Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair

    Gestapo agent, August 24, 1944

    With those chilling words Christa von Hofacker and her younger siblings found themselves ensnared in a web of family punishment designed to please one man—Adolf Hitler. The furious dictator sought merciless revenge against not only Christa's father and the other Germans who had just tried to overthrow his government. He wanted to torment their relatives, too, regardless of age or stature. All of them. Including every last child.

    DURING THE SUMMER OF 1944, a secretive network of German officers and civilians conspired to assassinate Adolf Hitler. But their plot to attack the dictator at his Wolf's Lair compound failed, and an enraged Hitler demanded revenge. The result was a systematic rampage of punishment that ensnared not only those who had tried to topple the regime but their far-flung family members too. Within weeks, Gestapo agents had taken as many as 200 relatives from their homes, separating adults and children.

    Using rare photographs and personal interviews with survivors, award-winning author Ann Bausum presents the spine-chilling little-known story of the failed Operation Valkyrie plot, the revenge it triggered, and the families caught in the fray.

  • Snow flies past the moss-covered entrance to a bunker at the Wolf's Lair, January 2015. Image copyright Ann Bausum, all rights reserved.

    I'm not sure who got more excited in 2015 when my oldest son and I set off from Berlin one brisk January morning on a quest to visit the Wolf's Lair. We departed aboard a sleek express train and spent the day transferring to a series of ever simpler rail carriages until, by twilight, we finally reached an outpost in Poland named Ketrzyn (roughly pronounced KETCH-in). The next morning snowflakes began to fall as we set out off for the former Nazi bunker. Our guided rambles around the frozen ruins of this site remain one of the most otherworldly explorations I've ever made.

    Sam and our guide approach the remains of one of the above-ground Wolf's Lair bunkers, January 2015. Image copyright Ann Bausum, all rights reserved.

    Birds-eye view of the Bendler Block courtyard, Berlin, October 2018. Image copyright Ann Bausum, all rights reserved.

    Three years later Sam and I returned to Europe for further research. This time we homed in on the events of Valkyrie and what followed. We stood in the courtyard at the Bendler Block in Berlin where Claus von Stauffenberg and others had been shot, found our way to the execution chamber of Plötzensee Prison, and made a pilgrimage to Bad Sachsa. Together we walked the grounds of the Borntal, studied the vacant houses where the Nazis had confined their captured children, and, with permission, explored the abandoned corridors and living spaces inside one of them.

    Two of the surviving houses at the Borntal, November 2018. Image copyright Ann Bausum, all rights reserved.

    Everywhere we went I felt the echoes of history. Then I met it face to face.

    During a series of in-person visits and phone calls I had the privilege of interviewing people who had lived through the history I was exploring. Through these conversations I gained insights not only into their interactions with the past but the ways in which these experiences continued to reverberate through their lives and those of their family members. Our visits were a reminder that history isn't an abstract collection of isolated events from the past. It is a legacy that surrounds us and endures long after places like the Wolf's Lair fall into ruin. We all share in the echoes of history.

  • Facing a moral dilemma. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his brother Berthold faced a moral dilemma in Nazi, Germany. Should they sacrifice themselves—and endanger their family members—in a long-shot attempt to destroy an evil regime? Should they do so even when their efforts seemed almost certain to fail? Consider the opening quotation for Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair and the parallel statement at the beginning of chapter three. Review the debate that is described on pages 48-49 of this chapter and the quotation from Henning von Tresckow that concludes this section. What motivated the conspirators to enact their plan against all odds? What thoughts may have held them back? Can you think of other examples of moral dilemmas? What do these debates share in common?

    Keeping a diary. Have you ever kept a diary? If you started one, what would you write about? Christa von Hofacker often recorded ordinary and everyday details when she described her stay at the Borntal. Her account is fascinating because of the way her notes bring the scenes to life. Consider how ordinary details in your own life could take on added meaning when re-read many years later. What sorts of notes might future readers find fascinating about your daily life?

    Twin diaries about Nazi Germany. When Anne Frank started her diary, she had no idea it would become an essential window into the life for persecuted people during World War II. Christa von Hofacker couldn't have imagined how important her diary would become either. And yet her diary is likewise invaluable for capturing details that would otherwise have been lost to history. Consider these two records. How do they compare? How are they different? What value did the diary writing bring to each girl?

    Reconstructing family stories. Many families are introduced in Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair, and it can sometimes be challenging to keep them straight. Use the book to reconstruct the story of a particular family. Start with an engaging photo or by choosing one of the families listed in the key at the back of the book. Use the index to search for all the book's references to your selection. Write your own account of the family's history based on information found in this account. Can you find other credible information about family members using the Internet? What happened to the various people? Are the children in the family still alive? How did their wartime experience impact their lives?

