Charlotte Wolff died in 1986 and today is little known beyond an esoteric reading public. Plunkett Lake Press has just released an electronic edition of her autobiography, “Hindsight,” first published in 1980.
Wolff led a remarkable life. As a student, she studied philosophy with both Husserl and Heidegger. Multi-faceted, she published poetry but ultimately she chose to study medicine and practiced as a physician in Berlin in the 1920s, attending to working class women.
She began to study the hand and this niche led her to cross paths with distinguished international artists, writers and painters including Andre Breton, Balthus, Walter Benjamin, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley and Man Ray, who photographed her in 1935.
From childhood, she was attracted to women; as she entered adulthood, the Berlin of the Weimar Republic was the perfect milieu in which to express and discover erotic love. The Weimar idyll ended brutally — unlike many other German Jews, Wolff was quick to recognize the need to flee Germany.
“My language was German,” she writes, adding, “I did not know then that there was a difference between German Gentiles and German Jews.” Her innocence shattered, she left for Paris where she spent a number of years before moving to London where she lived until her death, shortly before her 89th birthday.
Wolff was unable to practice as a physician for decades and as a psychotherapist turned her attention to more extensive research in chirology (hand reading) and sexology.
Judaism did not inform her daily life and in later life, her closest relationships tended to be with Quakers or devout Christians. Yet she lived her life as a Jew. “I was an international Jew for good, whether I was a stateless person or a citizen of another country,” she writes.
While institutionalized religion was not for Wolff, she describes how when confronted by anti-Semitism in England, in a moment of acute stress, “I shall never forget how suddenly I prayed and gave this problem over to whatever power there might be to take it on. I said in my prayer: I am committing this to a ‘higher court’. From that day onwards I was free.”
She was drawn to the prophets who inspired her poetry and to the Jews of Spain who gave her “a sense of pride, glamour and awe.” Maimonides particularly fired her imagination. “I worshipped his image as a disciple worships his teacher, and made him the model for my own aspirations.”
The book ends with her return to Berlin in the late 1970s where she was feted by younger generations of German feminists and gay women.
Sharon Anstey is a business consultant and writer in New York.