Erna Proskauer

By Anna Pingen

Erna Proskauer, (née Aronsohn) was a Jewish lawyer for restitution after the WWII. Erna was born on 05 August 1903 in Bromberg. With the end of WWI and after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the German government had to secede the district of Bromberg and the city of Bromberg to Poland. This made the Proskauer family to leave Bromberg and move to Berlin in 1920.1

In 1922, Erna Proskauer graduated from high school in Berlin and was one of the first women in Germany to study law. Erna met her husband Dr. Max Proskauer during her legal training at the District Court in Berlin.2 They married in 1930. After passing her second state exam in Berlin she wanted to become a judge and to officially enter the German civil service. She received her first appointment at the Schöneberg Local Court as an unpaid deputy judge (“Anwärterin für den Justizdienst”). She explained that being a woman and Jewish hindered her from establishing authority within court sessions.3

Following the Nazi law “Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service” (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums)4, which entered into force on March 31, 1933, she was dismissed from the judicial service on 26 April 1933. Her subsequent application for admission to the bar was constantly rejected. In the spring of 1933, her husband Max – who was also a Jewish jurist – could also no longer work as a lawyer.5 They both quickly decided that the best decision would be to leave Germany. After emigrating to Paris, Erna Proskauer tried her luck with hat-making and running a shoe factory but these attempts failed and she did not receive a French working permit as both she and her husband remained holders of tourist visas only.6

In 1934, the couple emigrated to Haifa in Palestine. Practicing law in Palestine was not possible for either of them in the beginning due to their lack of knowledge of both Hebrew language and the British mandate’s legal system. In order to survive, Proskauer provided sewing, ironing and laundry services. After her husband had become seriously ill, she had to work twice as hard. Following Max’s recovery, he successfully passed the law exams in 1947 and worked in Haifa as a lawyer. 

In 1953, the couple decided to return to Germany (Berlin) to start over. Erna Proskauer hoped to finally be able to work as a judge at the age of 50. Upon her return, she commenced as a legal advisor for compensation applications. For years Proskauer requested to be reinstated in the judicial service but – because being a woman – met many obstacles and faced clear discrimination. There are ample and intersectional reasons for this: the German Ministry of Justice, for instance, argued that her application for a judge position on the basis of the Nazi racial laws, since at that time women who were economically secure through a husband were generally not allowed to be admitted to the judiciary. The Ministry also stated that, given that her father and her husband were attorneys, she also should have become an attorney and not a judge. 

Mein Nachteil war wohl, daß nun – Mitte der fünfziger Jahre – die Richter – und andere Beamtenposten bereits wieder besetzt waren. Abgesehen von der skandalösen Ungleichheit, mit der die Verfolgten einerseits und die Nazi-Mitläufer und -Akteure andererseits im Hinblick auf die Wiedereinstellung in die Justiz behandelt wurden, meine ich aber, daß man mich hier zusätzlich als Frau benachteiligt hat. Würde man einem Mann unterstellen, daß er denselben Beruf ergreifen muß wie sein Vater oder gar wie seine Frau?7

Erna Proskauer

It was not until 1954 that the ban on married women working in the civil service was lifted. Because of this, Erna could finally seek admission as a restitution lawyer and a public notary. At the age of 65 and after the death of her husband, she took over his legal practice. Looking back at her time in Berlin during denazification of the German Compensation Office – and particularly with regard to her fear of meeting former Nazis during service times – she explained: 

Beruflich konnte ich mir meine Mandanten, Kollegen und Richter zwar nicht immer aussuchen, durch meine anfängliche Beschränkung auf Entschädigungsrecht war aber lange Zeit die Gefahr nicht so groß gewesen, mit ehemaligen Nazis zu tun zu haben. Beim Entschädigungsamt waren alle Beamten geprüft worden, es waren z.T. Juden, Halbjuden oder Sozialdemokraten. […] Daß vielleicht mal einer durchgerutscht war, mag schon sein, aber im allgemeinen (sic) waren es integre Leute.”8

Regarding her experience with antisemitism in Germany, she pointed out that: 

Die Leiden, die der Krieg über die deutsche Bevölkerung gebracht hatte, wurden den unsrigen [den der Juden] als gleichwertig entgegengehalten. Daß man Kriegsereignisse und -folgen nicht mit der planmäßigen Ausrottung eines Teils der Bevölkerung vergleichen kann, war oft nicht begreiflich zu machen9

Antisemitismus habe ich nach meiner Rückkehr nicht erfahren. Im Gegenteil, das Interesse an Israel war sehr groß. Der Philosemitismus erschreckte mich angesichts der Bewunderung der militärischen Leistung der Israelis im Sechs-Tage-Krieg. Den Juden hatte man soldatische Tugenden und militärische Erfolge nicht zugetraut damit wurde deutlich, daß das alte Bild des in der Hitlerzeit karikierten Juden unterschwellig immer noch lebendig war. […] Wenn alte Nazis von ihrer Ideologie nicht fortkamen bzw. fortkommen, habe ich mich damit getröstet, daß diese Generation bald aussterben würde. Beunruhigend aber ist nun, daß gerade Jugendliche sich wieder für Ideen begeistern, über deren Gefahr sie offensichtlich nicht genügend aufgeklärt worden sind.10

Erna Proskauer

At the age of 85 she gave up her law office and retired. In 1995, she received the Bundesverdientskreuz (Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany).11 Erna Proskauer died on 18 January 2001. 

Image: Unsplash, Tingey Injury Law Firm, West Charleston Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV, USA.

  1. Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, p. 27; []
  2. Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, p. 33. []
  3. Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, p. 37. []
  4. The “Aryan Paragraph” (Paragraph 3), which was formulated in this law for the first time, prohibited the employment of “non-Aryans” in the civil service, who were to be immediately forced out. []
  5. Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, p. 41. []
  6. []
  7. The author’s translation: “My disadvantage was probably that now – in the mid-fifties – the judges’ and other civil servants’ posts had already been filled again. Apart from the scandalous inequality with which the persecuted on the one hand and the Nazi followers and actors on the other were treated with regard to reinstatement in the judiciary, I think that I was further disadvantaged because I was a woman. Would a man be expected to take up the same profession as his father, or even as his wife?”. Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, S. 111. []
  8. The author’s translation: “Professionally, I could not always choose my clients, colleagues and judges, but due to my initial limitation to compensation law, for a long time the danger of having to deal with former Nazis had not been so great. At the Compensation Office, all civil servants had been examined; some of them were Jews, half-Jews or Social Democrats. […] It may well be that one of them slipped through, but in general (sic) they were people of integrity.” Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, S. 119-120. []
  9. The author’s translation: “The suffering that the war had brought upon the German population were held up as equivalent to ours [those of the Jews]. That one cannot compare the events and consequences of war with the planned extermination of a part of the population was often impossible to make comprehensible”. Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, S. 122 []
  10. The author’s translation: “I did not experience any antisemitism after my return. On the contrary, the interest in Israel was very great. Philosemitism frightened me in the light of the admiration for the military achievement of the Israelis in the Six-Day War. The Jews had not been thought to possess any military virtues or to be able to achieve any military successes. This made it clear that the old image of the Jew caricatured during the Hitler era was still very much alive. […] When the old Nazis did not or could not abandon their ideology, I consoled myself with the fact that this generation would soon die out. What is disturbing now, however, is that, in particular, young people are once again enthusiastic about the ideas the dangers of which they have obviously not been sufficiently enlightened about.” Erna Proskauer, Wege und Umwege, S. 124-125. []
  11. []