In Werner Scholem: A German Life, Mirjam Zadoff has written a book that is at once a biography of an individual, a family chronicle, and the story of an entire era.
Dec 2017 | 400 pages | Cloth $49.95
Biography | History
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Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
Prologue. The Politics of Love [A Wartime Wedding in Hanover · Of Versatile Disposition · Defiant Love · Prominently Forgotten · Quiet Heroines · On the Biographical Intention]
1. Two Utopias Seated at One Table [Betty's Premonition · Memories of the Summer of 1914 · Send the Old Men to War Instead · A Proletariat of Longing · Confused · Against Kaiser and Father · In "Orcus"—the Underworld · Family Systems]
2. In the Shadow of Revolution [Red Flags Waving Above the Old Palace · Revolutionaries and Kabbalists · The Language of the Barricades · The Revolution Devours Its Fathers · Deputy Judenbengel · With the "Kommunistens" · Precipitous Heights · In Alliance with Trotsky · Oh the Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear]
3. Exile in Germany [Unlawful Times · Wayward Paths to Exile · Imprisoned in the Tower of Berlin · The General's Daughters · A Kafkaesque Trial · In Goebbels's Hands · Like a Dead Man in His Grave · The Masks of Job]
Epilogue. The Idea of Heimat [Graves · Names · Who Is a Jew?]
The Politics of Love
Marriage is but the union of free individuals based on erotic affection. Thoroughly liberated from the torturous earthly residue of material prerequisites, usufruct, and consequences. All freedom and love.A Wartime Wedding in Hanover
—Otto Rühle, Die Sozialisierung der Frau, 1922
We'll make a twosome
That just can't go wrong. Hear me —
He loves and she loves and they love,
So won't you
Love me as I love you?
—Ira Gershwin, lyrics, "He Loves and She Loves," 1927
On New Year's Eve in 1917, a young couple married at the registry office in Linden, a town on the outskirts of Hanover. The marriage of the twenty-two-year-old student from Berlin and the one-year-younger office clerk from Linden was attended by a small gathering. A metalworker, the uncle of the bride, acted as a witness, as did a local carpenter, a friend of the couple. While the newlyweds celebrated their wedding with a group of family and friends in the proletarian community of Linden, the event caused a scandal in distant Berlin: there it was viewed as an affront that Werner Scholem, the son of a bourgeois Jewish family, had married the illegitimate daughter of a household servant who had formally renounced her membership in the church just recently. Therefore, no member of the Scholem family showed up to celebrate with Werner and his bride, Emmy, née Wiechelt. Werner's younger brother Gerhard congratulated the couple by mail only a month later, and his new sister-in-law responded: "Thank you for your congratulations on our wedding; yours were the first, and I was very happy to receive them."
Werner's father, Arthur Scholem, was enraged by this union and refused to meet his son ever again. It goes without saying that he also shunned his daughter-in-law, whom he had met briefly by chance a few months before. He expected his family, and particularly his wife, Betty, to spurn this rebellious son as well. Nevertheless, some time after the wedding, Hans Hirsch, Betty's brother, sent presents to the couple and was subsequently struck by what he is said to have jocularly called an "Arthur Scholem thunderbolt." So great was the paternal rancor that Arthur Scholem revised his will, reducing Werner's inheritance to the minimum amount required by law.
The wedding that took place in the fourth year of the First World War was the climax of a dispute between father and son that had begun years before. Arthur Scholem could forgive his son for everything but this marriage to the pretty young office clerk. Whether Arthur knew it or not, he had played a role in the course of events leading to this wedding: with the decision to marry, Werner had professed not only the love and loyalty he felt for his girlfriend Emmy but also his rejection of his father and his father's worldview. "This is also why I am marrying," Werner had written his brother Gerhard several months earlier, "I want to burn all my bridges to the bourgeoisie." It was an intentional decision to bring about a breach he knew would be irreversible. The events of the previous ten years and the experiences of his youth, cut short so abruptly by the war, made it easier for him to take the radical step of publicly celebrating the feelings that he and Emmy shared for one another.
Of Versatile Disposition
Werner Scholem was born in 1895, the third of four sons of Arthur Scholem, the owner of a successful Berlin printing business, and his wife, Betty. When he was two years old, his mother gave birth to his brother Gerhard, who, throughout Werner's life, would remain the relative he felt closest to, next to their mother.
Decades later, this younger brother, who had long since taken the name "Gershom" and was then at the end of a long life as a professor for Jewish mysticism in Jerusalem, included a very personal portrait of the Scholem family in his autobiography. He described the relationship between the sons and their father as "not a particularly close one" and explained this situation with the laconic remark that their father had suffered from heart disease and had therefore gone away for rather long stays in health spas every year. His wife Betty spent her days outside the home and attended to the bookkeeping of the family business. Still, she was quite close to the children, especially the two youngest, who spent a great deal of time buried in their books and often accompanied her on her frequent vacation trips.
