Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Henrietta Szold (1860-1945)
MSA SC 3520-13568


World War II brought unspeakable atrocities to the world, especially the Jewish population of Europe.  The coming of war and the doctrines of Nazism signaled to many the dire need for aid for Jewish populations who were, due to immigration restrictings, increasingly trapped in hostile countries.  Henrietta Szold, recognizing the possibility for horrible consequences that lay ahead if no actions were taken, immediately set out to save Jewish children from the growing hatred directed towards their people.   In 1933, she initiated the Youth Aliyah, an organization that rescued approximately 13,000 children by 1945.  Szold, having no children herself, considered the young boys and girls she greeted upon their arrival in Palestine like her own and viewed Youth Aliyah as the culmination of her life's work in the Zionist movement.  Henrietta Szold's actions endeared her to the world, and as Hadassah National President, Miriam Freund, stated at the Henrietta Szold Centennial Lecture in February 1960, "In every generation, in every land, among every people, unique personalities have been born who are destiny marked, leaving an imprint on time and on history.  Henrietta Szold was of this noble community."1 

Henrietta Szold was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1860.  Her parents, Rabbi Benjamin Szold and Sophia Szold, had immigrated to Baltimore from Hungary in 1859 when Rabbi Szold was asked to head the newly formed Oheb Shalom Temple.  The Szold's had eight daughters, only five of whom survived to adulthood.2  Henrietta and her sisters formed very close relationships and maintained these ties over time and great distances later in life.  Rabbi Szold strongly believed in the value of education and treated Henrietta as if she were a son.  He encouraged her to read and learn the history of the Jewish people and faith, and she imbibed from him his work to reform Judaism to respect both past and present customs.  Traditionally, Jewish sons were accorded the privilege of obtaining higher educations, but the Szold's permitted their daughters to engage in intensive study.  Henrietta attended Western Female High School, where she excelled in her classes, and graduated as valedictorian in 1877.   Thanks to the direction of her father, Henrietta was fluent in many languages, such as Hebrew, French, and German, which was spoken in her home.  During her teenage years, she also taught Jewish history and the Bible at the Oheb Shalom religious school, which would set her on the path to enjoying the value and gratification found in educating others.3  

Although eager to continue her eduation, upon graduating from Western, Henrietta entered the work force as a teacher in local schools.  In 1878, the Western Female High School invited her to return to teach as a temporary substitute, a position she accepted for a short time.  After this position, Henrietta transfered to Misses Adams's School for Girls in Baltimore where she instructed students in numerous subjects including, algebra, geometry, German, French literature, botany, and physiology.  She relished the ability to spread information and education to young girls and remained with the school for fifteen years.  Devoted to hard work and accostomed to a busy schedule, Henrietta also picked up part-time positions at Oldfields Boarding School in the suburbs of Baltimore, where she taught German and German liturature, and also continued conducting classes for children and adults at her father's Temple.  In addition, Henrietta translated many of her father's writings, including summaries of his weekly sermons, from German to English.4  It was at this time that Szold became aware of the plight of Jews in eastern Europe, particularly Russia, who were tormented under the anti-Semitic policies of the Russian Tsars and forced to immgrate in large numbers to the United States.  Recognizing that these individuals were entering a nation and culture they were little prepared for, Henrietta Szold suggested to the Isaac Bar Levison Hebrew Literary Society, of which she was a member, the need for establishing a school to teach the English language to recent Jewish immigrants.  The Russian Immigrant School opened its doors in November 1889 to thirty eager adult students.  The next night even more people arrived, forcing the group to create a second class.  As the months went on, scores of immigrants, stretching across various ethnic and age groups, entered the night school, which became a model for the institution of night schools throughout the country.5  In a Baltimore Sun article, Szold extolled the value of such an education for the "Americanization" of immigrants: "In the Russian night schools the chief aim pursued is the teaching of the English language for all practical purposes, and the chief subject dwelt upon is United States history and geography...An appreciable percentage of those that frequent the night schools are cultured, intelligent men and women, abreast of the times, speaking and reading several foreign languages and versed in history and literature.  They need merely a vehicle in which to convey to their fellow workers an idea of their inner worth.  In view of all this is it not justifiable to ask why our city does not arrange for the opening of night schools?"6  The school hosted approximately 5,000 students in its eleven-year run, an impressive number considering its meager beginnings.  By 1893, Henrietta Szold switched gears to return to the scholarly literary work she had done for her father.  She became the editor for the Jewish Publication Society, a position that she remained in for twenty-two years.  The work of translating, editing, researching, and writing, although arduous, was loved by Szold, and it enabled her to work on such presitigious pieces of work as the Jewish YearbookJewish Encyclopedia, and various books by prominent Jewish scholars of the age.

