In the era that was truly theirs, from 1762 until 1933, the Mendelssohn family created a cultural heritage of pragmatic idealism paired with a sense of responsibility for the society in which they lived. As bridge-builders between tradition and progress, they strongly influenced the awareness and assimilation of German Jews over five generations, while also shaping the development of the Christian majority culture of Berlin, Prussia, and Germany: as writers, intellectuals, scientists, musicians, painters, bankers, and entrepreneurs.
The “Jew of Berlin”
When the 14-year-old student of the Talmud, Moses, decides to move from Dessau to Berlin in 1743, he kicks off the golden age of German-Jewish cultural transfers. Adopting the name of Moses Mendelssohn in the Prussian state, he introduces his fellow Jews to the treasure trove of German culture by his translations, speeding their path to emancipation and assimilation. In Berlin, this guest worker from Saxony-Anhalt and his wife Fromet from Altona are initially treated as immigrants with next to no rights. After all, they belong to the “Jewish Nation,” a term that both Jews and Gentiles would use well into the late 19th century. Their children, however, manage to attain Prussian citizenship and become German patriots, with most of them accepting Christian baptism. Thus, 1880 marks the passing of the last avowedly Jewish member of the family: Marianne Mendelssohn, widow of the banker Alexander Mendelssohn (3rd generation).
Based on the pride the baptized Mendelssohn descendants feel for their patriarch and their family’s Jewish roots, or in reaction to the growing anti-Semitism that begins to develop in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and finally under the pressure of the brutal Nazi persecutions, many members of the family develop a new and personal connection to the faith of their ancestors. Thus, the 20th century sees many of the descendants living in Germany, Israel, and the United States convert back to Judaism. Of the roughly 4,000 descendants of Moses Mendelssohn whose names have been researched, more than 750 are alive today. Of these, more than 600 live outside of Germany in various parts of the world. Thus, the Mendelssohn family, whose successive generations regarded themselves as Jewish, Prussian, and finally German, has since grown into a multi-confessional international clan with Jewish and Prussian roots in Germany.
The second generation
Coming of age during decades of revolutionary ferment, all the members of the second generation of the Mendelssohns charts their own course, inspired by either the Enlightenment or by Romanticism. They include Joseph (1770 – 1848) and his brother Abraham (1776 – 1835), the founders of the Mendelssohn banking house. When Abraham leaves the firm, he leaves the Jewish faith behind as well. And there is Brendel/Dorothea (1764 – 1839), the daughter of Moses and Fromet who scandalizes the family by divorcing her Jewish husband and becoming a Protestant in order to marry her second husband Friedrich Schlegel (1772 – 1829), whom she later joins in converting to Catholicism.
The third generation
By the third generation, the Mendelssohns, be they Jewish or Christian, have attained significant social standing. Their political leanings diverge widely, however. Abraham Mendelssohn takes on the additional surname of Bartholdy upon his conversion to Christianity in 1822. His four children, whom he already had baptized in 1816, see themselves as loyal Prussian subjects and adherents to the Lutheran state religion. But this does not stop Rebecka Dirichlet, née Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1811 – 1858), from working actively for the pro-democracy movement during the revolution of 1848, while her cousin Arnold Mendelssohn (1817 – 1854) even joins the extreme leftist camp; after serving a prison sentence, he dies in exile in the Orient. The politics of the painter Philipp Veit (1793 – 1877), meanwhile, range from monarchist to downright reactionary. In the diversity of its outlooks, the third generation serves as a mirror of the larger society with which it identifies.
The fourth generation
The fourth generation, influenced by the then-prevalent “Historicism,” celebrates its prestigious ancestors. Thus, Sebastian (1830 – 1898), son of Fanny and Wilhelm Hensel, publishes the bestselling Die Familie Mendelssohn, in which he paints an idealized picture of a cultured bourgeois Germany family of Jewish origin – against the backdrop of anti-Semitic attitudes that are gaining increased social acceptance in the late 19th century. The economic and cultural boom that follows the founding of the German Empire (Reich) is also a time of rapid growth for Mendelssohn & Co., which becomes Berlin’s largest private banking house. The Mendelssohns accept the responsibility that this entails by setting up social and cultural endowments and by serving as patrons of the arts. In 1888, 1896 and 1907, respectively, three of the Mendelssohn bankers are nobilitated. Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1841 – 1880), a son of the composer Felix, becomes a key player in Germany’s industrial boom as the founder of the chemical corporation AGFA.
In the “Third Reich”
A patriotic monarchist who eventually becomes a loyal supporter of the Weimar Republic, Franz von Mendelssohn II (1865 – 1935) earns widespread admiration as an influential banker and captain of industry. Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1874 – 1936), a grandson of Felix, establishes the Institut für auswärtige Politik (Institute for Foreign Policy) in Hamburg with the assistance of the Warburg Bank. Its mission is to educate the German public, relative newcomers to democracy, on the unfamiliar aspects of international relations and international law. He dies an exile in Oxford, England, just one year after the two heads of the Berlin bank, Franz von Mendelssohn II and Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1875 – 1935). Among the many family members who emigrate during the “Third Reich” are Eleonora (1900 – 1951), an actress, and Francesco von Mendelssohn (1901 – 1972), a cellist. These siblings of the sixth generation had experienced the wild and glamorous Roaring Twenties as the pampered scions of a wealthy banking dynasty. Sadly, their lives go on a protracted downward spiral in the United States. In 1938, Mendelssohn & Co. is taken over and liquidated by Deutsche Bank at the behest of the Nazi regime. During the war, two additional members of the Mendelssohn family, Elisabeth Westphal (1865 – 1942) and Marie-Louise Hensel (1894 – 1942), commit suicide just before being deported, respectively while imprisoned by the Gestapo. Many of their relatives go into hiding and abandon their “Jewish” names; their assets are expropriated. Other family members fall in battle while serving in the Wehrmacht.
The family members
At the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft, you can explore German-Jewish history through the saga of the Mendelssohns! You will find more detailed biographies of some of the members of the family on this website.
Additional biographies will follow in the months to come.