As a young woman, Hannah Karminski worked with the League of Jewish Woman in Frankfurt and became the League’s secretary and editor of its newsletter from 1924 to 1938. When the League was dissolved by the Nazis in 1938, Karminski remained in Germany and joined the Reich Association of Jews in Germany, where she was an organizer of kindertransports and welfare support for those still trapped in Germany. As male leaders were arrested, she rose through the ranks to become head of the welfare departments in 1941. Karminski kept working to help the needy until her arrest in November of 1942 and subsequent transport to Auschwitz, where she was killed upon arrival.
During the mid-1920s and the 1930s in Germany, Hannah Karminski was the “soul” of the League of Jewish Women (Jüdischer Frauenbund, JFB), founded in 1904 by Bertha Pappenheim (1859–1936). She served as secretary of the League and, from 1924 to 1938, as editor of its newsletter. After the forced liquidation of the League in 1938, Hannah Karminski decided to remain in Germany and to continue her work in the Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland (Reich Association of Jews in Germany).
Hannah’s father, Abraham Karminski (b. January 16, 1861, in Pleschen), was a property owner. His wife, Selma (née Cohn) was born on July 10, 1874, in Breslau. Their older daughter, Minna Johanna (Hannah), was born on April 24, 1897, in Berlin. A second daughter, Erna, was born on May 24, 1899. The sisters were very close to each other and their love shines out from the correspondence between them during the three years following Erna Berlowitz’s departure for Switzerland, together with her husband and her parents in 1939—a correspondence that survived the Shoah. Hannah attended the Luisen School in Berlin and later the Pestalozzi-Fröbel-Haus, a college for teachers of young children. Upon her graduation, she became a kindergarden teacher and for a short time worked at a preschool. She then moved to Hamburg to attend the Institute for Social Work (Sozialpädagogisches Institut), run by the conservative feminist Gertrud Bäumer (1873–1954). Shortly afterwards she relocated to Frankfurt where she became the head of the Israelite Girls Club (Israelitischer Mädchenverein). During this time, she was also able to attend lectures at the Jewish Educational Institute (Jüdisches Lehrhaus), headed by the German-Jewish spiritual leader, Martin Buber (1878–1965).
It was in Frankfurt that she met Bertha Pappenheim. This meeting changed the course of her whole life. Bertha Pappenheim, who was thirty-eight years older than Hannah Karminski, became her spiritual mother, her friend, and her mentor. Bertha once said with great pride, “Hannah is the young woman I have sculpted.” Pappenheim encouraged Hannah to work in Jewish women’s organizations. After working in smaller Jewish organizations, Hannah turned to the greater objectives of the JFB in 1924. At the time, JFB’s main purpose was to integrate feminist goals with the Jewish religion. Its members fought against antisemitism and for political emancipation for themselves since in most German Jewish communities women had no right to vote and Jewish institutions were male-dominated. Hannah Karminski, a strong feminist, was one of those who strove to advance women’s interests in the Jewish organizations and who tried to speak for women.
When the Nazi Party took power in 1933, the women had to become wholly pragmatic; feminist political goals remained theoretical. More important than political feminism was their involvement in the Jewish self-help movement during 1933 to 1938 and the general efforts to survive a terrorist regime. Following the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht) on November 9–10, 1938, when the JFB, like all the other Jewish organizations, was dissolved by the Nazis, Hannah Karminski continued her work in the Reichsvereinigung and even managed to continue her feminist advocacy.
Work in Nazi Germany
After the November Pogrom, more than ten thousand children from Germany and Austria were rescued from certain death by organizers who arranged for them to be taken from their parents and transported out of the Reich. Most of them were brought to the United Kingdom. As head of one of the welfare departments of the Reichsvereinigung, Hannah Karminski was one of the major organizers of these aptly named “children’s transports” (Kindertransporte). Though she accompanied some of the children’s transports, she always returned to Germany to continue the rescue work. Her parents, together with Erna and husband, emigrated to Lugano, Switzerland, and thus survived the Shoah.
After the liquidation of the JFB in 1938, Hannah Karminski was hired by the Reichsvereinigung and became the head of one of the sections in the welfare department in February 1939. In 1941, following the arrest of the head of the Reichsvereinigung’s welfare departments, she was appointed to succeed him. Jewish welfare support became increasingly important as an ever greater number of Jews came to depend upon the help of these Jewish organizations for sustenance. Poor and unable to leave Germany, most of the elderly, a high percentage of whom were women, desperately needed the support of Jewish welfare.
During these years Hannah Karminski was a friend and co-worker of Cora Berliner (1890–1942), Hildegard Böhme (1884–1943), and Paula Fürst (1894–1942) who was her life-partner. These four “Women of the Reichsvereinigung” were more like family than friends, constantly providing each other with love and encouragement. In June 1942, when Cora Berliner and Paula Fürst were deported to the East, Hannah Karminski was inconsolable at the loss of her life-partner.
In an effort to distract herself, Hannah tried to escape into work. In one of her letters to her family she wrote: “Yes, everything happened so fast. And we don’t hear anything. I try not to wait but I do. I am working very hard, but I can’t get rid of my yearning.” Although her family tried to persuade her to come to Switzerland and to work there, Hannah—like Cora Berliner— refused to emigrate, arguing that “here they need me the most!”
In November 1942, Hannah Karminski was arrested and imprisoned. On December 9, 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered. She was forty-five years old.
In October 2002 the city of Berlin named a street after Hannah Karminski in Berlin-Charlottenburg.
“Several articles in the Newsletter of the League of Jewish Women.” Berlin: 1924–1938.
“Letters from Hannah Karminski to Hans Schäffer.” Publications of the Leo Baeck Institute of Jews in Germany, II, (1957): 310–312.
Badt-Strauss, Bertha. “Drei unvergessliche Frauen.” Publikationen des Leo Baeck Institute of Jews in Germany, 2/3 (1958): 103–107.
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Lowenthal, Ernst G. “Soziale Arbeit, jüdische Tradition. Im Gedenken an Hannah Karminski. Zum 50. Gründungstag des Jüdischen Frauenbundes.” Jüdisches Leben. Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden in Deutschland, IX, 10 (11.6.1954): 8.
Maier, Hugo. Who is who der Sozialen Arbeit, Freiburg i. Br.: 1998, 289.
Maierhof, Gudrun. “’Ich bleibe, um meine Pflicht zu tun.’ Hannah Karminski (1897–1942).” In Sabine Hering, ed., Jüdische Wohlfahrt im Spiegel von Biographien, edited by Sabine Hering, 220-228. Frankfurt/Main, 2006.
Maierhof, Gudrun. Selbstbehauptung im Chaos. Frauen in der jüdischen Selbsthilfe 1933–1943. Frankfurt/New York: 2002, 71–77, 193–195.
Romanoff, Ludwig. Jüdische Wohlfahrtspflege aufgezeigt am Beispiel ausgewählter Frauenbiografien (Cora Berliner, Clara Israel, Hannah Karminski, Hilde Lion, Bertha Pappenheim, Alice Salomon). Passau: 2006, 83–126.
Walk, Joseph. Kurzbiographien zur Geschichte der Juden 1918–1945, München/New York/London/Paris: 1988, 184.
Archives: Leo Baeck Institute, New York and Jerusalem: Hannah Karminski Collection.