Edgar and Brigitte: A German Jewish Passage to America

Edgar and Brigitte: A German Jewish Passage to America

by Rosemarie Bodenheimer

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Edgar and Brigitte: A German Jewish Passage to America is the fruit of an extraordinary archive of personal journals, letters, speeches, and published writings left by Edgar and Brigitte Bodenheimer, who emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1933 and became American law professors. More German than Jewish, highly educated, and saturated to the core in the German cultural ideal of Bildung, Edgar and Brigitte embody many of the qualities of their generation of German Jews in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
The couple’s encounters with the strange new dynamics of race, religion, and the workplace in their new American home offer a compelling account of the struggles that faced many immigrants with deep German roots. It is also an intimate portrait of a now-vanished German Jewish culture as it played out in the lives of Bodenheimer’s parents and her grandparents from the 1920s to the late 1960s, a story of emigration, assimilation, and the private struggles that accompany those forced shifts in orientation.
The Bodenheimers’ letters and journals offer engaging perspectives into their personal lives that retrospective memories cannot match. Braiding intimate biography together with history and memoir, Edgar and Brigitte will appeal both to historians of the European Jewish diaspora and to readers interested in the struggles and resilience of people whose lives were upended by Hitler.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817390228
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/20/2016
Series: Jews and Judaism: History and Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Rosemarie Bodenheimer is a professor emerita of English with a focus on Victorian Studies at Boston College. She is the author of Knowing Dickens and The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction, which was chosen as a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book.

Read an Excerpt

Edgar and Brigitte

A German Jewish Passage to America

By Rosemarie Bodenheimer

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9022-8


Coming of Age in the Weimar Republic

My father on his seventeenth birthday emerges from the first page of a soft black oilskin-covered journal, labeled with his name, Edgar Bodenheimer, and the date, 1925. That morning of March 14, he had eine höchst angenehme Geburstagsüberraschung, a delightful birthday surprise: school was schneefrei, declared a snow day. It didn't take him long to take advantage of this pleasant situation. With three of his closest school friends, Herbert, Robert, and Hilde, he took off for the morning to ski in the Grunewald woods, meeting two other companions on the way. More merriment and horsing around than serious sport, he noted conscientiously. In the afternoon two friends came over to his family's house in Grunewald; later they drove together to a dinner-dance at the Seligsohns, where they all had a wonderful time eating, dancing, and smirking at the awkward antics of an affected, foolish classmate. There was a Blumenwaltz, and Elli, a girl Edgar admired, got the most flowers. She was at the top of her form as he most liked to see her, fresh, merry, and high-spirited.

He, too, was at the top of his form at this moment: sociable, full of hopes for himself, interested in everything. He was in his last year at the Grunewald Gymnasium, preparing to make his Abitur — the qualifying exam for university — the following February. About three years earlier his banker father, Siegmund Bodenheimer, had moved the family from their central Berlin apartment to a large villa with an extensive garden in the leafy, lake-filled suburb of Grunewald. At fourteen Edgar had switched schools, moving from the traditional humanist Joachim Friedrich Gymnasium in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, where he had been since he was six, to the famously progressive Grunewald Gymnasium, a short walk from the family's new house. This school had taken the very unusual step of allowing boys and girls to study together; it was also known for its liberal student-teacher relationships and for its mission to widen students' cultural horizons and build their characters. The student body was about equally divided between Jewish and Christian children. A handful of girls who wanted to study Greek, normally not taught in girls' schools, were in Edgar's class. Among them, Hilde was special; she had become the sole female member of his small band of friends.

One day in May Edgar listed what had been discussed in his classes. The school day began with a distinction between static classical art and dynamic northern art: Aeschylus and Goethe; Raphael and Rembrandt. In Latin class, Catullus. In Greek class, how the Greeks had established that the Being of the cosmos is repeated in the Being of the soul, another cosmos eternally in motion. (Edgar would remain enamored of such universal analogies for the rest of his life.) The Greek instructor, Dr. Walther Kranz, was their class advisor that year. He was an inspired instructor who poured out his own enthusiasms, engaging his students' idealism as well as their artistic capacities. Even Kranz's signature on Edgar's grade sheet, more calligraphy than handwriting, announces his bold, self-conscious cultivation of beauty. That year he directed his class in Euripides' Heracles, performed in Greek with incidental piano music composed and played by Edgar, and Hilde playing the heroine's role.

