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White Rose Conference Explores Hidden History

The Center for White Rose Studies in Camarillo recently hosted their first conference at California State University, Channel Islands. Guests and presenters included (l to r): Oleg Vasilyev, Dilyara Rakhmatullina, center director Denise Heap, Domenic Saller and Dr. Igor Khramov. (Photo Courtesy: Tim Pompey)

By Tim Pompey

CAMARILLO,CA — In 1942, in the middle of a savage war led by a Nazi regime who wanted to subdue Europe and wipe out the Jews, a mysterious group of German dissidents began to distribute leaflets advocating for political change. They called themselves The White Rose.

For the last eighteen years, their story has been extensively researched by local historian Denise Heap, who heads up the Center for White Rose Studies in Camarillo. And after years of hard work, she recently hosted her first White Rose Conference, which was held July 11-14 at California State University Channel Islands.

For Heap, it all began simply enough. “In 1994, I took on a six-month project and accidentally ran across the story of the White Rose,” she said.

The story’s twists and turns intrigued her. “I found out that the story of the White Rose had been told wrong. There were people who were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers who were using this story to reinvent themselves after the war.”
She decided to bring the real story to light. Two decades later, she’s still at it. The conference is her continuing attempt to reveal the White Rose story to the general public. “We’re trying to lay a foundation where people can come and study, then return to their institutions,” she explained.

Why is this story so fascinating? Probably because it’s a truly heroic tale about a small group of Germans who courageously decided to defy their führer.

Founded in 1942 by a young medic named Alexander Schmorell, he and his good friend Hans Scholl had just returned from serving on the eastern front in Russia. What they witnessed—the Nazi’s cruel treatment of prisoners and civilians—pushed them to form the White Rose. Schmorell, Scholl, and a small group of friends began to distribute anonymous leaflets of protest to readers across Germany.

Domenic Saller, whose grandmother, Lieselotte Fürst-Ramdohr, had been closely acquainted with Schmorell, noted that the symbolic white rose represented eternal youth in the face of certain death. Given what Schmorell and company witnessed around them, Saller believes that they were aware of the outcome of their resistance. “They had a pretty good idea of what it means to die,” he said.

Schmorell’s biographer, Dr. Igor Khramov, stated that the goal of the group was to convince artists, writers, and other intellectuals to form a movement that would stand up to and eventually overthrow the Nazis. “They tried to open the eyes of intellectuals and writers,” he said. “They considered these people to be multipliers.”

It was dangerous work and eventually the inevitable did happen. Three members of the White Rose were caught, tried, and executed in February 1943. Soon, other members were rounded up and imprisoned. Schmorell himself was killed on July 13, 1943. He was 25 years old.

After years of research, Heap and her mother started the Center for White Rose Studies in 2005 ( In 2010 it became a 501c3.

Heap designed the White Rose conference to coordinate with the 70th anniversary of Schmorell’s death. In the future, she hopes to make this a regular event and expand the search for other Germans involved in various resistance movements.

As for the relevance of the White Rose today, Heap sees some strong parallels to what’s currently happening in the world. “We see this as a way for young people to think about social justice, to think about what’s happening to their neighbor,” she said.

Given current racial tensions here and abroad, she thinks the White Rose story might inspire others to have the courage to resist. “We want them to know that when they see discrimination or racism or anti-Islam fervor or any other group that gets marginalized, it’s just as wrong now as it was then to treat people as subhuman.”

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