Monday, 23 July 2012

Maria von Maltzan - a German resistance heroine, by Leslie Wilson

Maria and Hans

In 1943, Maria von Maltzan, a German aristocrat, took Hans Hirschel, her Jewish lover into her Berlin apartment to hide him from the Nazis. It was the time when the last Jews were supposed to be 'cleansed' out of Berlin. Since Hans had ingeniously faked his own suicide, he was registered as dead, and for a long while, no suspicion fell on Maria; but one day a neighbour handed her a yellow card, which she said a gentleman who'd come calling for her had dropped. It said: Jews are living at Maltzan's.

Hans had brought a sofa with a hollow base with him, when he came to her,  and when she was out during the daytime (she was a veterinary surgeon) Hans hid in there, with a bottle of liquid codeine to keep his troublesome chronic cough at bay. Maria had thoughtfully drilled breathiGng holes in the base.

(That makes me think of hamsters or mice in a box, which I realise now is why Raf, in Saving Rafael, accuses Jenny and her mother of keeping him like a little animal in a cage. I didn't think about that when I was writing it, though.)

Now she went back to her apartment, and told Hans to get into the sofa base, because the Gestapo were coming. Two men duly arrived at half past two and ransacked the apartment for three and a half hours. While they did this, she threw a ball for her two dogs, and when the Gestapo asked her if she could stop because it was getting on their nerves, she said, calmly, that her dogs were missing their walk because of the search and had to have some exercise.

She could get away with this because she was an aristocrat, and her father had been a high-ranking Army officer, and his portrait was watching them intimidatingly from the wall.

Then they demanded that she open the sofa-bed, which was made of heavy mahogany. She said it was stuck; she had bought it four weeks ago and had tried to open it several time.  'If you don't believe me,' she added, while the Gestapo men heaved and grunted in their heavy uniforms, 'you can get your pop-guns out and shoot holes in it - but if you do that, I insist that you give me a coupon for new upholstery material and that you pay for the repairs. And I want that in writing now.'

The Gestapo men decided this was too much for them to handle, and they left. When Maria let Hans out, he was white as chalk and drenched with sweat.

Maria in her youth
 The Gestapo didn't give up, though; they hung around in the courtyard at night, listening for sounds from the apartment. So Maria took Hans to a new, temporary, hiding place and warned the other Jews who came to her home to stay away. Then, one cold night, she poured water on the narrow tiled alleys that led to the courtyard, and then stretched thin wires across the alleys too. Of course, the Gestapo tripped over the wires and then went skidding across the ice. Maria called the police and told them she had burglars; she also called the butcher from over the way, who arrived brandishing his axe. She wrote, in her memoir: 'So now I had everything I wanted. The Gestapo in the courtyard were faced by me, the police, and the axe-wielding butcher. I pretended to be hysterical with fear.' The Gestapo stopped visiting the courtyard at night.

Maria was a Silesian countess, so a countrywoman of my mother's. When the First World War broke out, she and her many brothers and sisters, infected by jingoistic frenzy, tried to burn their French governess - luckily they were found out and the governess rescued. As a child, she also threatened to throw the ex-King of Saxony into a lake, when she'd taken him to see some nesting birds and he wanted to disturb them: 'Unfortunately, I shall have to drown Your Majesty.'

When she was a veterinary student in Breslau (now Wrocław), she was short of money (of course) and the family jeweller paid her to wear his stock of pearls. He said she had just the right kind of skin to help them keep their lustre. She wore these valuable strings under her blouse every day, and nobody ever noticed. 'Nice easy money,' she said.

Later, she became a fervent anti-Nazi and helper of Jews. She was involved with the Swedish Church in Berlin (the organisation who I used to fictionally help Raf and Jenny out of Germany). I don't have room here to go into all her exploits, but she also helped animals escape conscription by giving them drugs that made them temporarily ill. Her view was that the dogs and horses hadn't consented to fight for Hitler, so why should she help force them to?

