The Jewish Doctor Who Said “No” to the Corset

Dr. Rahel Hirsch broke with mainstream convention and paved the way for the women who followed after. This is the story of the doctor who insisted that women's health was about more than female genitalia.

רחל הירש

Rahel Hirsch

The life story of Dr. Rahel Hirsch could easily be the plot of a Hollywood tearjerker. This groundbreaking pioneer was born to a Jewish family in the Kingdom of Prussia in the late 19th century. Her origin and perhaps having been born in the wrong place at the wrong time forced Hirsch to face many hardships during her life. First, she had to fight her way into the medical world. Later on, she continued to struggle with attempts to delegitimize her as a woman in the field.

Rahel Hirsch was the daughter of a school administrator and was originally sent to study education. However, her mind was always drawn to science. More than anything, she wished to become a physician. Unfortunately, the German Reich at the time forbade women to attend university studies. But why?

Back then, many men believed women should not be allowed to engage in academic professions, certainly not medicine, since they were simply perceived as unfit to do so – both mentally and physically. Those who advanced this “scientific” theory, pointed for example, to the fact that the female brain was smaller on average than that of the male (while mistakenly disregarding the size of the brain in relation to the rest of the body).

Under these restrictions, and in order to realize her dream, Rahel Hirsch left her home and everything she knew and traveled to Switzerland, where she was permitted to study medicine. In 1903 Hirsch received her long-desired medical license and from that moment on broke professional and gender-related boundaries. In 1907 she was accepted to work as an intern at the medical clinic at the Charité – a university hospital in Berlin. She was only the second woman to be hired by the institution in its entire history.

Rahel Hirsch

She later became the first person to find indications of starch particles in blood and urine and thus was able to refute the widely accepted notion that only liquids could penetrate the kidneys. The discovery that certain medical conditions could cause microscopic cells to penetrate the kidneys and exit via urine was invaluable to the medical world. She recorded her findings in a study on metabolic processes and diseases but instead of being acclaimed for them, she was mocked by her colleagues – because she was a woman.

It was a closed, patriarchal society, and so despite her accomplishments, when Hirsch presented her study at a meeting of the Charité’s directors, she was ignored by the doctors, who believed women to be of inferior intelligence. Nevertheless, she managed to move ahead and in 1908 was appointed head of the Charité’s medical clinic. Sadly, despite her new senior position, she was not paid for her services.

Hirsch soon left the Charité and opened her own private clinic in Berlin, where she installed modern X-ray equipment; this attracted wealthy clients and allowed her to live comfortably. In 1913 she became the first woman to receive the title “professor” in Prussia. However, she hadn’t seen the last of her challenges yet.

Rahel Hirsch was a Jewish woman. As a result, she was barred from teaching medicine in Germany during this period. In order to expose her colleagues to her ideas regarding women’s health – ideas that were not yet accepted in academic circles – she wrote a treatise titled Physical Culture of Women.

Physical Culture of Women (“Körperkultur der Frau”) by Rahel Hirsch, 1913, the National Library of Israel collections

The essay focused on refuting prejudiced conceptions about women’s exercise and how they should dress. She recommended clothing that fit the female physique naturally, without corsets; clothing that enabled a normal blood flow. Hirsch tried to draw attention to women’s health by raising awareness of hygiene, nutrition and exercise, though it seems the primary focus of the essay was to prove that women were no less intelligent than men. In an article published in the Munich Medical Weekly, she wrote her colleagues that the theory that males were more intelligent than females was unsubstantiated and that any difference between the mental capabilities of men and women was not biologically determined but rather a matter of faulty education. She also suggested they look at women not only from a gynecologic point of view, as women’s medicine was not all about female genitalia.

Left page: The picture on the left shows a woman with poor posture. In the picture on the right, her posture is corrected by distributing the weight on the skeleton correctly and standing in a proper position. Right page: Hirsch even gave guidelines on how to do chores around the house in a healthy and proper manner. Left: Hirsch demonstrates incorrect posture while performing chores. Right: A demonstration of correct posture.


