Sisterhood Blog

#TBT: Rosa Hilferding's Haunted Gaze

By Chana Pollack

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Dr. Rosa Hilferding, June 1941 // Forward Assocation

Peering into Dr. Rosa Hilferding’s eyes as she gazes directly at the camera, posed in front of the Forverts’ photo file cabinets in this riveting seated portrait, one might grasp but a hint of what transpired prior to the photo session in our old East Broadway building one June day in 1941.

A physician herself, Hilferding was born into a Hungarian Jewish family and married to Austrian Jewish Marxist economist Rudolf Hilferding. They eventually expatriated to Berlin, Germany in the early 1900s, where he eventually became Finance Minister and then Reichstag spokesman for the Social Democratic Party in the Weimar Republic.

The Hilferdings fled Germany with Hitler’s rise to power, along with other party members — first to Denmark, then Paris and Zurich. Returning to Paris in 1939, Rudolph Hilferding remained the focal point of the German Socialist Party in exile. When France fell to the Nazis, the Hilferdings successfully escaped to Marseilles. Eventually, Rudolph Hilferding was turned over to the Gestapo by Vichy police.

At that point in February 1941, Rosa Hilferding told the Forverts, having survived a Paris so congested by the occupation that all one saw there were Nazis — the French basically acted as “kidnappers” for the Gestapo, happy to hand over their prey. Since then, there had been no word from her husband. She remained in Arles in Provence, attempting to establish contact with him to send him clothing, food and cigarettes —  to no avail. She left the country.

By the time this photo was taken, she had journeyed to safety from Marseilles first to Martinique where she applied for a US visa only to witness her ship being overtaken by the Dutch who sought out Nazi agents reportedly on board.

Diverted to Trinidad where the captured agents were detained, the ship was forwarded to Winnipeg, Canada and finally — New York City.

By the fall of 1941, it was understood that Rudoph Hilferding had been tortured to death by his Nazi captors. Rosa Hilferding eventually resettled herself in Boston where she was employed in her field.


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