LOVE ACROSS COLOR LINES
Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass

By MARIA DIEDRICH

HILL and WANG
A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1999 Maria Diedrich. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8090-1613-3



Chapter One


A MOUNT CALVARY OF JOY


Ottilie Assing's Childhood and Youth


* * *


And you, who pretends to be a stranger!
You renegade—denying
The pious race of your ancestors
Ashamed of your Father and your Mother.
You deny the customs of your stricken people
And join, you traitor,
The enemy with words of ridicule:
So that your ruthless children,
An alienated race, throw stones
At your Father's head
And tousle his gray beard.
—Salomon Ludwig Steinheim, "Gesänge aus der Verbannung,
welche sang Obadiah ben Amos im Lande Ham"
(Songs from Exile, sung by Obadiah ben Amos in the Land of Ham)


* * *


Slowly, hesitantly the young woman came into the room. The blue curtains ofthe only window in this small, sparsely furnished chamber were drawn, as if tobanish the warm glow of the setting sun outside, but on this unusually brightafternoon of 22 January 1840, the sun was still powerful enough to penetratethe dark cloth, and consequently the room was tinged a surreal, watery blue.Did the woman realize that she was crossing the room on tiptoe? As if in slowmotion, she pulled back the curtains, and a warm light fell on the face of theelderly woman who could now be seen lying on the bed. She had the look of onewho is just awaking from a restful afternoon nap. For a long time the youngwoman stood motionless; she seemed unwilling to disturb the other's rest andfascinated with the healthy rosiness which the sun painted on that still face.Finally she walked toward the bed, again on tiptoe, and gently brushed a lockof gray hair from the sleeper's face.

    Rosa Maria Assing had died the night before, just before sunrise, surroundedby her husband David, her daughters Ottilie and Ludmilla, and their maid,Cappel. Seven months before, a sharp pain had forced her to her sickbed, butalthough David, a physician, had warned her to stay in bed and rest, she hadignored his worried face and had soon insisted on taking up her usual routineof supervising her household and on welcoming the many friends who came toexpress their relief at her recovery. Then the pain had returned, sharper thanbefore, and, with it, a paralyzing exhaustion. Dr. Salomon Steinheim wasconsulted, the Jewish physician from Altona who was one of the family's mostintimate friends, and he confirmed what David refused to accept: Rosa Mariaobviously suffered from cancer; there was no hope. Every day she found itharder to fight the longing for rest that had begun to penetrate her body.Every day it became more difficult to ridicule her daughters for their concern,to force an encouraging smile on David's face. Why was she so relieved whenfriends whose companionship she had enjoyed for years left her bedside afterthe briefest visit, when, finally, David denied them access to the sickroom?Knowing her love of nature, these friends hoped that death would wait to claimher till spring, so that the fertile, reawakening soil, which she hadcelebrated in a song—"adorned like a bride, bathed in full blessing / I seethe soil resplendent with the luster of spring"—would embrace and cover her.She died on 22 January 1840, in "a savagely stormy night, with the thunder ofthe cannon warning of the dangers of the rising flood tide of the Elbe River."

    Ottilie had secluded herself in her room all day, as had her younger sisterLudmilla, while their father had sat by his wife, unable to part from the womanwho had just left him. Ottilie had heard the footsteps and the soft voices offriends and relatives who came to pay their last respects. Finally, Dr.Steinheim had arrived, Uncle Steinheim, as the Assing girls called him, andwith his quiet, firm authority he had taken David to his room.

    Now, as she looked down on her mother's face, Ottilie experienced reliefbordering on joy. None of the contortions of pain which had marred Rosa Maria'smature beauty in the last weeks of incessant torture, none of the artificialsmiles for her daughters, none of the dead vacancy produced by morphineremained. Only peace, and the warm glow of the evening sun. Brushing back hermother's hair behind her ears Ottilie bent over the still face and calmlyremoved the aquamarine earrings Rosa Maria had worn ever since her mother hadpassed them on to her on her wedding day. Ottilie had always associated hermother with those earrings. In fact, it would be hard to say what had firstfound entrance into the baby girl's nascent memory as her eyes began to focusand differentiate—that smiling face with its abundant blond hair and brightblue eyes, or those light blue flowers, like forget-me-nots from which a petalseemed to drop. How cool these stones had always seemed to her prying littlefingers! Yes, they were hers, hers from a memory that knew no beginning, andhers as the elder daughter. Rosa Maria would have given them to her on herwedding day, just as she, in turn, had received them from her mother. RosaMaria was dead, and Ottilie her legitimate heiress. From now on she was anadult—no longer just Rosa Maria's child but a woman in her own right andresponsibility.