In 1902, Henrietta Szold's father passed away after a long illness, a loss that drastically affected her life.  He had been one of the most influential figures in her formative years, and the work she carried out was a part of the same vein as his own.  Szold and her mother decided to move to New York City, which she felt would provide her with better opportunities for work and study, especially in the completion of the translations of her father's writings.  Believing it was the best atmosphere to fortify her work, Szold applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary, which had been founded in 1886 to train rabbis.  Although only open to men, Szold was permitted entry, the first woman ever admitted to the school, under the condition that she would not seek rabinical ordination.7  She found her studies at the Seminary to be worthwhile and enlightening and enjoyed the guidance of her professors.  She was also able to utilize her teaching and literary skills at the Seminary because she tutored faculty in English and translated and edited their writings.  During her time at the school, Henrietta became very close with one professor, Louis Ginzberg.  She worked closely with him, translating his works, such as The Legend of the Jews.  The time she spent on these translations were like a labor of love for Szold.  Commenting in her diary in 1908, she stated, "They all say that he [Ginzberg] exploited me intellectually--as I myself say, I was his intellectual mistress."8  The strong friendship lasted for many years until Ginzberg announced his engagement to a young German woman.  Szold, heartbroken, expressed her feelings in her diary, which are indicative of the intense emotional pain she felt after learning of Ginzberg's engagement: "It is four weeks since my only real happiness in life was killed by a single word."9  Henrietta Szold entered into a deep depression at this point in her life.  She chided herself for believing Ginzberg shared the same type of feelings in the relationship as herself.  Stressing over the ambiguity of their rapport caused Henrietta to become despondent and withdrawn.  She mourned the loss of the opportunity for marriage and her own family, institutions she esteemed and desired for herself.8  This episode in Szold's life would haunt her for the rest of her days, but proved to be a catalyst in the changes the course her life took thereafter.  

During the early years of the twentieth century, Henrietta Szold became more active in the Zionist movement and decided to alter her life's work to bigger causes than her past instruction and writing had permitted.  She had probably been introduced to the ideas of Zionism from the Russian Jewish immigrants in her night school in Baltimore.  The movement had a strong following among this group of Jewish immigrants, in contrast to the German Jews of Szold's family.  Szold stated that, "I became converted to Zionism the very moment I realized that it supplied my bruised, torn, and bloody nation, my distracted nation, with an ideal that is balm to the self-infliected wounds and to the wounds inflicted by others."10  In 1909, desiring a break from the difficult and tiring work she performed, Szold traveled to Europe with her mother.  There, she was able to visit Palestine and gain a first-hand view of the conditions in the proposed homeland for Jews.  Shocked at the horrible living environment in Palestine due to rampant disease, poor health care, and nonexistent sanitation, Szold returned to New York with a new-found vigor to enact change in the region.  Joining with a group of women who ascribed to the same Zionist beliefs as herself, Szold founded the Daughters of Zion, Hadassah chapter.  However, the organzation later dropped the first part of the name, becoming known as Hadassah in 1912.  Szold served as its first president from 1912-1921 and again from 1923-1926.11  Hadassah is a women's volunteer organization devoted to the ideals of Zionism.  Specifically, Hadassah is involved with providing health care and education for those in the region.  For the remainder of her life, Henrietta Szold was committed to the goals of Hadassah. Although she valued highly all the occupations she had, by 1915, Szold was forced to resign from her position with the Jewish Publication Society due to the fact that Hadassah's activities required all of her time and energy.  In addition to her presidency of Hadassah, Szold was secretary of the Federation of American Zionists and secretary of the Jewish Experiment Station near Haifa, Palestine. Therefore, she spent her days traveling the country encouraging women to establish local Hadassah chapters and lobby for support of Zionist ideas.12  Hadassah became an influential group in the early decades of the twentieth century when it came to promoting the idea of Palestine as a homeland for Jews.  During World War I, Hadassah was instrumental in establishing the first hospital complex in Palestine to improve the health of those Jews already living in the area.  Zionists endorsed the plan, which would help develop the resources of the Holy Land to aid the formation of Jewish colonies.13  Initially American physicians and nurses would travel to Palestine to work in the hospital, but as time went on the institution of a medical school in Jerusalem provided Jewish settlers with educational and career opportunities.  

