Traute Lafrenz, Last Survivor of Anti-Hitler Group, Dies at 103
Traute Lafrenz, 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, died on Monday at her home in Meggett, S.C., near Charleston. She was 103.
Her son Michael Page confirmed the death.
The White Rose was short-lived and never counted more than a few dozen members, most of whom were young and idealistic. Ms. Lafrenz (who later in life went by the name Traute Lafrenz Page) 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.
But the response to its activities, peaceful as they were, seemed to betoken the profound intolerance displayed by the Third Reich to any hint of opposition among Germans, even as it pursued the extermination of European Jewry and what it called “total war” against its adversaries.
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 fliers, 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?”
The second flier 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.”
More prosaically, it added, “Please duplicate and pass it along.”
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 soirees 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 Ms. Lafrenz was a medical student in Hamburg, she met Alexander Schmorell, a central player in the White Rose, who 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 fliers in a university building in Munich when Jakob Schmid, a janitor, spotted them and tipped off the Gestapo. Four days after their arrest, on Feb. 18, 1943, they were executed. Ms. 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.
Ms. 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,” Ms. Lafrenz was quoted as saying in an account of her activities by the 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.)
Ms. 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. Ms. 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 Germany tabloid Bild Zeitung reported after interviewing Ms. Lafrenz in August 2018. But just days before the trial was scheduled to start — and weeks before the end of the war — the United States 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, Ms. 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 Ms. 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.
For much of her life, Ms. Lafrenz was a follower of the theories of anthroposophy developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. She was a leading figure in the American anthroposophy movement.
Her awareness of Nazism dated to her early teens, when the Nazis sought to impose changes on the education system after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Those changes led to the dismissal of Erna Stahl, a respected teacher whom Ms. Lafrenz considered a major influence on her thinking.
She told Mr. Waage that she and Hans Scholl had been involved romantically in 1941. She also offered some insight into the origin of the name White Rose.
“Where Hans got that name I have no idea,” she said, “but I think he searched for something that would resonate,” and that would evoke medieval notions of “the pure, elevated and eternal love.” Above all, she added, “the name resonated, and that was the important thing.”
Mr. Scholl also seemed to suggest, she said, that “there was a widespread network of like-minded people” in the White Rose, and she was disappointed when she discovered that it had been far more modest in scope.
“There is a huge misconception that lingers,” Ms. Lafrenz said. “That is, that the White Rose was some kind of organization. This was not the case. It was just a group of friends who had connections to the Scholl siblings.”
Ms. Lafrenz was seen as instrumental in spreading the movement from Munich to Hamburg, carrying a leaflet back to her home city. But when she was interrogated later about White Rose activities in Hamburg, she soon realized that the group’s activities there had been betrayed by informers.
“Traute Lafrenz was not at the center of the White Rose,” Mr. Waage wrote. “She did not physically write any of the leaflets — but she did just about everything else. She helped lay the foundation for the revitalization of cultural heritage as a weapon against brutality; she helped make the distribution of the leaflets as practical as possible and helped to spread them.”
In the postwar era, Ms. 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 Ms. Lafrenz’s 100th birthday, on May 3, 2019, that she was awarded Germany’s Order of Merit, a high civilian honor. 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.”
Lyna Bentahar contributed reporting.
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