Secret War Hero: One Woman’s Story (A Memoir)

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.


Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

28 responses to “Secret War Hero: One Woman’s Story (A Memoir)

  1. This book sounds great. I’d love to read it.

  2. Well, I certainly like Zassenhaus’ style…what a brave woman! It sounds like a great read, Luanne and the fact that you got some tidbits of advice for your own memoirs, makes it that much better.
    Shot out to Lisa…awesome things she’s doing!

    • Such a brave woman. In the midst of all that she was training as a doctor and learning Scandinavian languages! Lisa and her daughter went to the orphanage last year and she made up her mind to go back this year and help out. Her daughter is with her.

  3. What an inspiring read Luanne, not only the book but your post in so many ways. Zassenhaus’ way of describing how it became possible for ‘small’ men to use the power given them to help facilitate the Nazis hold in Germany sounds fascinating and her legacy has obviously touched many. I love how you use the read to bring in the important role of memoir writing and I really needed to hear this right now. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful woman and message with us.

    • Oh, I’m so glad you were inspired by this, Sherri. I love how you phrased it–her legacy–because that is exactly what it is. It continues, like paying it forward, in a way. I hope it helps you in your own memoir writing and in life in general. Zassenhaus has a way of being sort of an eternal flame of inspiration.

  4. Love the notion of ‘serving life’ – how can that NOT affect others in a positive manner? I also like the idea of viewing familiar territory through a different lens. And the wish list grows . . .

    • Yes, this book is one to read and one to pass on to others, Shel. I too love the notion of serving life. What a positive focus for each day with all its mundane annoyances, etc.

  5. Wonderful post Luanne! your friend Lisa is certainly leading an inspired life (I think I envy her! meeting all those fascinating people) and as for Hiltgunt wow! I will add this memoir to my reading list.

    • Lisa has had some amazing adventures and she herself is very inspiring. She went to the orphanage last summer and vowed to go back this summer and spend a longer time with the babies and children and that is what she is doing. 🙂 Thanks, Yolanda!!

  6. What a great story and amazing woman. So glad you shared this.

  7. This is lovely! Another one to add to the list. And it’s wonderful that your friend to the message to heart, as did you.

    • It’s hard to read a true story about someone who put her life on the line for others the way that Hiltgunt did without wanting to be a better person yourself. So inspiring for any reader!

  8. After reading your description, I’ve ordered the book from my library. It sounds like an amazing story.

  9. Two amazing women — thanks for sharing the story with us. I’m not sure, but I think I may have read the book.

    • Have you?! Check it out and make sure :). Yes, two amazing women! And snoopy me can’t wait until Lisa gets back from China so I can hear all about her time there.

  10. Thanks for sharing this Luanne. My TBR list is getting really long, but I HAVE to add this one!

    • Haha, join the crowd! Mine is too! Yes, this is definitely important. A reminder to remember what’s important and an inspiration to always do better and, as Hiltgunt said herself, “serve life.”

  11. What a wonderful woman and a great story – an inspiration and I’ll definitely add it to my to read list. But Lisa also sounds as though she’s having a very interesting life…

    • Lisa just got back. I can’t wait to hear about her time in China. Thanks so much for reading, Andea. You will not be disappointed with Hiltgunt’s story!

  12. I hope Lisa plans to write her memoir too 🙂 Both women are incredibly inspirational, but I embrace Hiltgunt’s point that you needn’t wait for a big event to happen. There’s plenty of ways to help people right now. Even if those ways seem small and insignificant compared to the rise of Nazism, they won’t seem that way to the people who are helped.

    • Lisa and her daughter Juliet ought to write a memoir together!!
      There are so many ways to help right now. Look at all the anguish on the news–both domestic and international.

  13. Pingback: In a Land Far Away, a Long Time Ago, There Was The Shoah | Writer Site

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