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