The LBI London Pamphlet Collection holds a small inconspicuous booklet bound in plain black cardboard that appears to have been softened by many readers’ hands. Its cover is adorned with the facsimile of an energetically handwritten label ‘Gebete’. It contains 24 brief prayers written between 1922-1935 by German-Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim (28th of May 1936).
These prayers are unique in being Pappenheim’s call for strength in pursuing her ground-breaking path in German-Jewish feminist activism and in the establishment of modern Jewish social welfare. Whilst they are an intimate testimony to her spirituality, the texts go beyond the religiosity of an individual; they open a view into a remarkable woman’s determination to revolutionise stereotypical ideas about the place of women in society, religion, and education.
Today, Bertha Pappenheim is most widely known for a brief encounter in her 20s. Between 1880-1882, she was treated by psychologist Josef Breuer for mental health issues that manifested when her beloved father fell ill with an incurable disease. Her case study was published by Breuer and Sigmund Freud in their ground-breaking volume Studien über Hysterie (Studies on Hysteria) in 1895.
They used the now world-famous pseudonym Anna O. to present Bertha Pappenheim’s anamnesis. Aside from her impact on the development of psychoanalysis and talking therapy, Bertha Pappenheim had an equally remarkable ‘secret life’ – she was one of the central figures in German-Jewish feminist activism. Her biography contains many unexpected turns, impressive achievements, and at the same time, it is laden with contradictions. Her Prayers were first published shortly after Pappenheim’s death in 1936. The first edition has an epilogue by her friend and colleague, the feminist philosopher of religion and poet Margarete Susman (1872-1966). The texts give insights into issues that, in no particular order, mattered most to Bertha Pappenheim: family, feminist activism, and Judaism.
Bertha Pappenheim’s deep affection for her parents is tangible in the commemorative Gebet zur Jahrzeit (Memorial Prayer) that she wrote on the 30th of July 1933. Born into an Orthodox family on the 27th of February 1859 in Vienna, Bertha Pappenheim and her younger brother Wilhelm grew up in an affluent bourgeois environment that adhered to religious tradition alongside the secular education of the German-speaking bourgeoisie. Little is known about her early upbringing which was subject to the traditional gender roles defining an Orthodox household.
She attended a Catholic girls’ school between the ages of 6 and 15 and it was a profound source of sorrow to the exceptionally bright and imaginative young woman to be denied her brother’s superior education on grounds of her gender. Following bourgeois conventions, she instead received lessons in foreign languages, music, dance, and needlework. Bertha Pappenheim was particularly fond of the last and became a keen collector of intricate lace amassing a unique collection of European textiles that she generously donated to the Museum für Kunst und Industrie in Vienna in 1935.
The geographical scope of her feminist activism was closely linked to her family’s origins. Her merchant father Sigmund Pappenheim (1824-1881) had moved from the Bratislava ghetto to Vienna in 1840. Her mother Recha Pappenheim, neé Goldschmidt (1830-1905) came from a bourgeois family from the city of Frankfurt on the river Main. When Bertha Pappenheim’s beloved father fell ill in 1880, she became his carer until she developed severe mental health issues that peaked after his death in 1881. Following a period of therapy by Dr Josef Breuer and several stays in sanatoriums, Bertha Pappenheim took a nursing course in 1887 in Karlsruhe that in many ways prepared her for her work in social care and feminist activism.
In 1895, the same year that her anamnesis was published by Breuer and Freud under the pseudonym Anna O., Pappenheim herself became head of the Jüdisches Waisenhaus für Mädchen (Orphanage for Jewish Girls)in Frankfurt am Main where she had moved with her mother in 1888. This was one of the many positions enabling her to pursue a ‘hands-on’ approach in social work in the German-Jewish community. Pappenheim was also involved in the foundation of several German-Jewish welfare and women’s organisations, including the Verein Weibliche Fürsorge in 1901, the Jüdischer Frauenbund in 1907, and the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der deutschen Juden in 1917.
Many of her prayers, such as Gebet einer Vorsitzenden vor der Sitzung (Prayer of a Chairwoman before the Meeting, 23rd of January 1928) include a call for strength in pursuing her challenging fight for vulnerable women, her international activism against human trafficking of young Jewish women from Eastern Europe, and her daily work in providing a sustainable empowerment of disadvantaged Jewish girls at the Heim des Jüdischen Frauenbundes in Neu-Isenburg that she founded in 1907.
Bertha Pappenheim’s deep love, dedication, and austere affection for each child in her care speaks from another prayer titled Dankgebet (Prayer of Thanks) that she wrote on the 19th of September 1934: ‘(…) I am so glad to have provided sheltering roof for this little human bud which might otherwise have been trampled underfoot and so have left us with one hope the less. How fortunate that the little human bud and I met each other in this universe. We will thank our Creator for the good fortune of love and life.’ (English Translation by Estelle Forchheimer, 1946 edition)
Whilst Bertha Pappenheim never married or had children of her own, she dedicated her life to pursuing the idea of ‘soziale Mütterlichkeit’ (social motherhood), providing a homestead to young Jewish women, children, and single mothers where they could receive support in a Jewish environment. The inhabitants of the Haus Neu Isenburg spent the Shabbat together and observed Jewish holidays and customs.
Bertha Pappenheim was also a keen publicist, public speaker and lecturer pursuing the cause of women’s rights in German-Jewish communities. She contributed to various debates about modern concepts of Jewish femininity and the need to redefine the responsibilities of the Jewish woman in the modern world. While she initially used the male nom de plume Paul Berthold in her first socio-critical texts published between 1890-1899, she subsequently became an internationally renowned and much respected public figure in her own right.
