About 800 grave stones in the newer cemetery of Frankfurt´s Jewish community on Eckenheimer Landstrasse are evidence of persons who were victims of anti-Semitic persecution, who escaped from Nazi persecution and deportation in the years 1938 to 1943 by suicide. They are impressive witnesses of these tragic historical events (http://www.jg-ffm.de/de/religioeses-leben/juedische-friedhoefe, call of all links on October 24, 2017). It was painstaking work for the chronicler and survivor of the Shoah Adolf Diamant (1924-2008) to collect their names (cp. Adolf Diamant 1983). Among them are also two nurses of the former Jewish hospital on Gagernstrasse: Bertha Schönfeld and Thekla Dinkelspühler, both born in Hesse. Where were they from, how did they live?
Sister Bertha Schönfeld (1883 Kesselbach/Rabenau – 1941 Frankfurt a.M.)
Sister Bertha came from the rural Jewish life in the middle of Hesse (north of Frankfurt am Main). Born on September 13, 1883 at 8:00 in her parents´ flat in the Kesselbach village (now part of Rabenau, Gießen District) she was, as it was customary in the country at that time, a “home birth“ (OuSt Rabenau). At this time about seven Jewish families (approx. 30 people) lived in Kesselbach who were members of the synagogue community in the larger neighboring village Londorf. The female Jewish citizens of Kesselbach were known for their special commitment to voluntary nursing. They cared for fellow believers in surrounding villages and possibly also Christian neighbours: “[…] Thus, local women met and established a female-Chebra, whose activity is focused on supporting needy people in case of illness and bereavements” (“Der Israelit” dated April 1, 1889, quoted by http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/londorf_synagoge.htm). Being usually excluded from manual and agricultural occupations, Kesselbach´s Jewish citizens mainly worked “as cattle dealers, butchers or retail merchants”; they all lived like their Christian neighbors “in humble circumstances” (quoted by ibid.). Bertha Schönfeld´s parents were:
- Zimmel “gen. [named] Emilie” Schönfeld née Wallenstein (born on July 24, 1859) from Alten-Buseck (cp. http://www.alemannia-judicia.de/alten-buseck_synagoge.htm) in the Giessen district, daughter of the trader Abraham Wallenstein and Hannchen née Stern (OuSt Rabenau);
- Simon Schönfeld (born on July 20, 1850) from Kesselbach, a merchant by profession, son of the trader Moses Schönfeld and Rebekka née Maas.
Bertha Schönfeld was the second-born of six children whose life data could be partly reconstructed:
- Rebekka (Rebeka, Rivka) Fuld (November 1, 1881 Kesselbach – February 5, 1939 Frankfurt am Main), the oldest, who was the only one who had a Jewish first name;
- Gertrud Schönfeld (May 21, 1886 Kesselbach – March 5, 1889 Kesselbach), deceased already as a toddler;
- Adolph Friedrich Schönfeld (July 27, 1888 Kesselbach – December 17, 1915), the only brother, killed in the First World War;
- Amalie Schönfeld (born on July 9, 1890 in Kesselbach);
- Johanna Senger née Schönfeld (June 22, 1894 Kesselbach – [1942 deported]).
Bertha Schönfeld and her siblings probably went to the Jewish school in Londorf, where there was also a synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. There were not many job prospects for Jewish girls in the country nor suitable candidates for marriage either. As far as Bertha Schönfeld was concerned, she thought it important to be independent (cp. Levinsohn-Wolf 1996: 27). Having come of age at 21 years in September 1904, she left her home village and headed for Frankfurt am Main city in order to qualify as a nurse with the nationally respected Association for Jewish Nurses.