Left page: In Hirsch’s day, it was assumed that exercise was not fit for the female body. Hirsch protested this and illustrated what the female body looked like before the physical exercise she recommended for women, and what it looked like three months into training. Right page: The left image illustrates an incorrect sitting position. The right picture shows a correct, flattering and practical sitting position.

When the Nazi prosecution of Jews grew more intense, Hirsch lost many of her clients, who were now afraid of associating with Jews. Also, her authorities as a physician were gradually taken away from her. This process reached a peak in 1938 when she was 68 years old: Hirsch’s medical license was taken from her. When she heard she was going to be arrested, Hirsch fled to live with one of her sisters in London, though in England she could not practice medicine. Instead, she worked as a librarian, while also translating and working as a laboratory assistant. During the war, she lived in Yorkshire before returning to London once the hostilities were over.

The events that occurred in her homeland and the atrocities committed against the Jews, along with the restriction on practicing the one thing she truly loved and for which she had worked her entire life – drove her to madness. Hirsch was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital, where she died on October 6th, 1953. She was buried anonymously in one of the city’s Jewish cemeteries.

A few years after her passing, in 1957, a research assistant from Charité named Gerard Volkheimer, who would later become a professor, came across Hirsch’s study and published it under the title the “Hirsch Effekt”. Approximately four years after she died, Rahel Hirsch’s work and contribution to science were finally recognized.



Pearl and the Golem-Maker: A Love Story

How the decades-long romance between the Maharal of Prague and his wife began

The teachings of Rabbi Judah Loew – better known as “The Maharal of Prague”, or simply “The Maharal” – are still widely learned centuries after his death.

An exceptional intellectual figure, the Maharal was also the legendary creator of the Golem of Prague – a creature formed from mud, brought to life thanks to secret mystical knowledge possessed by the wise sage, and let loose to defend the city’s Jews from all-too-common anti-Semitic attacks.

The Old-New Synagogue in Prague, where the Maharal served as rabbi. Some claim that the Golem still lies asleep in its attic. From The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Though Rabbi Judah looms large in Jewish culture and lore, the woman behind the man has largely been lost to history.

Her name was Pearl.

Pearl and Rabbi Judah had seven kids together: six girls and one boy. They were married for some 65 years, passing away within just a few months of one other – first Rabbi Judah and then Pearl.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

According to an account retold in “Sefer Niflaot Hamaral“, an early 20th century collection of tales about the famous rabbi, this is how Pearl and Judah’s love story began:

Reb Schmelke Reich was a wealthy and respected figure who arranged for a marriage between his daughter Pearl and Judah Loew, a promising 15 year old Torah scholar.

Young Judah headed off to yeshiva to learn and in the meantime, Reb Schmelke’s fortunes reversed and he became very poor, unable to pay a dowry for his daughter to wed.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

Three years after the marriage was arranged, Reb Schmelke wrote to his son-in-law to be, letting him know that seeing as he could not afford a respectable dowry, the young man was freed of his commitment and didn’t have to marry Pearl after all.

The young man wouldn’t hear of it, writing back that he would wait for assistance from on high.

Reb Schmelke’s fortunes didn’t turn around, yet Judah continued to wait… and wait…. and wait…

The righteous young Pearl decided to help her parents out by opening a small bakery and selling bread to support her family. She worked in the bakery for ten years, while her betrothed continued learning Torah, waiting for the day he could marry his beloved.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

Then war broke out.

A horseman galloped up to Pearl’s shop, spearing a large loaf of bread that was sitting out.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel

She courageously ran after the horseman, pleading with him not to steal the bread, explaining that her livelihood and those of her aging, impoverished parents depended on income from her shop.

The horseman argued that he had no money, not even enough to pay for a loaf of bread. Instead, he offered an extra saddle blanket he had with him, violently throwing it at her and riding away.

