New book about “The Women of the Feuchtwanger Family” – Munich

The men of the Feuchtwanger family? Who else would come to mind other than Lion, the author of such important novels as “Success”, “Exile” and “Jud Süß”? To be honest, no one. Because who has penetrated as deeply into the Feuchtwanger dynastic network as Heike Specht, to whom one would probably only have to hand a roll of continuous paper and she would certainly be able to effortlessly trace the extensive family tree of this impressive Jewish-Bavarian family. And would have a story ready for every Feuchtwanger. After all, in 2004, as a student at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, she was awarded the State Capital’s Prize for her dissertation on the Feuchtwangers.

Proven Feuchtwanger expert: Author Heike Specht has researched the Jewish-Bavarian family from which the writer Lion Feuchtwanger emerged. (Photo: Mirjam Kluka / Piper)

Twenty years have passed since then. Munich student Heike Specht has become a historian, literary scholar and accomplished author who now lives in Zurich. Her meticulously researched dissertation, in which she accompanies the Feuchtwangers through the 19th and 20th centuries, was published by Wallstein Verlag in 2006. This was followed by books about film greats such as Curd Jürgens and Lilli Palmer or about the first ladies in German politics since 1949. And now – they obviously won’t let her go – her “untold story” about “The Women of the Feuchtwanger Family” has been published by Munich-based Piper Verlag.

Really so untold? The astonishing thing is that women from the Feuchtwanger clan have left even clearer traces than the men, apart from Lion. First and foremost his wife Marta, alongside Alma Mahler-Werfel and Katia Mann one of the grandes dames of “New Weimar”, the German-speaking exile colony in Pacific Palisades on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Books have been written about the Munich native who saved her husband’s life several times, was the first proofreader of his manuscripts, furnished villas for him and outlived him by almost 30 years. For example, Manfred Flügge’s “The Four Lives of Marta Feuchtwanger”.

And there is her autobiography “Just a Woman”, published in 1983, the title alone is a coquettish understatement. There is no other way to put it: if you read the adventurous memories of the fearless, unorthodox Marta parallel to the diary entries of her husband, “A Life as Intense as Possible” (Aufbau Verlag 2018), Lion Feuchtwanger appears to be a rather pale figure: someone who complains about prostate pain and lists his constant sexual adventures as meticulously as an accountant.

Lion Feuchtwanger (1884–1958) owes his life to the courageous efforts of his wife, who rescued him from internment camps. (Photo: Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo)

In Heike Specht’s book about the Feuchtwanger women (a family tree would have been very helpful, by the way), Marta is one of three female voices “who provide snapshots from the perspective of the early 1940s and thus repeatedly break through the chronological narrative of almost two centuries of family history,” as the author describes the DNA of her book. The other two women who speak from off-screen are the gynecologist and Zionist Rahel Straus, who in 1900 was the first woman to study at the Medical Faculty of the University of Heidelberg, received her doctorate and married into the Munich Feuchtwanger family. And Felice Schragenheim, who became famous through Erica Fischer’s book “Aimée and Jaguar” and Maria Schrader’s portrayal in the film of the same name. She, Lion’s Berlin niece, is one of those members of the Feuchtwanger family who, unlike Marta or Rahel, could not flee to America or what was then Palestine, but perished in the Shoah.

In 1908, Rahel Straus (1880–1963) was the first female doctor to have received her training at a German university and the third female doctor to open her own practice in Munich. (Photo: Wikimedia commons/Stadtarchiv Karlsruhe/public domain)

In October 2023, Heike Specht is, as she says in the foreword, sitting on the final chapter of her book. “The part that is the hardest.” The part that she has been dreading for months. Because this family, which was steadily improving despite all the turmoil of the times, near-bankruptcies, anti-Semitic rejection and personal tragedies, was deprived of all hope of a future in Germany, in Bavaria, in Munich in the 1930s and 1940s. But now the film breaks, the screen goes black. Because while Specht is writing about how the Feuchtwangers flee into exile or are murdered, the Hamas massacre takes place in Israel. And brings the story of Rahel, Felice and all the others very close up. The “safe distance”, says the author, “was now gone.”

In the book, however, Specht zooms back – always with a well-founded historical context – to the forefathers of the Feuchtwanger dynasty: to Hanna, who came from Vienna to Fürth in Franconia at the end of the 18th century and married Jakow Schulhof. Her children then bore the surname Feuchtwanger, after the family’s place of origin. Hanna came from an influential Jewish family, so she was a brilliant match, as was Fanny Wassermann, who married her son Seligman Feuchtwanger in 1818 and toiled alongside her husband in the office like a mother-in-law. A working mom with a double, even multiple burden. Fanny, who is now considered the real matriarch of the family, gave birth to 18 children. Until she reached menopause, she was pregnant almost every 15 months.

Menstruation, miscarriages, childbirth, discharge, contraception. Heike Specht describes in detail what a woman’s life was like in an Orthodox Jewish family at that time. All the rules and rituals surrounding the Nidda, the time when women are considered unclean and are not allowed to have sex until they are washed clean in the ritual bath, the mikveh. Specht writes that these rules could certainly be seen as misogynistic, but when it came to infections, they were also “a kind of life insurance” for women for a long time.

Generations of Feuchtwangers will cling to Orthodox Judaism, albeit a self-confidently Bavarian-Baroque variant, even later in the dazzling royal city of Munich, where Fanny’s descendants achieved wealth and prestige as artificial butter, i.e. margarine, manufacturers, among other things. Smart marriage policies and dowries often boost or save the men’s business. Even in Lion Feuchtwanger’s generation – he had eight siblings – women’s lives in the extended family seemed to be defined in this way. Rahel Straus, who fought hard to study medicine, also later raised five children alongside her exhausting job in practice. And yet, writes Specht, she already had a modern marriage that was more than a reproductive union.

Felice Schragenheim (1922–1944) was Lion Feuchtwanger’s niece; her life was made into a film by Max Färberböck in 1999 based on Erica Fischer’s book “Aimée and Jaguar”. (Photo: private)

The sporty, clever Marta, who was always drawn to the mountains to ski and who liked to swim so far out in the sea that the shore was barely visible, who had to bury her only child and had an open marriage with her Lion, although he probably defined it more openly than she did. Or Felice Schragenheim, who loved a woman who, in a photo in the book, is passionately kissing her lover Lilly Wust. One last snapshot: when she returned from this swimming trip, the Gestapo was waiting for her.

Rahel, Marta, Felice – what would Fanny Feuchtwanger have thought of her descendants? A photograph of her has also been preserved, from the time when the illuminated world began and no one smiled into the camera. She sits there in a strict fit, a small woman in her sixties, her high forehead under a ruffled cap. With her left arm relaxed on a table, her posture signals one thing above all: a self-assured authority. Fanny’s direct, vacuum-filled gaze was never directed at us, and yet we want to read something hidden in her face, to create a feedback loop. “Fanny probably couldn’t have imagined the abyss into which her granddaughters and great-granddaughters would have to look over a hundred years later,” Heike Specht can only speculate. Her book is, in any case, a wonderful dedication to Fanny and all the other Feuchtwanger women, past and future.

“The Women of the Feuchtwanger Family”, Heike Specht in conversation with Amelie Fried, Wed., 26 June, 7 p.m., Munich Literature House, Salvatorplatz 1, tickets at www.literaturhaus-muenchen.de

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