Women often become lost in history: forgotten, erased, wiped out. Their stories become difficult to uncover and sometimes the traces they leave behind are so very faint that it is almost as if they never existed at all.
Last week I discovered Freiderike (Friedl) Reichler. I read her name through a circuitous route having been gifted a book, The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun. During the 1930s as Europe was heading towards war, Keun was engaged in a messy and unstable affair with the writer Joseph Roth. At the time, Joseph Roth was married to Friederike Reichler, though she seemed completely invisible in his life. Wondering why, I began to dig a little deeper.
Friederike was born in Vienna on May 12, 1900 and married Joseph Roth at the Leopoldstat synagogue in 1922. She was described as ‘beautiful’, ‘delicate’ and ‘unassuming’ (male descriptions).
For the first few years of their life together they lived in a rented apartment in Berlin, but Roth who was working as a reporter made many trips across Europe, taking Friedl with him until the unsteady life of travel and hotel living began to exhaust her. In contrast, Roth continued to live a nomadic life, in 1927 alone travelling to Germany, Alsace, and the Soviet Union. Increasingly left alone, Friedl began to experience anxiety attacks and in 1927 suffered a mental breakdown. She developed what was referred to as ‘progressive schizophrenia’. After a brief rest cure in Saint Raphaël in the South of France in early 1928, Roth decided a series of travels would be good for them. In the spring, he took Friedl to Poland, Switzerland, and Austria. But Friedl became exhausted once again by hotel life and moving around, and they settled in Marseille in 1929 where Roth started drinking heavily and seeing other women.
While all of this was taking place, Friedl’s voice appears to be silent. I wonder, what did she do with her days? How did she fill her time when she was left alone? What were her own wishes and ambitions? Were they thwarted by traveling around Europe with a husband who was constantly in debt, an alcoholic, and cheating on her?
In September 1929, she was admitted to Westend psychiatric hospital in Berlin, and in effect, that was the end of Friedl’s freedom for the rest of her life. Over the coming years she would be moved to a closed psychiatric unit in Vienna, cared for during a short period by her family, but mostly shipped around different clinics depending on the funds available to care for her. She seems to completely disappear from history between the years 1931-1933. Presumably living day by day the institutionalised life of a psychiatric patient. It was during these years that Roth met and started an affair with Irmgard Keun (and many other women) as his debt and drinking deepened. The writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Friederike stepped in to help with care for Friedl, often covering the fees from various clinics and exploring new avenues of treatment. In 1935, Roth started divorce proceedings, but when Friedl was moved to the Mauer-Öhling Institute at Amstettan to be treated free of charge, he decided not to divorce her after all.
There is no readily accessible information through these years about Friedl’s condition. She does not seem to feature in Roth’s day to day life as he became seriously involved with at least two other women. However, his heavy drinking created serious liver disease and by 1939 he was sick himself. In May he collapsed in a Parisian café and died in Necker Hospital on the 27th.
Historically, all of this was happening as Europe was falling to Hitler’s National Socialist Party, so perhaps the turmoil seen in Roth’s life was a micro-reflection of what was going on at large. But after Roth’s death, I wondered what happened to Friedl. The age-old tale of the wife locked away in a psychiatric hospital, forgotten to the outside world.
In July 1940, Friedl was taken to Hartheim Institute near Linz in Austria. Here she was assessed by a panel of Nazi appointed doctors to determine whether her condition was incurable. If a patient received more than three crosses during the examination they were regarded as irredeemably sick and in need of ‘disinfecting’. Hartheim, a foreboding castle like building, had vaulted brick cellars. On July 15th, Friedl was euthanised by gas, in what Hitler deemed a ‘mercy killing’.
It is hard to image the end of a life in this way, the young woman with the sharp-bobbed hair appearing in her photographs smiling, or stroking a pet dog, leaning against a tree looking happily into the sky. So few traces left behind. The lost story of Friederike Reichler (1900 – 1940).