"I not only admired her but loved her, and will love her until the day I die. There are people of spirit and there are people of passion, both less common than one might think. Rarer still are the people of spirit and passion. But rarest of all is a passionate spirit. Bertha Pappenheim was a woman with just such a spirit. Pass on her memory. Be a witness that it still esists." - the philosopher Martin Buber's commemoration at her death. (Quoted from Judith Herman, M.D., Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, where I found out about her work.)
"Aware that Protestant and Catholic women had their own national organizations, Pappenheim believed Jewish women also needed a national organization to represent their needs. She turned exclusively to women, convinced that “men always and in every situation follow their private interests.” She expected women to volunteer their services, because Jewish organizations could not afford to pay for the amount of help they needed and because volunteer work would enrich what she saw as the empty lives of middle class Jewish women. She brought the League into the largest middle class feminist organization, the Federation of German Women’s Associations (Bund deutscher Frauenvereine). Pappenheim credited German feminism with giving “the shy, uncertain advances of Jewish women direction and confidence.”
Pappenheim's commitment to Judaism and to feminism went hand in hand. She argued that feminism could reinvigorate Judaism in Germany, insisting that Jews were turning away from Judaism because women—the transmitters of culture—were alienated from Jewish customs and communities. She did not blame women. Instead, she created the Jewish women’s movement to fight for women’s equality as both a means by which women would return to Judaism and an end in itself. She believed that social work for women within the Jewish community offered a form of practical politics to enhance women’s lives.
Although Pappenheim devoted her life to the League, she never ceased to do what she called “holy small deeds.” These included ministering to children in the home for unwed mothers that she set up at Neu Isenburg, personally advising its teenage residents, and writing about the tragedy of Jewish prostitution. Pappenheim attended all the major Jewish and secular international conferences on the subject of prostitution and the traffic in women; wrote her best known book, Sisyphus Arbeit (Sisyphus Work), describing the problem of Jewish prostitution and the traffic in women in Eastern Europe and the Middle East; and traveled to Eastern Europe to publicize the dangers of the traffic in women and to organize Jewish anti-white slavery committees. Her campaign blended two major concerns: the status of Jewish women and the fight against antisemitism. She hoped to alleviate the economic and social conditions that pulled Jewish women into the traffic, particularly the need for better education and employment opportunities; expose the Jewish agents responsible for this entrapment; and show the world that Jews were fighting the Jewish portion of this criminality.
Pappenheim’s writings, begun in the 1890s and continued throughout her lifetime, reflected her feminist and Jewish concerns. By 1899, when she published a play entitled Women’s Rights and a translation of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she was firmly committed to fighting for women’s human rights and their educational advancement. Her pamphlets and books on Jewish life in Eastern Europe expressed her growing alarm at the conditions there. She attempted to mobilize Jewish communities to educate young women and to aid the victims of antisemitic government policies.
At the age of seventy-six she took several children out of Nazi Germany, delivering them to safety in an orphanage in Glasgow. She died in Isenburg of cancer on May 28, 1936 and was buried in the old Rat Beil-Strasse Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt. In her “last will,” written in 1930, she hoped that people who visited her grave would leave a small stone, “as a quiet promise...to serve the mission of women’s duties and women’s joy...unflinchingly and courageously.”
Selections from Jewish Women's Archive.