A groundbreaking pioneer in the theory and practice of social policy and social welfare in Germany, Helene Simon derived her philosophy and ideology from two seemingly disparate sources: her strictly Orthodox Jewish parental home and the leaders of the Fabian Society in London, especially Beatrice and Sidney Webb.
Born in Düsseldorf on September 16, 1862, Helene (Henriette) Simon was the seventh child of Jacob and Amalia Simon. Four brothers and two sisters were considerably older than herself and no longer living at home while she was growing up. Three more sisters were younger. Helene’s father was born in 1822 in Lechenich on the Rhine, where his family owned a farm. Because his parents thought he was physically too frail to engage in cattle raising, he was the only child in his family who attended high school before being sent to Düsseldorf for training at a bank owned by Samuel Heinrich Prag, a respected member of the city council. Here he met Amalia Gompertz (b. January 12, 1830), the oldest child in a large, impoverished family, who had, at the suggestion of her parents, been adopted by the childless Prag couple. (Samuel Prag was a brother-in-law of Amalia’s mother.) Amalia received an excellent education and displayed an especial talent for literature, music and art. She was a fine pianist and excelled at drawing. However, she was lonely in the big house and later in life urged her children never to hand their offspring into the care of others. Jacob Simon, who frequented the Prag home, helped Amalia with her homework. The date of their marriage is not known.
A businessman and banker, Helene’s father was described as “a man of great simplicity and strict Jewish orthodoxy” and was widely respected for his outstanding acts of charity (zedakah). Punctual and thrifty, he sought to instill his own values in his children. He had inherited a considerable fortune from his father, which may have been the reason why Samuel Prag made him a partner in his bank and chose him as a husband for his adopted daughter. However, his kindheartedness led to his being swindled by untrustworthy auditors and other dishonest clients, so that he gradually lost his fortune, left the bank and removed to Cologne, where he established his own banking house. Here, too, however, he was readily exploited by unscrupulous clients, who led him to believe that they were penniless and, as a result, were not only invited to meals at his house but were even provided with weekly pocket-money. His children were taught to treat all poor people with the utmost respect. At home, Jacob Simon was something of a despot, tyrannical and often ill-tempered. Although he was not uneducated and had a good knowledge of German classics, which he frequently quoted, it was impossible to discuss religious or philosophical matters with him because he was convinced that he was always in the right, particularly where religion was concerned. This created problems, since four of his sons and two of his daughters did not share his religious outlook. Nevertheless, while they were growing up, he insisted that they say their prayers three times a day, slowly and correctly, recite grace after meals and attend synagogue on Friday evening and Sabbath morning. Rather than loving him, his children feared and respected him, but it is clear that Helene’s later interest in caring for the poor was to a large extent inspired by his example.
Amalia, on the other hand, was gentle, selfless and loving—and adored by all her children, who did everything in their power to satisfy all her desires and needs, even when these were not explicitly expressed in words.
Helene Simon led the typical life of a middle-class child and young woman in the final years of the nineteenth century. She wrote poetry and novels, none of which have survived; read a great deal, took piano and art lessons, went to the theater and to concerts. She was witty and quick in her responses. On one occasion, when a young boy called “Jew” after her in the street, she turned around and scornfully called out “Dog!” She helped a great deal with housework, sharing this task with her younger sister Klara when only the two of them remained in their parents’ home. On one occasion, when a nephew came to visit her, he found her stirring the soup with one hand while holding in the other a book that she was engaged in reading. Indeed, in the autumn of 1892 she wrote to one of her older sisters that she was getting up at 5:30 a.m. in order to read, since otherwise she would never find time to pursue her own interests. One of her brothers commented that when he visited the parental home the only time he could converse with Helene was when they went for a walk together, since at all other times she was busy with housework. Of the latter there was always a great deal, since the married children and their children visited frequently, as did other relatives. When her younger sister Klara married a banker, Reichmann, and moved to Karlsruhe, Helene was left alone to bear the entire burden, sewing, mending and cooking, but always without neglecting her own further education. Her preferred reading was drawn from the critical social-political works published from 1883 on by the English left-wing intellectual Fabian Society, a group of socialist intellectuals who had joined together in order to further reform in women’s and children’s rights, women’s suffrage, public housing, education and the outmoded provisions of the Poor Law. Hence it was understandable that when her parents decided to move to Karlsruhe in 1895 to share a home with their older married daughter Ida, Helene decided to study in England. She was then thirty-two years old and still unmarried, since none of the suitors her father had proposed to her had seemed to share her cultural and intellectual interests. She remained single all her life, the favorite aunt of all her numerous nephews and nieces, who found in her small stature and delicate, loving nature more of a playmate than an older relative.
In London, Edward Bernstein (1850–1932, Berlin), a German social democratic theoretician, politician and founder of evolutionary socialism or reformism, introduced Simon to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who were at the time deeply engaged in establishing the London School of Economics and Political Science and ensuring legislation to grant the University of London full academic status. They helped Simon gain admission to University lectures. She lived in Wimbledon and used the Fabian Society’s library and that at the British Museum to study domestic economy and social legislation, but the strong interest she developed in the ideas of Robert Owen led her also to Oxford in order to study the life and articles of this precursor of socialism and social reform and founder of the trade union movement. Owen’s “utopian socialism” became the major influence on her further thought and activity as she internalized his advocacy of the gradual transformation of society, rather than a violent, bloody revolution.
Another important influence was Beatrice Webb, with whom Simon developed a warm friendship. When Simon arrived in England the Webbs had recently completed their joint work, The History of Trade Unionism, which was published on May 1, 1894, and were engaged in writing Industrial Democracy, which described the theoretical basis and the practical activities of the unions and was published in 1897. This book demonstrated that trade unionism had its origins in the guilds and brotherhoods of earlier centuries, which could serve as models for a true democracy. Through her conversation with the Webbs Simon participated in the efforts to transform London’s educational system and welfare practices into modern systems that would, for the first time ever, take into account the needs of the broad masses of the working class.
Simon visited the slums of London’s East End, accompanied sanitary inspectors to factories and workshops and observed striking differences between “fashionable” London and the “pitiful figures on the benches.” These experiences became the subject of numerous articles and essays, such as her 1896 article on legislation against “sweatshops” in Massachusetts.
Her experiences in London strengthened her determination to fight for a similar reform of Germany’s outdated system of care for the poor and juvenile welfare, which would provide real protection against child labor and the provision of proper nutrition for children of poor working-class families through the establishment of school meals.
Her writings on social issues, especially the development of work inspection and the protection of women and children, facilitated her acceptance as an auditor at the University of Berlin upon her return there in 1897. For three semesters she participated in the seminars on domestic economics given by Professor Gustav Schmoller, who edited the journal Soziale Praxis, in which Simon published a number of critical studies of German legislation protecting workers and reviewed its inadequate implementation in a series of reports in the various German states. She stressed the need for proper medical inspection in workplaces and for women inspectors to oversee the protection of women and children. Among the articles that aroused particular interest were one on protection of women and the women’s movement, which appeared in Soziale Praxis, one on women domestic servants and another on women’s working hours in factories, all of which were published in Die Neue Zeit.
At this time there were two different types of women’s movements in Germany, both dealing with women’s emancipation and women’s employment. One group comprised working-class women, for whom the SPD (Social-Democratic Party) and its newly-established social and political frameworks catered. The other, middle-class, movement saw emancipation as a discrete issue, independent of other social and political matters. The former was profoundly influenced by August Bebel’s Die Frau und der Sozialismus (Woman and Socialism, 1879), which also made a strong impression on Helene Simon.
In 1901, together with a childhood friend from Düsseldorf, Adele Gerhard (b. Cologne 1868), Simon published her first major academic work, Mutterschutz und geistige Arbeit (Maternal Care and Intellectual Activity, Berlin, 1901), the aim of which was to establish the influence of intellectual and artistic activity on the nature of women and mothers, based on the evidence of biographies and correspondence as well as real-life experiences and working conditions.
The research conducted by Simon and Gerhard involved over four hundred women in a number of countries, who had made a name for themselves in a variety of artistic, creative or cultural areas—poets, authors, actors, musicians, artists, sculptors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, preachers and political activists. Thirty-seven percent were unmarried, most of them engaged in scientific work or education. According to the authors, the results showed that artistic, scientific and intellectual work was perfectly consistent with women’s essential being, but that health factors and the economic status of the family as well as other personal traits could cause a conflict between her tasks as a mother and her creative activities. While these were not prohibitive factors in writing or in political activity, both of which could be engaged in even at a more mature age, there were no viable solutions in intellectual and artistic occupations.
In 1902 Helene Simon published a review of a book by Beatrice Webb which had urged protection of factory workers, especially women and children. Thereafter she herself repeatedly urged the passing of legislation that would limit women’s working hours and raise the age for juvenile protection. Invited to lecture on this topic at the first General Assembly of the Society for Social Reform in Cologne, in 1902, she discovered that the Society had not taken into account the antiquated and regressive Prussian laws of associations, which forbade women’s addressing meetings. Prohibited from delivering her own lecture, Helene Simon had to sit in the special “Segment” designated for women, listening to the chairman, Professor Ernst Francke, read her lecture while the supervisory police officers urgently warned her to give no open expression of comment or criticism. The lecture was published the following year as Pamphlet 48 in the Publications of the Society for Social Reform (Gustav Fischer Publishers, Jena).
Discovering that working-class children, orphans and needy children were often unable to follow lessons in school because they were hungry, tired and incapable of concentrating, Simon began to advocate for school breakfasts and lunches. This eventually led to the publication in 1906 of her book Schule und Brot (School and Bread), which drew much attention. A pamphlet on school meals, which appeared in 1909, was followed by additional publications which detailed the special needs of children of working mothers and those who had to contribute to the family income by delivering newspapers or rolls early in the morning. In other words, Helene Simon dealt in specifics, not only in broad outlines.
In 1905, Simon’s book on Robert Owen, the fruit of her labors in England, appeared—the first biography of the great social reformer to be published in German and one which even today is considered the standard work on Owen. Simon emerged as a brilliant biographer and the book had an enormous impact on other reformers, such as Alice Salomon, the pioneer of education for social work, who cited it as a model for her own work on the lives, teachings and works of social leaders. In 1919, Helene Simon published a shorter, popular work, Robert Owen and Socialism, which included a selection of his works. Earlier, in 1909, she had published a second biographical work, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, which for the first time acquainted German readers with the life of the theoretician of anarchy and with his wife, the precursor of women’s emancipation. In her work Simon portrayed their romantic lives, their important work and the dramas of these two creative and so different people, doing so with remarkable empathy, great warmth and noteworthy tact. Their tragic fates, the richness of their novel ideas, the early death of Wollstonecraft and the misfortunes of their children were thus brought to the attention of German readers.
Helene Simon published two more biographies: a two-volume work on her friend Elisabeth Gnauck-Kühne, the first woman to be admitted to the University of Berlin, who was considered the first German woman Social Democrat in the modern sense of the term (Vol. 1, 1928; Vol. II, 1929); and Albert Levy, Werk und Persönlichkeit (1932), on the man who established and headed the Berlin Center for Private Care.
In 1912 Simon published her translation of Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s important and fundamental The Prevention of Poverty, the result of Beatrice’s long experience, beginning in 1905, as leader of the minority on the Royal Commission for the Study of Poverty. The work urged the widespread and thorough reform of antiquated laws relating to the poor and their replacement by new laws establishing protection of workers, minimum wage, social insurance, employment agencies, health services and the creation of employment in times of crisis, and the cooperation of the unions. All these ideas became known in Germany only through Simon’s translation.
From 1907, Helene Simon was a member of the supposedly non-partisan Standing Committee for Advocating the Interests of Women Workers. In 1911 she joined the German Society for the Care of the Poor and Their Social Welfare, to which she belonged until her expulsion in 1933. The further development of her detailed plans for the standardization of children’s rights (juvenile law) was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. As a distinctly patriotic German, she dedicated herself to activities in the Women’s National Service, where her focus was on ensuring both employment and care for war widows and orphans, which she saw as laying the foundations for developing social welfare in peacetime. From January 1917, together with Ernst Francke, she published the journal Soziale Kriegshinterbliebenenfürsorge (literally, social care for dependents of war victims).
Until the outbreak of World War I Simon had not been engaged in practical work; in fact, apart from her wartime participation in the Berlin Center for private care, she was never professionally employed. Thus she was able to devote herself entirely to her studies and her influence derives from her writings rather than her deeds. Although she was well acquainted with the British socialist movement, as a result of her membership in the Fabian Society, her friendship with the Webbs and her involvement with Robert Owen’s theories, she appears to have had no connection with the German workers’ movement before 1918.
She had, however, been greatly impressed by August Bebel’s Die Frau und der Sozialismus (1879) and in her writings she frequently referred to the progressive proposals of the Social Democrats in municipal and provincial councils and parliaments. But only after the war, and the German revolution which created a parliamentary democracy in place of the Imperial Reich, did she join the Social Democratic party. In this new reality she began to reflect on the basic changes that would be required in the newly-founded German republic in order to ensure the establishment of a women’s social welfare system. This led to her acquaintance with Marie Juchacz, who in December 1919 established a new social democratic welfare organization, the Arbeiterwohlfart (Workers’ Welfare). Unlike Simon, Juchacz came from a working-class family in a small town in Brandenburg and had first-hand experience of the hardships of women’s factory employment. Through self-education this talented young woman had made her way up in the women’s division of the Social Democratic Party. Towards the end of World War I she became the secretary of the women’s division and was among the first women to be elected to the National Assembly and then to the Reichstag. Helene Simon put herself at the disposal of the new organization and helped Juchacz and her fellow activists to think through the theoretical and philosophical issues which the social welfare organization had to deal with. In November 1920, at the first major conference of the main branch of the Workers’ Welfare, Helene Simon delivered a talk in which she urged the passing of new legislation which would provide for a national welfare law and would establish social welfare as part of a government ministry, thus replacing existing poor laws based on a paternalistic support system. Juchacz and others acclaimed her as the theoretician of Workers’ Welfare and in 1922 the venerable University of Heidelberg awarded her an honorary doctorate in recognition of her wide-ranging political activity. She was the first Social Democrat to be thus honored.
In 1932 Helene Simon returned to Berlin, where she lived with her sister and niece. After 1933 she avoided publicity. Her home became a refuge for Jewish friends and acquaintances who were being banned and persecuted either on racial grounds or because they were pacifists or socialists. When the Jews were compelled to wear the yellow star, she declared she would allow nobody without it to enter her home. However, since many of her old colleagues came to visit her, she was unable to abide by this resolve. Until 1935 she herself suppressed the thought that, as a Jew, it was dangerous for her to remain in National-Socialist Berlin. Only after the pogrom of November 9–10, 1938 (Kristallnacht) did the seventy-year-old decide to flee to England, together with her sister Klara Reichmann. (Klara’s daughter, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who had left Germany in 1933, became a distinguished psychiatrist in the United States.) Helene and Klara lived in a boarding house in London’s East End before moving to a well-run old-age home. She remained intellectually active and in 1944 wrote to a friend about the great interest with which she had read Lord Beveridge’s proposals for welfare reform. At the beginning of 1947, when eighty-year-old Klara was no longer able to care for her, Helene Simon moved to a private nursing home, where she died on December 8, 1947, shortly after her eighty-fifth birthday.
Robert Owen. Sein Leben und seine Bedeutung für die Gegenwart. Jena: 1905; Schule und Brot. Hamburg, Leipzig: 1907; William Godwin und Mary Wollstonecraft. Eine biographisch-soziologische Studie. München: 1909; “Das Jugendrecht. Ein soziologischer Versuch.” In Schmollers Jahrbuch, vol. 39. München: 1915, 227–281.
Friedländer, Walter. Helene Simon. Ein Leben für soziale Gerechtigkeit. Bonn: 1962.
Klöhn, Sabine. Helene Simon (1862–1947). Deutsche und britische Sozialreform und Sozialgesetzgebung im Spiegel ihrer Schriften und ihr Wirken als Sozialpolitikerin im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik. Frankfurt am Main: 1982.
Biographisches Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration nach 1933, vol. 1. München: 1980, 700.
Lexikon Jüdische Frauen. Edited by Jutta Dick and Marina Sassenberg.
How to cite this page
Sassenberg, Marina. "Helene Simon." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 23, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/simon-helene>.