Margarete Sommer (Harry Wagner © Diözesanarchiv Berlin/Wikimedia Commons)

Margarete Sommer of Berlin was forty years old when Hitler came to power. Unmarried all her life, Sommer was a professional woman who had taken a doctorate in social work from the University of Berlin in 1927. Sommer worked for the Prussian state welfare office as a university lecturer, but was released in 1934 “under severe political pressure” by the new Nazi regime. Thus, in the prime of life Sommer experienced her first personal setback at the hands of the Nazis, and her career as a single, professional woman seemed doomed. Fortunately, she was able to find her niche as a liberal, woman's advocate—what we would call today a moderate feminist—within the Catholic church. Konrad Preysing, the forward-looking bishop of Berlin, hired Sommer in 1935 to work for the diocese as a specialist in women's affairs.

Even in its moderate Protestant and Catholic forms, the Nazis opposed feminism. They promoted motherhood and pronatalist programs and objected to the kind of professional, economically engaged women Sommer ministered to. During the later years of the thirties, Sommer's efforts on behalf of employed women became untenable and her career as a woman's advocate ended.

Over the course of just five years, Sommer had run afoul the Nazis twice, and both times she found her professional life stymied. But the end was also a beginning. Sommer, as I discovered in the church archives of Berlin, was about to become active in resisting the Nazis.

In 1936, the Nazi welfare administration ended services for the genetically handicapped and, a few years later, decided on a policy of killing them to preserve the purity of the German race. At this point the web of Nazi racism began to entangle Sommer, and from 1938 on she toiled on behalf of German Jews. I believe that psychologically these were the most tranquil years of her professional life. I will try to explain this paradox.

After the national attack on Jews in November 1938, Bernhard Lichtenberg, a priest of Saint Hedwig's Church in Berlin, began daily public prayers for Jews after Mass. Lichtenberg's defiance of nazism and subsequent arrest inspired Sommer and others to form a resistance group whose purpose it was to assist Jews. Originally this meant helping Jews who had converted to Catholicism, since welfare was traditionally administered through religious institutions in Germany. But as the Nazis' anti-Semitic policy became more and more inhumane and systematic, it meant helping all Jews.

Because euthanasia violated church teaching so blatantly, the German bishops could not compromise with the Nazis as they heretofore had become accustomed to doing.

Because euthanasia violated church teaching so blatantly, the German bishops could not compromise with the Nazis as they heretofore had become accustomed to doing. And, since Nazi racist welfare affected women so directly, Sommer became involved in preventing the Nazis from killing genetically handicapped Catholics. This meant finding and placing personnel in Berlin's Catholic hospitals and homes who could be relied upon to hide endangered people, adults as well as children, from Nazi doctors—hide them physically or hide the records that disclosed their genetic condition. Sommer was entrusted with this assignment. Sometime in 1939 she crossed the line separating dissent from the Nazis to resistance.

Sommer's reaction to Nazi racism extended beyond genetically ill Catholics. After Lichtenberg died in custody of the Nazis, Bishop Preysing appointed Sommer head of the diocesan Office of Special Relief, whose title gave no hint of its mission. There were about 190,000 Jews in Berlin, of whom about 40,000 had converted to Christianity. Before Sommer became aware of the Holocaust, her work was limited to converts or part-Jewish, part-Catholic families. This meant getting visas for them, finding jobs for women whose non-Jewish husbands had been drafted, giving financial support to indigent elderly Jewish converts or to families, and helping the sick. When, ultimately, it became clear that transportation actually meant death for Jews, Sommer hid Jews and organized Catholics to support Jews in their hour of greatest desperation.

Sommer aided as many as she could, but the only real hope for the Jews, she knew, was in forcing the Nazis to stop their killing. The Catholic protest against euthanasia suggested that a similar protest might save Jews. At least Sommer and Bishop Preysing thought so. News about atrocities against Jews filtered back to Germany. Sommer knew about the 1941 Kovno massacre in Lithuania within three months of its occurrence. (Between July and October 1941, over 18,000 Jews, including over 5,000 children, were forced to walk from the city of Kovno to pits located about three miles outside the city, where they were shot.) The next year when the German death camps were built in Poland, SS officer Kurt Gerstein visited Berlin revealing the awful details of a murder at Belzec where 700 or 800 Jews had had to await death for nearly two hours while mechanics worked to repair the diesel engine that had broken down while pumping its exhaust into the chamber in which they stood, pressed body-to-body against one another.

After this Sommer and Preysing worked intently to get Pope Pius XII and the German bishops to condemn Nazi atrocities. Preysing pressed Pius repeatedly, writing him thirteen times in fifteen months during the critical years of the Holocaust. Sommer gathered second-hand information about genocide from all over Germany and even more convincing reports from a “leak” within the Ministry of the Interior in Berlin. Fortified with these, she made frequent railroad trips from Berlin to Breslau where she tried to convince the dean of German bishops, Cardinal Adolph Bertram, that Hitler was murdering Europe's Jews. Bertram, who preferred to avoid conflict with Hitler, eventually wearied of Sommer.

In the end, of course, neither the German bishops nor the pope spoke out forcefully and unambiguously against the murder of the Jews. But the possibility existed at the time that this might change; it was thought that Cardinal Bertram would not live much longer (in fact, he died as the war ended). Thus, for six years, including the bitter Holocaust years of 1942-45, Sommer worked for the Berlin church to save Jews and with her bishop to save all the Jews of Europe. She was engaged in resistance, but in her mind she was working for her country, not against it. For her, Hitler and the Nazis were not Germany. She referred to the years of Nazi rule as the “unlawful time.”

Few non-Jewish Germans felt the pain and suffering of the Jews as much as Sommer. For this reason the Holocaust years were a time of great purposefulness for her. At war with the “outlaw” Hitler regime, she was at peace with herself. She identified and associated with Germans who opposed the Nazis and played a central role in the effort to persuade the Catholic church to speak out on behalf of Jews.


Few non-Jewish Germans felt the pain and suffering of the Jews as much as Sommer. For this reason the Holocaust years were a time of great purposefulness for her.

At the end of World War II, as historian Gordon Craig has written, Germany awoke to a cold, gray dawn. Physically, Germans had to dig themselves out of the rubble. Spiritually, they had to deal with guilt relating to what was immediately recognized as the most gruesome genocide in human history. By all rights Sommer should have been relieved of the latter burden, but she awoke to her own cold, gray dawn.

Survivors of the Holocaust often surprise interviewers who ask what was the most dreadful aspect of their ordeal by answering, “When it was over!” It was at the moment of liberation that the survivor realized that there was nothing to survive for—neither family nor home. Margarete Sommer would have answered in the same way for two reasons: it was her responsibility to file official death notices for converted Jews who did not survive, and it fell to her to help those Jews returning to Berlin to put their lives back together. Thus, while most Germans put the Holocaust behind them as soon as they possibly could, Sommer continued to deal with it directly.

In 1946 Sommer estimated that of the approximately twenty thousand German Jewish survivors, thirteen thousand resided in Berlin. Caring for them stressed Sommer to the utmost. She was all too familiar with the familial tragedies wrought by Nazi racism. This painful first-hand awareness of human love torn apart was amplified by equally tragic cases of human weakness. There was the case of Peter Grünberg, born in 1933, who was abandoned by his “Aryan” mother after she divorced his Jewish father who became a Holocaust victim; and of Rudolf Hertwig whose Jewish father died in a concentration camp and whose Christian mother “pays no attention to him.” Sommer knew of hundreds of cases of broken lives or broken families and this weighed down her spirit.

