In Memoriam: Dr. Traute Page nee Lafrenz
I’ve dreaded writing this “memorial” piece for years. I had set up a Google alert, so I would be informed of her death.
Even so, I wasn’t prepared for my tears. Traute was special. If you’ve followed our work for long, you know that it’s been our goal to give all the White Rose friends a voice. As “scholars” continued to peddle Scholl-wares, we’ve plodded along, shining a spotlight on the full circle, including people on the fringe whose work consisted solely of attending the readings or being a sounding board.
Traute was anything but fringe. She had been involved in passive and active resistance before she landed in Munich. It seemed to have required her presence before Hans, Christl, and Schurik started to work. She had that effect on people. While in Hamburg, she had earned the reputation as the person who could - and would - turn literary soirees into political debates. Without Traute, the friends in Munich wouldn’t have gotten off square one.
She was fierce, and fearless. Traute loved her very-Nazi parents, yet would not be drawn into their network. She sought out, attracted, and found comfort in people who did not wear brown. Yet she listened to those who spoke the language of the NSDAP. Her primary regret related to their White Rose work: That they only associated with like-minded students. She believed their work would have been more effective had they paid attention to messaging from non-dissidents.
I’ve already written about Traute’s early life and second arrest and near-death experience. Soon I will upload a post to Substack about her association with these friends, her first arrest, the trial on April 19, 1943, and subsequent imprisonment.
But today? Today I will write about my personal memories of Traute Lafrenz and what she meant to me on this journey.
Those 3-1/2 months in 1995, during the first research trip to Germany, everyone I spoke with said I should try to get an interview with Traute. No one held out hope that she would grant the interview. At that time, she wasn’t talking. She maintained cordial relations with friends and family from the circle; she did not avoid White Rose gatherings, but she did not seek them out.
I decided that before I contacted her, I needed to complete the third draft of my White Rose History. At that time, it was one volume only, perhaps 300-350 pages. First draft (which I still have) was pretty awful. Scholl-centric, smarmy, sweet, the tiny group of friends angelic and wholesome.
The third draft was significantly better, but predated about 10,000 pages of material I would later receive. I struggled with my portrayal of Traute. I knew instinctively that she was far more important than extant literature (1995-1996) let on, but I had almost nothing to go on. Nothing written. No photos. Just words spoken by people who had known her, or who had known people who had known her. I had to take their words and come up with a person worthy of the Traute I knew her to have been.
Although I did not have complete Gestapo interrogation transcripts at that point, I had read enough while sitting in the Berlin Bundesarchiv to get a sense of her character. She clearly had been funny, spunky, a spitfire. She suffered fools neither gladly nor otherwise. I also had figured out that she was smarter than most of the friends, especially smarter than Hans and Sophie Scholl. They weren’t dumb, but Traute was a whole other level of intelligent. She led her Gestapo agent - Eduard Geith - around like a puppy, staying two steps ahead of him, outsmarting him by crafting alibis well before he asked for one.
I had to take the paltry facts I knew about her, combined with vague descriptions of her physical appearance, and write her story as part of the group. I knew she was important, but in 1995-1996, I did not yet understand how important.
My request for interview included a copy of that third draft.
Eventually, I received her long-awaited yes. We planned our trip to Charleston with baited breath. The yes was grand, but what would she say about my work?
After a long drive from the farm in Round Top, Texas, and a horrible night at a bad hotel in a crime-ridden Charleston neighborhood (“oh my dear, you should have asked and I would have recommended a safer place!”), we sat with her in her South Carolina highrise. The conversation initially was halting and reserved, neither of us sure of the other. As far as I am aware, this was her very first “official” interview. October 1996.
Finally I asked my burning question: Did I get you right? What did I miss? She smiled her slow, knowing smile. “Your descriptions of me are uncannily good.” And then for several hours, we talked through her story, her memories, things I should add. Always, always she put the circle of friends front and center. Even as I wanted to know more about her, she wanted to tell me more about her friends.
One small story confirmed one of my gut instincts, namely that she and Sophie Scholl had not had a grand friendship. After the farewell pary in July 1942, Traute did not join everyone else at the Ostbahnhof [East Train Station] as the guys headed for the Russian front. Sophie borrowed Traute’s bicycle, and it was stolen. Sophie told her about it, but she did not offer to replace it or pay Traute to buy a new one. Now 54 years later, that clearly still rankled a little. (The non-Sophie person in The Photograph at the Ostbahnhof was likely Lilli Holl.)
Through the years as I continued to write and rewrite the White Rose Histories — now three volumes, not one — I felt free to call or write Traute for additional information. Tried hard not to bother her, but she and Lilo Fürst-Ramdohr were two of the few people I could trust to give me straight answers.
As we planned our January 2001 trip to Santa Barbara to interview Jürgen Wittenstein, at the time straddling the fence between believing him to have been part of White Rose and having an inkling that his story was a big fat lie, Wittenstein suggested I contact his “good friend Traute” and invite her to come to Santa Barbara at the same time. Kill two birds with one stone by including her in that three-day interview.
