A committed Social Democrat, Jeanette Wolff was an advocate for equal rights for women and sustained Jewish existence in Germany. A member of Bucholt’s city council, Wolff was outspoken against Nazism and refused to seek refuge elsewhere, leading to her arrest in 1933; only two other members of her family survived the Holocaust. After the war, Wolff served as a witness in court proceedings against Nazi officials, and in 1946 the American Military Government in Berlin appointed her to its denazification committee. She rejoined the SPD that same year and was fiercely outspoken against its merger with the Communist Party. Wolff also served as co-chairwoman of the German League of Jewish Women. A blunt and energetic woman, she never let anyone separate her Jewishness from her Germanness.
It is impossible to list all the positions Jeanette Wolff, nicknamed “the trumpet,” held in her lifetime. One of the best-known German Jewish women in post-war Germany, she was an activist in three fields: as a Social Democrat and labor unionist, as one committed to equal rights for women, and as a worker for the Jewish cause before and after World War II. After 1945, unlike so many Jews, she did not consider the Jewish communities and institutions she helped to rebuild to be just “Liquidationsgemeinden,” temporary organizations. She was convinced that Jews had the right—if not the obligation—to live in Germany for good.
Jeanette Wolff was born on June 22, 1888, the second child of Isaac (1855–1929) and Dina Cohen, née Wolf (1859–1938), who had six other children, three of whom died in early childhood. Her parents, observant Jews and at the same time socialists, lived in Bocholt, a small town in Westphalia (Germany) close to the Dutch border. Isaac Cohen was a textile merchant who had been forced to give up his position as a teacher because he openly professed his membership in the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei (Socialist Workers’ Party).
Jeanette Cohen attended a Jewish elementary school. In 1904, when she was sixteen, she went to Brussels, where relatives made it possible for her to train as a nursery school teacher. She passed her examination with distinction. Cohen stayed in Brussels, where she worked in her profession and as a tutor. At the same time, she attended night grammar school and graduated in 1909. In the same year she met her second husband, Hermann Wolff (1888–1945), a business school graduate who came from a patriotic and liberal Jewish family. (Her first husband, Philip[p] Fuldauer (1887–1909), whom she married in 1908, had died of tuberculosis.) Hermann Wolff joined the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany) the evening before their wedding in December 1911. Jeanette Wolff had joined the Social Democrats in Brussels in 1905 and the Jüdischer Frauenbund (League of Jewish Women) in Germany in 1912.
Jeanette and Hermann Wolff had three daughters: Julie Anne was born in 1912, Edith in 1916, and Käthe Frieda in 1920. The family lived in Bocholt, where Hermann Wolff and his brother Leo owned and managed a textile factory. Jeanette Wolff was in charge of the office work. During World War I she managed the business in place of her husband and her brother-in-law, in addition to performing several other jobs. War-disabled when he returned home in 1919, Hermann Wolff was for a long time in need of care.
World War I marked the beginning of a long-standing quarrel between Jeanette Wolff and her father. She had approved of the war loan the SPD had granted whereas her father had left the party because of this party decision.
Pre-War Political Activity
In November 1918 women in Germany were finally granted the right to vote and became eligible for political office. In March 1919 Jeanette Wolff was elected one of six Social Democratic members of Bocholt’s city council. She was the first Jewish woman city councilor in Bocholt and held this position until 1932. Elected a member of the party executive of Western Westphalia in late 1918, she became a much sought-after party speaker. She gained experience as an instructor of adult evening classes and workers’ training courses, as a lay judge and a juror. In 1920 she became an executive member of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith) in Rheinland-Westphalia in order to fight rising anti-Semitism in Germany.
Since Jeanette Wolff did not mince matters when it came to Nazi activities in the Weimar Republic, she exposed herself and her family to Nazi retaliation. Her husband had to sell his business and his house below value in late 1931, long before the Nazis came to power. In January 1932 the family moved to Dinslaken, where neither they nor their background were known. Jeanette Wolff had to cease her antifascist activities. Hermann Wolff opened another textile business.
