It’s April 20, 1933, Adolf Hitler’s 44th birthday. A crowd of admirers is outside his resort home in the German Alps, the Berghof. Hitler deigns to meet them. Among his fans is a little blonde girl called Bernile Nienau. It’s her birthday too – she’s seven. The young girl catches Hitler’s eye, and so starts one of the most extraordinary friendships of the 20th century.
By Hitler’s 44th birthday, he had already effectively become Germany’s absolute dictator. There were still opposition parties and the semblance of a normal political system in Germany. But Hitler was already working to change that.
By June 1933 Hitler had abolished labor unions, arresting their leaders and sending some of them to concentration camps. Other political parties were forced to dissolve. In August that year Hitler was proclaimed Führer, the dictator of Germany. He now had complete control over the fate of the nation.
Now that Hitler had total power, there was nothing to stop him pursuing one of his main aims: persecuting the Jews. Indeed, he had made no secret of his anti-Semitism. In 1924 he had dictated the first volume of his autobiography, Mein Kampf – My Struggle – to one of his slavish followers, Rudolf Hess.
Hitler published the first volume of Mein Kampf in 1925, and a second volume came in 1926. After he had seized power in 1933, the book became a bestseller. In the book, Hitler gave clear warning of his murderous plans for the Jews.
In one passage he wrote, “… the nationalization of our masses will succeed only when, aside from all the positive struggle for the soul of our people, their international poisoners are exterminated.” And Hitler referred to the Jews a little later, leaving little doubt as to who these “international poisoners” were.
Hitler held shocking views about the Jews and their role during World War I. He wrote, “If at the beginning of the war and during the war twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the nation had been subjected to poison gas… then the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.”
So even in the 1920s Hitler was suggesting that killing Jews would be a good way to improve the lot of Germany. And now in 1933, he and his Nazis could put his demented beliefs into practice. They started in that year by purging the professions, firing Jewish teachers, lawyers and government workers. And schools started to teach children that Jews were inferior.
Then in 1935 came the Nuremberg Race Laws. These were two acts passed by the Nazis, and Hitler announced them at one of the party’s rallies in the city. The first was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. This outlawed marriage and any sexual relations between Jews and Germans. Of course most Jews in the country were Germans, but this didn’t concern the Nazis.
The second act, the Reich Citizenship Law, gave full citizens’ rights only to Germans. Others, including all Jews, became members of a separate class. They were now state subjects and as such had no rights. But these two laws begged the question: who exactly was to be categorized as a Jew?
But the Nazis were equal to the task of minutely defining who should be persecuted. Nazi officials created a grotesque hierarchy of who was German and who was not. At the top of this pyramid of German purity were the Deutschblütiger, the German-blooded.
The Deutschblütigers were 100 percent German, with no Jewish blood. Then there were those with one Jewish great-grandparent, defined as one-eighth Jewish. They were allowed to be full German citizens. People of full Jewish blood were at the bottom of the heap. In between, there were the mischlings, mixed race people, those with one or more Jewish grandparents. Their status was at first less certain.
The definition of the mischlings was hotly debated within the Nazi party. Some members wanted to see anyone with even just one Jewish grandparent denied German citizenship. Hitler then gave a personal ruling in November 1935.
Hitler decreed that those with three Jewish grandparents would be denied German citizenship and regarded as Jews. Those with two Jewish grandparents would only be classed as Jews if they themselves were married to someone of the faith or if they were observant to it. As proposed earlier, people with one Jewish grandparent could be deemed German.
And Hitler’s final word on this argument over who was and who wasn’t officially Jewish had direct relevance for that young girl who met him in 1933, Bernile Nienau. Because Nienau’s mother Karoline was half Jewish.
Nienau’s father Bernhard, a doctor, had died in 1926, not long before his daughter was born in April of that year. So strictly speaking, the young girl did not fall into the definition because she had just one Jewish grandparent, and her father had not been a Jew. But that she had Jewish blood was undeniable.
Perhaps taken by the fact that Nienau had the same birthday as him, Hitler invited her up to his house when he first met her on his 44th birthday. And there, his official photographer Heinrich Hoffman shot the pair together and the picture would be widely used in publicity material. Hoffmann had a keen eye for images that would show the Führer in a human light.
Hitler was quite often pictured in the company of children by Hoffman. The Führer was very image conscious and the latter often took photographs which aimed to show the brutal dictator’s human side. Hitler also like to be shown relaxing, often with pet dogs around.
It seems that Hitler trusted Hoffmann, a party member whom he’d known since 1919, implicitly. In one episode in 1927, Hitler ordered Hoffmann to photograph him holding a variety of poses, to see how he would look as he gave his fiery speeches. Hoffmann was told to destroy the photos, but he kept them.
So was Hitler’s relationship with Nienau simply based on the fact that it created some good publicity for the Führer? It seems that there may actually have been more to it than that. For a start, it was more than just that one encounter at the Berghof in April 1933.
From that first meeting in 1933, Nienau and Hitler continued to stay in touch. Indeed, she called him her Uncle Hitler. Over the five years until 1938, she wrote to Hitler and his chief assistant Wilhelm Brückner no fewer than 17 times, perhaps aided by her mother. We know this because the letters are kept in the German Federal Archives.
