'Warrior's heart'

Meet the wily countess who relished defying Nazis and helping persecuted Jews escape the Holocaust

Maria Countess von Maltzan. (Photo courtesy of Gay Block)

The Rescuers project, a photographic and biographical testimony to the non-Jewish Europeans who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, is poised for a revival in response to the growing racial and religious violence that has erupted around the world. Pioneered by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, children’s book author Malka Drucker, and fine art photographer Gay Block, the Rescuers debuted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1992 and toured as a traveling show for 11 years, serving as a living memorial to the ingenious and dangerous measures people took to save Jews from systematic genocide. In 1992, the project was also published as a book titled Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.

As it turns out, nearly two-thirds of all known rescuers have been found to be women. Among the women highlighted in the project was Maria Countess Von Maltzan. The countess has said she learned the skills she used to deceive German intelligence officers while secretly studying to become a veterinarian against the wishes of her wealthy and powerful mother, who believed that women were only good for obeying their husband’s orders.

“It was easy for me to resist Nazi authority because I had always resisted my mother’s authority,” said the countess, who was a veterinarian living in East Berlin when she was interviewed for the project. “I always said, no matter what came along, ‘I prefer to be in a tough situation than to go to bed with a bad conscience.’”

After Hitler’s rise to power, Maltzan quickly moved to join a Catholic resistance group led by a Jesuit priest named Muckermann that helped Jews swim across Lake Constance to freedom in Switzerland. She later got involved in another activist group, “Schwedenmöbel” — which translates literally as “furniture for Sweden” — that smuggled Jews and other persecuted peoples out of the country in furniture containers that were sent by Swedish citizens back to their home country. The Countess also participated in the Solf Circle, a group of anti-Nazi intellectuals founded by Hanna Solf, that hid Jews and helped procure them documents to get them safely out of Germany. Most of the members of the group would later be executed after a meeting was infiltrated by Gestapo agents.

Her most memorable rescue came while pregnant with the child of her then-lover, Jewish writer Hans Hirschel. When SS agents showed up to search her house, Maltzan hid her future husband inside the compartment of her sleeper-couch — at one point daring a suspicious officer to try shooting the couch if he really didn’t believe her claim that no one was hidden inside of it. Fortunately, she recalled, her gamble paid off when the officer relented and agreed to back off.

When contacted by Women in the World, Drucker, the author behind Rescuers, explained what was so extraordinary about Von Maltzan, who died in 1997 at the age of 88.

“Countess Maria Von Maltzan was born to immense wealth and social power. Most people of her class are not known as altruists and rescuers; position often numbs the privileged,” Drucker said in an email to Women in the World. “Von Maltzan risked her life to save Jews.”

“Why she did it is revealing and important,” Drucker continued when asked about Von Maltzan’s bravery and moral conviction. “Heroic altruism isn’t only the province of saints. Von Maltzan said her mother hated her because of the difficult labor she endured when Maria was born. ‘Early on I knew the sting of injustice,'” Drucker saidVon Maltzan recalled.

“Her mother was a passionate anti-Semite and her brother a Nazi officer. Von Maltzan had a warrior’s heart too. Perhaps as revenge she married a Jew and saved hundreds by transporting them to Switzerland.” Drucker reached a powerful conclusion about Von Maltzan’s significance and relevance today: “There are many paths to goodness, even rage. We need all spirits at this moment to give the next generation a chance for a good life.”

Read the full story at The New York Times and Notable Women International.

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