British justice shamed in case of suicide victim

A wartime Jewish refugee was sentenced to death for surviving a death pact with her mother

A shameful chapter of British wartime justice has been exposed in a new book which reveals how an English court passed the death sentence on a young and terrified German Jewish refugee who entered a suicide pact with her mother because both feared they would be murdered by the Nazis.

The harrowing story of Irene Coffee, who fled Dresden in Nazi Germany for Britain two years before the outbreak of the Second World War is told in Death Sentence for the Suicide Victim, by the author Heidrun Hannusch . Her book goes on sale in Germany this week.

"When I first heard of Irene Coffee's plight, I though it was absurd," Hannusch, who works as a journalist and author in Dresden, said. "But after reading her incredibly sad letters written from a Holloway prison death cell, the ordeal suffered by this innocent yet condemned person simply didn't let me go."

The plight of Irene Coffee was similar to that of the thousands of German Jewish refugees who fled to Britain from the beginning of the 1930s onwards. Born Irene Brann, she came from a well-off and educated Dresden Jewish family. Her father, who died in 1933, ran a prosperous grain and animal feed business. By 1937, Irene and her mother, Margarete, were on their own in the family's Dresden apartment as the Nazis stepped up their campaign of Jewish persecution. Her elder sister had escaped to Israel. Irene, then aged 26, fled to England. With the help of Jewish aid organisations and a lawyer called Isaak Fine, she was able to wed a British Jew called Aron Coffee. The arranged marriage at Stoke Newington town hall in north London, allowed her to obtain vital British citizenship.

The two never crossed paths again. However, Irene's British passport allowed her to bring her mother back to London to live with her. Irene had a job as a bank clerk and she and her mother lived in a series of rented flats in the city's Maida Vale. Hannusch records how mother and daughter were often at odds with their British neighbours who were suspicious of people with German accents and felt that the two women did not have a right to be in the country. The sense of impending doom was magnified by German air raids during the Blitz.

By the beginning of October 1941, Hitler's armies had penetrated deep into the Soviet Union and were only about 60 miles from Moscow. Irene was horrified. She believed German claims that the Red Army was finished. Margarete was even more convinced it was only a matter of time before the Nazis invaded Britain and they, as Jewish refugees, would be exterminated.

On 11 October 1941, mother and daughter decided to commit suicide together. Both were completely unaware that under British law of the time, suicide was a capital offence. Not only was taking one's own life illegal, but also anyone who helped another to commit suicide was guilty of murder. A doctor found Margarete dead in bed several days later. Irene had miraculously and unexpectedly survived, but she was delirious and covered in wounds she had inflicted on herself with a razor blade. Both had taken large amounts of the sleeping tablets. A letter written by Irene to Isaak Fine and intended to be opened after their deaths explained: "There is not the slightest hope for us, not now and not in the future. We are in despair because of our enemies, the Nazis, who are making slaves out of people in one country after another."

Irene was dispatched to Paddington hospital to recover. But eight days later she was charged with murder. She was transferred to a cell in Islington's Holloway prison and her trial began at the Old Bailey in December 1941. Irene was sentenced to death by Justice Travers Humphreys, who argued that, under English law, he was left with no other option. But he did forward the jury's "very strong recommendation" for a royal pardon to Herbert Morrison, the then Labour Home Secretary. On Morrison's advice, King George VI commuted Irene's sentence to life imprisonment. It took a further three months and imploring letters from Irene Coffee's British friends before the authorities could be persuaded to annul her life sentence and set her free.

In the early 1950s, Irene Coffee emigrated to Australia where she married the Swiss businessman Eduard Schleiss, who had changed his surname to Tell. Britain reformed its suicide laws in 1961, but Hannusch points out that, unlike Germany, where the Prussian authorities decriminalised suicide in 1751, Britain still treats the issue with the utmost suspicion.

And Irene Coffee finally did commit suicide. She died in Australia in 1968 after taking a massive overdose of sleeping pills. Heidrun Hannusch is convinced that the ordeal Irene suffered at the hands of British wartime justice marked her for life.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Sport
Sergio Romero saves Wesley Sneijder's penalty
world cup 2014But after defeating the Dutch, Lionel Messi and Argentina will walk out at the Maracana on Sunday as underdogs against Germany
Sport
Scoreboard at the end of the semi-final World Cup match between Brazil and Germany at The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte
Sport
'Saddest man in Brazil' takes defeat with good grace, handing replica trophy to German fans
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
video
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
News
The garage was up for sale in Canning Place Mews for £500,000
newsGarage for sale for £500,000
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile App/IOS Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC)

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Mobile App/IOS...

Front End Developer-JavaScript, Angular J.S, HTML, CSS, ASP.NET

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front End Deve...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil