As a child, Katharina Feil learned nothing about the Jewish history of her family. The Second World War was a taboo topic for her parents – as so often in Germany.
In 1978, at the age of 18, while working as an au pair in Boston, she attended a lecture by Holocaust survivor Erich Goldhagen at Harvard. Feil’s first encounter with a Shoah eyewitness had far-reaching consequences: she began collecting information about the Nazi era in Germany. And she decided to study Judaic Studies. Her mother didn’t seem enthusiastic about her plan. “Why are you doing this?” she was asked. Unaware of her Jewish roots, Feil also traveled to Israel as part of her studies, which in turn worried her mother. “She had this completely irrational assumption for me that I would convert,” Feil wondered.
Feil’s mother wanted to rise in the League of German Girls
This initially diffuse interest turned into a fascination. Her mother also became more involved in conversations and hinted at family history. She revealed to her daughter that she was a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM) and was striving for a leading role there – but “couldn’t” do so for unspecified reasons.
“She wanted to talk, but as soon as I got curious and wanted to know more, she kind of closed up,” she says. But the door to the mysterious family history was already ajar. And so began a mission that decades later her brother Julian would describe as her “life’s work”.
Family with Jewish roots
One day, Feil’s mother revealed to her daughter that her great-grandfather was Jewish. Her mother, who had been baptized Lutheran, had not known about this as a child. It was only revealed to her when she tried to take a leadership role in the BDM. For this she had to prove that she was “Aryan”.
Due to her father’s Jewish roots, Feil’s mother could not provide this proof, and by this time she was already so much in the public eye that her mother feared that someone might find out that she was not an “Aryan” German. The family therefore decided to send her to a boarding school in East Germany. “My grandmother seemed to know exactly who to call,” says Katharina Feil. These connections provided her mother with protection from the Nazis.
After years of hinting at her past but never revealing everything, Katharina Feil’s mother gave her daughter the birth certificates of two great-grandaunts Feil had never heard of: Betty and Sophie Wolff. Two artists who died in Berlin in 1941 and 1944.
Betty Wolff lived and worked in this house at times alongside Max Pechstein, among others. Three years after her death, the house was destroyed in a fire.
Feil found out that her great-grandaunts, who were never talked about in her family, were two important artists of the Berlin Secession – and that at a time when women were not yet allowed to attend art schools.
Betty Wolff was a self-taught painter. Her sister Sophie was best known as a sculptor. Their resumes were poorly documented. Feil found out that they had contacts with Heinrich Heine’s descendants as well as with Auguste Rodin. And so Feil had enough clues to get a picture of her life.
The sculptress Sophie Wolff
She came across Sophie Wolff’s name in the diaries of Käthe Kollwitz, whose graphics and sculptures can now be seen in the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin and Cologne, among other places. She reported, for example, on a joint visit to Auguste Rodin in his Paris studio. In Kollwitz’ diary one can read that Sophie Wolff “had very good success at the Paris exhibitions of the “Salon des Independants”.
“Just before World War I broke out, she came back to Germany and stayed here, much to her detriment,” Kollwitz continued. She did not succeed in finding anywhere near as good a position in Berlin as in Paris. Unfortunately she didn’t get the recognition that her very good sculptural and graphic work deserved.”
It was not until 2018 that the Kolbe Museum in Berlin rediscovered the sculptor and showed her sculptures in an exhibition in 2018, which was a homage to the little-known female side of the Berlin Secession.
So it happened that not only Katharina Feil tried to lay a stumbling block (a commemorative plaque laid in the ground by the artist Gunter Demnig, editor’s note) for Sophie Wolff, but also the Kolbe Museum, which had already submitted an application .
The painter Betty Wolff
Betty Wolff, the older of the two sisters, painted portraits. She took lessons from Karl Stauffer-Bern, a Swiss portraitist who, at the time, also taught Kollwitz and other prominent aspiring artists at the painting and drawing school of the Munich Artists’ Association taught.
Only a few months ago, Feil learned that a painting of her great-grandaunt by Adelheid Bleichröder, descendant of Gerson von Bleichröder, who had once worked with Otto von Bismarck and was one of the most prominent Jews in Berlin, had been donated to the Jewish Museum Berlin.
“Humiliated / Disenfranchised” is written on Betty Feodore Wolff’s stumbling block in Berlin Schöneberg
Tragic fate of the Wolff sisters
Both great-grandaunts were well connected and, before the start of the war, belonged to a number of artists’ circles in Berlin, such as the Association of Female Artists in Berlin or the Lyceum Club. In 1933 Sophie and Betty Wolff had to leave the association because of their Jewish roots.
According to Josephine Gabler, director of the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin, after 1945 nobody cared about preserving the work of Jewish female artists of the first half of the century. For decades, her life and work were largely forgotten. According to Gabler, it was only in the 1990s that some researchers began to look into their legacy. But that was almost half a century later. Both of Katharina Feil’s great-grandaunts died during the war.
These two sculptures by Sophie Wolff have already been seen in the Kolbe Museum – and most recently when the stumbling blocks were laid
A culture of silence
As Katharina Feil continued to research, she began to understand why her family history—glamorous as some of her great-grandaunts’ accomplishments were—became taboo. “As I understand it today, the silence my generation grew up with was a survival technique,” she said at the ceremony in Berlin at the end of May, when the stumbling blocks were laid in honor of her aunts. “Silence guaranteed our safety during the Nazi era. Later, silence was a sign of guilt. Some family members survived the fascist system relatively unscathed by bribing the security forces. Others obviously suffered greatly.” This robbed Feil’s family of any pride in their lineage.
Hans-Peter Frank laid the stumbling blocks in memory of Sophie and Betty Wolff: here the one for Sophie Wolff in Berlin Charlottenburg
Katharina Feil’s research into the life of her forgotten great-grandaunts and the stumbling blocks with their names, which are now permanently anchored in the Berlin pavement, ensure that Betty and Sophie Wolff’s legacy will no longer be forgotten.
Adaptation from the English by Bettina Baumann.