had not. She returned to France in 1937, brokenhearted. The experience contributed to her decision to abandon her US citizenship. Back in Paris, she married industrialist Jean Lion, and got naturalized as a French citizen. When France fell to the Nazi onslaught, Baker would risk her life for her new country.
20. Josephine Baker Was Recruited by French Military Intelligence
Josephine Baker was recruited by French military intelligence when WWII began. She had once expressed support for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, so when German forces defeated and occupied France, they assumed that Baker was friendly to the fascist cause. She was not. Taking advantage of the Nazi occupiers’ trust, she risked her life on clandestine work for the Allies. Her celebrity and fame opened doors, and rubbing shoulders with high-ranking Axis personnel, she charmed officials she met in social gatherings to collect information.
As an international entertainer, Baker had an excuse to travel, and she did, within Nazi-occupied Europe, to neutral Portugal, and to South America. She transported coded messages between the French Resistance and the Allies, written in invisible ink on her music sheets. They contained information about German troop concentrations, airfields, harbors, and defenses, all of which Baker smuggled beneath the Nazis’ noses. She also hid fugitives in her home, supplying them with forged identification papers and visas obtained through her contacts.
19. Josephine Baker Smuggled Intelligence Reports Gathered on the Nazi Regime by Pinning Them to Her Underwear
In 1941, under cover of health reasons and doctor’s orders after a bout of pneumonia, Josephine Baker left a Europe groaning under Nazi occupation. She headed to French North Africa, then under the control of the collaborationist French Vichy regime. In reality, she was there to help the Resistance. Working from Morocco, she traveled back and forth to Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain, gathering information and transmitting it to Allied intelligence. Counting on her celebrity to avoid a strip search, she pinned intelligence reports to her underwear.
While conducting her clandestine work in North Africa and Spain, Baker had a miscarriage that almost killed her. She developed an infection so severe, that she needed a complete hysterectomy. Things got worse when the infection spread, and she ended up with sepsis and peritonites. After recovering, she began touring to entertain Allied soldiers – who by then had landed in North Africa. Later in the war, Baker joined the French Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in which she was commissioned as a lieutenant, and kept putting on shows for Allied troops.
18. For Her Fight Against the Nazi Regime, Baker Was Decorated, and Became the Only American Woman to Receive a French Military Funeral
In recognition of her wartime exploits and contributions to France, Josephine Baker was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honeur by Charles de Gaulle. Among the medals awarded her by the French military were the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with Rosette.
Upon her death, her funeral became the occasion for a huge procession. Josephine Baker became the first – and only – American woman to ever receive full French military honors at her burial, complete with an honor guard and gun salutes.
17. This Heroine Who Was “Born a Fighter” Took the Fight to Her Country’s Nazi Occupiers
In 1918, Eta Wrobel was born in Lokov, Poland, into a large Jewish family of ten children. Her father taught his offspring to help others, no matter the circumstances, and Eta took that to heart. When Germany conquered Poland, things got horrifically bad for Poland’s Jews. Eta, who described herself as a “born a fighter“, was determined to do what she could to resist.
So she began forging false identity papers for Jews, until 1942, when Eta’s ghetto was liquidated, and she and her family were packed off to concentration camps. Fortunately, she and her father managed to escape en route, and fled into the woods near Lokov. Unfortunately, she was the only one of ten siblings to survive the Holocaust. She soon channeled her loss into fighting the Nazi occupation.
16. Eta Wrobel Survived the War to Become Mayor of Her Town
In the depths of the woods near her hometown, Eta Wrobel helped organize a Jewish partisan group of about 80 people, and took the fight to the Nazi occupiers. Her partisans ambushed German supply convoys, mined roads, and conducted hit and run raids. It was a harsh existence, without adequate shelter, supplies, or medical care. On one occasion, she was shot in the leg, but the group’s sole doctor was busy with others more seriously injured. So Eta extracted the bullet herself, digging it out of her leg with a knife, then sterilizing the wound with vodka.
When the Nazis retreated in 1944, Eta was asked to become mayor of her town. She got married later that year, and moved to the US in 1947, where she raised a family. Looking back at her partisan years, Eta reasoned that: “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive“.
