Sunday, 12 February 2012
Who was Benjamin's wife?
Dora Sophie (to differentiate her from Benjamin’s sister, Dora Benjamin) was born in 1890 in Vienna as the daughter of the Jewish Viennese Professor of English, Leon Kellner. Family life endowed her with a knowledge of English, which subsequently served her well; and she developed a passion for music while growing up. (Benjamin, in contrast, had only a rudimentary knowledge of the English language and almost none at all of music). At age 21, she married an affluent journalist and philosophical pedagogue, Max Pollack, who was a member of Benjamin’s circle in Berlin at the outbreak of World War I. Dora Sophie Pollack was so smitten by 22-year old Walter Benjamin’s inaugural speech as Chairman of the Free Students Union that she presented him with roses. A year later, they were traveling together, and after her divorce from Max Pollack, they married in 1917. During their marriage, Dora Sophie provided the bulk of their income, first as bilingual secretary, subsequently through journalistic work, later through editorship of the magazine Die praktische Berlinerin, and finally through fiction writing; her novel Gas gegen Gas appeared in 1930. Their only son, Stefan, was born in 1918, while Benjamin studied for his doctorate in Bern. As Dora Sophie wrote in a letter to Scholem, she wanted a partner who could give meaning to her life, while Walter needed protection from suicide. Neither motivation preserved their rocky marital relationship, which ended in 1930. The judicial record of their divorce proceeding presents a sordid melodrama full of sexual infidelities and quarrels over money. After Hitler’s rise to power, Dora Sophie Benjamin moved to Italy, where she first served as cook and later owner of the Hotel Miramare in San Remo. On several occasions she provided refuge to her penniless former husband at the hotel. In 1938, she undertook a marriage of convenience with a South African businessman, which enabled her to move in 1938 to London with her son Stefan. She died there in 1964.