The patron of the arts, Ida Dehmel (1870–1942), kept a diary during her round the world trip on board the cruiser “Reliance”in 1936. On June 11, 1936, upon her return home to Blankenese, she jotted down an addendum. On this final page she describes the sense of happiness which she felt on the sea and addressed what for her was its essential difference from familiar land. At the time of her writing, the Reich Literature Chamber had banned Ida Dehmel from pursuing independent activity as an author. The brief diary that reports on the destinations during her six-month journey exists in several typewritten copies on thin paper, presumably transcriptions of handwritten originals, bound in marbled covers, that have remained in private hands. For Ida Dehmel, a friend of the arts who came from a Jewish home, sea travels offered the possibility of distracting herself and escaping, at least temporarily, the ostracism of National Socialist Hamburg. Emigration was never a consideration for her. The addendum to the diary bears witness to a pleasure trip in the face of danger.
Ida Dehmel (1870–1942) was an important patron of the arts, feminist, and philanthropist, who was engaged far beyond Hamburg in a variety of ways. Coming from Bingen on the Rhine, she had already led a progressive salon in Berlin, before she, after a lengthy trip in 1901, settled in Blankenese, a suburb of Hamburg. As the wife and muse of the then famous poet Richard Dehmel (1863–1920), she stood amidst a European network of famed artists of the day. Her home, and from 1912 the shared artist’s house in Blankenese, became the meeting place of nationally significant creative artists, among them: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Liebermann, Peter Behrens, Samuel Fischer, Alma Mahler, Conrad Ansorge, Max Reger, Julie Wolfthorn, Richard und Elena Luksch, Walther Rathenau, Gerhart Hauptmann, Alfred Mombert and Stefan Zweig. Ida Dehmel conducted a workshop for artistic beadwork, was the co-founder of the “Hamburger Frauenclub” [Hamburg Women’s Club] fought for women’s suffrage in the “Norddeutscher Verband für das Frauenstimmrecht” [North German Association for Women’s Right to Vote], and led, with Dr. Rosa Schapire, the “Frauenbund zur Förderung deutscher bildender Kunst” [Women’s Union for the Advancement of the German Visual Arts]. Following the death of Richard Dehmel in 1920, she preserved their home as a site of memory for the writer, staging lectures, concerts, and guided tours there. In 1926 she established the interdisciplinary women artists collective, GEDOK, which quite soon had local chapters throughout the country. After 1933, because of her Jewish origins, Ida Dehmel was gradually prohibited from all public activities. Socially isolated and increasingly lonely, she withdrew into the Dehmel House. Between 1933 and 1938, she undertook several vacation voyages, but always returned to Blankenese, where in 1942, old and ill, she took her own life. Preserved in the “Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg” [State and University Library Hamburg] is the Dehmel Archive, dedicated to the life’s work of her and her husband Richard Dehmel; it represents a mirror for German-Jewish cultural life in the period between 1890 and 1920.
On January 9, 1936, after a stormy crossing, Ida Dehmel set sail from New York on the 3-propeller luxury steamer “Reliance”, belonging to the “Hamburg-Amerika-Linie” [Hamburg America Line] (HAPAG). In 139 days, the 600-foot ship logged more than 37,000 miles around the world, before arriving back in New York on May 26, 1936. Stops along the voyage were, among others, Trinidad, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Madagascar, Bombay, Singapore, Java, Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, Hawaii, Honolulu, San Francisco, Panama and Cuba. In her travel diary, Ida Dehmel captured impressions of the places visited. Menus, program notes, and excursion offerings bear witness to an opulent life on board. Abundant delicacies were served up, elaborate festive evenings were staged, and guided tours were offered. Such a comfortable existence as part of a large community was not longer possible for Ida Dehmel in Hamburg. Apparently, in the exceptional condition of this luxury cruise, the exclusion of Jews was not practiced.
