Eva Hesse was born in Hamburg, Germany on January 11, 1936.
Her father, Wilhelm Hesse, kept a scrapbook from the time of her birth—including how she progressed in size during that first year. Wilhelm was a lawyer and lived with his wife Ruth, Eva and her older sister Helen at 98 Isestrasse in the Harvesthude district of Hamburg, very near Hamburg University.
Here are Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse in the mid-1930’s around the time of Eva’s birth.
When Eva returned to Germany in the mid-1960’s she wept thinking of all that happened to her family and friends there. There are many difficult reasons why.
At the time of her birth in 1936, Eva’s father Wilhelm pasted all of the congratulatory greetings from their neighbors and friends in her scrapbook.
Of the friends who sent warm wishes for Eva’s birth, many were forced to flee Hamburg shortly after 1936. And some did not escape the Holocaust: Bertha and Walter Cohn, Ernst Mayer and Alfred Meyer, Jacob R, Rothschild. And Gustav and Dora Oppenheim, who had moved near the Hesses at 91 Isestrasse in 1936 with their daughters Ilse and Eva. Like Wilhelm Hesse, Gustav Oppenheim had been forced by Nazi Aryanization in 1935 to give up his business selling tobacco and accessories and had begun to work for the Relief Association for German Jews. The family moved from their nice 4-room apartment on Klosteralle to Isestrasse to save money. Ilse found work at the plant nursery at the Jewish part of Ohlendorf Cemetery in Hamburg. Their younger daughter, Eva Chaja Oppenheim, managed to escape to Palestine in late 1939 as part of immigration programs for children. But Gustav, Dora and Ilse were deported to the Lodz Ghetto in October 1939. As the Red Army advanced through Poland, Germany sent all the Jews in the Lodz Ghetto to Auschwitz in August of 1944 where the Oppenheims were never seen alive again.
Wilhelm Hesse’s mother, Helene Goldberger Hesse and his father Samuel Wulf Hesse had already passed away in the 1920’s. It is not clear if this portrait of Helene Hesse by the noted Hamburg artist Anita Rée is Wilhelm’s mother Helene (Eva Hesse’s grandmother). She had been born in 1870 and died in 1920 from “heart” the records say. Her husband Samuel Wulf Hesse was born in 1871 and outlived his wife by 5 years, dying in 1925, the cause also recorded as “heart”. Anita Rée’s portrait of Helene Hesse dates from “before 1922” but does not offer enough detail on the sitter to be sure.
But Helene’s sister Minna Goldberger Magnus had been living in The Netherlands where she was a widow and was deported and died at age 70 in Bergen-Belsen on April 20, 1944. Her son had this commemorative plaque made in honor of his parents.
Wilhelm Hesse’s younger brother Nathan and his wife Martha also perished in the Holocaust.
Nathan and Martha Hesse lived just Northeast of Wilhelm and his family at Goernestrasse 12 in Hamburg. Like the others, forced out of work by Nazi prohibitions on Jews owning businesses, Nathan and his wife fled to the Netherlands.on October 17, 1937. He was 32 and Martha was 29 years old. After Germany’s invasion of The Netherlands, they were arrested, deported to Westerbork in 1943 and from there to Bergen-Belsen in 1944. Nathan died on January 19, 1945 and Martha died on March 1,1945. Sadly, it was just over a month later that British forces liberated Bergen Belsen on April 15, 1945.
Since 1996 the Stolpersteine project (stumbling stones) has embedded brass cobblestones in front of houses where the people who once lived there were murdered in the Holocaust.
As for Eva and her family, Eva was 2 and her sister 4 years old when they were put on a Kindertransport to The Netherlands in 1938. These are the passport photos her father put into her scrapbook.
She was so small. So difficult to imagine how a 2-year old child would handle being sent on a train with other children with no knowledge of when she’d see her parents again. Helen and Eva stayed in a Catholic children’s home in The Netherlands until their parents could come to take them to London.
More fortunate than his brother, Wilhelm Hesse and his wife Ruth were reunited with the children in Holland and went to England, staying with some relatives there until they were able to emigrate to the United States in 1939.
As for Ruth Hesse’s parents, (Moses) Mortiz Marcus and Erna Marcus, they lived 200 km. south of Hamburg in the town of Hamelin. Moritz established a furniture business at Osterstrasse 12 in Hamelin in 1927, with a cinema at the back of the building in which they owned shares. Ruth grew up there at Osterstrasse 12 before moving to Hamburg. From 1933 on, the Marcuses faced the widespread discrimination and boycotts of Jewish businesses. Moritz was forced to sell his business in 1934 and in 1935 they moved to Isestrasse 9 in Hamburg to be near their daughter Ruth and her family. When Wilhelm and Ruth left Hamburg in 1938, Wilhelm tried to get visas for Ruth’s parents to countries that were still accepting refugees: Cuba or Chile. Apparently Erna was confirmed for a ship to Chile, but not Moritz and it is thought she did not want to leave her husband behind.
