“I think you have to speak out, but you also have to act.”
Hilde Schramm, the daughter of a Nazi leader, is a tireless advocate for tolerance and understanding
Hilde Schramm has always been about action. Supporting, educating advocating, serving, encouraging, and certainly, giving back. She is an activist in the truest sense of the word. Her 82 years have been spent not just raising issues but also having an impact to create change. She has been a professor, author, political party leader, and legislator. She founded a project to fight racism and intolerance in Brandenburg. She has written and taught about preventing right-wing extremism in schools. She helped organize a nonprofit association to support projects in Greece after the Greek financial crisis. And she currently shares her home with Syrian and Afghan refugees.
It’s no surprise, really, that when Schramm inherited three valuable paintings in 1992 that she suspected had been stolen from Jewish families during the Nazi era, she didn’t keep them or even simply give them away. First, she conducted an exhaustive search for the original owners. When they couldn’t be traced, she sold the paintings and used the money to start the Return Foundation for the Promotion of Jewish Women in the Arts and Sciences (Zurückgeben: Stiftung zur Förderung jüdischer Frauen in Kunst & Wissenschaft). Then she used the foundation as a platform to raise awareness about the huge amount of property that had been stolen from Jewish families from 1933 to 1945 and, in many cases, still remains in the possession of Germans today.
A quarter-century later, the foundation has enabled more than 150 Jewish women living in Germany to pursue unique, creative projects that have raised public consciousness about the country’s Jewish legacy and its ongoing impacts. Thanks to Schramm and her colleagues’ efforts, grants have been awarded to Jewish women in Germany who came from across the globe—South America and Russia, Israel and the United States—to complete projects ranging from the rediscovery of Jewish artists to the production of children’s theater, the research of family ancestry, and the creation of exhibitions, dance shows, books, and films. The foundation’s jury consists entirely of women, and everyone at the foundation serves as a volunteer. Since 1994, the foundation has awarded 500,000 euros in grants. The grants have ranged from 300 to 11,000 euros apiece, based on each particular project.
For Schramm, the paintings that started it all were never something she could keep. She had lived with the knowledge that her father, during his time in the SS, had obtained art, furniture, and other possessions stolen from Jews. As the daughter of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and later his armaments minister, she had long ago confronted and examined her father’s role in the war. She was only 3 years old when the war began, and by the time she was a teenager he had been convicted at Nuremburg and was serving a 20-year prison sentence at Spandau. Unlike some others of her generation, she had not concealed this difficult legacy but publicly acknowledged it. Her life was much different than his, and she did not want to benefit from this inheritance, which came to her when her mother died.
“I didn’t want to keep the paintings,” Schramm recalls. “If I sold them, then I felt I would be in the line of the profiteers.” So she gathered together a handful of trusted, politically engaged women friends at her Berlin home to discuss what she should do. “My friends were feminists—they cared for the rights and equality of women,” she says. Their decision resulted in the formation of the Return Foundation, with Schramm and three friends as directors.
“When we started, profiting off the exclusion and deportation of Jews was not a public topic in Germany,” Schramm says. “We tried to make it one.” The Return Foundation was the country’s first to highlight the fate of Jewish art stolen by the Nazis—a subject that has since received global attention through court cases, books, and Hollywood films.
“It wasn’t just art, but chairs, carpets, lamps, household goods of all kinds,” she says. “Those auctions had taken place in many towns and villages, but there was no documentation or research about it. We saw it as a black hole. It was our intention to make people aware that many families profited and owned objects that actually don’t belong to them—and to encourage them to look into their family history and come to a conclusion. We wanted by our own example to build awareness about the widespread advantages people took from the exclusion and murder of the Jews.”
Schramm’s path to the project was neither short nor direct. Born in Berlin in 1936 as Hilde Speer, she grew up aware and shocked, “as many in my generation were aware and shocked,” about the Holocaust but without a sense of what she could do about it. After the war, Schramm moved to her mother’s hometown of Heidelberg where she attended a grade school originally founded by Elisabeth von Thadden, a heroic resistance fighter executed by the Nazis. She had a Jewish teacher, Dora Lux, whom she adored. Lux had survived in Berlin during the war and strongly influenced Schramm’s understanding of the past. Even as a teenager Schramm sought to become a politician “to build up a more democratic, more tolerant, more multicultural society.”
An exchange year at Hastings High School, on the Hudson River just outside New York City, further influenced her thinking about inequality in education. “I wanted to change the education in Germany because it was unfair,” she says. Schramm married, had children, and earned several degrees—including a PhD in education—en route to becoming an education professor. She also played an active role in the peace, women’s, and other social movements in Berlin in the 1980s. She became a politician with the Green Party and served as a member of the Berlin Parliament for two terms in the 1990s, including a term as the chamber’s vice president in 1989-90.
Schramm later founded and directed the Regional Employment Office for Foreigners in Brandenburg (Regionale Arbeitsstelle für Ausländerfragen), which works to combat right-wing extremism and racism. She was awarded the Moses Mendelssohn Prize in 2004 for her work fostering multicultural tolerance, and she has published articles aimed at helping teachers combat fascism in schools. In 2012, Schramm published My Teacher, Dr. Dora Lux 1882-1959 (Meine Lehrerin, Dr. Dora Lux 1882-1959), a tightly researched biography. In addition to being a Jew who survived the Holocaust, Lux was one of the earliest female high school graduates in Germany and became a pioneer in women’s studies.
Schramm still plays an important role in the Return Foundation, says Sharon Adler, current chair of the foundation’s board. And her spirit and philosophy pervade the organization’s work at a time when right-wing extremism is on the rise. “Hilde Schramm’s decades of work have had a lasting and positive effect on the lives and activities of innumerable people, especially women,” Adler says. “This zest for action and the tireless advocacy seem to be more necessary than ever.”
At 82, Schramm still leads by example, demonstrating her deep commitment to helping those who face persecution by hosting several refugees—from Syria and from Afghanistan—in her Berlin home. “I [have been] sharing the same bathroom and kitchen with refugees since 2015. They’re young people. I am trying to help them get along well in Germany,” she says. “And I know Jewish people here in Germany who are doing the same. I think you have to speak out, but you also have to act. You can influence your surroundings.”
Schramm worries about the rise of extremists in Germany today, but she also feels that democratic values are well implanted in German society. “We always thought of the danger that anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism would come back,” she says. “There is a danger…we all know about it. I’ve been working in eastern Germany against right-wing extremism, violence against foreigners, and anti-Semitism.”
An important part of that work involves learning from the past. “You always had to ask, ‘How could it happen?’ and the question never ended,” she says. “It will never end until I die. I am a citizen who cares for Jewish history, as many others do and many others should.”