When the frightened Pearl went to inspect the blanket, she found it to be surprisingly heavy. So heavy, in fact, that when she picked it up, it ripped and gold coins came tumbling out.

She promptly gave the riches to her father who used them for the dowry, and after more than a decade of waiting, Pearl and Judah were married.

From the Prague Haggadah, National Library of Israel


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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The Nazis Failed to Destroy the Artist David Friedmann

Now his daughter is searching for his Nazi-looted and lost artwork

Since childhood I watched my father paint with an intensity and passion that struck a chord within me. I was intrigued about his successful prewar career and the fate of his Nazi-looted art. He had little to show from a collection of hundreds of paintings, drawings, lithographs and etchings. This fueled my passion to find these works and to rescue him from obscurity.

David Friedmann in 1936 in his apartment at Paderborner Strasse 9, Berlin-Wilmersdorf. In the background his painting of the Berlin Cathedral appears. After World War II, it was found in his sister-in-law’s apartment. Friedmann’s painting of the Schlossbrücke und Zeughaus (castle bridge and arsenal), today the German Historical Museum, also appears. These paintings are among hundreds of Nazi-looted and lost artworks.

David Friedmann was born on December 20, 1893, in Mährisch Ostrau, Austria-Hungary, now Ostrava, Czech Republic. He studied etching with Hermann Struck and painting with Lovis Corinth in Berlin. He painted some of the most important events in modern history, surviving World War I and World War II as an artist. Friedmann produced late impressionist landscapes, still lifes, interiors, nudes and achieved acclaim as a painter known for his portraits drawn from life. He exhibited at the Akademie der Kunst, Berliner Secession and numerous galleries throughout Germany and Czechoslovakia. His use of light and dark, his ability to convey expressions on faces, the composition, are all hallmarks of his work. With pencil and paper, he captured the great chess champions of the 1920s. In 1924, his quick-sketching skills launched a secondary career as a freelance press artist. He sketched hundreds of famous contemporary personalities from the arts, music, theater, sports, politics, and industry, published mainly in the Berlin newspapers and the radio-program magazine, Der Deutsche Rundfunk. Among the portrayed luminaries were Albert Einstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, Max Liebermann and Emanuel Lasker.

“Richard Réti at the Chessboard”, Lithograph, 1923. This appeared in a portfolio entitled “Das Schachmeister Turnier in Mährisch Ostrau” and alternatively “Köpfe berühmter Schachmeister”. Five portfolios have been found. (© Miriam Friedman Morris; image courtesy of the National Library of the Netherlands)

Friedmann’s flourishing career in Berlin was terminated in 1933 by the Nazi regime. As each of his options narrowed, he continued to produce art illustrating the events and his personal experiences of the time. In 1938, Friedmann fled with his family to Prague, escaping from the Nazis with only his artistic talent as a means to survive. He depicted human fate as a refugee in Prague, as a prisoner in the Lodz Ghetto, in the Auschwitz subcamp, Gleiwitz I, and as a survivor. His wife Mathilde and little daughter Mirjam Helene were murdered in Auschwitz.

In 1941, the Gestapo looted his left-behind oeuvre in Berlin. He lost his studio furniture and materials, hundreds of oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, etching prints and lithographs. After Friedmann’s deportation to the Lodz Ghetto, Nazi authorities looted his Prague art production. In 1946, when mail service from Berlin to Prague was finally restored, Friedmann received portrait prints and photos of his work in an album. The Prague portraits dated 1940 to 1941 gave face to numerous known and unknown victims — historically significant evidence of a dynamic Jewish community destroyed by the Nazi regime. Additional portrait prints were found at the National Museum in Prague, Beit Theresienstadt in Givat Haim (Ihud), Israel, and in two family-owned collections. Numerous works, including portraits and landscapes, surfaced at the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Surviving photos of still lifes painted by David Friedmann in 1939 and 1940 in Prague. His last residence before deportation to the Lodz Ghetto was Dušní 10 in the city’s Jewish Quarter.
These portrait prints by David Friedmann of Jakob Edelstein, František Weidmann and Herbert Langer were produced in 1940-1941 in Prague. The album was later gifted to the Yad Vashem Art Museum.

