Salomon, Alice (1872–1948)

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Salomon, Alice (1872–1948)

German reformer who played a key role in the establishment of social work as a profession in her country and was a leader in the new field of social work education. Born in Berlin, Germany, on April 19, 1872; died in New York City on August 29 or 30, 1948; daughter of Albert Salomon and Anna Potocky-Nelken Salomon; had six brothers and sisters, three of whom died in infancy; never married.

Alice Salomon was born in 1872 into a highly assimilated Jewish family in Berlin, her ancestors having settled in the city in the mid-18th century as Schutzjuden (protected Jews) under a special dispensation from Prussia's King Frederick II the Great. Salomon enjoyed all the advantages of an upper-bourgeois milieu. Her father Albert, a successful leather merchant, died when she was 13 years old. Alice's mother Anna Potocky-Nelken Salomon , who came from a family of bankers, reflected the conservative values of the day by vetoing her daughter's wish to become a teacher. Until Anna's death in 1914, Alice—who alone among her sisters did not marry—lived with her mother. Intellectually frustrated and desiring to contribute to society, in 1893 Salomon became a member of the newly founded Mädchen- und Frauengruppen für soziale Hilfsarbeit (Girls' and Women's Group for Social Assistance), an organization of educated middle-class women whose goal was the creation of a national network of volunteers trained to address the sufferings of the urban poor. Salomon's energy and initiative quickly brought her to the attention of the organization's founders, Minna Cauer , Jeanette Schwerin , and Professor Gustav Schmoller. After Schwerin's death in July 1899, Salomon became chair of Mädchen- und Frauengruppen. That same year, she established the first full one-year course in social work education in Berlin.

Believing that only a thorough study of the social conditions that underlay poverty would enable society to find the means to alleviate such injustices, starting in the mid-1890s Salomon began to publish articles and books to alert the public to these issues. Over the next half century, she would write 28 books and approximately 250 articles. Although Salomon had not graduated from a gymnasium and had thus not been awarded an Abitur (school-leaving certificate) that qualified her to matriculate at a German university, in 1902 she began auditing courses at the University of Berlin, where women with an Abitur had just been accepted as students. In 1906, her extraordinary academic achievements prompted the Prussian minister of instruction to make a rare exception to the rule prohibiting such students from receiving academic degrees, and in that year she was awarded a doctorate for her dissertation, "The Causes of Unequal Payment for Men's and Women's Work," a problem that remains unresolved.

In 1908, Salomon founded the Soziale Frauenschule (Social Work School for Women) in Berlin-Schöneberg, the first modern and academically grounded interdenominational institution teaching social work skills in Germany. She remained director of this pioneering professional school until 1925. Located in the venerable Pestalozzi-Fröbel Haus, which had been founded decades before by Henriette Breymann , a leader of the kindergarten movement, the school would train a large number of Germany's female social workers for more than two decades. Although countless demands were made on Salomon by the school as well as by other educational enterprises, she continued to publish. In her writings, she argued for public acceptance and understanding of, and support for, the emerging profession of social work, which she clearly distinguished from the religiously grounded charitable activities of the past. Modern social work, she argued, was to be defined by its exclusive devotion to increasing the productive and reproductive capacities of welfare recipients for the benefit of society in general.

In 1917, with Germany embroiled in World War I and the services of social workers more in demand than ever, Salomon established the German Conference of Schools of Social Work, a precursor of similar confederations in other countries. Her efforts received a strong vote of confidence from the German state after 1918, when the liberal Weimar Republic granted official certification to her Soziale Frauenschule. In 1925, the year she relinquished her directorship duties in Berlin-Schöneberg, Salomon initiated the creation of and headed the Women's Academy of Germany (Deutsche Akademie für soziale und pädagogische Frauenarbeit), an institution for the promotion of social work research, continuing education, training for institutional leadership, and recruitment for social-work educators.

Above and beyond the immense impact Salomon had on the evolution of the profession of social work in Germany, she was also active in the women's and peace movements. Her close association with Jane Addams , whom she met at several international conferences, led many of Salomon's contemporaries to refer to her as the "Jane Addams of Germany." Although post-1918 Germany was plagued by the stigma of defeat in war, inflation, and fear of revolution, and was rife with anti-Semitism, Salomon was a loyal German. She had converted to Christianity in 1914, was intensely nationalistic, yet remained proud of her Jewish ancestry, enjoying immense prestige in both Gentile and Jewish circles. Because of her international prestige and a well-deserved reputation for reconciliation and consensus building, Salomon was one of post-1918 Germany's outstanding exemplars of that nation's democratic ideals. Unfortunately, all of these hopeful signs of a new spirit were soon to be shattered in an orgy of violence.

