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.
Sigrid Schultz, in a portrait by her father Herman Schultz.
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.
The passenger manifest, identifying Hedwig Schultz as “Hebrew.” It says “DO” for “Ditto,” referencing the names above.
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.
It’s a constant Westport discussion: empty Main Street storefronts, the perceived loss of community character, the fate of downtown.
Recently, David Waldman — developer of Bedford Square on Church Lane, and the new retail/residential complex at the old Save the Children site on Wilton Road — cautioned in an “06880” post that pessimism can be self-fulfilling. He pointed out many positive occurrences downtown.
Local preservationists/alert “06880” readers Wendy Crowther and Morley Boyd agree that good things are happening by the banks of the Saugatuck. They offer this story as proof.
In December 2016, the “Little Red House” faced demolition. A new mixed retail and residential project was planned for 201 Main Street/15 Belden Place — the spot opposite Le Rouge by Aarti and Ron’s Barber Shop, occupied by an aging storefront and some riverfront residences.
The Little Red House in 2016. (Westport Historic Resources Inventory, courtesy of Wendy Crowther)
Immediately, “06880” readers expressed strong opinions about the loss of a familiar part of the downtown landscape. Perched on the edge of the Saugatuck River, the circa 1920 Colonial Revival style structure could never be mistaken for distinguished architecture.
But that wasn’t the point. It was a picturesque little house which, despite flooding and development pressures, had endured. With the passage of time, the structure simply became a small part of what so many felt made Westport special.
Westporter Peter Nisenson, of PEN Builders, saw the many comments on “06880.” As the property’s new owner, he quickly reconsidered his company’s plans to demolish the antique waterside structure.
Nisenson realized that the house could actually become an attractive, valuable part of his larger redevelopment project.
After obtaining a record-setting 15 variances (thank you, Zoning Board of Appeals!), the Little Red House has been flood-proofed and refurbished.
Today, it’s almost near completion.
The Little Red House today. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
Now divided into 2 light-filled apartments – each with its own porch and astonishing 180 degree views of the Saugatuck River – the structure retains all its beautiful wooden beams.
As a special nod to its place in the hearts of Westporters, the house’s original red paint has been color matched.
So here’s our takeaway: Whether it’s a quirky iron bridge, a beloved local bar or simply a picturesque waterfront dwelling, residents need to speak up when our non-renewable resources become endangered.
In this case, a savvy local developer responded to community input. He harnessed the peculiar power that authentic and familiar things seem to have over us.
As a result, his project is enhanced. And the public has the satisfaction of knowing that the Little Red House will contribute to the aesthetic value of Westport’s riverfront for generations to come.
How’s that for a positive downtown story?!
Morley Boyd and Peter Nisenson, in the refurbished house. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
Alert — and history-minded — “06880” reader Wendy Crowther writes:
It’s hard for us to imagine today the difficult problem that rivers, streams and brooks posed for Westport’s early settlers and travelers.
At first, traversing even small tributaries required getting wet. Later, rudimentary crossings were built so that carriages and wagons could manage the steep approaches, rocky bottoms, and wetland mud without tipping over, snapping axles, or becoming mired.
These overpasses became more problematic in the early 20th century, when the automobile came into fashion. Smoother transitions across Westport’s many brooks — most notably Willow, Muddy and Deadman’s — were needed.
Which brings us to Westport’s early stone bridges.
Around 1920, a series of 19 Craftsman-style stone bridges were built throughout town. Nearly a century later, 9 remain.
That’s a remarkable number considering they’ve seen nearly 100 years of use. They’ve survived hurricanes and “100-year storms,” and endured the collisions of decades of distracted drivers.
One of Westport’s 9 stone bridges, this carries Greens Farms Road traffic over Muddy Brook (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
Today we pass over these bridges daily. Yet few of us notice their rustic presence. Their stone walls (“parapets,” in bridge lingo) were designed to convey the sense of a park-like setting — an aesthetic popular at the time.
Most blend seamlessly into the roadside landscape, often appearing to be mere continuations of Westport’s many fieldstone walls. They are simple, folkloric, and historically important.
And they are at risk.
The Cross Highway bridge. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
One of them in particular — on Kings Highway North — has a target on its back. The town has hired a firm to design its replacement.
This concerns me and my fellow Westport Preservation Alliance colleagues Morley Boyd and Helen Garten. We are pushing back against the replacement plan favored by the town’s Public Works Department.
We’ve also made a pitch to the town to collectively nominate all 9 bridges for listing on the National Register.
While we would love to see all 9 bridges thematically nominated, we’re especially worried about the Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook.
It matches the style of the other 8 bridges. More importantly, we believe it may have been built atop even older stone abutments. It’s possible that its enormous foundation stones may date back to the original King’s Highway, built in 1673 to carry mail from New York to Boston. Losing this bridge to a modern replacement would be tragic, especially if portions date back to pre-Revolutionary times.
Large stones in the abutments beneath the Kings Highway North Bridge may be remnants of a much earlier bridge. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
We’re also concerned that the other 8 bridges will confront a similar replacement plan “down the road.” That’s why we’ve suggested the town pursue a National Register designation. This will help protect the bridges — and may also make them eligible for rehabilitation grants.