When Jeanette Wolff returned home from an election campaign on March 5, 1933, the day of the Reichstag elections, she was arrested by SA men. She had not listened to her husband’s warnings and had refused to seek refuge in the Netherlands, where one of her sisters lived. She survived prison due to the help she received from non-Jewish Germans and was released in April 1935. Meanwhile, her family had moved to Dortmund, where Jeanette Wolff provided meals for Jewish guests. The pogrom of November 9–10, 1938 (“Kristallnacht”) brought this boarding house to an end.
Surviving the Holocaust
Wolff’s husband, who had been detained in Sachsenhausen concentration camp between November 1938 and February 1939, and her daughters Edith and Käthe had to do forced labor. The eldest daughter, Julie Anne, a nurse, lived in Frankfurt am Main at the time. In 1940 the family were moved to a “Judenhaus” before being deported to the ghetto of Riga on January 27, 1942: Jeanette Wolff, her husband, and her two eldest daughters. After having been imprisoned several times between 1939 and 1941, the youngest daughter Käthe was transferred from the women’s prison in Herne to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was shot in 1944. In 1943 the members of the Wolff family were transferred to Kaiserwald concentration camp in Latvia. While the two daughters stayed there, Jeanette and Hermann Wolff were shifted to its annex camp Mühlgraben. In 1944, when the Soviet army approached the Latvian border, Kaiserwald and its annex camps were closed down. Jeanette Wolff insisted on being transported West together with her husband. It was in Stutthof concentration camp that she last saw him. She was transferred together with her daughter Edith from Stutthof to a labor camp.
Apart from Jeanette Wolff’s youngest brother Magnus Cohen, who had sought refuge in Paraguay in 1938, Jeanette and Edith Wolff were the only survivors of their family and were finally liberated by the Soviet army while on a death march. Hermann Wolff, who had been deported from Stutthof to Buchenwald and Flossenbürg, was shot by the SS in April 1945. Julie Anne was gassed in the Stutthof concentration camp. Jeanette Wolff’s brother Salomon Cohen was deported in 1944; her sister Hedwig was killed in Sobibor. The survivors stayed in Poland for a year before returning to Germany, albeit not to their home town but to Berlin. Jeanette Wolff described what she had gone through in a brochure published in Thuringia in 1947: Sadism or madness: what I experienced in German concentration camps in the East. She did not spare the reader horrific details but at the same time declared that no language was capable of representing the actual brutality of these camps.
Post-War Political Activity
Wolff also contributed to the enlightenment of the German people by serving as a witness in several court proceedings against Nazi officials, such as the Wilhelmstrassen-Prozess in 1948. Thorough enlightenment, according to her, was the antidote to the remnants of Nazism in post-war Germany. In 1954 she testified against the commandant of Stutthof concentration camp and in 1970 against the former SS-Obersturmführer Otto Bovensiepen, who was accused of acting as accessory to deportation from Dortmund and murder. Bovensiepen had abused and tortured Jeanette Wolff’s youngest daughter Käthe and while she was held in Ravensbrück had prevented her from being deported together with her family to the Riga ghetto.
In November 1946 the American Military Government in Berlin appointed Jeanette Wolff head of the denazification committee in Neukölln, a position she held for five years. In 1951 denazification was terminated. Jeanette Wolff became a member of the Repräsentantenversammlung (community council) of the Berlin Jewish community in 1946. Early in 1948 she was elected chairwoman of the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes (Union of Those Formerly Persecuted by the Nazi Regime), an organization from which she withdrew in 1948, when she no longer considered it an independent and non-partisan group representing the interests of all those formerly persecuted by the Nazi regime but rather a cover-up for Soviet Russian craving for control. In June 1948 she was verbally and physically assaulted by followers of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) because she fiercely criticized plans to merge the KPD and the SPD into one party, the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). In 1949 she was one of the founders of the Gesellschaft für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit (Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation) in Berlin. She was its Jewish deputy president between 1949 and 1970 and its Jewish president from 1970 through 1976.
