In London last month, I met with Maria Steinberg’s nieces, Helena Meyer-Knapp and Jenny Nutbeem, to fill in details about Maria’s life for my project on Three German Women (see my blog entries for November 5, 2014 and August 24, 2014 for my other entries on Maria). Helena is Maria’s older sister Paula’s daughter, and Jenny is her brother Jan’s daughter. They both knew and loved Maria, and were very happy to share photos, memoirs, and stories about her and her family. The two of them had just returned from Germany, where they had been tracing their family history in Oldenburg, so this was an opportune moment to talk of such things with them. I am most grateful to Helena, for sharing these wonderful photos of Maria as a girl, and to Jenny, for sending her father’s comprehensive writings about the Webbers and Maria’s sibling’s lives.
Right now, I am just going to write up what bits and pieces I gleaned from our conversations, before I forget too many details. Helena and Jenny found Maria’s father’s memoirs in Oldenburg, written in Alte Schrift, which today is very difficult to decipher since no one in Germany learns to read it anymore. They have had the memoirs transcribed, and I hope to be able to read them some day soon. In the meantime, Jenny’s father Jan’s reminiscences gave me meticulous details about their lives in Berlin and out in their countryside home in Löpten, about 60 kilometers from Berlin.
Here’s what I learned:
August Weber, Maria’s distinguished father, came from Oldenburg; his mother was a Westerholt. They were prosperous farmers and landowners, but not members of the rich or aristocracy. August went to university and became a self-made man, joining the banking firm that ultimately became Deutsche Bank. Their mother, Maria Cohn, was from prominent Jewish Berlin family; her mother was from Holland and proud of her Dutch heritage.
The parents met through August’s brother in law, another Oldenburger and renowned historian at the University of Heidelberg named Hermann Oncken. His entry in Wikipedia gives only a brief introduction to his importance in hisotrical studies:
Maria’s mother, who was the first woman to earn a PhD at a German university, studied with Oncken in Heidelberg; as a good friend of August, married to Weber’s favorite sister, Oncken introduced the two. As Jan writes in his memoirs, ”I have some of their letters – it was a very rapid romance. They got engaged in May and married in July 1914 not long before the outbreak of war.” According to Jan’s memoirs, Maria’s parents, and especially her mother, opposed the marriage; not only was August not Jewish, but he was not of the same social status as the Cohn family. Jan also wrote that when he asked his mother why she married him, she said that she admired the fact that he was a self-made man, that he had earned his status as a banker and politician.
Maria’s oldest sister Paula (Helena’s mother) and Jan (Jenny’s father) were born in Berlin, when the parents lived in an apartment on Sigismundstrasse; the building was destroyed in the bombing of World War II. In 1919, when Maria and her twin sister were born, the family lived at 44 Königin Augustastrasse directly on the Landwehrkanal; today the street has been renamed Reichspietchufer.
I am so grateful to Helena for sending me these wonderful photos; I especially love this one of Maria holding her new twins (twins run in the family!). Mother looks a little tired, as any new mother would be, and the children look a little perplexed, as siblings always do when confronted with new members of the family. This is the same beautiful woman who appears in the Anders Zorn painting as a young girl. Helena and Jenny also told me that it was Maria, while working at the Rifkind, who found that this painting still existed and was in Sweden.
Both Helena and Jenny had known their grandparents when they were small, and could give impressions of their character. Maria, they said, always seemed an elegant, somewhat flighty, example of her class and station in life, not at all ambitious or assertive–a fact that intrigues me, since she had to have had some intellectual persistence to follow through on advanced studies at a time when this was unusual for women to pursue. Jan in his memoirs, describes her thus:
”..mother was highly impractical, and since granny was a competent housewife and cook albeit during much of her life assisted by servants, it is surprising that mother did not emerge into adult life with some of these accomplishments. I suppose that in Paris mother perfected her French and was instructed in the social graces, learning to move with confidence in Society, acquiring good taste and exquisite manners. Her domestic training was postponed until she found herself in exile in London. On reflection she also left much to be desired as a mother. She found it difficult to cope with her children. One cannot accuse her of being unfeeling but most of her love flowed out to her husband who unfailingly loved her back.” The children were raised with lots of nannies, governesses, and great educational opportunities, and learned English from a young age. Paula and Jan were sent in 1926 to Salem School, founded by the extraordinary Kurt Hahn, whose pedagogical ideas about teaching through experience led to the founding of Outward Bound in England and America. Jan worked closely with Hahn for many years, both in Germany and in England.
Maria–who, Helena told me, was always called ”Mia” by the family–was from a very young age the most gifted student in math and sciences. Her twin Gusti was never as academic as any of the other siblings, but was, it seems, the most artistic of the four. When in the early 1930s, their father knew that dangerous times were ahead, the twins were sent to Geneva, Switzerland, to live with their maternal grandmother; here Mia studied at the University of Geneva. (In 1932, August Weber had given a speech in the Reichstag warning of the dangers of Hitler; this led to several arrests once the Nazis were in power.) Jan and Paula were in London by 1935. Through the sponsorship of an artist named Simon Moselsio, whom August Weber had earlier helped financially in Berlin and who had managed to escape to America to teach at Bennington, Gusti was able to get to America in 1938. (A photo of Moselsio at work appears in Life magazine for November 22, 1937, p. 42.)
Mia stayed in Geneva until after the war, working at a school in Lausanne. By the end of the war, Gusti was able to sponsor Mia to join her in Vermont. Maria then went to Cornell in Ithaca, New York, where she received her second Ph.D. in mathematics. Jan, meanwhile, became one of the ”Dunera Boys”, that shameful incident in which German refugees were shipped to Australia, only to be interred there and treated harshly as enemies. He was eventually repatriated into the British Army. Paula worked in London as a translator at the BBC.
By 1947, Maria was in California, teaching at Cal Tech. Gusti had already moved to Calabasas, outside of Los Angeles, at that time still a farming community in the middle of nowhere. At some time, Gusti moved to Colorado, where she lived when I knew Maria. It was in Los Angeles that Maria met Robert Steinberg, ”Bobby”, and they married in 1953.
Other bits of information: through their mother’s family, the Weber children were privy to much of Berlin’s artistic life in the 1920s and 1930s. Grete Ring, the niece of Max Liebermann, was a good friend of their mother, as was Walter Feilchenfeldt, the art dealer and associate of the great publisher Paul Cassirer. According to Helena, Feilchenfeldt managed to get the Liebermann portrait of August Weber out of Berlin to the Netherlands.
The cousins Jenny and Helena also spoke of the fate of their family’s Löpten property, the country estate that August Weber acquired in the 1920s (Jan’s memoirs give meticulous and fascinating details about the property and life on the land in the Spreewald at this time). They say that the house is no longer there, but the outbuildings are, and used as a riding school. Maria had told me the story, which the cousins confirmed, that when they went back to visit in the DDR days, the people who had been their servants were then living in the buildings, and were not at all happy to see the old owners, since they thought they would be demanding restitution. But none of the Webers wanted to take that path at all.
Helena was quite involved with taking care of Bobby after Maria died; she was also able to substantiate that Maria had indeed gone out the way she wanted to. After her sister died, and recognizing that her immense stamina and mental capacities were starting to wane, at 92 she just stopped eating. Stubborn and rational until the end. What an amazing life.