Three Women on Love during War: Anica Savić Rebac, Olga Freidenberg, Edith Stein

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Chronodistopia: Three Women, Same Time, Different Places

My point about this topic is that it was already presented, researched, and used in public discourse for defining a certain anti-war intellectual attitude and the philosophical relation to the Ancient views on love and public sphere, long before 1968. But this was the case in cultures less resonant and hardly recorded in what might be understood as the collective (Western) European memory. I am referring to the case of Anica Savić Rebac, who was educated in quite a unique socio-cultural context of Viennese, Novi Sad and Belgrade intellectual circles at the peak of the activities of these circles, in order to invent/imagine a new society and its culture, namely the Yugoslav society and culture. To do this, it was necessary to construct a code of interpretation of Antiquity and to establish a certain intimacy between Balkan/Yugoslav and Ancient, which would not use “origin” as a tool, or any of the known tools of the European appropriation of Antiquity. Anica Savić’s godfather and mentor, Laza Kostić, a poet and a theoretician, wrote a treaty about beauty, in which he relies on Heracleitos’ teaching, but repeats in fact many of Athenaeus’ statements: A good portion of this treaty is, in fact, on love. 

Not only Anica Savić Rebac, but the whole generation of students of Antiquity from the region were well aware of Laza Kostić’s attempt to bring Balkan cultures and Antiquity closer, including Kostić’s experimenting with the translation of Homer into the Serbian epic decameter, his theory of theater originating in Balkan ritual performances, and so on. In the case of Ogla Freidenberg, the early revolutionary energy in her circle of Petrograd intellectuals was also translated into a re-interpretation of Antiquity, again against the model of origins and appropriation, more toward universal anthropological and folkloric lineage or parallels (paligenesis + polygenesis). In this case, too, the “classical” was less interesting to research than pre-classical or post-classical, both in terms of chronology and evaluation. This interest was local, responding to local needs. When a new interest in Athenaeus, for instance, emerged just a couple of years ago, nothing of this “peripherial” European tradition was mentioned. Looking at issues treated by less-known Hellenistic authors, not only as if their works were mere references, occurred far from academic centers and produced original theories. No better parallel could be presented than the case of Michael Bakhtin, who “unearthed” Menippos, a nearly-forgotten Hellenistic author, to construct a relevant literary theory around his work, approximately at the same time as Savić Rebac and Freidenberg were working on similar operations of re-reading. 

Edith Stein
Even in the case of Edith Stein, who wrote in the very heart of Western (German) philosophical tradition, there is a veil of oblivion woven from different aspects of her otherness: Gender, fluctuating ethnic and religious positioning, and the eventual closure inside the institutions of the Catholic church. The ignorance of this data lies in the (Western) European cultural colonialism, and the gender constraints which are of a more universal nature, a kind of longue durée feature, and certainly not limited to Europe. The three authors that I am interested in belong, in different degrees, to liminal cultures, languages and disciplines. They are outsiders in humanities and academia today, as they were outsiders during their lifetimes. In the cases of Freidenberg and Savić Rebac, gender-instigated censorship is one side of the problem, European cultural supremacy the other, while in the case of Stein, we see that the intensity of the first can easily cover the absence of the latter by its sheer intensity.

How European is theorizing on love?

Three aspects of the politics of love in Europe, at the same historic moment of WWII, are to be explored: Gender, history, and anthropology of intellectuals. Before them, the overall notion of “European” should be addressed: What is European about these three women and their work? The tradition of theorizing love starts with Plato’s Symposion, which is the first attempt at confronting contemporary sexual practices, patterns of behaviour and ruling discourses in all their variety (all the guests at the symposion), and the need to theorize them critically (Socrates), who in fact “translates” an absent authority in the matter, Diotima. There is a strong European tradition of interpreting this dialogue of Plato’s (together with Phaedros) over centuries, whenever love and beauty come to the field of vision of philosophy, but also for less theoretical purposes, like a crypto-defence of homosexuality. A clear reference to this can be seen in Anica Savić Rebac’s thematic approach to “pre-platonic erotology” (the title of her PhD thesis), which immediately stresses her distancing from this tradition, and a remarkably ambitious project of exploring its unrecognized sources. 

Another European feature in this case can be a model of intellectual closure – monasteries, universities, intellectual circles, (revolutionary) salons. All of the three women were functioning in such closures, which deteriorated radically during the war, while other, violence-based closures were formed. Communicating under such conditions is certainly not specifically European, neither is feminist networking (like the case of the friendship between Rebecca West and Anica Savić Rebac), but neglecting non-Western European achievements in humanities, both arts and academia, is a recognizable – and questionable – European feature. Women in philosophy, with all the difficulties of affirmation, pushing women where they belong, into literature, is also one of European features: Olga Freidenberg is mostly known today through her correspondence with her more famous cousin, Boris Pasternak; Anica Savić Rebac – for those who recognize the coded name – is, likewise, from her presence in Rebecca West’s travelogue. Multilingual capacity is another European feature, along with constant translation and terminological invention, such as Anica Savić Rebac’s erotology for the philosophy of love. This contribution should serve to fixate, date and put the name of the author on this very useful neologism.