In that era of German Hellenism, Kranz filled his students with a sense of Germany as the new Greece, encouraging individual self-development through the cultivation of reason and aesthetic taste. He embodied the ideal of Bildung that had emerged from the German Enlightenment in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Goethe, and Schiller. Greek ideals of harmonious and well-proportioned beauty were revered; the gradual emergence of each person's special character was to take place through the internal cultivation of rational balance, discipline, and self-control. Tolerance, friendship, and equality based on self-cultivation rather than class or religion were central values. As George Mosse writes, "Surely here was an ideal ready-made for Jewish assimilation, because it transcended all differences of nationality and religion through the unfolding of the individual personality." Mosse argues that this "noble illusion," embraced wholeheartedly by middle-class German Jews, had already begun to change its character for Germans by the end of the nineteenth century, when culture gradually became associated with nationalism, romantic myth making, outward discipline, and conformity. Failing to take notice, German Jews continued to practice the older form of Bildung as their highest claim to German citizenship. Kranz, who was half Jewish, seems to have enthralled many of his seventeen-year-old students with all the facets of that "noble illusion."

The emphasis on sport and physical training at the Grunewald Gymnasium also reflected the ethos of the period. Partly because the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had stripped Germany of its military capacity after World War I, the physical training of young bodies was consigned to schools, where it became an important focus during the Weimar Republic. Edgar devoted himself with all his native good health and enthusiasm to gymnastics, skiing, mountain climbing, and tennis, recording his wins and losses when tennis reigned supreme during school vacations. He noted with satisfaction that his bodily development over the past two years had made him more comfortable at the dances his circle enjoyed almost every Saturday night at one of their families' homes; now he was more inclined to assume that others (meaning girls) would care for him. (He doesn't mention how good-looking he was, though he was always very aware of attractiveness or its absence in others.) In July 1925 he wrote, "My ideal is a god-like body and a strong soul, deliberately free of sentimentality, loving all things forceful and beautiful. ... Also in music I hate mushiness: Mendelssohn, Grieg, Saint-Saëns I am averse to." He was never averse to emphatic ways of phrasing his likes and dislikes.

Most prominent in the journal of 1925 was his devotion to music and his conscious cultivation of musical taste. He worked intermittently at the piano and went to concerts once or twice a week, using his journal to assess what he had heard. He loved a Scriabin piece he was practicing for its simplicity and its powerfully sad minor ending. He puzzled over Richard Strauss, the leading German neo-Romantic composer, praising the Rosenkavalier waltzes but opining that Strauss fails when he tries to search inwardly. Tod und Verklärung is absolute kitsch, but it might be otherwise with the songs, which he doesn't know very well. He hears Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for the fourth time, conducted by Furtwängler. The impression of the piece strengthens each time he hears it, but Furtwängler's affected style of conducting is not appropriate for this piece. And then for a fifth time: only now can he really let the great symphony work in him. Is he practicing for a career in music criticism? Probably not, but he is intent on making himself a cultured, a truly gebildete, listener. As for modernist experiment — there's no room for that. He hears Schoenberg for the first time in concert and hates it. Without form, rhythm, or harmony, it is the product of a sick mind and makes him want to weep. He turns with relief from this conventional reaction to praise the kraftvolle, powerful Macbeth of Strauss.

