Stephanie Hoffnung: Just one Jew.
June 1942: Every evening, German SS officers would hammer on the door of the Hoffnung family’s home in Rue Riffault, Poitiers. This was occupied France and the Hoffnungs were Jewish.
Led by Adjutant Wilhelm Hipp, the officers would visit Jewish homes to ensure that they were complying with the various rules and curfews that had been imposed. Any deviation from these rules and regulations could mean imprisonment.
The Hoffnungs were a large family – there were seven siblings, their parents and their grandmother. Usually, Hipp inspected them, made sure everyone was accounted for and checked for any regulations they might be contravening before abruptly departing to go to inspect the next household on his list. But this evening was different.
“Which one is Stephanie?” he barked
Twenty-year-old Stephanie, who had recently been ill, stood up unsteadily.”I am” she said. Hipp grabbed her by the arm and told her she was under arrest. His fellow-Nazis had their weapons at the ready. The Hofflung family watched helplessly as Stephanie was led away.
Stephanie was taken to Gestapo headquarters and interrogated. For some time, the entire Hofflung family had been helping Jews to escape to the Free Zone, thanks to local farmers whose lands bordered the demarcation line.Stephanie had sent a note to one of these farmers, M. Degout, and signed her own name. The Germans had discovered the letter, implicating her. But Stephanie refused to give way under interrogation.
Stephanie had been studying medicine. She was sent to Poitiers jail and categorised as a political prisoner. Despite her young age and frail health she became leader of her fellow inmates and tried to keep their morale up and their bodies in good health.
A month later she was moved to an internment camp just outside the town and now she was allowed one visitor per month. It wasn’t too bad at first because it was controlled by the French police but the Gestapo took over and conditions deteriorated quickly. Stephanie’s health became worse and her sister Marthe went to see her captor, the dreaded Hipp. She pleaded with him to allow Stephanie to have medicine or medical treatment. He absolutely refused.
Marthe arranged for Stephanie’s escape
Marthe visited her sister to tell her about the plan. But Stephanie refused to leave.She said:
“I can’t leave here, I have an important job to do. Besides, if I escaped, Hipp would arrest the whole family and throw you all in here too. So what would be the point of that?”
Marthe refused to give up. She arranged for the whole family to escape to the Free Zone. Once they were out of the way and safe from Hipp, there was nothing to prevent Stephanie from escaping too. Stephanie agreed to escape once her family was safe. Her plan hinged on her being sent to the prison hospital where doctors planned to help her escape.
But when Hipp had gone to inspect the Hoffnung household to carry out his usual inspection and found that they had fled, he went straight to the camp. He saw Stephanie waiting to be transferred to hospital and ordered that she was not to go. He had her transferred to a much more rigid and secure camp near Paris.
September 21st, 1942
Stephanie was transferred yet again to Pithiviers. There she managedto gett a letter out to her family via a nurse who risked her own life to smuggle it from the camp. he wrote that the camp was terribly over-crowded and that there was little to eat. Then, Marthe received a letter from her fiancé, Jacques Delaunay, telling her that on September 21st Stephanie had been moved to an ‘unknown location’.
Marthe Hoffnung was distraught, not knowing where her sister had been sent. She and her fiancé, Jacques, were determined to make difference.Their beloved France was overrun and ruled by Nazis and they felt that they couldn’t stand by without doing something. Marthe was trying hard to join the Resistance and Jacques and his brother Marc were quietly undermining the German war effort.
Jacques and Marc were both imprisoned for attacking a train loaded with German armaments. Both young men were executed by a firing squad.
The Jewish spy
Marthe was now even more determined. Her fiancé was dead and she had no idea where her sister was. She persevered with her goal to help her country and she did – she became a highly valuable spy behind enemy lines. She was still in Germany when the war ended, still performing valuable work.
As she travelled through Germany after Hitler’s death in April 1945, Marthe came across groups of gaunt people in pyjama-like uniforms in many towns and villages. Talking to them, she discovered the truth about the concentration camps. Of course she had known about their existence but it was only when she listened to them that she fully realised the horrors that had taken place. Hungry and homeless ex-prisoners were everywhere and she asked as many of them as she could if they knew her sister Stephanie. Marthe knew that she wouldn’t rest until she knew what had happened to her sister.
Marthe received a letter from her brother who had discovered that the ‘unknown destination’ to which Stephanie had been sent was Auschwitz. The convoy of 1258 prisoners from Pithiviers – men, women and children – had arrived at Auschwitz on September 23rd, 1942.
On arrival, 150 men were selected to be transported elsewhere. Sixty five were chosen for labouring gangs within the Auschwitz camp. Of the women, 144 were selected for work. The others were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Those who were not gassed were treated with the utmost cruelty. Of the men, women and children on Stephanie’s convoy, only twenty three survived. Stephanie was not one of them. Marthe’s family had no way of knowing whether Stephanie was one of the group that were immediately sent to the gas chambers but they chose to believe that she was, due to her ill health. They preferred to think that she had been unwittingly led to her death (for ‘de-lousing’) rather than suffer a slow and painful end in the horrors of the camp.
Years later, when Marthe’s parents died, she and her siblings had Stephanie’s name engraved on their headstone.
“Underneath that stone is a handful of earth scooped up from the notorious Polish concentration camp”.
When Jacques was executed, Marthe Hoffnung vowed that she would never marry but in 1953 she met American Major Lewis Cohn and they married in the States in 1958. Today, there is a doctor working in Illinois – the son of Marthe and Major Cohn.
His parents named him Stephan Jacques in memory of Marthe’s lost sister and executed fiancé.
At the time of writing, an internet search returns no results for Stephanie Hoffnung. And why should it? After all, Stephanie was ‘just’ one of the estimated six million Jews killed in the Second World War.
But Stephanie’s story needs to be told. She was twenty when she was arrested. She was young, beautiful and a promising medical student. She refused to betray those who were helping Jews to flee from occupied France, despite the fact that she was tortuously interrogated. She refused to escape from prison for fear of her own family suffering the same fate.
Dr. Cohn knows the reason behind his names. Now, once I’ve pressed the ‘publish’ button, the internet too will know about the bravery and the sacrifices of Stephanie Hoffnung and Jacques Delaunay.
Her story is told in much more detail in Marthe’s book, which you see above.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR