Elfriede Bambus Frank

The Personal Papers Section is perhaps the most fascinating section in every historical archive. Aside from indulging the voyeurism that resides in every good historian (and perhaps in all of us), personal archives enable us to acquire an understanding of the way wide historical processes shape the lives of the people that experience them. One such archive is that of the Zionist activist, Elfriede Bambus Frank, (1887-1957), which was catalogued recently. The archive is mainly comprised of hundreds of personal letters that shed light on Bambus-Frank's  image and Zionist activities, as well as on the hardships and complexities confronted by European immigrants to Palestine in the early 20th century.
Although Bambus did not define herself as a feminist, her papers attest to the fact that she had an obvious feminist awareness, as questions relating to the activities of women preoccupied her immensely. She has been overlooked almost entirely by historical research, and aside from a few articles, nothing has yet been written about her.
Elfriede Bambus was born in Koln to a Zionist family. Her father, Willie Bambus, was one of the first Zionists in Germany, and under his influence, Bambus came to Palestine alone at the age of 19, to work as a teacher at the Lemel School in Jerusalem. In the following years she left and returned to Palestine several times, and in 1925 she settled in the country permanently with her family.
Teachers' course in Erlangen, Germany, 1913. Elfriede Bambus is sitting in the first row, second from the right (A76\40) 
Listening to Moliere in Arabic
During her time in Palestine Bambus had an extensive correspondence with her aunt, Hedwig Bambus, who resided in Berlin. In these letters, Bambus writes openly about matters such as sexuality, marriage and motherhood, as well as about the difficulties she encountered as an immigrant. She gives a frank, realistic description of her daily hardships and the misgivings surrounding her decisions to immigrate and remain in Palestine.
A common streak in her letters is the cultural alienation that plagued her. She wrote to her aunt about her longing for classical music. In Jerusalem, she lamented, concerts only take place during the week of Chanukah. She sat through a play by Moliere in Arabic, of which she didn't understand a word, merely to quench her thirst for some intellectual stimulation. She describes the boredom of Saturday in Jerusalem, which she found unbearable, and the difficulties of traveling alone as a woman, the language barriers, and the social alienation – all of which brought her to the decision to return to Cologne at the end of that year.
In 1912 Bambus decided to change her life and turned to agriculture – an unusual approach for a bourgeois Jewish woman of the time. The young teacher began to study horticulture, bee-keeping and poultry farming.  When she arrived in Palestine again in 1913, she worked as a teacher in the Kinneret School. Her letters from this period shed light on her opinions regarding gender division. She supported women's active participation in the Zionist pioneering project, but not as equal counterparts of men. In an article she wrote at that time, she said: "…for women, only subsidiary professions in agriculture, such as growing vegetables and fruits, are relevant. Main agricultural jobs, such as plowing and sowing the land, are not for us. We don't need a substitute for men in Palestine. The women's job is to act as an aid for the men's work force." In her eyes, women's main role was to act as pioneers' wives, and she criticized immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were too radical, in her opinion, because "they did not see the importance of marriage and family, therefore rendering themselves unsuitable as pioneers."
Article written by Elfriede: "Opportunities in Palestine for women in the agricultural field". Published in a training brochure of the Walter Moses Center for Occupational Guidance in Berlin, circa 1918 (A76\11)
No one knows how long love lasts
But in her private life, Bambus showed different tendencies. When she married a medical student, Anselm Frank, ten years her junior, she wrote to her aunt: "I'm very fond of Anselm, but neither of us wanted to get married. The official marriage was only for the sake of society, and when the time is right we will separate officially. I will continue to provide for my son and myself. No one knows how long love lasts, and we can both live only in freedom". In spite of this, Bambus continued to live with her husband until she died.
In 1921 Bambus fulfilled a dream and opened a training farm for female pioneers in Germany, that she ran for three years. In 1925 she returned to Palestine with her family. Here, contrary to her ideological aspirations, she found herself confined to the domestic sphere. Held back by language barriers and feelings of cultural isolation, she constantly pined for the cultural landscape of her homeland: "I long to work the land while listening to Mozart and Beethoven!" she wrote to her aunt.
In the upcoming years Bambus-Frank acted mainly as a companion to her husband, who served as a doctor for Yessod Hama'ala settlement and the Arab villages surrounding it. With her husband often away on house calls, Bambus-Frank suffered from loneliness, and she struggled to communicate and find some common grounds with the Arab fellahin who waited for him in their home clinic at all hours of the day. She told her aunt about her mixed feelings regarding pioneer life: "We barely have enough food for a week. Our hands are tied, but we are alive and we can protect ourselves". Bambus passed away in 1957, in Israel.
The archive of Elfriede Bambus-Frank illustrates the dilemmas faced by Jewish women of her time. By becoming a Zionist, Bambus made a break with German society. But in her soul, she always remained German, and this duality prevented her from integrating fully in her new home. Paradoxically, her gender perceptions, which rendered her a feminist (or a quasi- feminist, some would say), within a conservative society, further alienated her and thus emphasized her dependence on her husband, as well as the difficulty of living with him. This unique personal archive allows a glimpse into an alternative Zionist narrative - one that tells the story of the personal price many European immigrants, and more so immigrant women, had to pay for coming to Palestine.
 Letter from Elfriede Bambus to her aunt, Hedwig, 1938 (A76\26)