A new scholarly biography, Let Me Continue to Speak the Truth: Bertha Pappenheim as Author and Activist (HUC Press, $34.95) by Elizabeth Loentz, takes the reader on an erudite journey to the world inhabited by German Jewish women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The multi-talented Bertha Pappenheim (1859-1936) was a social worker, author, playwright, poet, and activist on behalf of women’s rights.
Her legacy includes a tuition-free school for Jewish girls that taught thousands of young women seamstress skills, and the JFB (German League of Jewish Women), which performed charity work with the sick, the elderly, and pregnant unwed girls. Perhaps her most important area of activism was her research and advocacy against the white slave trade (of prostitution and sexual slavery), which was apparently thriving amongst the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Amidst these endeavors, Pappenheim also translated major texts from Yiddish into German, including The Memoirs of Gluckl of Hameln and Tsenerene: Women’s Bible. Discussing these translations, Loentz analyzes their intellectual contradictions. For example, Pappenheim showed some disdain for the Yiddish language, sensing that it was not a language of culture (kultursprache). Yet she nonetheless promoted Yiddish literature through her translations. Another conflict Loentz examines is Pappenheim’s denunciation of the Jewish pimps enslaving young Jewish girls (when she was speaking to Jewish audiences), but fighting against the stereotype of Jew-as-pimp when speaking at secular anti-trafficking conferences
And then there is another, fascinating angle to this woman’s story. In a 1953 biography of Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones revealed that the famous patient “Anna O,” the creator of the “talking cure” which catapulted Sigmund Freud on his great psychoanalytic adventure, was none other than activist and author Bertha Pappenheim. Interestingly, Pappenheim did not discuss her own psychiatric illness or treatment in her public speeches or her writing. According to Loentz, Pappenheim was a firm opponent of the practice of psychoanalysis, and wrote, “Psychoanalysis is, in the hands of a doctor, like confession in the hands of a Catholic priest — whether it is a valuable tool or a double-edged word depends on who is using it and for what.” As a psychologist, I was disappointed that the book does not touch upon the psychological aspects of her productive life (her childhood and family life are not even recounted). But perhaps that’s as Pappenhaeim would have wished. Certainly this biography offers an unusual chance to encounter issues that faced an educated Jewish woman at the turn of the twentieth century, and to meet women who were feminist activists many years before our time.
Nechama Liss-Levinson is a psychologist in private practice and an author. Her books include When a Grandparent Dies: A Kid’s Own Remembering Workbook for Dealing with Shiva and the Year Beyond