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Unravelling a WWII family secret

Print edition : Aug 11, 2022 T+T-

Unravelling a WWII family secret

Katharina Feil speaks in Berlin at a Stolperstein ceremony commemorating her great-great-aunts Sophie and Betty.

Katharina Feil speaks in Berlin at a Stolperstein ceremony commemorating her great-great-aunts Sophie and Betty.

By investigating her family’s history under the Nazis, Katharina Feil rediscovered two trailblazing female artists.

Katharina Feil didn’t know anything about her family’s Jewish history growing up in southern Germany. The Second World War wasn’t something she spoke about with her parents — the subject was touchy. In 1978, at the age of 18, she traveled as an au pair to Boston, where she attended a lecture by Holocaust survivor Erich Goldhagen at Harvard.

As a child who had grown up in Baden-Württemberg, she had never met any Jewish survivors. The experience spiked something in her, and she started reading everything she could about the Nazi period. When she arrived home the following year, she told her mother she wanted to study Jewish Studies for her bachelor’s degree. At this point, she still had no idea what her family had experienced during the war.

Her mother wasn’t keen on the idea. “She was like, ‘Why are you doing that?’” Feil told DW. Her studies included a trip to Israel, which she said made her mother very anxious for reasons she did not yet understand. “I realized that she was really very nervous … there was this, to me, totally irrational assumption I would convert. Why? I didn’t know,” she said.

Over the course of the following years, after Feil arrived home safely from Israel and continued with her studies, her mother seemed to start accepting the fact that her daughter’s fascination with Jewish history wasn’t going to go away. Eventually, she started opening up, dropping little hints about the family history, like the fact she’d been part of a Nazi youth organization and had wanted to become a leader but “couldn’t.”

When Feil tried to press her mother on these comments, she’d divert. “She chose to talk, but as soon as I started being curious and wanting to know more, she kind of clammed up,” she said. But the dam had already started leaking. And so began a mission that her brother Julian, decades later, would call her “life’s work.”

Hidden Jewish roots

Feil’s mother eventually disclosed to her daughter that her grandfather had been Jewish. As a child, her mother, who had been baptized as Lutheran, also hadn’t known about her Jewish roots. Her background wasn’t shared with her until she tried to become a leader in the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM), a Nazi youth organization for young girls. In order to become a leader, she had to show evidence that she was “Aryan.”

She did not have that evidence because of her father’s Jewish roots, but at that point she had become active enough in public life for her mother to worry that someone would find out about her lack of a German citizenship card. It was decided that she’d be sent to live in a boarding school in eastern Germany. “My grandmother seemed to have known exactly who to call,” Feil said. These connections offered her mother protection from the Nazis — a protection that however wasn’t extended to everyone in the family.

Once the war ended, Feil’s mother and her family moved to southern Germany, where they lived for the rest of their lives. After years of dropping hints about her past, but never disclosing everything, her mother gave her birth certificates for two great-great-aunts that Feil had never heard of: Betty and Sophie Wolff, unmarried artists who died in Berlin in 1941 and 1944.

Artistic trailblazers

At first, Feil didn’t have any idea what to do with the documents. But after years of digging, she found out her relatives, who had never been discussed in her family, had been some of the leading female artists of the Berlin Secession art movement, at a time when women weren’t allowed to attend official art schools.

Betty Wolff was a painter who learned her craft by copying the old masters, while her sister Sophie worked in many mediums, but became known for her sculptures. Although not many records on the two women remain, Feil found out that the artists had rubbed elbows with personalities, whose stories were well documented — from the German writer Anselma Heine to leading French artist Auguste Rodin — offering enough clues for her to string together a sense of what their lives had looked like.

Sophie, the sculptor

Sophie’s name had been mentioned in the diaries of Käthe Kollwitz, one of the best-known female artists of the German Secession, whose graphic arts and sculptures are still displayed today across Germany. In her diaries, Kollwitz wrote about visiting Auguste Rodin, together with Sophie Wolff at his studio in Paris. She also noted that Sophie was “very well thought of among the Paris Independents.”

“Shortly before the outbreak of the World War she returned to Germany to stay,” Kollwitz wrote. “This move was greatly to her disadvantage. She did not succeed in getting in Berlin nearly as good a position as the one she had had in Paris, and did not receive the recognition she deserved for her excellent sculpture and drawing.”

Kollwitz’s comments still ring true today: Despite being a well-recognized painter and sculptor of the time, Sophie Wolff’s work has been more or less forgotten; her legacy, erased. Little to Feil’s knowledge, curators at the Georg Kolbe Museum in Berlin were also interested in Sophie Wolff. They included her sculptures in a 2018 exhibition remembering the forgotten female art of the Berlin Secession.

When Katharina started making arrangements to lay a Stolperstein(or stumbling stone) for her relatives, she found out from the office that coordinates the commemorative project in Berlin that the Georg Kolbe Museum had already applied for a stone for Sophie Wolff. In Germany and around the world, there are over 90,000 brass stumbling stones that commemorate the lives of people who were persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

Betty, the painter

Betty Wolff, the older of the two sisters, painted portraits. She attended lessons with Karl Stauffer-Bern, a Swiss portraitist who also taught Kollwitz and other prominent budding female artists at the Painting and Drawing School of the Munich Artists’ Association.

Only a few months ago, Feil found out that a painting by Betty of Adelheid Bleichröder, a descendent of Gerson von Bleichröder, who had once worked with Otto von Bismarck and was one of the most prominent Jews in Berlin at the time, had been donated to Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The discovery made sense to Feil — she’d already found mention of Betty in a letter by Agathe Liepmann, a Bleichröder before marriage, in a Leo Baeck Institute archive.

Death during the war

Betty and Sophie Wolff had good connections and were part of a number of artistic circles in Berlin before the start of the war, such as the Association of Berlin Female Artists, the German Lyceum Club and the Women’s Art Association. However, in 1933, the women were forced to leave any professional organizations they were part of because of their Jewish roots.

After 1945, no one bothered trying to preserve the work of the female Jewish artists of the earlier half of the century, explained Josephine Gabler, director of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin. For decades, their lives and work were largely forgotten. By the 1990s, some researchers started looking into their legacies, she said. But after so many years, it was difficult to piece their stories together.

What is known is that the two women died during the war. Sophie died in 1944, shortly after being sent by ambulance in 1943 to a psychiatric hosptial in the Wittenau district of Berlin. Her death certificate, found in the basement of the hospital over half a century later, said that she had died a natural death. Betty died of a stroke in 1941, according to the death certificate signed by her sister-in-law, Irene Wolff.

A culture of silence

As Katharina Feil conducted her research, she started to make sense of why her family history — as illustrious as some of the achievements of her great-great-aunts were — was not discussed, and why she’d grown up more or less ignorant of her family past. “The silence my generation grew up with was, as I understand it today, a survival technique,” she said at the ceremony where Stolpersteine were laid in her aunts’ honour.“ Silence guaranteed our safety during the Nazi era. Later, the silence was a sign of guilt that some members of our family got through the fascist system relatively unscathed by bribing security, while others obviously suffered greatly.”

This guilt robbed Feil’s family of any of the pride they could have taken in their aunts’ artistic legacy. Although the surviving family members had been, in many ways, deeply marginalised, they’d also been granted enough privilege by the Nazis to play along. Katharina’s quest to understand the lives of her forgotten aunts, and the Stolpersteine now permanently brandishing their names in Berlin’s sidewalks, ensure their legacy won’t be forgotten any longer.