Trude Simonsohn and Irmgard Heydorn Room

“Those who needed to most didn’t even invite me.”

On several occasions Trude Simonsohn, born in 1921, narrowly escaped death at the hands of the National Socialists. Despite her terrible experiences in Gestapo prisons, in the Theresienstadt ghetto, and in Auschwitz concentration camp, in 1951 she returned to Germany, together with her husband Berthold Simonsohn (1912–1978), among other reasons to assist in rebuilding the Jewish community in Hamburg and later Frankfurt am Main. Since the end of the 1970’s, she has been speaking in schools and universities throughout Germany as an eyewitness of the Nazi period and the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. In October 2016, Trude Simonsohn was made an honorary citizen of the City of Frankfurt for her commitment to the struggle against injustice and forgetting, and for her work as an eyewitness of the past. She is the first woman to be thus honoured.

Born in Olomouc (Olmütz) – at the beginning of the 20th century the biggest city in Moravia where both Czech and German were spoken – Trude Simonsohn (née Gutmann) grew up an only child in a liberal household. Memories of her happy childhood and youth have survived, including summer holidays in Italy and photographs in tennis and skiing attire – almost unbelievable good fortune for Holocaust survivors, as she herself writes in the memoirs she composed together with Elisabeth Abendroth: Another Piece of Luck.

Trude Simonsohn’s happy adolescence was rudely shaken in September 1938 by the Munich Agreement, that allowed the Nazi regime to annex the Sudetenland, and ended irrevocably in March 1939 when the German Army invaded Czechoslovakia. Immediately after German troops entered the country, with a heavy heart she stopped attending school. In September 1939, her father was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp and her mother to Theresienstadt (and thence to Auschwitz in 1944). Trude Simonsohn herself was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 when she was – falsely – denounced as a communist, and held without knowing what she was being accused of. For many years, Trude Simonsohn had indeed been active in Makkabi Hazair, a Zionist-socialist youth movement that was forbidden during the German occupation. The prison conditions, as she describes them in her memoirs, were gruelling. Especially the time she spent in solitary confinement almost broke her mind and spirit. A minor blessing in disguise was that the German chief of police in Olomouc decided that she be sent not as a political prisoner to Ravensbrück but as a Jew to Theresienstadt. The ghetto in Theresienstadt offered at least a small chance of survival. Because of her educational and medical skills acquired in Makkabi Hazair, the Jewish administration of Theresienstadt put Trude Simonsohn in charge of a girls group. In Theresienstadt she also met her future husband Berthold Simonsohn, whom she married there in a traditional Jewish wedding.

On 19 October 1944, Trude Simonsohn volunteered to be deported to Auschwitz after her husband’s name had appeared on a list of deportees. Her memories of Auschwitz are but fragmentary – the hours-long standing to attention for roll-call, the shaving of her head, and Dr. Mengele, who selected deportees for his experiments and so decided who should live and who die. Severe physical and mental pain can strike even the soul unconsciousness, writes Trude Simonsohn, whereby she considers it a blessing that she retroactively forgotten this pain.

After the German Armed Forces capitulated on 8 May 1945, Trude and Berthold Simonsohn indeed met up again in Theresienstadt – as they had pledged to do, shortly before they were parted, on their arrival in Auschwitz,. After helping to disband the camp in Theresienstadt and working for a time for the Ministry for Social Affairs in Prague, in 1948 they moved to Davos in Switzerland, where initially they helped establish a sanatorium for concentration camp survivors suffering from tuberculosis. Some time later, Trude Simonsohn also worked for the Jewish support organisation “Help and Construction”, looking after children who had survived the camps.

After her registry office marriage in Zürich in April 1949, in 1950 the Simonsohns were asked by the head of the Jewish community in Hamburg to help rebuild the community there and assist with social work. Although the decision to go to Germany, of all places, was not an easy one, the couple finally moved to Hamburg, where in June 1951 their son Michael was born. Asked how she managed to settle down in Germany, Trude Simonsohn replies that she socialised almost exclusively with resistance fighters such as Irmgard and Heinz-Joachim Heydorn, who later became a professor of education at the Goethe University, or with Holocaust survivors. Even though she avoids speaking of collective guilt, she says it is a terrible fact that precisely those few Germans who were resistance fighters were berated as traitors after the war – and that their children suffer from this calumny to this day.

In 1955, the Simonsohns moved to Frankfurt am Main, where Berthold Simonsohn first helped to rebuild the Jewish charity organisations and then, in 1962, accepted a professorship in Social Education and Juvenile Law at the Goethe University. Trude Simonsohn worked initially with the Women’s International Zionist Organisation and later also became a member of the Frankfurt Jewish Community Council, which she chaired from 1989 to 2001. She writes that in Frankfurt she felt at home again for the first time after the war. For her engagement and her work as eyewitness of the past she has received numerous awards, to include the Plaque of Honour of the City of Frankfurt (1993), the Wilhelm Leuschner Medal of the State of Hesse (1996), the Ignaz Bubis Prize for Understanding (2010), and the Erasmus Kittler Prize (2013). In recognition of her services as an eyewitness of the past, the Frankfurt Goethe University has named a lecture hall in the Casino building on the Westend Campus after her.

If one asks Trude Simonsohn whether it was difficult at the beginning to talk about her experiences in front of schoolchildren and in lecture halls, she answers with something her husband said: “Only when we confront what we have experienced can we learn to live with it.” After her husband’s death, the challenge of speaking about the past also took on a new urgency. Even though it is often difficult to relive her sufferings with each retelling, she considers it imperative to let later generations know what she went through. Whenever schoolchildren react by saying that her accounts are simply incredible, she answers that she herself would never have believed it if she hadn’t actually experienced it. “Our soul,” says Trude Simonsohn, “is not designed for something like that.”

This portrait is based on Trude Simonsohn’s autobiography Another Piece of Luck and on an interview with Trude Simonsohn in July 2017.

© Frankfurt Humanities Research Centre