Newton Man’s Journey to Honor a Forgotten Daughter of Wisconsin Executed by Hitler: Mildred Fish-Harnack

By Joel Waldinger | October 10, 2019


Mildred Fish-Harnack was a Milwaukee-born, University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate and the only American woman executed on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. Architect John Dubrow first learned about her from the book called, “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Fish-Harnack and the Red Orchestra.”

Mildred met German scholar Arvid Harnack at the University of Wisconsin. They married and returned to Germany in 1929. Soon, Hitler had seized power. The Harnacks, along with a circle of friends, formed a Nazi resistance network providing German economic and military secrets to the Americans and Soviets.

Durbrow saw this as a noble cause and set out to honor her. With his own money, he designed a six-foot, eight-inch black granite sculpture. Finding a location for the sculpture proved much more difficult due to global politics.

When the Harnacks were captured, the Germans classified them as “Soviet spies.”  In the years after WWII, the Harnack’s image morphed into staunch Communist supporters as the Soviets used their story for propaganda purposes. The fact that they also aided the Americans was lost in the shuffle. Durbrow said, “Everybody looks at World War II as the good war, and anything done to forward our victory is seen as a noble gesture. But in her case, she has been denied credit for having been involved in something that everybody else is giving accolades to.”

In the 1950s, the University of Wisconsin halted any plans to honor Mildred because of possible Communist connections. For more than a decade, the idea to honor Mildred was going nowhere and the sculpture gathered dust.

Durbrow’s dream of honoring Mildred would gain momentum when the City of Madison Parks Department stepped forward. They selected Marshall Park. On the shores of Lake Mendota, it overlooks Picnic Point where Mildred and Arvid canoed on their first date and where Arvid purposed marriage.

In the summer of 2019, hundreds gathered for the dedication. Standing before those gathered, Durbrow was humbled and said, “I am very grateful that we can finally place Mildred back in Madison overlooking the lake that she had loved.” It marked more than a decade of determination and Durbrow’s unwavering belief Mildred was worth of such an honor.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 

Related Links for this Article

Wisconsin's Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story

Renowned Architect John Durbrow gives you a tour of his modern Lake Michigan home.

Madison’s First Black Poet Laureate Remembers Mildred Fish-Harnack

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