by Melinda Given Guttman
SHE BECAME A LEGEND TWICE IN HER LIFE. FIRST AS ANNA O., DESCRIBED BY JOSEPH BREUER IN Studies on Hysteria, a book he coauthored with Sigmund Freud, as a beautiful, fragile, poetic hysteric, “with a powerful intellect and a penetrating intuition who was suffocated by an extremely monotonous existence of an upper-class daughter in a narrow-minded orthodox Jewish family.” Second, as Bertha Pappenheim, the renowned, severe, charismatic feminist leader and social worker, a “spiritual mother” (idolized by some as a “Jewish saint”) who journeyed alone throughout Eastern Europe rescuing, researching, and publishing articles on desperate women – Jewish prostitutes, victims of white slavery, abandoned wives, and unwed mothers.
It is remarkable that the origins of two revolutionary ideas of the 19th century – psychoanalysis and Jewish feminism – should be united in the life history of one woman, too often overlooked or misinterpreted by historians. Bertha’s story (1859-1936) spanned the years from the grand gaiete of fin-de-siecle Vienna to the terrifying nightmares of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. She journeyed from the “private theater” in which she helped cure herself of “hysteria” to the public theater of German intellectual, artistic, and social reformist circles between the world wars.
Bertha Pappenheim was a heroine in Germany until her name was obliterated during the Holocaust. Ironically, a postage stamp with her face was issued in 1954 by the former West German government, as part of a series entitled “Helpers of Humanity.” The identity of Anna O. did not become known until 1953, when Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer, breached the code of confidentiality, an action openly protested by Bertha’s cousin and executor of her estate.
Ever since, the story of Anna O./Bertha Pappenheim has been riddled with mystery and controversy. In the course of working on a biography of Bertha (I consider it patrilineal to refer to women by their last names), I have for the last decade been exploring the slim archive of documents saved by her followers who had fled Nazi-occupied Europe. The papers that survived the bombings of World War II, including some previously unknown documents and her usually ignored literary output, are scattered in many archives and the collections of survivors.
Most of Bertha’s interpreters who know about both her illness and her later work have assumed that her spinsterhood and feminism reveal pathological vestiges of hysteria! But feminist studies have created a fine “lens” for reconciling what appear to be Bertha’s constantly shifting personae, roles, or masks. I re-view Bertha not as a pathetic patient but as a heroine who practiced lifelong psychic and spiritual self-healing, which helped unleash her enormous creativity and courage in performing what she called “small holy deeds” on behalf of women.
Bertha was born in 1859 in Vienna. Breuer portrayed her as an enchanting, witty, delicate young woman of 21 nestled in the wealthy, protective milieu of the Jewish Orthodox haute bourgeoisie. She was petite, 4 feet 11 inches tall, with dark hair and bright blue eyes. Breuer, a renowned physician and researcher who moved in intellectual circles, also served as a family doctor to fashionable families. He was first called to see Bertha because she had a persistent cough and the family feared she had contracted her father’s tuberculosis. Although Breuer diagnosed her cough as a “hysteria,” a condition most medical practitioners of the time treated with disdain, he did not abandon her. He was drawn to this young woman whom he described as “bubbling over with intellectual vitality and poetic and imaginative gifts.” Soon, however, Bertha became bedridden with severe symptoms, including paralysis of three limbs, language disturbances, and terrifying hallucination of snakes and death’s-heads, which began to appear during her arduous, dutiful nursing of her beloved father.
Breuer began to see Bertha every day, at home and later at a sanatorium. Their work began with Bertha’s falling into a self-hypnotic trance and telling Breuer “fairy tales” from what she called her “private theater.” With each “fairy tale,” Bertha would experience relief from her anguish and feel calm and cheerful. For nearly two years from 1880 to 1882, Breuer and Bertha immersed themselves in a pioneering method of healing. Breuer’s act of faith in taking his patient seriously was in itself a break with his colleagues.
