This week — as the world remembers the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — alert “06880” readers Morley Boyd, Wendy Crowther and John F. Suggs share a stunning World War II discovery.
Last week, the Westport Museum of History & Culture opened a compelling exhibit about Sigrid Schultz. “Dragon Lady” honors the pioneering female reporter, social justice activist — and longtime Westporter — who played an important role in exposing the growing Nazi threat during the lead-up to the war, and beyond.
Yet no one knew how truly perilous that role actually was for Schultz — until now.
Boyd, Crowther and Suggs have spent several years researching this remarkable, often overlooked hero. In this exclusive story for “06880,” they share a stunning discovery. They write:
Serving as the Chicago Tribune’s Berlin bureau chief from 1926 to 1941, Sigrid Schultz masked her intense loathing for the Nazis in order to cultivate contacts at the highest level of the Third Reich. Among her many accomplishments, Schultz interviewed Adolf Hitler several times. She also fearlessly cast a barb at Hermann Göring for his failed attempt to have her arrested.
She boldly covered the persecution of Jews, was one of the first to report on abuses at the German concentration camps, and was once called “Hitler’s greatest enemy.”
She also had a big secret: She was Jewish.
This fact appears to have been missed by every scholar and historian who has studied her thus far — including her own biographer, and the Westport Museum.
In 1938, as tensions escalated in Germany, Schultz’s mother Hedwig left Berlin, and bought a house on Westport’s Elm Street.
On the ship’s manifest, Hedwig is identified as “Hebrew.” According to traditional Jewish law, a person’s Jewish status is passed down through the mother.
Back in Germany, as the persecution of Jews became more aggressive, Schultz likely wondered whether her lineage would be discovered and used against her.
In a 1940 letter to her Chicago Tribune publisher, she detailed the growing threats and attempts meant to intimidate her. She noted, “I’ve even been denounced as being Jewish…”
Four months later, after learning of failed assassination attempts on 2 of her best German sources, Schultz fled Germany for the house on Elm Street. Based on her extensive knowledge of Nazi Germany’s inner workings, she was recruited as a high level intelligence operative in the OSS, the precursor to today’s CIA.
When Schultz’s mother died in Westport in December of 1960, it appears that Schultz went to extreme lengths to obscure her Jewish identity.
On Hedwig’s death certificate, Sigrid wrote “unknown” in the space reserved for her maternal grandmother’s maiden name and birthplace.
In fact Schultz was quite close to her mother, having lived with her most of her life. She also personally knew both her maternal grandmother and maternal aunt, and was in possession of historic family documents (including those related to her maternal grandfather, Louis Jaskewitz).
We believe that Schultz would have been quite knowledgeable about her family tree. It’s doubtful she did not know her own grandmother’s maiden name and birthplace.
Schultz did confide in a few people. One was her good friend, Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. In a November 10, 1986 interview with Sigrid’s biographer, Cohen said:
Schultz also divulged her secret to a young Staples student who interviewed her at her Elm Street home in 1976, as part of an assignment for Joe Lieberman’s English class.
Student Pamela Wriedt-Boyd quietly took notes as Schultz spoke about the importance of maintaining journalistic professionalism –- no matter what.
By way of example, Schultz recounted a chance meeting with Hitler at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin. Schultz had been chatting in the lobby with Göring when Hitler suddenly appeared. After Göring introduced the two, Schultz said that Hitler “bowed down, grabbed my hand, kissed it, then raised his head and with his eyes, tried to stare deeply into mine. That kind of soulful stare had always repulsed me, and I failed to show the appreciation he expected.”
As if to underscore the point of her story, Schultz added, “He didn’t know I was Jewish!”
Pamela received an “A” for her report. She provided us with a notarized statement attesting to the story Schultz told her that day.
While only a few people in Westport knew the truth about Schultz’s Jewish identity, her father’s relatives in Norway were never in the dark. We tracked down Schultz’s nearest living next of kin — a first cousin, twice removed — who lives there. He said:
Schultz was a pro at keeping secrets. There were many reasons her life and livelihood depended on it.
Our research continues. We are developing a more in-depth piece about Schultz that will not only cover this topic but others. Many have never been explored before, including her later life in Westport.
In the meantime, we are finalizing details of a bronze plaque that we intend to affix to a stone pillar on Elm Street near Schultz’s former house. (The home — located in what is now a parking lot — was unceremoniously torn down soon after her death).
The narrative on the plaque will be brief. But it will certainly make mention of the fact that Sigrid Schultz was a courageous Jewish American patriot, whose actions helped defeat one of the greatest evils the world has ever known.