The source presented is an excerpt from a life history interview given by Steffi Wittenberg (1926-2015) on January, 5 and 8 and 19 July 1995 for the Workshop of Memory Werkstatt der Erinnerung, the oral history archive of the Research Centre for Contemporary History Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg. The 68 or 69 year old talks about how her mother Margot Hammerschlag coped with the situation in emigration in Uruguay. Steffi Wittenberg’s husband Kurt Wittenberg, who knew the Hammerschlag family from his youth in the German-Jewish community in Montevideo, was also present at the interview. Since their joint return to Germany in 1951, the couple lived in Hamburg.
The interview, conducted by Sybille Baumbach, has a total length of 245 minutes and is available as audio and transcript. It is preserved in the Workshop of Memory Werkstatt der Erinnerung with other documents such as the booklet from which the poem “Familie Hammerschlag” [Family Hammerschlag] comes.
Steffi Wittenberg grew up in the Hamburg district of Harvestehude as the child of a liberal Jewish family. Her brother Gerd was two and a half years older. It was only when the National Socialists came to power that belonging to Judaism became more important for the family. Steffi Wittenberg herself experienced early discrimination in 1934 at the Jahnschule (now Ida Ehre Schule), which she attended. Probably in reaction to the “Nuremberg Race Laws”, her parents transferred her to the Israelite Girls’ School Israelitische Töchterschule in autumn 1935. Here she experienced the so-called Polish Action of October 1938, the horrors of the November Pogrom and the subsequent mass flight from Germany. Her father and brother were already in Uruguay at the time. Steffi Wittenberg was in the 8th grade in school when she followed them with her mother in December 1939.
When the National Socialists came to power, Steffi Wittenberg’s mother immediately recognized the danger and embarked on a lengthy search for means of escape. She eventually bribed the Uruguayan consul to obtain visas for the entire family. Because Margot Hammerschlag considered “the men” to be most at risk, Wittenbergs’s father and brother went ahead in October 1938; they had already left the country when Jewish men were taken to concentration camps and mistreated during the November pogrom. Steffi Wittenberg and her mother stayed behind to sell what remained of the household. But when the bribery of the consul was discovered, the Uruguayan government declared their visas invalid. In this dramatic situation, Steffi Wittenberg and her mother became companions.
At the beginning of the Second World War on September 1st, 1939, Margot Hammerschlag despaired and lost hope for a common future for the family. Her daughter took over the part of strengthening her mother’s courage, which Steffi Wittenberg talks about elsewhere in the interview. From a contemporary perspective, the poem “Familie Hammerschlag,” [Family Hammerschlag] which she had written for Mother’s Day barely four months earlier, provides vivid insight into her ability to convey confidence. On the eighth day of the war, she began a journal – probably for her own self-assurance – in which she entered the poem, among other things, writing “Erinnerungen für Steffi Hammerschlag [Memories for Steffi Hammerschlag]” on its cover.
If the poem and the interview excerpt convey the image of a mother-daughter relationship characterized by mutual understanding and loyalty, this must be questioned. For both drew different conclusions from their respective life experiences and saw themselves unable to accept those of the other.
Before 1933, the Hammerschlag family had lived in well-situated circumstances; the father had been co-owner of a commission business for leather goods. In Montevideo, the family initially supported itself by selling homemade chocolates. Later, the parents ran a small linen store. In 1940, Steffi Wittenberg describes her mother in her poems as “so beautiful, so nice, as well as smart,” noting that “some people even call you senorita!” At first, their relationship remained close in Uruguay. When the daughter decided at the age of 21 to follow her future husband, Kurt Wittenberg, to Houston / Texas, Margot Hammerschlag supported the plan, hesitantly, but determined not to oppose her daughter’s happiness. The first cracks in their relationship appeared when Steffi and Kurt Wittenberg, involved in the civil rights movement fighting discrimination against Black and People of Color, were publicly drawn into the political mills of anti-communist agitation of the McCarthy era. When Steffi Wittenberg wrote to her parents about what happened, they replied that she had taken a wrong turn in life.
After her return to Germany, Steffi Wittenberg and her husband became active in the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes. She also participated in a political cabaret, later became involved in Chile solidarity work and cared for Chilean refugees. Her activities also included supporting families of political persecutees in Uruguay with the human rights organization Amnesty International. Especially between mother and daughter, political topics led to heated arguments at family gatherings over decades. From Steffi Wittenberg’s point of view, her mother was not able to transfer her own experiences of suffering to others and to derive political solidarity from them. Margot Hammerschlag lacked any understanding for what she possibly saw as her daughter’s willingness to plunge “headlong,” as it were, into sociopolitical disputes when she could have led a quiet life, escaping the fundamental threat posed by the National Socialists.
It was not easy for Steffi Wittenberg, who felt that “nothing really bad had ever happened” to her, to talk about her life as a contemporary witness. She felt that others had more to share. This included her close friend, Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejarano, with whom she co-founded the Auschwitz Committee in the Federal Republic Auschwitz-Komitee in der Bundesrepublik e.V. in 1986. What Steffi Wittenberg had experienced herself probably only appeared to her as worth describing in the context of the 1984 publication of Ursula Randt’s book on the history of the Israelite Girls’ School Israelitische Töchterschule . She had taken an active part in its preparation.
