Giselle “Ishi” Menke, age 96, died peacefully in her sleep on January 11, after a long and mercifully slow decline from Alzheimer’s. She was a retired German teacher at the French International School, now Lycée Rochambeau, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Born in Hamburg on May 5, 1924, Giselle grew up in Berlin. Her adolescent years in Hitler’s Germany, with all the terror and deprivations of civilian life in wartime, left her with a deep commitment to peace and to the universal respect for human dignity. Shortly after the war, she met the love of her life, Walter E. Menke, an American GI, 22 years her senior and a former Berliner, whose career as judge in Berlin was interrupted by Nazi persecution. He was Jewish. He immigrated to the US in 1936 and at age 40 volunteered for the US army.
In 1949 Giselle also immigrated to the US, and began her studies of history at Columbia University. She renounced her German citizenship and in July 1950 was the first post-war immigrant from Germany granted US citizenship (though on appeal after proving she had been expelled from the BDM, the Nazi youth group that all girls had to join, for wearing lipstick!). They got married in Arlington, VA and Giselle rejoined Walter, in Bonn, Germany, where their only child was born. In 1953, Walter ran afoul of McCarthyism.
Their faith in their adoptive country unbroken, they returned to New York. She was just shy of completing coursework for a Ph.D. at Columbia when Walter’s appeal of his dismissal succeeded and he joined the US Foreign Service as a legal advisor, which took them to what felt like the other end of the earth: Saigon, Vietnam.
With all her vitality and openness–and her excellent French–Giselle embraced life in beautiful post-colonial Saigon, volunteered to teach English at an orphanage, and travelled to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, to Japan, Laos and, most adventurously with a female friend, to Nepal. A couple of months before the first US troops were sent to Vietnam, Walter’s career brought him to back to Washington, DC.
Constrained by her devotion to family, she abandoned her dream of becoming an historian, and instead discovered her vocation as a teacher of German, the kind of teacher who inspires and challenges, and in whom students entrust their troubles. Her devoted and highly intellectual husband, by then retired, supported her by accepting as he liked to quip, “a promotion to houseman”. He even learned some cooking.
At her retirement, she was honored with the “Palmes académiques”, which is awarded by the French government to distinguished academics and teachers.
After her husband’s death in 1979– as a public servant, he had been scrupulous in refraining from expressing his political views in public– she discovered her voice as an engaged citizen and participated in many peace and social justice marches in D.C., where she was often joined by her daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters.
In 2009 she moved to Lancaster to live with her daughter and son-in-law.
Above all, Giselle will be remembered for the liveliness with which she could turn any occasion into a celebration and for her generous and embracing enthusiasm, which could turn close friends into family.
An avid swimmer, horseback rider, tennis player and lover of dogs, she was also happy pursuing solitary pleasures at home, playing her piano every evening and reading widely. Her phenomenal memory allowed her to memorize poems and in her youth even entire plays.
When her dementia advanced to the point where she did not always recognize her daughter, she could still remember poems in three languages, poems which enriched even the last few weeks of her life.
She is survived by her daughter Anne “Nina” Harman-Menke (Mark Harman) of Lancaster, granddaughters Eva Harman Catala (Olivier Catala) of New York City, Keara Harman (Ryan Walker) and great-grandson Silvius Walker, all of Lancaster, and by nephew Felix (Pat) Menke of Melbourne, Australia.
A celebration of her life will be held privately when Covid permits.
Memorial contributions in Giselle’s name can be made to the US Holocaust Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024 (USHMM.org), or to Landis Homes Adult Day Services, 1001 East Oregon Rd., Lititz, PA 17543
On-line condolences may be sent to ambiguous-route.flywheelstaging.com
We had the pleasure of seeing her at Gretna Music concerts where her joy in listening to music was apparent. She had a glow about her – and light in her eyes. Thank you for sharing this obituary about an exceptional life. Anyone who came in contact her must have been inspired. Thank goodness she had you and your family with her in her later years. That would have brightenened her light.
Our most heartfelt condolences for the passing of Ishi. At your dinner parties, we certainly gained a sense for who she might have been in her younger years, a very smart, quick-witted, and perhaps even very cunning woman. Thank you for sharing Ishi’s obituary and helping those perceptions come to life. She was truly a remarkable woman, who lived and extraordinary life. We fill honored to have seen a glimpse of who she was.
Peace and love,
Mike and Erica
Toutes nos condoléances. Frau Menke, “Madame Menke” (j’étais élève d’espagnol), était une institution. Heureux d’avoir lu le parcours de sa belle vie.
Elle laisse de bons souvenirs à toute la communauté de l’EFI, Lycée Rochambeau.
Paix à son âme.
Jean-Paul, pour la famille Paddack
Gisèle Menke, une étoile brillante, une joie de vivre dans le passé d’une collègue de la French International School devenu Lycée Rochambeau.
Nina, sa fille, mon élève, je t’embrasse de tout cœur.
Merci, Françoise, mon ancien prof de Math. Je vous embrasse aussi.
I’m so sadden by her passing. There where 3 foreign languages teachers at the Ecole Francaise,: Latin, German and myself Spanish. We always had long conversations about every thing. My sincere condolence to Nina.
Thank you for remembering my mother. I am sure the trio of foreign language teachers had a lot to talk about.
I am saddened to hear of Frau Menke’s passing. I was lucky to have re-connected to her prior to her departure for PA. She would tell stories of her fight for just causes with the same passion as she taught her students.
Möge sie in Frieden ruhen.
Thank you, Marie-Pierre, for your appreciation of the passion with which she threw herself into her teaching and her fight for just causes.
Dear Nina, Mark, Eva , Keara,
Une grande dame est partie. Toutes les heures passées avec Giselle était un enchantement . Un vrai soleil qui illuminait la journée . Souvent je pense à Giselle, à ses doux moments passés à la piscine, aux manifestations pour la paix où nous nous rejoignions, à ses poèmes qu’elle récitait avec tant de plaisir , à cette mémoire extraordinaire des livres , de la déclaration des droits de l’homme…
Giselle était gourmande du temps présent
Je me rappelle ton sourire Giselle qui mettait ma tristesse en déroute. Tu fais partie de ces îles secrètes , firmaments de nos vies qui guident nos pas pour toujours.
Votre témoignage, Sylvianne nous a tous ému. Merci
My deepest condolences. Frau Menke was an institution at the Lycée and well respected. I now learned of her impressive journey through life thanks to this description and feel all the more fortunate she was part of the lycée. From a former student of Rochambeau
Merci, Rachel, pour vos beaux mots. It would have made her very happy to know you remembered her….
Oh my Beloved Ishi is now at peace. So many stories and laughs we shared! She was a mentor and a substitute mom. Coffee, croissant, &conversations is how we started many a joyful morning….and I should add putting bird food on the railings of the porch and watching the hungry birds gather.
I can’t imagine a more full filled life!
Rest In Peace my dearest friend!
Peace & Love,
Yes, she is at peace now, and yes after a life with so much giving of herself that is a good thing. Thank you for reminding us how much she could enjoy the small things in life.
Dear Nina, Mark, Eva, Keara and family,
We were saddened to hear of your beloved Ishi’s death. We clearly remember the “liveliness with which she could turn any occasion into a celebration…” that you described so well in her obituary and feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience that. She was a force to be reckoned with, she had a rich and well lived life, and we wish you comfort in your memories in the time ahead.
Thank you Janneke and Alan. Your kind words mean apt to all of us.