I love when a person has lived a full life and made and impact on our beautiful world. I was gathering pictures and videos about how Jews are all over the world, and I love that we are all so different. We are also one family, and Elie Weisel experienced the most horrible example of how a human being can be treated like they are nothing, and then turned it around to spread awareness, light, truth, and not only helped his fellow Jews, but changed the world.
Elie Wiesel interview on Oprah Winfrey show in 2000: “What is abnormal is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life — that is what is abnormal.”
Bertha Pappenheim was a women’s rights activist and social worker who made a huge difference in the lives of disadvantaged girls.
Born to a prominent Jewish family in Vienna, Bertha grew up in a traditional and religious home. There was a clear bias in favor of boys, and she was jealous of her younger brother who attended high school while she was expected to stay at home.
At age 29, Bertha moved from Vienna to Frankfurt. She became involved in the city’s dynamic cultural scene, and volunteered in a soup kitchen, then worked as a social worker.
Bertha began reading to girls in a Jewish orphanage, and discovered her life’s passion: educating Jewish girls and women. She became the orphanage’s managing director, and over the course of 12 years changed the educational program so that it fostered a goal of independence, not just marriage.
Bertha started writing about women’s rights and her work appeared in many publications. She translated Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” into German, as well as the famous memoirs of Jewish merchant housewife Gluckel of Hameln, and “The Women’s Talmud,” a collection of stories from the Talmud.
Around 1907, Bertha founded Neu-Isenburg, a home for pregnant or destitute Jewish girls, including those who had suffered sexual exploitation. Her founding principles were Jewish charity and helping the girls become independent.
Residents received vocational training as well as a Jewish education. The home was kosher and Jewish holidays were celebrated. Neu-Isenburg was humble, with no running water or central heating, but it had an art room and a garden. Bertha organized lectures, theater performances, and speeches by public figures like her friend Martin Buber.
By 1928 the home had 152 residents. It had separate buildings for pregnant women and those who had just given birth, as well as an elementary school and medical clinic.
In 1933, Bertha was traveling in Munich when she became ill and was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. Despite her weak condition, she returned to Frankfurt, where she was bedridden and wracked with pain.
During the last days of her life, she was summoned for questioning after being denounced by a non-Jewish employee of the Neu-Isenburg home. A mentally handicapped girl had made a negative comment about Hitler. Bertha was too sick to go to the police station and she died on May 28, 1936.
Bertha’s proudest creation, Neu-Isenberg, continued without her until 1938, when the home was burned to the ground by the Nazis. All the residents were deported to a concentration camp.
In 1954, Bertha was featured on a German postage stamp as a “Benefactor of Mankind.” On the 50th anniversary of her death, a conference was held about her life and work. A memorial to Bertha was inaugurated on the site of the Neu-Isenburg home in 1997.
For advocating on behalf of women’s rights and education, we honor Bertha Pappenheim as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.