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Noted Memoirist, Witness To Rise of Hitler, Dies at 97

Washington — Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel Lawson, who died Feb. 13 at 97, was born in Germany during World War I and witnessed Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. She recalled the sudden disappearance of her Jewish pediatrician and the Nazi-orchestrated storm of violence in 1938 that came to be known as Kristallnacht.

She later scraped by in the wasteland of Berlin after Allied bombing in World War II and endured the pillage by Soviet soldiers when Berlin fell.

During the Cold War that followed, she remained in West Berlin. But when the East German government erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, she wanted out. A single mother, she came to the United States with her two daughters and lived in Northern Virginia for nearly 40 years.

She told her life story to church groups, reading and history clubs, schoolchildren and numerous civic associations. She was encouraged to write a book and, in 1999, published Laughter Wasn’t Rationed: A Personal Journey Through Germany’s World Wars and Postwar Years.

The title reflected the sense of humor that helped some, including the author, endure dark times. “A joke was an escape out of the Nazi straitjacket,” Lawson wrote, “sand thrown into the gears of the Nazi propaganda machinery ... a means of silent resistance.”

She remembered one of the first jokes she heard as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany: Hitler is fishing on the banks of the river Spree in Berlin, but the fish aren’t biting. The führer complains bitterly.

“What did you expect?” a passerby mutters. “Now even the fish are afraid to open their mouths.”

As the war dragged on, food was almost impossible to find in the cities, and Lawson recalled making dangerous eight-hour trips to the countryside to forage. Amid the suffering, pointed political barbs became a coping mechanism.

“To fix a roast goose,” one joke went, it first had to be “completely plucked like the German people.”

Dorothea Elisabeth Anna Schmidt was born March 15, 1916, to a Lutheran family in Gleiwitz, Germany (now Gliwice, Poland). She grew up in Münster and later settled in Berlin.

She recalled in her memoir that, once the war started, the Nazis organized war relief campaigns. “Voluntary” contributions were mandatory. “No one should starve or freeze,” went the campaign slogan — to which the popular riposte was, “No one should starve without freezing.”

Her marriage in Germany to Sieghardt von Schwanenfluegel ended in divorce, as did a later marriage to William Lawson, an American.

Lawson worked in the foreign language laboratory at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in the 1960s and ‘70s and taught German to military personnel. In 1968, she received a master’s degree in German from Georgetown University in Washington.

Survivors include two daughters from her first marriage, Sylvia Cole and Rose Curci, both of Medford, Ore.; and a grandson.

Cole said her mother, who moved to Oregon in 2003, died of congestive heart failure at a hospice center in Medford.

Lawson spent 10 years writing her memoir, which the Midwest Book Review found effective in showing how people “resorted to humor as a means of coping with the deprivation, the fear, the devastation, and the horrors of war.”

Cole said that the war and its hardships had a lasting effect on her mother, adding, “She would just shake her head when she saw someone in a restaurant take only a couple of bites from a sandwich.”