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Miss Szold: A Jewish Idealist in the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore

Henrietta Szold in 1940. (Credit: National Library of Israel, Schwadron Collection)

Henrietta Szold in 1940. (Credit: National Library of Israel, Schwadron Collection)

This summer, under the direction of Loyola University Maryland English Professor Jean Lee Cole, I was part of a group of students who transcribed documents from the papers of the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore held at the Maryland Historical Society. The club was founded in 1890 and disbanded in 1920, and over the summer, we slowly accumulated an image of this organization and who its members were.

Toward the end of the summer, violent protests erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia–ultimately resulting in the deaths of three people. Many were left asking: how is this still happening in 2017? Why are there groups that are still defending statues of Confederate soldiers? How is it possible that groups of white supremacists are still terrorizing people of color and people of non-Christian faiths and trying to spread the message that whites and Christians are better?

In the process of studying the papers of the Woman’s Literary Club, it became clear that this was a group of affluent, white, Christian, mostly Confederate-sympathizing women, and we struggled with that fact. While the fact of white supremacy was only resurrected for many people with the events of August 12th, we had been reflecting upon it for months. We found documentation that linked more than one member with the Daughters of the Confederacy. We found meetings that were devoted to speaking about why the Anglo-Saxon race was the best. We asked ourselves, why are we bringing to light the thoughts of these women, many of whom were racist and sympathizers of the Confederacy?

The answer that I have to this question is that we did it because of women like Henrietta Szold. Szold (or Miss Szold, as members of the club referred to her) was a member from 1890-1893 and was on the board of management from 1892-1893 until her resignation in October of 1893. Szold was also Jewish and one of, if not the only, non-Christian members of the organization.

Emma Lazarus (Credit: The Poems of Emma Lazarus in Two Volumes, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889.)

Emma Lazarus (Credit: The Poems of Emma Lazarus in Two Volumes, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889.)

Szold was born on December 21, 1860.(1) As the oldest child, she spent a great deal of time with her father, a rabbi, and developed a love of learning and books. (2) Much of Szold’s life was spent trying to help the Jewish people. She became a self-proclaimed Zionist during a time when Baltimore saw an influx of Russian immigrants after the pogroms of 1881. Many of these immigrants found solace in the Szold home. Few of the newcomers knew English, so Szold and her father founded the Hebrew Literary Society as well as a night school, where Russians could learn English and American history, so they could become citizens. (3)

In these classes for Russian immigrants, Szold talked about the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus. (4) In his biography, Henrietta Szold: Life and Letters, Marvin Lowenthal helps make Szold’s words about Emma Lazarus told to the Russians come to life: “I chose to tell you of Emma Lazarus because she is a fit model for you, my young Russian friends, to follow. The flame which burst forth in her bosom—warm yourselves by its warmth and kindle in your hearts a similar light.” (5) Ironically, Szold also mentions Lazarus in the Women Literary Club of Baltimore. A paper that Szold wrote about Lazarus was quoted in the minutes of a March 10, 1891 meeting: “Although woman’s nature is full of art, poetry, and high endurance, still she is very practical. The same strong ideality yet extreme reality and practical energy are especially noticeable in Jewish character.” This was the same message that she wanted to send to the Russians who were in her class—she wanted them to remember that the Jewish people would persevere through trying times. She tried to send a similar message to the women of the club.

This quote from the meeting minutes is really a window into Szold’s life. Not only did she speak these words to the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore, but also to Russian Jewish refugees. These two groups of people could not be more different. One, an organization of Baltimore society women; the other a group of Russian Jewish immigrants who could not speak English and were forced to leave their homes because of violence inflicted on them based on only their religion. This shows that her life had two facets: one in which she was a woman of Baltimore society, and one in which she helped those in need.

The club met on March 10, 1891 and discussed several works. Woman's Literary Club of Baltimore Collection, 1890-1920, MS 988 (Reference photo).

The club met on March 10, 1891 and discussed several works. Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore Collection, 1890-1920, MS 988 (Reference photo). Click to enlarge.

Szold left Baltimore for good in 1903 to join her mother after her father’s death. She devoted all of her time and energy to Jewish and Hebrew studies. A trip abroad in 1909 determined her fate when she visited Palestine and decided to make it her life’s mission to work for the people there. (6)At the time of her death in 1945, Szold was remembered as a woman who had dedicated her life to helping those less fortunate and trying to empower the Zionist movement. She is an inspiration for those who want to work hard and be able to do things that will help others.

Eliza Ridgely served as the club's minute taker. Woman's Literary Club of Baltimore Collection, 1890-1920, MS 988 (Reference photo).

Eliza Ridgely served as the club’s minute taker. Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore Collection, 1890-1920, MS 988 (Reference photo). Click to enlarge.

Women like Szold are few and far between in the club, but it is important to try to identify them and tell their story and also try to figure out their involvement. The events in Charlottesville help to showcase the fact that many people still believe in the hate and violence that caused those Russian immigrants to come to Baltimore. We can only hope that victims of hate and violence can be shown people like Szold, who was a kind of pioneer in an organization that held racist views. Hopefully, the words that she spoke left an impression on the members of the club, and the racism that was prevalent in 1890s during the club’s existence can finally stop–more than a hundred years later. While there is racism and violence, there are also those who try to combat it, and  they are the ones who should be remembered. (Sydney Johnson)

Sydney is a senior at Loyola University. She and fellow classmates Hunter Flynn, Katie Kazmierski, Clara Love, and Ellen Roussel spent this past summer in the MdHS library transcribing records from the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore Collection. Read more about their work on the Aperio Log which “recounts the archival adventures of the summer 2017 research team for the project “’Right and Serious’: The Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore, 1890-1920.” The research will eventually become part of the Aperio Series of Humane Texts.

Sources and Further Reading:

(1) Rose Zeitlin, Henrietta Szold: Record of a Life,  (New York: The Dial Press, 1952), 5.

(2) Zeitlin, 7.

(3) Zeitlin, 23-28.

(4) Marvin Lowenthal, Henrietta Szold: Life and Letters, (New York: The Viking Press, 1942), 38.

(5) Lowenthall, 38.

(6) Lowenthal, 59-60.

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