Sep 2020

VII. Laudatio, Hommage, In Memoriam: Dr. Ursula Mahlendorf

In Memoriam:


Dr. Ursula Mahlendorf,


October 24, 1929 – October 31, 2018


Erika Berroth, Georgetown, Texas


Ursula Mahlendorf


With Ursula Mahlendorf’s death at the age of 89, we mourn the loss of a remarkable teacher, scholar, mentor, and friend. Ursula Mahlendorf was an esteemed member of the faculty of the departments of Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies (currently named Germanic and Slavic Studies) and of Women’s Studies from 1957 to 1992, and retired as Dickson Emeriti Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was instrumental in forming the Women’s Studies program at UCSB and in promoting interdisciplinary work. She was the first woman to earn tenure at UCSB in 1965, where she started her career after earning her Ph.D. from Brown University. Mahlendorf was active in many professional organizations that sought and valued her expertise, such as the Coalition of Women in German, or UC’s New Center for Psychoanalysis Interdisciplinary Psychoanalytic Consortium. Ursula Mahlendorf served as my Doktormutter – my dissertation adviser. I had studied in Germany and in the UK and came to UCSB after several years of teaching undergraduates in the USA. She was by far the most generous, effective, and concerned teacher and mentor I had encountered. We shared fond memories of Tübingen, where we both got our first taste of university life and learning, albeit in different decades. My first woman professor, Ursula Mahlendorf was a role model to me and many graduate and undergraduate students during her long career as an educator, scholar, and artist.

Ursula Mahlendorf’s students knew much about her tenacity and indomitable determination to advance her education, from taking remedial classes to fill the knowledge gaps many in her generation suffered through the war years, to gaining admission to the university in Tübingen, and eventually earning a Fulbright fellowship that opened up new worlds to her at Pembroke College at Brown University. We learned about her childhood in Silesia, then German, now Polish, and the horrors suffered by expellees who fled their homes in fear of the advancing Russian army at the end of World War II. Most crucially, as graduate students, we learned about the importance of her expert and compassionate mentorship and support in allen Lebenslagen – above and beyond academic advising. Ursula Mahlendorf was a wonderful listener, asked all the hard questions, and held us accountable for our answers and for our work – she expected us to work on our Self and on our academics.

Ursula Mahlendorf leaves behind treasures for us all. Her lasting legacy includes a body of scholarly and creative work, spanning the application of psychoanalysis to literary texts, most notably on literary representations of child abuse, trauma, and artistic creativity, to an autobiographical text that connects Mahlendorf’s life story with her interdisciplinary scholarship in feminism, sociology, history, and psychoanalysis.[1] This scholarly memoir, in particular, creates time and space for important dialogues that connect generations in the USA and in Germany.  Sharing readings and discussions of her book, The Shame of Survival: Working through a Nazi Childhood, published in 2009 by Pennsylvania State University Press, Mahlendorf reached and connected young audiences, survivors in her own generation, and, perhaps most importantly, the children and grandchildren of those survivors, who experienced childhoods in Europe just before, during, and after Nazi rule.

With courage and humility, Mahlendorf offers a narrative frequently underrepresented among the Zeitzeugen – eye witnesses of her generation, the narrative of a child and youth conditioned and indoctrinated in Nazi ideology, and obediently supportive.  She does so with an astounding commitment to honesty – without making excuses or casting her 10-year-old Self as a likeable child. Yet, she develops and invites compassion for that child.  For example, we have a wonderful recording of the German department’s Wittenstein Lecture Series, where Mahlendorf engages responses she received from readers of her memoir regarding one of her teachers, who abused her power and influence over the girls in her class and youth group.[2] Mahlendorf worked closely with Dr. George J. Wittenstein (1919-2015), a medical doctor and teaching professor, who emigrated from Germany and like Mahlendorf ended up in Santa Barbara. He was a member of the Weiße Rose (White Rose) and the Freiheitsaktion Bayern (Freedom Action Bavaria) both resistance groups against Hitler’s National Socialism.[3]

Mahlendorf’s success as a writer and speaker is anchored in her courage to connect her own voice as a member of  the  Hitlerjugend, the Nazi youth organization, with other voices of her generation who worked in the resistance, like Wittenstein, or who were survivors of Nazi crimes, like Maria Segal or Eva Menkin.[4] Menkin (1923-2014), a Santa Barbara psychotherapist, is the author of A Moving Experience, a personal history about her youth in Nazi Germany, moving from Berlin to France, Spain, Ohio, Michigan, and eventually to California. Holocaust survivor Segal, born 1935 in Poland, and author of Maria’s Story: Childhood Memories of the Holocaust lost her family in the Warsaw Ghetto. Audiences of joint readings and discussions witness women having lived through youths in Nazi Germany sharing their strikingly different life stories, promoting respect and healing for a damaged generation, and generating future-oriented reflections.[5]

