This Day in Jewish History A German Jewish Feminist Is Born

Bertha Pappenheim, who served as a psychoanalytic case study for Freud, went on to found and lead the 50,000-strong League of Jewish Women

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

February 27, 1859, is the birthdate of Bertha Pappenheim, the founder of the German Jewish feminist movement, a passionate social activist, Jewish cultural pioneer and, under the pseudonym “Anna O.,” may well have been the first documented patient to participate in the psychoanalytic talking cure.

Bertha Pappenheim was the third daughter of Sigmund and Recha (nee Goldschmidt) Pappenheim, a wealthy, Orthodox couple from Vienna. She was educated at a Catholic school, and when she finished, at age 16, she was expected to devote herself to domestic avocations, a fate that was imposed upon her because she was not a boy.

In mid-1880, Sigmund Pappenheim became extremely ill, and soon after, Bertha began to exhibit a wide variety of “hysterical” symptoms, which included partial paralysis, amnesia, aphasia (in her case, the ability to speak, at different times, only English, French or Italian), and severe anxiety and depression.

Late that year, Dr. Josef Breuer, a family friend, began to treat Bertha, by way of hypnosis and a vaguely defined talking therapy. Over the next two years (her father died in April 1881), her symptoms waxed and waned, and she was hospitalized several times. In general, however, she found relief from her symptoms by discussing the circumstances surrounding their initial appearance, a method she referred to as “chimney sweeping.”

In 1893, and then more fully in 1895, in the book “Studies on Hysteria,” Breuer and Sigmund Freud described the illness and therapy of the patient they identified as “Anna O.,” and suggested that it was the “catharsis” allowed by discussion of her symptoms that caused them to dissipate. As such, Freud described Pappenheim as the “actual founder of the psychoanalytic approach.” In 1953, when the first volume of Ernest Jones’ biography of Freud was published, he identified Anna O. as Bertha Pappenheim.

In 1888, Bertha moved with her mother to Frankfurt am Main. There she became involved volunteering in a girls orphanage run by the Israelite Women’s Association, eventually becoming its director, a position she held for a dozen years, during which she introduced vocational training for the girls. She wrote extensively about the connection between education (and its lack) and poverty among Jewish women, and she also became involved in fighting institutionalized prostitution and trafficking in women.

Seeing the need for a self-help organization for Jewish women – one that would be like similar general feminist organizations in Germany, and separate from men’s organizations – in 1902 Pappenheim established the Care for Women Society (Weibliche Fuersorge) in Frankfurt, which ran a day-care center, a mother-and-child care station, did educational work with women in Eastern Europe, and generally advocated for equal civil rights for women – all with a leadership and a board comprised only of women.
Two years later, she started a national organization, the League of Jewish Women (Juedischer Frauenbund, or JFB), which she headed for the next two decades, and which at its peak had some 50,000 members. She caused quite a stir within Orthodox society when, at the group’s first assembly, in 1907, she declared that, “Under Jewish law a woman is not an individual, not a personality; she is only judged and recognized as a sexual being.”

Even as she guided national organizations – and brought the JFB into the general Federation of German Women’s Associations -- Pappenheim never ceased from carrying out “holy small deeds,” including working with children in a home for unwed mothers (many of them prostitutes) and advising teenage girls there. She was a strong opponent of Zionism, which she thought was oblivious to women’s issues, and even initially opposed removing Jewish children from Germany after the rise of National Socialism– until 1935, after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, when she personally was involved in escorting Jewish children to an orphanage in Glasgow, and also expressed her support for Jewish emigration from Germany in general.

She also wrote extensively, and translated works of special interest to women, including the 17th-century diary of Gluckl of Hameln, a distant ancestor of hers, as well as the Ma’aseh Bukh, a medieval collection for women of Jewish folk tales and stories from the Bible and Talmud.

Pappenheim never married or had a family of her own. In a poem from 1910-1912, she wrote “Love did not come to me – / So I immerse myself in work, / Living myself sore from duty. / Love did not come to me – / So I gladly think of death, / As a friendly face.”

She did, however, have a close female companion, Hannah Karminski, during the last dozen years of her life, and it was Karminski who cared for her during the illness at the end of her life. Bertha Pappenheim died on May 28, 1936, in Frankfurt.

Bertha Pappenheim in 1882Credit: Wikipedia

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