Elżbieta Ettinger, 1989. (All photos courtesy of Maia Ettinger)

“All Jewish women look alike, after a certain age!” To my horror, that was how Elżbieta Ettinger answered my question about the cover art for her little book Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, which vexed a lot of people when it was published in 1995. The jacket cover displays a photograph of Heidegger c. 1926, a year after he had begun the affair with his talented student, and one of Hannah Arendt, c. 1933, the year she chose to leave Germany and go into exile. Arendt’s soft and youthful face seemed so different from the timeworn countenance on the cover of The Life of the Mind, and I couldn’t help but wonder how it could have been the same person.

It wasn’t the only time Ettinger—whom my husband and I had known since the 1980s, when we were her magazine editors, and who died in 2005—shared with me her motherly and worldly opinion. In her graveled basso and inimitable Polish accent: “You don’t all-ways have to be a perrr-fect wife and moth-errr,” she told me, and, when I was embarrassed about a big purchase we’d made, a four-bedroom house in New Haven: “Frrran-ces,” she croaked, “don’t be so Jew-ish!” She said these things from behind the magical safety of large Jacqueline Kennedy sunglasses that she wore at all times, even inside her apartment. On the telephone our conversations ranged from greetings on the Jewish holidays (which she didn’t observe), congratulations (she was the first to call when there was good news), publishing projects (she had a wealth of Polish literary contacts), to news about her daughter and memories of her mother.

Then there were musings about morality. Morality, in her words, “principles and inner convictions,” was a major theme in her life. Ettinger entered the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and remained there until just before its liquidation when she was provided with a new last name, Chodakowska (which she sometimes used after the war), and forged documents. She spent the remainder of the war years “on the outside,” living in unimaginable terror. After the war she negotiated the challenges of Soviet-dominated Poland until coming to the United States in 1967 when she became a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study and later a professor at MIT.

Elzbieta's 1967 Polish passport photo

Elżbieta and her daughter Maia’s 1967 passport photo for leaving Poland.
Elzbieta in Vietnam
Elżbieta on Vietnam in behalf of the Polish government, 1954.

Elżbieta was dismissive of psychology (“psychiatry had been a disaster” when she tried it, she told me). Old-fashioned identification and empathy—the habits of being a deep reader of literature—were her first tools for comprehending the experiences of others. Hiding, which she had done under traumatic circumstances, taught her to be a (sometimes fanciful) reader of other people’s lives. After coming to the United States, she wrote two novelistic memoirs, Kindergarten and Quicksand; edited the letters of Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, and wrote a biography of Rosa Luxemburg. But it was when she turned her sights on Hannah Arendt—the subject of Margarethe von Trotta’s new biopic, out this week—that Ettinger saw an opportunity to explore the complications of moral judgment and personal behavior as it intersected with her own private history and with the larger history of her time. In Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger she felt she could examine her subjects because she could read them with the clarity that comes from personal experience.

“I share with Arendt some experiences which permit me to understand her better than many others who do not and who, therefore, can write about her from the ‘outside’ only, not from the ‘inside’ as I can,” she explained her strategy in a proposal. “My life has been changed forever by the Nazis, as was hers; I chose exile (though 30 years later) as did she, and approximately at the same age, the mid-thirties; I am cut off from the Polish culture in which I was born, raised, and educated as she was from the German; I write, as did she, in a foreign tongue, and as did Arendt, live a ‘life in translation.’ ”

In many ways, of course, Ettinger’s life was radically different from Arendt’s. Arendt’s family lived in Koenigsberg; they were German Jews geographically, and this came with an inexorable distaste for their Eastern European brethren. While the Ettinger-Stahl family was assimilated—the Stahls, in fact, were descended from German Jews who had come to Poland in the 17th century, and they educated their children in German-speaking schools and revered German culture of Goethe and Heine—they were also Polish patriots. And Ettinger’s life wasn’t merely “changed forever by the Nazis”; it was shattered. She had just turned 15 at the start of the war when the decision was made for her family to leave Łódź. Her mother and 17 members of the extended family would go to Warsaw where they might have a better chance of blending in. Her father and uncles would try to cross into the Soviet Union. In fact, Ettinger’s father was shot at the Polish-Soviet border. Her grandfather hanged himself during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. Her only sister survived but died in a mental hospital. Ettinger “chose exile” after she had been asked to work for Polish Security. Hannah Arendt wrote about the problems of totalitarianism, but Ettinger, whose credo was “always question ideology,” lived the problems “from the inside.” But there was one essential element that the two women shared, and that Ettinger neglected to mention in her book proposal: Both had fallen in love with much older, world-famous professors.