Stations of a Nurse: Private Care – Strasbourg Jewish Hospital – Surgical Nurse at the Jewish Hospital in Frankfurt am Main
At the beginning of her twenties Bertha Schönfeld started her training as an energetic young woman at the “old” hospital (“Königswart Hospital”) of the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main as well as the nurses´ home of the Association for Jewish Nurses, first located on Königswarterstrasse (herein referred to as Frankfurt´s Jewish Nurses´ Association). ” Corresponding to her future profession she, like all candidates, had to prove a level of education, health condition and modest lifestyle in accordance with the guiding principles of the German Association from 1905 (quoted by Steppe 1997: 374). She successfully completed her training in 1906 and was subsequently obliged to carry out three years of service in accordance with the statutes of Frankfurt´s Jewish Nurses´ Association. Probably due to her independence, the association considered Bertha Schönfeld capable of doing home care: Nurses being deployed in private households had to comply with the instructions of the general practitioner. However, they were not part of any hospital hierarchy, but left on their own when making care decisions or handling patients and their relatives. This kind of work required essential “core qualifications” (see Palesch (Hg.) et al. 2012: 9) such as the ability to work independently as well as under pressure, organization skills, reliability and empathy. In addition to the actual nursing care, the nurse was quite often responsible for the complete housekeeping, including childcare, catering and laundry. For the protection of the nursing staff against constant availability and strain the Frankfurt´s Jewish Nurses´ Association set up its own rules which were supervised by the matron Minna Hirsch: The nurse being deployed in home care should “leave the house where she works for 1-2 hours per day in order to relax outside in the fresh air. The break shall be adapted to the health condition of the patient and also agreed with the treating physicians and the family” (quoted by Steppe 1997: 384). “In the interest of her own health” she was also strictly prohibited from “working two consecutive night shifts. The second night shift may only be worked with the consent of the matron or her deputy” (ibid.). In principle home care could also be offered in non-Jewish households, but especially Jewish households were interested in a Jewish nurse due to the guarantee of care meeting the expected ritual standards. In order to make sure her own religious life was not neglected, the nurse could ask the nurses´ association for an assistant.
In 1911 Bertha Schönfeld was facing a new professional challenge: Her place of work was transferred from Frankfurt to the Alsace region (administration district of the German Empire until 1918), where Frankfurt´s Jewish Nurses´ Association under the direction of Julie Glaser had taken on nursing tasks at the Strasbourg Jewish Hospital (Clinique Adassa). Sister Bertha returned even before the First World War, as the big hospital of the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main on Gagernstrasse (herein referred to as Gagernstrasse Hospital), which had been newly opened in May 1914, needed qualified nursing staff. She lived in a new and modern Jewish nurses´ house on the adjacent Bornheimer Landwehr.
When a little later in August 1914 the battle of the nations of the First World War began, sister Bertha was initially not deployed in the military hospitals which had been set up in the general hospital and the nurses´ house. Instead, she cared for wounded soldiers together with the head nurse Ida (probably Ida Elise Holz) and another colleague (unknown by name) in the municipal military hospital called “East Hospital” (cp. accountability report 1920: 37, 63), where the three Jewish women worked together with mainly non-Jewish / Christian nurses and physicians.
In the middle of the war, on February 1, 1917, Bertha Schönfeld, now a surgical nurse of the surgical department of the Gagernstrasse Hospital, received the golden brooch of Frankfurt´s Association for Jewish Nurses (accountability report 1920: 62). In 1918 she certainly experienced the surrender of the Wilhelmine Empire, having been very confident of victory, like the majority of the German people, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, as disgrace. How might she have felt at the same time with the anti-Semitic hate campaigns depicting “the Jews” as well as “the leftists” as the persons responsible for the defeat, especially since her only brother Friedrich was among the 12,000 German-Jewish soldiers who were killed in total?
