“Not until her 95th birthday, nearly 70 years after the conflict ended, did Hitler’s last surviving food taster speak publicly of her bitter wartime experiences.”
MARGOT WÖLK, the young wife of a German soldier who was off fighting in Russia, thought she had found refuge from the horrors of war when she left her parents’ bombed-out home in Berlin and went to live with her mother-in-law in a quiet village in East Prussia. But Hitler’s wartime headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, was only a few miles away.
One day in 1942, SS men came to the door and forced her to join a group of 15 young women who would serve as Hitler’s food tasters while he was at headquarters. Like the despised monarchs of old who lived in constant fear of being poisoned, the German dictator had all the food that would be served to him tasted an hour before he consumed it. Lacking volunteers for that task, the SS forced women like Wölk to serve as the Fuhrer’s guinea pigs.
They sat together around a table, tasting different items in a morbid ritual that was repeated daily and often left the tasters in tears.
“There was never meat because Hitler was a vegetarian,” Wölk recalled. “The food was good… very good. But we couldn’t enjoy it.”
Wölk happened to be at the Wolf’s Lair on July 20, 1944 when a bomb planted by disaffected Wehrmacht officer Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg detonated. She was jarred by the explosion and heard someone yell that Hitler was dead, which would have released her from her grim task. But he survived and her plight grew worse. Security was tightened at the Wolfs Lair, and she and others who had been living at home were instead penned up at headquarters “like caged animals,” she said. One night, an SS man climbed a ladder, crawled through her window and raped her.
In late 1944, as Soviet troops approached East Prussia, the Wolf’s Lair was evacuated. The other food tasters were left behind to face the wrath of the Russians, but an officer took pity on Wölk and found her a place on one of the last trains to Berlin. She was later told that those other women were shot by the Soviets.
When the Russians reached Berlin, Wölk had no defense against them and was raped repeatedly. “It was hell on earth. The nightmare never goes away,” she said of those assaults, which left her unable to bear children.
Unlike many German women who were widowed by the war, however, she was reunited in 1946 with her husband, whom she had given up for dead. He was barely recognizable, having almost starved to death in a POW camp, but he recuperated in her care.
Wölk tried to put her ordeal behind her, but it haunted her dreams. Not until her 95th birthday, nearly 70 years after the conflict ended, did Hitler’s last surviving food taster speak publicly of her bitter wartime experiences.
“I never saw Hitler,” she remarked, “but I had to risk my life for him every day.”
This article was excerpted from Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop latest book: The Secret History of World War Two. The richly illustrated 350-page volume documents wartime covert operations and explores everything from spy missions to code breaking as it takes readers behind the battle lines and deep into the undercover war effort that changed the course of history. It’s published by National Geographic.