By chance observation, Breuer noted that when he was attentive and repeated words that Bertha muttered, she would become calmer. At some point, the two discovered a unique method of relating to each other. Breuer would repeat a phrase or a word that seemed charged with meaning, and she would begin to tell him a fairy tale. Bertha had effectively enticed Breuer into her “private theater.” Bertha called this process the “talking cure” when she was being serious and “chimney sweeping” when she was being playful.
Breuer’s attention to his ailing patient was unusual at a time when most doctors who treated “hysterical illness” were concerned that the hysteric was a poseur who used her illness to free herself from the role of selfsacrificing daughter, make herself the center of attention, and exercise power over her family. Instead, Breuer observed that Bertha was always honest and possessed a powerful intellect, which was in need of “digesting solid mental pabulum.” She had mastered English, French, and Italian and shown promise as an artist and writer in the exclusive Catholic finishing school she attended because there were no schools in Vienna for Jewish girls. She was legally barred from higher education in Vienna because she was a woman. The intellectual stimulation she craved was doubly denied her. Orthodox Judaism considered scholarly work the sole province of men. Bertha later wrote on the subject: “Up to now, the common conception of women has consigned daughters from upper-class families to an educational realm in which they are ‘finished,’ a term justly used in…an ironic sense.”
Ostensibly attentive to the glittering conventions of a spoiled, wealthy young woman, Bertha actually lived through the fairy tales of her imagination. And it was by connecting with these that Breuer was able to help her cure herself. No plot or image from her tales was noted in Breuer’s case history, but Bertha’s collections called Stories for Little Children (1888) and The Junk Shop (1890) probably resemble the outpouring of her “private theater.” The themes of her early fairy tales were aptly concerned with symbolic transformations of the self. In The Junk Shop, for example, various defective objects – a piece of lace, a music box, a coffee grinder – heal themselves of painful experiences by offering their stories to the surrounding objects in a communal “talking cure.”
According to Breuer’s case history, Bertha was apparently cured in June 1882. There is a persistent myth that after her cure she announced that her symptoms had been a fabrication and that Breuer abandoned her in a hysterical pregnancy as she cried, “B’s baby is coming!” These stories have been cast in doubt by the recent scholarship of Henri Ellenberger and Albrecht Hirshmuller. What they discovered was that Bertha spent six years, until 1887, in and out of sanatoriums – Binswanger’s Bellevue in Switzerland, where she became addicted to morphine, and Frie’s and Breslauer’s sanatorium in Insendorf, with recurrent hysterical symptoms – where, in the name of psychiatric intervention, electric eels were applied to her face, currents of electricity were shot through her body, and she was treated with arsenic.
At the age of 29, Bertha emerged from the heart of personal suffering with sparkling energy, compassion, and worldly vision. She had rebirthed or reinvented herself. The contents of her “private theater” were transformed; the only mark of her long suffering was her hair, which had turned white prematurely. Bertha and her mother moved from Vienna to her mother’s birthplace in Frankfurt, where Bertha’s spellbinding presence, wit, and sharp intellect moved her close circle of wealthy and distinguished relatives, the Goldschmidts, the Warburgs, and the Rothschilds, to guide her toward philanthropic work. She was also beloved for her Viennese love of beauty: especially music, opera, and the tatting and collecting of rare laces and antique objets d’art. She also began publishing fairy tales and first became publicly renowned as an author.
Bertha’s hysterical illness had served as what Henri Ellenberger terms a “creative illness,” similar perhaps to the “dark night of the soul” experienced by mystics and the “initiatory madness” of shamans. She emerged from her ordeal transformed not only with the strength of self-healing but with the passion to heal others.
BERTHA BEGAN HER FULL-BLOWN TRANSFORMATION into a pioneering feminist and social worker at age 36. In 1895 she became the housemother of a Jewish orphanage. Five years later, Bertha organized a girls’ club, a Jewish nursery school, and a sewing club. She created a wider social-welfare organization in Frankfurt for women and children, Care by Women (Weibliche Fusorge), in 1902. During the same period, Bertha, outraging the sensibilities of her fellow German Jewish assimilationists, traveled to Eastern Europe, rescuing, researching, and publishing articles on victims of pogroms (during which women’s breasts were cut off, and girls were raped in front of their mothers), white slavery, and the plight of abandoned Jewish wives (the agunah) and unwed mothers.