Probably for organizational reasons Bertha Schönfeld moved from the nurses´ house to the hospital on December 30, 1925 (ISG Ffm: HB 686: 56). She was keen and well-experienced, but considered to be difficult in personal contact. Did the unmarried, childless and over 40-year-old nurse see herself as a “late girl” and “old maid” as women were derogatorily called at that time? Was she ignored for upcoming promotions, e.g. to the head nurse? Due to missing published personal testimonies not much is known about the communication between the nursing staff and their medical superiors and with each other. Therefore, the information about the large-scale, internal operations of the Gagernstrasse Hospital provided by Thea Levinsohn-Wolf, a younger colleague of Bertha Schönfeld, in her auto-biography are even more valuabe. Like at any workplace, there were, in addition to team solidarity, also interpersonal conflicts. Sister Thea reports “Sister Bertha has dominated in the operating room of the surgery for many years. She kept her various respective assistants for one year at the very most. Evil tongues say she is terribly jealous of each young nurse, of her potential competence and a possibly growing fondness of the surgeon for her as an instrument nurse. The surgeons would not have dared to lift a finger without sister Bertha´s prior consent” (Levinsohn-Wolf 1996: 26 et seq.). Chief of surgery was Dr. Emil Altschüler, and his deputy was Dr. Fritz Katz. Together with her colleague Rosa Spiero (youngest sister of Rahel Seckbach, matron of Gumpertz´ infirmary) Bertha Schönfeld was not only responsible for the assistance during surgery, but also for the care of the complete surgical ward.
However, the head nurse was the slightly younger Rosa Spiero and thus she was Bertha Schönfeld´s direct superior and additionally an anesthetist nurse. Their professional paths had crossed a few times: They were of the same graduation year (1906) in the nurses´ house and had both worked at Strasbourg Jewish hospital before the First World War. They did not become friends. Thea Levinsohn-Wolf remembers: “[…] We young nurses had a lot of fun with these two fighting cocks, because they could shout quite loudly at each other which was entertaining and cleared the air” (ibid. 27). And she adds: “Both nurses had strong characters” (ibid.).
Since February 3, 1934 Bertha Schönfeld was registered at 82 Waldschmidtstrasse (ISG Ffm: HB 686: 56).
Why she had been living outside of the hospital and nurses´ house for several years during the Nazi era is unknown. Did she, despite own health problems, provide private care again? Did she support any relatives? Perhaps she had already become a pensioner and moved into a flat of her own although she was entitled to a retirement residence in Frankfurt´s Jewish nurses´ house. Later, she lived on 27 Hanauer Landstrasse. When Bertha Schönfeld returned to the nurses´ house – possibly under the impression of the November pogrom and its aftermath – on December 5, 1938, she was registered in the files as “retired nurse” (ISG Ffm: HB 655: 59). Since January 1, 1939, she had to use the additional name “Sara” (men: “Israel”) in order to comply with the forced change of surnames and given names by the national socialists. On February 5, 1939 an ill personal stroke of fate afflicted her: Her older sister Rebekka Fuld committed suicide aged 57 in Frankfurt am Main (Yad Vashem: database, commemorative sheet). Bertha Schönfeld´s brother-in-law August Fuld (born in Wolfenhausen on January 11, 1982) – decorator, upholsterer and owner of the upholstery room “A. Fuld” which had been destroyed during the November pogrom in 1938 (Jewish museum Frankfurt am Main: internal database) – had returned from Buchenwald concentration camp before and fought his way through as an unskilled worker. On November 11, 1941 he was deported from Frankfurt to Minsk (Belarus) and declared dead later. Bertha´s youngest sister Johanna Singer – she had married and moved to Saxony-Anhalt – was displaced from Magdeburg along with Felix Senger (born on July 23, 1882 in Ueckermünde/Pomerania) and Friedrich Senger (born in Bernburg on July 14, 1925), probably her husband and son, to the Warsaw ghetto, where their traces disappeared.
On November 19, 1940 Bertha Schönfeld was expelled from her retirement residence by the national socialists´ forced eviction of the nurses´ house. She had to move talong with her female colleagues to Gagernstrasse Hospital (ISG Ffm: HB 655: 59). How the last months passed is unknown. However, in view of the high fluctuation of the medical and nursing staff by emigration (e.g. head nurse Rosa Spiero, her former opponent, on March 24, 1941) and the eviction of Jewish institutions on Röderbergweg (Gumpertz´ infirmary, Rothschild´s Hospital and Rothschild´s Children´s Hospital) in 1941 she understood that Gagernstrasse Hospital was also in dissolution. Frankfurt´s last remaining Jewish hospital, a refuge for sick, old and people seeking help due to anti-Semitic persecution, was completely crowded and misused as a NS-collection center prior to the deportations. On June 29, 1941 Bertha Schönfeld departed from life by poison (ISG Ffm: HB 687: 326) – aged 57 like her sister Rebekka. Thea Levinsohn-Wolf (1996: 27) writes: “Sister Bertha had decided to live her life in her own way and to end it, if necessary. She took her life in order not to have to endure the ignominy of deportation.”
The suicide of victims of persecution by the Nazi regime is differently interpreted in research (cp. e.g. Fischer (Hg.) 2007; Goeschel 2011): Was it an “act of desperation”, a last “emergency exit”, a deliberate “escape that can imply an active act of resistance” (Ohnhäuser 2010: 23)? For the Nazi perpetrators the suicide of a victim obviously was a kind of defeat, because the people concerned evaded their totalitarian control; “In the second half of the Nazi regime the rulers sought to have absolute control over the power of decision regarding life and death of their chosen opponents” (ibid.: 24). The catalogue of the German National Library in Leipzig lists two dissertations at the medical faculty of Wien University for 1942: “Suicide, with special consideration of the Jews” (Wolfgang Damus) and – in Nazi jargon – “Suicide among Jews and Jewish mongrels” (Hans Kallenbach).
Tim Ohnhäuser additionally points out in his study on Berlin´s internal specialist a.o. Prof. Dr. med. Arthur Nicolaier (born in 1862), who committed suicide in 1942, that he had long suffered the “social death” of the Jewish German people that had been determined selected by the Nazis, that of being excluded from everyday life. The second “social death” overtook Dr. Nicolaier after the Nazi era by “Forgetting as part of the extermination” (Ohnhäuser 2010: 31). For a long time hardly anyone remembered the discoverer of the tetanus pathogen who significantly contributed to the fight against tetanus.Also Bertha Schönefeld, whose nursing care benefited many Jewish and non-Jewish patients, is forgotten today. Like her sister Rebekka Fuld she was buried in the Jewish cemetery on Eckenheimer Landstrasse; the entry in the grave directory is “Berta Schonfeld”.
Sister Thekla Dinkelspühler (1901 [Bad] Homburg v.d.H. – 1942 Frankfurt a.M
Unlike Bertha Schönfeld, Thekla Dinkelspühler was not a nurse from vocation but from need: Aged 38 she started her career as a student nurse under the repressive conditions of the Nazi era at Gagernstrasse Hospital. While sister Bertha came from a little Hessian village and spoke “Frankfurt´s real dialect” (Levinsohn-Wolf 1996: 28), sister Thekla was influenced by the urban environment and had grown up in a medium-sized business household.
On June 4, 1904 Thekla Dinkelspühler was born together with her younger twin sister Luise (also Louise; documentary Louisa) in her parents´ flat at 34 Louisenstrasse in the South Hessian spa town Homburg vor der Höhe (Bad Homburg since 1912). They were the youngest daughters of the merchant Moritz Dinkelspühler (November 1, 1856 in Fürth – May 1, 1917 [Bad Homburg v.d.H.] and his wife Klara (Clara) née Eichenberg (October 20, 1867 Bad Homburg – May 30, 1934 [Bad Homburg v.d.H.]); the surname Dinkelspühler probably derived from the Bavarian-Central Franconian imperial city Dinkelsbühl. Thekla and Luise had three sister:
- Minna (Mina) Dörnberg (July 9, 1888 Homburg v.d.H. – January 23, 1943 Theresienstadt Ghetto [suicide]) (also cp. Daume and others (Hg.) 2013, 413);
- Hedwig Sandberg (1890 Homburg v.d.H. – 1940 or 1941);
- Frieda Sandberg (October 11, 1892 Homburg vor der Höhe – [October 12, 1944 deported to Auschwitz]).
