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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Righteous Among the Nations Medal Awarded to Mati Driessen

On Display
By Charlotte Decoster, PhD

“In a world of total moral collapse, there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bound of their universe of obligation.”[1]

-Yad Vashem, World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration in Jerusalem

Yad Vashem and the Remembrance Authority in Israel embarked upon a worldwide project to grant title of Righteous Among the Nations to the few who helped Jews in the darkest time in their history. Yad Vashem set up a public Commission that examines each case and is responsible for granting the title. Those recognized receive a medal and a certificate of honor and their names are commemorated on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.

One of these Righteous Among the Nations was Martha (Mati) Driessen (1910-1990). Mati operated a costume design and dressmaking store in Köln, Germany with Lilli Wolff (1929-1983) and Meta Schmitt (1890-1951). Unfortunately, the women saw their store closed under Nazi German rule because Lilli was Jewish.

After its closure, the German government forced Lilli to work for a Wehrmacht (German Army) factory in Berlin, making German uniforms. Lilli recognized the danger living in Germany and asked her friend, the then famous actress Dorothea Neff, if she could move in with her in Vienna, Austria. Mati never lost contact with her business partner, Lilli, and visited her in Vienna. On one of these visits, Dorothea told Mati that she could no longer house Lilli. From this point forward, Mati took care of hiding Lilli for four and half years.

After liberation, Lilli emigrated to the United States in 1947 and settled in Dallas. She became a well-known dress designer—most notably for designing the gowns for the Miss America contest in 1952 (see video). However, the close bond between the women did not end after Lilli’s move. Lilli sponsored the emigration of Mati and her son, Klaus Driessen, to Dallas in 1958.

The Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance displays the Righteous Among the Nations medal of Mati Driessen in its Twentieth Train display of the permanent exhibition. Klaus Driessen, currently an instructor at the University of Texas at Arlington, has donated the corresponding certificate of honor to the Dallas Holocaust Museum. To learn more about this heroic story, view the Klaus Driessen video

Klaus Driessen and his mother, Mati.
Mati Driessen and Lilli Wolff