Erna Aronsohn, the older of the two daughters of Georg and Else Aronsohn, was born on August 5, 1903, in Bromberg, Germany. Her father, Georg Aronsohn, a lawyer and notary, was born in Bromberg in 1867 and was a city councilor, representing the DDP. Since his office was in the same building as the family’s apartment, Erna grew into her father’s juristic world through playing. When he worked on the terrace, she transported his files from the office in her doll’s pram. She later described her family as “three-day Jews” because they celebrated only the High Holy Days. Her father was a member of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central Union of German citizens of Jewish Faith) and an anti-Zionist who considered the idea of a Jewish state absurd. Erna Aronsohn sang in the choir of the synagogue and at her public elementary school she participated in the religious studies taught by a rabbi. Both she and her sister rejected their father’s desire to send them to the religious classes operated by the Jewish community. Erna Aronsohn had no interest in religion; she preferred to read the classical German writers. Her mother loved music, took singing lessons and often played together with her two daughters. The cultural life in Bromberg was rich and the family went to lectures, to the theater and to concerts.
After finishing elementary school, Erna Aronsohn attended the Higher School for Girls, where the knowledge she acquired was so good that she needed to take only a few lessons in a number of additional subjects in order to sit for the Abitur (school leaving examination). But she never managed to pass the Abitur in Bromberg; World War I changed the borders and after the regulations of the Treaty of Versailles Bromberg became Polish. In 1920 the Aronsohn family left their home and moved to Berlin. Here
Erna attended a gymnasium for girls, where her classmates gave the immigrant from the east so hard a time that she soon transferred to the outstandingly progressive Fürstin-Bismarck School in Charlottenburg. On September 29, 1922, Erna Aronsohn passed her Abitur.
Taking after her father, she studied law. Like her mother, she had helped a lot in her father’s law office after moving to Berlin and thus gained a first insight into law. A certain sense of justice was also involved in her decision; even at school she was always the one who was the referee in games and who calmed disputing parties. For financial reasons, she spent only one term at Freiburg University and the remainder at Berlin University. To take some weight off her father’s shoulders, she gave private tutoring to children from wealthy homes before taking a steady job as an assistant at an office of the Rockefeller Foundation for Medical Research.
With the help of a so-called “Repetitor” (or coach), which was and is common for law students in Germany, she passed her First State Examination and started her legal training at the famous Kammergericht in Berlin. There she met her future husband, Dr. Max Proskauer. Before registering for the Second State Examination the couple married in May 1930. Erna passed her examination and wanted to become a judge, which meant entering the German civil service. She was accepted as a candidate, and was given some briefs in Schöneberg and Zossen, but before receiving an appointment as a judge, she was suspended from the civil service on order of the Prussian minister of justice on April 26th, 1933. In July 1933 she was officially dismissed as a Jew.
From this time until the day of her emigration, she was without employment. When Max Proskauer also lost his job after the burning of the Reichstag, the decision to leave Germany was promptly made. In the early summer of 1933, Max Proskauer went to Paris to prepare the terrain. Erna Proskauer followed after selling their property. They met again in Grenoble, where they at first intended to learn French and study French law. However, they soon realized that there was no point in trying to pursue a legal profession in France; to be able to compete with French colleagues in the foreseeable future or to plead in court was out of the question. They therefore moved to Paris and tried to make their living in different ways. Neither of them possessed a French working permit and after working illegally for some time, they decided to emigrate. They could not go to the United States because Erna Proskauer was born in Poland and fell under Polish quotas, which meant waiting for years. They therefore decided to go to Palestine, a country neither of them had ever before thought about. In 1934, they arrived in Haifa, where they hoped to open a shop for imported goods. After an attempt to earn a living by sewing, Erna Proskauer opened a stain-removing firm and, later, a proper laundry. When her parents and sister came on a visit to Palestine in 1935 and saw the hard conditions the Proskauers had to live in, they gave up the idea of emigrating. Her father also feared he would not be able to get more than one third of his property out of Germany. Back in Germany he sent a rotary iron to Haifa but the ironing turned out to be a bad idea; there were no clients for it. So Erna Proskauer contacted other laundries in order to do their ironing. Max Proskauer meanwhile had opened his shop for imported goods. While he had to pay for the goods in cash, his clients paid with bills of exchange which often bounced. Soon the bank was forced to liquidate his business. Max Proskauer suffered a serious nervous breakdown and developed stomach ulcers. After spending months in bed, it took him years to recover completely.
Since her husband was sick, Erna Proskauer had nobody to drive the car with which she delivered her laundry and she therefore delivered her ironed laundry by bus or on foot. To add to their misfortunes, the house where the couple rented their apartment was sold. In the new one they would have needed a license for a business, which they could not afford; neither could they fulfill all the hygienic requirements. In this desperate situation Erna Proskauer found a new job as a dispatch clerk in a big laundry.
In July 1939 Else Aronsohn died of cancer. On October 2, 1942, Georg Aronsohn was deported to Theresienstadt, where he died of a heart attack on January 18, 1943, after seeing his name on the list of those who were to be sent to the east. Elsa’s sister Käte (b. 1907), a tailor, managed to board the last ship from Italy to Montevideo, where she soon married. Her husband died in 1945, within one week of contracting polio.
When Max Proskauer regained his strength, he decided to return to law. At first he felt daunted by the language challenge, but because Elsa had a steady job, they managed to save enough money for the very expensive language classes and he was able to enroll for three years of law studies.
When Max Proskauer passed his law examinations in 1947, he first worked in the office of a Haifa lawyer and later, after the establishment of the state and the War of Independence, worked in an office that was established to administer abandoned Arab property. He never felt really at home in Israel. When reparation negotiations in Germany began in the 1950s, he went to Berlin to see what he could do in this area. In Berlin he realized that he wanted to live and work in Germany. After some hesitation, Erna Proskauer also returned, partly because, at the age of fifty, she could not continue with the hard work in the laundry.
In 1953 the Proskauers started for the third time to build up a new professional life. Max Proskauer used the loan he got from the reparations office to purchase the law practice of a Jewish colleague who had recently died. Because this colleague had been a member of a Jewish fraternity, the office received all the reparation claims from his old fraternity colleagues from all over the world. Lacking an interest in such work, Max Proskauer left it to Erna, who dealt with the cases at home. Having interrupted her law career for twenty years she did not yet dare to deal with civil or criminal law cases; restitution law, on the other hand, was new and a limited issue.
Under the rules of the restitution law, Erna Proskauer herself applied to be reemployed in the civil service as a judge or to receive her pension as a former judge, but she met only obstacles. In the end she had to sue the Ministry of Justice in the Administrative Court to employ her again. She lost her case in the last instance on the grounds that her grades in the law examinations had never been high enough to qualify her for her appointment as a judge. This was, of course, a hypocritical argument; many judges at the time were appointed even without the best grades.
Her lifetime dream again destroyed by German “justice,” Erna Proskauer looked for other work. She applied for all possible positions in the municipality of Berlin and in law departments, but nobody seemed to have need for a woman lawyer, even though the emigrants were told they would receive preferential treatment. Eventually, she found work in a law office which specialized in restitution and finally set up her own law practice. Though the work as a restitution lawyer had been well paid, as a lawyer in private practice she was independent and free. She soon qualified as a notary and took over the law office of a colleague. Her husband never wanted to share a practice with his wife. She explained: “He probably feared losing his new independence. In the time of exile he suffered from my earning the money while he hardly helped to support us. But in reality it’s due to him and his tireless, alert brain that I didn’t break down in my everyday life. He was the one who kept our inherited and acquired culture alive.” Among the Jews who returned, many of the marriages in which the women had borne the main burden of securing their existence in exile were unable to survive the husband’s reestablished social and professional success in Germany. The men wanted to forget the suffering of the past and start afresh. After thirty years of marriage, Erna and Max Proskauer divorced.
Although unwelcome, her new freedom gave Erna Proskauer the energy and time to develop her own personal and professional abilities to the full and she established a joint practice with a colleague. This gave her the occasion to travel all over the world and make up for the past thirty years. At the age of sixty-five, she took over her former husband’s general law office after his death in 1968. In this office she once again went into joint practice, working until the age of eighty-four.
Erna Proskauer was a member of the Berlin Jewish community and retained her Israeli citizenship until she died on January 18, 2001.
WORK BY ERNA PROSKAUER
Wege und Umwege einer Rechtsanwältin. Erinnerungen einer Rechtsanwältin. Berlin: 1989.
Huerkamp, Claudia. Bildungsbürgerinnen. Frauen im Studium und in akademischen Berufen 1900–1945. Göttingen: 1996; Freidenreich, Harriet Pass. Female, Jewish, Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women. Bloomington: 2002; Hauser, Thomas. Frauen unter Hitler (film). Bayerischer Rundfunk: 2000; Erna Proskauer Collection, LBI NYC; Deutsches Exilarchiv Frankfurt, EB 2001/114; Proskauer Konvolut, Archives of the Jewish Museum, Berlin.
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Rowekamp, Marion. "Erna Proskauer." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 4, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/proskauer-erna>.