15. A Woman Whose Loyalty Was Beyond Doubt. Unfortunately, it Was Loyalty to Evil
In stark contrast to the heroic women who risked their lives to fight the Nazis, were the women who went above and beyond to serve the Nazi cause. As a general proposition, loyalty is a morally commendable trait. Unless, of course, it is loyalty to an evil person and cause. Few examples highlight that exception to the rule more than the loyalty exhibited by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda to Adolf Hitler and his regime. The couple were active enablers of and avid participants in the horrors of the Third Reich.
As seen below, when the Nazi state came crashing down in ignominious defeat, with the Red Army storming into Berlin, they chose to follow their beloved Fuhrer into death by committing suicide. Worse, they opted to take their offspring with them. Before killing themselves, they murdered their six children, ranging in age from four to twelve.
In 1930, Joseph Goebbels was the chief Nazi in Berlin, tasked with growing the party in the German capital and throughout Prussia, when Magda Quandt joined his staff. In 1921, she had married a businessman, Gunther Quandt, with whom she had a son, Harald, before the couple divorced in 1929. The following year, Magda joined the Nazi party as a volunteer. After a stint at her local branch, she was moved to party headquarters in Berlin.
There, Magda was tasked with overseeing Joseph Goebbels’ private papers. It did not take long before the smooth talking Goebbels made his move, and by early 1931, he and Magda had started a relationship. They were married on December 19th of that year, with Hitler acting as best man. Harald, Magda’s son from her previous marriage, was quickly won over by his stepfather, and formed a strong attachment to Joseph Goebbels.
13. The Goebbels’ Quickly Did Their Part to Furnish the Nazi State With New Citizens
When the Nazis took power in 1933, Goebbels used his influence as a Reich minister to lean on Harald’s father, to modify the terms of his 1929 divorce settlement with Magda. Gunther Quandt agreed to free his ex wife from her obligation to surrender custody of Harald if she ever remarried, and the kid moved in permanently with his mother and stepfather.
As to Magda and Joseph, it was not long before the duo got started on producing a biological brood of their own. Their eldest, Helga, was born in September, 1932. Next came Hildegard in April, 1934. She in turn was followed by Helmut, Magda and Joseph Goebbels’ only son, in October, 1935. He was followed by Holdine, in February, 1937. Next came Hedwig, in May, 1938, and finally, Heidrun arrived in October, 1940.
12. Hitler Had to Play Marriage Counselor to Keep His Favorite Nazi Family Together
The quick succession of children pumped out by Magda did not signify bliss and tranquility in the Goebbels home. The couple came close to divorcing because of Joseph’s notorious womanizing, which reached a peak in the summer of 1938, when he fell hard for a Czech actress named Lida Baarova. The propaganda minister sought to abandon his family to be with Baarova, until Hitler, leery of the negative PR from a scandal involving one of his top henchmen, demanded that Goebbels end the relationship.
He kept backsliding, however, so Magda sought a divorce. Once again, the Fuhrer personally intervened. Hitler brokered a reconciliation by banishing Baarova. He demanded that the couple maintain at least the appearance of harmony in public, and agreed to let Magda get her divorce if, after a year’s separation, she still wanted out of the marriage. Goebbels laid on the charm once more, and became the model of a solicitous and repentant husband. The couple eventually got back together, and their last child, Heidrun, was called their “reconciliation child”, because she was conceived after her parents had smoothed things over.
11. The Goebbels’ Brood Were Hitler’s Favorite Children
The Fuhrer’s efforts to save the Goebbels’ marriage did not stem solely from his fears of public scandal tarnishing his regime. The Nazi leader saw the Goebbels’ as personal friends, and he was quite fond of their kids. Although one of history’s most horrible figures, Hitler had some soft spots, and one of them was for children. Or at least for the type of blond and blue eyed children featured on Nazi posters as ideal Aryan offspring. Children who did not meet those criterion, Hitler had no trouble condemning to their deaths by the million.
The Goebbels’ children met Hitler’s criterion of the Germanic ideal, and their eldest, Helga, was said to be the Fuhrer’s favorite girl. Hitler often visited the Goebbels home, where he played with and showed marked affection towards their children, or had them visit him in his office and residence. Helga Goebbels was regularly seen and photographed with the Fuhrer, and he often sat her on his lap while conducting meetings late into the night.
