Rahel’s ‘Jewish Sofa’

Jettchen Gebert

by Georg Hermann, edited by Dr. Bernhard Kaufhold
Berlin: Kupfergraben Verlagsgesellschaft, 393 pp., DM 24.80

At the end of the 1820s, the Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer made his first visit to Berlin. He stayed at The King of Portugal, where he was visited shortly after his arrival by the novelist La Motte Fouqué, who took him off to the exclusive literary club the Mittwochsgesellschaft, where he met, among others, the former diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Ense and Adelbert Chamisso, the author of Peter Schlemihl. Later, Varnhagen offered to walk him back to his hotel. “As we passed by his home,” Grillparzer wrote in his autobiography,

he suggested that he would like his wife to meet me. I had been on the go all day long and was tired to death, and I was therefore heartily glad when we learned at the doorway that the Frau Councillor of Legation was not at home. As we came down the steps, however, she came towards us, and I resigned myself to my fate. But then the lady—aging, perhaps never pretty, bent and twisted by illness, something like a fairy, not to speak of a witch—began to talk, and I was enchanted. My fatigue disappeared, or rather gave way to a kind of drunkenness. She talked and talked until almost midnight, and I no longer know whether they drove me out or whether I went of my own accord. I have never in my life heard anyone talk better or more interestingly.

Grillparzer’s enchantress was the famous Rahel, the “little Levi” who a quarter of a century earlier had presided over the most famous of the Jewish salons that were a conspicuous part of Berlin’s intellectual life and, for a brief time, a common meeting ground for writers and scholars, upwardly mobile commoners with good connections, government officials, and members of the nobility with intellectual pretentions. To Rahel’s “Jewish sofa,” to use the phrase of the Swedish diplomat Karl Gustav von Brinckmann, came such eminences as Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the writers Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and (briefly) Jean Paul Richter, and the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, as well as distinguished visitors from abroad. And Rahel Varnhagen was not the only magnet attracting the intellectual haute volée of Berlin, for Dorothea Veit and Henriette Herz, among others, were also successful salonières with their own distinguished coteries. In 1797 Karl August Böttiger wrote in his travel journals,

Formerly, the beautiful Jewish women were only in a position to determine the daily order of frippery and fashion in Berlin. But for some time now they have also had the initiative in judging the closely reasoned syllogism, the wittiest comedy, the most skillful actor, and the best poem.

The great age of the Berlin salons, from 1780 to 1806, has received little attention from contemporary historians of Germany and Berlin. In the two-volume history of the city edited by Wolfgang Ribbe to celebrate the 750th anniversary of its founding, it was passed over in …

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