Artwork was systematically confiscated and sold at auction by the Nazi regime. The whereabouts of the remainder of Friedmann’s looted art is unknown.

Descriptive title: “At the Water’s Edge”, Oil on wood panel. Signed Dav. Friedmann lower left and dated 1932.
This was one of several paintings to later emerge in France with the red number “6198”, suggesting an auction sale reference number.

From his incarceration period, a portrait drawing of a Polish prisoner in Gleiwitz I was discovered at the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Evidence also surfaced of Friedmann’s work in the ghetto. His 1942 etching of the Lodz Ghetto bridge appeared as a header on pages of The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944. A handmade album with thirty-three drawings documenting the activities of a hat-manufacturing workshop (“ressort“) in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943 is also held in the collection of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

This colorized drawing is from a 1943 album by David Friedmann documenting the activities of a hat-manufacturing workshop (“ressort“) in the Lodz Ghetto.
(Photo credit: E. Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw; Inventory No. MŻIH B-419/24)

Liberated at age 51, an age significantly older than most survivors, Friedmann believed there was a reason he lived. The responsibility to bear witness weighed heavily on his conscience even before deportation. His burning desire was to show to the world the ruthless persecution and inhumanity as practiced by the Nazis, in the hope such barbarism would never happen again. Friedmann captured the scenes he could not erase from his memory — forced labor, torture, killings and the death march. He called the series, Because They Were Jews!

“Death March from Camp Gleiwitz I to Camp Blechhammer”, Oil, 1947. David Friedmann depicts himself as the prisoner with the eyeglasses as a reminder that his art is a first-person witness to evil. He was liberated at Blechhammer by the Red Army on January 25, 1945. (© Miriam Friedman Morris)

Friedmann continued to paint throughout his postwar journey. In 1948, in Prague, he wed Hildegard Taussig, a survivor of several concentration camps. Their marriage began at a refugee’s pace. One year later, the couple fled communist Czechoslovakia to Israel, where their daughter, also named Miriam, was born. He worked in a sign shop and contributed to the founding of Israel’s commercial art industry.

Every spare moment he painted for himself. Friedmann’s color palette changed to brighter, sun-filled hues as he left behind his old dark world to explore his newly adopted country. After two years, he established his own advertising business and freelanced for the newspapers, permitting more time for artistic pursuits. Besides portraits, he painted landscapes of Lake Kinneret, Jaffa, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Naharia and Tiberias. Some works are signed “Dfri” in Hebrew letters Daled, Peh, Resh, Yod.

He also enjoyed painting the Yarkon River views and Hadar Yosef, where we lived. Sympathetic to the impoverished Jews who had emigrated from Yemen, he portrayed beggars on the streets to express their plight. David Friedmann had captured the landscape of the beginnings of the Jewish state. Decades later, I had immense pleasure tracking down the dramatically changed scenery he painted, now difficult to find or nonexistent.

“Yemenite Jewish Beggar”, Oil, 1950. From a private collection
“Street between Tel Aviv and Jaffa”, Oil, ca 1950. From the Miriam Friedman Morris Collection

Israel was a new state in poor economic circumstances. Undeterred by his being 61-years-old, Friedmann set his ambitions on America, arriving in New York in 1954. He had to forget what was hidden in his heart, the paintings from the concentration camps and make a living. Straight from the boat he auditioned for the billboard company, General Outdoor Advertising (GOA). He painted as fast as possible, because only this would save our family from poverty. GOA did not care about his age or that he barely spoke English.

They were impressed with an accomplished artist who painted with astonishing speed — the same skill that saved his life in 1944 in Gleiwitz I where Friedmann had improvised with primitive materials, making his own paints and brushes out of camp supplies to paint a mural across a barrack’s wall in order to show the SS officers his artistic ability and spare him from death. What could he produce to impress them? He thought of the Havel River, painted in Berlin with “white clouds in the blue sky, trees, and in-between a few small houses with red roofs, water, white sailboats and their reflections on the surface of the water.”

