Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany. The Campaigns of the Judischer Frauenbund, 1904-1938. By Marion A. Kaplan.

Marion Kaplan offers a rare history. It is a portrayal of the Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany prior to World War II. Her narrative centers around an organization called the Judischer Frauenbund (JFB), which existed from 1904 to 1938. At its height, in the late 1920s, the Frauenbund had a membership of 50,000 women (Kaplan, pp. 10-11). It networked with Germany’s largest feminist organization, the Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine, of which many JFB organizers were members. Chief among the issues addressed by the Frauenbund were sexual slavery, equality in Jewish communal affairs and career training for women. It is the unique position of this feminist organization which permits the author to focus upon “the convergent spheres of German, Jewish and women’s history” (Kaplan, p.3).

After a standard introduction, describing the organization and its cultural environs, a chapter is then devoted to its founder and primary organizer for most of the group’s history: Bertha Pappenheim. A fascinating and dynamic personality, Pappenheim was friends with the philosopher Martin Buber. The most shocking revelation of this chapter is that Bertha Pappenheim is also “Anna O,” one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous case studies and a patient of his protégé Josef Breuer (Kaplan, pp.31-2). As a result of Freud’s and Breuer’s notes, we know a great deal about this activist’s inner life. Kaplan does an admirable job of countering Breuer’s and Freud’s patriarchal interpretations of women, as well as picking-up the chronology of Bertha’s life after she leaves therapy. The author presents the external elements of this woman’s life so that she is not simply a psychological case study, but a vibrant, curious, adventurous catalyst in politics and life.

Kaplan’s depiction of the Frauenbund is not that of an idealized, modern organization. Throughout her book, the author reveals issues that her 1979 feminist readership, might regard as backward. German Jewish prejudice against Ostjuden (Jews from Eastern Europe) was common. JFB members tended to be middle class Germans and Ostjuden were primarily working class immigrants escaping Eastern pogroms. “Ostjuden remained recipients of, rather than collaborators in, the JFB’s social work” (Kaplan, pp 7-8). In addition, the social work to which Kaplan refers involved training immigrant women to become domestic servants; an aim at a low horizon, and not a little self-serving given that affluent Frauenbund members employed such help. Kaplan describes the JFB as “a case study of a group whose ‘feminism’ displayed a strange amalgam of internalized patriarchal values and woman-oriented concerns. A typical JFB member would be a housewife and mother who accepted her status in the private sphere and performed traditional voluntary social work” (Kaplan, p.6). Such members were not strong proponents of “suffrage or legal equality.” Here, both internal pressures of a traditional religious community and external pressures of anti-Semitic threat conspired to subdue member radicalism.

The author is also not afraid to present the Jewish Community with all of its blemishes. One particularly staggering chapter discusses the number of Jews involved in trafficking women. Jewish activists against sexual slavery were acutely aware of their people’s involvement: “The First Jewish International Conference on White Slavery released its own survey. In Germany, 182 traffickers were listed, among whom were 19 Jews. Austria counted 101, including 65 Jews. Of 93 known South American traffickers, 80 were Russian or Polish Jews. In Galicia, 38 of the 39 known traffickers were Jews, while 104 of the 124 Russian traffickers were Jews and 68 of the 105 known Hungarian traffickers were also Jews” (Kaplan, p.111). Perennial history readers understand that dislocated populations escaping violence are prone to develop criminal elements; but this does not excuse the behavior. Marion Kaplan deserves grateful acknowledgement for placing honest historical reportage above concerns about how her own ethnic group or political foremothers might appear. To learn from history, information must prevail over image.

The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany is an original, prolifically footnoted, representation of history. Its significance lies in what it preserves: the memory of a German Jewish culture and aspiring movement that were annihilated in the Holocaust. But it also preserves its own 1979 feminist perspectives, permitting a reader to examine traits of that era as well. In addition, it benefits those in the future, when memories of 1904 and 1979 will be more faded. Kaplan supplies unique and diverse information that maintains our western legacy.


Kaplan, Marion A. The Jewish Feminist Movement in Germany. The Campaigns of the Judischer Frauenbund, 1904-1938. Westport: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1979.