A Portrait of an Egotist II: Maria von Maltzan

From “The Last Jews In Berlin” by Leonard Gross (1982)

Countess Maria von Maltzan was a descendant of an old, noble Swedish family that had migrated to northern Germany centuries before. In 1939, she met Hans Hirschel, a non-practicing Jew. Maria – Marushka to Hans – was a striking woman whom many men found irresistible. Emancipation was not a word that would have occurred to her; she had never recognized the supposed inferiority of women, and she was strong as many men her size. She knew judo, rode horses like a jockey and could swim for miles.

Maria was 30, Hans 39. That he was Jewish did not scare her. There was a wide streak of daring in her to complement her loathing of the Nazis; in taking up with a Jew in direct violation of the Nazis’ racial law, she was demonstrating her defiance.

By February 1942, however, so many of Hans’ friends had been deported that it became clear that Hans had to go into hiding. Hans moved into Maria’s apartment under a subterfuge concocted by Maria. He gave a “suicide” note to his mother, saying he couldn’t stand what was happening in Germany.

A few days after Hans went into hiding, his mother wrote the police that Hans had been missing for several days and included his note. She asked the police to drag the Wannsee, a lake within Berlin where many Jews had drowned themselves in desperation. As Maria had reckoned, the police had no interest in searching for the body of a missing Jew, and from then on he was listed as dead.

With Maria’s return each evening, Hans would open up her handbag, pull out its contents and ask to know where she had obtained each item. Usually, there was a story attached to every scrap of paper, for Maria was a proficient dealer in Berlin’s black market. False documents – ration cards, tickets, identifications – were her stock in trade.

Hans lived for Maria’s presence and rejoiced at each return – which made her abrupt, inexplicable departures in the night all the more painful.

They had begun almost as soon as Hans moved in. There was no pattern to them.  Frequently, these sudden departures would be preceded by a phone call. She would leave at once after the call and be gone for several hours.

One evening she came in especially late. She went immediately to the bathroom and put some antiseptic on a forehead wound.

“Fore God’s sake, Maria, that’s a bullet wound!” Hans cried. “What the hell’s going on?”

She looked at him coolly. “Hans, never ask me about where I’ve been. It’s better you don’t know .

One afternoon, Maria took a train from Berlin. At the suburb of Forhnau, she got off and walked north, a mile from the town, to the beginning of a forest. A hundred yards into the woods, she found the poeple. There were 20 of them. Some looked to be Jews; others didn’t. “This is the last short step to freedom,: she said. “Be very careful.” They walked for a mile in the woods. At a cleaning, Maria stopped. iIn the faint light, they could see a tiny snack next to some railroad tracks.

“You’re to hide in the woods on the other side, fifty meters from that shack. When the train comes, stay hidden until someone fetches you. You’ll be told what to do. Move out one at a time, and God be with you.”

One by one they quickly crossed the clearing and silently disappeared into the woods on the other side.

Maria would have liked to stay. The operation could happen anytime now. A freight train bound for the north would make an unscheduled stop here. A group of men would rush from the woosds and open one of the boxcars. They would break the seals on a number of large crates containing furniture, which they would remove and throw from the boxcar.

At a signal, the people would rush from the woods, be lifted into the boxcar and placed inside the crates. Counterfeit seals would replace those that had been broken. Then the train would continue to the port city of Lúbek. in the morning, the crates would be loaded aboard a freighter. The next day, they would unloaded in Sweden. The furniture – property of Swedish diplomats and their families – would have long since been  hauled into the woods and destroyed.

But Maria would miss all that. She’d been instructed to retrace her path to be certain no one had followed them. IF she encountered a patrol, she was to divert it somehow.

Just as she reached the edge of woods, she heard dogs barking. And then the darkness was pierced by a light 100 yards ahead of her, another just as suddenly behind her. By the sounds the dogs were making, they had picked up her scent.

In front was a brook, and beyond it, if Maria’s nostrils told the truth, a pile of manure. Quickly, she crossed the brook, raced to the manure pile and buried  her feet. Then she ran back to the brook – effectively terminating her scent at the pile. As rapidly as she could, she waded in the same direction as the current. It led to a pond that was overhung with trees. She swam to the far side, then waited under the trees until the sounds of the frustrated dogs receded. Only then did she lift herself onto the shore.

Her wet clothes clung to her skin, and she was shaking uncontrollably from the cold.

It hadn’t been easy to keep the other half of her life hidden from the man she loved. But she felt she had no alternative. She wasn’t sure that Hans would be able to withstand torture if the Gestapo caught him. All the work was an attempt to save the lives of endangered.

Dawn came. Although frozen and hungry, Maria was still afraid to move. Whoever had tracked her through the night would be waiting for her to leave the woods. With her wet and filthy clothes, she would give herself away.

She waited throughout the day, praying for an air raid, the only diversion she could imagine that would enable her to escape. As darkness fell, she saw lights again in the woods. She was still trapped, still hunted.

And then she heard the wail of air-raid sirens. Sweet, sweet sound! Deliverance !


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