German Ambassador Klaus Scharioth hosted a reception on June 10, 2009 to open an exhibit on loan from the Leo Baeck Institute at his Washington residence that showcases the everyday lives and extraordinary accomplishments of Jewish women in Germany.
Featuring several small objects and photographs, it is divided into two subsections – Jewish Women and Tradition and Jewish Women and Modernity – and replaces a previous LBI exhibit called Objects of our Past.
The new exhibit combines portraits of a remarkable writer like Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs or of a brilliant salonnière and femme de lettres like Rahel Varnhagen with seemingly profane objects like a “Jewish Cookbook” from the turn of the 20th century.
“For me it’s always a pleasure to have these things here to show to visitors,” Ambassador Scharioth said in welcoming guests to his residence. “I receive some 8,000 to 9,000 visitors at my residence every year.”
Bringing about Bildung
“The Jewish and German cultures really converged in the word Bildung – education,” he added, citing the enduring impact on German-speaking Jewry of education in post-Enlightenment, 19th-century Germany, which promoted social advancement, integration, and modernity.
“Germany gave women the right to vote earlier than France and Great Britain – even earlier than the United States,” said Scharioth.
And he cited a special anniversary in German-Jewish history: June 12 would have been Anne Frank’s 80th birthday.
“Her life was cut horribly short,” he said of the 14-year-old daughter of well-educated Jewish parents from Frankfurt who perished in the Holocaust and has posthumously won hearts all over the world through her moving diary, written while in hiding from the Nazi dictatorship.
The ambassador also recalled reading the works of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a prominent intellectual German-Jewish émigré to the US. It was Arendt, a co-founder of the Leo Baeck Institute, who coined the famous phrase “the banality of evil” (die Banalität des Bösen).
“Practically all thought on the origin of totalitarianism is based on Hannah Arendt,” said Scharioth.
‘A single, poetic entity’
Leo Baeck Institute Executive Director Carol Kahn Strauss meanwhile illustrated how the roles of Jewish women in Germany shifted from the 19th to the 20th century.
“Jewish women, before becoming more economically productive, were very important in preparing the Shabbat – baking the bread, preparing the lamps,” she said – they served as the emotional and spiritual anchors of their families.
Yet this traditional maternal role was gradually replaced by a more intellectual one, for instance in the famous literary salon of Rahel Varnhagen, which included artists, actors, Jews, and was “not part of conventional society,” Strauss Kahn emphasized.
“After World War I the patriarchal role of the father was minimized, probably more so in Germany than in Britain or France,” she said.
Part of this process included a sexual revolution, she added, noting that Weimar Germany legalized prostitution and the paintings of artists such as Otto Dix and Georg Grosz illustrated male fears of newly empowered women.
After the free-wheeling Weimar era of the 1920’s, however, Jewish women were among the first to perceive what their communities were up against, she continued.
“In Nazi Germany women understood the intent of destruction far more than the men – many Jewish men were still quite patriotic, many had served Germany in World War I, and they clung to these beliefs even as they were being demoted or disbarred as lawyers,” said Kahn Strauss.
“But the women saw their kids come home from school beaten up and heard how they were called ‘you dirty Jewish kid’, they would not be served by shopkeepers and their maids suddenly left them – often after years of service,” she added. “They were the ones who stood in lines at consulates and convinced their often unwilling husbands it was time to go.”
The LBI was, “extremely grateful to reintegrate Jewish history into German history by sharing these very small but important artefacts,” said Kahn Strauss. “German and Jewish and feminist history are not three tracks but one that can coexist as a single, poetic entity.”
Signs of being set apart
Among the remnants of Jewish separteness in 19th-century Germany included in the exhibit are artefacts such as a few cream-colored pieces of Judenporzellan (Jewish Porcelain) – batches of porcelain of lesser quality reserved expressly for Jews.
One of the more touching traditional documents on display is an 1814 “passport for a widow” issued to a certain Rosl Meyer.
Leo Baeck Institute Curator Renata Stein told Germany.info that these passports were very important at the time.
“Women were often destitute after their husbands died, so they applied for a passport,” said Stein, adding that this allowed them to travel in search of work or to stay with family members.
“The Jewish faith has a strong charitable component, so the community often helped take care of these women,” Stein added.
Another related document is an application from a woman to open a yarn store. And among the more carefree earlier objects is an illustrated paper “autograph book” adorned with a delicately painted purple butterfly.
Paving the way for all women
The advent of the German women’s movement in the 1860s, spearheaded by several early Jewish feminists, brought about a dramatic expansion of educational and professional opportunities for women. When European universities began to admit women at the turn of the 20th century, Jewish women made up an unusually high percentage of university attendees.
Among them were Margarete Berent (1887-1965), one of the first women to be admitted to the Prussian Bar in the Weimar Republic, and Johanna Hellmann (1889-1981), one of the first female surgeons in Germany.
As the exhibit suggests: “These successful women not only improved their own situation, they made major contributions to the advancement of other women.”