Defying the Nazis was basically asking for death or, at the very least, imprisonment and torture. Part of the reason Hitler’s party was able to rise to power was through intimidation and a show of force. Many citizens were too frightened to act out in defiance, yet some had the courage to do what they knew was right, no matter the cost. Their actions saved countless lives, and their bravery and conviction inspired generations. These are some of the most courageous women of the era, who put themselves at tremendous personal risk in order to do the right thing.
10. Leonore Goldschmidt
In the years leading up to World War II in Germany, anti-Semitism was on the rise and Jewish children were having a hard time registering for school. If they were allowed to attend school they were discriminated and bullied. In order to help, a Jewish teacher named Dr. Leonore Goldschmidt set out to open her own Jewish private school. While a difficult task, she was able to outsmart the Nazi regime get official recognition in 1935, providing education for 520 students and employment for 40 teachers.
The school still had problems staying open, and the SS were ready to burn it down. Dr. Goldschmidt arranged with the British Embassy to have a British teacher who worked at the school buy the property, saving the school since the Gestapo was not allowed to burn down foreign-owned property.
As the 1930s went on, Goldschmidt knew that things weren’t going to get better. She and her husband, who had escaped to England, tried to raise money to start a branch of the school there in order to send the children out of Germany. She sent pleas for financing to both England and the United States, but never secured enough money. The school was shut down in 1939, and Goldschmidt left Germany that same year and opened another school in Kent, England. She continued teaching throughout England and won a number of education awards before passing away in 1983 at the age of 86.
9. Cato Bontjes van Beek
In 1940, 20-year-old Cato Bontjes van Beek moved from her home in Bremen, Germany to Berlin to live with her father, a potter who was looking to expand his career in the capital. While living in Berlin, Cato began to sense something terribly wrong with the people in power, and these ideas were further strengthened when she began to hear the real story from her father’s friends who stood in opposition to the Nazis.
Not one to stand by, van Beek and her sister, Mietje, organized help for French prisoners of war, usually by feeding them. But when that was not enough for the young woman, she decided to start typing and passing out Anti-Nazi leaflets. Her work caught the attention of the Gestapo and she was arrested in 1942.
In 1943, she was convicted of high treason and given the death sentence. The court suggested that she receive a reprieve, but the clemency appeal was personally reviewed by Adolf Hitler, who denied it. At the age of 22, on August 5, 1943, van Beek was executed via guillotine at Plötzensee Prison.
8. Faye Schulman
On August 14, 1942, Nazi forces went into the Lenin ghetto in Poland and systematically murdered 1,850 men, women, and children. Only 26 people were left alive, including 22-year-old Faye Schulman. She was allowed to live only because the SS found out that she was a photographer, and they made her take pictures of the carnage.
After the massacre, Schulman was held as a prisoner by the Gestapo as their personal photographer. Fortunately, one day when partisans raided Lenin, Schulman used it as a chance to escape to the forest. There, she found the Molotava Brigade, a partisan group that was made up of escaped Soviet Red Army POWs. They allowed her to join because her brother-in-law was a doctor and they were desperate for medical help. Without any medical training, Schulman served the cause as a nurse until 1944.
During a raid, Schulman found an old camera and became the only known Jewish partisan photographer. She documented her time with the group with amazing photography, including one capturing a funeral where two Jewish partisans were buried along aside Russian partisans. This was a rare occurrence, since anti-Semitism was very prevalent within the group.
Schulman survived the war and married another Jewish partisan, living in different camps until they immigrated to Canada in 1948. She said she took the pictures because she wanted people to know that the Jewish people did resist and fight, even when they knew it would be a losing battle.
7. Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya
In 1941, the Nazis had been successful in crossing the Soviet border and were occupying the village of Petrischevo, Moscow Oblast. 18-year-old Soviet partisan member Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was given the mission of going by herself into Petrischevo to set fire to a number of Nazi-occupied buildings. Sadly, she was betrayed by a collaborator of both the Nazis and the Soviets and was quickly taken prisoner.
Once the Gestapo had her, they wanted all the information she had, but Kosmodemyanskaya refused to tell them anything. This went over about as well as you’d expect. They punched her, beat her with belts, made her walk in the snow in her bare feet, and burned her with matches under her chin. But no matter what they did to her over the course of the night, Kosmodemyanskaya refused to say anything more than that her name was “Tanya.”
The next day, the Gestapo dragged Kosmodemyanskaya out in front of the villagers with a board around her neck that said “house arsonist” and brought her to the gallows. As her death approached, she told the villagers that she was not afraid to die because she was giving her life for her country. After she was hanged, the Nazis let the 18-year-old woman’s body hang there for a few days.
The public execution was meant to scare the villagers, but her death ended up inspiring people across the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin posthumously named her a Hero of the Soviet Union, and there are also a number of monuments and streets named after her in the area.
6. Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother in 1914, moving first to London as a child before eventually settling in France. She was an educated woman and wrote children’s stories before the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Khan was able to escape to London, and while there she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In 1942, she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive to be a radio operator for the French resistance group called “Prosper.” In 1943, mass arrests led to the imprisonment of numerous members of Prosper, but Khan was determined and remained in France, getting messages out to London throughout the summer under the codename Madeleine. Unfortunately, in October of that year a local woman gave Khan up and the Gestapo arrested her.
One of the truly unfortunate aspects of Khan’s story is that she kept a copy of her secret signals. The Gestapo used the signals to contact London and the British sent more agents into the waiting hands of the Gestapo. As for Khan, after she was arrested, she was able to escape, but was caught again hours later. She was shipped to Pforzheim prison in Germany in November, where she was shackled, left in solitary confinement, and tortured, but she didn’t give up any information. The following year she and three other female Special Operations Executive agents were shot.
