ZION CHURCH EVENTS - DECEMBER 2004
Dr. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus
The Memorial Service for Dr. Hiltgunt M. Zassenhaus (left) to take place on Saturday, December 11, at 2 pm at Zion Church. Placement of ashes following in the Church Garden.
Dr. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus, a retired internist and author who was honored worldwide for saving prisoners in Nazi Germany, died yesterday at her Towson home of pneumonia, after suffering many years from Alzheimer's disease. She was 88.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1916, she was the Lutheran daughter of a school principal who lost his job when the Nazis came to power.
She earned a bachelor's degree in 1938 at the University of Hamburg in Scandinavian languages - an interest sparked by a girlhood summer on the Danish coast - that enabled her sabotage efforts while she officially worked for the Third Reich's Department of Justice, said Lowell Bowen, a Baltimore lawyer and a longtime friend.
While taking premed courses at the University of Hamburg in 1940, she was assigned to censor letters sent out of Germany by Jews. She was supposed to black out or destroy their pleas for food; instead, she smuggled the requests out, and food was sent back with the help of shipping agents.
In 1941, she was assigned to monitor smuggling and Bible reading among more than 1,200 Danish and Norwegian resistance fighters, who had been deported by the Gestapo from those occupied countries to German prison camps. But she brazened her way past the guards, who because of her high government position assumed she was with the Gestapo, and they let her walk in with suitcases full of forbidden food, vitamins and medicine.
On her circuit of 52 prisons and camps, she compiled what she called simply "the card file" - a systemized list of the Scandinavian prisoners, Mr. Bowen said.
As the Third Reich was collapsing, the president of the Swedish Red Cross learned that the Nazis had scheduled a "Day X," when all political prisoners were to be executed, but he didn't know where to send rescuers.
Then the Red Cross received Dr. Zassenhaus' list, which she had given to a Danish sea captain, who smuggled it out.
"Her card file was the key to getting them out," Mr. Bowen said. "It was a list of who was where that enabled the Red Cross to rescue them."
After the war ended in Germany in 1945, she worked with orphans there but felt unwelcome, Mr. Bowen said. She completed her medical degree in 1952 at the University of Copenhagen.
In 1952, Dr. Zassenhaus immigrated to Baltimore, where she served her internship and residency at City Hospital. She opened a medical office in 1954, practicing as Dr. H. Margret Zassenhaus for many years before retiring.
She received the A. H. Robins Award for outstanding community service in 1986 from the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, and honorary degrees from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), Goucher College, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Washington College, Towson State University (now Towson University) and the University of Maryland, College Park.
After her mother died, Dr. Zassenhaus wrote of her experiences in Germany in "Walls", a 1974 award-winning book, translated into many languages and still in print. It was named one of the 25 best books for young adults in 1974 by the American Library Association.
She wrote a biography of some of the prisoners in On Guard in the Dark, and she and some of the surviving prisoners were the subjects of a 1980 British television documentary, It Mattered to Me.
Dr. Zassenhaus was a 1974 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and won numerous high civilian honors in Europe, including the Red Cross Medal in 1948, St. Olaf's Award in 1964, the Order of the Dannebro and, in 1969, the Cross of the Order of Merit.
She received a 1983 citizen's citation from then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer and was named in 1986 to the Hall of Fame of Maryland by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes.
Dr. Zassenhaus was knighted by the kings of Norway and Denmark, and received a memorial medal struck in gold in 1986 from the Senate of Hamburg. An award in 1986 from the University of Oslo included the runic inscription "God loves the brave" - fashioned from a piece of an 11th-century Viking ship, Mr. Bowen said.
"But the one she prized the most was a wooden spoon, crafted with a rusty spike by a Norwegian prisoner over a period of three years, and given to her in Christmas 1944, with her code name of Eve," Mr. Bowen said. "This code name was to protect her, because she was helping them. ... She even brought in pastors to pray, which they were not allowed to do - and [it] could have gotten her killed.
"The amazing thing is, she didn't get killed," he said.
Dr. Zassenhaus often spoke of her wartime experiences and the beliefs that flowed from them - to students and several times in interviews with The Sun. She was the subject of a 1985 cover story in the old Sun magazine.
"It is a privilege that I am a physician, that I can do something, that I have every day the occasion and possibility of serving life," Dr. Zassenhaus said in a 1983 interview, reflecting on her decision during her years resisting Hitler to enter medicine when the war was over.
"I think we all deep within ourselves have something that tells us right from wrong, but it gets numbed by the voices of destruction at all levels, by the talk of nuclear war and recession. ... I think we have to expose people to the fact that there are options," she said.
A memorial service is to be held within a month at Zion Lutheran Church, near Baltimore City Hall plaza.
She is survived by a nephew.
Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.
Copyright (c) 2004, The Baltimore Sun http://www.baltimoresun.com
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