New work, in Life Writing

‘Suicide in Nazi Germany: Transformative Family History’,  Life Writing, Vol 20 Issue 1, 2022.

As some of you know I’m writing the very last pages of my memoir-biography Raven Mother. I’m almost done, a couple of weeks away. Earlier this year I drew on the manuscript along with new research for a paper now published in Life Writing, titled ‘Suicide in Nazi Germany: transformative family history’. It’s a part of the special issue put together by public historian Professor Tanya Evans on the writing of family histories.

Over twenty years ago I began to take an interest in my late grandmother’s life story. My German Jewish grandmother, Bella Rosa, had escaped the Third Reich and the Holocaust by emigrating to Palestine in 1937, and then after many years during which she was separated from my father, her son, she finally rejoined her family in Melbourne. Two years later, in December 1949, she took her life. The story of her death was told to me by my father only reluctantly, once I was an adult. 

Shows Bella with her young son Michael at Bunce Court school circa 1935.
Bella with her son (my father) Michael, Bunce Court circa 1935. Image copyright of the author. Not for reproduction.

Neither of us understood the historical context that predated her suicide— a context that only recent research by historians such as Christian Goeschel have brought to light. Only when I became an active researcher of German Jewish German life in the interwar years and the Third Reich, did I learn of the enormous numbers of suicide taking place. 

My paper begins with some passages of memoir-narrative drawn from the manuscript of Raven Mother. I then look at the reasons for and characteristics of suicide in Nazi Germany, and the phenomena’s connection to the difficulties most Jews faced in attempting to leave Germany. I explore the ways in which I have been able to reshape the family narratives told to me through this historical and genealogical research. 

‘Suicide in Nazi Germany: Transformative Family History’, published in Life Writing, Volume 20 Issue 1. [Note: this link is open for up to 50 reads, after which the publisher Taylor & Francis require users to have either an institutional affiliation or pay-for-read. Please contact me if the link isn’t available for you.]

Portions of the writing were completed with support of an Australia Council for the Arts and Create NSW grants, for which I thank both organisations.

Author: Jane Messer

Author, Mentor, Manuscript Assessor - The Bold Ink

3 thoughts

  1. This is a fascinating article Jane. A seamless blend of research and memoir, reflection and analysis. I think I mentioned to you that I’ve recently read Simon Schama’s history of the Jews (part 1). He mentions many instances of Jews trapped in the places they’ve fled to, deciding to kill themselves rather than face a worse death at the hands of their persecutors. In the first examples he talks about them debating fiercely whether it was right to do that, but as time goes on and they are constantly fleeing, they decide it is the best thing to do. I hadn’t realised there was such a sorry and consistent and bloody history of the Jews being singled out through clothing, confined to certain areas, expelled, persecuted. Your article brings all of that history into the modern world.

  2. Hi Kath, that’s interesting what you say about Schama’s history because it’s often just a few famous Jewish individuals whom we’re aware of. Walter Benjamin’s suicide as he was about to enter Spain for instance. But we don’t hear of the many others. There is a whole ‘history of emotion and reasoning’ around these deaths, isn’t there. That we know only a very little about. And not only amongst Jews during the period of the Holocaust, but subsequently too amongst other disposed and persecuted peoples.

    1. Yes, that’s what struck me. The pattern of flight and suicide (or slaughter of a group, by the group) in response to constant harassment. I did want some context for Schama’s work to see how other groups responded to dispossession.

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