Ida Dehmel’s descriptions of her itinerary alternate between personal impressions and critical observations on the one hand; on the other, and simultaneously, she is astonished and enthusiastic, overpowered by the beauties of the visited places. These richly detailed narratives she addresses to her husband, who died 16 years previously but with whom, in spirit, she continued to share her life. On board, she got to know the somewhat younger sculptor, Bernhard Sopher, who became her loyal travel companion. Following his occupational ban in Düsseldorf, Sopher emigrated to the USA. Aboard the “Reliance”, he offered his work for sale and did commissions for American passengers. Aside from a few comments about the American women, Ida Dehmel devotes only a few summary sentences concerning the tourist society in which she moved on board the ship. Among them there were 82 Germans, approximately 130 Americans, 20 Englishmen, 15 Frenchmen, 3 Danes, and a Romanian. “Among the Germans, 6 were of the “150 percent” variety. They did not introduce themselves to me; we did not greet each other. That was not a matter of antisemitism for them; they were on the best of terms with the Berlin confectioner N, and others of his ilk. From the start, the Americans, with their casual conversational manner, had the advantage. They were on this trip in order to enjoy themselves. For many of the rest of us, it was a matter of escaping from ourselves or our cares for a while.” (p. 25) To this latter group Ida Dehmel also probably belonged; apparently, her Jewish origin played scarcely any role—at least not in her travel diary.
At the writing of the addendum to her travel diary, Ida Dehmel recalled the exalting feeling that she had experienced on the sea. In this travel mood, she wrote, everything seemed possible. “All the senses, all the spiritual powers, all the possible feelings, all the receptive organs were at the ready.” (p. 26) For quite some time at home in Blankenese everything was no longer possible. Ida Dehmel had had to resign the chairmanship of the GEDOK which she had founded; she could no longer publish her own writings; guests of the Dehmel House were threatened and the artworks and books of friends were classified as “degenerate.” Many went into exile. Thus, the colorful, lively opulence of the cities and landscapes of the voyage stood in stark contrast to the ever more dreary daily life in National Socialist Blankenese. All the more did Ida Dehmel try to enjoy the sights afforded by her great travels: “Drink, eyes, what the eyelash beholds / Of the golden plenty of the world! The last two lines of Gottfried Keller’s “Abendlied” [Evening Song]” Certainly, she would have most gladly resumed her travels after her return. But they were not a way into emigration for her. Neither the beauty of Rio de Janeiro, nor relatives settled in America gave her impetus to settle a safe distance away from German Jew-hatred.
For Ida Dehmel, greater than the pleasure of seeing distant lands was the happiness of traveling upon the sea. “We live upon the sea as if in another world,” she wrote and was not alluding to better treatment on board ship, but rather recognized in the beating of the ocean’s waves a vibrancy that was missing in the contemporary world “which silently just lets things happen.” Several, slightly varying typewritten transcriptions of the travel diary should ensure that these thoughts will endure and be made accessible to others. A copy is held in the Dehmel House, which following her death has been maintained by the family as she would have wanted—in the firm belief that the City of Hamburg will one day assume responsibility for this place of cultural memory.
Ida Dehmel’s recorded travel observations reveal how Germans of Jewish origin attempted to blot out the dark side of their existence after 1933 and, at least for a limited time, lead an unencumbered life. To that end a ship upon the high seas afforded a protected space, one both geographically and inwardly distant from the homeland.
The name of the steamer, “Reliance,” means in German not only reliance and trust, but also dependence. Thus, in several respects it seemed to reflect the moment: the happiness of this carefree time on the sea was dependent on circumstances that no longer existed for Ida Dehmel on land at home. There it became increasingly dangerous to rely on trust.
From today’s perspective it is simply unfathomable that a Jewish woman in 1936 would not use a trip around the world to save herself by going into exile. In that situation, the momentous step of leaving home lay not so close at hand. Even if she were aware of the growing pressure at home, for Ida Dehmel, this unyielding and profoundly German-feeling woman, emigration was not an option.
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Carolin Vogel, Dr. phil., born 1973, is a cultural scientist who did her doctorate at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt Oder. She is a Project Leader of the Hermann Reemtsma Foundation in Hamburg and Board Member of the Dehmel House Foundation. Her research interests are, especially, Richard and Ida Dehmel, the arts around 1900, the homes of artists and writers, cultural heritage and memory.
Carolin Vogel, “We live upon the sea as if in another world.” An Addendum to Ida Dehmel’s Diary of her Round the World Trip aboard the “Reliance” 1936 (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, April 14, 2020. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-260.en.v1> [January 23, 2022].