Alice Herz

Alice Herz bigraphy, stories - Activists

Alice Herz : biography

25 May 1882 – 26 March 1965

Alice Herz (25 May 1882 – 26 March 1965) was the first activist in the United States known to have immolated herself in protest of the escalating Vietnam War, following the example of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức who immolated himself in protest of the alleged oppression of Buddhists under the South Vietnamese government. She was a longtime peace activist, and also spoke Esperanto. Herz self-immolated on March 16, 1965, in Detroit, Michigan, at the age of 82. Stephen Burke and sons, William Burke and Stephen Burke, were driving by and saw her burning and put out the flames. She died of her injuries ten days later. According to Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge (2006), it was President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s address to Congress in support of a Voting Rights Act that led her to believe the moment was propitious to protest the Vietnam War. The war continued for another ten years following her death.

A German of Jewish ancestry, Herz was a widow who left Germany with her daughter, Helga, in 1933, saying that she anticipated the advent of Nazism long before it arrived. Alice and Helga Herz were living in France when Germany invaded in 1940. After spending time in an internment camp, Camp Gurs, near the Spanish border, Alice and Helga eventually came to the United States in 1942. They settled in Detroit, where Helga became a librarian at the Detroit Public Library and Alice worked for some time as an adjunct instructor of German at Wayne State University. The pair petitioned for, but were denied, U.S. citizenship due to their refusal to vow to defend the nation by arms. Helga Herz later reapplied and was granted citizenship in 1954. (A video about their lives, produced by Helga’s cousin, Diane Herz, is available on the Helga Herz Fan Page on Facebook.)

Herz wrote a last testament, which she distributed to several friends and fellow activists before her death. The testament specifically refers to her decision to follow the protest methods of the Buddhist Vietnamese monks and nuns, whose acts of self-immolation had received worldwide attention. Confiding to a friend before her death, Herz remarked that she had used all of the accepted protest methods available to activists—including marching, protesting, and writing countless articles and letters—and she wondered what else she could do. Japanese author and philosopher Shingo Shibata established the Alice Herz Peace Fund shortly after her death. A plaza in Berlin (Alice Herz Platz ) was named in her honor in 2003.