Sarah B. was sent to reform school by court order in August 1912 because she had been stigmatized as “morally corrupted,” in particular, youth welfare officers accused her of being “very sexually mature,” of lying and refusing to work, in other words, her behavior went against the grain of bourgeois morality. Moreover, her mother, Tanja B., who belonged to the working class, had entered into a relationship with a man from a bourgeois middle-class background who had a “legitimate” family. The source does not provide any information on whether he was already married when Tanja B. had a relationship with him or whether he married only after it had ended. What does become clear, however, is that Sarah became a pawn in her parents’ power struggle. As a Jewish girl, she was sent to the reform school in Plötzensee founded in 1902 by the German Israelite Community Association (DIGB) Deutsch-Israelitischer Gemeindebund, since denominational separation of correctional education had been ordered by the Prussian state. While Jewish institutions had to obey the general law, they also tried to reinforce the religious identity of their Jewish charges since some girls had strayed quite far from Judaism. Friday evenings and Jewish holidays were celebrated, the Shabbat was observed, and students attended synagogue. Naturally the food was kosher so that a stay at a Jewish institution was more expensive than at a non-Jewish one. So-called “Honorable Ladies” [Ehrendamen], i. e. the wives of the DIGB board members, volunteered to give religious instruction and hand out presents, especially for Hanukkah, as an expression of bourgeois charity. Very few professions were open to reform school youth, and the DIGB took charge of finding suitable placements for them in Jewish families or businesses. Behind this was the idea to keep them in the care of the Jewish community. However, due to the need for domestic servants in Jewish middle-class society, young girls often also served as cheap labor. The gender specific character of correctional education became particularly evident in the area of professional training. Regardless of the danger of sexual exploitation – which the girls were supposed to be protected from, after all – they were very often sent to work as domestic servants. In some cases, the attempt at dissimilation succeeded while other youths rejected it and instead hoped to integrate into mainstream society through marriage with a non-Jew.
Some Jewish parents did not oppose the order for correctional education and even voluntarily surrendered their children to an institution. This was especially the case if children did not meet their parents’ expectations and had attracted negative attention by stealing or associating with “bad company.” This was not the case with Tanja B. She and her daughter were very close – at least that was the assessment of the DIGB’s reform school board. Presumably, this was one reason why both mother and daughter refused the order for correctional education. The mother’s appeal was unsuccessful, however, therefore she accused the father of having manipulated the files. The conflict between the parents was not just a confrontation between mother and father, man and woman, but also between members of two different social classes since this was a middle-class father who had illegitimate children with a working class woman. Sarah had a younger brother named Jacob, who at least at this point was not sent to reform school because he had not shown any deviant behavior. This certainly was a question of age as well, so that Jacob was allowed to stay with his mother.
The mother saw herself as a victim of Sarah’s father, whose social position enabled him to exert his influence. However, the father hardly appears at all in the file. Except for his last name and profession there is no information on him whatsoever. It does appear that he was either concerned about his daughter’s welfare or his reputation though, since he tried to remove Sarah from her mother’s custody.
Overall, the mother struggled against the “welfare siege” [“fürsorgliche Belagerung”] – to use Ute Frevert’s term – not only by Jewish welfare organizations, but also by government authorities. In January 1913, for example, the director of public welfare in charge of this case accused the mother of pestering the Hamburg authorities in order to get her daughter out of reform school. He subsequently advised the DIGB not to be influenced by the mother’s threats. In numerous letters, the mother pointed out that this state intervention would necessarily have a negative impact on her daughter’s wellbeing since she had the “dire need” to “unburden herself” to her. The mother further made a connection between her daughter’s deviant behavior and her being sent to a reform school, as this quote shows: “If the inmate’s unwise behavior has given cause for complaints already – then this is only natural – Sarah is smart and has a sharp mind.” The mother also criticized the specific method of “education” at the institution to which Sarah had been taken. She mainly disapproved of the long working hours, the hard physical labor (cooking, laundering, and gardening) as well as the early rising and teaching of conformity with bourgeois morality. It seems that the mother felt sorry for her daughter because of the monotonous and hard work and rejected the class specific character of reform school. The mother’s opposition in turn met with disapproval from the DIGB since the purpose of reform schools was to train an obedient lower class which would not revolt against the professions dominated by the Jewish middle class.
This source illustrates both the class bias of reform schools and the revolt against it by the lower classes – especially by women who sought to live a self-determined life. Women in particular were subjected to the bourgeois double standard since men would have sexual relations with them, but not marry them. Tanja B. fought for custody of her children and refused to let either “the man who squired them” or the authorities tell her how to raise her children, Sarah and Jacob. Contrary to most middle class men who had illegitimate children with working class women, the father did show a certain interest in his daughter by acknowledging his paternity and taking a position in the matter of the daughter’s being sent to an institution and what her future would be. Yet she also became a pawn in the power struggle between her parents, who came from different class backgrounds, with her father being better able to assert his opinion due to his gender and middle class background.
When one of Sarah’s eyes had to be removed in November 1912, her mother’s outrage knew no limits since she had neither been informed nor asked for permission. She sued the surgeon who had operated on her daughter and threatened to sue the DIGB as well. The mother’s strong emotional reaction, dismissed as hysteria by authorities, was an indicator of her powerlessness and anger. In Sarah B.’s case, her mother’s rebellion lead to her desire – advised by her mother – to be christened, which the DIGB suspected to be a ploy to be able to go back to Hamburg. Both mother and daughter were quite creative in their resistance to orders issued by the welfare office. When Sarah was sent to Berlin for job training, her mother managed to meet her twice. She also gave her stamps so that they could keep up a secret correspondence. This case also highlights issues of working class Jewish identity, for the daughter – supposedly prompted by her mother – refused to remain in a Jewish institution and ran away from Plötzensee on July 3, 1914. In her statement to the government welfare office, she claimed she could not stand living among “sexually and morally corrupted girls.” Declaring she had converted to Christianity, she refused to remain in a Jewish institution, especially since she had not committed any wrongdoing and she was deeply hurt by being made to “sleep in barred cells” and live “behind barred windows.” As she was almost 15 years old now and therefore “had a more mature view on everything,” she felt compelled to stand up for her rights, “for it can surely be explained why my character, mental wellbeing and sensibilities are not improved by this environment.” Sarah’s statements also serve as an indicator of the hierarchy within the institution since she did not show any solidarity with her fellow inmates but rather felt superior to them, having in part internalized bourgeois attitudes and stigmatizing the other reform school inmates as “corrupted.” One of the reform school teachers criticized her explicitly for this attitude, letting her know that she was no better than the other girls even if her mother dressed better than theirs.
Sarah B. and her mother sought help from the welfare office and complained about the Jewish authorities, but they did not receive any help. Whether Sarah did indeed convert to Christianity – she stated her mother had raised her in the Christian faith – cannot be ascertained from her file, and Sarah’s further fate remains unknown as well.
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Claudia Prestel, Dr. phil., teaches modern European and Jewish history as well as the history of the Middle East, especially Israel and Palestine, at the University of Leicester. Her research interests are: 19th and 20th century Central European Jewish history, especially women's and social history, Palestine Studies with a focus on gender and nationalism as well as commemorative culture.
Claudia Prestel, “I Demand to See My Child.” – Unmarried Mothers, Reform School, and Self-Determination (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, December 05, 2018. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-61.en.v1> [September 22, 2023].