In many respects, the Scholems were a typical German Jewish family of the early twentieth century. Arthur's and Betty's parents had already advanced into the educated and propertied bourgeoisie by the middle of the preceding century. The Scholems lived well on the profits of a flourishing family business that allowed them to go on spa and leisure trips regularly and also to give the best education possible to the four sons: Reinhold, Erich, Werner, and Gerhard. Theirs was a childhood with all the amenities offered by the urban, bourgeois world of Berlin around 1900. The family apartment and the printing business were located only a few meters from one another near the Leipzigerstrasse, a street lined with department stores such as Tietz, Wertheimer, and Jandorf. The city surrounding them was a modern bustling metropolis, in which electric trams and the city railway were beginning to replace horse-drawn cars. Museums were being built, parks were laid out everywhere, and the Circus Busch opened its doors at Hackescher Markt. Every Friday evening the family dined together with several close relatives, although these meals no longer had any religious content. Jewish holidays like Passover and Rosh Hashanah were only celebrated as large family gatherings, and on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, Arthur Scholem went to work. "We were a typical, liberal, middle-class family in which assimilation to things German, as people put it at the time, had progressed quite far," noted Gershom Scholem. Their Jewishness was merely the expression of the cultural and social network of friends and family in which they happened to live.
Little is known about Werner Scholem's childhood. Although Betty Scholem jotted down several of her recollections in 1931 during a trip to Jerusalem, these were primarily about the childhood of her youngest son, Gerhard. When he was five years old, Werner took part in a series of scientific experiments conducted by the psychologist Arthur Wreschner, who was probably acquainted with the Scholems, showing his parents' openness to modern science. Wreschner had selected twenty-two people of various ages and levels of education in order to study "the reproduction and association of ideas" based on these people's reactions. The experiments required of the child were probably conducted in his parents' apartment. To no great surprise, the results of Werner's tests reflected the imagination of a five-year-old.
Whereas the two oldest sons, Reinhold and Erich, lived up to their father's expectations and developed the same active interest in the family business and the German empire, the third son differed from the rest at a very early age. In his father's view, Werner was a defiant spirit and exhibited "a very versatile disposition," according to Gershom Scholem. "While I shot up to a considerable height, my brother remained rather small, but at an early age he developed sharp intellectual facial features which clearly reflected his nature. During our adolescent years we were to be faced with various shocks and conflicts. They pointed us in entirely different directions, yet again and again they brought us closer to each other." During their childhood and youth, the two younger brothers felt as close to one another as they felt distant from the two older ones. Gershom Scholem could not recall ever having had "a real conversation" with his elder brothers, Erich and Reinhold, and it is highly probable that this was also the case for Werner, who did not care much for his two older brothers then.
Werner's "versatile disposition" prompted his parents to remove him from his school in Berlin, the Dorotheenstädtische Realgymnasium, at the age of twelve and send him to Jewish boarding school in Wolfenbüttel, where he remained for nearly four years. This school, the Samson-Freischule, grew out of a Talmud Torah school. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had been considered an important Jewish institution of the Reform movement, where prominent figures of progressive German Judaism like Leopold Zunz and Isaak Marcus Jost were taught the ideals of the Enlightenment. However, in the course of the nineteenth century, the school developed into an educational institution in which the children with little Jewish background were raised as future members of the bourgeoisie. Around 1900, when a great majority of the German Jewish population had successfully achieved social and economic advancement, the heads of the Samson-Freischule set a new educational goal. No longer would the school teach its pupils strictly within a context of Jewish religion and ethics, but it would also strive to awaken and cultivate in them a deep love for their fatherland and emperor.
Forced to leave liberal Berlin for the oppressive and confining atmosphere of this provincial school, to which, as Gershom Scholem noted laconically, mainly "Jewish businessmen, cattle dealers, and master butchers in Western Germany" sent their children, Werner was confronted with a "considerable amount of religious hypocrisy and false patriotism, which he found quite repulsive. The school was run along strict German nationalistic lines, but some major aspects of the Jewish ritual, daily prayer, and a kosher kitchen, were maintained. During school vacations I would be treated to cynical lectures and outpourings on the subject of his school by my brother, who was beginning to test his rhetorical skills on me even then." As the annual reports of the school confirm, the pupils enrolled there were indeed the sons of Jewish merchants, cattle traders, and butchers from the provinces, but also from Berlin. Very few of them sought to continue their education following Realschule, a six-year secondary school. With few exceptions, the 150 pupils were Jewish, and the number of non-Jewish pupils continued to decline in the years prior to the First World War, so it became essentially an exclusively Jewish institution. The curriculum included three hours each week for Hebrew and religion lessons, which was the only concession to the Jewishness of the school. The pupils' classes and essay topics dealt primarily with Schiller, Homer, and the Nibelungenlied. As in other German schools, commemoration days were celebrated with gymnastic events and flag parades, and the school honored the birthday of the emperor and the Duke of Braunschweig, the battles of Sedan and Quatre-Bras, and no less so the centennial of the 1812 Prussian Edict of Emancipation for German Jews. It was here that Werner Scholem, who had lived until then in an almost completely secular world, was now involuntarily and intensively confronted with a German Jewish culture, which appeared incoherent and repulsive to him; in fact, this experience would shape his lifelong ambivalence toward Judiasm.
These years in Wolfenbüttel probably caused the first major rupture between father and son. Werner subsequently rejected his father's Germanness as well as his bourgeois way of life, interspersed with randomly handed-down fragments of Jewish tradition. Arthur Scholem was a "short and stocky man, near-sighted and completely bald by the age of forty," who was enthusiastically involved in the Berlin gymnastics association, an athletics club, and showed little interest in Jewish religion and culture, even though he called baptism an "unprincipled and servile act" and disapproved of "mixed marriages." He accepted printing jobs with Jewish content at his business from time to time, such as printing the Jewish weekly publication Israelitische Wochenschrift, but he categorically rejected having anything to do with Zionism—in contrast to his brother Theobald, whose print shop worked almost exclusively for the Zionist organization.
The conflict between Arthur Scholem and his obstinate third son, which emerged in the years before the war, was characteristic of the rebellion of the generation of young Germans born around 1890, which was so widespread that it soon "became a cliché," as Peter Gay writes. Even though this conflict would not climax until the Weimar era, rebellion against the authority of the fathers hung long in the air.
Most likely in early 1911, but possibly not until 1912, Werner Scholem had pressured his parents to the point where they agreed to take him out of the school in Wolfenbüttel before earning a diploma and bring him back to Berlin. What awaited the fifteen-year-old in the metropolis was a growing center of Jewish culture with academic, literary, cultural, and political organizations, on the one hand, and an active Socialist movement in and around the working class districts of Neukölln and Wedding, on the other. Between these two innovative and lively poles, Werner initially chose to become active in the Zionist movement. His brother felt that the political aspect of Zionism had attracted Werner, but that he never delved any deeper into Zionism. In any case, it was through Werner that Gerhard first came into contact with Zionism. The Zionist organization he chose to become involved in was the oppositional youth group Jung Juda, which he later adopted as his political and ideological home. For a while the brothers attended together the events of the small group, which had been founded by Zionist student organizations and to which twenty to thirty youths of various backgrounds belonged: some came from the German bourgeoisie and others had Orthodox and often Eastern Jewish backgrounds. There, for the first time, the two brothers met observant Jews, whose Judaism was rooted in religious tradition.
At the end of 1912, Werner announced that he had "found a broader, more comprehensive sphere of activity" and became a member of the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterjugend (Young Social Democratic Workers). Gershom Scholem noted with amusement that, between him and his brother, things sometimes "came to blows because he tried to force me to listen to Socialist speeches of his own devising, which he delivered to an imaginary audience while standing on a chair—an enterprise that I resolutely opposed." The younger brother had other interests apart from those of historical materialism, "the most massive forms of which made so much sense to my brother that he would have loved to pound them into me." At the time Gerhard was interested in Orthodox Judaism, attended religious services regularly, and began to study Hebrew and traditional religious literature, the Mishnah, Gemara, and Torah. He even became a member of the Agudat Israel, an organization of Orthodox Judaism, which he left in 1914 for Zionist reasons. So it happened that the two brothers had already begun to develop in opposite directions at the respective ages of fifteen and seventeen. "Why was the one brother fascinated by German social democracy, while the other was captivated by the Jewish cause?" asked Gershom Scholem in an interview he gave in the winter of 1973-1974. "I don't have an answer to this. These are personal decisions, the secret of which one can hardly fathom."
Werner's political activities soon led to open conflict with his father. "One day in 1913, my father came into his office and found that one of his typesetters had placed on his desk a clipping of an item from the socialist daily Vorwärts," recalls Gershom Scholem in his memoirs. The newspaper story reported on "my brother's activity in the Arbeiterjugend [Young Social Democratic Workers]. Coming from his own firm, this act, which was evidently intended as an ironic comment on the 'capitalist employer,' made my father very angry." The employee, Ebel, himself a Social Democrat, had "wanted to put one over on his old master," so he pointed out a notice in the newspaper to him, announcing that his son would be speaking before nightshift workers. A quarrel ensued, in which once again the rebellious son was bossed about or, as his father saw it, made to see reason. "If I had been Werner," noted Gerhard in his diary, "I would have already run away ten times and would have tried to survive without the 'family.' You see, for us, nothing remains of the Jewish family. . . . Hopefully things go differently for me someday."
In the fall of 1913, after less than two years in Berlin, Werner Scholem was again sent to a boarding school. This time his parents chose a private school in Hanover, where he was to prepare as a day pupil for the graduation exams required to earn his secondary school diploma (Abitur). However, the paternal banishment to the seemingly apolitical province did not have the desired effect. Instead of waning, Werner Scholem's political activism began to take on real contour and content in Hanover. Soon after his arrival in the city, he felt himself drawn away from the school on Leopoldstrasse and his apartment on Sophienstrasse, both located in the middle-class center of Hanover, and attracted instead to the east side, to Linden, a community that had once been on the outskirts of the city but by then had grown together with it and was years later incorporated into it. It was there, in Linden, that Werner found his first political stage—and met Emmy Wiechelt.
Separated from the former royal capital of the Hanoverian kings by a river, Linden was a completely different world. Although otherwise rich in detail, the 1921 Baedeker guidebook on Hanover and the German North Sea coast mentions the relatively large quarter only briefly. In the "commercial city district of Linden" the visitor could climb to "the panoramic summit of the Lindener Berg [the area's highest hilltop] in a few minutes." The guidebook did not find it necessary to mention the view the visiting tourist strolling about the city would encounter there, namely, a densely built industrial settlement, in which row upon row of crowded four-story brick structures were separated from one another only by narrow, dark courtyards; a quarter with no room for gardens, avenues, boulevards, or squares.
This residential area was surrounded by a ring of smokestacks. In close proximity factories were producing tires, machinery, woodwork, rubber, corsets, asphalt, meat, sausage, and bed feathers. There were weaving and spinning mills, a lime kiln, an iron foundry, and a brewery. In the middle of the nineteenth century, what had been a farming settlement rapidly developed into an industrial village intended to spare the bourgeois villas, palaces, and parks of Hanover the noise and pollution of industrialization. With each new factory more company-owned housing was built for the workers, with each unit no larger than fifty to sixty square meters. Once the entrepreneurs built these houses, they invested little in their upkeep, and the buildings quickly fell into disrepair.
Within fifty years, from 1852 to 1910, the population in Linden mushroomed from 5,000 to 73,000 inhabitants. With this rapid increase in population, the labor movement also experienced growing popularity starting at the end of the nineteenth century. When Werner Scholem first arrived in 1913, he did not find the famous "Red Linden" of the Weimar Republic, but a number of associations, cooperatives, and meeting houses already existed there, and in early October, Werner met a young woman who was active in the Linden labor movement: Emmy Wiechelt.
Emmy was born on 20 December 1896 in Braunschweig, where she had a difficult childhood. Her father, a pastor's son, had refused to marry her mother, Emma Martha Rock, a seventeen-year-old household servant. So her mother left daughter Emmy in the care of a neighboring family until she finally found a man who was willing to marry her and accept her illegitimate child, a worker in the Continental Reifen- und Gummifabrik, a rubber and tire manufacturer. Thus, at the age of nine, Emmy, who had until then been known simply as "the illegitimate one," moved to Linden with her mother and stepfather. Reportedly, she was never happy there.
When Emmy Wiechelt met the Jewish pupil from Berlin in the fall of 1913, she had already been a member of the Young Social Democratic Workers for two years. She became the head of the local Linden group when she was sixteen and a member of the organization's leadership in the Hanover city and rural district a year later. Emmy, who had a business-school diploma and worked as an employee in a fish shop, attended evening courses and lectures in order to earn her Abitur degree and thus qualify herself for university study. In 1913 she became the head of the education section of the young workers and met Werner Scholem in this capacity, having recruited him to give presentations and lectures. The two young people fell in love and, after only a few weeks, became engaged on Christmas of that same year.
Werner Scholem kept this thoroughly unacceptable liaison secret from his family and even his younger brother for months. Not until September 1914 did he inform Gerhard in a letter that, "by the way, in eight days I am moving to my mother-in-law's—I became engaged last Christmas—in Linden, Struckmeyerstr. 6, IVe. Please send your scribbles there from here on in." In answer to the curiosity expressed in his brother's reply, Werner wrote that his "babe" was a "nice and clever girl," interesting, with a tendency toward anarchism, and possessing "amazing writing talent. That she is pretty is proven by the fact that yesterday she was doggedly chatted up and chased-after six times within the space of an hour, including by a colonel in front of whom she spat!"
Despite the secrecy, the news of Werner's move into the small, cramped working-class apartment where Emmy lived with her mother, her stepfather, and her stepsister soon reached the ears of Arthur Scholem. On 14 November 1914, Werner wrote Gerhard, who apparently had not been able to keep this scandalous news to himself: "You will know that, through one of the spies he uses to watch me, our lord of Beuthstr. 6 smelled a rat concerning my whereabouts. He reacted angrily to this and stated in a letter that the intention had been to 'catch' me and 'I, in my stupidity' let it happen." What enraged the father was not the fact that the son lived as a subtenant with his future mother-in-law and had not told him about this development. Was his main concern about Werner's intention to marry a non-Jewish woman the disapproval that this would meet with the Scholem relatives? Gershom Scholem saw a contradiction in this and maintained in retrospect that the paternal ideology "ought to have made him welcome a mixed marriage." For his part, Werner was convinced that the real reason for the paternal anger was, as he noted in a letter to his brother, quoting a popular song of the time: "Sure, since my bride has no money, it was all about the good old saying: We need no mama-mom-in-law . . . without money, without money . . . ?! If she, the mama-mom-in-law, had dough, then I, 'a son from a good family' as our Lord officially called me, would have been able to keep living there. As it is, out of that house! I, the son from a good family . . . , hereby vamoose officially."
The decision to "vamoose" officially did not come out of thin air two months after the outbreak of the First World War, which had abruptly changed the sense and reality of life for an entire generation. Having just been a middle-class secondary-school pupil anticipating a parentally financed education in a German university city, Werner Scholem now found himself confronted with a future in the trenches. For him and countless other young men who enthusiastically entered the war or were drafted against their will, this future meant the loss of self-determination, of perspectives, and of everyday normality. The war, which polarized and radicalized German society, also became the backdrop for Werner's decision to move to proletarian Linden and to break with the warmongering bourgeoisie and, not the least, with his patriotic father.
Emmy Wiechelt was Werner Scholem's way out of the bourgeois world, which he detested increasingly, while he represented her rescue from the working-class quarter that she had been trying to flee. Together they saw their future in the Socialist revolution and a new social order; or as their daughter would put it years later: "It was natural that she should be attracted to the young, brilliant firebrand of a socialist orator and that he should fall for his vision of the working class girl—blond, hard-nosed, neat, with her clean white collars. He believed that the future lay with her class, not his."
This love story started in the fall of 1913 and was officially consecrated four years later when Werner and Emmy married on New Year's Eve 1917. They chose to enter the bourgeois institution of marriage, while many of their party comrades and role models like Rosa Luxemburg had decided to live in nonmarital love relationships. It is somewhat ironic that Werner Scholem accomplished the desired, irreversible break with the bourgeois German Jewish world of his parents by entering into the bourgeois bond of matrimony. Nevertheless, this marital union was never exclusively monogamous, in accordance with the Communist sexual ethic and—with the birth of two daughters, Edith and Renate, in 1918 and 1923, respectively—Communist family politics and child-rearing practices. The discrepancy between tradition and innovation clung to this marriage from the day the couple was united at the registry office, and it had a lasting impact on its nature.
A shared political utopia was the binding force of this romantic relationship, but, like all utopias, it proved very difficult to implement in daily reality and in family life. Not surprisingly, Werner Scholem defined his marital and family life as the exact opposite of what he had seen and experienced in his parental home. Nevertheless, gender-specific roles were adopted in his new family, as were conventional guidelines for raising children. Gerhard once remarked that almost nothing about his parental home reflected the ideals of Jewish family life, while bourgeois conventions permeated its each and every thread. Werner Scholem instinctively brought this heritage to his new life and new family, whereas the proletarian and far less self-assured traditions of his wife played a subordinate role.
Werner and Emmy Scholem invested all their strength, creativity, and imagination in their shared political utopia. They gave no thought to the way in which their private lives and that of their children would play out in a postrevolutionary society. Yet the shadow cast by the expected and anticipated revolution, along with its messianic potential, proved to be a heavy burden. Since it was not clear which social realities would change and what the new world would look like, all that really counted was the present; the future, even the near future, remained uncertain and seemed utopian. This time vacuum was filled with frenetic activity and impatient expectation: the revolution would come, had to come! However, the years passed, the children grew older, and the relationship between their parents began to suffer from the discrepancies of a life deeply preoccupied with the future and simultaneously devoid of one.
Once the National Socialist dictatorship began and all revolutionary energies in Germany were channeled into a nationalist counterrevolution, these hopes for the future were relegated to the past. When Emmy and Werner Scholem were arrested by the Gestapo in the spring of 1933, their relationship and family, like their hopes, became part of the past. They existed only in memories, and the couple was robbed of nearly all artifacts, insignia, and material props of a shared life. As active revolutionaries, Werner and Emmy Scholem lived from the start, even during the First World War, in constant fear of house searches; therefore they regularly destroyed personal and political documents. Everything that remained, which amounted to the harmless and not incriminatory belongings of the family, was confiscated and very probably destroyed by the Gestapo in 1933.
Despite many difficulties, their marriage lasted for twenty-seven years, during which its form and meaning changed, as did its orientation between tradition and reform. What today appears to be a generally conservative allocation of roles—Werner pursued a career while his wife's activities remained in the shadows—reveals itself upon closer examination to have been a complex constellation, one that the couple itself perceived as being modern, in keeping with the times, and individualistic. Werner described his family's state in a letter written in March 1931 to his brother in Palestine: "Personally there is otherwise nothing to report. Mother will faithfully give you an account. I am continually concerned about Emmy, who for years has not been actually sick but also never truly well. She really ought to take a break from the constant work at the office, which she has been doing for twenty years, and to recuperate. If she can just survive the next few years.—Edith is already a real Backfisch [literally, "baked fish," slang for a teenage girl], unfortunately without any interest in the sciences, although she is not stupid. The little one, Renate, is a Goite ohne Beimischung [unmixed gentile]. Don't yet know what will turn out there. This, a portrait of a family of today. I feel alive in the summer when I go climbing."
