Hedwig Wiener was born on 9 September 1882 into the large Wiener family. Her grandfather, Dr Adolf Wiener, was the rabbi of Oppeln, an important figure in the Jewish reform movement. As he had six children, Hedwig Wiener had very many cousins. One of her cousins was Nathalie Hamburger, who later married the renowned rabbi Dr Leo Baeck. Hedwig’s connection with Leo Baeck was to gain a new significance in later years.
One of Adolf Wiener’s sons, Jakob Wiener, was Hedwig’s father. He worked as a journalist and editor for the well-known daily “Berliner Tageblatt”. He was a convinced liberal and democrat whose home was full of newspapers. One entered the apartment through piles and stacks of them, even long after his death, his granddaughter Ilse Flatow later wrote.
Around 1900, the Wiener family lived at Fasanenstraße 39 in Berlin. In 1901, Hedwig gained a qualification as a French and English teacher from the Provincial Schools Council and subsequently taught these languages at various schools. Around the time of the First World War, until 1918, she was much involved in the National Women’s Service and, until 1920, was head of the information centre for the municipal surviving dependents’ welfare agency. It is not known how Hedwig Wiener met her future husband, the Social Democrat Georg Flatow, but it is likely to have been through her many civic activities. Though she certainly moved in social-democratic circles, it is not known if she ever became a party member. She married Georg Flatow on 26 March 1918. Their daughter Ilse Flatow was born in Berlin on 20 October 1919.
There are indications that Hedwig Flatow was not only active in Berlin’s social services but also in the educational field, and specifically the Montessori movement. In one document, the Berlin Montessori society gave its official address as “Berlin-Zehlendorf-West, Nikolasstraße [sic] 5 (Flatow)”.
Niklasstraße 5 near the lake Schlachtensee had been the Flatow’s home address since 1929. The house was newly built when they moved there from Steglitz. Ilse Flatow remembered her parents’ home as a place of intense debate, warmth, hospitality, friendliness, and help for any one, at any time. The Flatows had a large circle of friends who came and went as they pleased, to discuss books, ideas and politics, and how to make the world a better place. In later years, they also talked over their own, pressing problems. All the information on the Flatows that has survived was provided by llse Flatow, who sent her memoirs along with family documents and a covering letter to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.
Among these papers was a letter about “The Home Flatow” from Ernst Fraenkel, a political scientist and friend of the family, who later returned to Berlin and lectured at the Freie Universität. In this letter of 1945 he wrote:
“I look back on the many evenings and Sunday afternoons we spent in Zehlendorf, before and after 1933, as my most treasured memories of those years. The ‘Flatow house’ was an institution. It represented an idea. Today it seems like a dream that your father’s book [a commentary on the Works Councils Act] was laid into the foundation stone of the house. We and your parents believed in social progress in Germany at the time. Your parents were happy to be part of the gradual evolution of the German labour movement.”
The ‘spirit’ of the house at Niklasstraße 5 is also reflected in a poem that Hedwig Flatow wrote to mark the laying of the foundation stone. She placed it alongside her husband’s commentary on the Works Councils Act in the foundations of the house:
As a sign of new times
This book is dedicated to the foundations.
If you find it in later years,
Your world shall see
What moved us in these times.
Will it bear lasting fruit?
Labour will be reordered
To realize its full potential.
Not to bring tribulations but blessings
And joyously each one shall act
With the same duties, the same rights
As remote from lords as from servants.
Will this goal be achieved?
We do not know, but perhaps you do.
In 1939 the Flatows emigrated to Amsterdam, and Hedwig’s life changed completely. She and her husband Georg had previously worked in the Netherlands, helping to set up the agrarian training camp Werkdorp Nieuwesluis in Holland. Back in 1935 she received a long letter from the foundation that initiated the training camp in Wieringen, thanking her especially for running the kitchen and finances, including the lines: “What you achieved in this time regarding the reorganization of the kitchen operations, […] from our viewpoint we cannot even begin to measure in full.”
On 20 June 1943, the Flatows were taken from their apartment at Jan van Eyckstraat 35 in Amsterdam to Westerbork assembly and transit camp. On 14 September 1943, they were sent on to Theresienstadt ghetto via Bergen Belsen, where they were held until 25 January 1944. They arrived in Theresienstadt on 27 January 1944. From here they embarked on their last journey with the “Eq” transport on 12 October 1944 to Auschwitz concentration camp.
Their daughter had the day of her parents’ deportation to Auschwitz registered as their date of death.