Written by Ruth Stender
The Stender household lived in a two apartments at Gertigstrasse 56. Rudolf was born 26th December 1899, Ernst on 13th April 1901, Hans on 4th January 1902, Lotte on 4th November 1906 and Werner on 21st December 1915. They were an ordinary working-class family but there were always political discussions taking place as they sat around the dining table. They had socialist beliefs, being members of the SPD and they were against the decision of the Kaiser and his government to go to war in 1914. This did not prevent Rudolf (senior) being conscripted into the army at the age of forty years. Having briefly described the family unit, I will detail Rudolf, Ernst and Werner’s life.
Rudolf and his siblings observed how life was so difficult for the families in Hamburg during the war. There was poverty, lack of food and warmth in many people’s homes. Rudolf took part in many illegal demonstrations and he became a delegate at the Hamburg Stadt Conference.
Finally, in 1917, Rudolf at the age of 17 years was conscripted into the army where he fought on the eastern front. During this time, he secretly distributed to his fellow soldiers, leaflets which were produced by the USPD. These pamphlets emphasized that this was an imperialist war. Incredibly, Rudolf was not caught as his actions would have been considered traitorous. Ernst sent more leaflets when Rudolf requested them.
The effect on Rudolf becoming a soldier during those dreadful times must have been the reason for some of his later actions. He felt that he should be more militant fighting against the injustices back home. After being injured in the war, Rudolf returned to Hamburg where he took part in the Hamburg revolution of 1918/19.
In 1920 he became leader for the USPD of the 1st District in Winterhude and he was involved fighting against the Kapp Putsch. When Rudolf lost his job as a Dreher at Maihak, he moved to the Ruhr for six months. There, he joined the KPD and he was involved in many disputes.
When he returned to Hamburg, he became district leader in Barmbek and Uhlenhorst of the Ordnerdienst (O.D.). This organisation was for the purpose of providing protection for the KPD leaders from various attacks being made by the right-wing military groups.
The German currency collapsed in 1923. For those people lucky enough to be in employment and received their wages, they joined the queues trying to purchase food before the value of the items increased. People walked out of work with thousands of Marks but this money was often valueless by the time they reached the shops. People were starving; women and children searched for hours for lumps of coal to heat their homes. Many people died through hunger. This crisis hit Germany; Rudolf took part in the Hamburg Uprising of 1923. He was arrested later in early 1924 for his actions during those times and also for organising the O.D. organisation. After ten weeks imprisonment, he was released and he then became leader of the O.D. in other districts as well. This organisation was the forerunner of the RFB (Roter Frontkämpferbund); Rudolf became political leader of the RFB. Winterhude and later in 1928 for the whole of Barmbek.
In 1925 Rudolf married Käthe and the following year Rudi was born. Life for Käthe was very difficult as it was for many women who married men totally dedicated to fighting a system of right winged violence and injustices. At one point whilst Rudolf was in prison, a serious fire occurred at their home whilst Käthe was not there. In 1933 she was arrested by the Gestapo and interrogated. Despite her love of Rudolf and the Stender family, she decided to divorce Rudolf in 1934. The family remained good friends and she supported Rudolf when she could.
In December 1928, Rudolf was again arrested, this time for making a speech at the Karstadt Store in Hamburgerstrasse, Barmbek. He received a prison sentence of one month. When he was released, he continued to try and stop the Stahlhelm and S.A. men from their provocative actions of marching through the working class districts. Due to the New York financial crisis in 1929, the Americans who had invested short term loans in Germany retracted their money. Shortly afterward banks and businesses in Germany collapsed. Mass unemployment added to this dangerous situation along with intimidation from the right winged organisations.
Rudolf remained in the RFB. fighting injustices as best as he could. He was involved with protecting Altona during the Bloody Sunday episode on 17th July 1932. In April 1933, the arrests started of the communists, social democrats, trade unionists and anyone else that the Nazis knew who were opposed to them. After the May Day demonstrations, Rudolf had to go into hiding. The Gestapo had come to arrest him at Gertigstrasse 56. He continued his work until July when he was ordered by his leaders to leave Germany. They considered that Rudolf knew too many people of importance. It can never be guaranteed that someone being tortured will manage to keep back the names. Before he left Hamburg, he witnessed the arrest of many people within the intelligence unit of the KPD resistance within Hamburg. He also was shocked to see who had betrayed them.
Rudolf escaped to Odessa, in the Soviet Union via a ship from Hamburg docks. He remained in the Soviet Union until the start of the Stalin Purge. During 1938 and 1939, many of his friends were being arrested and questioned by Stalin’s men. Rudolf was also asked to explain some actions he was supposed to have said or done. In October 1936, he joined the International Brigade and fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. He was amongst the last soldiers who managed to cross the border into France in February 1939 as Franco took control of Spain.
Rudolf was interned in Saint-Cyprien, Gurs and then at Vernet, where he was in the same barrack as Friedrich Wolf, Rudolf Leonhard, Gustav Regler and Franz Dahlem. During Christmas 1939, the authorities allowed the prisoners to prepare a Christmas show. Amongst the performances, Rudolf Leonhard had composed a poem for them called “The Stables of Bethlehem” – as humans living in Vernet internment camp sleeping under terrible conditions on straw with mice and rats.
According to Rudolf Stender, Franz Dahlem managed to catch more of these rats than the rest in his barracks. These proud, brave men were living in crowded conditions; food and clothes were scarce. Rudolf’s youngest brother was by now in England and thanks to Werner and his English friends, money, food and clothes were sent to Rudolf and his friends which helped them to survive. Regular correspondence was achieved between the two brothers. Rudolf’s letters are still kept in the Stender family archives. Rudolf chronicles details of camp life in France, his mental and physical well-being and also he wrote about his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Many of these letters are heart-breaking to read, but these brave International Brigade men held their heads high being proud of their fight against fascism.
All this time, Werner was desperately collecting money to buy Rudolf’s release from the Vichy government. Rudolf was using a pseudonym “Sigmund Nielsen” whilst he was in Spain and France, but in 1941 he was betrayed to the Gestapo. He was transferred to the secret prison in Castres and he was then returned to Hamburg and more torture. Eventually he was sentenced to five years in a Zuchthaus in Celle with a note added to his file that he was to be returned to the Gestapo at the end of his sentence.
As the Americans approached Celle in April 1945, he was among 452 other prisoners who were on a “death march” to Bützow-Dreibergen in temperatures of 40 degrees. Rudolf had been ill for some time before this journey and although many of his friends died en route, Rudolf’s will power to live was strong. However, he died soon afterwards on the 18th May 1945 of hunger and exhaustion, just after the prison had been liberated by the army of the Soviet Union.
His ashes are now at Ehrenhain, Ohlsdorf.