To become eligible for a National Register listing, the history of these structures would be fully researched. State Historic Preservation Grants are available to conduct this work.
We feel that these very special bridges possess the integrity of location, design, setting, materials and workmanship to qualify for this distinguished honor.
On a more visceral level, the preservation of these bridges will allow us to appreciate the human craftsmanship that went into building them. By picturing the crew of local men who lifted each stone by hand and mortared them in place, we’ll not just notice these bridges — we will feel them.
Evergreen Avenue (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
The locations of 4 of the 9 bridges have been identified above. Do “06880” readers know where the other 5 are? See if you can find them as you drive around town (or, for the expats, as you travel down Memory Lane).
Tomorrow (Tuesday, January 9, 7 p.m., Town Hall Room 309), our request that the Town pursue a National Register listing for these nine early 20th Century bridges will be heard by Westport’s Historic District Commission at its public hearing.
We hope they are willing to cross that bridge when they come to it.
For several days, Westporters watched with mounting concern as 1 Wilton Road — the little building at the always-clogged intersection with Post Road West and Riverside Avenue — was slowly reduced to its skeleton.
Earlier this evening, I heard from Wendy again. She writes:
Following a site visit today that included a Westport building official, the Westport Historic District Commission, the owner of 1 Wilton Road, a representative from the Westport Preservation Alliance and other interested parties, it was agreed that the scope of work done represents a demolition.
Consequently, the work will be temporarily halted on the original structure (although construction of an addition will continue) while the owner obtains a retroactive demolition permit.
1 Wilton Road, front view. The Wright Street office building looms behind it. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
The demolition permit will be subject to an automatic 180-day delay period because the building is over 50 years old. A waiver of the balance of the 180-day delay period will be reviewed at the Historic District Commission’s regularly scheduled public hearing on November 14.
At that hearing, the public will have an opportunity to directly comment on the matter. It is hoped that the owner of 1 Wilton Road will now consider reconstructing more of the structure’s original appearance so as to preserve some historic continuity and to permit the building to read as the beloved house that has witnessed so much change itself.
If you love this quaint and undeniably historic house, we encourage you to continue to weigh in, both here on “06880” and at November’s HDC public hearing.
Earlier this month, “06880” reported on 1 Wilton Road. The quaint little building at the traffic-choked intersection with Post Road West and Riverside Avenue was going to be renovated by — and serve as headquarters for — the Vita Design Group.
1 Wilton Road, circa 1975. (Photo/Fred Cantor)
The renovation now looks like a demolition. “0688o” reader — and amateur historian — Wendy Crowther writes:
Morley Boyd and I have been watching the goings-on at 1 Wilton Road. We are disturbed by what has been happening there. Plenty of others have come to us expressing similar concerns. We’ve been looking into it, and thought readers might be interested in knowing a little more.
The little house was built in 1830 – 5 years before Westport was founded — and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been a grocery store, a vulcanizing business, a tire and battery emporium, a spirit shop and a knitting supply source.
But now it’s been shorn of its charming 19th century Italianate-style side addition, and just about everything else too — doors, windows, walls, siding, even the chimney – as part of a redevelopment project.
1 Wilton Road, from the rear. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
Though the owner has characterized this as a renovation, many Westporters have asked if this is actually demolition. The Historic District Commission says yes. The Building Department says no.
Either way, one thing is clear: The intersection that Westporters love to hate was, until recently, pretty well preserved in terms of historic streetscape. With the major changes coming to 1 Wilton Road, the loss of this building’s original features and charming qualities will no doubt be missed by many.
1 Wilton Road, front view. The Wright Street office building looms behind it. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
Westport’s favorite winter snowbird has returned home.
Okay. This snowbird is actually an osprey bird.
Alert — and nature-loving – “06880” reader Wendy Crowther spotted the much-loved raptor this morning. He was perched at his usual spot: the nesting platform near Fresh Market.
(He started out here on a utility pole. But in 2014 Eversource — then called CL&P — relocated the nest a few yards away, to avoid short circuits. The original pole now has a black protector, making it unsuitable for nesting.)
So far we haven’t seen his mate. Perhaps this year they traveled separately.
Wendy Crowther was driving this morning, and could not get a photo of the osprey. But here’s what the osprey looked like just over a year ago — on March 26, 2016. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
Alert — and historic-minded — “06880” reader Wendy Crowther sent along this perfect holiday/Westport piece. She writes:
A few days ago, my TV remote dropped me into the last half of the 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I entered the story just as George Bailey ran onto the Bedford Falls Bridge and contemplated suicide. Luckily George’s guardian angel, Clarence, showed up just in time to help George see the value of his life, and its impact on his town and loved ones.
Though I’ve seen the movie a bazillion times, this time I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. George Bailey’s bridge was very similar to our own Saugatuck swing bridge (the William F. Cribari Bridge).
George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (1946).
