KIRCHHEIMBOLANDEN, GERMANY – German great-grandmother Lisel Heise’s ambition to enter politics crystallized a few years before her 100th birthday, when organizers of a public hearing cut off her microphone.
Heise, who retired from teaching school 40 years ago, was arguing for the reopening of an outdoor pool.
“When I started out, some people really didn’t want to listen to me apparently — they even pulled the plug!” she said, still stunned by the impudence.
“Now people from around the world are coming to talk to me. Who’s laughing now?”
What changed was Heise’s election, against the odds, to the town council of Kirchheimbolanden in southwestern Germany just weeks after she embarked on her second century on the planet.
It was no accident that the pool galvanized Heise, given two issues close to her heart: young people and public health.
Those concerns have also dovetailed in another pet cause: climate protection.
The remarkably spry Heise says she has taken inspiration from the Fridays for Future youth protest movement.
“The kids really give me hope. There is a tendency in politics to favor the car industry and that’s counterproductive,” she said.
“It’s great that the youth aren’t just waiting for the grown-ups to do something.”
Heise, who takes daily walks through the quaint old town of Kirchheimbolanden, population 8,000, is part of a groundswell of seniors unwilling to sit out their dotage on the sidelines of public life.
The Omas Gegen Rechts (Grannies Against the Right) action group fighting extremism launched in Austria in 2017 and has since expanded to Germany. It regularly rallies elderly women, drawing on the lessons of history to stand up to racism.
Heise’s political career began in earnest earlier this year when a town council member, Thomas Bock, 59, saw her as a potential ally.
Bock runs the political group Wir fuer Kibo (roughly We for Kibo, the town’s nickname), which is agitating against the established parties for more transparency and accountability.
He needed a candidate who would have the gravitas and passion to fight the powers that be.
“She’s got a strong character and bundles of energy,” he said.
Bock said the fact that most middle-aged Kirchheimbolanden natives had had Heise as a teacher when they were young was also a distinct advantage.
“Everyone respects her,” Bock said.
The town has been governed for more than two decades by Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU, most recently in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats just like the one Merkel leads in Berlin.
But WfK’s success has helped shift the majority, and now a new alliance of left-leaning parties is ready to take over the 24-member council.
Heise said her election was pure luck. “But now that I have the chance to right some wrongs, I’m going to seize it,” she added.
Not only is Heise a political rising star but also, of course, a witness to much of Germany’s tumultuous 20th century.
Born in the aftermath of World War I, Heise said her father Fritz Waltgenbach, who owned a shoe factory, was also a town council member.
After the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, he spoke out before his peers against the torching of the local synagogue and the persecution of Jews in their midst.
“The Nazis always talked about freedom but (in fact) you had to do what the party said and it led to awful things,” Heise said.
Waltgenbach spent several weeks in prison until a friend intervened with well-placed connections in Berlin, preventing him from being packed off to a concentration camp.
Heise said she likes to think she inherited some of his civic courage.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she smiled.
Heise lives a short walk from the site of the former synagogue, where a mature tree and a memorial now stand, in the sprawling house she once shared with her parents.
Widowed four years ago after more than seven decades of marriage, she now lives there with one of her four children and an adult grandson. She has eight great-grandchildren.
Heise regularly entertains visitors in her sitting room, which is filled with books including a prominently displayed volume of photos of Barack Obama.
“A politician needs to have a vision and think logically but also humanistically,” she said.
U.S. President Donald Trump, whose ancestors came from the nearby village of Kallstadt, is “turning the world upside down,” she said.
“I’m ashamed his grandfather is from here.”
Heise stays physically and mentally fit working in her flower garden and watching political talk shows.
Cafe owner Sepandar Lashkari, 44, said Heise had been one of his first customers when he opened for business a few years ago and they’ve been close friends ever since.
Lashkari, who moved to Germany from Iran as a teenager, called Heise “great publicity for the town.” He said she had also drained some of the cynicism that tends to pervade politics.
“A lot of people have become more politically active because of her,” he said. “She inspires young and old in a really positive way.”
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