Franziska Stein

Obituary of Franziska Irmtraud Stein

Franziska Stein died on December 15, 2021, at her home in Reston, Virginia, with her family at her side. She lived an extraordinary life, through World War II, a civil war, the cold war, and a global pandemic. She did not think she had a good life, having suffered so much during WWII, and in many ways, even more in the peace that followed. She most certainly did not have an easy life. But she retained a strong sense of humor, optimism, and joyfulness as she collected friends wherever she went.

She was born on December 27, 1922, in the town of Pirkenhammer, Czechoslovakia, near the Internationally famous resort city of Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary). She was baptized Irmtraud Franziska Katharina Anna Slansky into the Catholic faith. A few years later, following the death of her grandparents, her family moved to Karlsbad, and she lived an idyllic childhood playing in the mountains near her home. In 1938 Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, the ethnically German area of Czechoslovakia and her childhood ended abruptly with the start of WWII in 1939. Karlsbad was spared from direct military action and was generally spared the deprivation that came with it, but the city and Franziska were not immune to the war’s effects. Her father’s best friend was Jewish, and he was deported to a concentration camp and her father, who served in the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI, was again conscripted into military service.

Forced into compulsory service by the Nazi regime in 1941, she chose to join the Red Cross, and with only a few weeks training, became a surgical nurse caring for soldiers injured while fighting on the Eastern front. One of these soldiers was Georg Stein, wounded when his horse stepped on a mine in August 1941. He saw her standing on a balcony while waiting for triage and fell instantly in love with her. He called endlessly over the next two months for nurses to come to his bedside while he was recovering until she finally was the nurse on duty. When asked what he needed, apologizing that she hadn’t come more quickly, he said “No, no, it’s just that I’ve been looking all over for you!” Six months later they were married. She said he was as daring and romantic as the man she had always imagined in her dreams.

They were married in March 1942, and spent a short honeymoon in Küstrin, Poland where Georg was stationed. Franziska returned to Karlsbad, and throughout the rest of the war she would split her time between her service as a nurse in Karlsbad and following Georg to the front to care for him when he was again injured and ill. In 1944, she became a mother when her daughter was born, and Georg was granted three days of leave. As Franziska was ill with the effects of eclampsia and unable to discuss what to name their child, Georg went to register the birth the next day as required by law and chose the name Barbara, the patron saint of artillery men, before leaving again.

By the time the war ended in May 1945, Franziska had lost all contact with her husband, her father, and her in-laws in Berlin and her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Russian soldiers occupied Karlsbad for a short time, and though many women were raped, Franziska was fortunate to only lose her wristwatch to them. Later the Czech soldiers occupied Karlsbad, and they were much worse than the Russians, brutally beating ethnic Germans for no cause and assaulting women caught alone. Then came the Beneš Decrees, which in totality, stripped all ethnic Germans of basic rights, wealth, property, income, and ultimately their homes, as they were ordered to leave the country. Franziska left Karlsbad on October 25, 1945, for Berlin with her daughter in tow, a backpack, and a small suitcase, leaving her ailing mother behind. The Allies had agreed to the expulsion of German people from Czechoslovakia and Poland so long as it was orderly and humane. It was anything but humane, and millions perished in the journey or soon after arriving in devastated Germany at the onset of winter. The Beneš Decrees are still in effect today.

She arrived in Berlin and found her in-laws were still alive, though their house had been commandeered by the U.S. Army. She and her daughter joined them in a small apartment, much to their dismay, and a few days later Franziska announced that she going to illegally return to Karlsbad to be with her mother and to bring back valuable Stein-family items she could not carry on her first trip. She headed back to Karlsbad armed with a bottle of whiskey and her cunning wit. She arrived in time to comfort her mother during her last breaths, and after her death on December 1, 1945, arranged for her burial. She negotiated transportation back to Berlin with a Soviet driver who would be chauffeuring two Soviet officers to the city, and narrowly escaped capture by Czech Police minutes before departure.

Upon their arrival in Berlin, she saw her husband standing on a street corner and called to him. Georg turned instantly pale, seeing someone who looked like his wife in a Soviet officer’s car and wearing a Soviet uniform, as he was afraid he would be taken prisoner again. He had just been released from a Soviet POW camp and had walked back to Berlin. Her father also eventually made his way to Berlin to join her. The cumulation of war injuries and the suffering as a POW meant that Georg was in constant pain for the rest of his life and dependent on Franziska.