Material want dispirited everyone. There was not enough food to maintain the general population at a subsistence level. Relief agencies were overwhelmed. Which survivors were most deserving? Who should be employed? Given housing? How should monetary relief be divided among survivors? The committee for the victims of fascism had to deal with these questions, and when they did so in a manner that Sommer felt was incorrect, she became angry and irritable.

But more than the material problems, it was the attitude of other caregivers and of noncaring people that stretched Sommer's nerves to the breaking point. Because Hitler had persecuted Jews indiscriminately, a solidarity had arisen during the Holocaust among Berlin Jews regardless of religious preference. This also extended, as we saw, to Sommer who assisted or hid Jews whether converts or not. When this interconfessional solidarity broke down after the war, bitterness tainted Sommer's work. The number of converts who, like Edith Stein, had perished during the Holocaust numbered in the many thousands. Those who had not perished were just as much in need of support as other survivors of the Holocaust. Foreign relief agencies, not understanding that to Hitler and the Nazis it did not matter whether a Jew had converted to Christianity, wanted their supplies to be distributed only among Mosaic Jews.

Sommer quarreled with Christian as well as Jewish caregivers. Her attitude toward two rescuers later recognized by Israel as “righteous gentiles,” Pastor Heinrich Grüber and Gertrud Luckner, offers a glimpse of Sommer's emotional anguish during the postwar years. Both Grüber and Luckner had rescued Jews during the Holocaust and, like Sommer, both of them gave themselves over completely to the task of relief for survivors. Sommer nevertheless referred in 1946 to Grüber as a dictator and disparaged Luckner' s efforts in considerable detail to a mutual friend. Since in reality Sommer had deep respect for both Grüber and Luckner, her bitter denunciations must be understood in terms of her postwar emotional distress.

If she thought this way about Grüber and Luckner, it is not difficult to imagine how she thought of most Germans. The general public, she noted, simply did not accept the fact that the survivors “deserved any consideration at all.” Sommer found it continually “astonishing” that “no one can understand why anything needs to be done on behalf of these people [survivors].”

How could Germans forget, Sommer wondered, the awful persecution of the Jews? The destruction of their homes, their ghettoization, and their outfight murder? Sommer did not expect Germans-at-large to take responsibility for the Holocaust, but she did expect them to take responsibility for its survivors. When they failed to do so, she wrote off her countrymen for being “small of heart.”

Catholics, Sommer noticed, suffered from this callousness as much as Protestants. As a result there was no one with whom Sommer could commiserate or even discuss the prevailing lack of empathy in Germany for survivors. Under these circumstances it was impossible for Sommer to speak out. Had she vented her feelings openly, she would have been accused of self-serving adulation and of promoting herself at the expense of her fellow countrymen. She would have been snubbed and shunned. Thus, the postwar years were a bleak time for Sommer.

In 1954 the Special Relief Office of the Berlin diocese, in which Sommer had worked since 1939 and directed since 1941, was closed. Through the office, Sommer had assisted hundreds and hundreds of Jews over more than a dozen years. She had every right to be proud of her record, but she was not. Although her work became more diversified after 1954, Sommer's experiences during the Nazi years tormented her for the rest of her life.

Two further social circumstances aggravated Sommer's mental state. She lived in a national culture that had not been friendly to the women's movement. Second, she lived in a religious culture that deprived women of authority. Finding herself walled in by these factors, Sommer could not bring herself to speak out against her church or country, faulting them for their failure to confront Hitler over the Holocaust. Unable to blame others, Margarete Sommer, who had done more for Jews during the Holocaust than most Germans, blamed herself for not having done more.

Although Israel has not yet recognized Sommer as a Righteous Gentile, the German government eventually honored her with a Cross of Merit for her work for Jews during the Holocaust. Sommer nevertheless withdrew into herself, scrupulously reviewing her rescue work and asking whether she might have saved others. The torment of the Jews became her own. She died in 1965 at the age of seventy-two. In Holocaust history there are no happy endings.

Michael Phayer is professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee. With Eva Fleischer, he is coauthoring a book on Catholic women who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

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