In 1904, at the age of 45, influenced by Christian feminists, she was the creative visionary and cofounder of the celebrated Jiidischer Frauenbund (the League of Jewish Women), the first national organization of Jewish feminist women, of which she remained the president and charismatic leader for 20 years. The story of their campaigns was first published by Marion Kaplan, an extraordinary scholar. With a devoted following of 50,000 German Jewish women, Bertha fought for political, economic, and religious equality for all Jewish women, who were considered doubly inferior: first under Western patriarchal law and second under orthodox Jewish law. She proclaimed with her well known dry wit that “if there were justice in the world, the women would be the lawmakers, and the men would have to have babies.”
Her mother died in 1905, and after a long period of mourning Bertha became free to travel throughout the world for extended periods – her international fame increasing as a result of her moral crusades. At the age of 50, in 1907, Bertha concretized her feminist ideological vision by establishing The Home for Wayward Girls near Neu Isenburg. During her tenure as director, over 2,000 women and children benefited from her spiritual mothering. The home protected and educated Jewish girls, young women, and their children, who found themselves at the desperate margins of society. She wrote, “Isenburg is a beginning. It symbolizes and carries on Jewish women’s work and is part of those laws and secrets that we may in humility call ‘divine.'”
Bertha published her most well-known book, Sysyphus Arbeit, in 1912, describing the anguish of Jewish women in Galicia and the Mideast. She identified herself with the mythological figure of Sisyphus in her lifelong struggle of pushing her rock of faith up the mountain of prejudice, again and again, to liberate Jewish women, in spite of heartbreaking defeats. She remained the director of the home for 28 years.
Her political leadership was consciously an extension of the artistry of her “talking cure.” She wrote, “Without imagination it is completely impossible to organize anything at all…the creative aspect of organizing seems to me to contain an artistic element. Success means so much to me in human terms that I have to react with a kind of hatred to the disruption of an organization that I have envisioned or desired, as a painter or a sculptor who sees his work destroyed.”
The dynamic that unifies Bertha’s apparently contradictory personae, her political and artistic creations, her inner life and her being-in-the world, is her continual self-healing through her imaginative acts, which were extensions and variations of her original “talking cure.” By shaping her imaginative life into art, Bertha gained what James Hillman calls a “particular kind of selfknowledge that is beyond ego – with which comes a strong sense of destiny…in this sense imagination provides a solid moral grounding.”
Fierce Old Age
“IT A TRAGEDY OR A GRACE TO BE OLD AND TO GET old?” Bertha reflected, at age 69, on the anniversary of the girls’ club she had formed 25 years earlier. “It is a tragedy when one realizes what things we still want, which are still like frames yet to be filled – but to be old in some moments is grace…if one feels that one has not passed by great things without taking an interest – at this moment I feel grace.” That same year, she bought a small house in Isenburg, which she hoped would become a center for Jewish cultural life after her death.
Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in March 1933, declaring the Jew the incarnation of the Devil and instituting the first set of racial laws restricting Jewish civil rights. Bertha was filled with fear as she saw the “threatening clouds hover ever darker upon the Jewish horizon.” But she braved the omnipresent evil with daring public speeches and publications. She retained her German Jewish identity, which revealed itself in two themes that marked this period of her life: a staunch anti-Zionism and an even stauncher belief that the transcendent Hebrew God of Justice would protect the Jews against annihilation even in Nazi Germany.
She was described at a political meeting in 1933 as a delicate, old-fashioned lady in black, with contagious “holy zeal.” Her volcanic anger erupted again, the bedrock of her creativity, in a prayer she wrote: “Thunderous rage fills me! I will preserve it – it shall burn in me…. I will cry out in passionate anger again and again, to condemn every injustice.”