    Ottilie removed the shawl which covered the mirror in the dead woman'schamber and attached the blue flowers to her earlobes. How familiar they lookedon her! Her mother's face had once been bright and healthy, surrounded by blondtresses too abundant to be tamed, and on her the aquamarines had competed withthe deep blue of her vivacious, sparkling eyes. Ottilie resembled her mother:her face was as full as Rosa Maria's, and she prided herself on her skin of thesame warm texture. Her hair was darker blond, but just as rich and untamable.On her the aquamarines seemed darker, almost the color of the cornflowers sheso loved. Ottilie smiled at what she saw in the mirror, for this transformationmade them all hers. She could hardly remove her eyes from the empowering imagethe mirror reflected.

    So absorbed was she in herself that not a sound escaped her even when sheturned around to leave the room and walked right into Ludmilla, standingmotionless in the doorway. Like white marble. Cold. Silent. Breathless. Ottiliequickly recovered her composure and, throwing back her head in a movement ofproud defiance, walked past her sister, invested with all the dignity of hernew role. Suddenly Ludmilla's hand shot up, slapping Ottilie across the face.All the tension that had grown in two decades between sisters competing fortheir parents' love now exploded over the possession of a pair of blue flowers.

    Cappel, who had separated the fighting sisters since their first toddlerwars, stormed upstairs, breathless with horror at the two young ladiesscreaming, biting, scratching in the presence of their mother's corpse. But herauthority failed her in the face of this unstoppable torrent. Ottilie andLudmilla did not notice that David's door had opened. "Stop. Please." It was anutterance soft as a breath, and it did not penetrate their enraged minds. Thenthe command was repeated, in a voice which, always gentle and somber, was nowso lifeless that it pierced through their screams. They stopped abruptly andturned toward this pale stillness, two as one. For an eternity they faced eachother, David's eyes seemed unable to focus, yet when they finally caught thefamiliar coolness of the aquamarines, a smile played around his lips. Withoutsaying a word he approached Ottilie and took her in his arms. Then, steppingback, grasping both her hands, his eyes fastened on hers, he took leave of hischild to acknowledge the presence of a woman. There was no doubt that heapproved the metamorphosis caused by loss, and without speaking a single wordhe passed the authority that had been Rosa Maria's and his to the daughter whohad already claimed it. He knew it was in good hands, and he was relieved, forthis would make it easier for him to follow the one who just departed.

    Ludmilla stood motionless as David resumed his watch at Rosa Maria's bed andOttilie returned to her room. The girls' childhood was over. The sisters'rivalry had turned to hatred.


In February 1818 Harriet Bailey, a slave woman in Talbot County, Maryland,gave birth to a baby boy. She named him Frederick August Washington Bailey.Not long after, mother and son were separated, Harriet Bailey toiling awayfor a Mr. Stewart, to whom she had been hired out, and Frederick being handedover to his grandparents Betsy and Isaac Bailey, in whose cottage he spent hisearly childhood days. Frederick was six years old when his grandmother tookhim by the hand to walk with him to the Great House, delivering the propertyto his owner. Unable to bear the pain of separation that would be certain tooverwhelm the little boy, she stole away as Frederick was playing with his halfsisters and brothers. "Almost heart-broken at this discovery, I fell upon theground and wept a boy's bitter tears," he would remember many years later. "Ihad never been deceived before and something of resentment mingled with mygrief at parting with my grandmother." At only six, Frederick discovered hisexistential loneliness. He was a slave, the property of a white man, yet whosechild was he? His mother sometimes walked miles to see him, arriving afterdark, after a full day's work, sitting with him as he drifted off to sleep, butshe was gone in the morning. A cherished moment with her came one night whenshe protected him against the wrath of the plantation cook. For the first timein his life Frederick knew "that I was not only a child, but somebody'schild." But then she stayed away, and somebody told him she had died. There wasno father to embrace the boy as his. There were rumors about Aaron Anthony, thegeneral plantation superintendent of the Lloyd property, the man who hadsavagely beaten Frederick's aunt Hester for choosing a black lover over him,who had punished Frederick when he did not perform properly, and who sometimespatted him on the head, calling him his "little Indian boy." Anthony died in1827, only a year after Harriet Bailey. His daughter, Miss Lucretia—Frederick'shalf sister?—took pleasure in treating the bright little slave to an extraration of food, and at times she even had a caress for him. He was somebody'sproperty; he was somebody's plaything. He was nobody's child.

    At age eight he was sent to Baltimore, to serve the Hugh Auld family as acompanion to their little boy, Thomas. Sophia Auld gave in to Frederick's urgentpleas to teach him his ABCs, but her husband interfered, believing that aneducated black boy made a bad slave. Frederick did what his proud mother haddone before him: he stole what his white masters withheld from him—the writtenword. He used those words to learn about human rights, to teach otherslaves the skills whites claimed as their prerogative, to write freedom passes.He was a man unfit for slavery, a man whom the slave-breaker Covey mightterrorize but whose thirst for freedom and knowledge no white master, no whipcould stifle.

    He was twenty when, disguised as a sailor and equipped with money fromthe free black woman Anna Murray, he escaped to the free North on 3 September1838. He renamed himself Frederick Douglass. He was twenty-three, marriedto Anna Murray, and the father of two children when he launched his careeras an abolitionist orator in the Garrisonian camp and devoted his life andskills to the liberation of his enslaved race. The slave child Frederick Baileyhad not only reimagined himself as a human being and liberated himself; he hadnot only educated himself. At an age when contemporary white American menwere usually just beginning to understand their adult responsibilities, he hadalready transformed himself into the liberator of America's bondspeople andrace leader.


Nothing could be more different from Frederick Douglass' first two decadesthan Ottilie Assing's childhood and youth. She was born in Hamburg, Germany,on 11 February 1819, as the oldest child of a highly respected middle-classfamily. The Assings were almost prototypes of what we today call theeducated German bourgeoisie. Ottilie and her sister Ludmilla, born on 22February 1821, grew up in an intellectual environment in which education wasregarded as a secular form of individual salvation, and their parents, RosaMaria Antoinette Pauline Assing (1783-1840) and Assur David Assing (1787-1842)provided them with a training highly conducive to the children's naturalintellectual curiosity and their longing for autonomy.

    Rosa Maria Assing came of a well-known family of German physicians withstrong liberal, if not openly radical, leanings. She was born to parents whospent a lifetime defying convention: her mother, Anna Maria Varnhagen, néeKunz (1755-1826), was the well-educated daughter of a magistrate fromStrasbourg, baptized in the Lutheran faith; her father, Johann Andreas JakobVarnhagen (1756-99), was a physician from Düsseldorf and a Catholic.Contemporaries denounced intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants asmisalliances that challenged established religious boundaries, yet thesecontroversies failed to deter the young couple. And their defiance did not stopthere: violating the regulations of the Roman Catholic Church that children ofmixed marriages be raised in the Catholic faith, the couple respected eachother's convictions enough and cared too little about religion to bring uptheir firstborn, Rosa Maria, as a Lutheran, her brother, Karl August Varnhagenvon Ense (1785-1858), as a Catholic! Defiance became a family tradition.

    Though born in Düsseldorf on 28 May 1783, Rosa Maria grew up in Strasbourg,her father having accepted a teaching position at the university there.Her parents became enthusiastic disciples of the French Revolution. "To belongto the new empire of Liberty and Law, of the bourgeoisie and of brotherly loveseemed the most happy fate intelligent, noble people could partake of," theirson remembered. When the Revolution actually reached Strasbourg in 1792,however, the university was shut down and Varnhagen had to leave the city. Hewas appalled by the violence that he believed was perverting the original ideaof the Revolution, and when he said so publicly, he was told in no uncertainterms that he had better make a home elsewhere. After an odyssey through severalGerman states he and his son finally settled in Hamburg, where he struggled tomake a living as a physician. He was a man who had lost his place: on the onehand, his critical attitude toward the perversions of the Revolution forced himto leave France; on the other hand, his German contemporaries suspected himof being a French spy. Rosa Maria and her more militant mother, who was appalledat her husband's skepticism, remained in Strasbourg, residing at MonsieurKunz's house on the Place du Corbeau. Here the girl was educated by hermother and by excellent private tutors. At a very early age, she was bilingualin French and German; she soon gained an easy command of English and Italian;and she could read Latin as well as Greek and Old French. Her mother not onlyencouraged her to read without restriction but also emboldened her to write.

    In 1796 the women joined Johann and Karl August in Hamburg, reluctantly,for they hated to give up their freedom and mobility, and also becausetheir political differences had caused a rift between husband and wife. It wasonly a brief reunion: Johann died in June 1799, receiving a Protestant burial inHamburg's pauper cemetery. The small amount of money the family had wentto Karl August, who went off to Berlin to enter a Prussian cadet school, whileAnna Maria Varnhagen supported herself by needlework. Rosa Maria seemedto have no future, but she was well prepared to fend for herself: despite heryouth—she was sixteen—her superior education enabled her to get a position asa live-in governess for the two daughters of a wealthy Jewish family in Hamburg.Upper-class Jews of the day often preferred to have German tutors fortheir children, hoping this would increase their chances for integration. AGerman teacher represented command of literate German, and she or he could beexpected to provide the social skills that were essential in polite Germansociety. Through her employers, Rosa Maria soon began to associate with thecity's Jewish intelligentsia and was a frequent guest in the Hertz mansion,where Fanny Hertz ruled as the city's most distinguished salonnière. Therelationship to the Hertzes became even more intimate when Rosa Maria's brotherwas hired as the children's tutor and a love interest developed between him andthe capricious Fanny.

    Rosa Maria's life was anything but lonely; her education and her livelyinterest in intellectual pursuits, in politics and literature, in art andsocial matters as well as her own writing made her an attractive companion tothe young intellectuals to whom her brother introduced her—the poet,dramatist, and society lion Adalbert von Chamisso; aspiring poets of the youngRomantic school, Justinus Kerner, Ludwig Uhland, Gustav Schwab, and Karl Mayer.Her excellent French made her a well-liked guest in the homes of many refugeeswho had come to Hamburg in the wake of the Revolution. Contemporaries describedher as an engaging woman, her attraction coming less from physical beautythan from her generous and vivacious nature. She was of medium height, wellproportioned, with fair, curly hair and blue eyes, and her friends frequentlypraised the fresh and healthy texture of her skin.

    While living in a luxurious Jewish mansion next to the famous Hamburgpuppet theater, Rosa Maria made friends who were to accompany her for therest of her life: Amalie Weise (Schoppe) and Justinus Kerner. Amalie, six yearsyounger and also a governess, adored the more mature Rosa Maria, who notonly embraced her as a sister but also introduced her to her lively circle offriends. No doubt it was this group that awakened in Amalie a desire to competewith what they all did profusely—writing. After a brief disastrous marriageto her former tutor, Dr. Schoppe, Amalie Schoppe, now the mother ofthree boys, eventually became one of Germany's most prolific writers. Schoppewas later to call her friend, who had pointed out this road to her, "the gem ofmy life, the rose without thorns, who beautifies and elevates the wreath of myhappiness through fragrance, form, and color to the utmost." Her love of RosaMaria was passionate enough for contemporaries to suspect lesbian motivations.

    Even more important for Rosa Maria's future was her relationship to JustinusKerner, a young physician and aspiring poet of the Romantic School fromTübingen. After graduating from university, he was touring Germany and Austria,and in 1809 he spent a few months with his brother Georg in Hamburg.Rosa Maria fell passionately in love with this tall, gaunt, pale young man, andfor a time at least Kerner seemed to share her feelings. She was a womanunconventional enough to encourage his wildest dreams, so how could he not beattracted to her? In a letter to his poet friend Uhland he raved: "By God, tohave a puppet theater would be my truest joy, and you could live well on it.Rosa would immediately tour with me.... What a divine life that would be,and we would ridicule every husband in his marital bed!" The enamoredyoung woman was too happy to heed her friends' warning against this liaison:"rather would I suffer a bitter death / than languish from this kind oflonging!" she wrote in her poem "Romance." A true daughter of Romanticism,she accepted love as the great definer, and she was determined to live herconviction by giving herself unconditionally. In a short, untitled poem of thisperiod she confessed:


In a fragrant forest
Through which a pure spring rippled,
Songs and flowers sprouted,
And where the sun shone brightly through the green,
There we became one ...


Love, she claimed in lines that eroticized nature, was not just a dreamlikestate of emotional ecstasy but tangible, physical. She celebrated sexualconsummation in "Song of Spring"—"With a thousand pleasures / My love life hadbegun"—and she embraced the desire and passion she experienced, affirming that"we drifted in an ocean of lust."

    Her happiness did not last, for very soon she had to realize that Kernerregarded their relationship only as an affair; he offered friendship where shewas "consumed by hot amber inside." He tried to soften the blow by treating herwith unwavering kindness, but his friendliness only increased her pain.Referring to a popular literary theme of the time, the death of a lover on thebattlefield, she insisted that the loss of the lover to friendship is asterrifying to the one left behind as a loss through death:


I, too, have lost my lover,
But not on a bloody field;
Healthy and full of joy he walks
About our town.


The poetry she composed during the years following this encounter was permeatedwith images of suffering, wasting, and death.

    Kerner left Hamburg in September 1809 for Berlin, Nuremberg, and Vienna,then returned to Swabia, where he practiced medicine in Weinsberg and,together with Uhland, Schwab, and Mayer, became a prominent member of theSwabian Romantic School. Rosa Maria and he corresponded regularly, and herpoetry, simply signed "Rosa Maria," was published in the annual poetryanthologies which he and his friends edited. Kerner later named his eldestdaughter Rosa Maria.

Justinus Kerner introduced Rosa Maria to the man with whom she chose tospend the rest of her life: David Assur, a Jewish physician from Königsberg, inEast Prussia. His parents, wealthy merchants, were orthodox Ashkenazim, hismother, Caja, née Mendel, coming from Courland, his father, Ascher (or Assur)Levy, from Posnania. In her autobiography of 1860-61 David Assur's niece, thenovelist Fanny Lewald, mentioned miniature portraits of David's parents:


Grandmother's was of a pale woman with a quiet clever gaze, dressed all in white, a lace kerchief covering her throat and breast, and wearing a white lace headdress that fit closely to her forehead and temples and let not a single strand of hair show. She wore beautiful large pearl earrings and a matching necklace. Grandfather had a refined face with light blue eyes, a small powdered wig, a blue coat with large buttons; they were both the very picture of cozy cleanliness and peace. There was something solemn about their physiognomies ...

His enormous wealth enabled Ascher Levy, Sr., to retire early and live off hisinvestments; at a time when it was hardly common practice for Christians toassociate with Jews, prominent citizens of Königsberg, among them thephilosopher Immanuel Kant, treated him with the greatest respect. Thoughfrugal in their private life, the Assurs were eager to display a splendid outerappearance, and David later described to Ottilie and Ludmilla their spaciousmansion, situated across from the royal bank, near the Green City Gate, onthe corner of Kneiphof Langgasse and Magisterstrasse, which boasted a salonwith furniture covered in yellow damask and huge mirrors. Here his parentslavishly entertained their masked and unmasked guests at Purim, the Jewishcarnival.

    Jewish customs were carefully respected; Passover, the Festival of Booths,and the Day of Atonement were solemnly observed. David's youngest sisterZippora later told her children


how our grandparents had summoned all their children on the eve of Yom Kippur and blessed them, how Grandmother, in a white dress edged with exquisite lace, would accompany Grandfather to the synagogue, how they would not return until late in the evening, how a servant would quietly divest Grandmother of her stylish yellow-lined black taffeta, how they would fast on the following day, and not break the fast until the stars appeared that night. Then life had resumed its normal course.


    David Assur was born on 12 December 1787, the youngest of five sons in afamily that eventually boasted twelve children. Following the tradition ofwell-to-do upper-class Jews, the girls were taught what Lewald ridiculed as"French, music, dancing, and other superficial skills," and they even hired atutor for "charm," but as their father considered women's education a luxury,their tutoring was stopped immediately after their mother's death. The boys,however, received superior training, for wealthy Jewish fathers, successful butuneducated merchants, prided themselves on their ability to educate their maleoffspring for the professions—as professors, physicians, writers,intellectuals. David, a small, frail boy, spent more time than any of hissiblings with his tutor, reading voraciously and writing his own poetry; andhis father eventually sent him to Halle, Tübingen, Göttingen, and Vienna tostudy medicine. On 26 August 1807, David Assur received his medical doctoratefrom the university of Königsberg.

    Though raised in an orthodox Jewish environment, David, growing up inKant's Königsberg, could not avoid being exposed to Enlightenment philosophy,and to his father's chagrin he became a disciple of the Enlightenmentand its Jewish counterpart, represented by leading intellectuals like MosesMendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The creed David Assur eventuallyadopted combined a firm Enlightenment belief in human equality with popularcontemporary notions of cultural hierarchy and progress. He was not aloneamong the Jewish intelligentsia in seeing the Jewish subculture as inferior toGerman bourgeois culture. Like many prominent Jewish intellectuals of his daywho adopted the Enlightenment concept of moral individualism, he assumedthat large parts of the German Jewry had degenerated, and, convinced thatdegeneration was largely a cultural phenomenon, the result of poverty anddiscrimination, he hoped that new social and educational ideals could be devisedby an enlightened generation to initiate and support a process of regeneration.Jews, he argued in unison with other prominent Jewish intellectuals, mustemulate the superior German culture in order to achieve political and moralequality. He was convinced that members of a subculture could educate themselvesinto the mainstream, into the system.

    These notions of cultural hierarchy were strengthened by the Enlightenmentassumption that each generation "possessed a higher religious truth thanthat which preceded it." It was a belief that acknowledged the historicalsuperiority of Christianity over Judaism, which was regarded as "a dyingremnant of the past," an "outmoded form which produced an unpleasant andunnecessary separation between himself and his gentile environment." Many yearslater David's wife, in her novella "The Chimney Sweeper" (1834), represented hisview of the relationship between Jewish and Christian cultures as embodied intwo statues that the medieval sculptor Sabina von Steinbach had created for thecathedral at Strasbourg:


This crowned virgin, who holds the cross in the right hand, the chalice and the host in the left, personifies Christian religion; on the left we have the symbol of Jewish religion, also personified by a virgin, who in her entire attitude seems dazzled by the superior radiance and conquered by a power much stronger than hers. She stands with her head bowed and blindfolded, a broken arrow in her right hand and Moses' commandment tablets in her left; her crown has dropped to her feet.


    There are many signs that David Assur's attitude toward his Jewishbackground, like that of his famous sister-in-law Rahel Levin Varnhagen, wascharacterized by ambivalence both before and after his conversion in 1815. Adisciple of Enlightenment humanism on the one hand, and in the face of anall-pervasive German anti-Semitism and the degrading misery in which most Jewsin Germany lived on the other, he could not help experiencing his Jewishness asa stigma and a burden, yet even after his conversion he continued to affirm hisJewish background. Instead of "passing"—that is, camouflaging his Jewishbirth, he openly converted, thus maintaining a link between past and present.Together with his wife and daughters he sought the company of other Jews, andthey lived in a Jewish neighborhood. It seems he never found a true home inthe Christian doctrine; his melancholy, his tendency to withdraw, his darkprophetic nature may have been expressions of his spiritual dislocation. Hisintimate friendship with the Jewish physician and philosopher Salomon Steinheim,who was outspoken in his disapproval of conversion, gave him a partnerwith whom he could discuss the anguish caused by his proselytism, but it almostseems he sought this relationship out of a kind of intellectual masochism,determined that the wound should never heal, the pain never cease. To the endhe struggled to create a place for himself in realms where both his Jewishheritage and his enlightened humanism could transcend established religious and"racial" boundaries; he accepted his responsibility as a successful physicianfor suffering, uneducated Jews who had not escaped the ghetto as he had.Together with Jewish notables of the city, he supported Jewish welfaresocieties, offered medical aid to the Jewish poor, and advocated Jewishemancipation. It was always important to him to instill in his daughters pridein their Jewish background, awareness of anti-Semitism or any expression ofracism, as well as a sense of responsibility, and to familiarize them withJewish beliefs and rituals.

    David Assur seemed a man in the grip of depression and incessant doubteven during his years as a student of medicine. His friend Ludwig Uhland, whowas a great admirer of Assing's dark poetry, called him "a spirit ofmisery," "this depressive, narcotic Assur," and later "this melancholy,black-spotted sacrificial lamb," associating his melancholy with hisJewishness. The brooding manner he adopted during his mature years, hisself-isolation in his laboratory, his intellectual conservatism, his avoidanceof intellectual combat, and finally his suicidal behavior after his wife'sdeath together suggest a torn and haunted man.

    Assur, then, had many reasons for leaving Königsberg: he must have realizedthat he could not live out his Enlightenment creed and his anxieties in hishometown, where they were bound to cause pain and embarrassment to themembers of his family who remained true to their orthodox faith. Another reasonfor his departure may have been the strict numerus clausus regulationswhich Prussia enforced against Jews: each Jewish household which had beengranted a permanent-residence permit on Prussian territory could pass on thisprivilege to one child only. The Assur family had given theirs to their eldestdaughter, hoping this would attract a husband to this rather plain woman. ThusDavid had no choice but to seek a new start on new territory. For a few monthshe toured Austria, and hiked through the Steiermark in true Romantic fashion.In September 1810 he showed up in Tübingen. The young Swabian intellectualsamong whom he moved, especially Kerner, challenged the Jewish disciple ofthe Enlightenment with their Romantic creed, enticing him to travel in yetanother direction. One year later, in September 1811, he was on his way toHamburg, equipped with letters of introduction for Rosa Maria from Kerner,Uhland, and Varnhagen von Ense, whom he had met in Vienna.


By the time David Assur arrived in Hamburg, Rosa Maria had left her Jewishemployers to open an academy in the neighboring community of Altona. Sheoffered a warm welcome to the young physician about whose eccentric butkindly nature she had heard from her brother and Kerner. Rosa Maria andDavid both loved literature, both wrote poetry, both became disciples ofRomanticism, both favored long excursions into the countryside—the older andmore experienced Rosa Maria drafting the itinerary. They thoroughly enjoyedeach other's company. Assur was enchanted by the Hamburg to which RosaMaria introduced him so generously. Probably the most prosperous communityin Germany, it was a city of merchants and patricians, of a proud and freebourgeoisie. One of its historians, Feodor Wehl, claims that it had about180,000 citizens in 1760. He mentions the city's cleanliness, its broadavenues, its wealth and the absence of beggars; in celebration of its manyparks it was called the garden city. The musical historian Charles Burney, whospent some time in Hamburg, used the terms "contentment," "prosperity," and"freedom" when characterizing the "Hansestadt." In the anonymously publishedBriefe über Hamburg another admirer wrote in 1794: "You will encountera luxury which not only is appropriate to the wealth and the respectableprofessions of these first houses of the city but often reaches beyond that;you will find elegant carriages, numerous servants, splendidly furnished rooms,palace-like garden houses and friendly meals, which would honor every noble orroyal table."

