Bertha Pappenheim and My Great Great Grandmother
My great-grandmother used to do a funny thing at the Seder. Every single year, without fail, after we read, “Every boy that is born, throw him into the Nile and every girl you shall keep alive,” she would stop everything and say, “This is the first time a woman is mentioned at the Seder.” This statement wasn’t a unique one for my great-grandmother. She often pointed out when women did something strong or important. She herself lived independently for decades after her husband passed away young. It was always clear feminism ran deep in her but I didn’t know where it came from. As I soon learned, it was from her mother, my great-great-grandmother, known to me as “Oma Irene.”
Some months back, I got an email from my mother while in school. She sent a link to a video of a lecture by a relative, Dr. Mark Blechner, about work done by a woman who my mother called “Anna O,” for Jewish women in pre-war Germany. She wrote in the email that I should watch the video because Oma Irene worked closely with Anna O. I had every intention to watch the video—but a quick click showed it was 47 minutes long and it arrived in the middle of a heavy school workload.
After getting involved with the Jewish Women’s Archive and some not-so-gentle reminding from my mother, I eventually watched it. I was struck by the kind of visionary, controversial-for-its-time work Anna O had done for Jewish women in Germany. However, when I searched for “Anna O,” nothing came up on the JWA site. I tried several spellings (Anna Oh?) before turning to Google. I quickly discovered that Anna O’s real name was Bertha Pappenheim—and that she was famous for two very different reasons. She was known as Anna O in the work of Sigmund Freud. His work with her, discussed in Studies on Hysteria, a joint study published in 1895 by Freud and Dr. Josef Breuer was crucial in Freud’s development of the field of psychoanalysis. However, as the JWA encyclopedia article recounts, Bertha Pappenheim was also instrumental in developing Orthodox Jewish feminism and feminist organizations in late 19th-century Frankfurt, in Germany. My great-great-grandmother, Oma Irene Darmstädter, worked with Pappenheim and directed the clubs they formed for many years.
Bertha Pappenheim was raised Orthodox. Her family put a heavy emphasis on the mitzvah of chesed, good deeds. She initially worked at a soup kitchen and an orphanage run by a Jewish feminist organization. In 1885, Pappenheim became the director of that orphanage and ran it for twelve years. Before Pappenheim took the role of director, the orphanage had focused on preparing the young girls in their care for marriage, but Pappenheim switched the curriculum to focus on giving the girls the tools they would need to live independently. As time went on, Pappenheim became more outspoken about the need to care for at-risk Jewish women and started joining more activist groups that focused on caring for them. In 1888, she started writing for papers about the issues she was seeing with young Jewish women under an alias and only later started publishing under her real name.
Pappenheim noticed that many Christian groups had charities to address female sex trafficking. She went looking for a Jewish charity that tackled these same issues but realized none existed. Worse, she found that the local rabbis had no interest in supporting such an organization. Pappenheim tried to speak to the rabbis and other powerful Jewish men to try and start an anti-trafficking organization. She also did something ahead of her time by starting an organization to help agunot, women separated from their husbands whose husbands refuse to issue them a get, the religious divorce document these women need to remarry and move on with their lives. It's an issue the Orthodox Jewish community still struggles with today.
In 1904, Pappenheim formed her own charity league, which focused on all different kinds of Jewish women's needs, including those of unwed mothers. This work was considered extremely controversial at the time, because unwed Jewish mothers were not an acknowledged reality by many in the community. Pappenheim and Oma Irene made sure they received the support and services they needed. The Orthodox Jewish community at the time refused to acknowledge these kids, and the woman who gave birth to them had no means to support them. Without support, these kids sometimes ended up being manipulated and trafficked. Pappenheim formed clubs for these women and their babies, which Oma Irene helped her run.
Bertha Pappenheim and Oma Irene’s work still feels essential today. We still are working to help people in the Jewish community who many would prefer to pretend don’t exist. For example, the halachic aspects of Jewish children born to unmarried parents may be complicated, but their existence can’t be ignored, and organizations like ITIM are working to help them. Similarly, the Orthodox Jewish community is still grappling with how to deal with gay and transgender members of their community. Of course, the issue of agunot itself remains critical. One hundred years later, the specific issues may be slightly different, but the notion that marginalized members of our community need help remains vital.
There’s something apt about my great-grandmother noting a section of the Torah (and recited in the Seder) that focused on whether Jewish babies would be allowed to live because, in a way, that’s what her mother was doing. Oma Irene’s work with Bertha Pappenheim gave Jewish children who would have otherwise been left to fend for themselves a chance to grow up in a safe place.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Schilowitz, Aviva. "Bertha Pappenheim and My Great Great Grandmother." 20 January 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 4, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/bertha-pappenheim-and-my-great-great-grandmother>.