44. Berta

By Peter Fraenkel

From the age of 12 until 32 my home base was Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia. The little town had no secondary school so when I reached the age of 15 I was sent to boarding school at Bulawayo, a dreary 20 hours south by train.

It was at Bulawayo that I met Berta. I think it was Richard who first took me to her. “Interesting woman”, he said, “Back in Germany she was a member of parliament – a Social Democrat.”

This wasn’t quite accurate. She had never been a member of the Reichstag, the federal parliament but a member of the Prussian state assembly, the Landtag, which had a more limited writ. Prussia was, however, the largest of the German states. And one certainly didn’t expect to meet German parliamentarian in Bulawayo, this dull little African town.

A girl I knew had also spoken about her. She had first met Berta when she, herself, had been quite little and had found her “scary”. Berta – as I was to discover when I met her – was tall and broad-shouldered and topped by a wild shock of hair. The hair stood out from her like the serpents on the head of the Medusa. The Medusa of Greek legend turned to stone anyone who dared look at her. Berta Jourdan had no such effect on me.  In fact I could say she helped to animate me. She appeared pleased to discover a youngster curious about the Weimar republic. She stimulated my own interest. It was a subject close to her heart but far from the interests of most youngsters she came across at Bulawayo.

With the inflated confidence of a 16-year-old I pontificated that if only the German Social Democrats and the Communists had stood together, they could have stopped the Nazis getting into power.

“And why didn’t they?” she asked. I wasn’t certain but expected to hear from her. Instead she pulled a book from her shelves and handed it to me: “Read. And when you’ve read it, come back and we’ll talk and if you’re still puzzled I’ll lend you some others.”

This, as I was to discover, was typical of her: she didn’t lecture you. She wanted you to find out for yourself. In a later conversation she confirmed: “Yes, the communists labelled us ‘social fascists’. They thought we were the obstacle to a Communist victory in Germany – we, not the Nazis. I could see there were some among the ‘comrades’ who weren’t convinced but they kept silent. Party discipline! They weren’t encouraged to think for themselves. I wonder what they’d say now – those who survived the Nazi camps.”

She encouraged me to drop in whenever I was allowed out of boarding school. Sometimes she was busy but I could sit in a corner and read one of her books. At other times she was giving private lessons, so I learnt to withdraw.

She was running remedial classes for handicapped children. “Physically or mentally handicapped?” I asked. “Both”, she told me. “So far as I know I’m, at the moment, the only such teacher in the Rhodesias.”

It was usually left to me to take the initiative to call on her. One day, however, I was surprised to receive a phone message at my boarding school. Would I come and see her as soon as possible?

“What’s all this I hear?” she started. “You’re refusing to speak to Gus? But you were the best of friends?”

This was true. I had told my friend of many years I wanted nothing more to do with him. He was at a technical school, also in Bulawayo, but not as a boarder. He had been quartered with a private family. Perhaps his parents wanted him to live in a Jewish household. His hosts kept a shop and usually brought home the day’s takings and locked them into a cupboard until they could get to their bank. Repeatedly they found money missing and then discovered that Gus had managed to make a wax impression of their key, had filed himself a duplicate and had been raiding their cupboard. Copying keys was an extra-curricular skill he had learnt at his technical school.

They threw him out and sent him back to his parents.

Confronted by his mother he said “I can’t help myself, it’s in my blood.”

The mother had been outraged. “It’s not in the blood of my family … nor that of your father.”

“So,” Berta asked me “do you think by refusing to speak to him, you are going to make him mend his ways? Have you never taken anything that you didn’t have a right to?”

I hesitated.


“I’ve never picked a lock.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“Well, I may have pinched a few biscuits from grandmother’s tin.”

“Nothing more – ever?”

“Perhaps some cake. Grandmother baked wonderful cakes.”

“So you, too, can succumb to temptation? Yes? So can I. That doesn’t make me a criminal, does it … nor you?”

I re-established relations with Gus. He never did become a criminal.

A year or two later I left for university in South Africa but came home once a year for my long vacations. Sometimes I broke my journey to the far north at Bulawayo and paid her a visit. Once in the 1960s she surprised me: “I’m going to retire to Germany.”

This was – in those years – almost unheard of. Jews who had escaped the Nazis usually wanted nothing more to do with their old fatherland. She, however, explained: “I want to help build a better Germany. My old comrades in Frankfurt say I could be useful.”

This was the last time I saw her. Richard, who had first introduced us, told me they always exchanged New Year cards but after some years this had ceased. He had made enquiries but received no reply. He assumed she must have died.

Recently I put her name into Wikipedia. I doubted I would find her. But I did. I found several pages about her. From 1913 to 1933 she had worked as a teacher, specializing on the education of backward children, children difficult to educate, undernourished children living in bad housing. In the years 1917/18 she had taken on voluntary work with victims of the war (perhaps those whom a later period would describe as shell-shocked?)

She was prominent in demanding equal rights for women. Between 1924 and 1928 she had served on the Frankfurt city council concentrating on educational matters. She had battled against faith schools.

Reading this reminded me, I had heard her expound on this subject: “If you segregate kids they get all sort of weird ideas about Catholics or Jews or Protestants. Let them see that people are people, whatever their religion.”

In 1928 she had been elected to the Prussian state assembly and soon became the Social Democrat party’s spokeswoman on education.

All this came to an abrupt end in 1933 when the Nazis got into power. She was denounced “as an exponent of Jewish-Marxist educational policies” and banned from teaching at state schools.

Around the same time Jewish children were expelled from such schools, so for the next five years she ran her own school for them in her apartment even though she had always been against segregated education. The times demanded flexibility. In 1939 she left Germany. Few countries were, by then, open to refugees and she landed up in Southern Rhodesia. There, too, she had taught handicapped and hard-to-educate youngsters. She was nominated U.N. rapporteur on Rhodesian educational matters.

Wikipedia registers that she returned to Germany in 1969. She spent her last years in a Jewish old age home in Frankfurt. She died in 1981.

The next entry puzzled me: “No grave. At the request of the deceased her ashes were scattered at the cemetery of the anonymous.”

This is, however, not the end of the Berta Jourdan story. In 1999 – 18 years after her death – the city of Frankfurt renamed the Hedwig Heyl vocational school after Berta Jourdan. This decision was taken “after facts came to light about Hedwig Heyl which the educational community could not identify with.”

I made enquiries: what facts? Before 1918, Germany had colonies in Africa, Heyl had been active in the Colonial Association of German women. For some years she had even been the chairperson. . She had seen it as her duty to send women of “Aryan stock” (as the Nazis would, later, have called them) to the colonies. This was to avoid “miscegenation” – German settlers forming relationships with African women. After 1931 the association also came to support Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies.

All this was revealed by a historian in the 1990s

When the choice of a new name for that school fell on Berta Jourdan, the school’s headmistress listed Berta’s personal qualities: social involvement, courage, perseverance, a sense of justice.

But I’m still puzzled by that last request – to have her ashes scattered at the cemetery for the anonymous. Did she simply want to go with the least possible fuss and costs? Or did she wish to identify with those murdered in the holocaust who have no grave?