10. The Goebbels’ Took Their Family to be With Hitler at the Collapse of the Nazi Regime
During the war, the Goebbels kids were featured in dozens of newsreels as examples of ideal Germanic children, and film and photos of them with the Fuhrer were frequently displayed in the media. However, as Germany’s doom drew nearer, so did that of the Goebbels’ and their offspring. In April, 1945, with the Red Army massing outside Berlin, Joseph Goebbels moved his wife and children into Hitler’s bunker compound beneath the Reich Chancellery.
The Fuhrer was determined to go out in an operatic manner worthy of Richard Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods. Goebbels was equally determined to follow his master into the great beyond – and to take his family with him. Magda Goebbels, who was as much of a fanatical Nazi as Joseph, was willing to accompany her husband and Hitler into death.
9. A Monstrous Nazi Mother’s Monstrous Display of Nazi Loyalty
To Magda and Joseph Goebbels’ minds, dying with Hitler was not just an ultimate display of loyalty. As a practical matter, it would also spare them from humiliation and punishment at the hands of the victorious Allies. As to killing her children, Magda thought that their death was preferable to their growing up having to hear that their father was one of history’s greatest criminals. She also believed in reincarnation, and figured that by killing her children now, she would give them another chance at returning to life, perhaps in better circumstances.
Having convinced herself of the need, and even the desirability, of killing her kids, Magda turned a deaf ear to all offers to smuggle her children to safety outside of Berlin. As to how she would go about killing her children, she decided to first knock them out with morphine, then finish them off by crushing cyanide capsules between their teeth.
On May 1st, 1945, one day after Hitler committed suicide, Magda Goebbels with the help of an SS doctor, administered morphine to her kids, then killed them with cyanide. A few hours later, she and Joseph Goebbels committed suicide. The most horrific of the Goebbels children’s deaths was that of Hitler’s favorite girl, Helga. It seems that the morphine she was given did not knock her out, or at least failed to keep her under for long.
Helga became aware at some point that her siblings were being murdered by having cyanide capsules crushed between their teeth. She resisted having the same done to her. Helga’s last moments were spent in a ferocious fight, as her mother and an SS member forced poison into her mouth. An autopsy conducted after the bunker was captured, and photographs taken of her face, showed heavy bruising. Her jaw also seems to have been broken during the struggle to force cyanide into her mouth.
Not all of the Goebbels children died that day. Magda’s son from her previous marriage, who had been raised in the Goebbels household, was not in the bunker when his parents killed themselves and the rest of their children. Harald Quandt had come of age during the war, and joined the Luftwaffe. That led to the luckiest break of his life. While serving as a lieutenant in Italy, Harald was captured by the Allies in 1944. He was thus safe and sound in a POW camp when his parents carried out their familial murder-suicide pact.
After his release in 1947, Harald went to work for his biological father. He helped rebuild Gunther Quandt’s businesses – a holding group of over 200 companies, including a 30% stake in BMW, and a 10% share of Daimler Benz. When his father passed away in 1954, Harald’s inheritance made him one of West Germany’s richest men. He was a shrewd businessman, and when he died in a plane crash in 1967, Harald Quandt let behind a fortune of about 1.5 billion Deutsche Marks. Today, his children and heirs are worth an estimated U$ 6 billion.
6. A Teenage Heroine Finds Herself Cutoff Behind Nazi Lines
Zinaida Martynovna Portnovna was a Belarusian teenage partisan, who fought the Germans after the Nazi state invaded the USSR during WWII. She became the youngest female recipient of a Hero of the Soviet Union award, the Soviet Union’s highest distinction for heroic service to the country and society. Unfortunately, it was a posthumous award, as Zinaida was captured by the Germans and executed in 1944.
The Nazi invasion came as a rude shock to Zinaida, as it did for most Soviet citizens. Born and raised in Leningrad, Zinaida, fifteen-years-old at the time, was hundreds of miles from home at a summer camp near her grandparents’ home close to the Soviet-German border in Belarus in June, 1941. When the Germans struck, enemy tanks swept past the summer camp, and the teenager found herself cut off behind enemy lines.
5. The Brutality of the Nazi Occupation Radicalized Zinaida Portnova Into Joining the Anti-Fascist Partisans
The Nazi occupation of Belarus was brutal, and Zinaida Portnova became radicalized when a German soldier struck her grandmother while confiscating the family’s cattle. She joined the underground Komsomol – the Communist Party’s youth division – and its resistance group, “The Young Avengers”. Zinaida started by distributing anti-German propaganda leaflets, collecting and hiding weapons for the partisans, reporting on enemy troop movements, and engaging in opportunistic acts of sabotage of enemy vehicles.