In 1949, she was posthumously awarded the George Cross, which is the civilian equivalent to the Victoria Cross. It’s the highest honor a non-combatant civilian can be awarded for wartime bravery
5. The Rose Street Women
An estimated 27,000 Jewish people were married to gentile Germans in Berlin at the height of the Third Reich. Those Jewish people were given a more privileged position in society than other Jewish people, and instead of being shipped off to concentration camps, they were just forced into labor in the arms industry. But in late February, 1943, the Nazis decided that these people had enjoyed enough of their “privilege” and started rounding them up. This included children of the couples, since they were half Jewish.
After their families were taken away from them, some women knew that their husbands and children were being held at a community center on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street). On February 28, a group of women arrived at the detention center peacefully demanding their husbands and children back. One woman who joined the protest, Charlotte Israel, said that she was sure she was going to die because of the protest, but she knew she was not going to leave without her husband.
A number of times the Nazis aimed guns at the women and told them to clear the street, but the women refused to leave. Six days after the protest started, Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, ordered the release of the 1,500 people in the community center. It’s unclear why Goebbels allowed them to be released, but the Rose Street Women remain an anomaly in Nazi Germany. They held a peaceful protest and overcame one of the most brutal regimes in history.
4. Magda Trocmé
Magda Trocmé was born in Florence, Italy and attended the New York School of Social Work on a scholarship. In 1925, she met André Trocmé, Frenchman who was studying at the Union Theological Seminary, and they were married a year later. In 1934, André was sent to be the minister in the small town of Chambon. In 1940, Hitler’s forces entered occupied France and just like anywhere the Nazis were occupying, Jewish people simply weren’t safe.
André was a pacifist and convinced the congregations of his church that it was their duty as fellow human beings to help the Jewish Refugees. While Magda’s husband gets most of the credit, survivors are quick to recognize Magda for her amazing contributions as well. For example, she had a knack for finding food and making it last. No one went hungry or lacked a space to hide out from the Nazis under Magda’s watch.
In total, it’s believed that the Trocmés helped 5,000 Jewish refugees, with 3,500 of them being children. Both Magda and André were recognized as Righteous Amongst Nations, an honor bestowed on gentiles who helped Jewish people during the Holocaust by the State of Israel. Up until the day she died in 1996, at the age of 94, Magda didn’t understand why people thought she was a hero. She merely thought it was her duty as a human being to help those who were in need.
3. Hiltgunt Zassenhaus
Hiltgunt Zassenhaus was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1916, and in 1938 achieved her degree in Scandinavian languages. She went into premed, and while she was studying she was also given the task of censoring letters that were written by Jewish people. She was instructed to blackout or get rid of any pleas for food, but Zassenhaus did he complete opposite – she smuggled their letters out and secured the food delivery through secret agents.
In 1940, due to her aptitude for Scandinavian languages she was tasked with monitoring a group of 1,500 Danish and Norwegian POWs in 52 different prisons. But again, she brazenly went against orders. The guards thought that she was a high ranking member of the Gestapo, so they never questioned her, even when she brought in suitcases. Those suitcases were full of food, medicine, and writing supplies.
Another notable way that Zassenhaus was able to rebel against the Nazis was by keeping track of all the prisoners on what she called “the card file.” As Germany started to lose the war, Zassenhaus gave her card file to a Danish sea captain, who got it to the Red Cross. This proved incredibly helpful, since the Red Cross knew that the Nazis had a plan to kill all political prisoners on a day they referred to as “Day X.” The Red Cross hadn’t known where the prisoners were being held, but with the card file they were able to find and rescue many of them.
After the war, Zassenhaus left Germany and ended up in Baltimore, Maryland, where she was a very well respected doctor up until her death at the age of 88.
2. Mildred Fish-Harnack
Mildred Fish was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and studied at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. When she was in graduate school, she met German national Arvid Harnack and they married in 1926. In 1929, they moved to Germany, where Mildred taught English. During the rise of the Nazis, Harnack became part of an underground resistance group that the Gestapo called “the Red Orchestra.” The red was meant to symbolize ties to the Soviet Union.
Since Harnack wasn’t from Germany, she was able to use international connections to help some Jewish people flee the country. Her husband had also landed a position with the Third Reich’s Economics Ministry, and they shared information with the United States and the Soviets. Unfortunately, they were arrested on September 17, 1942. Arvid was hanged, and Mildred was given six years in prison.
That wasn’t enough for Hitler, who had her retried and given the death sentence. Mildred Fish-Harnack stood up for what she believed was right, and in the end gave her life fighting for her adopted country. She was the only American woman Hitler personally condemned to death.
On the evening of February 16, 1943, Mildred was taken to an execution room in the notorious Plötzensee prison in Berlin. Before she was beheaded, her last words were: “And I have loved Germany so much.”
1. Constance Koster
The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began in 1940 and was a terrifying time for all Dutch citizens, but especially for Jewish families. Dutch citizen Constance Koster, who was in her 20s, and five other resistance members chose to help by smuggling babies from Jewish families to safe homes, where they were “adopted.” She and the other resistance members would hide a baby under their coats and pretended they were pregnant. They would walk the streets of Amsterdam while the Gestapo patrolled, and deliver the babies to safe houses. It’s believed that she and her group rescued over 800 babies before the Gestapo arrested her in 1943.
Luckily, Koster survived the war, and she and her husband moved to Melbourne, Australia. Her time as a resistance fighter had taken a terrible toll on her mentally. She and her husband didn’t talk about the war for the next 58 years, and when she did, she said that she has been plagued by dreams that involve her carrying and looking for babies. She also said that even though she was in her mid-90s, she was still haunted by the desperation of the mothers who had to give up their children decades ago.