“Havel River Landscape, Berlin”, Oil, 1923. This painting hung for decades in the home of Andrea Kress, who became curious about David Friedmann. She learned about the artist’s daughter’s pursuit for lost art and sent this photo.

GOA moved the family first to Chicago and then to St. Louis. After only fifteen months in America, Friedmann had been appointed to the top artist position at this branch. Instead of pictures from the concentration camps, he painted the iconic Clydesdales and happy folks selling beer on two-story tall billboards. The new career brought recognition and satisfaction with life in America. In 1960, the Friedmann family became proud United States citizens and symbolically dropped the double “n” spelling of the surname.

After retirement in 1962, his art would not be silent. He produced a second series of Holocaust art to fight antisemitism and race hatred of all people. The David Friedman Exhibition opened in Baltimore, Maryland in 1965, marking 20 years after liberation, and was even reported in the Israeli press.

David Friedmann adds final touches to his charcoal drawing, “Liberation?” The artist depicts himself as the prisoner with eyeglasses. (Photo: Peter Rosvik, St. Louis, Missouri, 1964)

Friedmann died at the age of eighty-six on February 27, 1980. He is recognized internationally with works on permanent display at the Holocaust History Museum, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem; the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center; and the Sokolov Museum in the Czech Republic. His works are in the collections of the State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, among other institutions and museums. Exhibition venues include the Berlin Philharmonic Hall in Germany, the Terezín Memorial in the Czech Republic, the United Nations Headquarters and the German Consulate General in New York.

In 1954, Friedmann was among the first to win restitution from Germany for Nazi-looted art. The sum incorporated claims for all his looted property. He continued to fight for justice. In 1961, the International Supreme Restitution Court in Berlin adjudicated an upward adjustment.

This painting by David Friedmann was found in a 2002 catalog for auction house Joseph Weiner. Although titled “Stilleben”, the appropriate title is: “Vase mit Anemonen” / “Vase with Anemones”, Oil, 1923. Last known location: Haidhausen Kunst und Antiquitäten GmbH, Munich, Germany
“Liegender Häftling” (“Lying Prisoner”), Charcoal, 1945.  Last seen in Israel, the location of this drawing of a Gleiwitz I concentration camp prisoner is unknown. The drawing, one of eight from the collection of Zeev Shek, was intended as a donation by his widow Alisa Shek to the Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem. Three drawings from this collection are on permanent display at the Holocaust History Museum, Yad Vashem.

David Friedmann was a successful artist with both Jewish and non-Jewish clientele. Art was sold privately, at galleries, exhibitions and auctions. Fleeing the German Reich, most emigrants found it necessary to sell their art to finance an escape. Others managed to flee with their art.

Artwork often continues to find new owners — sold at auction or through private sales — purchased by people who are not known as collectors. Pieces are displayed on walls of family homes for generations, art they enjoyed all these years, not knowing the paintings have a history and the artist’s daughter is searching to find them. David Friedmann artwork has surfaced all over the world — the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Poland, Israel, Australia, China, Canada and the United States. I have started to find his prewar art just over the last two decades.

Every painting to emerge is a victory against the German Reich. David Friedmann made important contributions both in the realms of 20th century art and in the creation of materials that play a powerful humanitarian role in educating people about the reality of the Holocaust.

My goal is to publish a catalogue of his works, evidence of the brilliant career the Nazis could not destroy.

Painted by David Friedmann in 1915 in the student atelier of Professor Lovis Corinth, Berlin, this is a rare surviving work from before World War I. After a decades long search, the author had the fortune to connect with the owner’s family and see the original painting in Israel in 2012.


