Beate Ruhm von Oppen, 86, St. John's tutor

August 13, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Beate Ruhm von Oppen, one of the longest-serving faculty members at St. John's College in Annapolis who wrote about German resistance to the Nazis, died of a pulmonary embolism Tuesday at her home in the city's historic district. She was 86.

Miss von Oppen taught last fall and had planned until recently to continue as a tutor, as faculty are called at the college. She joined the college in 1960, said Rosemary Harty, director of communications for St. John's.

Her book on the resistance, Letters to Freya, remains popular in Germany and won the prestigious Scholl Prize in 1989, said Eva Brann, a tutor at the college since 1957 and a neighbor and friend.

"She was a very devoted student of the German resistance to Hitler," Miss Brann said. "The letters are really quite moving."

Miss von Oppen was selected by Freya von Moltke, now in her 90s and living in Vermont, to edit and translate letters from her husband, Helmuth James von Moltke. A legal adviser to the Third Reich, he worked from within to undermine it until he was caught and executed -- but not before his letters were smuggled out by a resistance chaplain, Miss Brann said.

Miss von Oppen was born in Zurich, Switzerland, and raised in Germany until 1934, when she left at the age of 16 for a Quaker boarding school in Holland. Even as a teenager, she said in an interview, she was saddened by the masses of people who followed the rising Nazi regime.

After high school, she moved to England -- becoming a British citizen -- and earned a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Birmingham, where she was an art librarian from 1939 to 1943. Miss von Oppen worked for the British Foreign Office analyzing German propaganda during World War II, then joined the Royal Institute of International Affairs and later was a researcher at Nuffield College of Oxford University.

She came to New York in 1959 for a short visit with family members, but remained. She first worked on a microfilming project by the Committee for the Study of War Documents of the American Historical Association -- sifting through captured German documents in Alexandria, Va.

She also worked briefly at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University before joining St. John's College as a tutor in 1960.

In 1993, Miss von Oppen was the resistance memorial lecturer in Berlin as Germany observed the July 20, 1944, attempt by officers of the German general staff to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a bomb.

"These people were useful for diplomatic reasons after the war," she said at the event, calling the resisters "an enclave of heaven in hell."

She said the leader of the July 20 assassination attempt, Gen. Henning von Tresckow, defended the officers' actions in biblical terms: "I believe that I can defend what I have done in the struggle against Hitler in good conscience," the general said. "Just as God once promised Abraham he would not destroy Sodom if but 10 righteous people could be found there, so I hope that God will not annihilate Germany for our sakes."

Miss von Oppen took leave from St. John's during the early 1960s, when she taught German history as a visiting lecturer at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Ms. Harty said.

During the late 1960s, Miss von Oppen was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and the Center for International Studies, both at Princeton University. She received a translation and editing grant in 1978 from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Miss von Oppen also loved classical music, especially Bach, and played oboe and sang in a chorus when younger, Miss Brann said. She owned about 4,000 books.

"She was a great correspondent. She carried on correspondence all over the world," Miss Brann said. "She was thought to be quite witty."

In 2000, Miss von Oppen wrote a book from her translation of prewar letters from von Moltke's South African mother, A Life in Germany. She also published a collection of lectures she delivered at Princeton as Religion and Resistance to Nazism.

Funeral services will be private, Miss Brann said. A memorial service is being planned for Miss Von Oppen this fall at the college's Great Hall.

Miss von Oppen is survived by a sister, Delia Walker of Birmingham, England; two nephews; and a niece.

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