She spoke about herself for the first time in March 1984, at the 4th Hamburg Women’s Week during an event titled “Frauen kämpfen für die Befreiung – gestern und heute. Das Beispiel des antifaschistischen Widerstandes von Frauen in Nazideutschland und in Lateinamerika. Zeitzeuginnen berichten” [Women Fighting for Liberation – Yesterday and Today. The example of women’s anti-fascist resistance in Nazi Germany and in Latin America. Contemporary witnesses report], which included speakers from Hamburg, Chile and Uruguay. Steffi Wittenberg had been part of the planning group. In the discussion that followed the reports, she introduced herself as “a child of Jewish persecutees” who had found refuge from the Nazis in Uruguay and told of her experience. A transcription of her speech was included in a brochure accompanying the event. The editors began by emphasizing the special situation of women, who “always have to take care of their families and children as well. VVN Bund der Antifaschisten (ed.), Frauen kämpfen für die Befreiung - gestern und heute, Hamburg 1984, p. 2. Steffi Wittenberg could have picked up on this in her contribution. The slogan of the women’s movement that “the private is political” would also have suggested that Margot Hammerschlag’s actions at the time should be brought into focus. But Steffi Wittenberg left her mother’s initiative to escape unmentioned. Why? Perhaps because the topic of “resistance” was the focus of the event and had a different connotation. She also painfully remembered how her parents, who were visiting Hamburg in September 1973, had welcomed the fall of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, and – as Steffi Wittenberg put it – “did not understand that fascism was now coming, although they had experienced it themselves!” (Interview on 4/10/2014 (Jürgen Duenbostel, Eduardo Astorga).
When Steffi Wittenberg appeared as a contemporary witness over the next few years, she always spoke about her mother as the driving force behind their timely escape. In doing so, she emphasized that Margot Hammerschlag had saved the lives of the entire family. Whenever someone praised Margot Hammerschlag’s actions as political farsightedness, Steffi Wittenberg objected, because for her the attribution “political” did not apply to her mother at all. She had simply been particularly fearful and had been able to imagine how far those in power would go, according to her daughter.
At the time of the interview, the tensions with her mother were far in the past. Margot Hammerschlag had died eleven years earlier in Montevideo in the early summer of 1984. Steffi Wittenberg describes the role of her mother in building an economic existence for the family after emigration with great differentiation, eager to honor her mother’s achievement. In the interview passage selected here she explains: “At the time when it was really important to survive, my mother had more initiative and could manage better.” The “better” refers to the father, who had difficulties organizing the parental business. His initiative was “quite broken after his persecution” in Germany.
Steffi Wittenberg always worked, even when her two sons were young. This undoubtedly contributed to seeing the maternal achievement in building up the business so clearly. When asked by the interviewer, she was able to immediately identify causes for the difference in parental abilities during this period of new beginnings. Probably not least because of her experience as an active member of the Marie Schlei Association Marie-Schlei-Verein>>, which promotes women’s self-help projects in Latin America, among other places, and brings women into professional activities, she cited female potential in traditional role distribution: Women were brought up to “adapt to the man,” which made it easier for them, if necessary, to “adapt better to the circumstances as well.” Men, on the other hand, are “wedded to” their professional activity and are much more dependent on the continuation of the external environment.
Recognizing that there are women-specific causes for the ability to rise above when needed reaches into an important policy area. It served as Steffi Wittenberg’s frame of reference when she described the maternal feat of economic survival. This is remarkable because she persistently denied a political dimension to the preceding maternal tour de force of getting the family out of Nazi Germany. Perhaps this was not only because for her, who even as a woman well into her 70s regretted not being able to block the street herself in protest against a demonstration by neo-Nazis, political action meant actively resisting.
Interviews have a special value for the study of women’s roles in Jewish history because they provide insights into self-perceptions. When examining daughter-mother relationships, it is important to keep in mind that they can be a sensitive web of changing experiences with each other. In the case of Steffi Wittenberg and her mother, a formative experience had been the time of separation from her father and brother during the escape from Germany, strikingly documented in the poem “Family Hammerschlag” [Familie Hammerschlag]. At the beginning of the war, the roles of mother and daughter were reversed. What mark might it leave when, as a 13-year-old, one finds oneself in the position of absorbing one’s mother’s fear? To be the one who has to project strength, to give confidence when the mother does not feel able to do so in view of the circumstances? When Steffi Wittenberg says later in the interview that “parents are more emotionally dependent on their children than vice versa,” this may have had something to do with her memories of herself and her mother at the beginning of the war, in addition to her own feelings as a mother.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the material is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute it in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.
Erika Hirsch, Dr. phil., was director of the memorial and educational sight "Israelitische Töchterschule" in Hamburg from 1989 until 2018. Currently she is working on a biography of Steffi Wittenberg.
Erika Hirsch, “When it really mattered ...” - A Daughter’s Memories of Her Mother (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 15, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-282.en.v1> [October 28, 2021].