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Holiness and politics

· ​Hildegard Burjan ·

Hildegard Burjan’s life was steeped in tragic events. “If at the moment of my death God asked me if I wanted to go on living at the cost of having to bear everything all over again, I would unhesitatingly choose to die”. The fact of not having given into hardship, even though she would have liked to bang her aching head “against the wall”, depended upon her “being redeemed”. An extreme life, indeed, not for its tragedy but rather for the charism of offering herself. Who else could sum up his or her own life with the words that Hildegard spoke shortly before dying on 11 June 1933: “Trinity Sunday! What a beautiful day to die on!”. Eighty years later, on 29 January 2012, Hildegard was beatified in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna.

Tom von Dreger, “Hildegard Burjan” (1934)

She lived her life in the midst of the political and social upheavals which among other things gave the green light to the turning upside down of the image of women in the 20th century. Hildegard suffered many wounds, both physical and spiritual, very soon paying with her health and finally, when she was barely 50 years old, with her life. Nevertheless in a short space of time she succeeded in carrying out numerous political, legal and social activities and many of her efforts bore fruit after her death.

In Hildegard’s spiritual spectrum well-known traits mingle with others less familiar. Among the former are generosity and liberality (which she had in common with beloved St Elizabeth of Thuringia), the offering of suffering for the cause of Christ, being so soon consumed by work and suffering, and interior concealment. Her life’s work was born from great suffering. Often unrecognized, it became the secret of a great fertility. Among her lesser known traits were her transition from agnostic Judaism to Catholicism, her political and legislative commitment especially on behalf of women, her very concrete common sense in social work, the foundation and guidance of a celibate community in spite of the fact that she herself was married and, lastly, the almost lacerating union between marriage, motherhood and politics.

Born in Görlitz an der Neisse in Prussian Silesia to the Jewish Freund family on 30 January 1883, she received a good education. By birth she belonged to bourgeois Judaism in its illuminated liberal form. On her birth certificate the entry under the item “parents’ religion” reads “none”. Her attitude before conversion might be described as idealistic humanism, which was in fact the model of German Judaism (it suffices to think of the social projects from Marx to Lassalle and of the philanthropic Jewish foundations). As an agnostic student, Hildegard Freund also set up an assistance fund for her study companions.

The fact that she gained her secondary school diploma in Basel and studied philosophy and German studies at the University of Zurich was the barely ripened fruit of the 19th-century feminist movement. Engaged in the battle for the education of women, she also added the fight for civil rights (and in particular for women’s right to vote) and for legal protection, but also for questions concerning matrimony and morals. The female denominational associations joined the movement: in 1900 the Evangelical Union of women, in 1903 the Catholic one and in 1904 the Jewish one.

In 1907 she married Alexander Burjan, a Hungarian engineer, an agnostic Jew who began his career in Berlin. In 1908 the young wife fell seriously ill and on Holy Saturday her husband was called to the Sankt Hedwig Hospital in Berlin. Hildegard Burjan, who was slowly fading, was amazed at the kind, and to her disconcerting, patience of the women religious. During that night everything inexplicably changed: she experienced an encounter with Christ, and as from Easter Sunday she was better and rapidly recovered. In 1909 she received Baptism and moved to Vienna with her husband, who prospered here, and was introduced into high society.

Her only child, Lisa, was born here in 1910 and was called after the Most Venerable Elizabeth of Thuringia. However Hildegard paid for the birth with a cerebral haemorrhage and a lasting debility: not to have agreed to an abortion almost cost her her life.

She subsequently undertook an extraordinary social activity. In 1912 she founded the Verband der christlichen Heimarbeiterinnen, which united female Christian domestic workers for a fair salary, and the legal protection of women who had recently given birth, even those who were unmarried. Her legal aid for women domestic workers and her spiritual guidance and formation were clearly anchored in the requirements of Christianity.

During the First World War she organized the sending of much aid, especially to Saxony which had been hit by a famine, turning directly to the high aristocracy and to the imperial court. In 1918 she was the only woman elected to the National Assembly of German Austria. Cardinal Gustav Piffl defines her as “the conscience of Parliament”. She quickly succeeded in obtaining an extension of the protection for mothers and new-born babies, the engagement for women who had just given birth of home assistants paid for from the health insurance fund, the equalization of men and women in the civil service, as well as the promotion of education for women. In agreement with the Social Democratic group, she had a law approved on domestic workers which protected their jobs and their wages.

In 1920, together with Dr Ignaz Seipel, she founded the women’s international community Caritas Socialis. This commitment became so important that in 1920 it led her to give up her political office as a Member of Parliament. However she developed new social projects for marginalized groups and fought to obtain fair legal conditions, making the most of her upper middle-class acquaintances but coming up against anti-Semitic prejudices.

Having very soon taken stock of the rise of the Nazi Party she insistently put people on their guard against Hitler. Her husband and daughter were later to escape the Shoah by fleeing.

Undeterred by recurrent health problems, she continued to establish homes for single mothers with children, despite all the hostilities she encountered, and to devote herself to social assistance for young people and the homeless. Her ultimate objective was a great social centre and by the time its foundation stone was laid she was already at the end of her life.

Hildegard Burjan’s seemingly impossible task was to stem poverty structurally, through legislation, and to project a political response in the grand style. Whereas Rosa Luxemburg succeeded in imagining social changes only in a revolutionary manner and for this reason was prepared even to sacrifice human lives, Burjan sought other ways. Beside her political activity she also formed a team of action for emergencies: the sisters of Caritas Socialis who live in poverty, chastity and obedience. “In the sick we can always treat the suffering Saviour and thereby be united to him”, she wrote in a letter. From the depths of Christ’s poverty that same poverty is understood. It is here that the spiritual roots of a fruitful work are found. For this reason Burjan may rightly be considered one of the builders of the modern social state. Her religious affirmations seem simple, although they are expressed in symbolic language. Yet in that confused period they caused the leaven of the Gospel to ferment: the immunization against ideologies, against Communism too, the motivation to “free” action, the union of heterogeneous party forces on the basis of reasonable compromises.

Hildegard Burjan described her foundation as “a not particularly eye-catching flower on the tree trunk of the Church”. In the same way it was in the depths of the Jewish exile in Babylon that the houses of Jerusalem were born, to which were entrusted unexpected divine answers. “God’s blessing makes the impossible still possible”, she wrote, and indeed “the good Lord often gives blessings and success where we least expect them”. And again: “The good Lord throws into our arms things that we would never have dared to aspire to” or for which we would never have dared to fight”.

The simplicity of the path filters through the apparent simplicity of her words. The acceptance of her own premature death also comes into this. Loving Jesus is her message; and loving him means sharing in his Passion and obeying him. In the eyes of the literary and artistic world this spiritual alphabet brushes against the incomprehensible. “Make them all rich – immeasurably rich – through you, only through you!” she asked the Saviour shortly before dying. And she wrote further: “Academic knowledge counts for very little, but what counts is only the degree of union with our beloved Saviour. To him we owe all and without him we are poor indeed. Thus it is reassuring and soothing to have to do only as much as the talents we possess allow, and all the rest will be given to us in addition”.

Simone Weil spoke of social work as “Christianity’s subtle temptation”. An extinguished Christianity can fill its emptiness with social activity. It will continue “to function”, but its source has run dry. Thus there is a temptation to conceal suffering with organization or to abolish suffering by eliminating those who suffer. Hildegard Burjan, however, did not give in to this temptation: the “sisters” put themselves into the space of redemption. In this lies the reason and the effectiveness of doing things for others.

Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 19, 2020