    Another important point of attraction in the Free and Hanseatic City ofHamburg was its large Jewish community. Since the early seventeenth century,the city had tolerated the Sephardim, prosperous Jews of Spanish and Portugueseorigin, hoping to profit from their international trade connections,and these were joined by large groups of Ashkenazim. In the early nineteenthcentury they constituted the largest Jewish community on German territory,boasting more than 9,000 members. Despite the discrimination they suffered—theywere compelled to live in restricted areas; they could not buy landor houses; they had to pay extra taxes; the guilds excluded them; they wereexposed to pogroms—Jews in Hamburg were privileged in comparison to Jews inother German towns. In Altona they fared even better, for Altona was underDanish rule: the town had no numerus clausus; Jews could purchaselanded property, the Crown guaranteed religious toleration and gave themautonomy in many realms of public life, thus enabling them to live according totheir norms.

    Only two months after they met, Rosa Maria's and David's friendship had toface its first major challenge: experimenting in his laboratory, Assur was hurtby a chemical explosion. For weeks he believed he had lost an eye; fortunatelythe fire had only burned the lid. Still, Assur was desperate. According tocontemporary definitions of beauty he had never been an attractive man. He wassmall and lean, with a dark complexion, and deep furrows marred his face evenas a young man. The solemnity of his appearance was intensified by his blackhair worn shoulder length. After the accident his lidless eye gave his face anuneven, haunted expression, and people likened his features to those of aneagle. Rosa Maria stood unflinchingly by him in those difficult months, and on12 January 1812, she wrote to Kerner: Assur "has become rather dear to me, andI thank you once again for sending him to me; he is a very excellent humanbeing with a superior mind, and consequently it hurts all the more to see himso melancholy and unhappy." Assur's suffering and Rosa Maria's caring loyaltyestablished a new bond between them. They began to write poetry together, mostof which was eventually published in anthologies edited by the SwabianRomantics.


We do not know when Rosa Maria and David became lovers; in letters toKerner and Schoppe she called him her "friend" and physician as late as 1815.Yet there is a poem called "Farewell and Covenant," probably written in 1813,which suggests that the outbreak of the German War of Independence againstNapoleon (1813-15), bringing separation and the fear of irreparable loss,caused them to articulate their feelings. Rosa Maria's first poem describingtheir love was free from the romantic ravings that had characterized her lovepoems to Kerner. They concerned a relationship that germinated in soil pollutedby war, lovers prematurely matured by a world of violence and death, a love thatcarried in it the potential of extinction:


Neither through joking nor flirting
Did love reveal itself as love;
Full of dark foreboding in a somber hour
The covenant of our love was sealed.


Assur, like most young Romantics deeply committed to the idea of Germanindependence and unity, decided to return to Prussia, offering his service as aphysician first to the Russian hospitals in Berlin and then with the Prussianarmy. At the end of the summer of 1814 he returned for a brief visit andtalked Rosa Maria into spending a few weeks in Berlin with him. They had begunto discuss a future they hoped to mold together, knowing that their relationshipmight scandalize many of their acquaintances.

    Perhaps their decision to marry was also influenced by the wedding of thefamous Jewish salonnière Rahel Levin and Rosa Maria's brother Varnhagen on27 September 1814. Four days before their wedding Rahel, fourteen years olderthan Varnhagen and his lover for many years, had been baptized as FriederikeAntonie Robert. For herself, her husband, and her friends Rahel remained Rahelafter her conversion; for outsiders she became Mrs. Varnhagen: the notoriousJewish mistress had been transformed into the respectable Christian wife of aGerman diplomat. But the German elite never forgave Varnhagen for thisbreach of etiquette; his career as a diplomat soon came to an end. Rosa Mariaand David, however, saw only that this kind of union was possible and desirable.

