Charlotte Hugues Self has, for many years, been a familiar presence at Blue Ridge Community College’s Center for Lifelong Learning, sharing her love of classical music in a series of popular classes on opera and serving as a member of BRCLL’s board of directors. Less well known is Self’s remarkable story of growing up in pre-World War Two Germany as Hitler rose to power, detailed in her 2016 memoir The Hitler Years Through the Eyes of a Child, the basis of her talk this month.
“My mother was a physician who refused to join the Nazi party and became a member of the resistance instead,” relates Self. “I helped her in her work and became a courier for the resistance when I was 16.” At first working in her northern German hometown delivering hidden messages on her bicycle, Self was making frequent journeys to Vienna by the time war broke out, carrying secret papers to resistance workers outside of Germany. With a partial Jewish ancestry in his family tree, Charlotte’s father was driven from his government job under Hitler’s pre-war Nuremberg laws and fled to Britain. Their home telephones were tapped, a fact fortunately relayed to them by a telephone installer who was a family friend. “Mother and I had all our political or potentially dangerous conversations in a small upstairs toilet,” Self remembers. “This lasted for nine years, until the end of the war.”
Even with the war’s end, daily life remained precarious under occupation from three different armies — American, British, and Russian — as the Allied powers began to divide the country between them. Since she had served as a Red Cross nurse during the war and so was considered part of the German army support staff, Self became a prisoner of war in May of 1945. “The Americans came to fraternize, the British came to colonize, and the Russians came to terrorize,” she says about the immediate aftermath of the war, adding, “And nothing has changed.”
Her most emotionally wrenching experience was her escape from the country’s Russian-controlled zone to the British zone, fleeing on a British Red Cross train and forced to leave her mother behind. She was only 19, and would not see her hometown again for 40 years.
After a peripatetic postwar journey from Germany to Britain to join her father and begin professional training as a medical technician, and then on to Canada and California, where she earned a Masters degree in Immunology and laboratory management, she settled in Hendersonville in 2005 with her husband Syd Self.
Her advocacy for those uprooted by war and other strife is based on her personal experience as a refugee and an immigrant. “Love and kindness restored me, and that is why I feel so strongly that every refugee deserves to find open arms, somewhere.”
Charlotte Self speaks at Blue Ridge Community College’s Bo Thomas Auditorium (180 West Campus Drive, Flat Rock) on Tuesday, May 21, 4pm. It’s a free program, suitable for ages 7 years or older. For more information, call 828-694-1740 or see brcll.com.