The little book that Ettinger published was structured around the correspondence between Heidegger and Arendt, which she had originally intended to use as a portion of a larger biography. That’s how she explained the project to the Hannah Arendt Literary Trust when she obtained permission to quote from Arendt’s letters. The Heidegger estate allowed her to “peruse” the letters of Martin Heidegger with the stipulation that she could paraphrase what she had read. But in the 1990s, after the research had been completed, Ettinger’s health was deteriorating; she had severe spinal stenosis and was living with excruciating pain, causing her to spend most of her days lying on her back on the floor of her apartment. She reluctantly decided to do a smaller, preliminary project with the hope that she could muster the energy for the larger one later. Sadly, this never happened.

The Arendt-Heidegger materials include the story of their love affair, which lasted from 1925 to 1930; followed by the rise of the Nazi movement and the war years (Heidegger joined the party in 1933, the year he became rector of Freiberg University); and their relationship during the postwar years, roughly 1950 to 1975. The letters throw Heidegger’s character into relief, his “duplicity, hypocrisy, manipulations”—you really can’t argue with this judgment. They also document Hannah Arendt’s turbulent and shifting feelings about Heidegger and her inconsistencies.

Ettinger wanted to present the story of this complicated relationship because she felt it “provided a key to understanding their lives.” Perhaps it would give some clues to Heidegger’s embrace of National Socialism, his behavior toward Edmund Husserl, toward Professor Hermann Staudinger, as well as toward two students, Eduard Baumgarten and Max Mueller. She wanted to describe the circumstances that led to the moral decisions made by both Arendt and Heidegger—including the former’s apologies for the latter.

But the letters also called to mind her own love affair with Manfred Lachs, the man who was, as she put it, “the father of my daughter.” Ettinger had met Lachs after the war when she was a university student and he was a married professor. Lachs was a Galician Jew whose family had been entirely wiped out by the Holocaust. He was also a brilliant jurist, representing Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946 and at the Nuremberg War Trials. He served on the World International Court from 1967 (the year Ettinger left Poland) until his death in 1993. The humiliation she experienced in her illicit relationship with Lachs and its obstacles to intimacy must have been toxic on top of the degradations she had experienced during the war. Ettinger went over details in her mind, and eventually the two love affairs blurred together. It was almost impossible not to speculate about Arendt’s motivations based upon the memories of her own life.

When the book was finally published, it was met by a hubbub of criticism, with many people—including Alan Ryan, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, and Wendy Steiner—attributing spurious motives. Ettinger had of course been hampered because she wasn’t allowed to publish Heidegger’s letters in full. For those people who don’t want their philosophy or political thinking diluted, it is understandably not their cup of tea. While Arendt comes across as flawed, there’s a great danger in erasing flaws or pretending they don’t exist. In the end, I think Ettinger managed to stay on message. That is, she wrote a book that was descriptive of a love affair.

Interestingly, the book barely mentions Eichmann in Jerusalem, though its publication stirred up the old controversies. Had she lived to write the larger biography, I know that Ettinger would have dealt with this text. Much as she respected Arendt’s intellectual accomplishments, she was offended by the flippancy of her tone, especially in addressing Eastern European Jewish survivors “each of them convinced of his right to his day in court.” Alfred Kazin called it “heartless.” I think Ettinger felt it as a failure of empathy.

When Ettinger was beginning the project, I asked about Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as “normal” or the “irregularities” and “abnormalities” of the trial. Ettinger had little to say about these perceptions. Rather, she was interested in the things she knew from the inside. The role of the Jewish Councils, the Jewish police, the issue of Jewish compliance, and Arendt’s attitude toward the Jews from Eastern Europe. Ettinger knew only too well that members of her family survived because they disregarded the Jewish leadership. Her mother, who had Aryan features, lived as a Christian for the entire war outside the ghetto. She arranged, bargained, and did business—as she put it, “outsmarting the bureaucracy of war,” to save her family, understanding that some people helped because of religious teachings, some because of conscience, and others because of the bribes. I remember exactly what Ettinger said about the Jewish police—the ghastly and unnatural situation of Jews brutalizing other Jews: “We despised them.” Her cousin Daniel died violently at Warsaw’s Umschlagplatz during the liquidation, when the Jewish police who surrounded him had become the most savage.

Two small passages in her book Kindergarten render the remembered heartbreak Ettinger experienced from inside the ghetto and inside the child in herself:

November 15, 1940

The ghetto was sealed off today. It was the last day Mama could come here. Heavy guards—German, Polish, Jewish policemen—are watching the ghetto outlets. Along the walls—on both sides—patrols. Day and night.

November 21, 1940

Through the loose bricks in the wall Mama whispered to me that she loves us, and then I saw her go. My world came to an end.


For more of Frances Brent’s Tablet magazine profiles of Jewish intellectuals and artists, click here.