The aspect of gender difference is thematically situated: Conceptualizing love in theoretical terms, in spite of circumstances. In their work, love is not a symbol of hope, human values, and it is not escapist for a bit: It is a proposal for a public civic attitude, although addressed to different recipients and thus differently presented. Parallels for such intellectual behaviour can be found in war-torn Europe: The example of Carl Orff’s Catulli Carmina (1943) should suffice, in this sense. However, although love and sex are the principle topics of Orff’s musical and theatrical work, they do not send a political/civic message. The only message that could have been constructed in reception was on the “universal” level. 

In the cases of the three women I am presenting, the political move is clearer, also because it is not backed by any state institution. Their insisting on love affecting upon, and originating from, public life – be it historical, thus slightly masked as a message, be it an open call to the Pope (as in the case of Edith Stein) – does not invoke personal human happiness and consolation, but social and political action, which is openly against the romanticising of love in its Western intimate/bourgeois context, and “hailing” its political energy. Such political tension, quite close to high emotional excitement, can be found in the texts of Western intellectuals who felt compelled to explore the horrors of the just-finished World War II – Theodor W. Adorno, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and especially Simone de Beauvoir, who saw the double victimisation of women continuing, neither purged nor punished, after the war. The three women, whose reflections on love remained little known for a long time, and could be perceived today as almost prophetic figures, or at least very early birds in thinking love in terms of public responsibility.

The three women “exemplifiers” are Anica Savić Rebac, Olga Freidenberg, and Edith Stein. In fact, I chose Edith Stein as tertium comparationis because she, both by her writing and her public role, became well-known in Catholic church culture (as a Jewish woman turned to Catholicism, killed in a concentration camp as a nun, and eventually sanctified). Her position seems to have become much more interesting in the secular culture, after her letter to the Pope Pius XII was released by the Vatican and published, stirring a new controversy over the position of the Vatican on the genocide of the Jews. I will have to go to the biographies of the three chosen women-examples, in order to illustrate the context, to underline the synchronicity and, last but not least, to establish a hypo-text: Their life stories as conforming-confirming texts of their core texts. There is, of course, my intervention regarding choice of data, epitomization of data, choice of narrative, intentionality in one word. I would like to put it even more bluntly: There is a clear intention of feminist solidarity in telling a she-story.

Hypo-text: Anica Savić Rebac

Anica Savić
Anica Savić (married Rebac) was born in 1894 in Novi Sad (former Yugoslavia), the cradle of modern feminism in the Balkans, into a wealthy family of intellectuals of mixed Greek and Serbian origins. As a girl, she could not attend the high school reserved for boys, but she got the maximum attention and the best education at home, which was one of the liveliest intellectual focuses of the city – then under Austro-Hungarian Empire, hosting the best of Serbian intelligentsia at the time. The little girl published her first translations from Ancient Greek (Pindarus) at the age of 10, her pioneer translations of Emile Verhaaren’s poetry at the age of 12, and she wrote her dramas, mainly with Ancient and Anti-Christian motifs, at the age of 13. By the age of 18, she commanded Ancient Greek and Latin, German, French, English, Italian, and Hungarian. This “Wunderkind” was accompanied by her mother to the University of Vienna, probably one of the intellectually most exciting cities in Europe around 1910, and studied there the crown discipline in academia of that time – Ancient Studies. She was also involved in the Yugoslav movement, fostered by students coming from different parts of the Balkans, dreaming about destroying the Austro-Hungarian Empire and constructing a new, democratic, multi-ethnic state(s) in its place. She had to flee back home before she presented her PhD, because of the outbreak of the WWI. 

In the meantime, she met Hasan Rebac, a Muslim of Serbian origin and a well-known guerrilla fighter for the Serbian cause in Bosnia and Herzegovina against the Austrian rule. They married after the war, and Anica Savić Rebac consequently lost most of her social support in Novi Sad. The couple settled in Beograd, where she could not get a post at the university, although she brilliantly defended her PhD thesis at Belgrade University. They were soon both employed by the state in Skopje, today Macedonia, she as a teacher in a girls’ high school, he as a teacher at medressa (Muslim religious school): This unprivileged position was due to the couple’s staunch opposition to the monarchy and its right-wing government, and to their socialist ideas. This is where Rebecca West, alarmed by the French philosopher Denis Saurat and by her Belgrade “informer” and guide, the Serbian Jew and multi-talented Stanislav Vinaver (poet, linguist, parodist), travelled to meet Anica: The two women forged a lasting friendship. Anica is described as “Militsa” in Rebecca West’s book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb. Grey Falcon (1941), in the following terms: “Once I showed Denis Saurat, who is one of the wisest of men, a letter that I had received from Militsa. ‘She writes from Skopje, I see,’ he said. ‘Really, we are much safer than we suppose. If there are twenty people like this woman scattered between here and China, civilization will not perish.’” Or, little further: “Yet these two are steady as pillars. They are pillars supporting that invisible house which we must have to shelter us if we are not to be blown away by the winds of nature. Now, when I go through a town of which I know nothing, a town which appears to be a waste land of uniform streets wholly without quality, I look on it in wonder and hope, since it may hold a Mehmed, a Militsa.” It is with Anica-Militsa that Rebecca West visits a sacrificial site in Macedonia, guided by her new friend – excellent authority in matters of Balkan rituals, and this is where she formulates her predominant metaphor of useless sacrifice (black lamb) in the Balkans. West’s critical eye tried to spot internal signs of collapse in the Yugoslav society and culture, while she was convinced that Yugoslavia was an easy prey to the rising Nazi-fascist coalition around it: In fact, that was the main reason for her decision to visit and research this part of Europe – the fear that it will vanish soon, along with its cultural diversity. And she was right in her prediction. Black lamb is a figure that denotes internal violence and its irrational motivation in the Balkans, an active cultural memory far from today’s Western – and European - stereotypes of the Balkans. Ironically enough, the work of Rebecca West was silently neglected and prevented from translation for many years by the Yugoslav authorities after WWII, because of her sympathies for the Serbian royal house of Karadjordjević.

