The Actress’ Finest Role
Dorothea Neff was an actress. She was born in Munich, Germany, in 1903. In the 1930s, she acted in a theatre in Cologne, where she met a young Jewish costume designer, Lilli Wolff. The two women became friends. When Neff was offered a position with the famous Volkstheater in Vienna and moved there, the two women’s paths diverged.
In 1940, however, as the situation of the Jews in her hometown deteriorated, Lilli decided to go to Vienna, erroneously believing that Jews were better treated there. Desperate and lonely in a city where she knew no one, Lilli went to her former friend’s apartment and asked her for help. Neff found her a room with another Jewish family, assisted her financially, and supplied her with necessary medication and other needs. Moreover, at a time when almost all Germans and Austrians had totally cut off contact with Jews, Dorothea often came to visit her friend. Although the Jews’ freedom of movement was severely restricted by that time, Dorothea invited Lilli over to her apartment.
When the deportations of the Jews to the East began, Dorothea tried in vain to find a hiding-place for her friend, and even went to Berlin for that purpose. It seems that she reached the conclusion that she had exhausted all possibilities of helping her friend. Thus, in October of 1941, when Lilli received notification that she was to be deported, Dorothea came to help her pack her belongings and to see her off. After the war, the two women related that they had been sitting in the kitchen, trying to decide what Lilli should pack to take to her unknown destination. It was a sudden spontaneous impulse that made Dorothea close the suitcase and exclaim: “You’re not going anywhere! I’ll hide you!” This was clearly not something she had planned in advance. Until that moment she had thought there was nothing more to be done, and only while they were packing did she realize that she had to take one more step. Years later, she explained: “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, until the end of the war, Lilli lived in a back room in Dorothea’s apartment. The two women’s lives were reigned by constant fear of discovery. For Lilli it was the terror of being caught and deported. But the rescuer’s life changed radically as well. She would rush home every day after her performance, worrying that something might have happened during her absence. At a time of war, when food was rationed, she had to obtain extra food for her friend. During air raids, she had to find excuses to explain the stranger who would join her down at the shelter. She had to be careful about whom she invited to her home. Another crisis came when Lilli became sick. Like many other rescuers who were hiding Jews, Dorothea now had to find a way to take Lilli to get treatment without arousing suspicion.
After the war, Lilli Wolff immigrated to the United States and settled in Dallas, Texas.
In 1979, Dorothea Neff was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
In her speech she said: “The greater the darkness of a period, the brighter is the light of a single candle.”