In one of the letters, dated September 27, 1936, Nienau wrote, “Dear Uncle Brückner! Today I have a lot to tell you. During the holidays we were on the Obersalzberg and I was twice allowed to [see] dear Uncle Hitler!” As well as writing letters it seems that Nienau saw Hitler again on more than one occasion.
In her letter, Nienau continued, “Uncle Hitler I knit some socks again because I asked him if they fit him last year. He said yes! This year I can knit with finer wool, mom only helps me with the heel. They are going to be very warm, and where he always travels so much, his feet will not feel cold.” The banal domesticity of knitting socks jars with the real Hitler, a man who would go on to murder millions.
The question is, did Hitler know about Nienau’s Jewish ancestry? It seems that from quite early on he did. But for whatever reason, this didn’t stop him from staying in contact with the little girl over a five-year period. And those were years when Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in Germany continued apace.
For a time Jews who had served in the German Army during the First World War were allowed to keep their civil service positions and jobs as doctors and teachers. But in December 1933 the Nazis ended this exemption for war veterans. The screws were tightening on the Jews.
Private companies were now authorized to have their own regulations stating that they would employ neither full-blooded Jews nor those who were part Jewish. The laws against sexual relations with those deemed non-Aryans were strictly enforced with public humiliation and prison sentences. Those found guilty were forced to walk the street with signs detailing their offence.
On the whole, it seems that the German people accepted this discrimination against the Jews. Blanket Nazi propaganda had claimed that they were a separate race and were the enemies of ordinary Germans. On top of that, anyone who opposed the Nuremberg Laws would certainly have come to the attention of the Gestapo. That was a terrifying prospect for any German.
Jews became increasingly divorced from mainstream society. Jewish-owned businesses were forced to sell up at well below market price, handing them over to Germans of Aryan stock. And by the beginning of 1938, they were barred from running businesses or providing services.
Yet all through this period, as Hitler led Germany to greater heights of brutal persecution of the Jews, he stayed in contact with the young Nienau, part Jewish herself. And he even sent her a signed photograph of the two together.
It was one of the shots that Heinrich Hoffmann had taken on Hitler’s 44th birthday at the Berghof. If we didn’t know who Hitler was, this would be an intimate shot of perhaps a kindly uncle with his niece against a backdrop of the Bavarian Alps.
As it is, it’s impossible to view this photo without a shiver running down the spine. Hitler, soon to be the mass murderer of the Jews, smiles on beside the little Jewish girl as he holds her in an affectionate hug. He looks for all the world like a loving relative or family friend.
The inscription that Hitler wrote on the photo says, “The dear and considerate Rosa Nienau, Adolf Hitler Munich, the 16th June 1933.” The little girl’s full name was Rosa Bernile Nienau and although she was more commonly known as Bernile, Hitler chose to call her Rosa.
This signed photograph came to light in November 2018 when it was put up for auction in the U.S. The sale was handled by a Maryland auctioneer, Alexander Historical Auctions. Where it had been for the previous 80 years and more is a mystery and the seller’s identity was kept secret. Meanwhile, the picture fetched $11,520 from an anonymous bidder.
And Nienau herself certainly seems to have treasured this photograph. She has adorned it with some pressed edelweiss blooms as well as that symbol of good luck, a four-leafed clover. But even if Hitler was prepared to overlook the young girl’s Jewish heritage, some of his underlings were not.
In fact, Martin Bormann, the Führer’s private secretary, later decided that Hitler should not be consorting with a girl who was one-quarter Jewish. He forbade Nienau’s mother Karoline from visiting the Berghof again with her daughter. And from around May 1938 they were banished from Hitler’s presence.
And it seems that Bormann thought it best to hide from Hitler the fact that he’d warned Nienau’s mother off. Hitler only found out when Hoffmann told him. The latter was angry because Bormann had told him to stop publishing photos of Hitler with the young girl. Indeed, the pictures had earned him a lot of money.
After the war, Hoffmann was prosecuted as a war profiteer and received four years in prison. He was released in 1950 and published a memoir about his relationship with the Führer in 1955, Hitler Was My friend. In the book he recalled when he had told Hitler that Bormann had cut off contact with Nienau.
According to Hoffmann, Hitler reacted angrily to the news. The Führer apparently said, “There are people who have a true talent for spoiling my every joy.” If he really did say this, then it suggests that Nienau was more than just a prop for flattering photos. He may have had some human feeling for the young Jewish girl.
If it’s true that at an individual level Hitler felt affection for Nienau and was prepared to overlook her Jewish heritage, it simply makes his callous behavior towards the Jews as a people all the more barbaric. Hitler, it seems, could see the good in the child, even though she was a quarter Jewish. But it didn’t stop him from killing six million Jews in the Holocaust.
After she was cut off from Hitler, Nienau lived on and studied technical drawing. But she died young at the age of 17 in 1943. It was the scourge of poliomyelitis that killed her rather than Nazi brutality. And Rosa Bernile Nienau’s name continues as a historical footnote because of her extraordinary relationship with Adolf Hitler.