By 1920, Henrietta Szold lived permanently in Palestine and supervised the medical units and settlements in the nation.  Jews in Palestine faced extreme violence, which frightened many into leaving or even negating settlement in the region as an option.  Pogroms led by Arabs against the Jews were a frequent and routinely unpunished occurance.  Szold, in her many years of living in Palestine, experienced countless pogroms and violent situations, but she never wavered in her conviction that fearlessness would enable the Jews to prevail above their persecutors.  Her pacifism colored her Zionist beliefs, which did at times bring her into conflict with other Zionist leaders, but ultimately worked in her favor to endear her to many Jews around the world.  She explained, "The Jews were being given not merely a Homeland but an opportunity for the practice of that universal righteousness preached by their prophets...In this ancient and holy land, hard work and thrift would bring them little material but much spiritual wealth.  And this only if they could work and live in peace with the Arabs."14  From the 1920s to the early 1940s, Szold toyed with the idea of retirement, but found herself compelled to continue her work in Palestine whenever requested to do so by peers.  She held various positions during this time including: member of the Palestine Zionist Executive of the World Zionist Organzation, 1927; member of the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem, 1929; elected to Vaad Leumi, or National Council of the General Assembly of the Knesset Israel, the political community of Jewish Palestine, 1931-1933; the director of the social service department of Vaad Leumi, 1931-1939; and founder of Jerusalem's Alice Seligsberg Vocational School for Girls, 1941.15  These positions made her the head of health and educational development in Palestine, both fields necessary to the success of the Jewish homeland settlements in the nation and close to Szold's heart.  

In 1933, the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany instigated the proliferation of the unspeakable conditions Jews in Germany and Europe as a whole would be forced to live and die under over the course of the next twelve years.  Zionists feared for the welfare of the European Jewish population and decided that the immigration of Jewish children was one of the best paths to take to rescue groups from terror-stricken areas.  Henrietta Szold was appointed as the head of the Youth Aliyah movement, which was designed to transfer children from Germany and other afflicted areas of Europe to Palestine.  Szold bravely traveled to Nazi Berlin to encourage parents to send their children to Palestine and report on the status of recently settled youngsters.  Hadassah became a powerful force in the Youth Aliyah movement by raising funds to support the program and provide money for settlements in the Holy Land.16  Szold believed that Youth Aliyah was her ultimate calling and devoted the rest of her life to saving children and moving them to Palestine.  She supervised the transfer of the children groups from Europe to Palestine and ensured they arrived safely, greeting each one upon arrival.  In addition, she oversaw the accomodations provided in each settlement and visited each colony on a regular basis to check the children's progress, health, education, and overall well-being.  In an article from TheNew York Times, it states, "It was her [Szold's] aim to provide a productive livelihood for these children when they grew up and to afford for them every chance of forgetting the miseries of life under Nazis in a happy, free existence among their own people."17  Szold forever wished she had had her own children, and once confided to a friend that she "would exchange everything for one child of my own."  The refugees became like her own sons and daughters, and she loved teaching them and spending time learning their stories and sharing in both joys and sorrows.  The Youth Aliyah movement was the pinnacle of Szold's achievements, one that she was immensly proud of and one that has lived on as part of her long list of accomplishments.

