BERLIN — They were feasts of sublime asparagus — laced with fear. And for more than half a century, Margot Woelk kept her secret hidden from the world, even from her husband. Then, a few months after her 95th birthday, she revealed the truth about her wartime role: Adolf Hitler’s food taster.
Woelk, then in her mid-20s, spent 2½ years as one of 15 young women who sampled Hitler’s food to make sure it wasn’t poisoned before it was served to the Nazi leader in his ‘‘Wolf’s Lair,’’ the heavily guarded command center in what is now Poland, where he spent much of his time in the final years of World War II.
‘‘He was a vegetarian. He never ate any meat during the entire time I was there,’’ Woelk said. ‘‘And Hitler was so paranoid that the British would poison him — that’s why he had 15 girls taste the food before he ate it himself.’’
With many Germans contending with food shortages and a bland diet as the war dragged on, sampling Hitler’s food had its advantages.
‘‘The food was delicious, only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta,’’ she recalled. ‘‘But this constant fear — we knew of all those poisoning rumors and could never enjoy the food. Every day we feared it was going to be our last meal.’’
Woelk’s story is a tale of the horror, pain, and dislocation endured by people of all sides who survived World War II.
Now in the sunset of her life, has she been willing to relate her experiences, which she had buried because of shame and the fear of prosecution for having worked with the Nazis, although she insists she was never a party member. She told her story as she flipped through a photo album with pictures of her as a young woman.
Woelk first revealed her secret to a local Berlin reporter a few months ago. Since then interest in her life story has been overwhelming. Schoolteachers wrote and asked her for photos and autographs to bring history alive for their students. Several researchers from a museum visited to ask for details about her life as Hitler’s taster.
Woelk says the story of her association with Hitler began after she fled Berlin to escape Allied air attacks. With her husband away serving in the German Army, she moved in with relatives about 435 miles to the east in Rastenburg, then part of Germany; now it is Ketrzyn, in what became Poland after the war.
There she was drafted into civilian service and assigned for the next 2½ years as a food taster and kitchen bookkeeper at the Wolf’s Lair complex, located a few miles outside the town. Hitler was so secretive, even in the relative safety of his headquarters, that she never saw him in person — only his German shepherd Blondie and his SS guards, who chatted with the women.
Hitler’s security fears were not unfounded. On July 20, 1944, a trusted colonel detonated a bomb in the Wolf’s Lair in an attempt to kill Hitler. He survived, but nearly 5,000 people were executed following the assassination attempt, including the bomber.
‘‘We were sitting on wooden benches when we heard and felt an incredible big bang,’’ she said of the 1944 bombing. ‘‘We fell off the benches, and I heard someone shouting ‘Hitler is dead!’ But he wasn’t.”
Following the blast, tension rose at the headquarters. Woelk said the Nazis ordered her to leave her relatives’ home and move into an abandoned school closer to the compound.
With the Soviet Army on the offensive and the war going badly for Germany, one of her SS friends advised her to leave the Wolf’s Lair. She said she returned by train to Berlin and went into hiding.
Woelk said the other women on the food tasting team decided to remain in Rastenburg since their families were there and it was their home.
‘‘Later, I found out that the Russians shot all of the 14 other girls,’’ she said. It was after Soviet troops overran the headquarters in January 1945.
When she returned to Berlin, she found a city facing complete destruction. Round-the-clock bombing by US and British planes was grinding the city center to rubble.
For many Berlin civilians — their homes destroyed, family members missing or dead and food almost gone — the horror did not end with capitulation.
‘‘The Russians then came to Berlin and got me, too,’’ Woelk said. ‘‘They took me to a doctor’s apartment and raped me for 14 consecutive days. That’s why I could never have children. They destroyed everything.’’