Born in 1859 in Vienna, Bertha Pappenheim was acutely aware of the advantages given to boys. She wished that she could receive the same education that her younger brother received. Instead, she spent her late teenage years at home doing needlepoint and waiting to be married. The waiting was cut short when she suffered a strange illness with symptoms such as paralysis of the extremities, disturbances of vision, hearing, and speech, and hallucinations. She was treated by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, who gave her “talk therapy” for what they termed to be hysteria.*
Pappenheim recovered, slowly, and by 1929, she was able to move with her widowed mother to Frankfurt am Main. In her new surroundings, Pappenheim was able to free herself from the constraints of the expectations of upper-middle class women. Pappenheim’s career began through acceptable social work channels–volunteering in a soup kitchen and working in an orphanage. Soon Pappenheim organized Women’s Welfare, a group that set up daycare centers, employment services and services to help the Jews in Eastern Europe. In 1904, she founded the League of Jewish Women (JFB). The goals of the JFB were definitely feminist–women’s rights and community involvement–but with a distinctive Jewish element. Pappenheim’s famous women’s shelter was kosher and even had a Passover kitchen.
In addition to her JFB work, Pappenheim worked diligently to fight against human trafficking and was outspoken about the problem of prostitution in the Jewish world. In what spare time she had, Pappenheim was also a writer, a poet and a translator of texts she deemed important for Jewish women.
Although Pappenheim was initially opposed to Zionism and against the Youth Aliyah movement, she began to see the importance of the Holy Land after the legislation of the Nuremberg Laws (1935). On May 28, 1936, Pappenheim succumbed to cancer, never seeing the horrors that were to come.
*Pappenheim’s illness was chronicled under the pseudonym Anna O. and published by Josepf Breuer in Studies on Hysteria.
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