The world knew Dr. Hiltgunt Zassenhaus for saving prisoners in Nazi Germany, and as a recipient
of some of the highest honors in the United States, Europe and Danish nations because of her covert efforts against the Third Reich. But to Charlie Haile, MD, a retired infectious disease specialist at GBMC, she was his kindred spirit, a dear and humble friend.
"She embodies the characteristics we look for at GBMC: compassion, patient first, certainly courage," Dr. Haile said.
Dr. Haile and "Dr. Z" met early in his career and late in hers. They formed a fast friendship and one that would last for more than two decades. Dr. Haile remembers passing Dr. Z in the halls, occasionally to exchange ideas about patients, but often the conversations would dissolve into weightier subjects.
Dr. Hiltgunt Zassenhaus (born in 1916) worked against Nazi Germany during WWII. Hired by the Third Reich to censor mail, Zassenhaus instead added notes and physically smuggled in goods for prisoners.She gathered a list of 1,300 prisoners’ names, passing it to Allied Forces to save the prisoners’ lives.
"We talked about patients and we talked about other things, what I call "major pursuits" rather than trivial pursuits: dying, mortality, suffering, redemption, those types of things," Dr. Haile said with a bit of a laugh. "And I gradually learned more and more about her."
An admiration that would grow to ultimately lead him to honor her at GBMC in a special way.
By the time Dr. Haile came to know Dr. Z, she had received multiple high honors from various countries, written books on her experience and was serving patients out of a private practice in her home. Yet, despite her incredible background, she remained "completely unpretentious."
"She was a very simple person. I would call her an angel, a saint in plain dress," Dr. Haile said. "Her perennial lunch was grilled cheese and tomato. It was kind of a joke after awhile, but I got into the same thing. We would eat grilled cheese and tomato together.
"She was viewed here in the hospital with a great deal of respect, but also as a troublemaker. That’s actually what sets a lot of people apart, they kind of shake the status quo. Well, she was pretty good at that. In a medical staff meeting, if there was something she didn’t like, she was by no means reluctant to bring it up and say that this was not good."
Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1916, Dr. Zassenhaus was a rabble-rouser from grade school.
"When she was in school – this would have been early to mid-1930s – she was required to do the ‘Sieg Heil’ or Heil Hitler," Dr. Haile recounted. "She was very tormented about that because she did not like him.
"She didn’t want to do it, but they commanded, ‘you must do this now.’ One day, she started to put her hand up and smashed it through a window. It was very loud and that sort of broke the ice in some ways. Nobody ever asked her to do it again."
This gesture, whether fortuitous or intentional, began a career of working against Hitler and his regime. Having studied multiple Scandinavian languages in college, she was an attractive hire for the Third Reich’s Department of Justice where her role was intended to censor the mail, but she would instead add notes or, in later times, physically smuggle goods in for prisoners.
At the time of the Third Reich’s downfall, she overheard of a plan to execute political prisoners. Having accumulated a list of some 1,300 prisoners scattered across multiple prisons, she was able to pass it along to Allied Forces to save them.
"She was a woman of action," Dr. Haile said. "It’s the action that’s important. You can promise or say you’re going to do something, but I think this would be a person to emulate in action by giving, and she gave. She gave a moral voice to a lot of us by her incredible courage and her wisdom. She gave a lot to GBMC in that nature."
And, in her honor, Dr. Haile has chosen to give back to GBMC with a gift to support a new spiritual healing garden in her name.
"It’s right down her alley," Dr. Haile said. "I see what can be done with a spiritual, healing garden, when people come in, their whole appearance can change. There are healing powers that come in nature, and that’s really what she was about. That was her healing power. I’d like her to be remembered and used as an example of courage and morality.
"It’s something that is her due I believe but, also, it’s a model to others, an inspiration to others. That’s why people have saints. In the best way, they serve as an inspiration or a model."
2019 Annual Report — Redesigning Care