Where do these judgments come from? Edgar represents them as his own, though his father was a lifelong music and opera lover of strong opinions and probably accompanied Edgar to at least some of the concerts he attended during this period. But die Eltern, the parents, make only rare appearances in Edgar's journals of this time. Nor does his fourteen-year-old sister Gerda, called Bebs, who had been a close companion during their childhoods. The postwar baby, Helga, was only four. Like seventeen-year-olds in general, Edgar was not much interested in thinking about how his inner life was shaped by the family, or how his cultural self-making was an inheritance from his father's financial acumen and social ascent. Siegmund Bodenheimer was a very German father: obsessed with his work, anxious and demanding, he exacted deference and expected success from his children. The journal, on the other hand, was a private place for the thoughts of a new generation — one less devoted to materialist success. Edgar used it to develop his intellectual life, to comment on his reading, to record impressions of people, conversations, and new places, and, quite consciously, to hone his opinions into a coherent worldview. It was important to have clear opinions, to separate the cultural wheat from the kitschy chaff; he wanted to make himself into a fair-minded man of many talents, ready for whatever the future might bring. Like every German schoolchild he had been thoroughly drenched in the greatness of Goethe, whose cultivation of many-sidedness was legendary. To be einseitig (one-sided), unbalanced, or stuck in a partisan point of view, was in Edgar's mind the worst of sins.

Einseitig was his father's word of disapproval as well, though Papa used it in the context of banking practices. In November 1944, his parents safely established on Central Park West in New York City, Edgar gave Siegmund a blank notebook for his seventieth birthday. The inevitable quotation from Goethe was inscribed on its first page, along with a request that his father compose a memoir. When it was finished, Siegmund Bodenheimer's unpublished Mein Leben (My Life) proved to be a detailed record of a banking career in the context of German history and politics, with a rare formal nod to the importance of matters like marriage and family. By 1944 the defeat of Hitler looked probable, but this German Jewish banker was still concerned to produce a document that would attest to his personal and professional integrity, especially in the face of repeated Nazi claims that Jewish bankers had been guilty of infiltrating and destroying the German economy.

For two or three years after his required military training, Siegmund writes, he worked for a small bank in Mannheim run by his stepmother's two brothers. He disliked their einseitige devotion to stock speculation, for which — as he tactfully put it — he had no inclination or talent. So, at twenty-four, he picked up and went to Berlin, to seek his fortune in the banking industry that he had served in low-paying jobs since the age of sixteen. (He would later joke that he spent his youth as an office boy licking stamps.) And his fortunes rose: Through a combination of diligence and a fortunate merger he became, at thirty-five, a director of the important Darmstädter Bank für Handel und Industrie, second among German credit institutions. He joined the bank in 1902, enjoying the prewar period of economic and industrial expansion, which he attributed to the best aspects of German character: hard work, a talent for organization, and a spirit of invention. Phrased in the ubiquitous turn-of-the-century language of the nerves, a rare sentence also admits to the personal cost: "It has been my lifelong tendency to push my strength to the limit, even though I had a highly nervous sensibility, which it has often taken all my energy to fight." Coming from a person who was always ready to see his life as an exemplary tale of the self-made man, the sentence was a reminder to his children that any sign of personal weakness was there to be overcome.

By 1907 he was well enough established to support a wife. He married Rosa (Rosi) Maass; on the honeymoon she conceived their son. It was all just as it should have been: he provided the serious business, she the charm and sociability of the household. As their daughter Bebs recalled in an interview with her son, "My father was a very serious man, and a very ... extremely energetic, self-made, goal-directed person, who tended to worry quite a bit, even at times when, probably objectively, there was not that much to worry about. My mother, on the other hand was ... well, I would call it a sunny nature. She had a beautiful smile, and she did not let the heaviness of her husband be contagious for her. ... I'm sure she would cheer him up often and give the house kind of a lighter atmosphere. She was extremely hospitable. We always had friends or relatives around, and she was generally loved."

In his younger years Siegmund had moved frequently from one German town to another in pursuit of better positions, always judging places by their cultural offerings. For him, Berlin was packed with the pleasures of opera, concerts, theater (he admired the controversial Ibsen), water sports, and bicycle trips. He became the proud owner of a motorboat, named Rosi 2 after his wife. Siegmund would later look back on life in prewar Berlin as a golden age: money was tied to gold bullion, people saved for their children and grandchildren, marriages were holy and indissoluble, inflation was merely a word in a textbook. Only the unbalanced, impulsive militarism of Kaiser Wilhelm II threatened his sense of achievement and enjoyment.

