Ilse Totzke (August 4, 1913 – March 23, 1987) Strasbourg (then Germany, now France) in 1913. Both of her parents were involved in the arts. Her mother was an actress and her farther directed the choir of the local theater. When she was 19 years old, Ilse moved to the German city of Würzburg to study violin and piano. While there, she made several Jewish friends and did not try to keep this a secret, even after the Nazis came to power in 1933.
Records do not indicate how Ilse defined her sexuality or gender identity. Photographs show that she wore clothes traditionally designed for men and her hairstyle was popular among lesbians in Germany at the time.
In 1939, a physical education instructor at the University of Würzburg denounced Ilse to the local Gestapo and said that she was a spy. The only alleged evidence that the instructor provided was that Ilse did not receive her mail at her home address and that she hung out with Jewish people. During the ensuing investigation, Ilse’s landlord told the Gestapo that Ilse was a social outsider and man hater who did not “receive gentlemen visitors.” The implication was that Ilse was a lesbian. At first, the two accusations—that Ilse was a spy and that she was a cross-dressing man hater—might seem unrelated. But a widespread transphobic and homophobic stereotype of the time asserted that people who “cross dressed” or hid their sexual identity were accustomed to living and navigating life “in disguise.” This supposedly meant that gender-nonconforming people, especially trans people, were more likely to be deceitful and good at avoiding detection, which were perfect qualities for a spy.
In May 1941, Ilse was denounced to the Würzburg Gestapo again. This time it was a neighbor who said she had seen Ilse in an “intimate friendship” with another woman. The neighbor said that to make matters worse, the other woman was Jewish. The Gestapo called Ilse in for questioning. It seems they did not have enough evidence to arrest her, so they let her go with a warning. She also had to sign a document saying that she would cease all interactions with Jewish people or else she would be sent to a concentration camp. Ilse left the Gestapo headquarters but continued her friendships and associations with Jewish people.
In late 1942, Ilse befriended a Jewish woman name Ruth Basinski in Berlin. Knowing that Ruth was in danger, Ilse devised a plan to help Ruth escape. On the night between February 26-27, 1943, the two women made the daring journey over the border into Switzerland. Unfortunately, the Swiss border guards caught them and turned them over to the German police. Because she was Jewish, Ruth was deported to Auschwitz.
Ilse was brought into the Gestapo office for questioning. During her interrogation, Ilse said, “I would like to mention again that I wanted to flee Germany because I reject Nazism. Above all, I cannot endorse the Nuremberg laws. I did not want to continue living in Germany under any circumstances.”
The Nazis transferred Ilse to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in May 1943. She was liberated on April 26, 1945. Ruth Basinski also survived. Ilse lived in Paris for a while after the war but moved back to Würzburg in 1954. She was granted compensation before moving to her hometown of Strasbourg. She died in March 1987 at the age of 73. In 1995, Yad Vashem (Israel’s national Holocaust memorial) honored Ilse Totzke as “Righteous Among the Nations,” and in 2013, the city of Würzburg named a street after her.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING
- Marhoefer, Laurie. “Lesbianism, Transvestitism, and the Nazi State: A Microhistory of a Gestapo Investigation, 1939-1943,” in American Historical Review Nr. 121, Issue 4 (Oct. 2016): 1167-1195.
- Yad Vashem, “Rescue in Würzburg.”
For citation: Jake Newsome, “LGBTQ+ Stories from the Holocaust: Ilse Totzke” (2022) wjakenewsome.com/stories/totzke.
For more LGBTQ+ Stories from the Holocaust, visit wjakenewsome.com/stories.