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.