Bertha Pappenheim was also a keen translator of Jewish literature and religious texts from the Middle Ages. In 1910 she published a German translation of Glückel von Hameln’s Yiddish memoirs. Her publications also included a 1930s German translation of the Tsene-rene, the popular ‘women’s bible’ from the 16th century. The 24 prayers printed posthumously in Pappenheim’s Gebete are from a selection of over 2,000 prayers and Denkzettel (lessons) that Bertha Pappenheim wrote over the course of 16 years. She gifted the collection of her thoughts to her closest friend and colleague Hannah Karminski (1897-1943).
Even though Bertha Pappenheim fell very ill with a tumour in 1935 and was subjected to Nazi interrogation in her final year aged 76, she pursued her cause until the very end. Her Prayers were published for the first time after she died peacefully, with her close friend Hanna Karminski at her side, in Neu-Isenburg on the 28th of May 1936. The Haus Neu-Isenburg that had provided shelter and hope for many German-Jewish girls and women under the unfaltering care of Bertha Pappenheim and her colleagues was destroyed by a National Socialist mob following the so-called ‘Reichskristallnacht’ on the 10th of November 1938. The women and children living there were deported to Theresienstadt where many of them were murdered. In 1942, Hanna Karminski was deported to Auschwitz where she was killed in 1943.
Bertha Pappenheim’s life was unusual in many respects – she had the resilience to overcome severe mental health issues, she remained unmarried and childless, was deeply religious and firmly rooted in her Orthodox Judaism. At the same time, she was revolutionary in her claims for gender equality, the inclusion of single mothers into German-Jewish communities, and the empowerment of girls by means of education. Bertha Pappenheim thus combined a modern concept of femininity, a tireless fight for social justice for the vulnerable with religious tradition.
Bertha Pappenheim’s life and her contribution to German-Jewish feminism and social welfare have been commemorated in form of a West German stamp in the series Helfer der Menschheit (Humanitarians) that was in circulation in the 1950s.
The Haus Neu-Isenburg has since been transformed into the Seminar und Gedenkstätte Bertha Pappenheim. Several exhibitions of her collections have been issued in the 2000s such as a show of her lace collection and cast-iron objects at the MAK in Vienna (2007-2008). The Jewish Museum in Frankfurt am Main has developed a tour guide app following in the steps of Bertha Pappenheim (https://www.juedischesmuseum.de/blog/bertha-pappenheim-app/).
Bertha Pappenheim, Gebete (Mit einem Nachwort von Margarete Susman), 1936 is part of the collection of historical pamphlets within the Leo Baeck Institute London’s specialist library on German-Jewish history and culture, which can be accessed via the library at Queen Mary University of London.
The LBI London would like to thank the DLA Marbach, the Freud Museum London, the Seminar und Gedenkstätte Bertha Pappenheim, and the Leo Baeck Institute New York for providing us with the images that illustrate this snapshot.
- Marion Kaplan, The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany: The Campaigns of the Jüdischer Frauenbund, 1904-1938, 1979
- Elisa Klapheck and Lara Dämmig (Eds), Gebete/Prayers (Bilingual Edition), Berlin 2003
- Britta Konz, Bertha Pappenheim. Ein Leben für jüdische Tradition und weibliche Emanzipation, Frankfurt/ New York, 2005
- Gudrun Wolfgruber (Ed), Bertha Pappenheim. Soziale Arbeit. Frauenbewegung. Religion, Vienna, 2015
Images courtesy of:
- Portrait photograph of Josef Breuer, taken in Vienna, undated ca. 1880s (Freud Museum London)
- Portrait of Sigmund Freud, c. 1884 (Freud Museum London)
- 1st edition of Josef Breuer & Sigmund Freud’s Studien über Hysterie, 1895 (Freud Museum London)
- Oppenheimer, Joseph: Sketch of Bertha Pappenheim (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Passport photo; Bertha Pappenheim wearing a brooch with the initials JFB for Jüdischer Frauenbund (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Portrait of Bertha Pappenheim (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Bertha Pappenheim with Hannah Kaminski at the Conference of the Jüdischer Frauenbund (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Bertha Pappenheim residence; Neu-Isenburg (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Heim des Jüdischen Frauenbundes (Seminar- und Gedenkstätte Bertha Pappenheim)
- Bertha Pappenheim’s desk, Neu-Isenburg (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Outdoor group portrait of the women on the first board of the Weibliche Fürsorge (Care for Women Society) in Frankfurt am Main (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Children of Haus IV of the Heim des Jüdischen Frauenbundes; outdoors in the garden
Caption: The children were deported to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz in 1943 (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Outdoor group portrait of resident women of the Heim des Jüdischen Frauenbundes (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Young women at Sabbath dinner table; Heim des Jüdischen Frauenbundes (Home for Wayward Girls)
Caption: Ein Freitag – Abend im Isenburger Heim (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Profile portrait of writer Margarete Susman (Leo Baeck Institute New York)
- Margarete Susman at her desk (DLA Marbach)
 All following translations and quotes from the Gebete are from the 1946 edition by Stephanie Forchheimer. This bilingual edition was published in New York and has since been reprinted in a commented reprint by Elisa Klapheck and Lara Dämmig (Eds) in 2003 by Hentrich & Hentrich, Berlin.
 Their two sisters passed away at a very young age