Siegmund's war was the Kaiser's folly, World War I. Like so many others, he described the summer of 1914 as the death of an era: "With the declaration of war a curtain fell over the world I was born into; a new and a worse age broke forth, in which people forgot elementary things they had learned, and were forced to learn new concepts under shattering conditions." The shock and fear of instability remained with him; in the event, however, the war provided yet another lucky break for him. At thirty-nine, he was immediately called up and sent to the eastern front to secure the border with Russia. The Darmstädter Bank went into high gear to have him released, arguing that, as a loan officer, he was essential to the national effort to finance the war. Their arguments worked, and Siegmund returned to Berlin, while most of his regiment was quickly wiped out in combat with the Russians.

Wartime banking was presumably good business. Writing his own history, however, Siegmund was not about to admit to any wartime profits that might fan the flames of prejudice against Jewish bankers. The years 1914–1918 exist in his memoir as a general history of military campaigns and strategy. Once the Kaiser had fled to Holland and the Social Democrats had taken over the state, Siegmund swerved back to his own experience: "Before the door stood the darkest future, perhaps chaos, and in the soul of a German bank director the future looked threatening and hopeless." He feared anarchism or Communist revolution but was able to report only on occasional shots fired in central Berlin when he went to work in the mornings.

His anxious sense of a hopeless future would prove true for many Germans in the 1920s, but not for him. Although financial practices had, in his view, lost their prewar integrity, the Socialist revolution he feared was averted. The fledgling Weimar Republic, Germany's first experiment in democracy, seemed to take at least tentative hold. The postwar inflation of the early 1920s decimated middle-class lives in ways that would never be forgotten in later years — but not his. In 1922, as the crazed period of hyperinflation set in, the Darmstädter Bank finalized its merger with the Nationalbank für Deutschland, becoming the Danat-Bank. Siegmund was promoted again, becoming one of the bank's seven owner-partners. The merger allowed him to invest his increasingly worthless cash in real property, the large villa in Grunewald where his children could grow up in security, sheltered from the poverty and desperation that prevailed in other sections of Berlin. The house signaled his arrival in upper-middle-class Jewish life; for some time Grunewald had been a preserve of the cultured Jewish families who formed a special subgroup within the German middle class. By 1924, after the currency stabilization and the apparent restoration of normal economic life, the Bodenheimers enjoyed a very good life in the house at 29/33 Jagowstrasse, supported by a staff of servants, surrounded by a garden the children loved, and regularly filled with family and friends.

Siegmund's upward mobility was grounded in the need to help his father, Benno Bodenheimer, support a growing family. Born in 1874, Siegmund had entered the world just as Otto von Bismarck was consolidating the unification of Germany under Prussian rule. At sixteen, he left school reluctantly: his father, who ran a men's haberdashery in Heidelberg, required money to provide for the children of three successive wives. Siegmund had a brother and two sisters, along with four stepsisters; all of those young women would need funding before they married. Throughout the lives of his siblings, and crucially during the Nazi period, he would act as their patron and financier and guarantee the affidavits required for emigration. During the 1920s Siegmund expanded his philanthropic efforts beyond the family, becoming a member of the Gesellschaft der Freunde (Society of Friends), a Jewish welfare society that traced its roots to the late eighteenth century. By Siegmund's time it had evolved into an elite association of banking and business leaders who were active in social causes.


Excerpted from Edgar and Brigitte by Rosemarie Bodenheimer. Copyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Preface 1. Coming of Age in the Weimar Republic 2. Emigration 3. Brigitte Levy 4. Seattle 5. Back East, Out West 6. Returns 7. Family Law, Natural Law 8. Gray Lady 9. Family Life in Salt Lake City Afterword Notes Works Cited Index

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