1881 – 1943
Though Rosa Manus was one of the leading Dutch feminists before World War II, her memory has since been overshadowed by more famous contemporaries such as Aletta Jacobs. The fact that her life was also interwoven with pacifism, the struggle against fascism and the decline of Dutch Jewry, has largely been forgotten. More than other feminists, Rosa Manus suffered from the difficult position in which Jews were placed following the rise of fascism in Germany, when many women’s organizations were anxious to avoid being perceived as too Jewish. Carrie Chapman Catt, who regarded her as a pupil, assistant and adopted daughter, remembered her as one of the first to die for “the cause,” ignoring the fact that Rosa Manus had been arrested for her pacifist activities and deported as a Jew. And although her name appears on the memorial to those who died in Ravensbrück, there are several witnesses who testify to her having been taken, gravely ill, to Auschwitz.
Rosa Manus came from a prosperous bourgeois Jewish family. Her father, Philip Manus, was a tobacco merchant and her mother, Soete Vita Israel, was a homemaker who was born in the Netherlands. The parents had seven children, Rosa being the second. From an early age she longed for independence, education and paid employment—aspirations that had no place in the environment in which she grew up. Even her desire to become a nurse was not supported. Instead she took up philanthropy, and sat upon various charitable committees. In 1908, during the Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), she met Aletta Jacobs and Carrie Chapman Catt, with both of whom she formed a friendship. From then on she became increasingly well known as a feminist, partly through being the organizer in 1913 of the exhibition “De Vrouw 1813–1913,” which portrayed the life of Dutch women. In the following year she and Aletta Jacobs attended the conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in London. In 1915, as an extension of this event, she helped set up the International Women’s Conference against War, which was organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). From then on her life followed two distinct paths: women’s suffrage and pacifism. Both paths were marked by lifelong friendships within a large network of politically active women, one of whom was Rosika Schwimmer, already a friend of Aletta Jacobs. In 1923 Manus accompanied Chapman Catt on a journey abroad, during which they witnessed the rise of fascism in Rome and also visited Vienna, Budapest and Czechoslovakia. In 1926 she became Secretary of the Peace Committee of the International Alliance of Women (formerly the IWSA), becoming Vice-President later the same year.
Manus was also active on a national level, both in the Dutch branch of the IWSA and as the founder (in 1932) of the Dutch Electrical Association for Women. In 1935 she was the driving force behind the establishment in Amsterdam of the International Archives for the Women’s Movement (IAV), the aim of which was to promote the knowledge and scientific study of the women’s movement and to be a center for collecting and preserving the cultural heritage of women. On July 2, 1940 the Germans removed its entire contents. The Archives reopened after the war and only in January 1992 did a Dutch historian discover some of its contents in Moscow. Less known is Manus’s 1938 involvement in the beginning of the Amsterdam Auxiliary Corps, an organization of women volunteers.
Given the constant threat of war it was inevitable that Manus would become increasingly involved in the cause of pacifism. In 1932 she was partly responsible for the eight million signatures against war which were presented at the Geneva Disarmament Conference. She was also active in the Women’s Disarmament Committee of International Organizations. In 1936, as assistant to Lord Robert Cecil (who received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1937), she was prominent in the Congrès du Rassemblement Universel pour la Paix, in Brussels. This won her a reputation as a left-winger, which was not an asset in feminist organizations. The aim in those days, at both the national and international level, was to give a neutral impression, not too Jewish and certainly not too leftist. On a number of occasions she was cruelly undermined and as a result withdrew from the national level of Dutch feminism, angered by the silence of the movement and its refusal to recognize the difficult position of Jews. These were expressed in an ambivalence towards her and other women who had contributed greatly to feminism: on the one hand, there was fear of being seen as a movement dominated by Jewish women, and on the other, a fear of being seen as antisemitic. She never said so explicitly, but her position had become untenable. The same applied to other leading Jewish feminists.
In 1939, during an IAW conference in Copenhagen, she clashed with the Egyptian representative, Hoda Charaoui. She described the episode in a letter to Catt. A proposal to allow no more Jews into Palestine was under discussion. This she regarded as inconsistent with the fact that the Union Of Hebrew Women For Equal Rights In Erez Israel was a member of the IAW and participated in the conference. Although she was re-elected to the Committee of the IWA, her letter shows traces of bitterness even though she remained in the organization.
Rosa Manus had no illusions. Her friends and family were already being affected by Nazism and she expected the situation of Jews to get worse. Through the National Women’s Committee for Refugees, she was active in helping the stream of German refugees and set up a center for refugee women. Her growing unease was justified, as was her assumption that she would be picked up soon after an invasion of the Netherlands. Already suspect as a pacifist and because of her international contacts, she was arrested in 1940. As a Jew she could expect no special treatment and after a short spell in prison, she was deported.