Elizabeth Cady Stanton – suffragist, social activist, abolitionist. Susan B. Anthony – social reformer, women’s rights activist. Ernestine Rose – who?
Bonnie Anderson taught history and women’s studies for 30 years at Brooklyn College and at the Graduate Centre of City University of New York. She has written three books on women’s history, the latest being The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter (Oxford University Press, 2017).
When Anderson wrote Joyous Greetings: The First International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860, she learned about Rose, who was born in 1810 in Poland to an Orthodox rabbi and his wife. Her father taught her Hebrew and Torah but, by age 14, she had rejected Jewish beliefs and identified as an atheist. Betrothed at 15, she broke her engagement but her fiancé would not agree – he wanted her inheritance and brought a suit against her. At age 17, Rose went to the district court 65 miles away and presented her case personally, arguing that “she should not lose her property because of an engagement she did not want.” She won.
Moving to Berlin, Rose lived there two years before heading to Paris and then to London, where she embraced the belief system of Robert Owen, who had a utopian socialist vision; she became a disciple. Also in London, she met William Rose, a free-thinking atheist, jeweler and silversmith. They married when she was 20 and he was 23 and emigrated to the United States.
Rose became a pioneer for women’s equality and an accomplished lecturer, speaking to the public for the free-thought and the women’s rights movements.
“A good delivery, forcible voice, the most uncommon good sense, a delightful terseness of style and a rare talent for humour are the qualifications which so well fit this lady for a public speaker,” wrote a reporter in Ohio in 1852.
She lectured extensively, including against slavery, during her years in the United States, from 1836 to 1869, and became a U.S. citizen. She went back and forth to England between 1871 and 1874.
“She embodied female equality in both her everyday life and her political activism,” writes Anderson. “She was a true pioneer, working for the ideals of racial equality, feminism, free thought and internationalism.”
The book concludes with 44 pages of notes and eight pages of bibliography. Readers should find this biography of an “international feminist pioneer” a fascinating reading experience about an amazing woman.
In 2005, the movie Woman in Gold portrayed the story of a painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer I that was painted by Gustav Klimt in 1907 and owned by her and her husband. She died in 1925 and her husband fled Austria in 1938, ultimately dying in 1945. During the war, the Nazis seized the painting, which had ended up in a Vienna palace. The will of her husband designated Maria Altmann, niece, as heir and Altmann sued the Austrian government for the painting, and won the court battle. The painting was subsequently bought by Ronald Lauder and is now in the Neue Galerie in New York.
The novel The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2017) alternates between Vienna in the 1930s and England in the 1940s, as well as Los Angeles in 2005 and 2006 and New York in 2006.
Rose Zimmer, her older brother Gerhard and her parents, Charlotte and Wolfe, live in Vienna in 1938. Unable to escape, they send Rose and her brother on the Kindertransport to England. Rose, 12, lives with a childless Orthodox Jewish couple; her brother lives elsewhere. By the time the war is over, Rose is living with a girlfriend and working; her brother is in the service and their parents’ whereabouts are unknown. Rose goes to college, is supported by her brother and his wife, meets a young man, marries and moves to Los Angeles, where she teaches.
In the background is Rose’s quest for a Chaim Soutine painting that was important to her mother.
Alternating with this story is that of Lizzie, a 37-year-old lawyer whose sisters live in Los Angeles, where their father lived and died. She meets Rose at her father’s funeral and learns of the Soutine painting. The work had been bought by her father and had hung in their home when she was a teenager, until it was stolen during a party.
A friendship blooms between the two women and Lizzie learns Rose’s background, that her parents were sent to a concentration camp and their home, along with the painting, seized. The “fortunate ones” are the ones who survived the war, but at what cost?
Lizzie’s story is far less interesting. She grew up in Los Angeles, her mother died when she was 13. She became lawyer, lives in New York, then moves back to Los Angeles after her father dies, and starts the search for the painting.
Both women have issues with loss and forgiveness. The novel is emotional, sentimental and suspenseful, and engaging enough not to want to put it down and to keep reading.
As to whether Umansky was influenced by The Woman in Gold in writing this book, she said she had not read the story or seen the movie, “although I was certainly aware of them and interested in the true events that inspired them.”
As to why she wrote the novel, she said, “That’s a hard one to answer in a few sentences! The contemporary story of Lizzie has its roots in something that happened when I was growing up in Los Angeles: my family was friendly with an ophthalmologist who lived lavishly and had a prized art collection, the crown jewels of which were two paintings, a Picasso and a Monet. In the early 1990s, those canvases disappeared without a trace. I was fascinated by the incident and, later, when the stories of Nazi-pilfered art came into the news, I began to imagine a storyline that brought both of these threads together.”
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machaneh Yehudah, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.