In 1941 Erna and Moritz Marcus were moved to a ‘Judenhaus’ on Bornstrasse 22 in Hamburg, a place for jews awaiting deportation. On July 15, 1942 they were deported to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and from there to Auschwitz on May 15, 1944. They were apparently murdered upon arrival.
The Stolpersteine for Erna and Moritz Marcus are in Hamelin, Germany and both brass cobblestones explain that the couple lived at 12 Osterstrasse and were involuntarily delayed in 1935 in Hamburg, deported in 1942 to Theresienstadt, and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
Wilhelm Hesse and his wife Ruth were able to immigrate to New York with their daughters in 1939. This is a photo of them in 1940 in New York where the census states they were living on 286 Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan. Their sponsor was Wilhelm’s aunt from Hamburg (Samuel Wulf Hesse’s sister) who was 70, named Freida Hesse Englander, and her son Ernst, who was 35 years old. Frieda died the following year in 1941. Ernst Englander went on to become a collector of Eva Hesse’s art.
Wilhelm was not able to work as a lawyer but retrained to work in insurance. The family moved into an apartment in Washington Heights at 639 West 170th Street.
But tragedies for the Hesse family followed them to New York. Wilhelm and Ruth Marcus Hesse separated and then divorced in 1944. Wilhelm remarried in 1945 and he and his new wife, Eva Nathanson Hesse, stayed on in apartments on West 170th Street with the two girls. Ruth had grown depressed through her war experiences and committed suicide in 1946 by jumping from a window. She was 38 years old; Eva was just 10 and her sister Helen was 12. It is unclear when Ruth received confirmation about the death of her parents, Moritz and Erna Marcus, in Auschwitz, but in 1945 documentary films made upon arrival at the Concentration Camps were being seen across the world.
“In the meanings produced for the work of the German American Jewish artist Eva Hesse (1936-1970) the death of her mother, Ruth Marcus Hesse (1907-1946), figures heavily….In an intetview with Eva Hesse, the artist told Cindy Nemser in 1970 that:
“I have the most unusual beautiful mother in the world. She looks like Ingrid Bergman. She led…was manic-depressive and she studied art in Hamburg. My father he got trained as an insurance broker and my mother was sick a long time.
Cindy Nemser: But they all got here?
Hesse: Yes but then we lived in different homes because my mother was in and out of hospitals and my father was studying to be an insurance broker and he wasn’t home at night and my sister and I used to be alone at night and terrified. And my mother was there and not there. We shifted into different homes…different places than (my) sister… and my mother was in and out of sanatoriums. She had (a) psychiatrist who told her to divorce and my father… fell in love with her psychiatrist and the last time I saw my mother I was with her and she was living with a doctor and his wife. My mother was there but not there – there, but not there. “*
Working to overcome all these challenges with the help of therapy, Eva Hesse went to Pratt Institute for some months, interned at Seventeen Magazine and then took classes at the Art Students League in New York. She ended up at Yale studying art—one of her professors was another émigré, Joseph Albers. After Yale, Hesse returned to Manhattan, set up a studio and was supported by friendships with many artists including Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, and Yayoi Kusama. In 1961 she married sculptor Tom Doyle and in 1965 they went to Germany on a year-long fellowship with studios in factory buildings in Kettwig-am-Ruhr. It was there that Eva began to shift from abstract drawing and painting to sculpture.
Returning from Germany in 1966, Eva Hesse began to work on post-minimalist sculptures using new materials like string, fiberglass and latex. She left the marriage but remained energized by her circle of friends and was teaching at the School of the Visual Arts. She was part of exhibitions in Germany and New York and had achieved recognition from the art world.
Sadly for her and all of us, Eva was diagnosed with a brain tumor in late October 1969 and died the next May 29, 1970. She was just 34 years old.
“Art and work and art and life are very connected and my whole life has been absurd. There isn’t a thing in my life that has happened that hasn’t been extreme – personal health, family, economic situations, absurdity is the key word.”
“I think art is a total thing. A total person giving a contribution. It is an essence, a soul…In my inner soul art and life are inseparable.”
Please note: photos of the buildings included are how they look today. Given the dramatic bombing of Hamburg in 1943, the original buildings may have been replaced by the buildings that stand there today.
* An article about Eva Hesse and her mother by Vanessa Corby
This is a link to Eva Hesse’s obituary in The New York Times, May 30, 1970:
And this is Jeanette Winterson’s article in The Guardian:
This is a link to the Stolpersteine Project in Hamburg, where many skilled historians recover the life histories of those who were lost and place brass cobblestones in the street in front of their last home:
This is an excellent article on the technical aspects Eva Hesse’s sculptures: