Recognizing Sex Workers Who Hid Jews From the Nazis

The book of Joshua tells of a Caananite sex worker named Rahab who sheltered two Israelite spies from the king of the Jericho. An echo of this story played out again during the Holocaust, when gentile women involved in sex work sheltered Jews from Nazi persecution. However, the names and stories of most of these women have been lost, and due to stigma  many of them remain unrecognized. I learned about one of them in 2009, when I heard about an Israeli family friend who was hidden by a non-Jewish sex worker in her native Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. The friend, as a little girl, crouched behind a facade in the tiny apartment while the courageous woman met with Gestapo agents, Wehrmacht soldiers and ordinary citizens. Eventually, patriotic Dutch men and women helped her escape on a ship to Palestine.

Regretfully, the family friend died in Israel without sharing more details of her rescue. Intrigued, I spent two days combing the records of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and while I found no mention of our friend’s savior, I did uncover the stories of three others. International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, observed December 17 and meant to reduce the stigma of sex work, is an appropriate time to recount the story of one of these brave women.

The daughter of a brewer, Hedwig Volker was born in 1900 in Berlin-Schöneberg. She married Walter Porschütz, a chauffeur and manual laborer, in 1926. They had limited education and low social standing, enduring various low-wage jobs and intermittent unemployment. Hedwig worked when she could as a typist and workshop laborer. Eventually, unknown factors led her to supplement her low wages with sex work and trading on the black market.

During the war, Porschütz helped her friend Otto Weidt support the blind Jewish workers in his brush-manufacturing workshop. Weidt, often called a mini-Schindler, protected his disabled Jewish workforce by asserting their vital role in his firm’s completing contracts with the Nazi government. Porschutz, expert in the workings of the black market, procured precious groceries and consumer goods both to bribe Nazi officials and to sustain the Jewish workers. She was able to procure privileged items such as travel coupons for the Jews, as well. Her work was dangerous, because in Germany, although not in occupied countries, black market activity incurred harsher penalties, up to death, than aiding Jews.

In early 1943, Weidt hired her officially. On paper, she was a shorthand typist, but she continued working the black market to support Weidt’s relief efforts for persecuted Jews. She needed a regular job on paper because the war’s demand for able-bodied men had led authorities to require adult women in their prime earning years who were not caring for their children to enter the civilian workforce. Interrogated by the police on June 3, 1944, she was able to tell them she worked as a stenographer for the Blindenwerkstatte Weidt, for 175 Reichsmarks per month.

In addition to her black-market dealings, she obtained false documents and hid Jews in her cramped, one-and-a-half room Berlin apartment, where she also sold sexual favors in return for cash or ration stamps. This was especially daring because she lived on Alexanderplatz, across the street from the Reich Security Main Office, headquarters to the entire Nazi killing machine: the SS, the Gestapo state secret police, the Sicherheitspolizei investigative force and the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing squads.

Although there are no reliable records naming her customers, there are indications that at least one soldier was a repeat visitor, paying with travel coupons provided to members of the Wehrmacht on home leave. These were highly valued on the black market.

In January 1943, she hid twin sisters Marianne and Anneliese Bernstein in her apartment. The 17-year-olds had come to Berlin from Konigsberg in 1939, after their father’s suicide, to learn trades. Anneliese learned tailoring, and Marianne, who was blind, found work in Weidt’s brush factory. While hiding in Porschutz’s apartment, the Bernsteins endured relentless air raids, especially hazardous because taking refuge in shelters would have risked exposure. So they would remain in the apartment, an option because Hedwig herself was air raid coordinator for the building.

In March of that year, Hedwig also took in Grete Seelig and Lucie Ballhorn, with a single bed for the four women. Remaining hidden in such a small, frequently trafficked apartment required strict rules of behavior and great self-discipline. When Hedwig opened the apartment to other prostitutes, entertained her own customers or conducted black-market deals, the women would hide in the attic until all the transactions were concluded.

In the spring of 1943, outside events disrupted this tenuous arrangement: Fugitives hiding nearby were discovered and arrested, intensifying official scrutiny of the area. Porschütz found new refuges for all four, taking Seelig, Seelig’s brother Leo and Ballhorn to the apartment of her mother, Hedwig Volker. She ensconced the Bernstein twins in a new Berlin safe haven and continued to provide food obtained on the black market to them all.

The Bernstein sisters survived the war and immigrated to the United States in 1946, living out their lives there. Marianne died in 1987, and Anneliese lived into the 1990s. Seelig also survived, but Ballhorn was apprehended in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed.

Hedwig also helped Otto Weidt organize an effort to provide groceries to Jews in Theresienstadt, operated for the last few years of the war as a ghetto-labor camp and transit station for Czech Jews being deported eastward to concentration camps. Despite Weidt’s and Porschütz’s efforts, few of those sent to this camp survived. Of the approximately 140,000 Jews transferred to Theresienstadt, nearly 90,000 were deported to the east and almost certain death, and roughly 33,000 died in Theresienstadt itself.

Porschütz’s black market trading was discovered in 1944, and she was arrested, tried and convicted of hoarding food. The charge of “commercial fornication,” or prostitution, was added to her offenses, and she was sentenced to 18 months. Released at war’s end in 1945, she found her apartment destroyed by Allied bombing. She applied to the Berlin Compensation Office on a claim of politically motivated state persecution, but her claim was denied. Her husband returned from military service, and they lived in poverty, alternating between low-wage jobs and unemployment. In 1959, as a final rebuke, she was denied “unsung hero” status based on her prostitution.

Hedwig Porschütz died in 1977 in a Berlin retirement home. The old village cemetery in Schöneberg where she was buried closed in 2000. There are no photographs of her.

Her story resurfaced in 2010, when Johannes Tuchel, head of the German Resistance Memorial Center, published a booklet about Porschütz. Almost 35 years after her death, on June 3, 2011, a Berlin public prosecutor overturned what he called the “shameful verdict” that had sent her to prison, and in 2012 Yad Vashem accepted her as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Authorities subsequently mounted a plaque honoring her at her wartime address, Feurigstrasse 43, and named a street for her in Berlin Center. The ceremony was initiated and attended by Inge Deutschkron, a German-Israeli journalist who worked for Weidt during the war until she too had to go into hiding.

The names of other women involved in sex work who risked their lives to protect are scattered throughout the historical record, briefly and incompletely. The identities of most are lost to history.

Photo by Karen Noetzel for Berliner Woche. This memorial plaque, at Porschütz’s wartime address, was mounted in 2012.

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