Fembio Special: European Jewish Women
(Betty Heine, geb. Peira von Geldern)
Born Peira von Geldern in Düsseldorf on November 27, 1771
died on September 3, 1859 in Hamburg
Mother of Heinrich Heine
250th birthday on November 27, 2021
“... and if sometimes things do not go your way, console yourself with the thought that few women have been loved and adored by their children as you are, and as you truly deserve to be [...]. One should kiss the ground that your foot has trodden.” This letter of Heinrich Heine to his mother describes an extraordinary woman, loved beyond measure, in a very familiar and at the same time admiring way.
Raised in an educated Jewish family of doctors, but excluded from higher education as a girl, this young woman, born Peira von Geldern, strives to benefit both from the education and training of her brothers and from conversations and readings with her father, thus acquiring education piecemeal. Feeling German, she strives to integrate herself into bourgeois German society. At this time of the French Revolution, for the first time in centuries, the boundaries between Jewish and Christian society are loosening, and Jews are granted an increasing degree of freedom and rights in all French-occupied territories. Integration has suddenly become conceivable. Education, prosperity and culture are the “ticket”.
Amazingly emancipated for her time, she initially does not seek marriage, but, shaken by the sudden death of her father and brother, changes her mind and chooses Samson Heine, a fun-loving Jewish merchant's son from Hamburg, as her husband. Not only does she choose her husband herself, but she also carries out the marriage in 1797 with the help of the new French law against the will of the Jewish community, changes her surname at the same time as her first name, and henceforth calls herself Betty.
As a housewife and mother, she forms the center of her family; her strict values and goals on the one hand, and many freedoms and unrestricted love and acceptance on the other, form the basis for a secure childhood for her daughter and her three sons. For her sons, she insists on an excellent school education, paving the way for a brilliant academic career. For the daughter, at least, she enables a more comprehensive musical and thus cultural education. Considerable wealth acquired through her husband's successful business dealings, culture and a hospitable house ensure high standing and integration into bourgeois society. At the age of 40, Betty is part of the affluent bourgeois society in Düsseldorf, as aspired, and her life is rich in everything desirable.
The tide turns when business rapidly deteriorates with the Continental Blockade established by Napoleon. Moreover, after Napoleon's defeat, the Jews, as beneficiaries of French rule, are increasingly antagonized and deprived of their newfound acceptance. The prosperity of the merchant Samson Heine dwindles, and since he has also been suffering from epileptic seizures since 1814, the family has to turn to Samson's older brother for help in 1817. The latter is willing to take them in and accommodate them in Lüneburg, but this is accompanied by the loss of Samson's business and thus of independence. The dream of integration into bourgeois society is over.
Nevertheless, Betty Heine does not lose her zest for life and her strength. She adapts to the new situation, living extremely frugally in order to get by on the brother-in-law's money. The lack of business contacts or other longer personal acquaintances in the foreign city welds the family even closer together. Social life now takes place in the smallest of circles. Although the children are now all out of the house, Betty Heine continues to care for them intensively from a distance and takes a lively interest in their lives and the many initial difficulties of their professional careers, but without judging them or influencing their thinking.
After Samson's death in 1829, she set up her own household, which continued to be the center of attention for her sons, who were now scattered throughout Europe and quite successful in their careers. Countless letters are exchanged; Betty Heine also conducts negotiations with her famous son's publisher on his behalf. She is still very interested in literature and, despite her advanced age, is still very present and agile. She is loved, adored and cared for from near and far by her children until she finally succumbs to cholera at the age of 89.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version), edited by Luise F. Pusch.
Author: Anna Winkler
Literature & Sources
Düsseldorfer Frauen auf den Spuren: Wege durch die Geschichte der Stadt. Hg. Landeshauptstadt Düsseldorf, Der Oberstadtdirektor, Frauenbüro. Düsseldorf 1991.
Goch, Marianne. 1994. “Betty Heine (Peira van Geldern) (1770-1859): 'Alles ist veränderlich'”, in: Pusch, Luise F. Hg. 1994. Mütter berühmter Männer: Zwölf biographische Portraits. Frankfurt/M. Insel TB 1356. S. 159-217.
Heine, Heinrich. Werke und Briefe. Hg. Hans Kaufmann. Textrevision u. Erläuterungen von Gotthard Erler. 3. Aufl. 9. Bände. Bd. 8: Briefe 1815-1838. Bd. 9: Briefe 1839-1856. Berlin, Weimar 1980. Aufbau.
If you hold the rights to one or more of the images on this page and object to its/their appearance here, please contact Fembio.