I spent this past weekend watching a six-part documentary on the Nazi’s by the BBC. I learned a number of things that I didn’t know before, and one of those things was the story of Ilse Sonja Totzke. After all that I have learned about Nazi Germany and the horrendous crimes that happened there, I am always surprised at how much people fear those who are different and how cruel people can be to those who are different. Ilse’s crime, being different.
Early Years and Being Different
Ilse was born in Strasbourg in 1913. At the time, Strasbourg was part of Alsace-Lorraine and was under German control. Her mother was an actress and her father a theater orchestra director. There is actually very little known about Ilse’s childhood. She is an enigma of history and her story didn’t come to light until well after the war ended.
What we do know is that she followed in her parents’ footsteps, especially her fathers. In 1932 at the age of 19 Ilse went to Wurzburg, Germany to study music. She lived in a small garden cottage, she had Jewish friends and often rented her lodgings from Jews. Too look at her life, with what little we know, Ilse didn’t care what a person’s religious views were, she cared more about the person.
The people that Ilse kept company with made her a target for denunciation. In 1933 when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi regime rose to power, they began to enact laws concerning Jews and those who associated with them. Association could me death or internment at a concentration camp. Most people quickly forgot those that they just a year before called “friend”, but Ilse was not one of them.
The Gestapo and Denunciation
Ilse became a subject of Gestapo surveillance when her neighbors began to write letters to the Gestapo about her behavior. Her neighbors denounced her fifteen times to the Gestapo. Accusations that included: being suspected of espionage because she spoke French well, she slept until noon, not having a “normal” disposition and being hostile towards men (meaning she was a lesbian), wearing mens clothing, having an Eton haircut, did not associate with her neighbors, did not return the “Heil Hitler” greeting and associating with Jews.
Her first summons to Gestapo headquarters came on October 28, 1941. At this time the Gestapo warned her to stay away from Jews. It seems that they didn’t care about her being a lesbian as much as they cared that she had Jewish friends and acquaintances. She was forced to sign to a document stating that she would stay away from Jews, it was not something she would obey.
In September of 1942 Ilse took a trip to Berlin, one of many that she had taken before and would continue. However, on this particular trip Mrs. Straus, a Catholic born wife of a Wurzburg Jew, asked Ilse to take a message to her son. The message was to be passed through her sons’ friend: Ruth Basinki. Ruth and Mrs. Straus’ son had both been students at the Academy of Science for Judaism in Berlin before it was closed. When she arrived in Berlin, Ilse made her way to Basinki’s apartment and delivered the message. The two young women began to talk and immediately became friends. Because we know so very little about Ilse, it is possible that they also became lovers, as Ilse spent at least one night in Basinki’s apartment.
When she returned to Wurzburg, Ilse was again summoned by the Gestapo in December of 1942. At this time, Ilse decided to disappear into the Jewish underground and planned to take Ruth Basinki with her. Ilse went again to Berlin to get Ruth but was unable to locate her at her apartment. So, she returned to Wurzburg.
Time to Flee and Capture
On February 8, 1943 Ilse again went to Berlin to find Ruth. While at Ruth’s apartment, one of her neighbors told Ilse that Ruth was most likely at Judenlager (Jewish camp) on Auguststrasse in Berlin. Ilse went to the camp the next morning to see Ruth. She was made to wait until 3 o’clock in the afternoon to see Ruth. By this time, she had decided that she and Ruth must flee Germany. It took awhile for Ilse to convince Ruth to flee, but Ruth finally relented and four days later the two young women sent off for Switzerland.
It took them two weeks to make it to the Swiss border. It is not known for sure if it was February 26 or 27 that they first crossed the border, but when they did, they were sent back by a Swiss customs agent. The following night, they tried again and again they were sent back, however this time they were handed over directly to the German border guards. Ruth was sent to the Gestapo in Berlin and then to Auschwitz concentration camp. Ilse was sent back to the Gestapo in Wurzburg.
At her hearing Ilse told the Gestapo:
“I have been considering fleeing Germany for quite sometime as I do not feel well under Hitler’s rule. In particular, I have found the Nuremburg laws to be incomprehensible and this is also the reason I continued to maintain contact with the Jews who were my acquaintances.”
On May 12, 1943 Ilse was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. She was recorded as liberated on April 26, 1945 but was not heard from again. It seems as though she had vanished from the earth. Ruth, who was a gifted flutist, was put into the camp orchestra at Auschwitz and survived the war.
Yad Vashem recognized Ilse Sonja Totzke as Righteous Among the Nations on March 23, 1995. Her name is on the wall in Jerusalem. The world learned her story because her Gestapo file still sits in the city archives of Wurzburg, Germany.
Ilse Totzke faced persecution for one reason- she was different. She didn’t sit with the ladies of the neighborhood and gossip, she kept her friends no matter what, she stood up for what she believed in and she put her own life on the line to save one Jewish woman- Ruth Basinki. Being different from each other is what makes each of us unique and instead of being afraid of those who are different, talk to them. If we talk to each other, we will find that we have more that draws us together than pushes us apart. Every human being I know, no matter color of skin, sexual orientation, religious views or anything else that makes them different, all want the same things out of life; friends, family, happiness, love and peace.
Ilse’s story makes me happy that I have learned it and happy to be able to share it. It also makes me sad because so little is known about her. I can say, I would have liked to have known her. I will continue to write this blog and share these stories. Each one, good and bad, deserves to be told. I hope that you will follow my blog and that you have enjoyed learning about Ilse. We all have a story and sometimes we need to sit and listen to each other’s stories. See you in two weeks!