    The shadows of trauma. The closing chapter of Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair examines some of ways that trauma endured beyond World War II. In what ways has the trauma been resolved, and in what ways does it continue? Social scientists have come to appreciate that trauma can be passed down through generations. Even people who never experienced the original traumatic events can continue to be harmed by them. How might that work? Can you imagine ways that trauma might affect the survivors of Sippenhaft and their offspring? What are other examples of events that may have produced multi-generational trauma? Are there ways that trauma has impacted your life or those of people you know? How can people break this cycle?

    Exploring the shared legacies of history. Two films are recommended in the Resource Guide for Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair. Each one examines people who are recollecting and confronting their ties to the past. Blind Spot offers Traudl Junge the opportunity to reflect on her work as a secretary to Adolf Hitler, her devotion to him as a leader, and her eventual realizations about the evil that she had helped to support. Hitler's Children traces the weight carried by people whose fathers were tied to the Nazi regime and the ways this legacy has affected their own lives. Watch one or both of these films and consider how the embers of history endure through the generations. What burdens are passed down? What else is inherited? Can joys be inherited? Or wisdom? Or strength? Can these embers be kindled in strangers? In what ways do we share the weights and gains from the inheritance of history? Are these sparks the true lessons of history?

  • Time Traveling through the Wolf's Lair

    Available as a program for middle school students, teens, or adults
    By Ann Bausum

    Travel back in time to the 1944 attempted overthrow of the Nazi regime and discover the nearly forgotten story of what came next. Hitler survived the attempt on his life, but his revenge didn't end with the deaths of the conspirators behind the failed Valkyrie coup. He imposed punishments on surviving family members, too—punishments that divided children from mothers, split siblings, and robbed relatives of their sense of certainty, and even their identities.

    This presentation takes participants through the layers of history, starting with an introduction to the doomed July 20 coup and the punishments that followed. Then we pursue the trail of history across Europe, retracing the author's footsteps from Berlin to the Wolf's Lair, from the Borntal's secret hideaway to the living rooms of the now-octogenarian eyewitnesses who were once held captive as children. The program includes a behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of this project from the slimmest glimmer of an idea into a book with echoes that still resonate today.

    Length: approximately 40 minutes for the program, 10-15 minutes for questions.

    Technical requirements: LCD projector, projection screen, and microphone.

  • "German 12-year-old Christa von Hofacker's diary, like Anne Frank's, provides a child's window into WWII, helping to tell the fascinating and shocking story of how German families were made to pay the price when a plot to kill Hitler by German military leaders and officers failed. Operation Valkyrie's failure prompted a vindictive Hitler to retaliate against all the conspirators' family members in what is known as Sippenhaft (kin liability). The book describes Hitler's rise to power and explains the reasons for this attempt (and others) on his life. It tensely recounts the events on the fateful day when Operation Valkyrie was attempted and failed and the fate that awaited the conspirators and their families: their children were taken away without explanation and hidden at a secluded retreat called the Borntal. Their names were changed, and they were forbidden to speak when outside, and called "ghost children" by observers. Bausum collects firsthand accounts from Christa and other survivors, their experiences lending authenticity and immediacy to the history. Few records about Sippenhaft survived so this extensively researched book offers an eye-opening look at an unforgettable historical event. Back matter includes a time line, family lists, resources and resource notes, maps, and archival photos and illustrations. Highly recommended."
    Booklist, starred review
    November 1, 2020

    "A compelling account of the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler in 1944 and the brutal aftermath of the plot's failure. The text begins with an overview of how Hitler utilized a blend of personality, propaganda, and fear to assume total control of the German government after the death of Chancellor Hindenburg in 1932. . . .When prominent military men attempted to assassinate Hitler at his retreat known as the Wolf's Lair in the Valkyrie plot and failed, Hitler's retribution was particularly brutal. . . .Forty-six children from 19 high-ranking Nazi families who survived the beginnings of the Sippenhaft [family punishment] were sent to a tourist town in central Germany called Bad Sachsa. The children were forbidden to use their family names, to enroll in school, to go to church, or even to speak when outdoors. A time line, a list of the Sippenhaft families, a resource guide, a note from the author, and research notes are included.VERDICT A well-researched, detailed account of a part of World War II that remains unknown to many today. For those who enjoyed The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti."
    School Library Journal, starred review
    January 1, 2021

