Alice Strauss Herz was born in Hamburg, Germany on May 25, 1882 to a middle-class Jewish family. She married Paul Herz, a chemist and soldier, and had two children, a son and a daughter. After the death of her son and husband, Alice began intensive study of the Nazi movement, sensing the worst of what was to come long before it arrived. She fled to Switzerland, then France, with her daughter Helga (b. 1912). Alice worked as a news correspondent while Helga got a degree at the Sorbonne and became a teacher. After Germany invaded Paris, Alice and Helga were placed in a detention camp by the French for being German nationals. After 3 weeks, they were released and soon after, left for the US, settling in Detroit.
In the US, Alice worked as an adjunct instructor of German at Wayne State University, and Helga earned a degree in library science at University of Michigan, and went on to serve as a librarian for Detroit Public Library for 24 years. They petitioned for US citizenship but were denied for refusing to vow to take up arms to defend the country (Helga did gain citizenship in 1954). They both remained activists for peace, steadfastly joining causes and non-violent protests. In her later years, Alice joined the Society of Friends and, later, the Unitarians. She became increasingly concerned over the actions of the US involvement in Vietnam and the global arms race and that protests were not enough. On March 26, 1965, following the example of the Vietnamese monks, self-immolated, becoming the first person to do this on US soil. She died of her burns 11 days later, just shy of her 83rd birthday, leading to an outcry from around the world including leading the Detroit Women for Peace to protest and demand peaceful change. Japanese author and philosopher Shingo Shibata established the Alice Herz Peace Fund shortly after her death, and Alice Herz Platz was named in her honor in Berlin in 2003.
After Alice’s death, Helga continued to work for peace and, after retiring in 1978, headed the library at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University. Her work has been compiled as the Helga Herz Peace Archives. She received the Spirit of Detroit Award for her tireless volunteer work, and was active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) for many years. In 2000, she won an appeal for reparations of property seized by the Nazis in East Berlin, and gave the proceeds to the German Branch of WILPF. She died in Silver Spring, MD in 2010.
For today, take a moment to reflect on Alice’s last written words (taken from a communication she asked Shibata to give the the Japanese UN ambassador to take to the UN about on-going atrocities): “Yours is the responsibility to decide, if this world should be a good place for all human beings, in dignity and peace, or it should blow itself up to oblivion.”