Indeed, promoting healing and learning were Mahlendorf’s proclaimed goals with those paired lectures and readings that attracted audiences of all ages. In an interview with Mahlendorf, published in Glossen in October 2012, Frederick A. Lubich, who studied with Mahlendorf and earned his Ph.D. from UCSB in 1983, insightfully explores the parallels between Mahlendorf’s memoir and that of Holocaust survivor Ruth Klüger, weiter leben: Eine Jugend, regarding the role of German literature and poetry for surviving and for sustaining hope in desperate times.[6] Mahlendorf acknowledges the role of literature for building empathy and for connecting to emotions. We learn, sadly, that her early attempts at writing, just like her early work as a sculptor, were interrupted by unfeeling adults. Long and arduous years of work on her sense of Self enabled Mahlendorf to articulate the trauma of her childhood and youth and to make those experiences accessible to herself and others. Writing and reading are part of a healing process. Mahlendorf shares with Lubich how her memoir helped her audiences connect emotionally to their own and their family’s German and/or Jewish pasts — for many, her memoir opened up spaces for intergenerational conversations for the first time.

The life stories of Ursula Mahlendorf’s generation become increasingly accessible. Eye witnesses to the rise of Nazi rule, World War II, the Holocaust, post-war experiences of survivors, expellees, and people across the entire spectrum of accountability and culpability for crimes against humanity offer their documents, life narratives, and reflections. Rare, however, as mentioned above, is the honesty and the deep reflection in texts beyond the Holocaust and resistance narratives.  Mahlendorf’s writing is intentionally accessible – she writes as a teacher-scholar. Anna Lisa Ohm, in her review of the book,[7] highlights Mahlendorf’s achievement of teaching through sharing her life story: “By placing her personal experiences growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in the wider socio-historical, political, and cultural context of the period and its aftermath, Mahlendorf’s compelling memoir provides great value for students of history and social sciences as well as literature at the high school, university, or adult learner level” (176).  This level of empathy, understanding, and deep commitment to working through traumatic experiences and painful lessons of fascist history is the culmination of a life dedicated to relentless Self-examination, to increasing Self-knowledge, and to promoting healing.

Mahlendorf’s scholarly engagement with German literature and her expert use of critical perspectives developed in her study of psychoanalysis and feminist work pave the way to finding her voice as she wrestles with her memoir. Let me offer a brief outline of how Mahlendorf’s interdisciplinary research in literature and psychoanalysis provides the foundation for her autobiographical project. Writing helps heal the pain of psychic wounds — even though shame remains, as the title of her memoir reminds us.

Mahlendorf’s capacity for empathy is honed in her work with the literature she references as emotional support in her memoir — the poetry and prose of the German Romantics. In her scholarly analyses, she creates dialogues between the authors, their characters, and her own positionality as a reader. This dialogue is multi-layered – as Lawrence Edwin Abt recognizes in his appreciation of Mahlendorf’s 1985 book publication with Camden House, The Wellsprings of Literary Creation: An Analysis of Male and Female “Artist Stories” from the German Romantics to American Writers of the Present.[8] Abt illustrates how “fiction and history belong to the same narrative structure” (237). He further observes, how in “examining the novellas of four 19th century and three 20th century writers, Mahlendorf studies the phenomenology of the imagination which she sees, for her creative authors, as a self-restorative act in that her writers’ artistic efforts externalize their deeper psychological wounds” (236)  Recognizing that “[a]rt not only heals its creators; it also creatively heals us,” (239)  Abt summarizes the interrelationships between author, texts, and critic:

Wellsprings is especially productive of the kind of relationship Mahlendorf fashions between herself and her creative artist. She becomes part of a psycho-biographical process in which she interacts with both her writers and their fictional characters. In this sense, her relationship takes on a counter-transferential character. In the process of doing so she invests us to conduct a dialogue with not only the creative authors’ past but also with our own. (236)

