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Rahel Varnhagen

Rahel Varnhagen

The Life of a Jewish Woman

by Hannah Arendt, translated from the German by Clara Winston and Richard Winston, introduction by Barbara Hahn

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Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman was Hannah Arendt’s first book, largely completed when she went into exile from Germany in 1933, though not published until the 1950s. It is the biography of a remarkable, complicated, passionate woman, and an important figure in German romanticism. Rahel Varnhagen also bore the burdens of being an unusual woman in a man’s world and an assimilated Jew in Germany.

She was, Arendt writes, “neither beautiful nor attractive . . . and possessed no talents with which to employ her extraordinary intelligence and passionate originality.” Arendt sets out to tell the story of Rahel’s life as Rahel might have told it and, in doing so, to reveal the way in which assimilation defined one person’s destiny. On her deathbed Rahel is reported to have said, “The thing which all my life seemed to me the greatest shame, which was the misery and misfortune of my life—having been born a Jewess—this I should on no account now wish to have missed.” Only because she had remained both a Jew and a pariah, Arendt observes, “did she find a place in the history of European humanity.”

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681375892
Pages: 272
Publication Date:


Arendt probes so deeply into her subject's inner life, and writes so vividly about her frustrations and sorrows, that the biography often reads like a novel. . . . an imaginative mix of biography and social commentary that still feels, as the scholar Barbara Hahn writes in her introduction, thoroughly 'ahead of its time.'
—Lily Meyer, NPR

In recounting Varnhagen’s life, Arendt documents the paradoxes of German Jews’ emancipation between the breakdown of the Jewish ghetto in the eighteenth century and the emergence of the nineteenth-century bourgeois Christian nation-state. . . . What interested her was the evolution of Varnhagen’s psychology and, especially, her Jewish identity.
—Seyla Benhabib, New York Review of Books

Arendt's insight into the psychology and the situation of pariah and parvenu is essential.
Kirkus Reviews

If you know about Rahel Varnhagen, it's probably because of Hannah Arendt.
—Talya Zax, Forward

A veritable laboratory of Arendt’s political thought.
—Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt

Reading Rahel Varnhagen today, I am startled to see that it is neither Jewishness nor womanness that holds my attention. What is striking now are the extraordinary similarities between Rahel’s period and our own. . . . Seen against the disturbed and disturbing climate of a time, then as now, in which profound questions of self and world are being asked, Rahel’s double portion of outsiderness cannot help but sound a deep note in the responsive reader.
—Vivian Gornick, The Nation

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