The family Werner describes is a typical "new family" of the Weimar Republic, in which the "new married woman," besides being gainfully employed, was usually the mother of at most two children. Emmy's years of uninterrupted employment, which sometimes provided the sole income for the family and from which she took only a few days off at the births of her daughters, were also consistent with this image, as were her catastrophic experiences with abortion and birth control, which made her chronically ill. On the other hand, Werner's portrait points to the aspects of this family that did not correspond with the Communist ideal of a social utopia. For example, although he considered his Jewish background immaterial, he described his small blond daughter as a Goite ohne Beimischung, and he mentioned mountain climbing, his regular escapes into the Tyrolean Alps, which he undertook as a member of the Jewish section of the alpine association Deutscher Alpenverein Berlin.
The central figure in this book must be seen and understood against the background of his complex and contradictory family—bourgeois Jewish and proletarian gentile. Werner Scholem was an extremely prominent German politician for a short time in the 1920s and then thoroughly forgotten in the postwar period, a man whose biography does not fit neatly into the German, Jewish, or Communist Party narratives of the first half of the last century. Therefore it sheds light in both directions.
In his biography of the German general and opponent of Hitler Kurt von Hammerstein, Hans Magnus Enzensberger presents a fictional dialogue between his subject and Werner Scholem. It begins: "Herr Scholem, I've come to see you because your name still means something in Germany." Scholem answers, "That must be a mistake. You're probably confusing me with my brother Gershom. He was cleverer than me and emigrated in good time. I can well imagine that he made something of himself in Palestine." Once the most famous member of the Scholem family—a child star, as it were, of the Weimar Republic and the youth revolts of the early 1920s—the journalist and politician Werner Scholem fell into oblivion after 1945. Denounced as a Trotskyist and party enemy in East Germany and regarded as an unwelcome reminder of the radical Communists of the Weimar Republic in West Germany, Werner Scholem slipped out of the collective German memory almost entirely. However, in West German research on the labor movement, the historian and political scientist Hermann Weber, starting in the 1960s, mentioned Werner Scholem time and again in his writings on the KPD and outlined his biography.
In 1973 the long-forgotten Scholem caught the attention of Martin Broszat, who had recently become the director of the Munich Institut für Zeitgeschichte. At that time Broszat said in his introduction to a talk being given by Gershom Scholem that his brother's history was "for long stretches of time [a] still unknown, unwritten chapter of contemporary history." In 1980, a biography of Ernst Thälmann appeared in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), depicting him as a hero of the workers' state. In this hagiography of the non-Jewish, Stalinst proletarian, Werner Scholem, almost his direct antithesis, appears but does not come off well. The authors described him as a nonobjective and unrealistic petit bourgeois who ended as a left-wing sectarian. It took another ten years, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, before a short article appeared with the title "The Fate of Werner Scholem" in the East German newspaper Neues Deutschland. In this piece, the historian Reiner Zilkenat attributed this neglect to the East German dictatorship, which he argued had deliberately concealed the history of the Jewish Trotskyist. He also urged for the writing of a biography of this German revolutionary, whose name was mentioned only when "argument occurred about the political self-image" in the young KPD.
The fact that Werner Scholem began to find his way into both public German memory and Jewish Israeli memory starting in the late 1960s is primarily due to his brother and his autobiographical writings. Gershom Scholem opens the famous and widely read memoir of his youth, From Berlin to Jerusalem, with the following dedication: "To the memory of my brother Werner, born in December 1895 in Berlin, murdered in June 1940 in Buchenwald." Of the many friends and relatives whom he had lost because of the Nazi regime and the world war, he decided to dedicate the book to his older brother, because he symbolized the loss of his homeland, the place where they shared their youth as members of the generation that turned away from their fathers and toward the utopias of Zionism and Socialism; Werner and Gerhard started in the same place and distanced themselves from it over the years, each in his own direction. Despite the differences in their life experiences and the opposing decisions that they made, they were linked by a nostalgic memory of their youth.
Along with Gershom Scholem's unavoidably one-sided depiction of his elder brother in his memoirs, their correspondence and Gershom's diary entries about Werner offer a fuller and more nuanced picture of their relationship, which continued to develop after Gershom departed for Palestine. Later, their mother, Betty Scholem, came to play a key role as family chronicler. Expressing irony, criticism, and concern, but also great affection, she documented the rise, fall, and tragic end of her son and the fate of his family. These reports, which she sent in her regular letters to Gershom in Palestine, bear extraordinary witness to Werner Scholem's story—especially for the period between 1933 and 1940, the years of his persecution, arrest, and eventual murder. Itta Shedletsky, who prepared these letters for publication, assumes that Gershom Scholem wanted them to be published for just this reason. However, they were published posthumously.
"Set up new heroes for our admiration," demanded Virginia Woolf in 1939 in her programmatic text on writing biography. Werner Scholem, whose meteoric career and brief good fortune plummeted into a series of tragic events when he was only thirty-seven years old, was a modern Job, whose suffering occurred unspectacularly and quietly. Fully in the sense advocated by Virginia Woolf, he was surrounded by "new heroines" who played a key role in his biography. Granted, they left behind even fewer traces of themselves than the main protagonist, and, as a result, their voices are quieter and even harder to register. Often their stories are found mirrored or recalled only in the texts of others.
Nevertheless, the few letters and documents that still exist in Emmy Scholem's meticulous handwriting show that she was a self-confident and intelligent woman who summoned great courage to overcome the obstacles posed by her birth and background. At times she acted as the wife alongside her husband, keeping him free of obligations, writing his articles when he was busy standing at the speaker's podium, and deciding what was to happen with their children. At the same time, she was one of the women who shaped and changed Germany and particular Berlin of the 1920s, women who were "brave, innovative, sometimes also witty and shrewd." Serving for years as a secretary in the Communist Party headquarters, she felt at home in the Communist milieu of these years and pursued her own commitment and her own interests within the party. With her braided hair neatly wrapped around her head and no makeup, she was the perfect exemplar of the Communist woman, as the more rustic agitator, a head of the German Communist Party in the mid-1920s, Ruth Fischer embodied it. Her features were, however, finer, her wardrobe more elegant, and her smile shy in a coquettish way, contrary to that of "Comrade Ruth."
The catastrophic events of 1933 placed the active role of the partnership in her hands, and she played it in her own headstrong way, greatly influencing the lives of her husband and two daughters. The relationship between Werner and Emmy Scholem is extraordinarily well documented for the more than seven years he spent in prison and concentration camps. Even though her numerous letters were written with the censor in mind, they reveal insight into the partnership, the handling of the children, the family structure, and possible plans for a shared future shadowed by persecution rather than imbued with hope for revolution. The deeply ingrained fear of revealing any personal or political information influenced the life of the family after Emmy and her daughters fled to London in 1934, after Werner's murder in July 1940, and even after the war ended in Europe in the spring of 1945. Emmy Scholem never broke her silence and had trained her older daughter, Edith, early in her life to "keep mum": name no names, reveal no details. Not until shortly before her death did Edith Capon, née Scholem, who as a teenager in Berlin had been well informed about the political and private lives of her parents, agree to give an interview in which she revealed much about her family history.
The younger daughter, Renate—or Renee, the name she later gave herself as an actress in England—had spent the greater part of her childhood living with Emmy's mother and stepfather in Hanover and, according to her, had stubbornly rebelled against this educational measure imposed by her parents. Since she was not willing "to keep her mouth shut," neither her parents nor her sister told her anything— not telling anything to the child, who was with her parents and sister only for limited periods of time in Berlin, but also not to the grown woman, who was given the letters written by her father in prison and concentration camp only after her mother's death. In radio plays and essays, she began to work through her memories to make the history of her family plausible and tellable—not the least for herself. Since Renee is the last living protagonist, her account of the family history—things expressed, remembered, kept silent, and forgotten—as well as her own story as the continuation of her family's history have been an invaluable source for this biography.
Insights, remembered and recounted, and also factual, as well as family photographs enhance this portrait, too. Among the few documents of Werner's in the Scholem papers is a photo album he made during or shortly after the First World War. The arrangement and choice of photos in this album reflects his perspective on the women in the family and on a few friends; thus it is an important supplement to the narrative sources.
Like the photo album, the structure of this book is an arrangement of public and private views of Werner Scholem the politician, father, husband, brother, son, and friend. Those aspects of his biography that are of interest to cultural history focus both on the "figure" created by Scholem's own view of himself and the perspective of others and also on the relations and feelings that link the various protagonists to one another. What results is an unusual picture of German Jewish experience in the early twentieth century, one that serves as a reminder of the multifold possibilities and experiences that were available in a country during times of revolution.
On the Biographical Intention
"I like biography far better than fiction myself: fiction is too free. In biography you have your little handful of facts, little bits of a puzzle, and you sit and think and fit 'em together this way and that, and get up and throw 'em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk. And it's really soothing; and when done, gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful. Of course, it's not really so finished as quite a rotten novel; it always has and always must have the incurable illogicalities of life about it. . . . Still, that's where the fun comes in." With these words, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson described in June 1893 the pleasure he got from the "incurable illogicalities," those internal processes that are usually not reflected upon during the course of events in a person's life: changes, revisions, doubts, and reorientations. Yet it is precisely these inadvertent and incoherent aspects that pose difficulties for the biographer; not only must they be addressed and given structure, but a possible inherent sense should also be divined from them. Ultimately, however, the endeavor to bestow meaning to the whole of another person's actions and being is illusory.