Anica Savić Rebac exchanged letters with Rebecca West before and after WWII: One of the letters, describing horrors of war and her and Hasan’s successful attempts at escaping Serbian nationalist paramilitaries (Chetniks) to get them, while they were hiding in a deep Serbian province, was published, others remain unknown to public. She also had a rich exchange of letters with people she was consulting about her ideas and research: Gershom Sholem, whom she asked several questions about Kaballa; Heinrich Leisegang, and her professor in Vienna, Ludwig Radermacher; Denis Saurat, as well,  were among the people she addressed while researching Christian and Jewish mysticism. In order to clarify her position, she translated much of her work into German. An excellent translator (Pindarus, Lucretius, Shelley, Goethe, Thomas Mann), she also translated the mystic epic, The Ray of Microcosm, by the Montenegrian romantic poet ,P. P. Njegoš (who was both the religious and political ruler of Montenegro in the early 19th ct.) into English and German – this translation was published after her death in Harvard Slavic Studies. Her relation with Thomas Mann was remarkable: She was the first one in Yugoslavia to qualify him as a great European writer. She translated his three novellas (Tonio Kröger, Der Tod in Venedig, and Tristan) in 1929, and these translations are still considered the best in Serbo-Croat, and she followed his work with a keen critical interest till the very end. He, in return, included her definition of love in his Joseph und seine Brüder. Anica Savić Rebac finally got to the Belgrade University in 1945, as her socialist ideas were considered relatively acceptable by the new communist authorities, and her anti-fascist convictions were well-known. She contributed to the new socialist and Marxist ideological concepts presenting P.B. Shelley’s socialist ideas, in a public lecture in 1945, and by translating folk partisans’ song (most of them women’s songs) into English. Her first public appearance, with Shelley’ socialism as the topic, might have not been the most popular among political leaders, whose political reflection was contained to a shortened Leninist (or Stalinist) interpretation of Marxism. But this was more a sign of political solidarity on both sides, and she, at least, was not punished for it. She refrained from any public support for the new authorities, later on. Since she was a convinced feminist before, the new turn toward feminism was nothing new to her, and she wrote a number of articles for a periodical for university-educated women. Anica committed suicide after a sudden death of her husband, in 1953.

Hypo-Text: Olga Freidenberg

Olga Freidenberg
Olga Freidenberg (1890-1955) was born into a Jewish family, her mother was sister to Boris Pasternak’s father, and her father, also a good friend of Pasternak’s father, was an ingenious inventor – among other things, of the automatic telephone switch. Olga Freidenberg, whose life is known mostly through her correspondence with her cousin, Boris Pasternak, was a brilliant young woman with knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, German, English, French, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese languages, who got the chance to study at the University of Petrograd after the revolution, and obtained a unique chance to form a new department of Classical Studies, as a student of then influential linguist, Nikolai Marr. She introduced an innovative approach to the study of Antiquity, based on semiotic theories and the study of folklore, thus becoming a forerunner of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michael Bakhtin. Although she did not share Marr’s rather fantastic linguistic theories, favored by the regime, she had to pay the consequences of being related to him, when he fell out of grace: Her major study on poetics of Ancient literatures was refused for publication in the 30s. Most of her work was never published. Victim of petty intrigues at the department she founded, she did not have real collegial support, or students-followers. Her brother died a prisoner in Siberia. She endured teaching and researching in almost total isolation, cut not only from Western developments in the discipline, but also from access to sources in her own surroundings. During the siege of Leningrad, she was teaching courses to her students, and languages to privates, for bread. After the war, her situation did not get better, and her health was ruined. She retired, and died in 1955. More than 15 years after her death, her correspondence with Pasternak, her diaries (more than 2500 pages), and her studies were discovered. The collection of her main studies on Antiquity was first published in 1978. in Russian, translated into Serbo-Croat in 1987, and into English in 1997.

Part Three of three will run next Friday.

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.