When Jeanette Wolff settled in Berlin in 1946 she immediately rejoined the SPD, serving as a member of its Berlin executive committee between 1951 and 1953. In 1946 she was elected a member of the Berlin city council, where she worked on the health, food, and agriculture committee. In February 1952 the SPD sent her to the Deutsche Bundestag (German Parliament), where she was a member of the restitution and compensation committee, the health committee, and the petition committee (Petitionsausschuss) until 1961. At the same time, between 1952 and 1961, Wolff was president of the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der Juden in Deutschland (Central Jewish Social Service Office in Germany) and became co-chairwoman of the Jüdischer Frauenbund (League of Jewish Women) when it was reestablished in 1953. From 1951 she was a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland) and from 1965 to 1975 served as the deputy chairwoman of the Direktorium of its branch organizations—the only woman to hold such a high position.
On May 19, 1976, Jeanette Wolff died in Berlin, when she was almost 88. An exceptionally energetic, courageous, matter-of-fact, and outspoken woman who had not allowed anyone to estrange her Jewishness from her “German-ness,” she remained true to her socio-political commitment throughout her whole life.
Albrecht, Willy. “Jeanette Wolff—Jakob Altmaier—Peter Blachstein. Die drei Abgeordneten jüdischer Herkunft des Deutschen Bundestages in den 50er Jahren und zu Beginn der 60er Jahre.” Menora. Jahrbuch für deutsch-jüdische Geschichte 6 (1995): 267–299.
Dertinger, Antje.“‘Macht aus Eurem Leid keine seltenen Blumen!’ Jeanette Wolff—gläubige Jüdin, streitbare Sozialistin.” In Frauen der ersten Stunde. Aus den Gründerjahren der Bundesrepublik, edited by Antje Dertinger. Bonn: Latka, 1989.
Faulenbach, Bernd, ed.“Habt Mut zu menschlichem Tun.” Die Jüdin und Demokratin Jeanette Wolff in ihrer Zeit (1888–1976). Essen: N.p., 2002.
Grafen, Jürgen. “Das Schicksal der Jeanette Wolff.” In Dinslaken in der NS-Zeit. Vergessene Geschichte 1933–1945. Kleve: Boss, 1983.
Heid, Ludger. “Jeanette Wolff (1888–1976). ‘... mit Zitaten kann man keine Politik machen ... .’” In “Meinetwegen ist die Welt erschaffen.” Das intellektuelle Vermächtnis des deutschsprachigen Judentums, edited by Hans Erler et al.. Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus, 1997.
Herzig, Arno. “Jeanette Wolff (1888–1976). Überzeugte Jüdin und aufrechte Sozialistin.” In Vom Außenposten zur Hochburg der Sozialdemokratie. Der SPD-Bezirk Westliches Westfalen 1893–1993, edited by Bernd Faulenbach et al.. Essen: Klartext, 1993.
Lamm, Hans, ed. Jeanette Wolff. Mit Bibel und Bebel. Ein Gedenkbuch. Bonn: Neue Gesellschaft, 1980.
Lange, Gunter. Jeanette Wolff. 1888 bis 1976. Eine Biographie. Bonn: 1988.
Levinson, Pnina Navé. “Jeanette Wolff (1888–1976).” In Was wurde aus Saras Töchern? Frauen im Judentum, edited by Pnina N. Levinson. Gütersloh: 1993.
Seemann, Birgit. Jeanette Wolff. Politikerin und engagierte Demokratin (1888–1976). Frankfurt am Main/New York: Campus, 2000.
van Dam, Henrik G. “Die Bundestagsabgeordnete Jeanette Wolff.” In Aus Geschichte und Leben der Juden in Westfalen, edited by Chanoch Meyer. Frankfurt am Main: 1962.
Sadism or madness. What I experienced in German concentration camps in the East was published in Jeanette Wolff. Mit Bibel und Bebel and in “Habt Mut zu menschlichem Tun.”
Manuscripts of speeches given and papers written by Jeanette Wolff or relating to her may be found in the archives listed below. Some of them were published e.g. in the Mitteilungsblatt of the Jewish Women’s Union, the Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden in Deutschland or other newspapers and magazines.
Archiv der sozialen Demokratie, Bonn.
Bundestagsarchiv, Berlin; Franz Neumann-Archiv e.V., Berlin; Landesarchiv Berlin; Nordrhein-Westfälisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Düssseldorf;
Stadtarchiv Dinslaken; Zentralarchiv zur Erforschung der Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland, Heidelberg.