An Almost Unremarkable Woman


When we passed through Treptow, a wooded suburb of Berlin, my father would often point out an old villa to me. “That’s where Liselotte Welskopf lived,” he would say with an air of respect that bordered on reverence. He would go on to tell me about his encounter with two Dakota tribesmen in this house, one a chief. I listened in sincere fascination. A Dakota chief in dreary East Berlin!
I knew who Mrs. Welskopf was – but, then again, I didn’t until this Thanksgiving. The land acknowledgements we now make in the Academic Senate, and the connection of my childhood memory to the romanticized narrative of settlers feasting with Native Americans, prompted me to read about her life.
Mrs. Welskopf was familiar to me, and a generation of East Germans, as the author of a series of books revolving around the life of a Dakota boy. My father told me that, unlike most stories about the old American West, hers was based on true events and actual Dakota experience and customs that had been related to Mrs. Welskopf by Dakota elders. Incredibly to me, she had lived among the Dakota and been a regular visitor, advocating for their land rights. Wikipedia reveals that she held the honorary title of “tashina,” which means “protector of the people.”
Vaguely, I was aware that my father’s acquaintance with her was through Berlin’s Humboldt University, where he taught archeology. Mrs. Welskopf had been a government economist and statistician after World War II, but that kind of work didn’t suit her adventurous spirit. She became a notable historian of Ancient Greece at the university of Einstein, Hegel, Marx, Weber, and others. Her success was such that she was elected the first female member of the national Academy of Sciences.
She had been born Ms. Henrich. The story of her marriage to Richard Welskopf is sad, remarkable, and wonderful at the same time. Having witnessed the deportation of an elderly Jewish couple she had secretly aided, guilt-ridden by her failure to save them, she began to bribe concentration camp guards so that she could deliver meals to inmates. She was able to help her future husband escape and hide for a year. Few survived this kind of courage in Berlin in 1944.
My father was two years old at that time, taking cover from bombing raids in basements most nights, with a sign around his neck that begged for food and shelter in case his mother hadn’t made it. When he was in his twenties, Mrs. Welskopf invited him to pursue a PhD under her mentorship. It probably took someone of her influence and character to do it. Unwilling to join the ruling Communist party, he never had the political credentials needed for an academic career in East Germany. Until German reunification, he couldn’t hold the title of Professor or travel abroad to conferences.
Mrs. Welskopf was a Communist. She lived in East Germany by choice and, due to her reputation and convictions, was free to travel. But she appreciated principled disagreement, and that’s how my father came to spend time at her home, hear her speak of her other passion, and meet her North American visitors. Perhaps it was her tolerance in life that, after her death and Germany’s reunification, made him write letters for colleagues who faced the loss of their academic credentials because of their Communist backgrounds.
Re-reading Mrs. Welskopf’s books, I’m struck by the loving attention to detail and reality that inhabits them. I understand now that it’s no coincidence. She never closed her eyes to difficult truths, and she never lost her belief in better possibilities. Someone like that will save you from the Nazis, stand with you on a reservation, and show you opportunity behind the Iron Curtain – all in one lifetime, regardless of religious or political persuasions. When we insist on honesty, that’s who we are.
We often say: “a remarkable woman.” In truth, most of the remarkable people I’ve recently met are women. It isn’t the exception now. I suspect it wasn’t the exception then. Try this. Find a group that volunteers significant time and work for positive change. Look around. I predict you’ll count three or four women for every man. Not one, not two. Three or four. It’s a mirror of the experiences we have, and the things we’ve had to learn. If you wonder: do we face the same trials? Think three. Or four. Ask yourself why courageous and effective leadership from women is so ubiquitous that it’s almost unremarkable.