Forbidden LoveAnti-Semites who loved Jews—and the Jews who (sometimes) loved them back
In an oddity overlooked in the annals of human love, it has come to light that Adolf Hitler once loved a Jewish woman. Or, at least, he thought he did. As a moody teenager in Linz, Austria, the future Fuehrer’s youthful prejudices paled in the face of his crush on a local golden girl, Stefanie Isak, the lithe and well-dressed daughter of a widow. According to Hitler’s childhood friend and biographer August Kubizek, both young men assumed, based on her last name, that Isak was Jewish. Kubizek even went so far as to protect his friend’s reputation by keeping Isak’s name a secret throughout the Nazi era. In his 1953 memoir, The Young Hitler I Knew, Kubizek said he stayed mum out of “discretion.”
Already enamored with Richard Wagner’s operas, Hitler romanticized Isak as a Valkyrie with a soaring voice. He composed undelivered love poems that typically featured a damsel in velvet riding “a white steed over the flowering meadows.” Isak who, as it turned out, was not Jewish at all, barely knew Hitler existed. Still, the young man was sure his love was secretly returned even though, since he never spoke to her, his courting strategy resembled stalking. Every evening, he watched as she visited the town’s main plaza to flirt with handsome army officers. Isak’s tormented admirer nursed dark fantasies of kidnapping her, according to the loyal Kubizek. And, appalled by her love of dancing, he devised elaborate plots of murder-suicide even as he planned for their marriage.
If the Great Dictator himself could dream of marrying a girl he thought was Jewish, then it should come as no surprise that fellow Axis leader Benito Mussolini had similar tastes. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini did more than fantasize: The comely and fiercely intelligent Margherita Sarfatti—a Jew from a wealthy Venetian family—served as his mistress as well as a trusted political advisor who helped pave her lover’s way to power.
When they met in 1911, Sarfatti was 31, married to a Jewish lawyer and making a name for herself as an art critic and salonista while writing for Avanti, the Socialist party organ. Mussolini, then 28, was its new editor, bursting onto the Milan scene with a three-day growth of beard and what Sarfatti called the “glint of fanaticism in his eyes.” The rough-hewn, self-educated son of a blacksmith, Mussolini may have sensed that Sarfatti’s social confidence and connections—her husband, Cesare, once served as mayor of Milan—could prove valuable.
There was nothing particularly strange about their cross-cultural affair at the time. Italian radicals during and after World War I regularly fraternized with Jews, socially and politically, and many Jews migrated to fascism from Socialism and trade unionism. Sarfatti was one of these and spent the following two decades helping hone Mussolini’s message. She wrote a fawning biography and ghost-wrote articles under his byline for America’s Hearst Newspaper Service. She also enjoyed easy access, for afternoon liaisons, to his personal quarters. Mussolini’s uneducated wife, Rachele, sensed early on that Sarfatti stood apart from her husband’s hundreds of other conquests. “Of all your father’s women,” she told her son Romano Mussolini, “I was jealous only of those who had a place in his mind.”
Sarfatti must have approved when, at first, Mussolini openly dismissed Hitler’s racism as “scientific nonsense.” She remained at the heart of Il Duce’s world until the early 1930s, when he dropped her. Her fading looks played a role, but Sarfatti was also becoming a source of embarrassment; as Mussolini sought to project an increasingly muscular persona, deferring to an opinionated Jewish woman no longer fit his image. In 1937 he expunged all mention of Sarfatti from the political diary he had been keeping, with her help, for posterity. (Some of the pages were even in Sarfatti’s hand.) As Mussolini lowered his hammer on the Jews in 1938—banning inter-marriage, for instance, and restricting Jewish property ownership—Sarfatti fled to Argentina. Ultimately, her former paramour and his German allies would deport some 20 percent of Italy’s Jews, among them her sister, who died en route to Auschwitz.
The affinity of so-called pure races for Jews was not limited to men. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl never officially joined the Nazi Party but she made her career by glorifying Hitler and the Aryan ideal in party-funded documentaries like Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 101, spent more than half her life downplaying her Nazi ties, claiming total ignorance of the Final Solution and defending herself with lists of “Jewish friends.” But in a recent biography, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, writer Steven Bach finds she was an onlooker, albeit a shocked one, at a 1939 German Army massacre of Jewish civilians in Konskie, Poland. Bach also demonstrates that she knowingly used enslaved Gypsies from a nearby concentration camp as extras in her feature film, Tiefland.
The narcissistic Riefenstahl was a member of Hitler’s inner circle and, when it suited her craving for publicity, was delighted to hint that she had given the Fuehrer himself a little “Stefanie Isak” during the war. Whether or not she slept with him—and Hitler’s purported impotence makes it unlikely—the two were mutually worshipful.
