WWII rescuer lauded for her silent courage dies at 90

Maria-Therese Paasche, whose harrowing experiences as a Nazi-fighter were chronicled in a documentary film last year, died Jan. 21 in San Francisco of congestive heart failure. She was 90.

Paasche is credited with saving countless Jews from extermination. She was the second non-Jew to be admitted to the Jewish Home in San Francisco, an honor accorded her in light of her extraordinary efforts.

One of her sons, Gottfried Paasche of Toronto, profiled his mother's activism in a documentary film, "Silent Courage."

Until the film was screened at San Francisco's 3220 Gallery last year, Paasche had shared few of details of her years in the Resistance — even with her own children, according to her daughter Vergilia Dakin, who lives in San Francisco.

"I'm discovering my roots and finding out about her early life, which she never talked about very much," Dakin told the Jewish Bulletin when the film was in the making.

Her reticence was the result of repeated, grueling interrogations by Gestapo agents, Gottfried Paasche said.

"It had nothing to do with putting the past behind her," he said. "It had to do with danger. The Gestapo was after names. Her secrecy was learned."

She also prepared her children for danger: "When she taught me to memorize poetry, she would say, 'You might need this one day if you are in prison.' I didn't think a thing of it. I thought all mothers said things like that. Later on, I thought, 'That was weird.'"

Born in Berlin, Maria-Therese von Hammerstein was one of seven children. Her father, Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, had been chief of the German Army Command in the years Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

Von Hammerstein-Equord was the last to use governmental channels to try to block Hitler's 1933 ascension. The army chief was overruled by President Paul von Hindenburg.

Von Hammerstein-Equord retired a year after Hitler became fuhrer. He gathered intelligence for the Resistance and tried repeatedly to lure Hitler to his death.

The ex-army chief supplied his daughter with the names of Jews who were scheduled for deportation, and she would warn them. She also hid many who were marked for arrest.

Two of her brothers, Ludwig and Kunrat, took part in a plot to kill Hitler and replace the Nazi regime with a new government in July of 1944. However, the attempt failed and the two fled. Furious, the Nazis arrested her mother and two younger siblings and sent them to a concentration camp in an attempt to flush out the brothers. All were freed when the Allied Forces liberated the camps in 1945.

Two sisters were involved in the Communist underground.

In 1934, she married a Jewish countryman, John Paasche. They immigrated to Palestine, but a typhoid epidemic forced the couple back to Berlin. They were interrogated several times by the Gestapo before they managed to escape to Japan.

All four of her children — a son and three daughters — were born there.

"In Japan, we were constantly in danger," Gottfried Paasche said. "The Japanese were very paranoid about foreigners in their midst."

In 1948, the Paasche family immigrated to San Francisco. All four of her children became educators: Gottfried is a professor of sociology at Toronto's York University; Vergilia Dakin co-founded the San Francisco Waldorf School; Joan Brieglib teaches high school in Hannoversch Muenden, Germany; and Michaela Grudin is a professor of Renaissance studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.

At a memorial service at the Jewish Home Monday, residents saw Gottfried Paasche's film. It was translated into Russian by a staffer.

Two women, survivors of the Siege of Leningrad, were moved to speak, Gottfried Paasche said: "They made very stirring comments about what it had meant them to live with her. For me that was the most moving thing about the tribute to her."

Paasche is also survived by grandchildren Sara Paasche-Orlow of New York, Denise Paasche of Massachussetts, and Franz Paasche of New York; Adriana, Julia and Rose Dakin, and Marc Briegleb, all of San Francisco; Anthony, Nicholas and Theodore Grudin of Portland, Ore.; and Mark and Karl Brieglib of Hannoversch Muenden, Germany.

John Paasche died in 1994 at the age of 83.

Contributions may be made to the Jewish Home, 302 Silver Ave., S.F., CA 94112, or the Nature Conservancy, Development Dept., 201 Mission St., 4th floor, S.F., CA 94105.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.