Today we tell a love story that rivals the great romances of history. It’s the tale of a Jewish rebel in Nazi Berlin, and the German woman who loved her. As we remember the Holocaust this Monday on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we also remember the countless love stories shattered by hatred, bigorty, and plain cruelty. Before we dive into the story of Lilly and Felice (Felicia), we do want to note that in episode 56 The Pink Triangle we covered the treatment of all LGBTQ Jews put into the concentration camps. We encourage you to go back and listen to that episode as well. But for now, we want to focus on a single and yet extraordinary tale of the most forbidden love.
In a country deep at war and overrun by S.S. guards and Nazi soldiers, the city of Berlin still seemed to glisten in the dawn of 1943. Germany was winning the war by all accounts, chancellor Adolf Hitler and his henchmen were in high spirits. For most citizens they continued about their daily lives, most who were not Jews that is. The few remaining Jewish citizens now remained as part of the Jewish underground. Those who were known to authorities remained in hiding at the homes of German sympathizers. Others who could pass openly as German worked to get their fellow Jews out of Nazi controlled areas. These brave souls had torn off their yellow stars, acquired fake documents, changed their last names, and bustled around in the open.
It was a unique prison in which they all lived. Leaving the country was incredibly risky and dangerous and those most at risk of detection always went first. Followed by children, then mothers, finally any men left who could get away. And left behind in the chaos were the courageous people who stayed and ran the underground operations.They lived on the streets and scourged for food, money, documents, information and more. Few of them had legitimate income as most had lost their jobs when laws had forbidden Jews from working. Their lot was a mixture of Jews, German supporters, and many unwitting accomplices. And one such accomplice was a woman named Lilly Wust.
Born on November 1, 1913 Lilly Wust grew up in a traditional German home. She wasn’t quite 5 years old when Germany and the other Central Powers conceded to Ally victory in World War 1. As Lilly grew up so did her nation; rebuilding and re-seeking the prominence it had lost during the Great War. When Lilly turned 20, Germany got a new Chancellor. A former soldier and new party leader named Adolf Hitler. It was around this time that Lilly married a banking accountant and settled down to become the mother of four rambunctious boys. Upon the birth of her fourth son she was awarded Germany’s bronze ‘Mother Cross’. It was the highest honor bestowed upon a mother and given to those who bore male children for Hitler and the Aryan race.
Just like most of her fellow German citizens at the time, Lilly was an anti-semite and a Hitler supporter. How much she truly dwelt on the suffering of the Jewish people and other ‘deviants’ of the nation we do not know. For most people they simply looked the other way and assumed the government must be just in its persecution of the Jews. She made jokes and hateful remarks and went about her days as if millions of people weren’t being carted off to concentration camps. As a whole most Germans were not deeply touched by the war in the beginning. Aside from the young men sent off to fight, daily life for Aryan citizens continued as usual. But things would begin to change when Lilly was sent a new house maid.
As a reward for her ‘Mother Cross’ medal, Lilly was granted a government staff member to aid in cleaning and taking care of the prized male children. Lilly had no idea that her new housekeeper Ulla was anti-Hitler and a german supporter in the Jewish Underground. In fact, Ulla’s family was currently harboring a Jewish citizen in their own home. And Ulla was certainly uncomfortable working for a woman who proudly displayed a picture of Hitler in her home. Unfortunately Ulla didn’t have much of a choice as she worked for the German government and couldn’t afford to arouse suspicion. She already had encountered one scare from Lilly Wust. The story goes that one day Lilly approached Ulla and out of the blue said “I smell a Jew”. The comment terrified Ulla because even though she was a full Aryan citizen, she spent all of her time around the underground Jews. When she returned home that evening, Ulla told her roommate Felice about the comment. To which Felice boldly responded “Well let’s test her nose out”.
What would prompt a Jew hiding in Nazi Germany to make such a daring move? Well for that answer we have to understand the brilliant and courageous woman that was Felice Schragenheim. Because most of the Jewish records and documents in Germany were destroyed during WW2 we don’t have an exact date of birth for Felice. However the holocaust remembrance center in Israel, Yad Vashem, works to memorialize the lives of those lost during the Nazi’s reign. They speculate that Felice was born on March 9, 1922. She was nearly 9 years younger than Lilly, but she had lived a lot more life in her 20 years before they met. Born to two Jewish dentists in Berlin, Felice grew up like most other German children. She had one sister a few years older than her. Both girls lost their mother in a tragic car accident when Felice was just 8 years old. Her father later remarried and the family found happiness again for a short time.
Things began to drastically change for the Schragenheims in 1933 with the rise of the Nazi Party. At first it was the removal of all Jews for civil service in April of that same year. Pressure and bullying against Jewish citizens, and particularly against Jewish business owners mounted. Historians have noted that ebbs and flow of the Nazi’s anti-semetic harrassment during this time period. Initially, the German government felt a backlash over their open propaganda and appeared to ease on their aggressive treatment of the Jews. In truth, history would prove that the Nazi leaders were merely planning a more calculating route. They had gone into their attack of the 500,000 Jewish citizens too harshly. They first plant the seeds of hatred, bigotry, and distrust. When the Nuremberg Laws were presented in 1935, they found a much better reception from the Aryan population. The laws were as such:
Issued on the 15th of September 1935 during the annual congress of the NSDAP in Nuremberg, [The Nuremberg Laws] became the legal basis for the expulsion of Jews from public life in Germany. The law on Reich Citizenship stipulated that only Aryan Germans or people of kindred blood could be Reich citizens, while Jews became second-rate state subjects. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour banned marriage and extramarital relations between Jews and Germans, the employment of German servants aged 45 and under in Jewish households and the display of German flags by Jews. The third law prevented Jews from displaying the Reich colours (flags).
But the Nuremberg Laws were only the tip of the iceberg. Other local and national regulations were put in place to make public life almost impossible for the Jewish citizens. Actors could no longer perform or even have their faces shown on television. Doctors, lawyers, and educators had their licenses revoked. Laws went into place that made the Jewish ritualization of animal slaughter (Kosher practices) illegal. The State literally took away the Jews right to eat according to their religious, dietary restrictions. Between 1937 and 1938 things only worsened as anti-Semetism reached a fever pitch in Germany. Jews were forced to register as Jews, register all their property to the State, and forbidden from earning an income. If their given name wasn’t ‘Jewish’ enough, they had to add the names Israel or Sarah to their legal documents. Over 400 measures would be put in place to restrict the rights of the Jews during the 6 years between 1933 and 1939.
And as if they hadn’t been stripped of their rights enough, another blow came in late 1938 following the torment of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) which we covered in our Pink Triangle episode. After this horrific night, schools banned Jewish children from attending. And one of those children, the top of her class in fact, was Felice Schragenheim. The young woman was denied the academic certificate she had earned. She was denied the praise and future she deserved for her brilliancy. At age 16 Felice was facing the world alone. She had watched the Nazi Party destroy her once happy family. Her father collapsed from stress and abuse in 1935 following the Nuremberg Laws, he died later that year. Her mother was long passed and her step mother seems to have disappeared. Felice’s sister Irene had fled to England and begged Felice to come with her. But the young woman would not leave her country behind. Her final family member was taken when Felice watched her grandmother put on a train in 1942 and deported to the death camps.
In defiance Felice ripped the golden star of david from her chest. She changed her last name to Schroder and went underground as a resistance fighter. Because of Felice’s features she could pass as an Aryan woman. And the fact that she was quite stunning certainly didn’t hurt her ability to move around freely. She was able to get a job undercover at a National Socialist newspaper in Berlin. Renting her own place was took risky for any Jew so she stayed with German sympathizers. When she wasn’t at work for the newspaper, Felice aided other Jews in getting out of Germany. She and a few other passing Jews would go to the crowded beaches on weekends. There they stole identification cards, ration tickets, cash, and whatever else they could get a hold of from the unsuspecting suntanners. The resistance fighters would then pass out the goods to other Jews in the underground.
She was bold, she was fierce, she was beautiful. And Felice Schragenheim thrived on adrenaline. So it is no wonder that she convinced Ulla to set up a lunch date with Lilly Wust. Felice wanted to know if Lilly could really “smell a Jew”. And it is no wonder that Lilly Wust was instantly smitten with the dark haired and mysterious woman who sat across from her. Felice was right by the way, Lilly didn’t have a clue that she was enjoying lunch with a Jew. That she was in fact, falling head over heels for an underground resistance fighter. When their meal ended, for some reason Felice gave Lilly and apple. Years later Lilly would laugh and say that it ironically mimicked the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. When Even gave Adam and apple and brought about his downfall. After she left, Lilly Wust couldn’t get Felice Schragenheim off her mind.
- YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DySvcj3wZU4
- Lilly – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilly_Wust
- Felice – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felice_Schragenheim
- Washington Post – https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/style/2000/10/01/women-with-nein-lives/fca80ba4-6e83-4a29-92cd-0e43fbb73ad1/
- Observer – https://observer.com/2000/08/an-85yearold-nazi-bride-remembers-her-jewish-lover/
- Stella Kubler – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stella_K%C3%BCbler
- Aimee and Jaguar; A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer
- German control – https://www.holocaust.cz/en/history/final-solution/general-2/the-persecution-of-german-jews-after-the-nazi-seizure-of-power/
- Holocaust Encyclopedia – https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/antisemitic-legislation-1933-1939
- German Salaris – https://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=60006
- Stella Kubler – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stella_K%C3%BCbler