A side. Maria’s story

5 Nov

Maria in a typically relaxed pose, 2012.


Maria, in 1996. Taken by Margaret A.M. Murray, for her book, Women Becoming Mathematicians.

I’m ready to give a first go at telling the first story of  the three German women who inspired me and whose life stories serve as remarkable documents of the tumultuous history of the 20th century in Europe.  I was hoping to get some better pictures of Maria–this is the only one I can find–and more anecdotes of her life, but I’m going to begin by compiling what I have already accumulated, and include my own memories of her, too.

Maria was born Maria Alice Weber on August 19, 1919, in Berlin; she had a twin sister,and one older sister and a brother.  Her father, Carl Wilhelm August Weber (1871-1957), was a prominent banker and politician in the Deutsche Demokratischen Partei (DDP), the progressive party of the time, and was a member of the Reichstag in various positions from 1907 until he was forced to resign by the Nazis in 1933:



Maria’s father, August Weber, painted by Max Liebermann, 1926. Mesdag Museum, The Hague.

(I was astonished when I learned that this dear woman who was working for me was born at the end of WWI, had a father who was born right after the Franco-Prussian War, and a grandfather that she had known as a small child who was born in 1834!!! In 1834, Charles Darwin was on board The Beagle, and Andrew Jackson was President of the United States! ) For more about this portrait and Weber and especially about their mother’s family, here is a link to an article written by Maria’s brother Jan Webber (he anglicized his name when he moved to England):


Her father married quite late, and Maria’s mother was much younger. She, too, was from a very prominent, and in her case Jewish, Berlin family. Marrying outside one’s religion was unusual at the time, and initially Maria’s cultivated family objected to the match, despite August Weber’s achievements. I’ll explain this link about her below:


Maria’s mother was Marie Cohn (1887-1967), the eldest daughter of Dr. Heinrich Cohn, director of a private Berlin bank founded by one of the most established Jewish families, the Meyer-Cohns, in Berlin. She grew up in privilege with private art lessons along with the niece of the famous Berlin artist Max Liebermann. As a 13-year-old, she had her portrait painted by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn (the topic of the article above); the painting hung in her parents’  Berlin apartment until 1933, when Marie’s parents fled from the Nazis to Switzerland. They sold the painting (through the connections of the famous art dealer Paul Cassirer) before they left Berlin. It somehow ended up in Sweden in a private collection, and has been shown in several exhibitions.

Zorn - Marie Cohn 65.7x52cm

Maria’s mother, Marie Cohn, painted as a 13-year-old by Anders Zorn, 1900.

Maria’s mother was not only a great beauty, but a remarkably well-educated and  artistic person. She was privately tutored as a child (I think Maria told me her tutors were English, so she always had a fondness for England)  until she went to university and received a Ph.D. in history, as one of the first women to receive her doctorate.  According to an interview Maria gave many years later, her mother was a tremendous influence on her. She married in 1914, and their household hosted many distinguished guests, artists and politicians alike. Maria remembered that the Expressionist sculptor Ernst Barlach was a frequent guest, and her mother’s family were certainly part of the same circles in which Max Liebermann worked.  The Weber family also renovated a large country house in Löpten bei Groß Köris, a small village south of Berlin, where their father built several workers’ houses, brought electricity to the village, and worked the land. There is still a Weberweg in the town today. Maria remembered her parents having many summer parties–one at which her father had to remove a relative who arrived in Nazi uniform. Maria recounted to me how she saw them walking at the edge of the grounds, as her father told the cousin sternly that such uniforms were not welcome at their home. The signs were already ominous by the end of the 1920s.

Then, in 1933 when Maria and her twin sister were 14, the Nazis came to power.  Everything changed. Her father was forced to resign his post and was imprisoned and interrogated several times by the Gestapo,but was always let go. Having a Jewish wife, he recognized immediately the danger to the family. Maria and her sister were sent to Switzerland, to Geneva, where her mother’s parents had already fled. And there she stayed for many years, while all of her family managed to escape Germany for London in 1938. (Her mother, Maria said, adapted quite quickly, while her father hesitated until the last moment to leave Germany–not until July 1939–and was never comfortable in exile.) They lost everything, of course; I remember Maria talking about going back to the country house when it was still in East Germany in the 1970s, and finding that their old servants had moved into the house. They were not at all happy to see Maria and her siblings return! As I remember it, none of them ever got any compensation for their property.

In Geneva, Maria received her degree in mathematics in 1940, and another degree in physics in 1941.  Here my memory and the paper trail get a little fuzzy:  she and her sister did eventually get to England, and from there to America, where Maria studied for another degree at Cornell; she received her Ph.D. in mathematics there in 1949. It was around this time that she met her soon-to-be husband  and the love of her life Robert Steinberg, or Bobby as she always called him.  He was an up-and-coming mathematician, a Jewish immigrant from Bessarabia whose family had settled in Canada.  I know that Maria taught for a while at Goucher College, and it may be there that they met, or perhaps at Cornell. Or they may have met at UCLA, where Robert would teach from 1948 until his death this year.  In any case, they were married in California in 1952, and moved into their wonderful little house in Pacific Palisades, when normal academic people could afford to live in this now impossibly celebrity-ridden suburb near UCLA.  (Maria told me how they were inundated with realtors at the door in the last few years, wanting them to sell their house, which had become one of the last remaining original houses in the neighborhood, as McMansions were built all around them.) They were a delightful and formidable intellectual team who shared everything. In 1953, as soon as she could, Maria became an American citizen:


Maria taught at Cal Tech for a while, and then for many years at Cal State Northridge. Bobby, meanwhile, continued at UCLA, becoming one of the leading mathematicians of his time. In her interview for a book on women in the sciences, Maria expressed no bitterness or sense of competition with her husband; she felt that they complimented each other perfectly. They were both so humble and simple in their lifestyles that we never knew how important Bobby was in his field. They loved hiking, and were very active in Democratic politics. They were avid members of the Sierra Club and keen gardeners.  Robert’s obituary is the first time we learned of his accomplishments:


In about 1991, Maria, who had been volunteering at the Sierra Club, found out about the Rifkind Center at LACMA, and offered her services as a volunteer. The then librarian Susan Trauger said that at the time, when she was 72, she vowed she would stop working there when she was 75. She was still at the Rifkind when I started working there in 2004.  She was amazing: at 83 and 85, she still climbed the ladders to shelve books, and typed labels for us. She was invaluable in reading old German letters, as the only one among us who could still read Alte Schrift. And she was a delight to talk to about her life and about politics and life in general, for despite all the travails, she was never bitter and thought she had been extraordinarily lucky in her career and in her marriage.  I know she would have loved to have children, but she told me  it never happened and fertility trials were not successful. She was so excited to see the reproductions of the portraits of her mother and father when the books arrived in the library, and she was always surprising us with her recollections of the famous people who had been part of her life as a girl.  She would take the bus from her home to LACMA, which was a rather arduous trek, and then Bobby would pick her up, still driving into his 90s. They loved doing crosswords together, and she almost always finished the New York Times crossword on her trip to the Museum. She was still riding her bike every weekend until she was in her late 80s.

But things did begin to slow down for both of them as they reached 90, and she stopped her volunteer work. Susan and I did go to visit them at their house, and had simple little meals with them both. They still had cats and their garden, and she still had a few mementos of her German life, including a small drawing of her father by Liebermann. Her twin sister died in 2011, right before our last visit to them. I remember then how she reasserted her firm atheism: “when I’m gone, I’m gone.” Spoken like a true scientist!

We were devastated when we learned, only at the announcement of Bobby’s death, that she had died the year before, on July 7, 2013. We had somehow lost touch in those last years.  And when I went to find an obituary, I only found a small announcement in a science organization’s newsletter (which I can’t even find anymore). She deserved more than that!  So this is for you, Maria: mit Liebe und glückliche Erinnerung. I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who knew Maria, to fill in the gaps, and to add to this memorial to a wonderful woman.

(Update:  I want to thank Marge Murray, University of Iowa, for sending the photo of Maria, which she took in 1996 when she interviewed Maria for her book, Women Becoming Mathematicians [MIT Press 2000].)

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