A cunning knockout, Riefenstahl collected a Mussolini-like list of lovers, some of whom were Jews. One was a slender Austrian Jewish currency trader named Harry Sokal. A bon vivant and casino habitué, Sokal could have entertained few illusions about Riefenstahl’s sympathies: Once, sitting opposite him on a train, she thrust Hitler’s Mein Kampf under his nose, calling it a “beautiful book” and declaring its author “the coming man.” Seemingly good-natured in his gambling ways, however, Sokal pursued his alluring “ingénue” for years, lavishing her with fur coats, paying for her dance debut and bankrolling movies that might advance her career. Riefenstahl accepted his gifts while rejecting his occasional proposals of marriage until their passion (or her tolerance) flamed out. Sokal nevertheless continued investing in her projects and socializing with her as a neighbor in Weimar Berlin, almost to the day he fled Germany in 1933—a path taken by many of Riefenstahl’s other so-called Jewish “friends.”
Bach convincingly speculates that the only person Riefenstahl truly loved besides herself was her mother, Bertha Scherlach Riefenstahl—who may very well have been Jewish. Bertha’s mother died after giving birth to Bertha, her 18th child, prompting her widower to marry the children’s nanny. That the filmmaker recorded the nanny’s name—and not her true maternal grandmother’s name—on her Nazi-mandated “Proof of Descent” form has given weight to contemporary assertions that Riefenstahl was aware that she was of Jewish descent.
While Riefenstahl was criss-crossing the Reich making movies—a young Jewish law student from Vienna fled a slave labor camp and came to Germany with fake Christian documents provided by a friend. The 28-year-old Edith Hahn Beer was living under the name “Grete Denner” and working for the Red Cross when she met Werner Vetter on an art gallery bench on a hot August day in Munich in 1942, she recounts in her memoir, The Nazi Officer’s Wife. The tall, blonde Vetter, a vacationing Nazi Party member from Brandenburg, bore the swastika on his lapel but he nevertheless charmed her with his wryly heretical observations on art and cultural patronage under Hitler.
To her surprise, Beer found herself spending the following week with the art-loving Nazi. And when Vetter returned to see her in November, he proposed. “Werner was ready to jump on the train to Vienna and ask my father for my hand in marriage,” she wrote. “Where was I going to get a father?” Beer panicked and tried to put him off, but gentle demurrals failed. Overwhelmed by the pressure of her ruse and perhaps emboldened by Vetter’s own confession—he was not the bachelor he’d claimed and was actually in the midst of a divorce—Beer pulled him close and whispered the truth about her Jewish heritage. “Why, you little liar,” he grimly replied.
It was a heart-stopping moment for Beer, but Vetter’s equanimity quickly returned, along with his determination. “Let’s call it square and get married,” he decided. Over the following weeks, he pressed his case long-distance and Beer finally gave in. It was a fortuitous time to tie the knot: she feared a pending reassignment by the Red Cross would require paperwork that could expose her identity. “Here was this white knight in Munich, who came to me fearless and adoring, and he offered me not just safety but love,” she writes. “Of course I accepted.”
Beer hid from her enemies in plain sight as a good Brandenberg hausfrau married to an autocratic, white-glove-test husband who required her to cultivate a bland and dutiful demeanor. Soon pregnant, Beer recalled, “In a matter of little more than a year, I had gone from being the most despised creature in the Third Reich to being one of its most valued citizens, a breeding Aryan housewife.” Vetter was sent to the front lines where he was captured by the Soviets and imprisoned in Siberia. In his absence, Beer delivered daughter Angela in 1944—without anesthesia, for fear of what truths she might reveal in a drug-induced state. Angela is the only Jew known to have been born in a Reich hospital.
When the war ended, one of Beer’s first acts was to reclaim her name, retrieving the Jewish identity card she’d hidden at great hazard in the pages of a book. She found work as a family law judge in eastern Germany and, when Vetter returned in 1947—weakened, restless and unemployed—their marriage quickly dissolved. Grete, his hausfrau, was now Judge Beer, and he deplored his daughter’s “Jewish blood.” He left them and returned to his first wife.
Anti-Jewish sentiments—which existed long before the Third Reich was a gleam in Hitler’s eye—were present in the religious stew of first-century Rome, which also produced its own curious crossover relationships. Probably the most famous is that between Poppaea Sabina and Nero. Officially, Poppaea was not Jewish. When she left her first husband to marry the emperor in 62 C.E. at age 32, she was a member of the Judaistic cult known as “God-fearers”—a movement whose followers recognized and worshipped the Jewish God and were permitted to mingle with synagogue worshippers but were not generally expected to become full Jews.
Though Poppaea never converted, that didn’t stop her from acting on behalf of her “fellow” Hebrews. Josephus, the Jewish historian, urged her to intervene with Nero on behalf of a group of Jewish priests imprisoned in Jerusalem, and she did. She could do little, however, to protect the Jews from her husband after he was blamed for Rome’s disastrous Great Fire of 64 C.E. and cast about for scapegoats. While charges that he “fiddled” while the city burned were false, Nero was responsible for the punitive “blazes” that followed. As the historian Tacitus wrote of the emperor’s Jewish-Christian victims, “Dressed in wild animal’s skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight.”
