In America, when we think of people who share their experiences from the Holocaust, we often think of Jewish men and women who survived the camps. In Germany a distinction is made between a survivor (Überlebender) and an eyewitness (Zeitzeugen). Eyewitnesses is a broader term that can include former resistance fighters, former members of the Nazi youth movement, individual citizens, military veterans, those who went abroad to live in exile, even in some rare cases, perpetrators. Not all of these eyewitnesses speak in public, but when they do, their stories help provide a more complete picture of Nazi Germany. Both camp survivors and eyewitnesses spoke at the tent camp, which is how I knew Marie-Luise Schultze-Jahn, a woman who participated in the White Rose resistance movement in Munich — in German, die Weiße Rose.
The first time I met Marie-Luise was on a sunny afternoon. There was a warm breeze, as we gathered around her on the grass, underneath the trees. She sat on a short wooden stool and wore a pressed button down blouse tucked into a pair of slacks. Her outfit was complete with a string of pearls and her belt matched her handbag. She was a retired doctor, intelligent, articulate and almost seventy years old. What struck me was how present she was. When we asked questions, she listened attentively. When she spoke, her answers came from a deep and honest place.
She spoke fluent English, a welcome change for me in 1995 because I did not speak German then. Most of the survivors and eyewitnesses spoke through translators. But Marie-Luise spoke English well because she worked for the U.S. Army as a clerk after the war. She had been in prison near Munich because of her resistance activities and liberated by American troops at the end of the war. She and her boyfriend (Hans Leipelt) were caught in October 1943 for distributing White Rose leaflets. The original members (Hans and Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst) had been sentenced to death eight months before and killed on February 22, 1943. On the same day they were executed, Marie-Luise and Hans Leipelt typed up the sixth flyer for distribution. She never met the original members personally. She was part of the second wave, who resurrected the effort after they were killed.
Hans Leipelt was half Jewish. The two were medical students together, studying and living in Munich. After nearly eight months of copying and distributing leaflets they were also caught and tried by a Nazi court. He was sentenced to immediate death and executed by the Volksgerichtshof, the same court that had condemned the original members. Marie-Luise was also sentenced to death, but then saved at the last minute by her lawyer who told the judge she had been a stupid, ignorant, young woman getting mixed up in the resistance, and with a half-Jew. The judge revoked her death sentence and sent Marie-Luise to prison instead.
In 1946, she resumed her medical studies and eventually opened her own clinic in a small village outside of Munich. She helped establish The White Rose Foundation and started talking to groups of young people in 1987. One of her main messages was that we must actively participate in the democratic process and speak up when our governments act in ways we do not agree with. In 2004, her autobiography was published and she passed away on June 22, 2010. She was almost 92 years old.
There are memorials across Germany for the White Rose, including streets and schools named after its members. The memorial in front of the main university building in Munich, where Hans and Sophie were caught by a maintenance caretaker and Nazi party member, has always moved me. Metal reproductions of their leaflets are embedded into the cobblestone square near the fountain, an active place where students meet and gather.
More about the White Rose:
- Marie-Luise’s book: …und ihr Geist lebt trotzdem weiter! (ISBN 3-936411-25-5);
- Original versions of the White Rose pamphlets (in German);
- The German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin is the central place to learn about German resistance during the Nazi time;
- The award winning film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.