Years ago, my friend, Lisa Ercolano, urged me to read a memoir by a friend of hers who had passed away. This is how she describes her friend for this post:
Over the quarter of a century that I worked as a newspaper reporter, I met and interviewed a lot of interesting people. There was treasure hunter Mel Fisher, famous for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha at the bottom of the sea; “The Amazing Kreskin,” a mentalist who flabbergasted me with his seeming ability to read my mind; comedian Professor Irwin Corey, “the world’s foremost authority,” whose conversation was so off-color that I left blushing to the roots of my hair; and a Wiccan priestess and her son, Merlin, who frightened me out of my wits by “calling the wind” and making things blow off the family’s living room shelves. I have interviewed survivors of Iwo Jima, hypnotists, Native American shamans, nudists, actors, musicians, poets (including Allen Ginsberg), children’s author Maurice Sendak and a woman who believed that the spirit of Elvis Presley visited her as she was baking in her modest kitchen. And I enjoyed (almost) every minute of those interviews.
But my interview with a tiny, white-haired woman named Hiltgunt Zassenhaus changed my life. I knocked at her door one spring day in 1993 looking for nothing more than a good story for my newspaper, and I came out with a friend. I cannot remember any other interview in which I connected so instantly to another person, nor that person to me. It was like we had known each other our whole lives. From then on, I visited her several times a week, sitting among the potted plants in her little backyard, hearing not just about her harrowing life during World War II (which she writes about in her memoir, Walls) but discussing the books we had read, her life as a doctor and mine as a reporter, our families, politics and more. No matter how varied her opinions and experiences, what came through loud and clear was her strong, unbending and unwavering lifelong commitment to helping other people and, as she put it, “serving life.” She told me, “We all have to do what we can, every day, to serve life and help others. People who hear my story are always saying ‘Oh, I cannot imagine what I would have done in your place going through all that.’ I tell them ‘You don’t have to wait — you shouldn’t wait — for some big, dramatic thing to happen. You have to act now.” Her words have echoed through my life ever since, informing decisions big and small.
Since reading Hiltgunt Zassenhaus’ book, Walls: Resisting the Third Reich–One Woman’s Story, I have also felt inspired to live my life in a better way.
I’ve read many memoirs by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but this one is by a German woman, a Gentile, who decided not to play it safe, but to “fight back” against the Nazis.
Her story reads like an adventure tale. I became caught up in the danger that Zassenhaus put herself through to save Scandinavian political prisoners. I learned what it was like for her and for her family, living in Germany during the war. Although she does anything but draw attention to it, Zassenhaus’ strong ethics and sense of honor inform the book. She refused to compromise these codes when her resulting actions put her life in danger.
The main theme seems to be how important it is to speak up or act in resistance against dangers to freedom like Nazism. Her clearly written scenes allowed me to envision how and why an entire nation was caught up in Hitler’s madness. As an example, one character, her neighbor Mr. Braun, is an angry man who doesn’t get along with any of the neighbors. There is something a little “off” about him. But as the Nazi movement takes over the country, Mr. Braun becomes the Warden of the precinct that Zassenhaus and her family live in. This gives him control over their freedom and their lives. By transferring control to “small” and dangerous people like Mr. Braun, Nazism was able to create a net (network) that captured all of Germany in its mesh.
I had to force myself to consider what I learned about writing memoir from this book. After all, I didn’t read it for analysis, but was caught up in the events of Zassenhaus’s life during the war and how she would survive. After I finished, I was overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and admiration for such a brave and honorable woman.
But then I remembered what Lisa had told me: that Zassenhaus told her not to wait for a dramatic event in life, to step up now and perform an act that makes a difference. In memoir writing this advice could translate this way: Those of us with less horrific or courageous stories might discover that there are others who find our stories important, even inspirational.
Psst: about Lisa. She’s in China right now, helping take care of babies in an orphanage, thanks to Hiltgunt’s inspiration.