A pregnant Poppaea herself died a year later, either from a miscarriage or an angry kick from her husband, according to competing legends. Nero gave her a state funeral, then went on persecuting Jews.
The modern era has seen its share of Jew-haters—be they commanding armies or wielding pens—who have loved Jews. Among the many cultural icons are Henry Miller and his June, née Smerdt; Fritz Kreisler and his Harriet; Alma Mahler and her two or three Jewish husbands; and Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. While the intensity of their bigotry is destined to be debated, few contest the anti-Semitism of a lesser literary light of the 20th century, horror writer Howard Phillips (“H.P.”) Lovecraft.
A neurasthenic Yankee blue-blood, Lovecraft lived until age 30 with his remote mother and austere aunts in a small Rhode Island town. When he met Sonia Greene at a 1922 writer’s conference, he had never kissed a woman. A Ukrainian Jew seven years his senior, Greene was a divorced single mother of charm, intelligence and independent means, blessed with what her friends called “Junoesque good looks.” A hatmaker, she was a Donna Karan of her day—a Jewish girl making good in the rag trade. For fun, she dabbled in writing, a hobby which led to her encounter with Lovecraft.
They fell in love through words—chiefly Lovecraft’s, whose letters could go on for as many as 20 pages. Marrying two years later, they settled in Brooklyn, where Greene opened a hat shop. Lovecraft, however, soon objected to sharing crowded city streets, “where white men once moved” with immigrant Jewish hordes—“a loathsome Asiatic stock broken and dragged through the dirt for centuries.” Greene would interrupt his rants with gentle reminders that she, too, was a member of the tribe, but her chastising appears to have done little good. Lovecraft may have been even blunter in his letters than in person. “The only thing that makes life endurable where Blacks abound,” he wrote, “is the Jim Crow principle, and I wish they’d apply it in New York both to Niggers and to the more Asiatic types of puffy, rat-faced Jews.”
Greene, who famously described her second husband as “an adequately excellent lover,” must have tired of his tirades. Although they never officially divorced, their union lasted only two years. In 1926, she burned Lovecraft’s letters and left for the Midwest while he returned to the aunts up north.
Lovecraft’s opinions about Jews were temperate compared to those of 19th-century German writer and political agitator Wilhelm Marr. When this self-styled “patriarch of anti-Semitism” began his first anti-Jewish campaigns in the 1860s, however, he couldn’t have been called “anti-Semitic” because he hadn’t yet popularized the term. Until the day of Yom Kippur 1879, when Marr officially formed Germany’s Anti-Semitic League, Jewry’s enemies of all stripes—nativist, blood libelist, politically radical from left to right—had operated without an identifying label.
Throughout the 1840s, Marr had actually enjoyed friendships and alliances with many Socialist and atheist Jews on the radical fringes of Germany’s Restoration politics. He even had Jewish business partners. But financial setbacks and disappointment in his political allies gradually led him to a studiedly anti-Jewish platform.
In 1854, before this ideological transition, a 35-year-old Marr married Bertha Callenbach, who was half Jewish. Money appears to have sweetened the match for Marr, who later complained that his “soul knew no peace” in their time together. That he stayed with her for 20 years may have been related to the fact that their divorce required him to give up a comfortable allowance of 1,000 talers a month.
He finally forsook the income when he fell in love for real—this time with a completely Jewish woman whom he pursued through letters. Marr described his second wife, the 38-year-old Helene Behrend, as “not rich, not young, and not pretty,” yet she was his dream woman. He was devastated when she died from a miscarriage in 1874, just 19 months after they married. Being a newspaper writer, Marr eulogized her publicly and reader response brought him—again through letters—to wife number three. In Jenny Kornick’s condolence note, she described herself as a 28-year-old widow with problems of her own, which she enumerated in great detail. Marr apparently found this alluring, and their correspondence led to a wedding just seven months after Behrend’s death.
The match immediately proved a mistake. Kornick had lied in her letters—for starters, she was divorced rather than widowed—and proved in person volatile and mean-spirited. It’s not clear what she told Marr initially about her background, but Kornick, like Callenbach, was half Jewish. They split within two years but only after a son was born, rendering the divorce costly for the eternally strapped Marr, who never regained solid financial footing.
By age 59, Marr had finished with Jewish women altogether. To share his coming material ruin and quarter century of physical decline, he settled on a pure Aryan from the working class 26 years his junior. As he aged, the man who defined anti-Semitism for the modern era applied his “scientific” theories of eugenics to his own marital experiences, struggling to reconcile his ideology with his past loves. He concluded that the key difference between the beloved Helene Behrend and his two half-Jewish wives was simply that Behrend was a “pureblood” Jew. An unmixed inheritance, he reasoned, even if Jewish, would always come out on top.
This explanation, devised to rationalize the wiles of Marr’s (Jew-loving) heart, is likely to impress neither Jews nor Jew haters. Still, it is a fascinating attempt to marry love and loathing.
Mandy Katz is an associate editor at Moment. Her most recent story is “Was Einstein a Jewish Saint?”