For more about David Friedmann and to provide information you may have about existing works, please visit: or the “David Friedmann—Artist As Witness” Facebook page.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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The Siddur That Survived the Nazis

This prayer book was published by Schocken in 1937, a year before Kristallnacht. Decades later, a reader at the National Library was surprised to find in it a clearly visible Nazi seal featuring a swastika...

A stamp featuring a Nazi "Imperial Eagle" clutching a swastika - the "Reichsadler", found on the siddur's title page, photo by Udi Edery

The synagogue in the current National Library of Israel building is located on the top floor. Observant visitors and employees gather here throughout the day to pray. For this purpose, the nearby reading rooms have siddurim (Jewish prayer books) available on their shelves. And so, not too long ago, a student working in the Music Department asked for a siddur so that she could take part in prayers.

Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

The young woman was given a siddur that was thicker, heavier and larger than usual, and began to pray. But as soon as she opened the book, she was utterly shocked to see a complete, perfectly clear stamp of the Nazi eagle, its claws clutching a swastika underneath it, surrounded by a caption in German – the Nazi Reichsadler. The seal appeared on the siddur‘s title page below the Hebrew caption which read: “Seder Avodat Israel, including prayers and blessings for the entire year, Shabbat portions and additions, selichot and additional prayers, with Yakin Lashon commentary, authored and edited by Rabbi Seligman Baer (Isaac Dov) Bamberger.”

The title page states that it is a revised edition, published by Schocken in the Hebrew year 5697, or 1937. A year later, the “Night of Broken Glass” – Kristallnacht – would take place, while the racist Nuremberg Laws were already in full effect at the time of publication. The Nazi stamp belonged to the Reichinstituts für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands library, namely the “Reich Institute for the History of New Germany.”

The title page of Seder Avodat Israel, featuring the Nazi Reichsadler seal, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

Librarians at the National Library of Israel are very familiar with the stamp and with the Reich Institute, as the seal appears in many books in the library’s collections. The books were brought here immediately after World War II, following the Holocaust, by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. organization. The group’s logo – a Star of David and the JCR’s name in Hebrew – also appears in the book.

The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. logo in the siddur‘s bookplate (ex-libris), photo by Udi Edery

The siddur contains another piece of history: a Hebrew label indicating that it was printed under a contract with the M. Lehrberger and Co. publishing house in Frankfurt am Main, “who had the good fortune of publishing the first edition of Seder Avodat Israel.” The Schocken publishing house continued to operate in Germany even after the Schocken family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, when this was still permitted in Nazi Germany. Books such as this one were printed right up until the beginning of the Holocaust. Like many books belonging to Jews in Germany and in German-occupied countries, they were looted and collected as part of the Nazi plan to document the culture which they were simultaneously systematically destroying.

“Printed under a contract with the M. Lehrberger and Co. publishing house in Frankfurt am Main, who had the good fortune of publishing the first edition of Seder Avodat Israel“, photo by Udi Edery

The original copies of Seder Avodat Israel were published in Rödelheim (a Frankfurt suburb) in 1868 and hundreds of editions were published throughout the years. Seligman Baer was a grammarian whose work focused primarily on prayers and piyyutim (Jewish liturgical hymns). The siddur was also designed to appeal to “modern” Jews who could read Hebrew but spoke German, thus the instructions do not appear in Yiddish but rather in German spelled with Hebrew letters. The commentary on the prayers and piyyutim is philological and summarizes modern research in addition to providing the traditional erudition. The siddur’s target audience was traditionally Orthodox Jews who were acquainted with European languages, Latin, as well as philology and Bible studies.

Seder Avodat Israel, Schocken, 1937, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Udi Edery

Either way, if you are not a librarian at the National Library of Israel, and you are not accustomed to opening books and finding the Nazi seal in them, then encountering a siddur such as this one can come as a bit of a shock. Indeed, when one holds this prayer book in their hands, the eyes move naturally from the Nazi seal to the stamp of the “Jewish National and University Library”. How fierce is the irony of history – with this siddur now being put to use in Jerusalem, in the National Library of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.


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