Her twin sister Luise Dinkelspühler could take refuge in the United States in April 1937. Until being dismissed due to Nazi policy, she had been employed as a clerk and stenographer in Bad Homburg and also worked in a “Zwieback” (rusk) factory in nearby Friedrichsdorf/Ts. In New York she took up a job as a nurse: in 1941 at hospital, in 1946 as a private nurse (Hessian State Archives).
Moritz Dinkelspühler had married into the manufactured goods business Lehmann & Eichenberg at 23 Louisenstrasse. He was a member of the respected Talmud-Thora-Club (cp. Grosche 1991: 29). After his death (1917) his widow Klara Dinkelspühler continued the business for textiles, fabrics, yarns and men´s underwear (ibid.: 44). She died in 1934. One year before, on April 1, she had experienced the state-organized Nazi boycott of Jewish companies. It still has to be checked in more detail whether the house at 23 Louisenstrasse was owned by a non-Jewish coal merchant before or after the “Aryanization”. In the 1930s Thekla Dinkelspühler lived with one of her sisters (probably Luise) on the second floor for rent (ibid: 79). Business and inheritance were gone, which was why her twin sister, the only survivor, fought for compensation (“reparations”) (Wiesbaden Household, Court and State Archives). When the November pogrom was taking place in Bad Homburg, in plain daylight in front of everyone, their flat was not spared. During a trial initiated after the war, a person involved reported: “I met the Dinkelspühler sisters on the first stairs leading to the top. Then I went up to the second floor […], where several people were busy with the demolition of the home furnishings. […] I want to state that I prevented one of the men from pocketing some pieces of toilet soap” (quoted by Grosche 1991: 79). Witnesses accused the NS perpetrator of “having been very much actively involved in the destruction of the home furnishings in the flat of the Dinkelspühler sisters”, where he even “intended to smash the bath” (hearing of offender, quoted by ibid.: 80).
On April 30, 1939 the Nazi regime abolished the rent control for all people it had classified as Jews. Also Thekla Dinkelspühler was threatened by compulsory admission to a ghetto house (“Jews House”). She possible tried to leave Nazi Germany in vain. She used the remaining options for action and left her native town to go to Frankfurt am Main. On August 14, 1939 Frankfurt´s Jewish Nurses´ Association accepted her as a student nurse (ISG Ffm: HB 655: 64). It is not known, whether she already had any care experience. Like Bertha Schönfeld, she lived in the nurse´ house and was also affected by the forced relocation to Gagernstrasse Hospital on November 19, 1940 (cp. ibid.), where she participated in the care of the sick and elderly, which was done under increasingly difficult conditions due to growing Nazi repressions. She was certainly informed about sister Bertha´s suicide in June 1941.
Thekla Dinkelspühler also committed suicide in Gagernstrasse Hospital on May 22, 1941 (ISG Ffm: HB 687, Page 48). She was only 40 years old. Just two days later another big deportation took place from Frankfurt to Poland, this time to Majdanek or to Izbica transit camp, from which no one returned. Unlike those murdered in the Shoah, sister Thekla got her own grave in the Jewish cemetery on Eckenheimer Landstrasse. Autobiographical sources like letters or diaries have not been passed down, neither by Bertha Schönfeld nor by Thekla Dinkelspühler. They are considered to be lost. Thus, this article can only be an approach to their biographies.
The author thanks Mrs Mira Schneider (Rabenau Regulatory Agency and Registrar´s Office), Dr. Krüger and Mr Mengl (city archive of Bad Homburg) as well as Dr. Siegbert Wolf (Frankfurt am Main Institute for City History) for their help and valuable information. Without Adolf Diamant´s, Thea Levinsohn-Wolf´s, Allan Hirsh´s or Hilde Steppe´s remembrance work, Bertha Schönfeld and Thekla Dinkelspühler would have been completely forgotten today.
Birgit Seemann, 2014, updated 2017
(Translated by Yvonne Ford)