After learning the use of weapons and explosives, she participated in raids and sabotage operations against power plants, pumps, and a brick factory near Vitebsk, during which about 100 German soldiers were killed. In 1943, she got a job in a kitchen that served the German garrison of Obol, and poisoned the food. When suspicion fell upon her, she demonstrated her “innocence” by eating the food to prove that it was not poisoned. When she did not exhibit immediate ill effects, she was released. She became violently ill soon thereafter, but survived.
4. When Captured, This Heroine Killed a Nazi Officer During Her Interrogation
Zinaida Portnova fled Obol, then joined another partisan unit and served as its scout. In late 1943, contact was lost with the Obol partisans, so Zinaida was infiltrated back into the city to investigate.
She was captured almost immediately. During questioning, she managed to grab a pistol her German interrogator had carelessly left lying atop his desk. She shot the Nazi official to death, as well as two guards who came rushing in upon hearing the gunfire. Zinaida escaped the building, but was eventually tracked down and captured. She was tortured mercilessly, before her execution on January 15th, 1944, aged seventeen.
3. A Woman Who Fought Against the Nazi Hordes in Her Own Tank
Soviet heroine Aleksandra Leontievna Boyko (1918 – 1996) not only fought in the front lines against the Nazi forces, but did so in her own heavy tank. “Own” in this case being quite literal, as the tank in which she fought was actually owned by her and her husband, Ivan Boyko, who fought in the vehicle alongside his wife.
The Boykos lived in the Siberian town of Magadan, having volunteered to work in that rugged region, where wages were higher and the opportunities for advancement were greater. It was the back of beyond, and with nothing to spend their money on, they saved their wages. When the Germans invaded in 1941, the Boykos learned that Aleksandra’s hometown of Kiev had fallen, and soon thereafter, that Ivan’s home village of Nezhin had been captured. From family and friends they heard of atrocities, burned homes, ravaged cousins, and relatives murdered or dragged off to Germany as slave workers. They decided to do something about it.
2. Aleksandra Boyko and Her Husband Bought a Tank to Fight to Nazi Invaders
Soon after the Nazi onslaught against the USSR, Aleksandra and Ivan Boyko tried to join the Red Army. However, draft officials refused because both had essential jobs. Ivan was a superb heavy truck driver, while Aleksandra performed essential clerical work for her department. It was decided that they were more valuable to the war effort continuing in those jobs, than serving in the military. So the couple figured out another way to get into the fight.
During the war, Soviet citizens could directly pay for specific new tanks and planes, and donate them to the military. In 1943, the couple donated 50,000 rubles from their savings to pay for a new IS-2 heavy tank, and wrote a letter to Stalin, asking for the right to drive it into battle. Stalin agreed, and the Boykos were trained as tankers in Chelyabinsk Tank School. Ivan became a tank driver, while Aleksandra became a tank commander – the only woman to command a heavy tank during WWII. Their technically “private” tank was officially named “Kolyma”, after the Kolyma River near the couple’s home in Siberia.
1. This Heroine Fought the Nazi Forces From the Baltics to Central Europe
After graduating from tank school, Aleksandra Boyko was commissioned as a lieutenant. She arrived at the front with her husband in 1944, in the couple’s brand new IS-2 heavy tank – she as commander, he as driver. The Boykos first saw combat in the Riga Offensive, during which Aleksandra’s tank destroyed five Nazi tanks, including a Panzer VI Tiger, and two guns. For her exploits, she was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, First Class.
A few months later, the Boykos’ tank was hit, and Aleksandra and Ivan were seriously injured. Their tank was repaired, and the couple eventually recovered from their wounds and returned to the front. All in all, Aleksandra and her husband fought from the Baltics, through Belarus, into Poland, and eventually ended up in Czechoslovakia at war’s end. Upon demobilization, Aleksandra returned to Magadan, where she ran a bakery, and was eventually elected to the City Council. Unfortunately, the Boykos did not live together happily ever after. The couple divorced in the 1950s. Ivan died in 1995, and Aleksandra followed him a year later.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading