Selma Stern-Taeubler attended the University of Heidelberg and started working a historian before the outbreak of World War I. By 1938, working on the third volume of her study of Jews in Prussia, she was forbidden access to libraries and had to seek help to save her manuscripts from destruction. In 1941, she fled to the United States on the last ship from Germany. Once there, she became first archivist of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In 1946, she wrote a novel set during the Black Death, and in a later book she discussed the parallels between the accusations against Jews in that period and the Holocaust. Stern-Taeubler continued her scholarship of Jewish history until her death.
A sage once said: “What one can understand, one can endure.” This adage became the watchword of Selma Stern-Taeubler over the course of her lengthy and productive career as historian and archivist. In the preface to her book The Court Jew (1950), Stern-Taeubler charged her fellow Jews in the aftermath of World War II to use the “tragedy and inexorableness of our present experience … to view our past more objectively than before … [because] understand[ing] our road through the centuries can make our destiny easier to bear.” She herself had been a refugee who escaped Berlin on the last ship headed to America in 1941.
Selma Stern-Taeubler was born on July 24, 1890, in Kippenheim (Baden), Germany, to Dr. Julius and Emilie (Durlacher) Stern. In 1901, the bourgeois family moved to Baden-Baden, where her father developed a medical practice with a swelling international clientele. The middle of three daughters, Selma used the pages of her teenage diary both to ponder weighty philosophical issues such as the existence of God and to try her hand at poetry on themes as wide-ranging as young love and premature death. Her precociousness led her, in 1904, to become the first girl to be accepted to the Baden-Baden humanities gymnasium, from which she graduated in 1908 with honors.
That same year, despite her father’s untimely death, Selma’s mother provided for her daughter to continue her studies in history at the University of Heidelberg. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, she graduated summa cum laude and moved to Frankfurt-am-Main to live with her mother and younger sister. Her reactions to World War I are captured in her diary. While retaining her admiration for German culture, history, and literature, she also expressed her growing alienation from German politics. Jews like herself, she claimed, were strangers in Germany as well as being estranged from Jewish culture and religion. And, in fact, she ultimately would shift the focus of her studies from German history to German-Jewish history.
To this end, Stern-Taeubler accepted an invitation to become a research fellow at the newly founded Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. She became intrigued with its director, Eugen Taeubler, and his novel historical approach that sought to understand the particularities of the Jewish experience by examining the political and cultural context out of which it emerged. Eventually the two were married in 1927. A series of diary entries from 1944 reveals, however, that as the years passed, Stern-Taeubler felt “psychologically separated” from her husband. Devoted years of service to him had been met with a “lack of love and fits of anger.” As she put it: “What I had initially perceived [in him] to be self-confidence was really selfishness; what I had initially perceived to be the shy disguise of insecurity and apprehension was really arrogance.”
Stern-Taeubler began to compose the first two volumes of her magnum opus Der preussische Staat und die Juden [The Prussian state and the Jews], a study of Jewry in eighteenth-century Prussia, in the late 1920s—a period when the liberalism she described in her book still persisted in Germany. By the time she began work on the third volume, though, her world had changed radically and her belief in tolerance and emancipation could no longer withstand contemporary historical reality. In 1938, when the Nazis forbade Stern-Taeubler to study in the library and archives in Berlin, Leo Baeck and other friends assisted her in copying documents that had become inaccessible to her, as well as helping to salvage her manuscripts from destruction. She immigrated to the United States in 1941 with her husband.
The two became part of the academic community at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he as a professor of history, she as the first archivist of the American Jewish Archives of the college. Seeking perhaps to comprehend the tragic events occurring in Europe, Stern-Taeubler turned temporarily to belles lettres, producing a novel set in the period of the Black Death (1348–1349), entitled The Spirit Returneth (1946). (The original German title is better translated as “You Are My Witnesses.”) She dedicated the book to the “martyrs of my people” and explained elsewhere that “it [was] possible to draw a parallel between the host desecration and ritual murder accusations … and the horrors of the gas chambers and concentration camps” (preface to Josel of Rosheim, 1965).
In 1956, the year in which Eugen Taeubler died, Stern-Taeubler received an honorary degree from Hebrew Union College. Four years later, upon retiring from the American Jewish Archives, Stern-Taeubler moved to Basel, Switzerland, where she continued to write until her death on August 17, 1981.
American-Jewish academe has largely undervalued Stern-Taeubler’s contribution to Jewish history. It would seem that Eugen Taeubler’s highly regarded scholarship unfairly overshadowed Selma Stern-Taeubler’s scholarly achievements.
The Court Jew: A Contribution to the History of the Period of Absolutism in Central Europe (in German). Translated by Ralph Weiman (1950).
Josel of Rosheim: Commander of Jewry in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (in German). Translated by Gertrude Hirschler (1965).
Jud Suess: Ein Beitrag zur deutschen und zur jüdischen Geschichte (1929).
Der preussische Staat und die Juden (1962–1975).
The Spirit Returneth (in German). Translated by Ludwig Lewisohn (1946).
EJ; Rickertsen, Ulf. “Selma Stern.” In Die Beucherkommentare (1980).
Stern-Taeubler, Selma. Archives. Leo Baeck Institute, NYC.
Sassenberg, Marina. “Biographien jüdischer Frauen: Selma Stern (1890–1981), Grand Old Lady der deutsch-jüdischen Geschichtsschreibung” (Biographies of Jewish women: Selma Stern (1890-181), Grand Old Lady of German-Jewish historiography). Medaon 12, no. 22 (2018).
Sassenberg, Marina. Selma Stern (1890-1981): Das Eigene in der Geschichte. London and Tuebingen: Leo Baeck Institute, 2004.
Sassenberg, Marina. "THE FACE OF JANUS: THE HISTORIAN SELMA STERN (1890-1981) AND HER PORTRAIT OF THE COURT JEW." European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe 33, no. 2 (2000): 72-80.
Pass Freidenreich, Harriet. Female, Jewish, and Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women (Modern Jewish Experience). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
Hoffmann, Christhard, ed. Preserving the Legacy of German Jewry: A History of the Leo Beack Institute, 1955-2005. Mohr Siebeck, 2005.