1896 – 1979
Born on January 14, 1896, Nora Block was the eighth of ten children born into a Jewish household in Bochum, Germany. Her parents owned a clothing store for men and boys in the center of Bochum. The shop was on the ground floor and the family lived on the two floors above.
Her father, Bendix Block, was a respected member of the Jewish community and the Blocks observed Jewish traditions such as eating mazzot and changing their dishes for Passover even though they were not orthodox. At school Nora Bock frequently experienced antisemitic incidents, but the loving family life which her parents provided counterbalanced them. They instilled the confidence and warmth that characterized her life.
When her father died in 1912, Nora Block left school in order to support the family. She joined her father’s business and then took it over, but in 1917, when she could no longer maintain the shop, she left Bochum and went as a volunteer to an international war relief-service in Rumania. There she worked through November of 1918. On returning to Germany she was employed as a secretary to Helen Stöcker, the founder of the German Organization for the Protection of Mothers.
The experiences of World War I made Nora Block a convinced pacifist and she became a member of the German League for International Public Law, the leading figure of which, Elisabeth Rotten, advised the young woman to study. Rotten and Stöcker were known for their radical feminist ideas, and Nora Block was greatly influenced by them. A chance meeting with the industrialist Ernst Schlesinger led her to start working as his secretary in Denmark. In addition to studying art history, she worked as a Red Cross volunteer in Copenhagen. Schlesinger offered to pay for private lessons to prepare her for the Abitur, the final high school examination. After passing it, Block enrolled at Frankfurt University to study economics and social sciences.
The Russian revolution of 1917 had made a convinced socialist of her and she soon realized that studying law would provide a better context for her ideas of the ideal society. She therefore changed faculties in order to help bring justice into society. She was particularily intrigued by the philosophy of Leonard Nelson, who taught at Göttingen University. To become a member of the International Youth Movement (IJB) founded by Nelson and the pedagogue Minna Specht, she transferred to Göttingen University at the age of twenty-six. The IJB was a political educational community based on severe and hierarchical principles. To be part of the movement involved being a vegetarian and a teetotaler, resigning from church and severing all personal bonds in order to be free for political activity.
In 1922 Nora Block joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), but three years later, when the conflicts between the IJB and the SPD intensified and the SPD rejected the IJB with its elitist principles and anti-Marxist points of view, Nelson founded a new party, the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK). Since membership was always limited and its ideas theoretical and elitist, the ISK developed a sectarian character. Nelson’s death coincided with Nora Block’s first Bar examination in Celle and she did not become active in the new party. After passing the examination, she started her legal training at court and with lawyers in Bochum, completing it in Kassel.
After passing the Second Examination Nora Block moved back to her mother’s home and set up her own law practice in Bochum, working mostly as a defense lawyer in political trials. She established a branch of the ISK in Bochum. After the election for parliament in 1930, Bochum, formerly a labor city, became one of the Nazi strongholds. Many important Nazi figures lived there and with the high unemployment rate, Bochum was a bedlam. Until Hitler’s seizure of power Nora Block, who was a member of “Red Help,” bravely defended socialists and communists in court. As the only woman lawyer in Bochum, a Jew and a socialist, she combined all the characteristics which the Nazis despised and thus drew all their evil attention to her.
In January 1933 the president of the Bar hinted that he possessed enough material to open a disciplinary hearing against her. The main reason was that she had spoken at a public assembly about the “class-character” of the Weimar Republic. The president never initiated a trial, but demoted her. Soon afterwards, Roland Freisler, later president of the People’s Court, wrote demanding that she behave loyally towards the new regime or else quit the Bar. Shortly after the Nazi seizure of power, the SS raided her home several times. She managed to emigrate under the pretext that she wanted to take law classes in France, acquired a new valid passport and escaped to Paris at the beginning of March, 1933.
She soon became part of the Parisian politically active emigrant circle. In January 1934 she gave birth to a son, Roger, fathered by Gerhard Kumleben, who was also a member of the ISK. At first Nora Block was without any income and her French was not fluent. In September 1933 she found work as a secretary in the editorial office of Leopold Schwarzschild’s exile newspaper Das Neue Tagebuch (New Diary), established in Berlin but now being published in Paris. She also worked for the ISK and on a White Paper about Hitler Germany, wrote articles for various newspapers such as the Cahier Juifs, edited by Maxime Piha, and worked together with Willi Eichler, Nelson’s successor, in editing books and writing publications under a pseudonym. In April 1934 she found work as a legal adviser to the firm Omnium Métallurgique. From the beginning of 1938 she headed the Social enquêtes department of the Comité d’Assistance aux Refugiés (CAR), which was financed by the Joint Distribution Committee to help the many Jews in Europe who had no possibility of leaving by transferring money to secure their minimal subsistence.
Meanwhile her four–month-old son Roger was sent to a home for children of emigrants in the south of Paris. In summer 1936, due to the political developments, Nora Block sent him to Minna Specht’s School in Exile in Denmark, where he remained until the school had to flee to England. When the school closed in 1940 because the teachers were interned, Roger ended up with a couple who symphatized with the ISK.
In May 1940 Nora Block was interned with many other emigrants in the Vélodrome D’Hiver in Paris, under terrible conditions. Despite all the attempts to prevent both contact with the outside world and communication among the interned women in the camp, Nora Block managed to establish an office to help women who were unable to help themselves by translating letters and documents for them. When the Wehrmacht marched into Paris in June 1940, many prisoners started to prepare their escape from Gurs. With forged papers Nora Block and nineteen other women managed to flee on June 23, 1940, making their way to Montauban, where Hermann Platiel, whom she had met in Paris, was already waiting. Again she started relief actions and established an office of CAR, through which she was able to help many people and even save the lives of some. On January 14, 1943, Hermann Platiel and Nora Block married in order not to be separated in case of an eventual deportation. When the Germans occupied Montauban, Hermann Platiel, who was not Jewish, was arrested because it was assumed that he, too, was a Jew, since he was married to one. He managed to escape and hide at a farm until 1945. With the help of friends Nora Platiel managed a last-minute escape to Switzerland. Despite a severe illness, she crossed the border during the night by bicycle. Because the guide who was supposed to bring her to safety left her too early, she was picked up by a Swiss border guard, who took pity on her and brought her to a refugee camp in Geneva instead of sending her back to France. Because of her ill health and her recognition as a victim of racial persecution, the Schweizerische Arbeitshilfswerk (SAH) managed to obtain her release from the camp. After her convalescence, Nora Platiel worked for three years on a voluntary basis alongside Regina Kaegi-Fuchsmann at the SAH in Zurich, until she found a steady job as the person responsible for mothers and children at the Non-Local Relief Actions organization. Nora Platiel was worried at having no news from her husband and also suffered because of the separation from her son. Hermann Platiel finally managed to cross the border to Switzerland illegally and thereafter worked illegally for the ISK and, later, for the SAH. At the end of August 1946 Roger returned from England. He attended the Ecole d’Humanité in Versoix which was founded in Switzerland by Paul Geheeb, the former head of the famous Odenwaldschule.
The years in Switzerland after the war were hard for the family. Over and over they had to prove that their presence was only temporary. In 1948 Hermann Platiel was dismissed from the SAH due to pressure by Swiss officials. The Platiels tried to return to France but since they had no chance of making a living there, they decided to return to Germany.
Nora Platiel returned first, in 1949, as a delegate of the SAH. In October of the same year she was appointed judge (Landgerichtsrätin) at a restitution court in Kassel, thanks to her connections with former comrades of the ISK. After working for a short time at the Court of Appeal in Frankfurt/Main, Nora Platiel was appointed the first woman director of a German district court in 1951.
When the famous German woman lawyer Elisabeth Selbert, who fought for including equal rights for men and women in the current form of Article 3 of the constitution, ceased her activity for the social democrats in Kassel, Nora Platiel succeeded her. In 1950 she spoke at labor union meetings and took part in demonstrations, as well as giving a speech on International Women’s Day. She was active in discussions and debates on family and industrial law, always from the perspective of equal rights for women. Affected as a politican, as a woman lawyer and as a citizen, she pointed out that the denazification of West Germany’s justice and political apparatus was inadequate.
In 1954 Nora Platiel ran for the Hessian State Parliament. She was elected for three successive terms and served for six years as a deputy party whip. She protested vehemently against emergency compulsory service for women and against the threatened emergency laws. Platiel claimed that the population must participate directly in questions of acquiring nuclear armaments. She especially fought for establishing contact with Israel, which she visited several times. She was also a member of the Hessian Supreme Court, the committee for electing the judges and numerous other committees.
In 1962 Nora Platiel was a candidate for the post of president of the State Parliament but lost the election with a margin of only four votes. When she left Parliament in 1966, she was widely acknowledged as “the best speaker of the Parliament” and “the conscience of the Parliament.”
Nora Platiel returned to Kassel to dedicate herself to new tasks. She was a member of the art organization, the advisory council for arts at the state university and the local organization of the social democratic party. In 1968 Hermann and Nora Platiel left the SPD in protest at the compromises it made with the Christian Democrats. They protested against the war in Vietnam and the emergency laws and harshly criticized the lack of opposition. Till late in the 1970s Nora Platiel was treasurer of the Philosophical-Political Academy founded by Nelson before his death. In 1969 she received the Wilhelm-Leuschner Merit for her political stance during the Third Reich.
After her son’s early death on June 21, 1978, Nora Platiel lost her will to live and died in Kassel on September 6, 1979, shortly after a retrospective exhibition of Roger’s works was hosted by the city’s art museum.
Translations: Bloch, Camille. Die Ursachen des Weltkrieges. Zurich, Leipzig, Stuttgart and Vienna: 1935; “Zur Frage der Vorbereitung der politischen Flüchtlinge auf die Nachkriegszeit.” Conference paper, Montreux: 1945.
“Nora Platiel.” In Alibi-Frauen? Hessische Politikerinnen, vol. 2, edited by Ingrid Langer, Susanne Sander and Ulrike Ley, 201–256. Frankfurt/Main: 1996.
Haas-Rietschel, Helga, and Sabine Hering. Nora Platiel. Sozialistin, Emigrantin, Politikerin. Köln: 1990.
Röder, Werner, and Herbert A. Strauss. Biographisches Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration nach 1933, vol. 1. Muenchen: 1980, 563.
Tetzlaff, Walter. 2000 Kurzbiographien bedeutender deutscher Juden des 20. Jahrhunderts. Düsseldorf: 1970, 63.
Walk, Joseph. Kurzbiographien zur Geschichte der Juden 1918–1945. Jerusalem, München: 1988.
Wannagat, Georg, ed. Kassel als Stadt der Juristen (Juristinnen) und der Gerichte in ihrer tausendjährigen Geschichte. Köln: 1990, 483f..
Madsen, Britta. “Die Sozialistin Nora Block-Platiel: Kameradschaft ohne Unterordnung.” In Neue Frauen zwischen den Zeiten, edited by Petra Bock and Katja Koblitz, 61–75. Berlin: 1995.
Remains in the Archiv für Sozialdemokratie.
Institut für Zeitgeschichte, ZS 2226, Interview with Dr. Walter Fabian.
Interview with Nora und Hermann Platiel ZS 2297, Questionnaire, Nora Platiel IfZ 213/3.
File in HNA-Archiv.