Due to my involvement over the last year and a half in efforts to not only document the history of our 132-year old span, but also save it from the impending doom of the state Department of Transportation’s scrap heap, I’ve become sensitized to old bridges in general — particularly truss bridges like ours (and George’s).
Seeing the movie from this new perspective, I became intrigued by the film’s use of the bridge as a symbol. Sixty years ago, when It’s a Wonderful Life was first released, plenty of small truss bridges still existed. Clearly, it was one of many elements used by the filmmakers to convey the quaint, homey feel of a small, American town — towns like Westport, and thousands of others across the country.
George Bailey’s bridge, set in fictional Bedford Falls, plays a pivotal role in the story. The 2 most transformative moments occur as George stands upon it: the first as he prepares to jump from it, the second when he returns to the bridge and desperately pleads, “I want to live.”
It’s believed that the town of Seneca Falls, New York was director Frank Capra’s inspiration for It’s a Wonderful Life. He supposedly visited Seneca Falls during the time the screenplay was being developed. Seneca Falls has a real bridge that looks much like the one depicted in the movie.
It also looks a lot like our Saugatuck swing bridge.
George Bailey on the Bedford Falls bridge (left); the actual Seneca Falls bridge (right). (Photos/Ottawarewind.com)
Though the Seneca Falls bridge and Westport’s are similar in many ways, Seneca’s can’t hold a candle to our own.
Our bridge, built in 1884, is 132 years old — the oldest active bridge of its type in the nation. Seneca’s, built in 1915, is a mere 101. Both are truss bridges, though ours is longer and made of iron; theirs is made of steel. Our bridge swings open for boat traffic; theirs doesn’t. The roads over both bridges are known as Bridge Street — but ours has the additional honor of being designated a State Scenic Road.
Our bridge crosses the Saugatuck River; theirs crosses the Seneca. Both bridges are still in use and open to traffic. Neither is tall enough to allow semi-tractor trailers to cross.
But here’s where Seneca’s bridge has it over ours. It was rehabilitated in 1997. Ours may meet the wrecking ball within the next few years — if the State has its druthers. DOT wants to make room for big rigs.
Original plans for the 1884 Saugatuck River bridge. (Image courtesy of Westport Historical Society)
In the fictional town of Bedford Falls, and in the real-life towns of Seneca Falls and Westport, bridges are iconic symbols that tell a story, provide a sense of place, and teach us about our history. They span rivers and time. They connect what separates us, and they can deter what we prefer to fend off.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, the critical moment occurs as George stands for the 2nd time on the Bedford Falls Bridge and begs to have his old life back again. Suddenly, snow begins to fall. He is transported from his alternate reality and returned to the present. His gratitude sends him jubilantly running through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting greetings to all the buildings and friends he cherishes.
As the film ends, all is well in Bedford Falls. Goodness triumphs over selfishness and greed, bells ring and the angel Clarence gets his wings.
The William Cribari (Saugatuck River) Bridge, Christmas Eve 2015. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)
Having newly seen It’s a Wonderful Life from the bridge’s perspective, I realize that it offers Westporters valuable insights and inspiration.
Will we fight hard to keep what many of us cherish — our Saugatuck swing bridge? What powerful forces will try to overcome valiant efforts to keep it just the way it is? What changes to the bridge could transform (or devastate) portions of our community forever? If we lose it, will we wish we had better understood the wisdom of its ways?
The film ends with 4 important words. The entire cast sings “Auld Lang Syne.” Loosely translated from Scottish, the phrase means “for the sake of old times.” Let’s remember those words.
(Wendy is a founding member of the Westport Preservation Alliance. For more information about the history of the Saugatuck Swing Bridge and the efforts to save it, click here.)
Friday’s 1st-ever “Flashback” photo caused quite a bit of commotion, among a subset of “06880” readers.
The image — of the Pine Knoll Inn — led to back-and-forth comments, about whether the once grand home-turned-boardinghouse had ever been moved, from its spot on the Post Road behind the Crest Drive-In to a place further back at what is now Playhouse Square.
Jill Turner Odice just sent this photo, from 1950:
It shows the Saugatuck Congregational Church being moved — on logs — down and across the Post Road, from its original site near the current Sunoco gas station, to its present location. (Life Magazine featured the event, in a photo spread.)
You can see the Tydol gas station (more recently Getty, now Quality Service and Towing.) Next to it is Dairy Queen — the forerunner of the Crest.
And there, directly behind the gas station on the far left, you can see a little bit of the Pine Knoll Inn.
Meanwhile, Neil Brickley emailed aerial photos. They don’t reproduce well here, but they do show that between 1934 and 1965, the Pine Knoll definitely moved further back.
The year was probably 1957. Wendy Crowther noted this:
In April of 1957 there was a law suit filed by contractors who were hired to remove topsoil from the Pine Hill Estates property “in the rear of the Dairy Queen stand” during the “relocation of the Pine Knoll Inn, which is owned by Pine Hill Estates.”
The Pine Knoll Inn met its end in the early 1980s. It was torn down to make way for the Playhouse Condominium complex, behind what had already become Playhouse Square.
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