    "Bausum. . .reveals a nearly forgotten chapter of WWII, one centered on the retribution faced by the children and families of Germans who failed in an effort to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Revenge known as Sippenhaft ("family punishment") came swiftly following the 1944 attempt to bomb Hitler inside one of his bunkers. . . .Children were separated from parents, rounded up by Gestapo, and secreted away to a forested youth retreat, some for almost a year, where they were given new surnames, forbidden from speaking in public, and called "ghost children" by the outside community. Based on extensive research and interviews with some of these children—now octo- and nonagenarians. . . .Maps, archival photographs, and documents from Nazi Germany, as well as photographs of the Sippenhaft families, round out this comprehensive account that provides a glimpse into the horror and trauma of the Nazi regime. Back matter includes a timeline, a meticulous listing of the Sippenhaft families whose children were detained, a resource guide, further reading, a bibliography, source notes, and index."
    Publishers Weekly
    December 7, 2020

    "Following a failed coup and assassination attempt, Adolf Hitler exacted sweeping revenge against participants and their families, detailed in the skillful Ann Bausum's engrossing Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair. . .The vast reach of Valkyrie fueled Hitler's mounting paranoia. His policy of Sippenhaft—or "family punishment"—implicated relatives in anti-Nazi conspiracies and demonstrated Hitler's merciless commitment to retaining political control. . . . [W]ith parents detained, Gestapo agents seized detractors' youngest children, holding them in a secluded rural facility and giving them scant information, much of it lies. Through strong primary resources, emphasizing four detainees who offered her their first-person accounts, Bausum recounts heartbreaking months of isolation and anxiety: these children were stripped of family connections, berated and silenced, earning their nickname "the ghost children." . . .Bausum's writing is uncomplicated and respectfully frames the ghost children's shared experience of trauma for an older middle-grade audience. Supporting photographs on almost every spread humanize the Valkyrie players, and rich primary resources notably feature journal entries from Christa von Hofacker, who kept a diary while detained as a 12-year-old. Extensive backmatter includes a full listing of families ensnared by Sippenhaft, author's note, bibliography and much more."
    Shelf Awareness
    October 21, 2020

  • Starred reviews
    School Library Journal

  • Places to Visit in Person and Online

    Bad Sachsa Museum of Local History
    (Heimatmuseum Bad Sachsa)
    " ‘Our True Identity Was to Be Destroyed.' The Children Consigned to Bad Sachsa After July 20, 1944" (exhibit)
    Hindenburgstraße 6, 37441 Bad Sachsa, Germany
    Phone (from U.S.A.): +49-5523-999436

    German Resistance Memorial Center
    (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand)
    Stauffenbergstraße 13-14, 10785 Berlin-Mitte, Germany
    Phone (from U.S.A.): +49-30-269950-00

    National World War II Museum
    945 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA 70130
    Phone: 504-528-1944

    Plötzensee Memorial Center
    (Gedenkstätte Plötzensee)
    Hüttigpfad, 13627 Berlin-Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Germany

    Topography of Terror Documentation Center
    (Dokumentationszentrum Topographie des Terrors)
    Niederkirchnerstraße 8, 10963 Berlin, Germany
    Phone (from U.S.A.): +49-30-254509-50

    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl., SW, Washington, DC 20024-2126
    Phone: 202-488-0400

    USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia

    Documentary Films

    Heller, André, and Othmar Schmiderer, dirs. Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary. Dor Film Produktionsgesellschaft, 2002. German-language interviews with Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary, with English subtitles. Rated PG.

    Ze'evi, Chanoch, dir. Hitler's Children. Maya Productions, 2011. German, English, and Hebrew with English subtitles. Unrated.


    Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. Scholastic Nonfiction, 2005.

    Freedman, Russell. We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Hitler. Clarion Books, 2016.

    Giblin, James Cross. The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler. Clarion Books, 2002.

    Hendrix, John. The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (graphic biography). Amulet Books, Abrams, 2018.

    Hoose, Phillip. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

    Wilson, Kip. White Rose (historical fiction in verse). Versify, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

  • •  Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair: Inside the 1944 Plot to Kill Hitler and the Ghost Children of His Revenge

    •  Publication date: January 12, 2021

    •  National Geographic Partners

    •  $19.99

    •  144 pages, hardcover

    •  Ages 12 and up

    •  Generously illustrated with rare archival images, including previously unpublished photographs and documents

    •  Features a two-page map of key points in Europe during and after World War II

    •  Back matter includes a timeline, detailed guide to families that experienced Bontal detentions, resource guide, author's note, research notes, citations, bibliography, and index

    •  ISBN 978-1-4263-3854-0

    •  Library binding edition available