Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus, M.D. (1916-2004)
MSA SC 3520-13570


Dr. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus was born in Hamburg, Germany on July 10, 1916.  Her father, Julius, was a liberal history professor in Hamburg when the Nazis came to power and quickly lost his job as he openly disagreed with their political philosophy and tactics.  Hiltgunt’s mother, Margret Ziegler Zassenhaus, was equally resistant to the Nazi party and ultimately helped to smuggle Jews out of Germany in the beginning of World War II.1  Accordingly, the Zassenhaus children were raised in a home where, “intellectual freedom went hand in hand with a clear sense of the rights and duties of the individual.”2

Hiltgunt Zassenhaus began resisting the Nazis from the time she was a young school girl in the 1930s.  After Hitler officially came to power in 1933, Hiltgunt was given an assignment to attend a rally and evaluate Hitler’s speech.  The 16-year-old Zassenhaus wrote that she was “dry-eyed and unimpressed,” and noted that, “the loudness of his voice can silence you, but it cannot convince.”3  Shortly thereafter Hitler and her classmates were instructed to salute “Heil Hitler!” every morning; however even though she was young, Hiltgunt understood the complexity of the political situation surrounding her and having been taught the “dangers of moral inertia” by her father, Hiltgunt refused to salute.  The situation escalated to the point that the school principal attended the morning salute to monitor Hiltgunt’s behavior himself.  Desperate and yet still refusing to salute, Hiltgunt smashed her hand through a window rather than perform the obligatory salute.  Hiltgunt recalled in her autobiography that, “I was angry and at the same time fearful that if I compromised I might do something for which I would later despise myself.”4  Amazingly, Hiltgunt was simply ignored for the remainder of her school days and thus her resistance had successfully begun.

Hiltgunt graduated from secondary school without incident and enrolled in classes at Hamburg University, where her older brothers were also attending.  Not surprisingly, scholarships were reserved for students involved in Nazi activities, leaving the Zassenhaus family to scrape together enough money to send three children to the University.  With tremendous sacrifice, the family was able to afford the cost of education at Hamburg University and in 1938 Hiltgunt graduated with a Bachelor’s in Scandinavian languages.5  Such a degree was very rare, so almost by default Hiltgunt was awarded the “Seal of the City of Hamburg” which gave her a lifetime appointment as an interpreter for the court of Hamburg.6

After graduation, Hiltgunt was given yet another opportunity to resist the Nazi regime actively.  Because of her degree in Scandinavian languages, the Justice Department of the Third Reich hired Hiltgunt in 1940 to work as an interpreter, censoring letters from German Jews in the ghettos.  Reading their desperate pleas for food and assistance, Hiltgunt refused to black out the messages and instead smuggle the letters out through a shipping merchant friend.  If she came across letters without such messages, she would sometimes write “send food” in the margins of the letter.  Because these letters successfully left Germany, the starving Jews were able to receive some assistance.7

Disillusioned with her ability to help through the smuggling of letters, Hiltgunt decided to re-enter Hamburg University and become a doctor.  It was while taking medical classes in 1941 at Hamburg that Hiltgunt was approached by the Justice Department and given yet another task because of her familiarity with Scandinavian languages.  Hiltgunt was placed in charge of Scandinavian political prisoners and was hired to monitor the visits between ministers and Danish and Norwegian resistance prisoners to ensure that there was no smuggling or reading of the Bible.  Hiltgunt did quite the opposite however, and quickly gained the trust and friendship of her political prisoners as well as the ministers whose visits she accompanied.8  Zassenhaus provided a great deal of support for the prisoners, bringing them news of the war and messages from their families.  Also hired to censor their letters, Hiltgunt smuggled them out, just as she had with the Jewish letters.9

As she became more familiar with the prisoners, Hiltgunt began to recognize their individual needs and smuggled in the items that were best suited to them.  For writers, journalists or philosophers, she brought paper and pens.  Obtaining illegal vitamins through her shipping contacts, Hiltgunt provided her charges with all the medical assistance she could manage.10  Selling off her family’s possessions, including the silver, to purchase flour to make bread, Hiltgunt began smuggling in much needed food as well.11  She encouraged any activity that gave her prisoners hope, particularly Bible reading, even though she was hired to prevent precisely this practice.12  When given the opportunity to select which prisoners could be viewed together, she worked to pair fathers and sons, relatives or friends.13

