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Mendelssohn-Veit-Schlegel, Dorothea


MENDELSSOHN-VEIT-SCHLEGEL, DOROTHEA (1764–1839), woman of letters and convert to Christianity. Born in Berlin, as Brendel, Dorothea was the eldest daughter of Fromet and Moses *Mendelssohn. She was taught German, French, music, and drawing, but seems not to have received a thorough Jewish education. Her friendship circle of Jewish girls included the future *salon hosts Rahel Levin *Varnhagen and Henriette de Lemos *Herz. Dorothea's parents arranged her engagement with Simon Veit, son of a prominent Berlin family, when she was 14 and the couple married in 1783. Two of their four children, Jonas and Philipp, survived to adulthood. Moses Mendelssohn died in 1786 believing his daughter was happily married.

During the 1790s, Brendel began to call herself Dorothea; she socialized with Christian intellectuals, hosting a reading club and joining a secret society. In 1797, Dorothea fell in love with Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), an up-and-coming literary critic, and after much introspection, she left her husband. When they were officially divorced in 1799, she received custody of Philipp. With her divorce Dorothea forfeited her right to live in Berlin; she became estranged from her Mendelssohn siblings, and lost many of her Christian friends. For years she led a peripatetic life with Schlegel, roaming from Jena to Paris to Vienna to Rome and back again to Vienna, where their home became a social and intellectual center.

In 1804, Dorothea became a Protestant and the couple married; four years later both she and Friedrich became Catholics. Although Dorothea's exit from Judaism was particularly stormy, ultimately four of the six Mendelssohn siblings became Christians, two of them Catholics and two of them Protestants. Neither of the siblings who remained Jewish was involved in Jewish institutions or causes.

Dorothea and Friedrich were often impoverished, and she did her part to support them by editing his work, publishing a novel, Florentin (1801), and editing and translating medieval texts. All of her work was published under her husband's name. Her novel has been edited by L. Weissberg (Florentin. Roman, Fragmente, Varianten (1987)). The Schlegels' letters have been edited by E. Behler (Briefe von und an Friedrich und Dorothea Schlegel [1980]). Schlegel's two sons with Veit also became committed Catholics and flourished in Rome as painters in the Nazarene style. After Friedrich died in 1829, Dorothea made peace with her Mendelssohn siblings and they provided financial support during her decade as a widow.

Scholars continue to ponder the significance of Dorothea Mendelssohn-Veit-Schlegel's life, trying to understand her attitude to Judaism and the motives for her two conversions. Her dramatic life journey demonstrates that Moses Mendelssohn's important Enlightenment legacy did not pass easily to his own children in a time and a place when baptism offered many attractions for bright and ambitious young Jews.


H. Frank, "…Disharmonie, die mit mir geboren ward, und mich nie verlassen wird…" Das Leben der Brendel/Dorothea Mendelssohn-Veit-Schlegel (1988); C. Stern, "Ich möchte mir Flügel wünschen." Das leben der Dorothea Schlegel. (1990).

[Deborah Hertz (2nd ed.)]

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