Actress, Friend, Hero

Her greatest role was offstage.

Dorothea Neff was a stage actress in Vienna who sheltered her friend Lilli Wolff from the Nazis for nearly four years, at great risk to herself.

Dorothea was born in Munich in 1903, and even as a small child she loved to perform. She always knew she wanted to be an actress, and could portray a wide range of characters, both tragic and comedic. As a young actress, Dorothea became a familiar figure in the thriving German theater, performing around the country in different productions. In the 30’s she acted in a play in Cologne, where she met Lilli Wolff, a young Jewish costume designer. The two women became fast friends, but when Dorothea was offered a position in the Volkstheater repertory company in Vienna, she said goodbye to Lilli and moved to Austria.

Meanwhile, in Germany, anti-Jewish persecution was getting worse by the day and Lilli no longer felt safe in her homeland. Naively thinking she’d be safe in Vienna, a cultural hub with a large and prosperous Jewish community, she moved there, knowing nobody but the old friend she hadn’t spoken to in years. Desperate, Lilli showed up at Dorothea’s apartment and asked for help. Dorothea was happy to assist her old friend. She found her a room to rent in the home of a Jewish family – anti-semitism was so fierce that nobody was willing to rent to a Jewish woman – and she helped Lilli pay and expenses while she looked for a job.

Lilli quickly found that the situation for Jews in Vienna was no better than in Germany. She was unable to find work or even leave the apartment. Soon, Jews were being arrested and deported to unknown locations in the east, and it was only a matter of time before Lilli would be discovered in the Jewish-owned home where she was staying. Dorothea was determined to find a safe hiding place for her friend, and she exhausted all avenues in Vienna before returning to Berlin to see if anybody there could hide Lilli. Unfortunately she was unable to find a safe place for her friend. In October 1941, Lilli was notified that her name had come up – she was scheduled for deportation. Dorothea helped her figure out what to pack for her terrifying trip to an unknown location and uncertain future. Finally, Dorothea got a flash of inspiration. She’d been trying to find the perfect hiding place for Lilli – a home with space and security – but the perfect is the enemy of the good. Immediately she slammed Lilli’s suitcase closed and announced that Lilli would be staying with her, in her own small apartment in a high-traffic part of Vienna. Dorothea later recalled the moment, “As I looked into Lilli’s pale face, I was so overcome by compassion for this poor abandoned human being that I knew I couldn’t let her go off to face the unknown.”

For over three years, Lilli lived in a small room at the back of Dorothea’s apartment. In case the Gestapo found out that Lilli was in Dorothea’s apartment, Dorothea wrote a “suicide note” from Lilli and left it by the door.

The fear of discovery was intense and constant. Every day Dorothea went to work, but after each performance, instead of mingling with her adoring fans – including Nazi officers – she rushed home to make sure Lilli was still safe. It was wartime and food was being strictly rationed, but Dorothea shared everything with Lilli. It was difficult to keep the secret, especially when air raids required them to go to a shelter and Dorothea had to make up stories to explain who Lilli was and why she was there. Fortunately Dorothea was a superb actress. Dorothea was also a very sociable people-person who was used to hosting frequent get-togethers; these ended once Lilli was living with her. One of the most difficult challenges was when Lilli became very sick. Dorothea could not risk taking her to a doctor, so she had to find the right medicine and administer treatment to her friend.

Lilli later recalled, “What did ‘hiding’ mean to us? …When the doorbell rang, I trembled. How long would this fearful hardship go on? What would happen in the next hours? It went on for FOUR YEARS. In spite of all of this, the friendship and care I received gave me a glorious balance in my otherwise completely shattered life. The Lord provided, and how thankful I was and will ever be!”

Lilli stayed in Dorothea’s apartment until the war ended. Afterwards, Lilli immigrated to the United States and settled in Dallas, Texas. Dorothea remained in Austria and continued her acting career, moving from stage to screen. Incredibly, she continued acting even after going blind in 1967.

In 1979, Dorothea was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. In her speech she said, “The greater the darkness of a period, the brighter is the light of a single candle.” Dorothea Neff died in 1986.

For sheltering her Jewish friend at great risk to herself, while continuing to entertain audiences on stage every day, we honor Dorothea Neff as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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