Hiltgunt’s high rank within the Justice Department provided her some protection and allowed her to walk past the prison guards without having her belongings searched.  If her bulky suitcase, heavy with smuggled items, ever attracted attention, she simply replied that, “If they bomb my home in Hamburg, all I’ll have left is what I carry with me.”14  Fortunately, as the Nazi organization was largely constructed on fear, Hiltgunt was able to manipulate her association with the Justice Department to suggest that she was a member of the Gestapo.15   In order to keep their activities as unnoticed as possible, Hiltgunt and the Swedish minister she worked with rarely talked to each other and never associated outside of the prison walls.  Zassenhaus recalled that:

“We did our work without discussing it with each other; we did not meet in town unless an emergency arose.  On the way to the prison we hardly talked, aware that looming over and around us was the ever present shadow of the Gestapo.  When we arrived, loaded down with our heavy suitcases, neither knew the contents of the other.”16
Although she had refused to salute to Hitler, Hiltgunt now recognized that discretion would allow her a greater opportunity to help her political prisoners.  Hiltgunt recalled her approach to deception: “I had to be very official.  For example, as much as I hated it to say ‘Heil Hitler’ when I came in, I mumbled something.  I said, ‘Drei Liter’ [three liters], which almost sounds like ‘Heil Hitler.’”17

Yet despite these precautions, Hiltgunt lived in constant fear.  World War II was raging and nightly bomb drills forced the Zassenhaus family to spend many nights in a cramped bomb shelter.  The night before her medical examinations, Hamburg was bombed, destroying most of the city and traumatizing the Hamburgers, including Hiltgunt and her family.  Tragically, Hiltgunt’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and despite the constant care of the family physician and the careful monitoring of his wife and daughter, he died shortly before the beginning of the war.18  The family was further strained when all three of the Zassenhaus boys were drafted and the youngest, Willfried, was killed on the Russian front where he served as a medical doctor.19

In addition to the fear brought on by the war, Hiltgunt knew that her brazen actions would eventually attract the attention of the Gestapo.  And yet as the war dragged on and her political charges grew weaker, Hiltgunt grew more desperate and ultimately she was forced into a confrontation with the secret police.  Hiltgunt was interrogated three times and once recounted the experience:

I remember they had the lights on you, and in one hearing I had these lights for only three hours, and I began to get hot and cold.  The idea is that you finally stop thinking and just have the feeling, Somehow I have to get out of here.  Fortunately when I was in danger I turned very cool, somehow as if I were guided by a director onstage.  I just knew exactly what to say.  It was a question of survival.  I was very nice, very harmless, as if I had no worry in the whole wide world – just sitting there, relaxed.  I am a tense person, basically, but in those moments of great danger I was totally relaxed and I think that saved my life.20
Hiltgunt’s level head and courage no doubt saved her life and allowed her to continue helping the political prisoners under her charge.  As World War II dragged on and Germany began losing, the Nazis became more desperate and began moving around Hiltgunt’s prisoners.  Despite this difficulty and the danger of making too many inquiries, Zassenhaus tracked all of the men and recorded their locations.  Ultimately moving between 52 different prisons, this tireless work of hers allowed her to amass a great file of information that directly saved the lives of the men she had been helping.

Apparently by chance Hiltgunt Zassenhaus learned of “Day X,” a plan to exterminate all political prisoners being held in the Nazi system and she quickly notified a contact in the Red Cross through her shipping contacts and was able to pass along her card file.  A deal was quickly brokered between the Red Cross and the Nazi government and all of the Scandinavian political prisoners were located and transported out of Germany because of Hiltgunt’s careful accounting.  Hiltgunt Zassenhaus was therefore responsible for saving the lives of 1,200 men and earned the nickname “angel of the Scandinavian prisoners.”21   Despite these remarkable accomplishments, Zassenhaus never considered herself a resistance fighter and once observed that, “Frankly I never fought against anything, I fought for something…I tried to think of what I could do to relieve the situation.”22

After the end of World War II Germany was left weak and crippled and many Germans faced the very real possibility of starvation.  Hiltgunt was no exception, and yet despite these hard times, she still labored to help those around her.  Hiltgunt Zassenhaus took on the task of relocating German orphans and established a series of homes for them, many with the Scandinavian political prisoners she had saved during the war.23

Because of the destruction of Hamburg, Hiltgunt had been unable to complete her medical studies at the University of Hamburg.  She also found herself disillusioned with the German people, a feeling which she described as, “It was just as if you had a friend who had somehow disappointed you so much that it could never be the same.”24  As a result, she looked outside of her native Germany to complete her medical degree and was welcomed as a hero by Scandinavian countries and was the first German allowed to live in Denmark in the post war years.  In fact, Hiltgunt had to be smuggled across the Danish border in a fish truck and the Danish parliament had to pass a special law allowing her to live there in order to bypass a general law prohibiting the immigration of German citizens.25  In 1952 Zassenhaus earned her medical degree from the University of Copenhagen and immigrated to the Baltimore, Maryland shortly afterward.26  Dr. Zassenhaus completed her internship and residency at City Hospital and opened her own medical office in 1954, practicing as Dr. H. Margret Zassenhaus.27

