The Washington Peace Center is honored to recongize the life and legacy of Helga Herz, a life-long activist for peace and justice who passed away in 2010.
Helga Herz led a life devoted to peace and equality. When she passed away at age 97 in February 2010, she left a legacy that embodies her personal philosophy of advocacy and activism.
Helga had a sincere, unyielding faith that one person can change the world. “Although diminutive in size, she was known for her fierce independence and strong, well-reasoned opinions,” said Diane Herz, whose grandfather was Miss Herz’s cousin.
Born of Jewish descent in Gustrow, Germany, Miss Herz and her mother, Alice Herz, fled the country during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Their home and possessions were confiscated by the Nazis. Housed by a Catholic priest in a small French town, they eventually arranged for passage to the U.S. in 1942.
After securing a secretarial job with the Detroit Public Library, Miss Herz received a library science degree from the University of Michigan and became a librarian at the DPL, which she fondly recalled as “an indispensable service to the development of the country and promotion of education.” Miss Herz and her mother were active in a number of peace organizations, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
Helga’s life changed in 1965 when her mother, Alice, also a lifelong peace activist, felt the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations were having no influence. She decided extreme action was the only hope of shaking public opinion and changing the course of events.
In a public plaza in Detroit, Alice immolated herself, following the example of Buddhist monks who also burned themselves alive in protest of war-time activities in Vietnam. Alice was the first activist in the United States to conduct immolation – she died within 10 days – but later that year two others immolated themselves in protest of the war. In her final letter to Helga, Alice wrote, “Do not cry, and do not despair”. She wrote that she acted out of hope, and hope alone.
“My mother took this action fully convinced of a mission,” Helga later wrote. Her mother had always lived a politically aware life, recognizing the violent implications of Hitler’s rise to power in their native Germany.
After retiring from the Detroit Public Library in 1978, Helga headed the library at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University, where her work is now being compiled as the Helga Herz Peace Archives. She received the Spirit of Detroit Award and other accolades for her tireless volunteer work.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Miss Herz filed legal documentation seeking reparations from the German government for the family property in East Berlin that had been seized by the Nazis. Vindication came in 2000, when she won her appeal and was granted the family home at the age of 88. Miss Herz sold the property and donated all proceeds to the German branch of WILPF.
“She felt she had finally completed the work that her mother would have wanted her to do to make things right,” said Diane Herz.
Helga moved to Silver Spring, MD, several years ago to be near family and remained committed to peace and justice for all of her days.