Maria in later life
 Her autobiography, Schlage die Trommel und Fürchte Dich Nicht (Beat the Drum and Fear Not - which is unfortunately not available in English - is an amazing read, and as it unfolded, I did begin to wonder what this woman was on? She seemed utterly tireless as well as staggeringly courageous. But then she did let out that she had become addicted to amphetamines, which, as a vet, she found it quite easy to get hold of. After the end of the war, Maria was prosecuted, had her licence to practise withdrawn, and taken into a brutal withdrawal centre, run by people who appeared to have got their training in concentration camps. The court didn't appear to care about her heroism, or even consider the stresses she had been under. Sadly, though she married Hans, the marriage didn't last. They remained good friends, though.

She finished her life in the Berlin area of Kreuzberg - where her pet monkey enlivened the place by periodically getting out of the flat and calling on the neighbours. The animal was very well-behaved, they told her. She liked being surrounded by punks and 'alternative' young people, and when she walked her dogs in the evenings, she relished the sight of the Turks who made the area colourful and lively - and the fact that they got on well with their German neighbours. Her parting comment on her life was: 'I wasn't bored for a moment.'

A plaque on the house Maria lived in during the Nazi period, commemorating her resistance work

 I have discovered that there is a chapter about her in a book called: Women Heroes of World War II:  by Kathryn Attwood, published last year. Part of her story is also told in Leonard Gross's book: The Last Jews in Berlin. The quotes from her memoir were translated by me.  The title Schlage die Trommel und Fürchte Dich Nicht is taken from the opening line of a poem by the German Jewish Heinrich Heine.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Wow! What a woman! Thanks for sharing this with us.I admit I'd never heard of her.

Anonymous said...

That ice trap incident sounds as though she was having her own kind of dangerous fun. Brave lady. Penny.

Alex said...

What a fascinating woman. I first read her story in Kathryn Atwood's book, but thank you for this piece, too.

Melissa Marsh said...

Wow. I so wish her memoir was available in English. I'd love to read it but my German reading skills are nowhere near good enough to do so.

alberridge said...

This is absolutely fascinating - and I do hope you're going to write about her, Leslie. Even in a single post you've conveyed a wonderfully extraordinary personality and I really want to know more!

Leslie Wilson said...

I have toyed with the idea of trying to get a contract to translate her memoir - that is so well-written that I couldn't improve on it! And it's a shame it's not available to English-language readers.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Wondeful blogpost as always Leslie and thanks so much for drawing attention to this wonderful woman. I couldn't help thinking about Hans Fallada and 'Alone in Berlin' when I read about the yellow note card - I know its completely different - but there's something about that way of communicating at that time which is quite amazing. Today we would probably send a Tweet.
I will Facebook and Tweet the link!!

Leslie Wilson said...


Katherine Langrish said...

Wow - what an AMAZING woman! Thanks Leslie!

firstnightdesign said...

Enthralling! I only wish her memoirs had been translated into English. Perhaps you could do it? I have repinned this on Pinterest.

Cindy said...

Wow, what an awesome story. Thanks for sharing. She sounds like my kind of "broad", not putting up with any crap from anyone. LOLOL

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Fascinating and courageous! It was a complex time. I hope I would have been that brave.

And her lover too. It takes a lot of courage to lie quietly day after day hoping you won't be caught and killed.

paul231 said...

Her story also appears in the "Book of the Just" by Eric Sliver

Claire Blagg said...

what a brave woman, especially when she knew how much danger she was in. truly courageous.

Claire Blagg said...

what a brave woman, especially when she knew how much danger she was in. truly courageous.

MyDarlin said...

Incredible story! This should be made into a movie - it would be one that kept you on the edge of your seat. Thank God for those that stood up for the innocent!

Samantha S. said...

Awesome story! I also love Kathryn Atwood's biographies - and she is coming out with more!