Selflessness and feminism during World War II

Anya Herzberg

A professor once said to Stefanie Isser, the only girl, and the only Jew in her high school class, that her sole problem was that she was a girl. 

In that class, Stefanie Isser, my great-grandmother, became the 1928 valedictorian at the best high school in Vienna. She became a lawyer, and practiced family law until the war broke out. 

Although Hitler disbarred new Jewish lawyers, including her, Stefanie continued to use her legal skills to help Jews who had entered Austria illegally from Poland. In 1938, her husband was sent to Dachau, a concentration camp, but with much effort, Stefanie was able to obtain two pairs of visas which would help them get out of Austria: one pair to Israel, and one to the US. The Israeli visas had no name written on them, while the ones to America had her and her husband’s name. So, despite her longing to go to Israel—having been a committed Zionist herself—she gave the Israeli visas to another Jewish family, and immigrated to upstate New York. 

This brilliant woman went to work as a housemaid. There was little room for immigrants to have upper class jobs, like lawyers. Especially for female Jewish immigrants. She became a well known teacher, community leader, and advocate for interreligious understanding and justice. She died in 1997, before I was born, but I’m proud to carry her legacy in my middle name.

“I didn’t know what feminism was, the word at least, but I always felt that I had to show them that a girl can do the same thing.” – Stefanie Isser