Hitler’s former maid remembers the good life at Der Fuhrer’s mountain retreat

 


Hitler’s famous “Berghof” (mountain house) near Berchtesgaden, Germany on Sept. 15, 1938. (AP Photo)

It’s not clear that Elisabeth Kalhammer knew who her employer would be in 1943 when she responded to a help wanted ad for a maid at the Berghof, Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat that served as Nazi headquarters away from Berlin.

Her mother had her doubts, Kalhammer, 89, told the Austrian newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten in what appears to be her first public interview about working for Hitler, but an employment office staffer told Kalhammer she should be thankful. Jobs were scarce in Germany as the war raged on all fronts.  

After she was screened by the SS and a search of her mother’s home for signs of anti-Nazi propaganda turned up nothing suspicious, Kalhammer’s application was approved.

Kalhammer was nervous when she arrived at a house full of guests on her first day. Hitler wined and dined the likes of Benito Mussolini at the Berghof, where he spent much of his time during World War II. 

Kalhammer, who joined a staff of 22 housemaids, saw Hitler but never said a word to him herself. Only long-serving staff members were allowed to address Hitler personally and enter his private rooms, she told the paper.

What happens at the Berghof stays at the Berghof, was the main rule when it came to chitchat. Staff were forbidden even from talking among themselves about the comings and goings of Nazi party members and their guests. Kalhammer was warned from the start that if she broke the rule she would face strict punishment.

But decades later, Kalhammer offers these tidbits about life at Hitler’s home away from home:

  • Late at night, Hitler liked to steal away to the kitchen for a bite of “Fuhrer cake,” a specially prepared sheet cake with apples, nuts and raisins that the kitchen was expected to always have on hand.
  • Hitler rarely got out of bed before 2 p.m. (This habit came back to bite him on D-Day when his generals dared not wake him though Allied troops were swimming ashore in Normandy).
  • As a Christmas “gift” maids received wool so they could knit socks for troops on the front.
  • The maids greeted Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun with “Heil, merciful lady.”

Perhaps what’s most revealing is what Kalhammer doesn’t say.  At no point in her interview with the Salzburger Nachrichten does she criticize the German dictator or mention his atrocities. At no point does she express regret over being a cog, albeit a small one, in the wheel of  Nazi machinery.

In fact, she remembers life as being pretty good at the Berghof. With plenty of food and fresh-pressed apple juice, Kalhammer was far better off than ordinary Germans. She did laundry and sewing, and cleaned up around the house. She also served tea, which Hitler liked to drink from a delicate Nymphenburg tea cup. She had to abide by a curfew as punishment after breaking one of the porcelain cups, which were very valuable.

Kalhammer also enjoyed girls’ nights out at Hitler’s private cinema on the estate where his lover, Eva Braun would watch the latest German propaganda films starring former actress, Marika Roekk. Braun was “spellbound” by Roekk, Kalhammer said.

Kalhammer, for her part, was quite a fan of Braun whom she described as an elegant woman who always wore tailored clothes of the latest fashion. “She was always good to me,” Kalhammer said.

Braun acted as the lady of the house at Berghof and designed the maids’ outfits – a white apron with diagonal buttons.

The mood in the house grew darker after a July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler by senior Nazi officials failed. Kalhammer worked at Berghof almost until the end of the war. The compound was ultimately evacuated and was bombed in an Allied air raid.

Kalhammer isn’t the first of Hitler’s maids to come out of the woodwork. In 2008, another maid who worked for Hitler at the Berghof told Britain’s Daily Mail that Hitler “was a charming man, someone who was only ever nice to me, a great boss to work for. You can say what you like, but he was a good man to us.”

Like Kalhammer, she prefers a sanitized version of the past. “That he had ordered such terrible things, I just couldn’t believe it,” she said of having to confront the reality of Hitler’s atrocities after the way. “Even now, I prefer to remember the charming facets of his personality.”

Update: This story has been updated to show the Salzburger Nachrichten is an Austrian, not a German newspaper. The story also said “Marchtrenkerin” was Kalhammer’s maiden name; it is actually the town where she was born.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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