Hilde Birnbaum, who fled from Nazi Germany, dies at 94

Living in Nazi Germany, Hilde Birnbaum learned the importance of human rights after seeing Adolf Hitler strip them away.

She fled the Nazi regime in the 1930s, then spent much of her life as an activist with a passion for health care and civil liberties.

"I can remember the enthusiasm and excitement with which she and my father used to follow the presidential nominating conventions," her daughter, Ann Birnbaum, said. "It was like other people following the World Series."

Mrs. Birnbaum, the first female president of Group Health and a longtime community-service leader, died Tuesday (Aug. 12) of natural causes at Ida Culver House — Broadview. She was 94.

She was born Hilde Merzbach on Feb. 2, 1909. She left Germany to work in England, then later left Europe by boat and arrived in Montreal in 1938. She then took a train to Seattle where her parents and younger sister, Edith Alice Lobe, had already settled. Most of the Merzbachs, a Jewish family, were able to escape the Holocaust.

Lobe, a dedicated activist who later became president of the League of Women Voters of Seattle, was helping other Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. While volunteering, Lobe and her husband, Ludwig, had met Z. William (Bill) Birnbaum, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and arranged for him to meet Hilde.

The couple married in December 1940.

"Their generation was so committed to activism," Ann Birnbaum said.

In her parents' house, activism was as natural as wiping "your shoes at the front door — you just did it," she said.

Mrs. Birnbaum earned a law degree from a university in Frankfurt and worked as an assistant judge in various state courts in Germany. After settling in Seattle, she returned to school for a master's degree in economics at the University of Washington. Mrs. Birnbaum taught at various community colleges and became the chairwoman of the economics department at Bellevue Community College.

She soon started working with the Group Health Cooperative, becoming its first female president in 1955, according to the nonprofit's Web site. Mrs. Birnbaum served as a Group Health trustee for more than 20 years.

In 1993, Mrs. Birnbaum and her husband made a major donation to Group Health, which founded the Hilde and Bill Birnbaum Endowed Fund for Benefiting Patients through Healthcare Research.

The fund finances an annual Birnbaum lecture about new health-care research. The couple also set up another fund for the Woodland Park Zoo, known as the Zoobright.

Bill Birnbaum died in 2000.

Ann Birnbaum says that both of her parents were passionately committed to community. Both were founding members of Hilltop community in Bellevue and lived there for 25 years. They saw it as the chance to build a planned community based on cooperation.

"They were very, very aware of what one could do as an individual to serve the community," she said.

Mrs. Birnbaum was also a freedom of speech advocate. In 1992, she wrote a letter to The Seattle Times criticizing the National Endowment for the Arts campaign to cut off funding for art it found offensive.

Her son, Richard "Dick" Birnbaum, described his mom as a "tough cookie."

"She was a complex, powerful, determined woman," he said. "Being sweet was not her strong suit, but lots of people loved her dearly."

Besides her son and daughter, Mrs. Birnbaum is survived by her grandson, Eli Birnbaum Clifton.

Mary Spicuzza: 206-464-3192 or mspicuzza@seattletimes.com