Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

“The Daughter of My People”                (1912)

Feb 18, 2021 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


        Henrietta, the eldest of eight daughters, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1860. Her parents were Hungarian immigrants; her mother, Sophie, was a homemaker; her father, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, was the leader of the city’s Temple Oheb Shalom. A childhood memory was her father carried her on his shoulders so she could catch a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession. In 1881, refugees from the Russian pogroms poured into the Baltimore docks and Henrietta established a night school for English language learners. In a letter to her sister, she wrote, “I eat, drink and sleep Russians.” In the first year, the number of students swelled to 5,000; from the newcomers, Henrietta imbibed the dream of the creation of a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland of Palestine. 

     After the passing of her beloved father, Henrietta moved with her mother to New York City to work with the Jewish Theological Seminary where she had to promise she would not seek rabbinical ordination, the provenance of males. The only woman editor at the Jewish Publication Society she worked as a translator for Professor Louis Ginzberg, a recent arrival from Lithuania. The middle-aged Henrietta fell for Louis, and her world collapsed after his admission he had fallen in love with eighteen-year-old Adele Katzenstein who he had met in Germany and who had accepted his proposal on their third date. To counteract her daughter’s depression that led to a nervous breakdown, Sophie arranged a tour of Europe and Palestine.

      Refusing to be limited by the standard Holy Land itinerary, Henrietta and her seventy-year-old mother set out in a horse-drawn cart where they were appalled by the rampant disease in Jerusalem. Sophie suggested Henrietta and her Zionist women’s group should devote themselves to bettering the dire situation. Fired with enthusiasm, Henrietta arranged a meeting at Temple Emanu-El to create a foundation. Because the date coincided with the holiday of Purim, Henrietta named it after Queen Esther who had saved the biblical Jews, using the heroine’s Hebrew name: Hadassah.   

        Hadassah’s first milestone was when Nathan Strauss, the Jewish owner of Macy’s department store, offered funding to establish a nursing hospital in Palestine that was to care for 5,000 patients in its first year. In 1920, Henrietta emigrated to her spiritual homeland. With the rising anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, through Youth Aliyah, Henrietta orchestrated the escape of 11,000 children. 

      For the woman denied a post high school education, Boston University conferred upon her a degree through a radio broadcast, and she received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. She modestly deferred attention, stating her greatest asset was “a pretty big capacity for righteous indignation.” 

    At age eighty-four, Henrietta passed away three months before the end of World War II-three years before the creation of Israel. Thousands attended her funeral; a boy she had saved read her eulogy. Israel honored her with an internment in the ancient burial ground, the Mount of Olives. The new state also inaugurated Mother’s Day after Henrietta Szold, a touching gesture for a woman who never had children of her own. The motto of Hadassah applies to the organization’s mission, “Aruchat Bat Ami” “The Healing of the Daughter of My People.”