They were students at the Luisengymnasium and became victims of the Nazi dictatorship. High school students have reconstructed the stories of 20 women, an artist, a scientist, a lawyer, mothers and shorthand typists. These 20 women were deported and killed in the Shoa, some of them with their relatives and their small children. The youngest was 17 years old, the oldest 43. They died in Auschwitz and Sobibor, in the camps in the Lublin district, in Kaunas and in the Warsaw ghetto, in Bernburg and Hartheim. Now 20 gold-plated plaques at the entrance to the Luisengymnasium commemorate these women.
“You can’t even imagine how important these memorials are for our lives,” said Charlotte Knobloch, President of the Jewish Community, in her speech in the school auditorium on Wednesday morning. “It is all too easy to leave commemoration in the abstract. But nobody can escape the gaze of these people.” The faces of 15 young women stare from the banners on the stage, photos of five have not survived. Knobloch warns: “Because what happened has happened, it can happen again.”
These 20 women and girls represent the Jewish students who studied at the Luisengymnasium. There were up to 145 before the First World War, during the Weimar Republic there were more than 70 and at the beginning of the Nazi regime 55 Jewish women were studying there. For several years, students have been working on writing down their life stories and remembering these women.
“They were in the same spot as us every day,” says Hannah, 17. With eight other students, she presented the life stories of the women. “The youngest student who was murdered was 17 years old. The same age as all of us.” And her classmate Leonie says: “We owe it to them to think of them.” On stage she read the life story of Elisabeth Kohn, one of the first female lawyers in Germany. “They were all such great women, they have accomplished so much in their lives. But none of that was appreciated, they were reduced to their religion.”
In her speech, Mayor Katrin Habenschaden talks about bringing the 20 people with the commemorative signs into Munich’s urban society. And she warns: Today one hears racist statements almost every day, that there are attacks on Jewish fellow citizens. City school board member Florian Kraus praised the work of the grammar school and several other Munich schools that have dealt with the fate of former students and still do.
The reason for setting the memorial is the 200th anniversary of the Luisengymnasium. The school was founded in 1822 for girls from better-off families, where they were to be prepared for middle-class life. Jewish families valued the school for its religious tolerance and excellent reputation – but when the Nazis came to power, Jewish students were humiliated at this school too. After the pogrom night of November 9, 1938, the last five Jewish girls had to leave high school.
Headmistress Gesa Hollauf recalled in her speech that these women were unique, that they – like the schoolgirls today – certainly didn’t always feel like doing homework and fulfilling their duties, but that they would have been happy to go to school. But that’s where the similarities ended, the lives of the women were brutally destroyed by the totalitarian regime. The last five Jewish students who left high school in 1938 managed to emigrate. Unlike the students who are remembered on this day.
Michael Felsen also traveled to the ceremony with his family from the USA. He is the nephew of Johanna Felsen, a former student believed to have been murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. Nobody knows for sure today, despite extensive research. In his speech, Michael Felsen talks about his family and how little they knew. “I wish my father had said more about her before he died. And I wish I had asked more.” At the end of his haunting speech, he says: “My family’s wish is that the faces of these young women will light up the world.” They should remind each day that without a culture of mindfulness and respect for all people, even great civilizations can so easily descend into darkness.
Four women, four destinies
Edith Sundheimer was born on August 28, 1912 in Munich. She attended the Luisengymnasium from 1922 to 1929. She got good grades, especially in the natural sciences. With the rule of the National Socialists, she prepared to emigrate to Palestine. She met Paul Semler, they married and had four children. On January 12, 1943, the family was deported to Auschwitz. Edith Semler and her four children were murdered in the gas chambers one day after their arrival. Paul Semler was probably murdered in Buchenwald.
Elisabeth Kohn was born in Munich on February 11, 1902. Her sister, who later became artist Marie-Luise Kohn, was two years younger. Elisabeth attended the Luisengymnasium from 1912. After graduating from high school, she studied law. She received her doctorate in 1924 and became a lawyer. In 1933 her license was revoked. On November 20, 1941, Elisabeth, Marie Luise and their mother were deported to Kaunas from the “Judensiedlung Milbertshofen”, a barracks camp on Knorrstraße. On the morning of November 25, 1941, an SS special commando shot all the deportees.
Ingeborg Gutmann was born on December 6, 1923 in Munich. From 1934 to July 9, 1938, she attended the Municipal Lyceum on Luisenstrasse. She then completed a household and baby care course at the Jewish Children’s Home. She tried in vain to leave Germany. From 1941 on she had to do forced labor and move with her family to the “Judensiedlung Milbertshofen”. On November 20, 1941, the Gestapo deported her to Kaunas with around 1,000 other Munich Jews. Inge Gutmann was 17 years old when the SS shot her on November 25, 1941.
Olga Benario was born on December 12, 1908 in Munich. She attended the Luisengymnasium from 1918 to 1924, where her inappropriate behavior attracted attention. At 15 she joined the Communist Youth League. She worked in Moscow for the communist youth movement, fell in love with the revolutionary Luís Carlos Prestes and went to Brazil with him. She was arrested there and extradited to Germany in 1936 when she was very pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter in Berlin women’s prison. Olga Benario was deported to the Bernburg killing center in 1942 and murdered there on April 23, 1942.