Trained in psychological literary analysis, Mahlendorf addresses a distinct 20th and 21st century multi-layered healing process in her scholarly analysis of texts that confront the fascist past. Published in World Literature Today, Mahlendorf’s article “Confronting the Fascist Past and Coming to Terms with It,” distinguishes three distinct waves with different generational perspectives of anti-fascist writing strategies.[9] Indeed, with this critical appreciation she provides a trajectory of developments that contextualize her own anti-fascist work offered in her memoir focused on truth telling, healing, and teaching. She states, “Even the earliest examples […] were didactic” (553) in this “literature of consciousness raising.”  Early voices (Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers) address resistance and socioeconomic root causes, followed by attempts (Thomas Mann) to “unmask fascist attitudes” (554) in themselves. In this task, generation is critical. “The task of unmasking the fascist in oneself is of course immeasurably harder for an actual (even if young) participant and a legally responsible adult” (554). Among Mahlendorf’s own generation, those born between 1920 and 1930, were authors of Gruppe 47. In many of their works, “actual events of the Nazi period were seen from the child’s perspective” which makes the protagonist “a victim by definition” (555). Among this second wave of authors, the naive perspective of child observers’ struggles to resist their petit-bourgeois parent generation gets swept away by pervasive Nazi propaganda. Mahlendorf illustrates how they are left cut off from emotions and suffer a “complete inability to express themselves” (555). Those literary texts reflect experiences of betrayals, abandonment, repressed and unresolved trauma, resulting in accusations of generations against each other. As Mahlendorf pinpoints important continuities when she states that “[p]recisely because many Germans have not taken responsibility for their attitudes, feelings, and actions during the Nazi years, Grass, Böll, Lenz, and also the dramatists Hochhuth, Weiss, Dorst and others see the Nazi mentality surviving into the present Federal Republic” (556). Next to the “child hero,” Mahlendorf finds the figure of the “adult outsider” in those texts. Ultimately, Mahlendorf points out a central critical issue for this period:  readers would identify with protagonists who are “not really a Nazi, or not really responsible, or actually victimized” (556).

In light of her finding, that in the substantial body of literature dealing with the Nazi past, “not a single serious inner picture of an environment or of individuals who were convinced and committed Nazis exists in the Federal Republic from the participant generation” (556), Mahlendorf emphasizes the shift in perspective in Christa Wolf’s work. Wolf’s heroine in Kindheitsmuster shares her birth year with Mahlendorf: 1929. In Wolf’s text, the dissociation of the Self into the mature adult narrator’s voice and its childhood version Nelly is ultimately resolved through an arduous process of self-examination mindful of the psychic wounds suffered by so many in her generation. Mahlendorf quotes Wolf’s insight: “Here was a whole generation and not just one, which was severely damaged in its psychic existence. And that is not repaired easily” (556). Mahlendorf, time and again, foregrounds the teaching function of literature — guiding audiences to connect to feelings and, above all, to attitudes of accountability and responsibility.

Authors born between 1940 and 1955, the postwar generation, contribute to the third wave of anti-fascist writing replete with keen observations of their parent generation and a self-examination of the heritage and legacy within the Self. Mahlendorf finds that while writers like Handke, Kersten, and Henisch offer sociological explanations, rationalizations, or esthetic resolutions, their works fall short of articulating the kind of moral commitment that she finds in the autobiographical work of Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf, and later Ruth Klüger and that we find in her own memoir.

In her review of Klüger’s weiter leben: Eine Jugend,[10] Mahlendorf remarks on the “relentless honesty” (607) and the “sure and unsentimental emotional impact” (608) of Klüger’s autobiographical project.

What is admirable about Klüger’s autobiography is the consummate skill with which the writer uses her poetic gift and schooled literary insight into form in making the reader gain a sense not only of the tragedy of her characters but also of their triviality, their failings, and their triumphs. These latter are all the greater because she views the moral and situational complexity of each character with relentless truthfulness. (608)

Mahlendorf’s own truth appears in the many complex folds and layers of her work as an author of analytical scholarly work and in her memoir, where she includes images of her creative work as a sculptor.  Her creations resonate with the expressionist art she loved. Her work bridges disciplines of narrative studies and literature, psychoanalysis, gender studies, and German studies in history and sociology. Her courageous self-examination and her relentless analysis of the dynamics of coercion, indoctrination, and seduction of children, teenagers, and young adults to line up under Fascist ideologies help audiences understand some of the complexities that cannot be captured in dichotomies that seek separate and cleanly delineated victim-perpetrator world views.