Henrietta Szold was the recipient of numerous honors during her lifetime, which include: awarded a Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree from the Jewish Institute of Religion, the first woman to be so honored, 1930; awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities in absentia from Boston University, 1944; honored by the State of Israel when they put her picture on the new five-pound note, the first woman and American to be portrayed on Israeli money, 1975; and the first woman elected into the Jewish Hall of Fame, 1976.18  After a lifetime of cardiovascular disease, Henrietta Szold died in the Hadassah medical center in Jerusalem, Palestine on February 13, 1945.  She is buried in the Jewish cemetary on the Mount of Olives, an honored and honorable woman in Israel.19  Hadassah has become the leading volunteer organization for women in the world, with hundreds of thousands of members continuing the work Szold began in 1912.  The lifelong efforts of Szold have encouraged countless numbers of people to take up her causes and actively advocate for the goals of Zionism and a homeland for Jews.  Upon completion of an exhibit about Henrietta Szold at the Jewish Historical Society in Baltimore, Barry Kessler explained the personal and private characteristics of Szold that made her such a powerful force in her life's work: "Behind the image of the revered public figure known lay another, private Szold, an 'uncertain, austere person, a woman full of yearnings and melancholy as well as astonishing determination, vast knowledge and diligence and profound love for the Jewish people.' "20  Henrietta Szold was truly a great figure in history, one who was passionate in everything she did, and who will continue to be an inspiration to future generations.


1.  Stegman, Carolyn B. Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Maryland: Anaconda Press, 2002) 31.   return to text

2.  "Henrietta Szold, 1860-1945," Biography Resource Center, 2005.   http://galenet.galegroup.comreturn to text

3.  "Exhibit: Women of Valor, Henrietta Szold," Jewish Women's Archive, 2005. to text

4.  Breslaw, Elaine G. "Henrietta Szold, 1860-1945: Zionist Leader," Notable Maryland Women, ed. Winifred G. Helmes (Cambridge, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1977) 360.   return to text

5.  Levin, Alexandra Lee. "Henrietta Szold and the Russian Immigrant School," Maryland Historical Magazine 57 (March 1962) 3.   return to text

6.  "Russia in America," The Baltimore Sun, 13 July 1892.   return to text

7.  Fineman, Irving. Woman of Valor: The Life of Henrietta Szold, 1860-1945 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961) 113.   return to text

8.   Schoettler, Carl. "Daughter of Zion,"The Baltimore Sun, 8 April 1995.   return to text

9.  Ibid.   return to text

10.  Stayn, Joshua. "Photos Reveal Szold," The Baltimore Sun, 14 April 1997.   return to text

11.  "Henrietta Szold: Hadassah National President, 1912-1921, 1923-1926," Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc., 2002. to text

12.  Breslaw, 363.   return to text

13.  "Zionists Aid Palestine," The New York Times, 6 July 1916.   return to text

14.  Fineman, 321.   return to text

15.  Biography Resource Center.   return to text

16.  "Hadassh Gives $10,000 for Youth Immigration," The Baltimore Sun, 1 December 1935.   return to text

17.  "Rescued Children Thank Miss Szold," The New York Times, 16 February 1944.   return to text

18.  Breslaw, 364.   return to text

19.  Ibid.   return to text

20.  McNatt, Glenn. "Exhibit Shows How Tragedy Affects People Like Us," The Baltimore Sun, 26 November 1995.   return to text

Biography written by 2005 summer intern Lauren Morton

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