Yet in spite of the rampages of Nazi youth and antiSemitic graffiti on Jewish houses in the small Jewish community of Isenburg, Bertha clung to her Viennesejoie de vivre and romantic trust in the truth of beauty. As an antidote to despair she held festive salons on Tuesday nights for her kitov (God is good) inner circle of women friends and colleagues. If anyone referred to the ominous persecution of the Jews, Bertha would reply, “We are not in the Ghetto.” And to the objection “Miss Pappenheim, we Jews have no space,” she answered, “We don’t need space; we have spiritual space that knows no limits.”
Like so many of her generation, Bertha could not comprehend the extent to which Hitler’s systematic extermination of the Jewish population would exceed any previous pogrom. She became what the philosopher Bergson called a “mystical activist,” a warrior on behalf of the transcendence of spirit and faith over the godless Nazi ideology of the Volk (the race, or the body). Her spiritual resistance to the Nazis crystallized the heart of Judaism within her. She held the primacy of faith and prayer as an incantation over political evil. Unlike other German Jews who remained naive or in denial, Bertha was acutely aware of the circumstances but believed that the immanence of her God of Justice would protect the Jewish people. In 1933 she wrote: “No Jew could have conceived the idea of the Cologne cathedral because…the Jewish conception of God would shatter the vaulting of a cathedral.”
The “talking cure” of her youth became the necessary angel of her old age. Her imagination remained overflowing with visionary powers. In lighthearted moods, on the Sabbath, Bertha would conjure outlandish fairy tales for the children in the home, dancing around the house, radiating “childlike delight.” She continued to have a magical effect on all her audiences. The outpourings of her “private theater” were scores of prayers, poems, letters, essays, translations from the Yiddish, and parables. Bertha’s darker self, in a dark age, used her prayers and parables as incantatory responses to Nazi terrorism. Bertha’s watchword, Love thy neighbor, which is to love God in the stranger, was tempered by what she termed “warm hate” in a letter to the philosopher and Jewish mystic Martin Buber in 1935. She proclaimed, “I hate the rabbis who consider women to be God’s inferior creatures…. I hate the Zionists who want to build a land…without honor and justice…. I hate the officialdom…becoming fat…the hate of that which is not worthy of love.”
In spite of her staunch anti-Zionism, Bertha aided innumerable friends and acquaintances to emigrate to Palestine. People begged her help, since she was still revered as one of the most famous Jewish women in Europe. Although she suffered acutely from painful rheumatism, she continued to travel widely, calling upon all nations and religions to work with her in her battle against white slavery and to set up a world collective guardianship for children. She suffered intermittently from bouts of despair and isolation, grieving that “after hours of loneliness, I find myself overwhelmed by the painful and melancholic thought that I live as the last of my line, that no one will say Kaddish for me, then I am comforted by the thought that I could have had a stupid husband or a wayward child!”
She wrote serious essays such as “The Jewish Women” and “The Jewish Girl” in 1934 and, with gallows humor, several self-mocking obituaries for herself from the point of view of various journals. For example:
Jewish Review: A zealous old opponent of our movement (Zionism) whose Jewish consciousness and strength cannot be denied. Where she believed herself to be German, she was only an assimilationist after all. What a shame!
One of her closest colleagues was Martin Buber, the great spiritual leader of Germany.. She criticized his new translation of the Bible, because he translated God with the masculine pronoun He, rather than the Eternal One. In her words
If I may be permitted to criticize the Bible, I would say that from the unjust position the Bible assigns to women, it is clear it is the writing of a brilliant but masculine human being, and not a divine dictation…there are no logical differences between the sexes ordained by God.
Bertha was witness to the Nazis’ ritual book burning, calling it “a symptom of a pervasive barbarity that stems from an overvaluation as well as an undervaluation of books…one needs human beings more than books and the spirit cannot be burned.” She also wrote that traditionally Jewish women were supposed to learn nothing, that “the men of books locked women out of spiritual life and its sources – they were to believe and act – without knowing why..nothing can repair this sin against the Jewish woman’s soul.”
A visitor from Palestine described Bertha’s eyes as “always looking at human suffering, especially all Jewish suffering…they saw through the pain the recognition of the immortal life of the Jewish people – these eyes could flash in holy rage – her appearance was reminiscent of the prophets.”
Bertha’s writing became increasing mystical, but she remained pragmatic. In 1934 she took a group of children (some from Isenburg) to a Jewish orphanage in Glasgow, Scotland. The following year, at the age of 79, Bertha was diagnosed with a fatal tumor. In the last summer of her life, although often in great pain, she went home to Vienna and left her collection of antique laces and glass to the Museum for Arts and Crafts. While in Vienna, it is possible that she destroyed all documents referring to her early breakdown and requested family members that they not give out any information after her death.
In September of 1935, she went to Amsterdam to meet Henrietta Szold, the American Zionist leader who was organizing the emigration of young German Jews, between the ages of 15 and 17, to Palestine. Bertha, still believing that somehow under Nazi rule there was still a place for Jews in Germany, fought this plan with all the strength she could muster. It was not until the passage of the Nuremberg laws later in 1935 that she recognized her error, but she still scorned what she feared would be the collective raising of children in Palestine.
On April 9, 1936, Bertha was summoned by the Gestapo. A feeble-minded boy, who had been raised for a short time at the home, made anti-Hitler remarks and Bertha was held responsible. Her cancer was very advanced, and although her doctor advised her to try to transfer the hearing to her house, she insisted, “I will travel.” And she reveled in the beauty of nature during the journey.
The interrogation lasted an hour and a half, and it came out that a personal denunciation had been made against her. According to her closest friend, Hannah Karminiski, Bertha was superhumanly large in her honest indignation and unshakable calm, and even in this hour she showed a bit of humor with which she proved her superiority. Standing up to the Gestapo was her last great act.
According to a newspaper account of the time, after Bertha’s death 93 girls of the Beth Jakob seminary in Poland, which she supervised, committed suicide when the Nazis decided to turn their home into a brothel. The girls took ritual cleansing baths and then took poison.
Helene Rraemer, who had been one of Bertha’s beloved “daughters” when she was an eight-year-old orphan, took over as director of the home and remained until November, 10,1938, Kristallnacht. According to Helene, the barbarians came with pitch torches and set the home on fire. The wailing of the children was horrifying and heartbreaking. Several girls suffered heart attacks from fear. Most of those whom Bertha had saved were murdered during the Holocaust.
Until the end, Bertha continued her “talking cure.” She narrated a tale to Hannah called the “Twisted Rose,” based on a Grimm fairy tale. She interwove all the themes that she loved: youth, home, sorrow, and yearning after personal happiness.
“If I were to look in a mirror now,” Bertha quipped to Hannah, “I would surely look like Diirer’s mother in that picture he drew before her death. She must have had something similar to what I have.” Her friends and doctor laughed with her at this remark, and she energetically refused to look in a mirror. On Friday, a week before her death, she dictated a final poem to Hannah:
Quietly, quietly without direction, Goes the time, Quietly, quietly without direction, Am I ready to go with you. Quietly, quietly, without direction, One must be ready For time and eternity, Who is that, You? Give me peace.
Martin Buber wrote the following words of commemoration in her honor:
There are people of mind and there are people of passion; neither is as common as one thinks. More rare are people of mind and passion, and rarer still is the passion of the mind. Bertha Pappenheim was a being of passionate mind. That white flame burned in our day. Now it has gone out and only her image lingers eternally reflected in the hearts of those who knew her. Pass on this picture, hand down the memory, testify that it still exists!
Artist-scholar MELINDA GIVEN CUTTMAN has recently completed a biography, In Search of a Jewish Heroine: The Legendary Life of Anna O./Bertha Pappenheim. She is a professor of speech, theater, and media studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.
The author wishes gratefully to acknowledge the sources of this article: Dr. Albrecht Hirschmuller; Dr. Marion Kaplan; Ms. Ellen Jensen; the Archives of the Leo Baeck Institute; the Archives of the Jewish Museum, Frankfurt; the Archives of the town of Neu Isenburg, Germany; the Buber Archive at the University of Jerusalem; Ms. Roberta Schwartz; Ms. Dagmar Hermann.