Like most democratic Germans, Salomon was unable to take effective measures against the growing menace of Nazism and anti-Semitism. But as she neared the end of her career in the early 1930s, she was rewarded with many high honors. On the occasion of her 60th birthday in 1932, she was the recipient of many encomiums, the most important of which was an honorary medical degree from the University of Berlin for her accomplishments in social medicine. She also received a silver medal from the Prussian Ministry of State. The path-breaking institution she had founded in 1908 was renamed the Alice Salomon School of Social Work. All of these achievements would come crashing down in ruins after January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.

As a result of the Nazi "civil service reform" law of April 1933, which purged Jews and anti-Nazis from public jobs, Salomon lost her state positions and came under increasing pressure from the Hitler regime to relinquish her other positions. Repeatedly she complied with the Nazis' demand to resign from the presidency of the International Committee of Schools of Social Work, only to be given a vote of confidence by her admiring foreign colleagues when the organization's board of directors unanimously voted to retain her in the presidential office. By the end of 1933, however, Salomon's pride, the Women's Academy of Germany, had no choice but to announce its "voluntary" dissolution. In 1934, the now Nazi-controlled Prussian Ministry of Instruction decreed that the Alice Salomon School of Social Work would henceforth be known, like all of the other social work academies in the Reich, as a Schule für Volkspflege (Training School for Officials Dedicated to the People's Welfare), and that its curriculum would emphasize the indoctrination of National Socialist tenets—including "racial science"—in the hearts and minds of its student body.

Like many Germans of Jewish ancestry, Salomon decided to remain in Germany despite the ever-increasing humiliations and injustices heaped upon her by the Nazis and their many collaborators. Above all, she felt that she had to remain in order to assist with the orderly departure of her younger social work colleagues, who would be able to continue their careers in their new homes. With the help of the Russell Sage Foundation


and a social workers' relief organization called "Hospites," she was urged to leave Germany, if only temporarily, to head a project to compile the first international study of social-work education. In 1937, returning to Berlin after a speaking tour of the United States, Salomon was summoned by the Gestapo, interrogated for hours, and given an ultimatum: to leave Germany within three weeks or be taken to a Konzentrationslager (concentration camp). Besides her Jewish ancestry (the Nazis regarded her as a Vollblutsjüdin ["full-blooded Jewess"] despite her Christian faith), Salomon had long been persona non grata in the Third Reich because of her fame as a champion of women's rights and the rights of the poor and dispossessed. She had also been active in the Bekennende Kirch (Confessing Church—the anti-Nazi wing of the Lutheran denomination) and had an international reputation as a pacifist and internationalist. Finally, she was hated by National Socialist ideologists for writings in which she had been critical of both Social Darwinist principles and the Volkisch emphasis on an irrational biological collectivity grounded on blood and race. One of the key elements in her philosophy of social work was the idea that "the most fundamental law in human relations is the law of interdependence."

Heartbroken at having to leave her native land, Salomon arrived in New York City in 1937. Two years later, in 1939, the Nazi state stripped Salomon of her German citizenship. Her honorary doctoral degree was also annulled. Until she acquired United States citizenship in 1944, she was officially a woman without a country, and technically an enemy alien as well. Even more painful for her was the fact that despite occasional recognition of her achievements, such as public festivities on the occasion of her 70th birthday in 1942, which included a special award for her service to humanity from the International Club of the New York YMCA, she was not able to find significant outlets for the wisdom and insights derived from a long, successful career. Even an invitation from Eleanor Roosevelt to visit the White House did little to lessen Salomon's despair during the early 1940s. Ruled by criminals, her beloved Germany was now being destroyed in the most violent conflict in history. After the war, she learned that two of her closest relatives had been killed in the Holocaust and that another, brought to despair, had chosen to commit suicide.

Unable to find employment, Salomon spent some of her time with a small circle of friends but much of her energy went into writing her memoirs, entitled "Character is Destiny: An Autobiography." Although she completed it in 1944, and it was written in excellent English, a language she had mastered in her youth, Salomon was unable to find a publisher. The autobiography was not published until 1983, when it appeared in a German translation.

Alice Salomon died alone in her modest Manhattan apartment on either August 29 or 30, 1948. Instead of the many friends and colleagues who would have attended her funeral had the course of history been different, only four or five mourners accompanied her casket to the burial ground in Brooklyn's Evergreen Cemetery. There was no ceremony, and only a simple gravestone with the inscription "Alice Salomon 1872–1948" remains to this day to bear witness to the accomplishments of a remarkable woman.


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——, and Susanne Zeller, eds. Emigrierte Sozialarbeit: Portraits vertriebener SozialarbeiterInnen. Freiburg im Breisgau: Lambertus, 1995.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia