Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel Lawson was born in Germany during the First World War and witnessed Hitler's rise to power. She recalled the sudden disappearance of her Jewish paediatrician and the Nazi-orchestrated storm of violence in 1938 known as Kristallnacht. She later scraped by in the wasteland of Berlin after Allied bombing and endured the pillage by Soviet soldiers when Berlin fell.
During the Cold War she remained in West Berlin. But when the East German government erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, she moved to the US with her two daughters and lived in 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. "A joke was an escape out of the Nazi straitjacket," she wrote, "sand thrown into the gears of the Nazi propaganda machinery ... a means of silent resistance."
She remembered one of the first jokes as the Nazis tightened their grip: Hitler is fishing on the banks of the river Spree in Berlin, but the fish aren't biting. The Führer complains. "What did you expect?" a passer-by mutters. "Now even the fish are afraid to open their mouths."
As the war dragged on, food was almost impossible to find, and Lawson recalled dangerous eight-hour trips to the countryside to forage. Amid the suffering, 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."
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. She spent 10 years writing her memoir, which the Midwest Book Review found effective in showing how people "resorted to humour as a means of coping with the deprivation, the fear, the devastation, and the horrors of war."
Her daughter said that the war had a lasting effect on her mother: "She would just shake her head when she saw someone in a restaurant take only a couple of bites from a sandwich."
Dorothea Elisabeth Anna Schmidt, memoirist: born Gleiwitz, Germany 15 March 1916; married firstly Sieghardt von Schwanenfluegel (marriage dissolved; two daughters), secondly William Lawson (marriage dissolved); died 13 February 2014.
© The Washington PostReuse content