Life in Berlin slowly improved but the onset of the Soviet blockade caused widespread suffering. She would stand for hours waiting at a shop rumored to have food only to find that the ration cards were worthless when nothing was available. By the mid-1950s she and Georg were exhausted by the daily struggle to survive, and Franziska’s father had died – she believed the cause was a broken heart as he had lost everything in a war that was unjust. Convinced by a friend of the great opportunities available, she and her family set off for a new life in Colombia with meager savings and two words of Spanish between them. Upon arrival, the Colombian immigration officer declared her name of Irmtraud to be an improper Catholic name and renamed her Franziska Irmtraud Stein. Not wanting to be left out, her husband changed his name from the German Georg to the English George. With new names they welcomed their new life.

Franziska described her time in Colombia as her great awakening, diving into the culture, the geography, and the history. In 1957 they opened a small pension hotel in Cali, Residencia Stein, offering rooms with full board. Her clients were often German or American engineers or businessmen, and they soon had a long waiting list. Through a friend they leased a larger property and moved their hotel to a grand colonial house. It is still in operation today under the name Hotel Stein Colonial, owned and operated by the Frei family that bought the hotel from the Steins in 1966. One of her clients was a lawyer, Mr. Zieschang, from Germany who specialized in filing restitution claims for victims of the Nazi Regime. Zieschang, as she called him, recruited her. Over the 40 years that she worked with him and his successor, Bernhard Blankenhorn, she took in over 4,000 case histories. They were successful in winning claims for most of their clients and she successfully lobbied for changes in German law to extend benefits for a group of miners in Colombia. Often the payments were life changing for the recipients, lifting them from poverty and allowing them to start a business or send their children to school or university.

Another of their boarders would eventually become their son-in law and lead them to the United States. Her daughter got married and settled in Denver, Colorado and three years later, Franziska and George bought a small restaurant in Lyons to be close to their daughter and new granddaughter. They operated the iconic Black Bear Inn for eleven years but running such a large business mostly by herself along with her human rights work was taking a heavy toll on her. In 1977 they sold the Black Bear and settled into semi-retirement. She volunteered at the Denver Art Museum, specializing in pre-Columbian artifacts, and she later helped her daughter open Café Vienna in an old Victorian styled home in Longmont, Colorado that also had an art gallery, F&B Gallery, on the second floor. Later, she and her daughter would become estranged, and she ran the restaurant herself under the name Franziska’s for several years. The reunification of Germany became the excuse she and her husband needed to fully retire. In 1990 they moved back to Berlin, near the neighborhood George grew up in.

In 1992, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, she and George returned to Karlsbad to renew their marriage vows in the church they were married in surrounded by their friends and family. George died in 1996, shortly after they repaired their relationship with their daughter.

Franziska was an enthusiastic member of the Berlin International Women’s Club, and she began writing her autobiography at the urging of friends. In 2005, Viermal Leben und Zurück: Die Reise der Franziska I. Stein was published in Germany. In 2010, when her first great grandchild was born, she moved to Reston, Virginia to be with her granddaughter. She joined a writers group and worked with her granddaughter to rewrite her autobiography in English. In 2018, the first edition of Chopin Through the Window: an Autobiography was published. Just prior to the book’s release, Franziska was devastated by the death of her only child, Barbara. Nonetheless, she carried on. She did several book promotion events in Virginia and a book signing event in Colorado. In early 2022 Chopin Through the Window will be republished by WordHouse Books.

Throughout her life Franziska would befriend people easily and maintain contact with many over the years. She was well read and would follow politics in the U.S. and Germany with great attention. She loved classical music, attending concerts and dance performances, and entertaining friends with her apple strudel.

Franziska is survived by her granddaughter Dr. Amy Crews Cutts, grandson-in-law James Cutts, and great grandson Andrew Cutts, all of Reston, Virginia. She also claimed her former son-in-law’s children as her adopted grandchildren: Dr. Karen Crews Gregg of Lyons, Colorado, and Brenda Crews Martinez of Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

A celebration of life is being planned in July in Colorado. If you would like to make a charitable donation in memory of Franziska, her family suggests the following organizations:

Lyons Historical Society, P.O. Box 9, Lyons, CO 80540

Website: http://www.lyonsredstonemuseum.com/

Marlow Guitar International, 451 N. Hungerford Dr., Suite 119-482, Rockville, MD  20850

Website: https://marlowguitar.org/donate/

A Memorial Tree was planted for Franziska
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