December 12, 2004 by

Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus

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Categories: Extraordinary People, Medicine, Writers/Editors

Dr. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus, a retired physician and author who was nominated for the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize, died on Nov. 20 of pneumonia. She was 88.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, Zassenhaus earned a bachelor’s degree in Scandinavian languages from the University of Hamburg. She was taking premed courses in 1940 when the Third Reich’s Department of Justice ordered her to read and censor the letters written by Jews that requested food from friends and relatives. Zassenhaus was told to either black out their pleas or destroy the correspondence. With the help of shipping agents, she smuggled the letters out of the country.
Unaware of her activities, the Gestapo then ordered Zassenhaus to utilize her specialized language skills to monitor the 1,200 Danish and Norwegian resistance fighters forced to live in German prison camps. Instead, she used her position to get past the SS officers and secretly deliver suitcases filled with food, books, medicine and other forbidden supplies.
Zassenhaus kept a card file that listed all of the Scandinavian prisoners she encountered at the 52 prisons and camps. She entrusted the list to a Danish sea captain who gave it to the Swedish Red Cross. In 1945, Zassenhaus’s list was used by the Red Cross to locate and rescue political prisoners before the Nazis could execute them.
After the war, Zassenhaus completed her medical degree at the University of Copenhagen. She immigrated to America and served her internship and residency at City Hospital in Baltimore. Zassenhaus ran her own medical office for many years, then became a best-selling author. Her memoir, “Walls: Resisting the Third Reich,” was named one of the 25 best books of 1974 for young adults by the American Library Association.
The Towson, Md., resident received numerous honors for her wartime efforts, including the Red Cross Medal, the Order of the Dannebro and the Cross of the Order of Merit. A 1974 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, Zassenhaus was also inducted into the Hall of Fame of Maryland and knighted by the kings of Norway and Denmark.

3 Responses to Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus

  1. Steven Mentze

    My mother Ruth Anne Mentzer worked for Dr. Z for many years as her receptionist/office manager. She also became a friend of the family, often coming over to our house for dinner to play pinochle. It was always fun as the “table talk” about what was in each other’s hand would send pinochle purists to distraction. I will always remember her down to earth attitude and marvelous sense of humor.

  2. Lisa De Nike

    Hiltgunt Zassenhaus was probably the single most amazing human being I have ever had the privilege to know. She was not just a shining example of human courage and goodness, but was also a wonderful, down-to-earth friend. I miss her.

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