When I talked to her about this possibility, at first she grew quiet. Then she softly gave me an emphatic no. I did not wish to press her, but I wanted to understand her reasoning. He wore his Party pin in public at the university, she said. We did not trust him. She added that when he told them his family owned a Schloss or manor house that they could escape to if necessary, they thought it was more of his lies. She was surprised after the war to learn that that part of his story had been true.
But. Traute trusted him not even a little. That in turn caused me to listen to his words more carefully, as if she were in the room. No fence-straddling after January 2001.
At one point in this research, I reached a very low point where I thought about walking away. People who perpetuated the Scholl-Wittenstein-Müller lies were getting loads of press coverage and funding. In the meantime, as I wrote about Hans Scholl’s pedophilia and drug use and other inconvenient White Rose topics, I was getting beat up in the German press. I vented to her.
Her next letter was a game-changer. You cannot make it right. You can only do what is right.
I realized that that had been Traute’s philosophy of life even as a student. That had colored her involvement in White Rose discussions and work.
Contrary to portraits of her as someone on the sidelines, Traute was in this work heart and soul. When the student-soldiers returned from the Russian front and plotted their next, more-active moves, Traute was there. Traute, Sophie, and Willi were tasked with recruiting new friends for the movement. Traute and Willi were supposed to ferret out new typewriters and duplicating machines. And everyone knew to buy envelopes and paper when they could.
To that end, Traute spent Christmas 1942 in Vienna with her relatives. One uncle owned a typewriter business; he turned her down. She kept working, finding other aunts, uncles, and cousins who could possibly help. (More on these activities in Part II of the Traute posts.)
And yet - anyone who talked to Traute knew that she considered her efforts inconsequential. She would shyly acknowledge these things when asked directly about them, but she rarely volunteered information about the things she did.
One perfect example revolves around her deep friendship with Katharina Schüddekopf, Käthe to her friends. Traute and Käthe had worked out a series of alibis should either be arrested after the February 22 executions. The friends were able to maintain their “who me?” language for several days. One day, Käthe slipped up and inadvertently implicated Traute, who had been fending off the Gestapo’s accusations. Oddly enough, during the April 19 trial, the inadvertent betrayal was not used.
I asked Traute about it. She dismissed it out of hand. It was not Käthe’s fault. Then she proceeded to tell me what an amazing person Käthe had been, the physical handicap she suffered from, her brilliance as a scholar, how she should be better remembered.
Traute took the inadvertent betrayal that almost cost Traute her life and turned it into a spotlight on the precious soul that had been her close friend Käthe.
When Traute talked about the people she held dear - Käthe, Willi, Schurik, Wilhelm Geyer - a picture emerges of White Rose friends that is not very Scholl-centric at all. I could see Traute and Käthe at the Atelier (studio), with Wilhelm Geyer showing them his paintings and explaining his life view. There’s Traute, Käthe, and the French Monsieur at the Atelier, poring over French texts without the superficial pomposity of Hans Scholl. There’s Traute and Josef Furtmeier, digging deep into the philosophers that her Walking Encyclopedia had memorized and knew by heart. There’s Traute and Käthe with that single leftover leaflet (Traute was unaware that there was one more in Lilo’s broom closet) before she headed out to Vienna, and eventually to Hamburg, weighing options. There’s Traute and Willi, talking, talking, talking, always talking, two kindred spirits whose instincts screamed that there had to be more. And of course, there’s Schurik and Traute, her love of Russian literature an unbreakable bond.
If a researcher unblurs and sharpens the group photo of White Rose friends, that spitfire named Traute Lafrenz is front and center, telling the story of her friends, people so close to her it broke her heart if she was asked to recall anything the least bit unflattering about them. She loved them. She loved them.
Perhaps my favorite Traute story isn’t even mine. A Philly friend and long-time teacher was going to be in Charleston. He asked for an introduction to Traute, which I gladly provided. Tom Speelhoffer took her to a four-star restaurant, an elegant place with starched tablecloths and attentive waiters. As noted, Tom was 30+ years a teacher and almost always spoke in his teacher’s voice, booming over the din of a classroom.
In that restaurant, after obligatory chitchat, Tom asked her, “What did it feel like to be arrested?” Not only did his voice boom, but at that moment, there was a temporary quiet. Everyone heard his question and immediately turned to see the diminutive Traute smile. She didn’t miss a beat. Their conversation continued without a hitch. She was not the least bit embarrassed.
So yes, I have dreaded writing this for a very long time. She couldn’t live forever. And yet she does, that spitfire who wanted the world to know about her brave friends, who pointed to them when asked about her role in that work.
My beloved Traute - you will always be young. You will always be that person sitting across from Eduard Geith, angering him with your deft misdirection. Your memory will always, and forever, be for a blessing.
You cannot make it right. You can only do what is right.
Note: If anyone reading this knows of better copyright information for this photograph of Traute Page nee Lafrenz, please let me know. This is the same photograph she showed me in 1996. She said it was the only photograph of herself that she had from those days. I’ve seen it in multiple places on the Internet with that attribution - “Traute Lafrenz Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.”
If it is not public domain, I would like to correct the attribution! - DEH.
Original published on Substack here, April 3, 2023.