Main content

“LIFE IN A JEWISH FAMILY” Her Unfinished Autobiographical Account


It’s 1910
Augusta Stein, Edith’s mother is buying the house on the Michaelistrasse
A few years earlier, my sister Frieda’s brief marital tragedy had run its course; and, not long after Frieda,
Arno had married. […] the spacious house into which we moved shortly after Frieda’s wedding was designed
for two families; it was divided vertically, and had two staircases. Arno and Martha came to live with us in
this house. For a while, we all used the larger section and rented the smaller one to tenants. Later, the young
couple set up housekeeping in the smaller one ; and my mother, her four druthers, and the one small
granddaughter, Erika, lived in the larger unit.
Decades earlier the housekeeping had been turned over to my sister Rosa. […] Although she was quite
independent in running the household, she never really felt herself to be mistress of the house. Mother and
sisters all had particular preferences which she had to take into account, though this often happened only
after she had made strong and and very vocal objections.

My years In the Gymnasium were happy ones. Adjusting to the obersekunda had been rather strenuous but
the two Primas were child’s play. If we had no composition to write, I was usually finished with all my
homework by four o’clock and had the rest of the afternoon free for my favourite activities. What I read then
of belles letters provided me with treasure to last the rest of my life. it became very useful, too, when I
myself had to teach literature. Even more than reading, I enjoyed going to the theatre. During those years,
every time the presentation of a classical drama was announced, it was as though I had been tendered a
personal invitation.[…] It was a great delight just to sit in the theatre and wait for the heavy iron curtain to
be raised slowly ; the call bell finally sounded ; and the new unknown world was revealed. Then I became
totally immersed in the happenings on the stage, and the humdrum of everyday disappeared. […] As Abitur
approached, all of us had to face seriously the choice of a career.
Once, after our relatives had learned I was preparing myself, my cousin Franz asked me in the presence of a
large group of them what I intended to study. I bade him to guess. He enumerated all the subjects. Finally he
said, « I know ! History of literature. » I nodded, « Literature and philosophy ». During this conversation my
sister Frieda’s face grew longer and longer.
I seemed to give no thought at all to the practical side of life ! I read her dismay on her face and was
privately amused by it. True, I was not in the least concerned about my daily bread. But I understood well
enough that I had to be considerate of my family. […] No one interfered with my choice of profession, my
mother’s protecting hand shielded it. […] „Do whatever you think is right for you.

I was satisfied with my crowded daily schedule and swam in delight as a fish does in clear water and warm
sunshine”. 2 „The old gray building on the Oder had quickly become home to me. I liked to study in an empty
lecture room ; there I would seat myself on one of the wide window sills which filled the deep recesses in the
wall. Looking down from such a lofty perch at the river and the busy University Bridge, I could imagine
myself to be maiden in her castle. I was just as much at home in the nearly similarly venerable former hostel
for theology students where now our philosophy and psychology seminars were held; so too, in the
University Library.

“The university years were for us a time of serious study but also of wonderful sociability. We had a large
circle of friends of both sexes with whom we spent our free time and our vacations in an atmosphere of
freedom and lack of constraint which was unusual for that time. We discussed scientific and social topics in
larger groups or in the more intimate circle of our friends. Because of her unassailable logic and her wide
knowledge in matters of literature and philosophy, Edith set the pace for us in these discussion.

„If my studies came to no harm from my common activities, and the social life with my friends, something
else did suffer because of them : I had scarcely any time left for my family. My relatives hardly saw me
except at mealtime, and sometimes not even then. When i did come to table, my thoughts were usually still
on my work; and I had little to say. […]It was more difficult for me to make conversation about my studies
than for Erna. In the clinic, she had experiences which everyone could understand and be interested in. But
my philosophical problems could not be brought to the family table. […] Not infrequently my mother caught
no glimpse of me for a day or two at time. Early in the morning she went off to work ; often that was before
I would come down for breakfast. […] By the time I came home, everyone was already asleep ; awaiting me
on the dinning room table, along with the day’s mail, was a snack, prepared by devoted hands.
I had studied at the University of Breslau for four semesters. Participating in the life of my « alma
mater »more, probably, than most students. I may have seemed so deeply rooted there that I would not
leave her voluntarily. But on this occasion, as often later in life, I was able to server the seemingly strongest
ties with minimal effort and fly away like a bird escaped from a snare. […] During the fourth semester, I got
the impression that Breslau had no more to offer me and that I needed new challenges. […] In Stern seminar,
in the summer of 1912 and the winter of 1912-13, we had studied the problems of the psychology of
thought, particularly associated with the work of the « Wurzburg School ». […] In the essays I studied in
preparation for these reviews. […] One day, Dr. Moskiewicz found me thus occupied in the psychology
seminar. « Leave all that stuff aside, » he said, « and just read this ; after all, it’s where all the others got
their ideas. » He handed me a thick book : the second Volume of Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen. […]
One day, an illustated journal carried a picture of a woman student from Göttingen who had won a prize for
a philosophical thesis. She was Husserl’s highly talented student, Hedwig Martius. Mos knew her, also, and
knew that she had just married an older student of Husserl’s, Hans Theodor Conrad. Conrad. Arriving home
late on another evening, I found a letter on the table; it was from Göttingen. My cousin Richard Courant had
recently become privatdocent there in mathematics ; he had just married his school friend, Nelli Neumann
from Breslau. Nelli wrote to thank my mother for our weddingpresent. The letter also gave details about the
young couple’s life ; here, Nelli remarked. : « Richard has brought many friends to our marriage, but few of
them are women. Wouldn’t you like to send Erna and Edith here to study ? That would balance things out a
bit.”That put paid to all arguments. The following day, I informed my astonished family that I would be
going to Göttingen for the following summer semester. Unaware as they were of all that had led up to this,
it was as though lightning had struck out of the blue. My mother said, « If you need to go there to study, I
certainly won’t bar your way. » But she was very sad – much sadder than a short absence for a summer’s
semester warranted.

When, later, she went to Götingen with one of our mutual friends, Rose Guttmann, to study history und
philosophy, she again made many new friends, who were to remain close to her all her life. But our old
group remanded unchanged for her, and her loyalty was steadfast. […] In 1916, Edith went to Freiburg to
become the private assistant of Professor Husserl, under whom she has studied in Göttingen. Two of our old
friends […] and I decided to spend our 1917 summer vacation with her in the Black Forest. Those days are
one of the times which remains shinning memory, although we all felt depressed by the war. […] When in
1920, I married my college friend Hans Biberstein, Edith, of course, was present at the wedding. She
composed delightful poems for all the nieces and nephews, in which she recalled the most enjoyable events
of our student years and child-hood. When she taught at the convent school in Speyer, she spent all her
vacations in Breslau.

In September 1921 our first child, Susanne, was born, and Edith, who happened to be at home just then,
looked after me most devotedly. However, a deep shadow overcast that otherwise happy time. Edith
confided to me her decision to become a Catholic and asked me to get Mother used to the idea. I knew this
was one of the most difficult tasks I had ever faced. As much as my mother had shown understanding for
everything and left us children a wide range of freedom in all matters, this decision of Edith was the most
severe blow for Mother, for she was a truly devout Jewess.[…] After became a Catholic she continued to visit
home regularly. She took care of me again after the birth of our son Ernst Ludwig, and she tenderly loved
both children, just as she loved all our nephews and nieces, and was loved and revered by them in return. I
remember especially how often, when she was working in her study, she had one of the children with her,
how she would give them a book to look at, and how happy and contented they were.
In 1933, when Edith had to give up her position as lecturer at the Catholic Academy in Münster because of
her Jewish descent, she returned home once more. Again I was her confidante, to whom she first
communicated her decision to enter the Carmelite Order in Cologne.

The weeks that followed were very difficult for us all. My mother was truly in despair and never got over her
grief. For the rest of us, too, the farewell this time cut much deeper, although Edith herself did not want to
admit it, and even from the convent continued to take part in everything with steadfast love and family
loyalty and with undiminished concern.

When in February 1939 I followed my husband to America with my children, she would have liked us to visit
her in Echt, where she had transferred in the meantime. We had booked passage via Hamburg, and, since
crossing the Dutch border was considered to be particularly troublesome, we did not want to riks it. We kept
in touch by mail, and I felt fairly well reassured that, now, in the shelter of the convent she was safe from
Hitler’s aggression, just like my sister Rosa, who through Edith’s intervention had also found refuge in Echt.
Sadly this belief proved to be unjustified. The Nazis were not deterred by the convent but deported both my
sisters on August 2, 1942. Since then all trace of them has vanished.