Dr. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus died on November 20, 2004 in Baltimore, Maryland.28  During her lifetime she received many honors and awards for her work during World War II, including honorary degrees from Western Maryland College, Goucher College, College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Washington College, Towson State University and the University of Maryland, College Park.29  Her autobiography, Walls: Resisting the Third Reich – One Woman’s Story, was named one of the best 25 books for young adults in 1974 by the American Library Association.30

In 1948 Zassenhaus was awarded the Danish and Norwegian Red Cross medals, followed by the St. Olaf’s Award and knighthood by King Olaf of Norway in 1964.31  In 1966 Hiltgunt was knighted by King Frederick of Denmark and in 1969 she was given the Cross of the Order of Merit, the “highest civilian award in West Germany.”32  In 1974 Norway nominated Zassenhaus for the Nobel Peace Prize and Walls was named “best book of the year” by Christopher’s of New York.33

Maryland and former Mayor William Donald Schaefer honored Zassenhaus by awarding her the citizen’s citation in 1983.  In 1986 she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.  Interestingly, Zassenhaus was godmother to over 50 Norwegian children “whose parents owe their life to the German woman’s wartime activities.”34

Dr. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus once commented that, “…even in the most desperate circumstances we as individuals can make choices.  This is what humanity is about: we must never cease to listen to our conscience.  It guides us toward serving life, then we are on the right course.”35  Such a statement demonstrates the commitment of this woman to her beliefs and clearly illustrates her ability to withstand the pressure to conform during the Nazi regime to the extent of actively resisting Nazi orders in aiding her political prisoners.  As if her wartime sacrifices were not enough, Zassenhaus continued to labor after the end of the war, first by relocating orphans and later by practicing medicine.  She is clearly a woman deserving of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

1. Gerri Kobren, "Beyond Walls: Zassenhaus Still Fights Nazi Tactics," The Baltimore Sun, 31 January 1983; Sheridan Lyons, "Dr. Hiltgunt M. Zassenhaus, 88, Secretly Aided Nazis' Victims," The Baltimore Sun, 21 November 2004. Return to text

2. Kevin Sim, Women at War: Five Heroines Who Defied the Nazis and Survived, (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1982), 179. Return to text

3. Ibid., 181. Return to text

4. Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, Walls: Resisting the Third Reich - One Woman's Story, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1974), 14. Return to text

5. Ibid., 21. Return to text

6. Ibid., 24. Return to text

7. Ibid., 58-59; Lyons. Return to text

8. Lyons. Return to text

9. Ibid. Return to text

10. "One of the Minority: Walls.  By Hiltgunt Zassenhaus," The Economist, 3 May 1975. Return to text

11. Zassenhaus, 128. Return to text

12. Lyons. Return to text

13. Shaaron Cosner and Victoria Cosner, Women Under the Third Reich: A Biographical Dictionary, (London: Greenwood Press, 1998), 180. Return to text

14. Zassenhaus, 127. Return to text

15. Sim, 200. Return to text

16. Zassenhaus, 128. Return to text

17. Sim 200. Return to text

18. Kobren. Return to text

19. Cosner, 180. Return to text

20. Sim, 204. Return to text

21. Lyons; Claudia Dreifus, "The Power of Conscience," The Nation, 15 February 1975, 184-185; "H. M. Zassenhaus," Baltimore County Women 1930-1975, 43. Return to text

22. Sim, 197. Return to text

23. John Dorsey, "Life Is What You Put Into It," The Baltimore Sun, 25 September 1977. Return to text

24. Sim, 220. Return to text

25. Dorsey. Return to text

26. Lyons; Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006, Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, (Farmington Hills, MI: Thompson Gale, 2006),, Accessed on 18 July 2006. Return to text

27. Dorsey. Return to text

28. "Zassenhaus, Dr. Hiltgunt M," The Baltimore Sun, 5 December 2004. Return to text

29. Lyons. Return to text

30. Ibid. Return to text

31. Lyons; "H. M. Zassenhaus," 43. Return to text

32. Ibid. Return to text

33. "H. M. Zassenhaus," 43. Return to text

34. "Zassenhaus, Hiltgunt Marget, 1916-," The Baltimore Evening Sun, 12 June 1963. Return to text

35. Carolyn B. Stegman, Women of Achievement in Maryland History, (Forestville, MD: Anaconda Press, 2002), 43. Return to text

Biography written by 2006 summer intern Amy Huggins.

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