Ultimately, Ursula Mahlendorf’s trajectory as a scholar and her prolific contributions to the field of interdisciplinary German Studies, her advocacy for justice in her administrative roles, her community work in Santa Barbara, and her artistic work as a creative writer and sculptor combine to reflect her sincere concern and empathy for others.  Our cohort of graduate students in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was extraordinarily fortunate to benefit from Ursula Mahlendorf’s insightful interdisciplinary work. During a recent gathering of colleagues who all earned their Ph.D. from UCSB, Sigrid Berka, Helga Braunbeck, Sabine Gross, Thomas Kniesche, and I remembered Mahlendorf’s passion for mentoring, her resolute and practical career advice, and her generous hospitality.  We also fondly recalled her characteristic “Dings-na” interjections, as she was looking for a word in German or English, which had momentarily escaped her.  Mahlendorf’s feminist pioneer work at UCSB, in collaboration with faculty in the English and Sociology departments, afforded us the opportunity to complete Ph.D. work with an emphasis in Women’s Studies. Welcoming intellectual challenges, one semester she generously agreed to study recent publications in feminist theories together with us and we enjoyed sharing our moments of discovery and confusion. She had trusted us to learn with her and had readily given up the teacher’s power of being at least one lesson ahead of the students. What we studied informed my dissertation research and subsequent scholarship, no doubt, but what comes up most vividly in my memory is how she made us feel: we were valued as co-creators of knowledge, responding to feminist theories generated in France, Germany, and in the USA. She introduced us to one of our most engaging and supportive intellectual homes – the Coalition of Women in German with annual conferences and publications, where members shared their perspectives on feminist research and pedagogy in formats quite different from those we practiced at the MLA, AATG, or GSA.


Ursula Mahlendorf


Ursula Mahlendorf lived what she taught. Her psychoanalytic readings of literary texts revealed to us the importance of being attentive to representations of early childhood experiences. She shared with us her experiences of the profound impact connecting with children had on her own healing journey.  One of the most moving passages in the epilogue of her memoir is her account of feeling joy at the sight of children in her care amidst clouds of butterflies. “So this is what joy feels like. I realized. Joy: children and butterflies dancing on sunbeams on a crisp California morning” (Shame of Survival, 343). As a justice feminist, in her work in leadership roles in academia, and as a public intellectual, Ursula Mahlendorf cared deeply about the most vulnerable among us. With deep gratitude, the small children who thrived in her care, and her undergraduate and graduate students will carry her memory and her light into the world, mindful of her exemplary commitment to personal accountability. As she reminds us in her inimitable voice: “It’s all about personal responsibility. And the moment you participate in anything, even if you just stand there, you’ve got to take responsibility for it. That’s the issue.”[11] Thank you, Ursula, for this crucial and urgent reminder.


Photo Credits:
and  (cited on Aug. 18, 2020).




[1] Impactful works include two book publications: Mahlendorf, Ursula. The Shame of Survival. Working Through a Nazi Childhood. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009; and Mahlendorf, Ursula. The Wellsprings of Literary Creation: An Analysis of Male and Female “artist Stories” from the German Romantics to American Writers of the Present. Rochester: Camden House, 1985.

[2] See the recording at (cited on Aug. 18, 2020).

[3] For context on George Jürgen Wittenstein, see the obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent (cited on Aug. 18, 2020), and his own account of his involvement with the “White Rose” at (cited on Aug. 18, 2020).

[4] See: Menkin, Eva. A Moving Experience. Minkin, 2005, and Segal, Maria. Maria’s Story: Childhood Memories of the Holocaust. Santa Barbara: Boehm Group, 2008.

[5] The Jewish News of North Carolina reported on the event. (cited on Aug. 18, 2020).

[6] See Frederick A. Lubich’s discussion of Ruth Klüger, weiter leben: eine Jugend. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 1992, in the context of his extensive interview with Ursula Mahlendorf. Lubich, Frederick A. “In the course of writing and rewriting.” Gespräch mit Ursula Mahlendorf, Autorin der Autobiographie The Shame of Survival. Working Through a Nazi Childhood. In: Glossen, German Literature and Culture after 1945, No. 35, fall, 2012.

[7] Ohm, Anna Lisa. Review of The Shame of Survival. Working Through a Nazi Childhood. In: Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German, vol. 44, no. 2, 2011, pp. 175-176.

[8] Abt, Lawrence E. “Art and the Phenomenology of Imagination: Ursula R. Mahlendorf’s The Wellsprings of Literary Creation.” In: American Imago, vol. 44, no. 3/ 4, Fall 1987-Winter 1987, pp. 235-239.

[9] Mahlendorf, Ursula. “Confronting the Fascist Past and Coming to Terms with It.” In: World Literature Today, vol. 55, no. 4, 1981, pp. 553-560.

[10] See Ursula Mahlendorf’s review of Ruth Klüger. weiter leben: Eine Jugend. World Literature Today, vol. 67, no 3, Summer 1993, pp. 607-608.

[11] See Ursula Mahlendorf’s comments in the Collegiate Times (cited on Aug. 18, 2020).

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