Lilly Wust reached into her bag and pulled out a silver signet ring attached to a chain. Her voice broke. "I am so nervous," said the Berliner, her hand shaking as she held a cigarette. The ring was given to Wust by her lover, Felice Schragenheim, on Aug. 21, 1944--minutes before Felice, a Jew living in Berlin under an assumed name, was dragged out of Wust's apartment by the Gestapo. "She knew that where she was going she couldn't have jewelry," Wust said.
What preceded that moment in the apartment was nearly two years of an unusual and passionate love affair. Elisabeth "Lilly" Wust was a pretty redhead in her late twenties and the wife of a Nazi soldier away at the Eastern Front. She had earned the bronze "Mother Cross" medal after the birth of her fourth child. Felice was 21, the daughter of two established dentists, gregarious, cosmopolitan and intelligent. Part of a resistance group, Felice worked undercover at a National Socialist newspaper and lived under the assumed name Felice Schrader. She seduced Lilly Wust with poems and flowers. In their life together Felice was "Jaguar"; Lilly was her "Aimee."
Their story is told through a German film, "Aimee & Jaguar," which was released in Germany last year and opens in Washington this week. Based on the book of the same name, written by the Jewish Austrian author Erica Fischer, the movie premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999, where both lead actresses were awarded the prestigious Silver Bear.
This year the 50th Berlin Film Festival relocated from its site near the Zoo train station in the heart of former West Berlin, near the cafe where the two women first met, to the Potsdamer Platz, Berlin's reemerging city center, which only a decade ago was no-man's land on the east side of the Berlin Wall, and which lies near the site of Hitler's bunker. Max Farberbock, the film's director, said it was important for him to portray the chaos that prevailed in Berlin during the Third Reich. "It was as if Berliners were on a bus with the driver gone mad and people being thrown from side to side," he said.
Throughout that chaos, Felice attended concerts and public events despite the danger of being discovered. "She used that fear like a drug," said Maria Schrader, the actress who played Felice, and who said she prepared intensely for the role by studying Felice's poetry and letters. "She sucked life in."
Lilly first met Felice at a cafe near Berlin's Zoo train station. "She started flirting with me immediately," Wust said. Inge Wolf, Wust's nanny, who was also Felice's lover, introduced them. Soon the three were having supper every night at Wust's apartment. The housewife with four sons said she was only truly freed the first time she kissed Felice.
The 87-year-old Wust talks about her lover as if she had seen her yesterday. She remembers conversations that took place nearly 60 years ago.
After months of falling for the brunette who always wore pants, Wust grew suspicious about why Felice would disappear for days at a time and not tell her where she was going. One night in May 1943, Wust confronted her. Wust said she fought with Felice for half the night. "Finally, she said to me, 'Will you still love me if you know the truth?' " She then told Wust that she was Jewish.
"I took her in my arms and said, 'Now, more than ever,' " Wust said.
Felice had left Berlin every time there was a major deportation of Jews from the city to stay with friends in the mountains. A few years before, Felice, whose parents both died before the war, had passed on a chance to emigrate to Palestine with her stepmother, according to the book. Instead, she planned to escape to Chicago to live with an uncle who had pressed authorities for her visa. After her ship, and several subsequent ships, failed to sail to America in 1941, her visa expired and diplomatic relations between the United States and Germany broke off, ending her hopes for a new visa. She was trapped in Berlin.
Felice had learned English, and she wanted to be a journalist. She wanted to see the world. "She would have accomplished many things in life," Wust said.
Following Felice's arrest in Lilly's apartment, she was deported to the ghetto Theresienstadt, where her grandmother had died two years before. She was later sent to Auschwitz and on to the concentration camp Gross-Rosen. She is presumed to have died on a death march.
In the winter of 1945-46, Lilly began her "Book of Tears," a compilation of all the poems that Aimee and Jaguar had written to each other. She began living in the past, and said that she never loved again.
"I was like a snail climbing back into its shell," said Wust, who still keeps a candle lit beneath a photo of Felice on her wall.
Wust did not go public with her experience for four decades, until a journalist learned of it and contacted her. The story then picked up momentum, leading to Fischer's book and the film. Four years ago, a traveling exhibit on Felice and Lilly made its way through Germany; thus began a steady stream of letters to Wust.
In 1981 Wust was honored with the Order of the Federal Republic of Germany for her role in sheltering Felice and three other Jewish women after Felice's deportation. Last year, Wust joined the ranks of Oskar Schindler and received one of Israel's highest honors, "Righteous Among the Nations."
Lilly, who divorced her husband, remained in Berlin after the war and encouraged her children to learn about Judaism. She even registered them in school as Jews. Her second son, Eberhard, embraced the religion wholeheartedly. At 14, Eberhard converted to Judaism and has lived in Israel since 1961.
The film "Aimee & Jaguar" had a strong resonance in Germany among teenage girls, who are fascinated by the love story, and also among the older generation, representatives from the film company said.
Christa Heinz had tears in her eyes as she left a Berlin theater after seeing the movie. "I have never seen a German film like this," said the 50-year-old dry cleaner. She said it was important that the film was made by Germans. "Foreign directors just don't know exactly how we think," she said.
For Wust, the best part of the film was having her lover brought back to life by Maria Schrader. "I felt that she had stepped into the skin of Felice," Wust said in an interview. An hour after the interview Wust ran into the actress in the lounge of Berlin's Kempinski Hotel, where the movie promotion was taking place. They gave each other a long hug. "Be sure to give that baby of yours a kiss for me," Wust told Schrader. Schrader's infant daughter lay in a carriage nearby.
Her name is Felice.
Aimee & Jaguar" opens Friday at the Visions Cinema in Washington and the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax.