This Day in Jewish History

1771: Famed German Salon Hostess, Deeply Conflicted About Her Judaism, Is Born

Rahel Levin often said her Jewish background - like her gender - was an obstacle to social integration, something imposed on her from birth that always stood in her way.

May 19, 1771, is the birthdate of Rahel Varnhagen, the German Jewish writer and intellectual salon hostess who was friend and interlocutor to some of the most notable artists and thinkers of her day.

Born in Berlin as Rahel Levin, she was the first child of Markus Levin, a jeweler and financier, and Chaie Levin. She was given an excellent education at home, where, by the late 1790s, she was hosting a regular salon. Attendees included such writers and thinkers as poet-philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel, Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck, naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and comic writer Jean Paul.

Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1806 and his occupation of Berlin, with its woeful economic implications for Germany, led to the end of Rahel Levin’s salon. In the meantime, she had had two engagements that were broken off, both for reasons of money and her Jewish background. Finally, after a six-year courtship, she married Karl August Varnhagen von Ense in 1814. Varnhagen, a soldier and novice diplomat, was 14 years her junior, but the couple, who would have no children, were intellectual companions and deeply attached and devoted to each other.

Several days before her marriage to Varnhagen, and following the death of her mother, Levin converted to Christianity and took the name Antonie Frederike. (She had already followed the lead of a brother, and changed her surname from Levin to Robert.) She had not come from a religiously observant family, and she commented frequently that her Jewish background – like her gender – was an obstacle to social integration, something imposed on her from birth that always stood in her way.

In 1795, in a letter to the writer David Veit, Rahel confessed that she imagined that at her birth, “some supramundane being … plunged these words with a dagger into my heart: ‘Yes, have sensibility, see the world as few see it, be great and noble, nor can I deprive you of restless, incessant thought. But with one reservation: Be a Jewess!’” Going on to say that “now, my life is one long bleeding,” she declared defiantly that nonetheless, “I shall never accept that I am a schlemiel and a Jewess.”

While Karl August was in the Prussian diplomatic corps, he and Rahel lived in Vienna, Frankfurt am Main and Karlsruhe. In 1819, after he was forced to retire because of his liberal politics, they moved back to Berlin, where, for the next dozen years, they hosted a renewed salon, whose regular guests included Heinrich Heine. The couple also did much to introduce the writer Goethe to the reading public.

In addition to keeping an intellectual diary, Rahel corresponded with some 300 different people, and is believe to have written some 10,000 letters during her lifetime, of which about 6,000 survive. After her death, her husband published several volumes of her letters, as well as other memorial volumes.

According to one of the books compiled by Karl August Varnhagen, Rahel, in her final words on her deathbed, expressed gratitude that she had been born a Jew, a “fugitive from Egypt and Palestine,” as she put it: “The thing which all my life seemed to me the greatest shame, which was the misery and misfortune of my life — having been born a Jewess — this I should on no account now wish to have missed.”