Like every historiographic undertaking, biographical writing involves conjecture and construct. There is always the danger that one piece or another of the puzzle will not lie where it should. What distinguishes a biography from a novel is the fact that the set pieces are not dreamed up. Only their arrangement and interpretation lie in the hands of the biographer, who feels bound to uphold the rules of historiography. However, unlike her protagonists, the biographer knows how the story ends and must be careful neither to interpret a life teleologically nor to employ a premature explanatory model in light of the subject's known successes and failures. Therefore, much speaks for unfurling a life primarily in chronological order and for describing—or at least attempting to describe—directional changes, corrections, or retrospection from the perspective of the protagonist.
Writing biography has been repeatedly referred to as an art. Indeed, from time to time it does resemble an effort to paint a portrait with the model absent, meaning that the model and the corresponding environment have to be (re)constructed using every available detail. Therefore, the finished portrait not only is a result of this process but is at the same time influenced by the style of the painter and the painter's own times.
This biography is a work of cultural history, due, first, to the personality and interests of the author, and, second, to the zeitgeist that prevailed at its writing. The culturally historical nature of the work results from the diversity of sources and perspectives used and from the effort to locate Werner Scholem in the dense social network of his manifold relations, particularly in his contacts with relatives and friends. The emotional bonds that a person enters into, changes, ends, or redefines over a lifetime reflect that individual's own changeable identities, just as they also influence them. The diversity of these relations points to the changing roles people assume in social contexts. Precisely in light of the theatrical quality of life—especially a public one—the interaction between small details of private life and the large stages of the Weimar Republic is a major focus here. In this way, this biography is a prism of the history of both a generation and a milieu.
Werner Scholem's biography could be told in many ways. However, two alternative perspectives are likely to be particularly fruitful when used together: that of the politician and revolutionary, a prominent public figure created by Werner himself and redefined by his public, and that of his networks of friends and family members, networks that in the precarious years of the First World War, the Weimar Republic, and the National Socialist dictatorship compose the fabric of his life.
One of the inescapable anomalies of Werner Scholem's life was that, while he had broken with his Jewish heritage, as had many other Jewish Communists, nonetheless he was perceived first and foremost as a Jew by the public—his opponents, followers, and comrades alike. As a consequence, a complex identity emerged as an amalgam of his self-perception and the perceptions of him by others. For example, Scholem saw himself as a German Communist, while in the eyes of others he was the perfect example of a Jewish revolutionary. Another such inner contradiction was that he had made much ado about distancing himself from his father and Judaism but continued to maintain close contact with his brother, his mother, other family members, and Jewish friends. The manifold tensions created by the coexistence of Werner Scholem's different sides, private and public, are thus the theme of this book.
The years 1914-1920, the period in Werner Scholem's life when he formed and developed his political self, are those first examined here. Important for his development was the intense exchange of ideas with his brother Gerhard. For both brothers, the roots of radicalism lay in the dramatic years of the First World War, which deprived them of hopes for a future. The structure of this radicalism drew them close together while at the same time their views became increasingly incompatible. In order to understand adequately the importance of both their mutual influence and their differentiation, the first part of this book focuses on the brothers' development. This approach also compensates for the fact that little is known about Werner's youth, and few sources are available, with the exception of the letters to his brother Gerhard. As a result, this first part often presents itself as a biography of both brothers.
The second part takes a look at the public figure of the young and successful politician Scholem, who was constantly forced to negotiate his self-image as a Communist with his outward image as a Jew. Not only was he accused of being too young and inexperienced, he was also criticized for his Jewish origins, which were apparently evident in both his name and his purportedly "typical" Jewish physiognomy. Even though he went on the offensive in countering each of these anti-Semitic attacks, they did not abate. On the contrary, they only became more encompassing and universal. Werner Scholem's early and massive criticism of the Stalinization of the German Communist movement not only resulted in his expulsion from the party but also saddled him with the reputation of a dissident incapable of allegiance, loyalty, and party discipline, much like that of his role model Leon Trotsky.
The third and final part of this book starts in the winter of 1933. Werner Scholem was among the first to be arrested under the National Socialist dictatorship, a circumstance that was very much a consequence of his political role in the Weimar Republic, as was his extraordinarily complex and grievous story of persecution. Ostracized as a dissident by a great majority of his former comrades, he could count almost solely on his wife, his children, and the Scholem family: Emmy, Betty, and Gershom Scholem sought help in every conceivable direction in their effort to secure his release.
The epilogue of his story—and hence the conclusion of this book—begins with his murder in Buchenwald concentration camp in June 1940. For Emmy Scholem and her two daughters, the memory of the man who was her husband and their father played and plays a defining role. This was also true for Gershom Scholem, whose affinity with the messianic movements of the seventeenth century was rooted to no small degree in the fascination that his numerous Jewish contemporaries felt for Communism.
The finished puzzle of this biography is now ready to be presented. After being shifted around a bit, the various pieces have each found their proper place. To return to Stevenson, a biography can never be completed in the way that a novel comes to its definite end. However—with a nod to our constant fascination with the "incurable illogicalities" of a life—in any event such an ending would not be in line with the biographical intention of this book.