The phrase “canary in the coal mine” means to serve as a warning to others. The phrase’s origins date back to coal mining’s best practices from the earlier parts of the 20th century. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, “canaries — and sometimes mice — were used to alert miners to the presence of [carbon monoxide]. Following a mine fire or explosion, mine rescuers would descend into the mine carrying a canary in a small wooden or metal cage.” Because the canaries were much more sensitive to this poisonous, odorless gas than humans, “any sign of distress from the canary was a clear signal that the conditions underground were unsafe, prompting a hasty return to the surface.”
Margot Wolk was a canary in that sense — she was an early warning system designed to detect poison, even at the cost of her life. But she wasn’t protecting coal miners. She was protecting Hitler.
Wolk was born in Berlin in 1917. Throughout her childhood, she and her family attempted to avoid becoming Nazi facilitators. Her father refused to become a member of the Nazi Party and Wolk herself was not a member of the League of German Girls, the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth. Her childhood was otherwise typical, and she married by age 25. But soon after her husband was called to military duty; she soon lost contact with him and presumed him dead. She left her hometown after their apartment was damaged by Allied bombs, and moved in with her mother-in-law in an area of Prussia which is now modern day Poland.
Her mother-in-law, though, lived not far from Hitler’s base of command in that region. That bunker, known as the Wolf’s Lair (the entrance is pictured above), is where she’d soon be ordered to go. Her job, and the job of fourteen other young women, was to taste delicious foods rarely available in the region — “only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta,” she’d later tell the Associated Press. (There’s no meat on the menu because Hitler was a vegetarian.) But she and the others weren’t there as a guest. Their job was, simply, to not fall ill. Because if they didn’t, the theory went, the food wasn’t poisoned, and therefore safe for Hitler to eat. And with rumors rampant that the British were trying to taint the Nazi leader’s food, Wolk’s role and the role of her compatriots was critical.
Wolk served in this role for the last few years of the war, but for some unknown reason, was sent back to Berlin by a German lieutenant as the Soviets advanced on the Wolf’s Lair in 1944. The other fourteen tasters remained behind and were killed by Soviet soldiers. Wolk, though, suffered a terrible fate as well. When Berlin fell, she was captured by the Soviet army and repeatedly sexually assaulted over a two week period. As a result of these brutal attacks, she was left unable to have children. She did, however, manage to be reunited with her husband in 1946.
For understandable reasons, Wolk, kept her story a secret for decades. In December of 2012, at age 95, she finally opened up to the press, after living out most of her adult life (post-war) in relative obscurity.
From the Archives: Hitler, One Night Only: The sitcom featuring a Hitler character. Really.
Related: “The Wolf’s Lair: Inside Hitler’s Germany,” a collection of essays about the history of Nazi Germany by British historian Roger Moorhouse. A $2.99 Kindle e-book. Four stars out of five.