To walk through the Ninemile Schoolhouse at Christmastime, past the tables of Hanneke Ippisch’s hand-painted nativity scenes, was like visiting a new world under each stable roof.
Ippisch and her husband, Les, produced dozens of different crèche displays, filling them with characters particular to each fanciful tabletop. A Polish crèche featured dancers in folk costume. A Washington, D.C., version had George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in attendance. A Butte nativity took place in a replica of an historic Finntown church, with a street peddler named Shoestring Annie herding stray cats and dogs to the manger.
Researching Ippisch’s life, after she died on April 15 at the age of 87, has the same bewildering shifts from story to story. Her teenage years as a Dutch Resistance spy during World War II. Immigration to America, where she ran restaurants and puppet theaters in San Francisco. The move to Montana in the 1970s, where she raised the Christmas ornament market to entirely new levels. Welcoming Tibetan refugees to Missoula as part of an international resettlement program after Chinese repression of Tibet increased. Successful playwright.
Ippisch told much of her Resistance story to Missoulian reporter John Stromnes in 2004. Among the tales she recounted was her work as a courier.
“One time, she was ordered to take a parcel of cash - $4 million, she was told - across Holland (about 87 miles) before the 7 p.m. curfew,” Stromnes wrote. “She threw the roughly wrapped parcel of money into the basket on the handlebars of her bike and sped off as fast as she could.
“A German Army truck happened by as she was pedaling breathlessly down the road. The driver slowed down and a soldier motioned for her to catch hold of the truck. If she did so, she could hitch a ride by hanging on. She grasped the truck with one hand and held on for dear life, steering her bike unsteadily with her other hand. Hauled by the truck, she sped all the way across Holland before curfew. She made the delivery of her parcel on time. But she swore after the war she would never ride a bike again.”
Stromnes reported that 54 years later, she still kept her vow. She even refused to ride an exercise bike in a doctor’s office.
In the winter of 1944, she was on her way to a Resistance meeting when German troops raided the building. All the men were shot dead, and the women imprisoned. Ippisch managed to communicate with her family on tiny slips of toilet paper she hid in her clothes, which the guards allowed out occasionally for laundering. Ippisch preserved several of those notes and showed them to school children when she gave talks about the war.
For disobeying a rule in prison, Ippisch was placed in solitary confinement for five days in an underground cell. She survived on water that dripped down the walls. She wrote a play about the experience titled “Sky,” thinking about the single small window where she watched the clouds pass over - the prisoners’ only link to the outside world for months.
Missoula Children’s Theater founder Jim Caron helped her produce the play. He also accompanied her on a research trip to Holland, where he discovered she still possessed war-hero status.
“We were greeted like kings and queens,” Caron recalled. They visited a castle where the Queen of Holland had put Ippisch in charge of a program for displaced women after the war. Caron said at the castle gift shop, the clerk refused to let the friends of Hanneke pay for anything.
Later on the trip, Ippisch took a canal tour of Amsterdam. As she floated past the house where Anne Frank hid and wrote her diary during the war, Ippisch realized the house where she was arrested was just two doors down the street.
In Montana, Ippisch became the Lady in the Red Coat who opened the Ninemile Schoolhouse Christmas Market each December. The 300 or so Nativity scenes drew customers from around the world, some of whom inspired new cultural displays for the next year’s markets. Hanneke made forays to Ghana and Australia, among other places, to soak up the colors, stories and characters she’d place in her stables.
What few realized was that the Ippischs and their helpers spent 10 months a year cutting, sanding and painting the ornaments. Sometimes they worked 20 hours a day to get ready for the season. The whole inventory would typically disappear in two weekends, snapped up by customers who waited in line up to an hour for Hanneke to open the gate in her flowing red coat.
Shortly after moving to Missoula, the Ippischs also opened their doors to Tibetan immigrants who came to the United States after escaping persecution in their home country. Because of quirks in U.S. immigration law, the Tibetans could only come to places where community members had set up resettlement programs, with jobs and language help waiting. In 1992, Hanneke was part of the welcoming committee set up by the Tibetan U.S. Resettlement Project.
In 2002, Hanneke and Les announced that Christmas would be their last Schoolhouse market season. After almost three decades of rebuilding the once-abandoned building and then preparing for the annual sale, they were worn out.
“Les needs to have time to go fishing,” Hanneke told then-reporter Sherry Devlin. “He has fished just once in 29 years since we were married, and that’s not fair. We need more time to read, and I would very much like more time to write.”
One of those writing dreams became “The Gift,” which Caron helped produce for the Missoula Children’s Theater. It was performed in an outdoor setting at the Schoolhouse, with Hollywood star and Ninemile resident Andy McDowell narrating.
“That was one of those magic nights for everybody who was there,” Caron recalled. “Of the people I can count as friends, there’s nobody I’m prouder of knowing than Hanneke. The way she went on to live her life, the projects she’d undertake when she’s older than I am now, dealing with her husband’s cancer - she’s just a remarkable human being. I’m very proud to know she considered me a friend.”