    In 1814 Rosa Maria moved her academy to Hamburg; in 1815 Assur returnedto Hamburg to establish himself officially as a physician; he was baptizedDavid Assing; and he and Rosa Maria announced their engagement. Theyknew they were inviting social ostracism, the moral censure of both conservativeGermans and Jews; they were aware that they would have to give up manyconnections and habits, that they would lose family and friends, yet what theyfound in each other weighed more than what they risked. From its very beginningtolerance and mutuality were the definers of their union: David convertedso that he could marry Rosa Maria; Rosa Maria agreed to move into a Jewishneighborhood. For once in his life the deeply troubled Assing seemed happy.Though she was four years his senior, his bride's joyous nature and herindomitable high spirits, her love of laughter and her optimism rejuvenated aman who appeared so prematurely aged. In a letter to Kerner, the poet GustavSchwab, who spent some time with the couple in November 1815, describedDavid as a man succumbing to joie de vivre: "without saying a word about it,he loves—and I can see this from his songs and conversation—Rosa Maria beyonddescription." They were married on 1 May 1816.

    It was a happy marriage, celebrated by both partners as well as those whoobserved them as an ideal relationship as it was defined in the Romantic Age: aunion of a woman and a man whose bodies, minds, and souls seemed made foreach other. Both had sensuous natures, and their physical enjoyment of eachother was increased by the intellectual, emotional, and moral harmony betweenthem. Their sensuality was unapologetic, inventive, and uninhibited, yet also,as their self-stylization as lover-wife and lover-husband denotes, domesticated.In that, their marriage defied the separation between eroticism andrespectability upon which much of the contemporary discourse of love versussexuality rested. Nowhere in Rosa Maria's writing can we find traces of thepopular dichotomy of woman as angel-to-be-married and whore-to-be-enjoyed. In1817, at the age of thirty-four, Rosa Maria gave birth to their first child, ason, whom she glorified as a child of love and passion in a poem of 1818:


From the fire of our love we jubilantly saw
a little flame rising purely
In the beloved, sweet child's life.


The conventional piety this poem expressed was firmly intertwined with herjubilant celebration of sexuality. But the joy of parenthood was of only shortduration: the boy died in the spring of 1818. Rosa Maria and David were numbwith pain, yet they found solace in each other. Not their religion but theirromantic notion of sacrifice and mystic challenge sustained them. As theirfriend Amalie Schoppe commented: "The happiness which these two beloved peoplegive each other often elicits tears of emotion from me; and that they made acostly, unforgettable tribute to the deepest sorrow through the loss of theirfirst child, calms me regarding the permanence of such happiness."

    Soon Rosa Maria was pregnant again, and on 11 February 1819 she gavebirth to Ottilie. Two years later the couple's second daughter, Ludmilla, wasborn. They rented an unassuming house with a tiny garden in 15 Poolstrasse, astreet in a Jewish neighborhood in the center of Hamburg's Neustadt (NewTown), which would eventually boast a Jewish synagogue, hospital, andbusinesses. The dramatist Karl Gutzkow, who befriended the family in the 1830s,compared the Assings' small garden of less than twenty square meters to a hatboxcrammed with flowers, with a pear tree and apple tree, raspberry shrubs—alittle Garden of Eden complementing the house. The Assings' was a smallplace, but there was always room for guests, and the girls, who loved animals,had their private mini-zoo of cats, dogs, birds, hamsters. In a love poembrimming with references to sensual delight, which Rosa Maria wrote as abirthday tribute to David in 1824, she painted a haven of domestic bliss:


Early in the morning and with golden rays
The sun greets a house,
From which two lovely faces
Of sweet children look out.
Their mother, she stands behind them
With blessed delight on her face ...


In numerous poems dedicated to her husband she expressed her gratitude forand happiness about a marriage that not only gave her the fulfillment ofmotherhood but in which husband and wife continued to be lovers. In April 1825,after nine years of marriage and the birth of three children, she wrote:


Spring is approaching! And there is always
Spring in our happiness and our minds!


In their own sensuous world, their various individualities—Rosa Maria's gentlecheerfulness and optimism, David's melancholy and mature sense of humor,Ottilie's irreverent laughter and boisterous rebelliousness, Ludmilla's angrybrooding and sarcasm—found expression in a domestic oneness they enjoyed inall its diversity. The family came to personify the Romantic concept of harmony,without, however, stifling individuality or denying difference. The stabilizersin this family were the passionate love and deep emotional and intellectualcommitment between husband and wife, and the intimate bond between RosaMaria and the girls—more like that between sisters than that between motherand daughters. As Ottilie remembered in a letter to her uncle Varnhagen: "Idon't think it is possible to find ... another relationship like the one thatexisted between Mother and us; not a single night were we apart, no thought wedid not communicate. And she was just as open toward us, had given us all herlove, so that it sometimes seemed to me that I myself had the memory" ofevents from "thirty years ago."

(Continues...)