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Pain of Rare Illness Drives Kohl's Wife to Commit Suicide

July 06, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's wife, Hannelore, was found dead Thursday at the family home in Oggersheim. Letters left for her husband, sons and friends indicated that she had taken her own life to escape the pain of a rare illness that made her allergic to sunlight.

The smiling, blond 68-year-old--who had been a fixture at Kohl's side throughout his 16 years as chancellor, including during the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany--had been forced to live as a prisoner in her home for the last 15 months. She was able to venture out for fresh air only in total darkness, for late-night "power walks," an acquaintance said.

Her debilitating illness even caused her to miss younger son Peter's wedding in Turkey in May.

The mounting severity of Hannelore Kohl's illness coincided with the emotional trauma of a political scandal that tainted her husband's legacy as the "chancellor of unity" and left him off the stage last year during a celebration marking the 10th anniversary of reunification.

In a cruel irony, Helmut Kohl on Wednesday scored his first moral victory in the protracted scandal, winning a court order sealing transcripts of official conversations during the 1980s secretly recorded by Communist East Germany's intelligence service, the Stasi.

Kohl and the couple's older son, Walter, rushed to the family home in Rhineland-Palatinate state after a cleaning woman discovered the body at 11:15 a.m.

"Due to the hopelessness of the state of her health, she decided on her own to withdraw from life," read a statement issued by Kohl's Berlin office. "She announced this decision to her husband, her sons and friends in farewell letters."

No autopsy was planned, and the district attorney's office in nearby Ludwigshafen announced that it had concluded its investigation into her death based on the letters, Chief Prosecutor Lothar Liebig said. Authorities declined to say how she took her life.

News of Hannelore Kohl's death prompted condolence letters from political leaders throughout Europe. One of the first to send his sympathies was former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose own wife, Raisa, died nearly two years ago while undergoing treatment for leukemia at a German hospital.

"Your feelings of loss are felt by all of us who had the privilege of knowing this wonderful woman," Gorbachev wrote to the 71-year-old Kohl, with whom he had a close and intense relationship in the late 1980s as the spread of democracy through Eastern Europe threw the two statesmen together.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who defeated Kohl at the polls nearly three years ago, also sent a heartfelt condolence in a public address, as did German President Johannes Rau.

Born Hannelore Renner in Berlin on March 7, 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler's rise to power, she met Kohl as a teenager amid the poverty of postwar Frankfurt at a dance sponsored by Quaker relief workers. The pair waited more than a decade--she working as a translator of English and French, he finishing his law degree in Heidelberg--before they married in 1960.

As Helmut Kohl became active in conservative politics, his wife raised their two sons and was at his side for the endless fund-raisers and public events to which those who seek elected office are beholden.

During his years as chancellor--spent in the former capital, Bonn--she chaired numerous charitable and relief organizations, including one founded in her name to aid accident victims. She also wrote several cookbooks celebrating the hearty national cuisine her husband loved, including his favorite dish: saumagen, or pig's belly stuffed with meat and potatoes.

She fiercely defended her husband after it was disclosed in late 1999 that at least $1 million in unreported, and therefore illegal, donations had been made to the Christian Democratic Union he headed for a quarter of a century. When Kohl was stripped of his honorary lifetime CDU chairmanship, she stood by his side, saying: "We survived World War II. We will also cope with this."

She was found to have the rare light allergy in 1993 after undergoing penicillin treatment. Increasingly, she was forced to take cover during the day because sunlight caused a severe reaction, including fever and rashes.

"She fought against it tirelessly, always trying to keep her strength up," said Jochen Cholin, a Defense Ministry official and friend of the couple. "She would go out for power walks when it was total darkness, with bodyguards following along in a car."

She had been taking painkillers for years, but neither medication nor examination by specialists in Germany and abroad brought relief from her little-understood illness.

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