Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim fell in love in wartime Berlin. Letters and poems tell a tale of love, courage, and persecution. The story also shows the pitfalls of historical truth as told by one survivor, but most of all it stands as an example of many relationships destroyed by hate, bigotry, and cruelty.
Lilly Wust was born Charlotte Elisabeth Kappler in 1913 to a traditional Berlin family. Her early childhood was during the World War I (1914-1918); her teenage years were in the "Roaring 20s"—a tumultuous time not only in Germany. Lilly didn’t express much interest in politics. As she celebrated her 20th birthday, Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany. Around the same time, Lilly met and fell in love with a banking accountant with Nazi sympathies. The two married shortly after—much to the dismay to her parents, who, as former members of the Communist Party, were highly doubtful of the new regime and its followers. Lilly, however, like most Germans, was comfortable turning a blind eye to the troubling developments around her. While there is some debate on how much of a Nazi sympathizer she was, Lilly Wust certainly looked the other way and didn’t question the system of hatred in which she raised her family.
When the war broke out, Lilly’s life, like most non-Jewish Berliners, wasn’t affected too much by the news. Her husband Günther was in the Wehrmacht, albeit in a safe position from where he could visit home regularly. Neither he nor Lilly were happy in their marriage and both had several extramarital affairs. One of hers resulted in a fourth son. This would set off Lilly’s life in a new trajectory, since a fourth son meant eligibility for Germany’s bronze “Mother Cross”—awarded to women who bore male children for Hitler. The award brought several privileges, one was eligibility for a house maid. A woman named Inge Wolf applied for the position and assisted the Wust household. Inge was a young woman who had to fulfill a compulsory year of domestic service. More importantly, she was also actively fighting the Nazi system as a German supporter of the Jewish Underground.
Jewish life in Berlin had gotten increasingly unbearable and dangerous by fall of 1942. In November, Alois Brunner, SS officer, personal secretary to Adolf Eichmann, and responsible for sending over 100,000 European Jews to concentration and extermination camps, arrived in Berlin for a short but brutal stint. His mission was to rid Berlin of its remaining Jewish population, just as he had done previously in Vienna. During his three months in Berlin, he deported 56,000 Jewish people.
Those that hadn’t been able to flee went underground. Some were able to hide in the homes of German sympathizers. Others were able to pass as non-Jewish, removed the yellow Star of David badge, changed their names, and used fake documents to live openly within Nazi German society. One of those was Felice Schragenheim whom Lilly Wust met on November 27, 1942, when she joined Inge at a coffee shop in central Berlin. Lilly was immediately taken by the beautiful dark-haired woman who introduced herself as Felice Schrader.
Felice Schragenheim was eight years younger than Lilly. She grew up in a Jewish middle-class family, the daughter of a dentist. Her parents died young, and mounting pressures on the German Jewish population forced the remaining family to make plans to leave the country. Felice had wanted to finish school but Nazi legislation following the Kristallnacht pogrom barred Jews from all public schools and universities. Her sister had been able to emigrate to England and Felice made arrangements to leave for the United States—a plan she was not able to follow. Instead, she had to stay in Berlin, working in a bottle factory. In August 1942, Felice witnessed her last remaining family member, her grandmother, being deported. When she received orders for her own deportation shortly after, the 20-year-old went into hiding. According to contemporaries, Felice was a risk-taker. She didn’t avoid dangerous situations and landed a job at a Nazi paper in Berlin. After all, she had wanted to become a photographer and journalist.
Felice was part of a circle of women who worked in the underground, helping other Jews flee the country or survive in hiding. Through intricate and unstable networks, they obtained fake IDs, ration tickets, cash, and other necessities for those who were less able to be in the open. Inge was part of Felice’s inner circle.
After Felice had met Lilly, she was intrigued. Lilly had a big apartment and surplus food ration tickets due to her children. Felice began picking up Inge from work and ended up staying longer and longer. She was openly interested in Lilly, and was curious to see how far she could go. The apartment became something of a gathering place for Felice and Inge’s circle. Lilly, who did not know who she was entertaining, enjoyed the attention and camaraderie. Lilly’s husband, who returned home every few weeks, was happy to see his wife more relaxed and enjoyed the attention of the many young and pretty women in his home.
Felice began courting Lilly more and more. She was fascinated by the idea and thrill of being able to attract a person so close to Nazi ideology (who, in some accounts, is quoted that she could ‘smell’ Jews) and seemed to, at the same time, grow genuine personal affection. She showered Lilly with flowers, compliments, letters, and poems. Felice and her friends’ identities were safely hidden from Lilly's eyes.
The situation in Berlin worsened in the early days of 1943. On February 18, Goebbels delivered his infamous speech getting Germans ready for ‘total war’ and the propaganda machine intensified its hateful arguments against the “internal enemy"—Jews who were blamed for the recent defeat at Stalingrad. On February 27, a new round of deportations started. Dubbed “Operation Factory,” all remaining Jews were rounded up from their places of work (which in most cases was forced labor in factories). Goebbels had promised to have no Jewish people left in Berlin for Hitler’s birthday in April.
Felice left Berlin and stayed with friends in the mountains to avoid being detected. Lily was confused by her friend’s absence but the letters she received from Felice assured her of their special friendship. While Felice was gone, Lilly was admitted to the hospital with a serious infection. She stayed for several weeks, during which Felice was finally able to return to Berlin. Her visit to the hospital was marked in Lilly’s diary as the first time the two would-be lovers shared a kiss.
From here on, the two became very close. Upon Lilly’s discharge, they held a secret wedding ceremony, sealed with lipstick. Lilly’s husband had been moved to the front on a more permanent assignment than before and Felice moved in, officially as Lilly's caretaker. While both women seemed to have been incredibly happy to have found each other, the happiness didn't last long. The war kept raging; Berlin air raids affected everyday life and the never-ending fear of persecution for Felice was taking a toll on the two lovers. Lilly didn’t understand Felice’s frequent and unexplained absences, Felice felt she couldn’t be honest with the person with whom she shared her life. In a fight, during which Lilly threatened to kick Felice out of the shared apartment, Felice finally told Lilly about her real identity.
According to Lilly’s written recollections, the two only grew stronger as a result. Lilly supported Felice’s underground activities, wanting nothing more than to keep her safe. Felice on the other hand rarely told Lilly any details about plans to, in turn, keep her safe. Felice’s circle, however, was less happy with her confiding in Lilly who, after all, had been a Nazi sympathizer. They were worried her knowledge of their identity would jeopardize everything, most of all, Felice’s life.
The two tried to create a stable home for Lilly’s sons, who, by all accounts, enjoyed “Aunt” Felice’s presence. In the summer of 1943 Lilly filed for divorce from her husband who died on the Eastern Front shortly after the divorce came through in October of the same year.
All-in-all, the two women had about a year and a half together. The summer of 1944 saw yet another tightening of the noose around the few remaining Jewish people in Berlin. Felice’s circle was under heavy scrutiny and they decided that the danger finally was too much; they had to try to escape. Felice however, chose to stay. Her decision and the reasoning behind it is not documented in her estate. It is assumed to be a combination of not wanting to leave Lilly and a desire to continue to fight via the underground. The war seemed to be coming to an end after all and her situation, living with a German Nazi wife (her divorce had not been made public) and Mother Cross recipient, was as safe as it could be.
In August 1944, however, all hopes to survive unscathed were shattered. After Felice and Lilly enjoyed a sunny day in nature beyond Berlin’s now gray rubble surround, Felice was arrested by the Gestapo, who had waited in their apartment for her return. It remains unclear how her identity and whereabouts became known. Lilly was taken into custody as well, but after interrogating her, they let her go.
Lilly visited Felice in detainment and even followed her to her next location, Theresienstadt, where she tried but failed to get consent to see her wife. The two never saw each other again. Felice was sent to Auschwitz in September 1944 and from there to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. We don’t know the horrors she must have seen and the treatment she received. In January 1945, Gross-Rosen was evacuated and prisoners sent on death marches to Bergen-Belsen. It is probable that she died either on the way or in the camp itself.
Lilly lived to be 92-years-old. After Felice’s deportation she helped three other Jewish women avoid the same fate, for which she was honored with the German Federal Service Cross in 1981 and later received one of Israel’s highest honors, the title “Righteous Among the Nations.” In 1994, she told her story and shared her records with author Erika Fischer, who published a somewhat fictionalized account of her and Felice’s love story (the title was based on the pet names the two gave each other: Aimée und Jaguar, which was later turned into a popular movie. Felice Schragenheim‘s estate, comprising letters, documents, poetry, and photographs was bequeathed by Elisabeth Wust to the Jewish Museum Berlin. Photos of Felice Schragenheim can be viewed in their online collection.
Felice and Lilly’s love story tragically evokes many historic inequities and injustices and questions about the full story remain. Lilly’s life after Felice’s deportation is plagued by the question if her wife would have survived were it not for her presence in Berlin and for her trying to see her in Theresienstadt. Members of Felice’s underground circle, however, raised questions about Lilly’s behavior once she knew Felice’s real identity. The story, as we tell it, is based on the survivor’s memory, and contemporaries have since passed; but we do have the letters and poems the two women wrote each other to shed some light onto their lives and emotions. One of the last ones in Felice’s estate is from November 1944, while imprisoned in Gross-Rosen. She writes to Lilly: “My dear – a nurse just arrived and said we’d get to leave here. Pray and keep your fingers crossed. Always yours, F. (Mein Liebes - eben kommt die Schwester und sagt, wir kämen hier weg. Bete und halte die Daumen! Immer deine F.)”