Traute Lafrenz, who has died aged 103, was the last survivor of the White Rose, a resistance movement in Nazi Germany whose opposition to Adolf Hitler led to swift and ferocious Gestapo repression and the beheading of its leaders.
The White Rose was short-lived and never counted more than a few dozen members, most of whom were young and idealistic. Lafrenz carried political leaflets and helped the group gain access to ink, paper and envelopes to produce and disseminate its anti-Hitler tracts, and to urge Germans to turn against the Nazis.
As the German army faced crushing losses at Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943, the White Rose sensed mistakenly that military reverses would turn Germans against Hitler. The group’s flyers, quoting from Goethe, Schiller, Aristotle, Lao Tzu and the Bible, urged passive resistance and sabotage of the Nazi project.
“Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days?” the first leaflet asked. “Who among us can imagine the degree of shame that will come upon us and upon our children when the veils fall from our faces and the awful crimes that infinitely exceed any human measure are exposed to the light of day?”
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The second flyer said that while the White Rose did not “wish to address the Jewish question in this leaflet”, the murder of 300,000 Jews since the invasion of Poland in 1939, “in the most bestial manner imaginable”, constituted “a terrible crime against the dignity of mankind, a crime that cannot be compared with any other in the history of mankind”.
It added: “Perhaps someone will say the Jews deserve this fate. Saying this is in itself a colossal effrontery.”
“We will not keep silent,” the fourth of the group’s six published leaflets proclaimed. “We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not let you alone.”
Under cover of darkness, some members of the group also painted slogans like “Down with Hitler” on Munich’s thoroughfares.
Given the public mood in Germany after years of Nazi propaganda and the nation’s early successes in World War II, it might seem unlikely that a group of middle-class students with a liking for literary soirées and long walks could coalesce into a dissident group committed to the overthrow of one of history’s most dictatorial regimes. Yet, by what seems to have been a series of chance encounters, their friendships and intellectual kinship turned into powerful bonds of resistance.
While Lafrenz was a medical student in Hamburg, she met Alexander Schmorell, a central player in the White Rose. He introduced her to the leaders of the group, the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, when she moved to Munich to continue her medical studies in the early 1940s.
Other leading players included Christoph Probst, Willi Graf and the group’s older mentor, Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy who was committed to liberal democracy.
The Scholls and others had been members of youth groups organized by the Nazis. Some of the men in the White Rose were drafted as medics to the Russian front and, passing through Warsaw on the way, witnessed the far-flung horrors of Germany’s hunger for “Lebensraum,” or living space, and racial exclusivism.
The White Rose’s leaflets began appearing in the summer of 1942, but the project faltered in February 1943 with the arrest of Sophie and Hans Scholl, who were distributing flyers in a university building in Munich when Jakob Schmid, a janitor, spotted them and tipped off the Gestapo. Four days after their arrest, on February 18th, 1943, they were executed. Lafrenz attended her friends’ funeral, even though it was conducted under Gestapo surveillance.
Other members of the White Rose followed the grisly trail to execution; they were among an estimated 5,000 people beheaded under a revival of the use of the guillotine ordered by Hitler. The beheadings continued until January 1945.
Lafrenz, inevitably, was arrested in March 1943. “I was aware that the Gestapo knew about my friendship with those who had already been murdered, so it didn’t take too long before I was arrested too,” she was quoted as saying in an account of her activities by Norwegian author and journalist Peter Normann Waage. (His book, published in English in 2018, was titled Long Live Freedom! – the final words of Hans Scholl just before the blade of the guillotine fell in 1943.)
Lafrenz spent the rest of the war either in prison, under investigation or trying to dodge the Nazis as the Allies pushed into Germany from the west and the east. But as late as April 1945, officials of the Nazis’ People’s Court continued their efforts to crush the last vestiges of resistance. Lafrenz and others were set to go on trial in the prison at Bayreuth, in southern Germany.
“They were at risk of the death penalty,” the German tabloid Bild Zeitung reported after interviewing Lafrenz in August 2018. But just days before the trial was scheduled to start – and weeks before the end of the war – the US Army liberated the prison and she was saved.
Traute Lafrenz was born on May 3, 1919, in Hamburg, the youngest of three daughters of Carl and Hermine Lafrenz. Her father was a civil servant, her mother a homemaker.
After World War II, Lafrenz completed her medical studies before emigrating to the United States, where she married Vernon Page, an eye doctor. They had four children. The family later moved to Chicago, where Lafrenz headed the Esperanza Therapeutic Day School for disadvantaged children. After her husband’s death in 1995, she moved to her daughter Renee’s ranch in South Carolina.
In addition to her son Michael, she is survived by another son, Thomas; two daughters, Renee Meyer and Kim Page; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In the postwar era, Lafrenz remained stubbornly reticent about her activities. “I was a contemporary witness,” she told Bild Zeitung in 2018. “Given the fates of the others, I am not allowed to complain.” Her daughter Renee told the newspaper that she had not learned of her mother’s wartime struggle until 1970.
Indeed, it was only on Lafrenz’s 100th birthday, on May 3, 2019, that she was awarded Germany’s Order of Merit, a high civilian honour. The citation said: “She belonged to the few who, in the face of the crimes of national socialism, had the courage to listen to the voice of her conscience and rebel against the dictatorship and the genocide of the Jews. She is a heroine of freedom and humanity.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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