Cato Bontjes van Beek
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|Cato Bontjes van Beek|
November 14, 1920|
|Died||August 5, 1943
Cause of death
|Known for||Member of the Widerstand|
Born in Bremen, Cato was the eldest of three children. She spent her childhood and youth in the nearby Fischerhude artists' colony around her uncle Otto Modersohn. Her parents, the Dutch-born potter Jan Bontjes van Beek (1899–1969) and dancer and painter Olga Bontjes van Beek, née Breling (1896–1995) offered their children no material wealth, but rather an abundance of artistic and mental stimulation, which had a decisive effect on the children. From 1929 Cato stayed abroad to attend the German school in Amsterdam, later also for eight months as an au pair in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire.
The family's political leanings were unequivocally anti-fascist. Cato did not join the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel, BDM) youth organisation. By her brother Tim, she met the Luftwaffe sergeant Helmut Schmidt, the later Chancellor of Germany, who from 1937 was stationed in Bremen-Vegesack for his military service and during this time had an intense friendship with the Bontjes van Beek family. However, Schmidt eventually broke off this friendship when he began an officers' training in order to join the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe in Berlin.
From 1940 on, Cato and her sister Mietje lived with their father in Berlin, where he had already moved in 1933 in the hopes of spreading his artistic work. They met friends at their father's house who opposed the Nazi regime. Cato also learned her father's craft, and caused her schoolteacher some problems by being outspoken, at a time when the Nazis had just come to power. "Children," he had intoned, even though he was not a Nazi Party member, "one cannot swim against the current." Cato retorted, "But we can!"
Both sisters saw the wrong that the Nazis inflicted upon others, were affected by it, and tried to help. Beginning in 1941, this included giving humanitarian aid to French prisoners of war. Both Cato and Mietje would go to the Lehrter Bahnhof, the railway terminal where the prisoners were often to be found, to hand out cigarettes and matches, exchange letters, and give the prisoners gifts of soap and gloves.
Van Beek's active work against the Nazis began in the Red Orchestra resistance organization after she had gotten to know Libertas Schulze-Boysen in autumn 1941. After this group was broken up, she undertook further action together with her friend, the author Heinz Strelow. She printed and distributed illegal writings and leaflets which sought to arouse readers to the struggle and resistance against the Nazi regime.
In the course of the suppression of the resistance group, van Beek was arrested by Gestapo agents on 20 September 1942 in her father's pottery shop in Berlin. On 18 January 1943, she was found guilty at the Reichskriegsgericht military court of "abetting a conspiracy to commit high treason" and sentenced to death. A clemency appeal of the 22-year-old was personally denied by Adolf Hitler, though the court itself had suggested a reprieve. She was guillotined on 5 August 1943 at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin, together with 19-year-old Liane Berkowitz, who had given birth to a daughter in April. Her body was released to the institute of anatomy of Hermann Stieve on the same evening. Her final resting place is unknown.
Cato's younger sister Mietje Bontjes van Beek managed to escape Nazi persecution, despite her activities, and lived in Fischerhude until her death in 2012. Cato's mother after a 12-year-long process finally reached the official reversal of her daughter's conviction.
A gymnasium secondary school in Achim, a town near Bremen, has since 1991 borne the name Cato Bontjes van Beek-Gymnasium. A street in nearby Fischerhude also bears her name, and an explanatory notice. Both these places are in the Verden district. Further streets and public squares are named after her in Bremen, Leipzig, and Meldorf.
- Hermann Vinke: Cato Bontjes van Beek. 'Ich habe nicht um mein Leben gebettelt'. Ein Porträt ("I Did Not Beg for my Life"; A Portrait). Zürich, Hamburg 2003: Arche. ISBN 3-7160-2313-2
- Heidelore Kluge: Cato Bontjes van Beek. 'Ich will nur eins sein und das ist ein Mensch'. ("I only want to be one thing - and that's a Human.") Stuttgart 1995: Urachhaus. ISBN 3-8251-7003-9
- Cato Bontjes van Beek in the German National Library catalogue
- Brief biography (Ger.) and another picture (German)
- Site about the artists# colony where Cato Bontjes van Beek was from (German)